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.

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Douglas Davis

I couldn’t think of a better way to start off the month than by talking with author, professor, and strategist Douglas Davis. Longtime fans of the show will remember our initial conversation from 2016, so it was good to catch up and talk and get an update over what he’s been doing.

What follows is less of an interview and more of a general conversation that ranges a number of topics: creativity during the pandemic, design equity, social justice, the value of remote design education, relevance vs. belonging, AIGA, fatherhood, and a lot more. Hopefully this conversation gives you some food for thought and starts some much needed conversations around our place in this current world as designers!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Douglas Davis:
So, Maurice, thank you so much for having me back on Revision Path. My name is Douglas Davis, and I’m a strategist, I’m an author, I’m a professor and a for the last, about three years, I’ve been the chair of the B.F.A. in Communication Design at New York City College of Technology. We are the design program at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. And what I love about being the chairs that I’ve been able to make our mission an extension of my own personal mission, which is to increase the variety of voices making a living with their imagination.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2021 been treating you so far?

Douglas Davis:
2021 has been a blur. I still remember March last year when we stopped having in-person classes. And I pulled my team together for our last in-person strategy session, where we just audited all the normal functions of a semester what had happened within this formal timeframe last year. And from there, I was able to diffuse the operations among my 15 person team so that I could focus on forecasting new systems design. And so it was a really important move because it helped me to set the tone that would bring us into a year later.

Douglas Davis:
Now we’re in April of 2021, but most of that has been a blur, but that, I guess, I can say it’s been a blur because of those reasons that I’m glad that we were able to pivot because I saw what the problem was, immediately, we were able to identify how we needed to redesign our own systems, communications or just how we actually carried about the normal day-to-day so that I could focus on finding the constants in this variable environment so that we could actually make decisions that would basically bring us into this point. So it’s been a blur, but I will say that we have a little boy, he turned two during the quarantine. And so it’s been, I think the best thing was to be here every day to see him. So I will say it’s been a blur, but it’s also been a joy because I would have never been able to watch my son grow in the ways that he has. So I’m grateful for that part of it.

Maurice Cherry:
In a way, it sounds like the blur has been a blessing.

Douglas Davis:
It has been. I think that’s a great way to put it because not only has it allowed me to for this last year of being chair, usually, whenever you are elected chairs for three years and you decide to renew that or not, I’ve decided not to, but after the first two years, I had already accomplished all of my goals. So this third year in that pivot has been about reinventing what it is that we offer. And it’s been difficult because usually, you can walk down the hall, you can bump into your coworkers and ask them what’s going on or observe yourself. And you’re there, you can watch, you can experience the environment, but I’ve been flying this plane blind because the only place that our offering exists is in Zoom rooms, right? So we’ve got to, in this year, we had to figure out what is it that we offer? Where’s the value? And how do we even talk about it?

Douglas Davis:
And so we had a two year run of quite a lot of positive press releases and quite a lot of awards. And we were nominated for an Emmy twice and we won the Emmy. And I told my dean and the provost and the president not to expect any of those things from us, because I don’t even know what it is that we’re attracting students to.

Douglas Davis:
And so until I can figure that out by talking to literally every single person, we have about maybe 80 adjuncts and that 15 member team, I make 16, and just talking to them and asking them questions, what’s working, what’s not working and why in order for me to figure out, maybe even what shouldn’t come back from online, what should stay there because we can still get a level of quality, but what is hurting? What is not actually what we would want if we had a choice, things like advanced studio photography, for instance, who’s learning apertures and f-stops and lighting with the camera phone, right? Or things like figure drawing. If you’re really about learning the aesthetics of line shape, form, space, color, value, texture, all the things that they teach you in our school traditionally, can’t really do that at a distance.

Douglas Davis:
And so we’ve been trying to figure out how exactly we can offer our students the best value at a distance during this time the whole world is shifting in addition to the fact that right now, I like to say that the most important students are my staff, the professors, because it’s almost like Thanos snapped his fingers in an instant, how exactly you went from freshmen in college the first day on the job totally changed along with what you do on that job, how you do that job.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think it’s really important to invest in the people who spend the most time with the talent that we’re developing for the industry. And if we are not tapped into what those shifts are, if we’re not useful to our own clients in the boardroom, then what I have to teach you in the classroom, especially whenever you’re attempting something that I’ve never done myself, like you’re entering the industry, you’re finishing college in a pandemic on the couch. And so I think it’s just really, really important for any educators out there to really think about that, that in an instant, institution’s competitive advantage that was built on an in-person experience was flattened. And any of the competitive set, I think it’s arguable now, whether those go-to “schools” that most recruiters recruit from, it’s arguable whether they still can produce the same level of quality when no one was prepared to make this shift.

Douglas Davis:
So I think that is a big opportunity for the challenger brands like us, but it all depends on what everybody did with their time. It’s been a year, but in that year, that pivot and how you can take your resources, redesign your processes and think about what your new priorities are and then invest around those new priorities so that you can focus on that forecasting, focus on new systems design, focus on decision-making, decentralized decision-making, focus on operations. Those are, I would argue, the newest central skills as a result of the pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I mean, a lot of things have changed with the pandemic, as you mentioned, I think for educational facilities, whether it’s a college or even something like a bootcamp or something, it’s how does that value translates? I know here where I’m at, I live near some HBCUs here, Morehouse College, Spelman, et cetera. And I know for a while they transitioned into doing only online learning. I think some of the schools have said now that I think the vaccine is out there, that people are going to start transitioning back in the fall to try to do either some sort of hybrid model or like fully on campus instruction.

Maurice Cherry:
But I think what is the tricky thing about it is people are going to have to almost be re-introduced in a way back to society. There are so many people I know that are just workers that are like, I don’t know about going back into the office. I like working from home, where they’ve gotten used to, or they found a way to compartmentalize being able to work from home and still have a home and not feel like they live where they work and that sort of way. So there’s a number of different considerations and factors that go into it. And yeah, I can definitely see for college, because it’s so expensive students are like, well, what are we paying for? I mean, yes, it’s the education, but we’re not going to a building or sitting in a lab or using facilities, we’re all at home. So should it be less expensive because of that? There’s a number of questions that go into all of that.

Douglas Davis:
Well, that’s the challenge. Again, I mentioned earlier that in the blink of an eye, not only did the industry change in terms of what your job is and how you do it, but how you actually enter this industry changed. We went from being the most experienced people in the room who could say, you know what? Do what I do because I’ve done it and I can help you do it, to I’ve never done this before. None of us have. You don’t have any more experience than I do, I don’t have any more experience than you do. We’re all doing this together. And I think that’s a better place to be, but only if everybody in the room can actually admit that.

Douglas Davis:
But I think that what you’re pointing to started before the pandemic happened. I think that there has been price pressure on universities and colleges because of the fact that credentialing and how much tuition costs and how it’s continued to go up. And as Clay Christensen, the late Professor Christensen would say, this particular category, the education space had not been disrupted in what? Three. It never, pretty much been just like this for hundreds of years. And I think that the fact that that overhead is also factored into that tuition. And again, that competitive advantage, that brand is charging you a premium, not just for the brand itself, but for the caliber of professor that they’re attracting, that then is also factored into the tuition along with the network that you’re around, like the people who you’re going to leave with, that’s factored into the tuition in addition to keeping that brand, whether it so it can continue to attract those types of people so that they can keep charging you that much money, but that is under attack.

Douglas Davis:
And it’s funny because I said to my dean the other day and the provost, I said, “Wouldn’t it have been interesting if the disruption would have happened in a complete different way being that, what if the experts that are online right now that teach in these very entertaining, short videos for free or for a little bit of money? What if those experts had to buy expensive real estate in order to create a physical campus? What if they had to build the buildings on that real estate? What if they had to go and get their PhDs and make sure that anybody who taught on their platforms had their PhDs? What if they had to approve their curriculum through the state? I mean, think about the decades of a headstart that traditional universities would have had. The problem is that the opposite happens.

Douglas Davis:
So right now, we’ve been pulled into their space. And this is a space where production value matters because we’re competing for students’ attention. You can’t just stand there and speak your two hour lecture in person online in front of the camera. It’s not going to work. You’re going to be bleeding people who don’t have the attention span in the first two, three minutes. And so I think as a result, that price pressure is something that I think for us, I like to say with the public path to a creative career, because even though we are about four to five times larger than our private school competition, we have a fraction of their resources and we also cost a fraction of what they cost. And yet, our students are competing for the exact same opportunities because we have an accredited BFA just like they do.

Douglas Davis:
So I think we’re really well positioned, we’re a commuter school, but I think, though our tuition and our revenue model is not under the same pressure as like a division one or R1 research institution that has dorms and meal plans and all that kind of stuff, it still is a competition between us as a traditional four year path into the industry and these low end disruptors that charge you a lot less money, but that offer this practical advice about entering the industry.

Douglas Davis:
And there’s some really quality players out there. My friend, Chris Do, the Futur, or General Assembly, there are a lot of places that you can go to learn skills. And I’ll give you one better, because if you rewind back to 1999 and you’ll appreciate this because you work at a startup, but back then, if you think about it, and this is when I entered the industry with all the dot coms and digital advertising, nobody had a degree in web design, you couldn’t study, it didn’t exist. And what that was about was the fact that these people, whatever they studied, they got that opportunity, including myself, because we were willing to learn a new language.

Douglas Davis:
And I think that if you fast forward to right now, we’re back to a point where I think in 2017, Microsoft and Apple and Google, they relaxed the requirement of having to have like a college degree in order to enter their ranks. So we’re back to skills being the thing. I think the challenge, though, is that when you think about black and brown folks like us, oftentimes, we have to go to college to get the degree, to get the confidence to even apply to those places.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think overall, the challenge there becomes, we’ve got to understand how, oftentimes, a student will say, well, Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. And so I don’t really need a school, I’m going to drop out too. And I always have to remind them that that’s not you. I don’t know what family Mark Zuckerberg was born into, but maybe his mom was on the board of XYZ company and they already have the capital, they already have the connections. And if you don’t have any of those things, if you don’t have a network of all of those elements, it will be a mistake for you to do what Mark Zuckerberg do as a black man or a woman. And so I think overall, those are the things that have to be thought through in order for us to figure out exactly what the value is now and how we can extract what the value and the opportunities are right now.

Douglas Davis:
So it’s a bigger question of the education space and how we’re going to continue to compete if we all know how Blockbuster versus Netflix ended up. And so I think that if we’re not careful as the traditional university space changes, if we don’t think about how much we’re charging, if we don’t think about developing those new skills, and if frankly, our presidents rely more on their PhDs than they do their people skills, the pandemic has really required all of us to change and to develop new skills.

Douglas Davis:
And I think that presentation skills, marketing skills, the things that our clients pay us for, we are uniquely positioned as creative people to deal with these pivots. And if that PhD or the things that used to be the ticket into these exclusive spaces, if that still continues to be the yardstick with which people deem that you are smart enough to handle this problem, or if that’s the thing that they keep requiring for you to be on a problem, versus just thinking about what the skills are that are needed, what is the issue and how do we deal with it, then we’re going to be in trouble. And so I think some things need to shift.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I think we’re already seeing some companies, honestly, I mean, I think every company is still trying to figure it out, but with some places, they’re definitely trying to skip back and forth between saying one thing and something else to see what is going to work the best. So for example, last year, when the pandemic has happened and everyone was forced to go remote, a lot of positions then opened up to become remote positions because you can’t go into the office to do an interview, you can’t go into the office to work. So you’ll have to do all your work distanced over Zoom and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And companies, at least companies, I know that I’ve encountered, we’re still trying to kick the can down the road to figure out how much longer they were going to be doing this until they could get back to what it used to be. So you may apply for a position and they say it’s remote, but then they’ll say, oh, but when we’re back in the office, you have to move here. Is that okay? And it’s like, well, they’re not going to offer relocation. They just expect you to pick up and move because you’ve got a job there, which is not realistic at all. I mean, pandemic or not, that’s not realistic.

Douglas Davis:
That’s the misalignment, right? Where looking backwards versus focusing forward and understanding that there’s an aspect of what we used to do, walk around maskless, breathe in each other’s maskless air will-nilly, shaking hands, and hugging each other and being in tight spaces and watching movies and stuff. There’s an aspect of our culture that may not return. And I think that waiting to base what you’re going to do based on what used to happen or how quickly we will be back to that versus focusing forward in and understanding that there are some new priorities here, I think that that’s the classic thing that’s going to determine who wins and who loses in this new environment.

Douglas Davis:
I think that if we’re talking about companies and if we’re talking about people, I think it really does boil down to two things, relevance and belonging. I think if you’re an institution or if you’re in a leadership position or if you’re a brand, if you’re a college, it doesn’t even matter, but if you’re not really asking yourself as a brand or a company or an institution or an employer are we relevant, if you’re not asking that question and if you’re not then basing your answer yes or no, based on how many people or groups can come to you and say, I belong and therefore, I’m going to stay here in this culture, then you’re in trouble. That relevance, belonging metric, I like to say, it’s a column response because whether you’re a person, individual and you’re going to a college or a certain brand to be employed, and you’re in some ways asking in your everyday interactions with that company, whether they’re good or bad, you’re making a determination if you belong or not, you’re asking, do I belong?

Douglas Davis:
And so if you end the interactions, whether that’s just the culture of how things are set up or if it’s customer service, if it’s how you are or not invested in, if you determine in your aggregate that you don’t belong because of those experiences being bad, then they’re going to leave. And we’ve all left places because we’ve deduced that the way you’re being treated is not what you want to continue to experience.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think, again, companies and people, or the college that you’re going to, you’re asking yourself, do I belong? And the way that that brand treats you is what’s going to help you to arrive at your answer, but then if you’re that employer, if you’re that institution, if you’re asking yourself, are we relevant and you’re basing that on how many people can conclude that they belong, then you’re in a good place.

Douglas Davis:
But if you’re tone deaf or if you’re looking for diverse candidates in the exact same way that you’ve always been doing it and you’re going to the exact same schools that you’ve been going to and you’re not really thinking about right now that the pandemic might be preventing some of the best talented people who you could have from even applying because of the new barriers that the pandemic has put into place, then you’re going to miss it. You’re going to miss that human potential, you’re going to miss that diverse team, because you’re basically looking for diversity as if I’m a black, white person. That’s the only way that you can conclude that there aren’t any diverse candidates or you can’t find any, you’re looking for black people with the same process and at the same places that you look for white people.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s something that I know I’ve talked about in my Where Are the Black Designers presentations before, but I mean, it’s something still, which is coming up, like for example, Revision Path as a job board. And we’ve gotten more companies that have posted to the job board, which is great, that’s wonderful. But it’s interesting, because then they’ll turn around because maybe they don’t get the response that they thought they would get from it.

Maurice Cherry:
And I don’t know, it’s interesting. I think just because you put a job out there doesn’t necessarily mean that black and brown people will flock to it. I think a number of companies know either to post to these sorts of boards or they know that if they put these kinds of listings out there, they’ll attract certain people, but I don’t know, it feels like it’s almost over-indexed in a way, every position you put out there is not going to have a bunch of black and brown people clamoring for it, especially if the position that you’ve written is written in a way that might exclude them or they may not be familiar with your company or it’s not remote or like there’s a number of different sorts of reasons.

Maurice Cherry:
Like I had, I’m just going to give an example, but I had a school that was in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest and they posted a position and then they came back 30 days later and they were like, well, no one applied. Can I get my money back? And I said, no. But it was also sort of like, well, how many people of color are going to live in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest to teach at your college?

Douglas Davis:
Well, that’s what we’re saying, it’s about the culture. And I think some part of what you’re identifying is that everything that employers are dealing with in terms of diversity or in terms of race or in terms of just dealing with whether it’s the Asian hate that’s going on right now, that terrible, despicable Asian hate, or whether it’s just what black people have had to endure from the beginning, we’re talking about American society’s issues. And it’s obvious that those issues would show up in your company, because we’re talking about whether people belong or not.

Douglas Davis:
And Maurice, when you really think about this, if we’re still in 2021, and I say this every year, because change is not happening fast enough, but it’s 2021, and when we can continue to say the words first and black in the same sentence and we were born here, it’s clear that we’re not woven into this society that we are a part of. And there’s still so many different barriers and I mean, that’s not even to mention the barriers that COVID-19 is presenting. It used to be, hey, wear a suit to your interview. Now your bandwidth is how you present yourself, just like that suit in person. If you’re going to college, because you want to change your socioeconomic situation that you were born in, but you live in the projects, you don’t even choose your bandwidth because you don’t actually buy your internet service.

Douglas Davis:
So again, thinking about our professors as the most important students, if I am a classic design professor and I want to show you the highest resolution image, but I don’t know how to teach online. And so I’ve got all these high resolution hogging, bandwidth hogging images in my Zoom and I keep kicking you off because your bandwidth can’t handle my presentation or my videos. This is really about making sure that the environment that you’re trying to attract that diversity too, is set up to actually handle that diversity.

Douglas Davis:
And that’s why I give a lot of respect to companies like Google and Microsoft. And I say that because they saw us at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, they see our diversity, they know that we have about 140 or 150 different languages spoken in our student body, they know that we represent about that many countries around the world, just in our student body because of the fact that there aren’t any barriers to our program. And they flew out from the West Coast and they set up shop.

Douglas Davis:
Microsoft actually interviewed our students in a two-day series of either giving workshops or interviewing our students to ask them, is it our tool that makes it the barrier? And to ask that question was wonderful. They observed our classes, they embedded themselves within the department. They conducted maybe like 15 or 16, 45 minute interviews where they really did ask. They asked a highly diverse group of young creatives, is it our tool that is preventing you from coding? I mean, that question alone and flying out from the West Coast and really investing in trying to figure out what the answer was. And they went to several other schools as well, but they made it a point to come to us. And so same thing with Google and showing up at our school and sending maybe seven or eight people from their office in order to recruit. And we also had this pilot where they had a group of students from California State Northridge University, as well as our program at City Tech. They met with and sort of paired our students with Google Alert.

Douglas Davis:
And so they checked in every week. And basically what and I really love about this. This was the equity engineering team, Jason Randolph, big shout out to him out on the West Coast. But the program was to introduce our students to the same problems that you would find if you were interviewing for a job at Google. And so that’s how they’re reaching into the pipeline, but also making sure that the environment itself, they’re asking the hard questions about their own tools and about their own decisions they’re willing to listen.

Douglas Davis:
And they’re willing to make sure that regardless of who you are, that they’re tailoring, how exactly they come and find you. Those are the examples that I want to hold up and I have a lot of respect for them because it’s not just that they’re saying that diversity is important. It’s not just that they’re saying these things, but there are press releases or appointing very high C-suite level diversity people. And yet the numbers keep staying the same. They’re really trying to do something about it. And so they earn my respect in that way.

Douglas Davis:
But again, it’s not just about saying the right things or putting a posting in the right places. It’s about understanding that again, I’m not a black, white person. You’ve got to really think about if you want me to feel comfortable in your environment, in your culture, you got to make sure that you’ve created a culture that we would feel comfortable.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And now a couple of years ago, I know you were a co-chair for AIGA’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. I was also on the task force several years ago. What do you remember about that experience?

Douglas Davis:
First, I want to say that Antoinette Carroll and gosh, Andrew Bass, gosh there has been so many people who were investing in the work long before me also Jacinda Walker. And so it was great to show up at the AIGA and say, I don’t think you guys are actually telling the story or having the impact that you could have. And so I just offered my services as a strategist. And since I was about to have a baby, I was about to become chair. I was applying for full professors, a lot of things going on when they asked me to chair the task force, I said, yes, if I could have a co-chair. And so Phim Her was my dynamic co-chair, she’s a wonderful, wonderful person. And I know you know her, but it was just really great to work with her.

Douglas Davis:
And I think that the challenge with the AIGA as an organization at that time was just that in being an organization that had been around for so long, but that was so late to the conversation about diversity, double digitally in so many ways that in communicating that to them that the belonging idea that we talked about earlier, that when people show up and they keep hearing the exact same thing over and over again. And they don’t really know what the value is of the money that they’re paying. They’re not going to stay if their needs are not getting met. And we’re not the only organization having conversations about diversity because there’s so many other places where that conversation is being had and where change is happening. And just for instance, thinking about the advertising space, and again, the caveat being that in design, it’s not this aggregate profession, right?

Douglas Davis:
You’ve got all these individual, design firms and you might do a logo for different brands or identity or websites, but in advertising, you’ve got holding companies and agencies that have accounts. So in a sense they’ve been sued as an organization, Human Rights Council of New York, making sure that black people were represented as a certain number of the population within the ranks in these holding companies, even though that hasn’t happened. The point though, is that it was attempted, and it was attempted in a way where New York city was willing to sue.

Douglas Davis:
And so as a result, a lot of these C-suite level organization and titles came out of that. And so knowing the history of those things, and again I’m going through it pretty quickly, but knowing the history of where the diversity conversation was in the advertising space, I just was trying to communicate that we are aware, really arriving very, very late to this conversation, even though there’ve been some really amazing people who’ve had some progress and who’ve pushed the conversation forward within AIGA to then take that mantle up and try to push things forward.

Douglas Davis:
We did as much as we could do, but I think that the culture itself, there were a lot of changes and bunch of turnover and just the structure itself, I think needed some change. And so after about a calendar year, I realized that it might be more helpful if we sort of stepped aside because as much as I like to try to push things forward and really win change, it wasn’t possible with that title and in that organization. So wonderful, wonderful people. I have some wonderful friends who’ve been able to find progress in that space. I just needed to redirect my own time and no love lost, but I didn’t need to focus forward. So it was a good experience. I think that we were able to show a different way to lead, but ultimately we were not effective. That’s how I remember that experience. And, I do hope that as the conversation about equity and black lives and just all the things that we’re dealing with right now continues to evolve. I do hope that not only AIGA, but many other organizations and many other professions, I really hope that we can sort of look at like what places like Canada is doing-

Maurice Cherry:
Place like RGD?

Douglas Davis:
Yeah. And not just even RGD, but like also their colleges and universities out there. OCAD U there’s a woman out there she’s the Dean of Design name is Dr. Dori Tunstall, she’s been doing some wonderful things like cluster hires of like black faculty. She was able to hire five black faculty members in a space that had no black tenured faculty for over a hundred years. And she hired five black people on tenure track lines. And she’s in the middle right now of an indigenous cluster hire where they’re looking for indigenous faculty members to join in that way, but she’s been making some real change. And so there are far beyond the diversity and inclusion conversation that America has been sort of steeped in.

Douglas Davis:
They’ve moved towards anti-racism and decolonization and so I think that looking at countries and people who have moved far beyond where we’re at and really taking note of what they’ve been doing, and then figuring out what that looks like within the American space and within our own companies or our own universities, is what our hope happens as a result of just being able to mention it and bring it up within the context of this conversation. That’s where I hope we are able to go because they’re further along.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Even thinking about like this year, for example, I’ve met a lot of design educators on the show. I usually try to have a good mix of design educators and stuff, but even thinking like how you said before, how teaching has changed and how different organizations are changing. One thing that sort of struck me last summer was a lot of these different companies and such putting up black squares and saying that they now are in on all lives matter. And we’re going to, I mean, that all lives matter. Sorry, all black lives matter and we’re going to start celebrating Juneteenth and things like this.

Maurice Cherry:
All of that is clear virtue signaling, first of all. But I remember getting just asked from other people and such like, how long is this going to last? And I’m like, I don’t know, like few months maybe like as the next extra judicial killing crosses the airways, like things happen to come at such an interesting nexus point with this pandemic and there not being any sports and not being able to travel and such where people were sort of forced to now see it in a way that I guess they had been privileged enough to ignore it for years and years and years. It’s kind of astonishing to me how many people were just sort of woken up last year because of this.

Maurice Cherry:
But like even that whole habit of like black squares and such like around that time, I was also looking at old issues of Ebony and Jet magazine around the time when Dr. King was assassinated and the same types of things were happening. Companies were posting like an all black square for an ad. Like what does that accomplish except using up a lot of ink?

Douglas Davis:
Exactly. Well, I think we’re in marketing, right? So the fads and trends are something that advertising agencies and design firms are going to really, I think just be attracted to because what we do harness is culture. I always like to say that creative people are the spoonful of sugar that make business and marketing objectives palatable to the public, but they can’t go public without us. And so if you think about advertising and the fact that like the authors and drivers of American culture, not just black culture, American culture. And I’m saying this off the heels of last night’s versus, Earth, Wind and Fire versus the Isley Brothers. So the full glory enriches of black people were on display last night for the world to see. But we’re the drivers of American culture we’re the authors of American culture we’re the influencers of American culture and fashion.

Douglas Davis:
And again, I’m not saying that no one else does anything. I am saying that there is an outsize contribution to that from black people. And yet, if we are not represented within the same proportion of the population, there’s something wrong. Because if our industry is built on crafting messages, building relationships, brand values, customer relationship management, if we’re built on that, and if we’re built on crafting those messages and targeting groups, if I’m excluded part of the authors and the influencers of American culture in this country, if I’m excluded in a profession that targets and craft messages and brings them to people, then it’s because it’s on purpose. And I think that we can sort of get caught up in the moment of like basically being embarrassed if you’re not posting something that’s pro-black, which I think a year later, if you look at someone’s actions as an organization or a country, or even as individuals. If you look at the misalignment if you look at the mixed signals that exist in America right now, you had literal people carrying blue lives matter flags, having an insurrection on the Capitol, beating police officers with it.

Douglas Davis:
Like there’s so many mixed signals within our country. There’s equal justice under law on the top of the Supreme Court and yet we’re watching right now, George Floyd, his character is basically on trial for his own murder right now. And so there’s all these mixed signals that exist in everyday life in America. And so it makes total sense that if in the moment, if the trend is sort of pointing towards black lives and black people being in fashion and being pro-black about a specific issue, if that’s in style, then of course. If we’re in this profession, if we’re being honest, then yeah, you’ll be embarrassed if you’re not about it. But if you even look at the laws that are meant to suppress voters right now in Georgia, and the fact that these companies they hire lobbyist, they knew what was in those bills before they were passed.

Douglas Davis:
They were pressed on it from black corporate leaders, as well as black employees at those places because black dollars are ones that they want. And so at the end of the day, even those companies which I’m glad that they’re speaking up, but they’re speaking up too late and we still are in a situation where we don’t have what we need. And so I think overall, it’s great to have that black square. It’s amazing to have that hashtag, but that’s easy. I think, again, going back to what I can say from what I’ve seen and what that experience has been with Google and Microsoft choosing to help us because our partnerships are how we have more impact than what our resources can produce. And so I think at the end of the day, when you have partners who understand that there’s different problem in order to engage different people think about the internship sort of structure and if it’s not paid, who can afford to do that? You got black and brown and talent just asking themselves, can I afford to be a designer? My work has to pay for my existence.

Douglas Davis:
And so if you can’t afford to get that experience, then you’re going to work somewhere, but that’s not going to be a part of your career because you got needs. Whereas someone else is getting the experience that they need because they don’t need the money. And so I think that being able to have that diverse team, being able to see the socioeconomic differences in attracting and retaining different groups and making sure that you can build your culture in a way that says that you’re relevant because you got white people, black people, Asian people, Indian people, and gay people, trans people, you got everybody there because they do feel like they belong because you thought about how to actually have company that’s not like you.

Douglas Davis:
I think that that takes work. And I think at the highest levels is going to take some incentives changing. It’s going to take the laws changing, and Maurice man, it’s exhausting. I can say to you that this year has been a blur because of the pivot that’s been going on with the pandemic. But it’s bigger than that, right? Like we’ve been watching ourselves get shot or hung or killed, or the mysterious circumstances where a routine interaction with police turns deadly because you’re unarmed and black. And I always post on social media next time it’s going to be me, one day it’s to be me. My mom hates it, my family and friends hate it and they say, “God forbid.” And I say, “You know what? That’s exactly what George Floyd’s family said God forbid. It happened to you. But it happened. We’re no different.”

Douglas Davis:
And so until all these things are factored in, of course, we’re bringing this to work. Of course, these are all the challenges that we have to fight through in society at work. If we’d literally just now had to pass laws where you can’t discriminate against me because of my hair. I’ve had to cut my hair to get jobs before. Who has to do that? What if a white woman had to do that to get a job? The condition is you cut your hair. That’s crazy. And we don’t even think about it like that because we’ve always had to walk in a space that wasn’t designed for us. We’ve always had to walk in a culture that wasn’t designed for us. We’ve always had to navigate a criminal justice system that wasn’t designed to give us equality. And so I think it makes complete sense that these things show up in the companies that we are going to work for. And it also makes sense that the trends towards whether it’s social justice or even just mentioning black lives matter, because you couldn’t even say that for a while.

Douglas Davis:
You were look at like you just said, hail satan or something crazy. And it was like this radical sort of thing versus like, no my life should matter. And I’m so angry that I got to say that. And yet it’s what we’ve been able to navigate because we’re still here and we’re going to be here and we still drive culture. And we still are the authors of American culture. And in so many ways that are very creative and just whether it’s poetry or whether it’s music or whether it’s fashion like we still are a great source of America’s competitive advantage if it would just love us back. That would be nice.

Maurice Cherry:
That would be nice. It would. Is that fair?

Douglas Davis:
Fair? Ooh. There’s so many… If we were going to wait for fair Maurice and you know I’m glad we’re talking about this so that people can sort of understand that this is what we have to go through. But you know what I realize is that there’s two sides to what could be seen as fair. Think about the imposter syndrome. Think about all the different social issues that we just talked about and then think about how much confidence you do or don’t have in doing your job. Think about all the internal turmoil that you have to deal with in addition to all the social issues that you got to walk into work with. All the barriers, all the different tests or things that were set up to give you a certain score on the SAT based on like asking you questions that have nothing to do with your culture. And some people actually believe that outward measure of what their potential was. I didn’t believe it.

Douglas Davis:
I took the SAT like three times, my guidance counselor in high school didn’t have one conversation with me about college. And so I said to myself if I don’t go to college, I wanted it to be because I chose not to go. So I went to summer school myself. I took my extra math. I took my extra foreign language. I took the SAT three times. And you know what, after those three times I probably got like a 780, my highest score. So by that measure I’m stupid, Maurice. But if I looked at that, that number and let that number tell me what I was capable of then I wouldn’t have an Emmy. I wouldn’t have two master’s degrees. I wouldn’t have gone on to write a book, I’ve done anything because I’d have been too busy moping.

Douglas Davis:
But that fairness, if we’re talking about fair think about how you have to be deliberate and determined in a way that white people don’t have to be in order to make it. And then there’s the opposite side, right? So as I mentioned, I’m chair of the program and there’s about 650 students, about a hundred people on my staff. And it’s one thing to have to fight through any of the imposter syndrome. Thank goodness I didn’t suffer from those things but you do have to see yourself as worthy to be a leader, worthy to make decisions in order to perform in that job, you got to be focused on the fact that you are qualified and that you can do it as well as anybody else. But then there’s the opposite side to that fairness. White people have to see you as a person who they can follow. They have to see you as a person whose decisions that might affect their choices as something to respect. They have to see you as somebody who they’re willing to give a chance, because if they don’t then no, it’s not fair that the decisions that you’re making with all of the training with two master’s degrees, having written a book about strategy, having proven that your tactics and the way that you move in the world do well.

Douglas Davis:
Having won an Emmy, having brought all of the goals that you said that you had set out to bring, having done those things early, but still having people question whether you know what you’re talking about, still having to say the same thing for a year before you’re even heard. All of those things, if we’re talking about fairness, it’s like this double-sided coin where you have to see yourself as capable and worthy and why not you, but then even if, and when all those things are true about you and you are capable and you are worthy and you do make it. If people don’t see you as worthy or capable and don’t trust you or don’t follow you, or they’re insubordinate for the sake of being insubordinate, even with all the accolades and that’s not your issue, even though you got to deal with it.

Douglas Davis:
And no, that’s not fair, but that’s the same issue as having that routine parking or traffic violation or traffic interaction with a cop and having those two master’s degrees, being an author, being a global speaker, and yet being an unarmed black man, and having them look at you and deem that you’re a threat and deciding to shoot you for no reason other than you’re unarmed and you’re black and you’re a man. I mean, how many times have we seen that?

Douglas Davis:
So, no, it’s not fair. And yes, it’s exhausting and yes, we see it in American society. And yes, then we have to deal with it in the companies that we go to work for in our everyday interactions in this system that wasn’t set up for us. And yet we’re still bringing a level of contribution to all of it that America wouldn’t be any other what it is without our contribution. So it’s thankless, it’s completely thankless and you’re not only not wanted, but at the same time, what would America be without us? And we all know the answer to that question. And so, no, it’s not fair. And no, we don’t even get the equity that we put into it. And yet you can’t stop us.

Douglas Davis:
If anybody had any question, I’m a dark skinned red bone on the inside. If anybody had any questions, but I do believe that things will change over time, but is it just on the surface that it changes or will we be able to as creatives, as black creators as the people that we are, will we be able to affect change and influence brands from within? Will we be able to step up to those leadership positions and make the decisions that will shift the culture or the places that had locked us out or that don’t call out to people? How are you going to leave the space that you walked into? How are you going to push it forward?

Douglas Davis:
And I think that if all of us could just look at pushing it forward just a little bit. And I think lastly, I would just add onto this, that again, like a lot of the topics that we talked about are heavy, a lot of topics that we talked about proceed both of us, our grandparents and great-grandparents were talking about these same things and nothing’s changed, or it hasn’t changed enough that if they were still alive, they might be confused that we weren’t in their time in 2021. So progress is slow, progress may not sort of shift and move into the place that we would like it to in our lifetime in our kids’ lifetimes, who knows. But I think that overall, we have to also take care of ourselves, right? Who’s to say that you want to actually be a part of the places that don’t want you? Who’s to say that those places they don’t deserve you?

Douglas Davis:
And so I think that it’s important for anybody listening to really understand your own worth. They need us as well. And so you can determine who benefits from your presence as well, that is within your control. And, again, we all have to balance the fact that we have to eat as well, but I think it’s very important to understand how much we are worth and how much our contribution is worth. Is not just checking a box, having a black face, being able to give the company some cover to say that they are about diversity because you’re there at the table. We all know that doesn’t work. But I think really understanding that where things are shifting in a way that there is more control in our hands, there is more opportunity because of the internet, even though there are some barriers that come along with it. Because we can go straight to the world, straight to the public with what we have, things will and are changing.

Douglas Davis:
So again, I think about Timbaland and I think about Swiss Beats doing verses it makes total sense that that came from two musicians from us, from our culture and look at what they’re doing. Look at what the D-Nice has been doing Club Quarantine like our creativity cannot be stopped. And so there’s this love-hate relationship that America has with us and it can’t get along without us. And yet I’m hoping that it can learn to embrace us in a way that we can unlock the potential of little black boys, little black girls, minority black, brown, queer boys and girls, so that we can really move and be and have that outlet that we’re going to get out there anyway. It’s going to happen anyway, that can’t be stopped, but it’d be really nice if there wasn’t such resistance or so many barriers to fight through. That would be fair, but stay black and die and pay taxes, right? That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:
One big change and I think we’ve probably all heard it in the background as you’ve been talking, as you became a father over the past few years, as we had you on the show, how has fatherhood changed you?

Douglas Davis:
Yeah, my son, Jonathan, it’s changed me in a lot of ways. And I’m sitting here smiling as I think about how exactly I can share in the amount of time that we have, how it’s changed me. But it’s been transformative in the way that now I understand the fear that my mom had when I would leave the house. And when I was rebellious and when the cops would harass and I was this outspoken young kid who was not about to hold my tongue, no matter what. Now I get that terror because now I have a son who is a light of our life and who is something happened to him it would be devastating. And now I know what that feels like to have so much to lose, but to have so much potential. And I guess, I’m speaking from the standpoint of how it shifted me. I think it’s made me more aware that at some point my son will go from being this cute little kid that everybody looks at on social media when I post.

Douglas Davis:
At some point he’s going to go from being cute to a threat. I mean Tamir Rice was a little kid, Trayvon was a little kid. And so I think the way that it’s changed me is it’s made me hyper aware of how blessed I was and why when at whatever point, because I didn’t discriminate, but why, what, at whatever point I had a white girlfriend, my family was uncomfortable, but they still embraced that person because they loved me. And so I think that the challenge at different points is that that change is what you then become your parents. You can see from their perspective, you understand the fact that to protect your son, that you have to sacrifice in different ways that if it was just you maybe it wouldn’t matter.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think the way it’s changed me is that it’s made me even more aware of all the things that we’ve been talking about. And it’s made me really question whether I want him to have to go through all of this. Again, if we’re going back to fair. I can’t lie to you and say that we haven’t thought about and really entertained leaving the country. I can’t say that we haven’t entertained thinking about what zip code we might want to live in so that when we call the cops they actually come. And that sucks, man. Like it’s exhausting because I would much rather be focused on the fact that he loves Dora the Explorer and that he loves to say, “Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum. Delicioso.” And that he’s running and jumping around and we’ve got to tell him to stop and get off that and take that out of your mouth. Like I would love to focus on just that. And for right now we’re safe, but Breonna Taylor thought she was safe too when she went home and locked the door and went to sleep.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think there’s no way to escape America and the weight of America. And so it’s changed me by making me even more aware of how precious life is and made me even more aware of the responsibility that we have to change things so that at some point we can just be. Because I want my son to just be, he waltz around the house, his toys everywhere just like any other kid and yet we can see him recognizing patterns and stacking his blocks in certain ways that they look like a sculpture garden as you walk through room to room to room, you know he’s been there. And being able to be here in a pandemic to have the privilege of being the boss during a time when I can make the decision as to whether we are or not going to go back in person. And I can make the decision as to, you what I don’t want it on my conscious that I put mixed signals out there to attract students back into a situation where they could get sick or I don’t want to put my staff in harms way, or I’m not going to ask anybody to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself.

Douglas Davis:
And so, you know what, a year ago I decided we were going to be on this couch. We will be remote for the whole school year. And I’m glad that I could say that because not only did it help me to make sure that I didn’t put anybody else’s baby in harm’s way, it allowed me to be home and actually help my wife to raise mine. And so I think this just goes back to, in some ways, the call for anybody who is thinking about leadership or taking more responsibility, I want to encourage you to take that step. And yes, it’s a burden. It’s very difficult and yet if you can learn operations, if you can learn new systems design, if you can learn strategy forecasting, if you can learn decision-making and negotiations, if you read Creative Strategy and the Business of Design it can help you with the strategic part of things.

Douglas Davis:
But if you learn those things and take on more responsibility you can help to create the environment and make the decisions that not only benefit the people who you will be responsible for, but it also help you to benefit your own family. It is still a sacrifice, but at least it’s you making those decisions versus somebody else making those decisions for you, and we need more of that. I believe we need more of that. I’m probably the first black boss that my staff has worked for and I’ve worked for as many black bosses as my staff has worked for. It’s crazy, right? But in some ways becoming a father has helped me to really just be more responsible with that.

Douglas Davis:
And just full disclosure and for accuracy sake I had a son when I was in Hampton I was like freshman year. So I was probably about 18. So my oldest son, his name is Douglas and he’s down in South Carolina. I had a son back then though, it was a very different interaction in terms of I’m a kid and he’s a kid. It’s one of those things where right now is very different because I’m an adult and being in a pandemic and being able to have two sons, but just to have a little one here with me, it has changed so much. And both of my sons thank goodness are healthy, but it really does when you become a father, makes you think about what your decisions are and what the impact of those decisions are. So it transforms you, definitely does.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

Douglas Davis:
Well, I mean, that’s a really interesting question because as I mentioned I’m not going to have chosen not to continue on as chair. Because I’ve been able to accomplish the change in our culture and raise our visibility, win those awards, do all the things that I set out doing. And on July 1st, when I’m not chair anymore or when my term ends I won’t even be 45 yet. And so in that I can say that success is not accomplishing all these things even though I’ve been able to accomplish those things and go to Hampton and then go to Pratt and get a master’s and then go to NYU and get another master’s and travel the world and write a book and speak globally and do these things. Success is keeping your word to yourself. Success is doing what you set out to do.

Douglas Davis:
And I always define success as that, because things come and go. You can be on the top of your game one day and be on the bottom the next day. And so if it’s just about what you’re able to accomplish or what your paycheck is, then that definition is a bad definition because it always puts you in a situation where you’re always looking at the material or you’re looking at what people pay you to be creative. And I need to be creative because that’s how I live and breathe. I need to do that for free because that’s who I am. I need an outlet because it’s inside of me and it needs to come out. And so success is keeping my word to myself. Being able to say, I’m about to go do this. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to accomplish it. I’m scared even, but you know what, that’s exactly what I’m about to go do.

Douglas Davis:
And I’m thankful that that’s the way that I see it because when I went to Hampton it was great to be taught about work ethic because it continued to build on the same lessons as my grandfather or my grandma or my mom when they tell you, when you cutting the grass down south and it’s real hot, you know this you got to be inside before 10:59 in the summer, you cutting that grass or else you going to be faced down in the grass. And so knowing that I was taught by people who were doing things and who had integrity and who said, if you’re going to cut the grass and cut it right. If you’re going to sweep the floor, sweep it right. But to know that when I went to Hampton that those foundational lessons from those people in my own family and community, to know that that was the beginning of my education in my family.

Douglas Davis:
To then go on to Hampton and be taught if they ask you for five, then do 55 and choose the best five. That lesson had already been laid. It was just built on to then go to New York and wonder whether I could compete. Even though I graduated Hampton with a resume, I had a Disney internship, also worked at Hampton University had a microgravity collaboration so I was able to work with NASA and the Smithsonian several times, but I knew I still needed more. So then when I went to Pratt, not knowing whether I could compete in New York being scared to death. I’m moving to New York and then being like I’m moving to New York, both that was excitement mixed with fear because New York has everything you’ve ever wanted and everything you’ve never wanted rolled into one.

Douglas Davis:
But knowing that, you know what, I’m going to go test myself on the biggest stage that I could find as a Southern boy from the country. Can I do it? I don’t know. So let me go test, let me go see. And to know that I didn’t know whether I could, but I did know that I wasn’t going home. And to know that all you have to do is say that to yourself one time, but you got to spend every day meaning it and being able to keep your word to yourself despite having to fight through alcoholism and drug abuse. I think I learned the importance of what success is and how I define it because I didn’t have control over my own, what I said my choices. And I knew that when I got so far into addiction that I couldn’t keep my word to myself. I said, I’m not going to drink anymore. I said, I’m not going to get high. I couldn’t keep that promise to myself. That’s when it scared me.

Douglas Davis:
So that’s when I realized that that’s what success is. If you can make a promise to yourself or say something to yourself and then follow through with that, that is successful. And if you can define it that way, then you’re not as a creative person looking right and left and being afraid of people who are talented as well. You’re looking right and left and you’re being inspired whenever you see somebody do their best, because you understand that you’re competing against yourself. You’re trying to be better than you were last time. You’re trying to beat your best time the last time. You’re trying to get higher.

Douglas Davis:
And when you know that it’s you competing with you, then it’s very easy to understand that that’s what, in the way that I’ve found what success is and how to define it. It’s not about what I’ve been able to achieve. It’s not about fact that I own my home in Brooklyn, it’s not the fact that I’ve been able to become chair and I’ll be able to lay that down before I’m even 45. It’s really about just being able to keep my word to myself. That’s success.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like after, hopefully this pandemic is a thing of the past and whatever sort of new world or new reality we end up coming into. Like what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Douglas Davis:
That’s a good question because I think knowing that those new skills that I’ve been able to develop in this pivot operations, new systems design, forecasting, decision-making all of those things are a part of what I’m going to write about. Because I think on the one hand as creative people, we have to keep changing what we learn in order to keep doing the same thing. So I like to look at the timeline back in the day you learn Flash and then you could even learn ActionScript. And then now none of that is even there anymore and so I think the fact that we have to keep learning to typefaces, you got to learn how to do Basecamp, you got to learn Slack, you got to learn all these different ways to do the exact same thing. Strategy and marketing, all those skills or things that we needed to add in order to be a better creative person in my perspective, that’s why I wrote the book.

Douglas Davis:
But I think that now in this new world, learning how to make decisions, my son is so funny, learning how to make those decisions, learning how to lead and developing those skills I want to write about that. I want to continue to develop a body of thought leadership around that. But I think obviously I also want to put those skills into practice. But I think just going back fundamentally, I want to turn my book back into an online class. That’s how Creative Strategy and the Business of Design started, I wrote a four lesson online class for how design university is not even there anymore. But it did really, really well and so I was able to leverage that into writing a book. But now since things are shifted, I want to turn the content back into an online class because I never want to lose touch with teaching people, reaching students, whether they’re professionals or whether they’re pursuing some sort of credential or degree.

Douglas Davis:
So I want to always be able to say, do as I do versus do what I say, whether that’s to my sons as an example, or whether that’s to my students. I want to be able to reach them through reason and reach them through understanding that I’m never going to waste their time. And so in order to be useful in the boardroom, in the classroom or at home, wherever, I want to always do the things that I’m asking people to do, I want to lead from the front. I want to show them that I’m not going to ask you to do anything that I’m not willing to do, or haven’t done for a client. And so I want to make sure that I can continue to be a teacher, continue to be an example. Because even though I went to Hampton, there was no black design professors when I went to Hampton University, HBCU. There was no black design professors at Pratt. There were no black strategy professors at NYU. And then I became a strategy professor. I became a design professor.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think the type of work I want to do is whatever’s going to allow me to use me as an example for people who didn’t see themselves. And I think that whatever that looks like is where I want to offer my skills, but I also want to make sure that wherever I’m offering my skills is a place that appreciates what I bring. And so I think I’m open to the world and really thinking about other countries and thinking about other places or I can stay right here in Brooklyn. But I think whatever I do I want to feel like I belong. I want to feel like I’m contributing to a culture that is striving to be relevant to as many people as possible and taking down those walls. So whatever that looks like that’s what I’m interested in. I just don’t know what that is.

Douglas Davis:
And therefore, I think in being able to be comfortable with what I’ve been able to achieve in such a short period of time, whether that’s in my current role or whether that’s just as somebody who has not even made it to 45 yet, I feel like I’ve been able to move in and out of spaces after being effective or as effective as possible. And being able to be comfortable with that success and then say, you know what? I don’t know what the next step is. Just like I didn’t know whether I could compete in New York and that fear is always mixed with excitement, but I got my own back. I believe that whatever I do, apply my skills to I’ll figure it out. I’ll be able to bring something to it in the way that I do.

Douglas Davis:
And so I know that there’s some place that is exactly where I would thrive because in answering this question, I think I’m trying to acknowledge the fact that as the world shifts, which is where you started with the question, you can sort of find yourself misaligned, whether that’s in the country you’re in, based on how they actually treat children, or how they treat elders. You could find yourself misaligned in the culture you’re in at your job based on how they are or not dealing with the pandemic. You can find yourself misaligned in so many different… The society that you’re in based on whether they do or don’t live up to the mission statement that’s in the Pledge of Allegiance, right? One nation under God with liberty and justice for you all.

Douglas Davis:
I think we’re in this situation where because the whole world is being rethought I think it’s okay to not know what the next step is and to really sort of rethink the decisions that you had already taken for granted. Because that’s what we do in our profession, right? Like we sort of have to organize that chaos and question the answers that our clients come to us with that used to work six months ago, or a year ago in our case with COVID and really rethink what was the answer before, because the environment shifted.

Douglas Davis:
And so maybe that’s not the answer anymore so that we can turn, find those insights and then execute on whatever that plan is. And that’s how I’ve been moving through teaching. That’s how I’ve been moving through speaking, how I’ve been moving through writing, how I move through creating solution for my clients, but it’s also how I approach my career decisions. And so I might not know what’s next, but I do know that in questioning the answers, I am asking questions about things that were settled, I’m reopening areas that were given and I’m excited about that. That uncertainty excites me. Yes, it’s scary, but I’m excited about it. And so I don’t know what that means, but I do know that in order to keep my word to myself, in order to continue to test myself that I will be adding additional challenges. I just don’t know what they are right now. And I’m comfortable with that.

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

Douglas Davis:
Absolutely. Well, if you check my website out, it is douglasdavis.com, but you can also find me on Twitter, I’m @DouglasQDavis, you can find me on Facebook I’m Professor Davis. You can definitely see me with my son, I’m always posting on Instagram I’m @dquejuan. So hit me on IG as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Douglas Davis, I want to thank you again, just so much. I mean, one for taking time out to come on the show, but to really be so open and honest and candid. And I think also just thoughtful about not just the work that you do, but how it impacts the society and world around you. And really like take the time to think about just where we are in this current point in history and what that means for us as designers, what it means for you and I, and others as black people, as minorities. Thank you just so much for opening up and sharing all that, I really appreciate it.

Douglas Davis:
I appreciate you having me, Maurice. Thank you for having me back. I’m thankful, I believe in your venue, I share your posts because I believe in what you’re doing. I believe in who you are, and I’m thankful that I can call you a friend. So thank you for having me.

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

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Fonz Morris

You know, I’ve interviewed hundreds of Black creatives over the years, but none of them have had the enthusiasm that Fonz Morris possesses. He is the growth design lead at online learning platform Coursera, where he oversees a staff of talented designers from all over. We talked about hiring, diversity and inclusion, and he gave some great advice for up and coming designers looking to land their dream job.

Fonz also shared his story of growing up in Brooklyn and teaching himself architecture, going to college in Atlanta, starting his own music distribution platform and creative agency, and how those experiences led him to where he is today. Fonz is all about pursuing his dreams, and after you hear his words of wisdom, you’ll be inspired to go out and do the same!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Fonz Morris:
My name is Fonz Morris. I am the design lead on the growth team at Coursera.org which is an online Edtech company based out of Silicon Valley focusing on transforming lives through education.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get started there?

Fonz Morris:
Once my last startup that I helped get off the ground ended up not working out for me, I told my wife that if I was going to get a job back in corporate America or go back and lead the entrepreneurship space, I wanted it to be out in California. I just knew the community that was out here, I knew the weather, I wanted a change of environment. I’m a father I wanted to raise my daughter in a different environment than New York City or Philadelphia and I just started to pursue opportunities out West and I applied to different positions. Recruiters hit me up from different companies and ultimately I landed at Coursera in August of 2018.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. What kind of projects are you working on there as a growth design lead?

Fonz Morris:
So currently we just released our new homepage, which is doing fantastic. The numbers are up 4% across site wide which is really exciting for those of you who understand metrics. I have recently worked on redesigning our promo unit system framework, which is really important for us because we have a lot of different products that we need to promote to different learners at different times. So our old promo unit system was just ineffective and it wasn’t really producing traffic and it was really hard to develop the promo units, it wasn’t scalable. So we redid that, that was very successful. I also helped redo our degree white label framework. Degrees are a really important part of Coursera and for the future of Coursera and we have about 18 degrees now and each one is from a different university.

Fonz Morris:
So they need their own place to be able to house the necessary information. And another product that I worked on is our new UX search results page. We were having some issues with not getting users to the right content that they wanted so we completely revamped that. And then also being on the growth team I work on a lot of smaller experiments. We’re really experiment based where we’ll roll out two, three smaller iterations of something to get the data from that to be able to make a better educated decision on a design, which those are smaller tasks. So it’s split between big projects like the ones I said originally and then smaller ones that are more targeted towards growth specific and iterations.

Maurice Cherry:
I got you. So it’s a lot of, at least it sounds like it’s some user testing involved with it when you’re doing this sort of comparison.

Fonz Morris:
Yes sir. Lots of it. So once again, I’ll get technical real quick. Usually what we have is a control, which is what the actual live current site is. And then we’ll have a variant A, variant B, a variant C and then we’ll roll out each of those variants to a specific target group. And we’ll get the numbers back from those and then that way we can compare the effect that each design had on each target and be able to make a decision based off the metrics.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a regular day like for you there? It sounds like there’s a lot of meetings, a lot of maybe cross functional work, stuff like that.

Fonz Morris:
Lots of meetings. I don’t think I would’ve ever thought that as somebody with designer in their title that I would have so many meetings. So I would say it’s funny, it’s really interesting and I had to get used to that because as a designer I was a solo person. I was used to just sitting in front of my computer zoning out and cranking out designs where now I would say my time is split almost, maybe 60/40 sometimes even 70/30 meeting design. And then we use split in not necessarily formal meetings but one-on-one meetings with the other designer that’s on my team.

Fonz Morris:
Because I’m a design lead I support the other designers on the growth team as well. So when you add all of that up, you’d be surprised how much time I actually spent meeting but that’s because I’m helping come up with decisions and helping other designers come up with decisions with things like that. To where my job is no longer only focused on what I can physically produce, but also what I can emotionally and technically help other people with or grow with and things like that. So it’s funny how many meetings I do have nowadays though.

Maurice Cherry:
So how many designers are on the growth team?

Fonz Morris:
Well, right now we’re about nine. At our highest we were about 12 but that’s something else that’s tricky out here is the turnover at companies because a designer wants a better opportunity or they’re a contractor or it’s just not a good fit. So you see teams grow and shrink way more often than I thought, but right now we’re at about a strong nine.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would imagine out there in Silicon Valley because there’s so many tech companies out there, really so many design focused tech companies that if you’re a designer of a certain caliber you kind of can just bounce from place to place if you want to. You know?

Fonz Morris:
That’s what it feels like. You definitely get reached out to a lot of companies, but the hiring process at these companies are kind of tricky. So even if you are skilled you still got to go through their hiring process, which is definitely something that I wanted to talk about today. Because I don’t know how many people understand how much work it takes to get on at one of these companies and just how sometimes is also even just the luck of the draw. Because there’s so many phases of it, you never really know which phase could take you out or if you’re going to get through all of the phases as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Listen, let’s talk about it because I’m actually in the middle of hiring, well not hiring, I’m on the interview team so I’m doing a lot of phone screens and resume screens. Let’s talk about it because I actually have a lot to say about that. Talk to me I guess when it comes to what you are looking for out of designers. And it doesn’t necessarily I think have to be specific like skills. I’m sure you know skills are transferable, but what are you looking for when you’re hiring for someone at Coursera?

Fonz Morris:
I think the level of designer is important because that ties into what we’re going to ask them to produce. And by that I mean if we have a lot of production work, if there’s a lot of designs that need to be produced that maybe we’ve already did a lot of the work for and we don’t need to put a lot the full product design process into this, then we could say maybe we’re looking for someone who is not a senior level designer but they’re not really junior. And so because of that, now we’ll be looking for communication skills, we’ll be looking for the ability to do user research.

Fonz Morris:
We may not be expecting you to take a full project on that may go two or three quarters because you might not have had that kind of experience yet. But we’ll be expecting you to be able to lead some things to a certain extent without any handholding to a certain extent as well. And that you determined through asking questions, asking them what type of responsibilities they’ve had at their previous position. You’ll ask them what type of things they’re interested in and looking forward to working on if they get a new position. And then it’s your job as the interviewer to take all the information and see if the two situations align and feel like a good fit.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that there are certain skills or certain qualities that you’re looking for in particular?

Fonz Morris:
I think at the end of the day we want to work with really nice people, good people and that’s what I really value about Coursera is that I really like my coworkers. Everybody is friendly, everybody is smart, there’s not a lot of egos you feel you can trust each other and those are more on the personal side than they are the technical skills. So I would say and being transparent. When we asked you what your last job was about, we don’t want you to sound as if you were the best thing since sliced bread or you were the LeBron James of product design.

Fonz Morris:
Because we want some people to have humility, so we want you to be able to tell us how you worked with a problem and how you solved it. And if maybe you bumped heads with somebody on your team that doesn’t say anything about you, we are just really trying to figure out how you handle challenges. So we’re looking for those types of things as well of problem solving and being able to maybe compromise with some people to figure out how to get past a certain point if y’all both were bottlenecked on a idea. So all of these are not technical things, these are just soft skills.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s amazing to me how and this is something that I sort of knew this before, but certainly once I started interviewing and hiring designers and just creatives in general. Your personality and your behavior oftentimes are more important than what you have on your resume or your cover letter. I mean, certainly that will get you I think in the door or get you past the screen but like you said, you want to work with people that are going to fit within the culture. And I know culture fit can kind of be a negative term that is thrown about but like you say, you want to work with nice people. People that you can get along with and do work with, that’s really important.

Fonz Morris:
Cultural fit is important and I don’t understand why culture fit is a negative word. It’s important. Why is it important? Because as a black man, when you think of what does it mean for me to be a culture fit somewhere? What does that mean? If it’s not a black organization, then what culture am I trying to fit into? So I understand how it could be like a negative situation, but I also think it’s coming from the perspective of do you have an ego? Are you just a nice person? Are you friendly? Do you get along well with others on your team? Are you supportive? Do people want to come to work with you?

Fonz Morris:
And that’s just important because you’re with your coworkers more than you are with your family sometimes. So culture fit is important to me, but it does get tricky. And I know why people say that, but I definitely think culture once again goes into soft skills as well. And that’s just really important because if I’m not talking to you about designs or if you’re not literally doing the design, then you’re most likely using your soft skills. If that’s communicating or sharing or analyzing or critiquing so that’s why it ends up being really important for someone in the product space to be strong on both sides of the coin.

Maurice Cherry:
What other sort of advice would you give like for someone that’s not necessarily saying that they’re looking to work at Coursera, but if they’re looking to get into this industry. What advice would you give to an up and coming designer that wants to get a job in design?

Fonz Morris:
I love that question. That’s one of my favorite questions that I have actually spent days, hours, months trying to figure out what’s the best answer to that. And I recently spoke at AfroTech and I’m really happy to be able to have come up with the best answer to that question right before I did my talk. And my answer is I think you should take a second and think about all the different products that you interact with, and what’s your favorite, and then figure out would you want to work at that company. And if you want to work at that company then you should go to that company’s career page and you should look at all the positions that they have available.

Fonz Morris:
And if any of those positions jump out to you, you should go into it, you should read the job description and then you should read those requirements. And those requirements are pretty much your checklist of the skills and things you need to learn to be able to one day get that job. So I think that’s a no cost, really valuable step that a lot of people don’t do but could do and should do to really learn the details of what it would take to possibly land your dream job. Because why I say this also is think about it, somebody who has not developed any of their skills yet why just blindly develop skills or go after skills that you heard somebody else say?

Fonz Morris:
When you can think about where you want to be in your life, what company you think makes you happy. Or if you want to build your own product, think about a company that built something like that and then still go to their careers page because you still need that same information. You need a starting point and I think that’s something that I’ve learned from a lot of people that might be transitioning careers, or trying to reskill. They need a starting point and a job description is a really good starting point.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s some really good advice. I like the fact that you saying take that as the things that you have to do, the checklist to get that particular job. And I would even say especially if you still want to work for that company, even if that particular position may not be what you think it is, it can at least hopefully get your foot in the door there. There might be something else that you end up doing, the company might see what else you bring to the table they might make a position for you. I mean it’s a rarity sometimes, especially depending on how established the company is but especially in startups like tech startups? Absolutely. Like the job that you get, is not necessarily the job that you will keep if that makes any sense.

Fonz Morris:
Yes, that makes a ton of sense. But when you think of it, how many people visit a company’s career page? You don’t have to only visit that page when you’re looking for a job, they’re learning sources. They’re a knowledge base of this is what this company is asking somebody to do this position should know. And it’s literally like your syllabus almost, it’s like your career syllabus and that’s what I want my two cents to be to everybody. Is visit all of the job boards of all the companies you like and start taking notes and look and see if there’s any redundancy in some of the skills that they’re asking. Because then those are the ones you really know you should learn as opposed to just like I said, blindly trying to follow after somebody else and pull in skills that you think might be the hottest trends because those might not be the hottest translator.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative) that is very true. One weird thing that I’ve run into with interviewing and I don’t know if this is hubris or just like garden variety racism, but sometimes I will interview non black candidates and just the tone that they take with me, or the way that they will answer questions or not answer questions. Or ask if there’s someone else that they can speak to because they looked at my LinkedIn profile and they’re like we’ll. I’ll give you an example and this is not tied to my current employer if you happen to be listening, but I’ve certainly interviewed people before that have said, “Oh well I looked at your LinkedIn and like you’re not really a designer, so is there a designer that I can speak to?” This is back when I had my studio, which I thought was very interesting considering like I run the studio so if you’re talking to me like the buck stops here. Oh yeah.

Fonz Morris:
People want it to only be interviewed by designers?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and I guess, I mean I guess I’ll be transparent this has also happened at the place that I work. But it’s interesting how, I don’t know if this is like a new thing that happens in design, but like I don’t think people realize that just because you’re interviewing with one person that you’re also sort of suddenly being interviewed by an entire team. That person is trying to see if you fit not just in the company or in this role, this particular singular role, but do you fit with the team? Do we want to hand off work to you? Do we want to hand out projects to you? Do we like you at the end of the day? And if this is how you’re acting at the phone screen stage then you can forget it.

Fonz Morris:
Right, I understand what you’re saying. I don’t think that the… Okay, so I disagree with that. I think the first round should be anybody the company wants to be just getting a temperature check of where you are and who you are as a person. And being able to just what are you into? Why do you want to leave your job? Tell me about yourself. I don’t really think you need to be a specific profession to ask somebody those type of high level, let me get to know you type of questions. So I think the recruiter being the first person that you speak to makes sense because I need to vet as well as all the people coming through the door.

Fonz Morris:
I’ll let you speak to our designers and stuff like that in the second round where we’re going to get a little more technical, but for the first go, because it’s so introductory I don’t necessarily. I never felt as if the first person I spoke to needed to be a designer. I was just really honestly to be candid, I’m just always happy to even make it to the phone screen. So I’m not focusing on who I’m talking to, I’m more happy that I’m talking to somebody.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Okay. I can see it in that viewpoint. I still think though it just helps to not be a jerk essentially.

Fonz Morris:
Yeah. No, no always. I am always about respect and professionalism. I think that is so important I can’t even think of the… Enormously important. You should never be a jerk to anybody if you’re trying to get something from them, that’s just common sense. So if you’re trying to get a job and I’m your first access point to the company and you’re not being nice to me, I’m not sure how far you’re going to make it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true. And I’ve definitely run into that several times, but I guess in terms of-

Fonz Morris:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. In terms of other advice, I can’t stress enough the importance of having a really good portfolio. I looked at your website, I see you have your portfolio and I mean it’s great because it lists not only the things that you’ve done, but also the thought process behind it. I know that I’ve talked to designers, young designers they’re like just starting out or just coming out of school. And I’m like, it’s so important for you to actually talk about your design decisions and not just show a bunch of mock-ups or a bunch of pretty pictures like that. Anyone can generate that, you can buy a mock-up thing from I don’t know, mighty deals or somewhere for like 14 bucks.

Maurice Cherry:
Slap in a few logos all of a sudden look at all this work that I did that’s on billboards and folders I’m like no, it’s not. It doesn’t really exist in the real world. But like to talk about the why behind why you’re doing certain things. Those shots might look pretty, but the critical thinking I think is more important as a designer. I mean, that’s why I think if you’re a visual or if you’re something like product or UX. It’s just still important to be able to articulate that in some way.

Fonz Morris:
Right. So tell the story. That’s another piece of information that I would want to say is people want to hear a story. So when you only show the final design, you jumped to the last page of the story. So I don’t know what the story about, you just jumped to the end. You know what I mean? So it’s like, I don’t know what story you just told me and it doesn’t really show me how you got to that final design. And that’s why some feedback, I actually just did a mentor session yesterday at Adobe with a organization out of San Francisco.

Fonz Morris:
At Adobe with organization out of San Francisco named Kaskade SF. And it was fantastic because I got to actually interview about five junior designers and walk through their portfolio and give them feedback. And that was what I was focusing on the most was, “Are you telling me a story to get me from the top of the pace to the bottom of the page?” That’s what’s so important. And you do that through breaking it up with letting me know what the problem is and letting me know that you understand the industry that you’re in. And then walking me through how you think about this could possibly be solved and do you understand the user and understand what the user wants from this. And then that helps you figure out what your information and your content should be. And then it goes into information architecture. So it’s a whole flow that you can end up telling somebody that would really help them understand why you made the decisions you made. And that’s what people are really trying to get from your portfolio.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely.

Fonz Morris:
Yes, they’re trying to [crosstalk 00:25:06] about me page and read a little bit about you. But from your skill side, they’re trying to figure out how you handle this problem, what you did in the process and how you did it.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. So speaking of the story, we have you on here to talk about your story. So tell me about where you grew up.

Fonz Morris:
So I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I went to a public art high school. I’m a self taught designer, which I like to say that, not to brag, but more of as an inspiration for anyone to know that once again, like I said earlier, if you work hard at something I’m a true believer in you can achieve anything that you put your mind to. So I wanted to be architect when I was young and I taught myself architecture and went to a art high school. From art high school I went into computer science at Georgia State. Well, I started at Morehouse actually getting my degree in computer science. And then I transferred from Morehouse to Georgia State and that’s where I actually finished my degree in computer science.

Fonz Morris:
And I taught myself… In my senior year of college, Georgia State got a grant from the state of university from… Georgia State got a grant from the state to build a multimedia lab on campus and they completely furnished it with all new multimedia equipment, Mac equipment, PC, Adobe, Macromedia Pro Tools, Final Cut, new Canon equipment. They completely furnished it with all new things for us to use as students. And I pretty much just moved into the lab and I taught myself everything that I could possibly know there. And it was a great experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s step back a little bit. So self-taught designer also here, same way. Was your family supportive of you going into design or architecture? Did they see this as something that you could do for a living?

Fonz Morris:
I don’t think I spoke to them enough about it. I was always a academic type of student, so as long as I stayed in my books, my parents were supportive of anything that I was doing. I actually had a friend whose father was a black architect and then I tried to get an internship with another black architect and I took some courses at Parsons School of Design when I was in high school. And this energy showed my parents that I was really interested in architecture. So I did have support for them. But I will say, I don’t know if they knew to the extent or to the degree that I wanted to pursue design or pursue architecture at that moment. I tried to show them the best I could through the work I did at school and through my passion for looking at buildings and constantly reading architectural books and architecture magazines. So I would say that they supported me to the best that they knew how.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What drew you to architecture?

Fonz Morris:
I just feel I’m a… Because I like design at the end of the day. And growing up in New York City, you’re around a lot of skyscrapers and that’s where some of the most famous architects have planted their seeds and you’re walking up and down Fifth Avenue or when you’re walking in Soho or in Brooklyn and you see all these amazing art deco style buildings and these modern buildings from with all these different heights and windows. And then you see you got the Brooklyn Bridge and you got the Manhattan Bridge and you got the George Washington Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge. It’s so many different bridges that you’re seeing and these are all amazing examples of architecture. So I would think growing up in New York City is what exposed me to architecture. And being in the city is where they made me say, “I want to design one of these buildings one day.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now I also went to Morehouse, so I have to ask about it. What was it like when you got there? What was it like when you first got there?

Fonz Morris:
It was an amazing experience. Being a black man, wanting to connect with other black men in a higher education space. It was really self rewarding and I was very proud and accomplished. I also wanted to attend the HBCU as well. My sister went to North Carolina A&T, so it was almost as if I felt as if I had made it to a certain level, education-wise, because I had made it into Morehouse, which in my community was respected as a very prestigious school for black men. So I loved the experience. I ended up transferring though in all honesty because one, I paid for college out of my pocket and Morehouse being a private college…

Maurice Cherry:
Is very expensive.

Fonz Morris:
… The tuition is way higher than the State University as well as they don’t offer in state tuition. And then sadly, which this has a trickle down effect. The resources that I needed to be successful just wasn’t available at Morehouse while I was attending. But I don’t think that’s a shot at Morehouse. I think it’s an eye opener to understanding the value of getting funding and what you can do with the right money.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
Because Georgia State the other hand had all of the new equipment, all of the new computer labs, all of the things I needed to pursue my computer science degree successfully, Georgia State was able to give me. So that’s why I left Morehouse. From a cultural or from a personal feeling, I really loved going to Morehouse. It really made me proud going to campus every day and seeing so many other brothers trying to better their lives and their family lives to getting a higher education. But when it came to the resources, the State University just had an abundance of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And at Georgia State, geographically, you weren’t that far from Morehouse anyway.

Fonz Morris:
No, [crosstalk 00:07:07].

Maurice Cherry:
It’s you could take the 13 down to Fair Street and you’re right there on campus.

Fonz Morris:
Yeah. I can take Ralph David Abernathy right across would be there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
No doubt. So yes, yes. And Atlanta is still a very black focused city.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Fonz Morris:
So when I left to go to Georgia State, I didn’t have any regrets. I felt as if I was just doing what was the best for me at that moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
But I love Morehouse. I love Morehouse, I think it’s very important institution in our community.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so interesting you mentioned that about the resources. So you got there in ’97 I think you said? You got there in ’97 I got there in ’99. I also started out in computer science.

Fonz Morris:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
I started out, actually dual degree computer science, computer engineering because the scholarship that I had, we had to major in one of the STEM fields.

Fonz Morris:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
And I wanted to do computer science mainly because I wanted to do web design. I had been learning web design on my own, just reverse engineering webpages at my mom’s school’s computer lab and teaching myself HTML because… I’m from a small town, Selma, Alabama. We didn’t have a bookstore. The library had one computer that could get on the internet.

Fonz Morris:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
So we didn’t have a whole lot of resources around learning this stuff. At the college they had more resources, but I was teaching a lot of that stuff myself and so when I went to… And also I would say I wanted to major in computer science because I want to be Dwayne Wayne from A Different World.

Fonz Morris:
Nice. Listen, in all transparency. Part of the reason I wanted to go to a black college as well was because A Different World, like you just said, as well as TLC dropped the Baby Baby Baby video. It was like…

Maurice Cherry:
Man.

Fonz Morris:
… “Is that what college is like? Are you kidding me?” I’m not missing out on that.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if there’s a think piece or something out there on The Root or The Undefeated or something about how hip hop and the 90s and how they glorified college. You don’t see that now. There was…

Fonz Morris:
[crosstalk 00:33:13] wearing college sweatshirts.

Maurice Cherry:
My God.

Fonz Morris:
[crosstalk 00:33:15] college, let’s be smart. You know what I mean? You don’t have none of that anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
None of that. Man. But I got to Morehouse’s campus. I started out computer science, computer engineering. Switched to, I think I switched to computer science maybe after the first few weeks or so because I didn’t really want to do the engineering part. But I wanted to do web design and I remember, I was sitting, these names will take you back. I was sitting in Dr. Jones’ class and… Did you take a class with Dr. Jones?

Fonz Morris:
Which class is that?

Maurice Cherry:
I think I might’ve been computer programming one, I think? One of the intro classes.

Fonz Morris:
Man, listen, don’t make me show how old I am. I would have to go through my transcripts and look for any of my names and my professors.

Maurice Cherry:
But I remember, the thing that I didn’t like about Dr. Jones, and he’s passed on, rest in peace, but the thing about Dr. Jones was he wouldn’t teach. He would sit in class and tell all his anecdotes about his fishing buddies and growing up and all this sort of stuff. And we’re just sitting here, “When is the class going to start?” And I don’t know if this was a way to weed people out, but then when you are ready to go to the next class, then he would start teaching. It’s like, “I guess we got rid of all the stragglers now we can start learning something.”

Maurice Cherry:
But Dr. Jones was also my advisor and so I remember going to… You remember the secretary Mrs. Banks? Man. I don’t know if she’s still there or not, but man she was my best friend at Morehouse all four years I was there. Because I ended up switching my major to math largely because…

Fonz Morris:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I switched my major to math because I was… I met with Dr. Jones and I told him I wanted to go into doing web design and I showed them some design stuff I had did. I did the design for the Project Space Scholarship Program and I was like “Look at all this stuff I’ve done.” And he was like, “Look, the internet is a fad. All this WW web stuff, this stuff ain’t going to be around. That’s not what we teach you here. If that’s what you want to do, you need to change your major.” So I was like “Well, shit I guess…”

Fonz Morris:
See, that’s the problem is that computer science programs should have picked up web development years ago.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But this was 1999 though. I don’t know that many colleges that would have had a curriculum. So, which is not to say that he was wrong [crosstalk 00:35:37] don’t get me wrong, but they didn’t have anything.

Fonz Morris:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
He was really like “If this is what you want to do, you need to major in something else.” And I thought about it and looked at my transcript and my credits and stuff and so I switched over to math because I had enough credits from taking AP math courses in high school and say “Well if I switch over to math I can just graduate early.” For me I was thinking “How soon can I get out of here?”

Fonz Morris:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Because I was figuring like… And also my freshman year was rough. That’s a whole other story. But I was really thinking like “How soon can I get out of here and get my degree?”

Fonz Morris:
Right [crosstalk 00:36:14].

Maurice Cherry:
And I switched over to math and just stayed in math and I graduated in three and a half years. So I technically graduated in ’02 but I walked in ’03. But yeah, even then there was nothing. I remember the computer lab there being so… And not to rag on Morehouse because now it’s gotten better, now they have a whole technology tower. I think Dr. Chung was still teaching back then, but now he’s the chair. He’s the chair now.

Fonz Morris:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
But I remember they just had these old archaic Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics workstations.

Fonz Morris:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “What in the hell is this? How am I supposed to use this? I have to use Linux?”

Fonz Morris:
Its tough. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
It was rough. It was really rough back then and I was like, “Man, maybe it was a good thing I did change my major.” Although, to be clear…

Fonz Morris:
But that’s why HBCUs need to be able to get the funding from the government to be able to pay for these things. You know what I mean? A lot of the HBCUs pay for this stuff with their own money and that stuff’s expensive.

Maurice Cherry:
Although to be clear, when I switched over to math it wasn’t I was going into a technological workplace either. They had these… I almost felt as sometimes I was sitting in a one room school house, just really bad quality desks. Blackboard broken.

Fonz Morris:
HBCUs need funding.

Maurice Cherry:
Then again this is… Yeah but this is ’99 to 2000. And I would imagine it’s different now. Honestly part of me didn’t know any better because I’m like “I came from Alabama. So we use chalkboards and overhead projectors because that’s what we use in high school.” So when we’re doing that in college I was like “This is what you’re supposed to do.” And then I knew people that were going to Georgia State and Georgia Tech using these smart whiteboards and stuff. I was like “What? I’m out here sketching out comic solids with a piece of chalk and y’all are just keying in an equation and getting the graph? What?”

Fonz Morris:
Man.

Maurice Cherry:
My God. Yeah. Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
Very funny. I agree with you and I understand what you’re saying and they’ve made a lot of progress since those days, which is good to see. I was down there about two years ago and when I walked on campus I could see the growth. It felt good.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’ve definitely grown a lot. Now I would say they still… I don’t know. Morehouse has its, and not to rag on Morehouse, but Morehouse has other issues outside of funding and just curriculum and software and hardware and things like that. But it has grown a lot. I will give it that much. The performing arts center and all of new equipment…

Fonz Morris:
Yes, The Ray Charles Performing Art…

Maurice Cherry:
… And things, a revamped cafeteria and everything. Movies are shot on campus now. A good part of Hidden Figures was shot on Morehouse’s campus.

Fonz Morris:
Tyler Perry is changing Atlanta man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
He’s bringing that film, they’re heavy, which is good because there’s a lot of money in that space.

Maurice Cherry:
Yep.

Fonz Morris:
Atlanta. I miss Atlanta sometimes. I honestly do.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey it’s always here. Always here if you want to come back.

Fonz Morris:
The [crosstalk 00:39:15] not going anywhere.

Maurice Cherry:
Nowhere. So you transferred to Georgia State and you’re talking about how it was different from Morehouse. Once you graduated from there, what was your first design gig? What were you working on?

Fonz Morris:
I started doing flyers for people and doing business cards and doing logos for anybody that needed it, no industry specific. And then I started to get better at that and that’s when I got my first project ever was… Well my first ever paying gig was a website for a furniture company, a small indie furniture company. And I think they paid me, I think the whole deal that my partner worked out with ended up being I think either 35 or 5,500 for a full website. And I just could not believe it when he came back with a 50% deposit.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Fonz Morris:
And I said to myself, “Are you kidding me man? They actually gave you that money?” And that’s what led me know that there was a lane for me. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that where Third Eye Designs cam out of?

Fonz Morris:
Pretty much. I’ve always been a believer in having your third eye open and then designs and that just felt the best name of a company possible to me was Third Eye Designs. And so that furniture company was Third Eye Designs first paying client.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. How long were you freelancing like that?

Fonz Morris:
I still do it to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Fonz Morris:
They almost… Because it grew from freelancing into, now that I’m later in my career, it’s just consulting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
But I don’t call it Third Eye Designs anymore. But the process or the concept of doing freelance design work, I still do it to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Fonz Morris:
But I’ll always be able to do that. Which that’s the thing, which ,message, this is why you always want to learn a skill because they can never take that skill away from me. So because I’m a designer, they can never take that away from me. I can always make money doing design, whether it’s at a company or whether it’s freelance or whether it’s trying to build my own product. So that’s the value of having a relevant skill.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely. So how long was it until you moved back to New York City?

Fonz Morris:
After I was doing Third Eye Designs, I realized maybe I could get a job in the industry and that’s when I got my first art director position at a money transfer company that was a small, tiny version of a Western Union and I did that for almost two years. And that’s where I really got my first bearings and understanding what it’s like to work with engineers who are going to be building your stuff and this is what a web developer is versus a web designer and really understanding the programming languages like that. And then I actually had a tragedy in my family. A little brother actually ended up getting killed in New York.

Maurice Cherry:
Man.

Fonz Morris:
And that’s what I decided to just leave Atlanta. It was just a whole life changing experience for me and I just felt I needed to be back around my family. And so I left Atlanta to go back to New York. And when I got to New York is when I got my first agency job where I was working on a lot of different marketing style materials. Banners, flash banner web banners, landing pages for entertainment companies, movies. And New York is a good place for design. So it was an easy place for me to get a job once I left Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:
Now was this at My Artist’s DNA?

Fonz Morris:
No, this is not even… Portfolio, well not portfolios, but resumes are so hard to decide what to put and what not put. My Artist’s DNA was pretty much what Third Eye Designs… It was Third Eye Designs first product.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I gotcha.

Fonz Morris:
So I’ll keep going with this and it’ll start to make a lot more sense. So once I went back to New York and I started working in the agency space, I kept the Third Eye Designs idea going with the same partner and we started to do even bigger projects for even more people. We worked with Def Jam and we did Kanye West banners and we worked with Def Jam and we did Jagged Edge stuff and Rick Ross and we worked with Universal Music and we did movie releases. And we just realized, “Wow, we’re getting good at this. We’re actually getting real clients.” And then another partner of ours from Morehouse joined on board. He opened up his network and then we was doing work with real estate companies and all these other different new businesses. And what ended up happening is one of our clients that we had did a lot of work for, Aqua hired us. Actually the… It’s an amazing story.

Fonz Morris:
Our first angel investors were a family out of Pennsylvania, the Lomax family, the honorable Dr. Walter Lomax. He was actually Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s physician, his real physician. And that’s the craziest part, he’s a legend…

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Fonz Morris:
… That most black people don’t know. But his family were really focused on investing in a lot of black startups and black businesses all across the country and across the world actually. So they put up the money for me to build My Artist’s DNA. And that was my first product, which was supposed to be a way for indie artists to promote and monetize their brands. It came out around the time Myspace stopped and Facebook pages had just launched.

Maurice Cherry:
Man. So you go from attending Morehouse where Martin Luther King went to now getting supported by the family of his doctor?

Fonz Morris:
Greatest experience ever.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Fonz Morris:
Most people don’t even know of the Lomax family. They are amazing, amazing people. They have done so much. They’ve been behind the scenes for so many different things that people don’t know. And I just am very fortunate enough to have worked with them and they put up real angel money for us to build our first product. I will forever be thankful for them, forever appreciative. And it’s what really allowed me to get my product design career started. Because prior to this I was doing web design and graphic design, but once we started doing My Artist’s DNA, that was my first step into actual product design.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So you also worked for a gaming company, is that right? High 5 Games?

Fonz Morris:
Yes. So the startup, My Artist’s DNA, we did that for about five years, but then we ultimately ran out of funding and I was engaged and knew I needed to get a job again. And then I was in Philadelphia at that moment and I thought to myself, “Well, I’m going to do something fun. I want to do something I haven’t tried before.” And High 5 Games was a video game company that built casino games for Facebook as well as in house casinos. So I was the art director there and I worked on the marketing team, which allowed me to try to help promote our new games that were coming out and I our new campaigns and come and go. So it was actually my first attempt at working on a growth team because my whole job was to try to create these amazing visuals to keep people wanting to play our games.

Maurice Cherry:
And so you’re in New York, you’re working at High 5 Games as art director doing UX stuff. When did you decide to move to Philly? What brought that on?

Fonz Morris:
So my first move to Philly was when we got the angel investment, because the Lomax family was based out of Pennsylvania.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Fonz Morris:
So we needed to be in Philly to be able to get back and forth to the office because they were our investors and we needed to go into the office to be able to talk and help strategize and plan things out. So that was my first stay in Philly. Once that didn’t happen and I moved back to New York, was High 5 Games, and then I left High 5 Games and went to Philly a second time to work at Comcast, which is extended use cable.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha.

Fonz Morris:
That was my second stay in Philly.

Maurice Cherry:
What was it like working there?

Fonz Morris:
I like Philadelphia.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Philly’s a great city. I went for the first time in… What year was that? 2017 I think? No, not 2017, 2018 I think was the first time I went. Great city. Great city, great food scene. I love Philly. A lot of people was telling me when I went to Philly, “Philly’s rough.” I was like, “Philly?” I had a great time in Philly. I enjoy Philly.

Fonz Morris:
Philly is rough. Philly is rough, I will be honest. But…

Fonz Morris:
Is rough [inaudible 00:48:01] but that’s if you go to the wrong place. I think [inaudible 00:48:07] is rough if you go to the wrong places. So what’s critical about Philly is its proximity to New York and its proximity to DC. It’s like a middle point between two major cities, so depending on if you’re in government in DC or if you’re in banking or real estate or finance in New York, you can even live in Philadelphia and commute to New York as often as you need. That’s what I was doing.

Maurice Cherry:
What was it like working at Comcast?

Fonz Morris:
It was interesting. It was interesting. Why do I say that is because I was a contractor and when you’re a contractor at these big companies, you get treated a little different. I mean you still go to work every day, but certain company meetings you don’t get to go to. They had a gym in the building that I couldn’t use because I was a contractor and you always have this kind of stigma over your head of you’re a second class citizen because you’re a contractor. When you can put that aside, which is not that easy, working there was cool because it was the hottest company in the city. I could walk to work. The building and the work environment was amazing. My coworkers were cool. I’ve actually worked on a lot of high profile stuff. I’ve got to work on the Netflix release, I’ve got to work on the Olympic stuff, I’ve got to work on that new X1 remote.

Fonz Morris:
I got to work on a lot of projects and different products and I learned a lot. I learned a lot about design systems and I learned a lot about the difference between art directors and creative directors and working with sales teams. It was a really important learning process for me and I learned a lot about things not only design related but just basic work environment related. That’s what made me realize I never wanted to be per se a contractor again at a company. That stability is not really there and I realized I needed to hone in on my skills and if I wasn’t going to do entrepreneurship, I needed to get a full time position somewhere because the contracting stuff just gets in the way sometimes. So that kind of clouded my experience at Xfinity a little bit in all transparency.

Maurice Cherry:
I worked at AT&T from 2006 to 2008 also as a contractor and yeah, I know what you mean about that second class citizen kind of status. Aside from the fact that they will just treat you in that way, there’s also the fact that … and I don’t know if it was like this at Comcast, but at AT&T they kept changing the goalposts when it came to what they measured you for success by. So the employees were I guess kind of set because they had a salary and so whatever happened happened, but contractors were held to this really super rigid, almost like a Glen Gary, Glen Ross, kind of standard of you have to make this many points a week and if you don’t make this many points a week, you’re fired. They would be quick to tell you that they will get someone else in to fill your spot like that. Like they don’t care.

Fonz Morris:
Also randomly, if you’re a contractor and you’re already feeling some kind of way, being the only black man on the design team doesn’t really help either, you know what I mean? There were certain times where I just had to really ask myself, “Is this the right place for me?” And did I really see myself having upward mobility in that company? Lucky enough, the same guys that I did my first company, myArtistDNA with, they raised another round of money and that’s when I left Comcast to join their team as head of design at my channel, which is a startup that was focusing on video telecommunications.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How long were you at my channel?

Fonz Morris:
For about two years. About two years. I started doing a little bit of part time work while I was still at Comcast and then we were making so much progress and the vibe and the energy was good. We were doing well. I just decided to leave and go full time at my channel. That was my second stent at entrepreneurship. Well my third one, honestly

Maurice Cherry:
So while you were at my channel, right after that was when you decided you wanted to move out West and pursue your career there.

Fonz Morris:
Yeah, there you go. So here we go. Full circle now and all this rambling I did makes sense. We’re right back to where it all makes sense of how I got here now. But you know what? What I want to honestly say is, and for anyone that’s listening to this, live your own path, you never know what’s going to work. Try different things out, make the best decisions you can. We’re all human. You’re going to learn so much from every step of the road. Don’t try to be too perfect because part of life is just figuring things out and I’m really happy with the path that I took in my life. I don’t regret any of it and I’m happy. It led me to where I am now and there was many points in my career that I didn’t see getting this far in design for whatever was going on at that moment, but also to tie back into some stuff I said earlier, that’s why you have to be patient with yourself and you have to have self confidence and you have to believe in yourself because you can achieve anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You mentioned speaking at AfroTech last year and AfroTech is a huge event. It’s all about diversity in the tech community. I would say it also ostensibly shifts over into diversity of the design community because design and tech tend to be pretty linked I would say with the tools that people use and things. How do we increase diversity in the design community?

Fonz Morris:
I think you have to find all the people that’s interested in it and you have to introduce it to people who may not have thought about it. Awareness is critical. That’s a really good first step. So let me say awareness, final answer.

Maurice Cherry:
And by awareness do you mean just awareness that we are here or just awareness that-

Fonz Morris:
That there’s a actual profession. That there’s a actual profession that you can go into that’s not necessarily just called design, but that there is a position title, UX designer, UI designer, writer, UX researcher, product manager, product designer. I don’t think a lot of people understand the granular levels of careers in tech. You just understand the overarching umbrella of tech and then you may go to the overarching umbrella of design.

Fonz Morris:
But when I speak of awareness, I want to let a population of people who may not be familiar with this understand all the different disciplines that you can pursue. By doing that you allow people to find what’s interesting to them as well as what they’re passionate about. Then by doing that, that’s how you help somebody make their first step into deciding, “I actually do want to get into design and I want to be X position.” But if you don’t know that there’s a such thing as a data scientist or as a product designer or as a UI or interaction designer, how are you really going to achieve to want to become one of them?

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, having that exposure is important too. To know that this is a potential thing. Sort of like what you said with the granularity. I mean when you and I started out, you were a web designer, you were a graphic designer, you were a webmaster. That’s pretty much it. And as technology and design have certainly evolved over the years, now you can get so, so specific with the type of design that you do.

Maurice Cherry:
I do think that makes it harder when you’re just coming into it, because there are these … and I don’t know if you see this too, but like I feel like if you want to get into the design industry, there certainly are paths that you can take that feel like they’re a little more … I don’t want to say reliable than others, but say someone will go to … they say, “You know what? I want to get into design.” So they hear about General Assembly, they go to General Assembly, they take the UX intensive course and I think it’s 10 or 12 weeks or something like that. They get out, they get placed at a place. Now their UX designer, they hate UX [crosstalk 00:56:37] but they went through it because they felt like that was a way to get in, you know?

Fonz Morris:
Right. See that’s where I’m saying they skip that first step of what I said almost 45 minutes ago of figuring out what part of this do you actually like? Don’t be so caught up in the UX part, be caught up more in … I liked the way Apple products look. I really like the brand style of that, so that’s not UX. So you go into UX, I don’t mean that’s what you’re going to do. Really take the time to focus on what you want to do.

Fonz Morris:
I think that’s where you’ll decide do you want to really go into a UX program from General Assembly? That might not be the best step for you, but if you don’t really know what you want to do, I think that’s where you end up starting to make the decisions that you think might work for you as opposed to what really would work for you. I do agree with you as well that the exposure could bring some layer of complexity, but I also think that it will ultimately lead to a layer of clarity.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I like that because oftentimes, just knowing that these positions exist is one thing. I think sometimes, to be honest with you, some folks get caught up in the salary. They’ll see that this place is paying this much and they’re like, “Oh, I got to get into tech. Oh I got to get into design.” And yeah, there is money if you go with the right company and the right position, but it’s got to be something that speaks to you, something that speaks to your unique skills and talents and what you like. It shouldn’t just be about chasing a salary. Because if anything, I think we both know … I wont say designers are a dime a dozen, but you can be replaced in some way. It’s not so much about just trying to make sure you get a paycheck at the end of the day.

Fonz Morris:
Right. I mean I agree with you. I agree with you on that. I mean money is definitely important for sure. But there’s a lot of people that make a lot of money that are not really happy. So if your happiness is important, then money can’t be the dominant deciding factor because that means you’ll take the money to work at a company for a position that you’re not really happy in. I think that ends up having a lot of negative consequences. I would tell anybody, male or female, to fight for the most money you can get, but also understand that there’s other things that matter when you’re looking for a career than just the money.

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

Fonz Morris:
I have a family to take care of and my family is really supportive and inspired by me and proud of me and I’m proud of myself. My growth over my career keeps me motivated. The love and support from my community. Shout out to you honestly, I just hit you up on Twitter and LinkedIn and asked you, ” how do I figure out how to participate in your show one day?” And you responded to my tweet in honestly less than an hour. You responded to my LinkedIn message in less than 30 minutes so that type of interaction, but that kind of interaction and support, that’s what keeps me motivated because that means people respect me and that respect goes a long way.

Fonz Morris:
That respect is what makes you feel good. That respect is what will also cheer you up maybe when you’re having a bad day. So the respect from my community I would say is what keeps me really motivated. When I say community, I’m using that as a broad term. I’m not just using that as the black community or my family. I’m using it as the design community, the tech community, the Bay area community, my community back in Brooklyn. So my community motivates me, honestly.

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

Fonz Morris:
Well, what I’ve been doing that’s been in my last couple of months on, and then I want to thank you as well is more public speaking. A lot of people have told me that they think I could possibly have a lane in speaking. They think I have a motivational style and an inspirational style and I can explain things that could possibly be complicated in a more laymans type of way. And there’s a lot of value in that.

Fonz Morris:
I also really liked supporting people and I think speaking allows you to do all that. I would like to do more speaking, shout out to AfroTech. They’re the ones that really gave me my first, first shot at speaking on such a big platform like that. I had been doing smaller events here and there, but the success of AfroTech is what led me know that I would like to continue doing speaking as well as, I think I want to start some kind of online school to help with training the community to gain the skills that they need to decrease this digital divide gap that I see every day, that I work and participate in design.

Maurice Cherry:
One of the themes that we have for this year, that I’m trying to carry this throughout 2020, is basically how are we as black designers and developers, technologists, et cetera, how are we using the skills that we have to build a more equitable future? Because I mean the future technically is now I think 2020 … shout out to ABC … 2020 has been a year that has been in the collective consciousness for over 20 years. [inaudible 01:02:18] show was on ABC, so people have always had a notion of 2020 being like the future. Now that we’re here and you look at your life, you look at your career, you look at the skills that you have, how are you helping to build a more equitable future?

Fonz Morris:
I think by supporting other people to become a designer and blazing trails and making sure that I’m a face of diversity in design. I think there’s a lot of unique trailblazers and I’m not saying I’m the only trailblazer, but you need trailblazers to be able to bring awareness to situations and that’s what I’m doing every day. That’s what I put 125% into doing that. I also understand and think the value in supporting my community, mentoring, talking to people, going to portfolio interviews. Having one on one calls with people who may reach out to me that have questions about UX and UI. They don’t know anybody in product design that they can show their portfolio to or just ask a question. I think being that resource for people is really how I can give back the most.

Fonz Morris:
Yes, I can give back through my designs and I make sure to try to bring diversity to my designs and I’m really proud of that and I love being at Coursera because I can do that and I’ve seen that. I’ve seen my power of being able to use people of color on the homepage of Coursera and that’s a big step for us. That’s something that I spoke about in my talk at AfroTech. I think those are the ways that I’m able to actually give back and help.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s funny you mentioned that, that reminds me of Diógenes Brito who we had on the show. This was years ago, but he was talking about how he changed the default slack hand to a brown hand and how even just that simple gesture was something that made shockwaves. Just the fact that you see the default hand is not a white hand, it’s a black hand or a brown hand. What does that mean? You know? It’s funny, even those little small, or what can seem like small gestures can have a really huge impact like that.

Fonz Morris:
Huge. They’re huge. I’ll tell one quick story. When we redid our promo unit platform that I spoke about working on, I was able to sit with some of the designers. They show the flexibility of the new system. One of the days that I logged on coursera.org I saw a brother in one of the new promo units that we just did. And I saw a sister in another promo unit that we did. Then when you looked at another place, there was another person of color on the site and it just really showed diversity and it was a good first step for Coursera and it was an amazing step for me. I don’t think you really should look at it as was it a big or small step, it’s a step that is necessary. Shout out to the brother who did the slack hand because that is amazing and shout out to everybody who is making a difference in whatever way that they can because we need everybody to do everything that they can.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s 2025, what is Fonz working on?

Fonz Morris:
I think I have become a household name in design as far as a representative from the black community. I think I will have at least my prototype first version of some type of training platform off the ground to be able to help mentor and teach and educate future designers or current designers or people who want to upskill or re-skill. I think I’ll always still be designing as well. I may have finally launched the app. I’m thinking about doing some kind of an app that just allows people to have a place to talk and maybe vent and get support. So you’ll see me probably doing something entrepreneurship wise as well as still being a powerhouse in the design industry somewhere, leading some kind of team to victory.

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

Fonz Morris:
I’m very active on Twitter. You can find me at Youngfonz, Y-O-U-N-G-F-O-N-Z. You can find me on Instagram at Fonzmoney, F-O-N-Z-M-O-N-E-Y. You can also find me on LinkedIn at Fonz Morris. I’m not the biggest social media user for gossip, but I am the biggest social media user for networking and print promotion. You can find me on all three of those social media platforms as well as if you just want to see some of the work that I do. You can go to my portfolio which is Fonz, F-O-N-Z.design and you can email me. However you want to try to find me, you can reach out, I’m online. Trust me, you type Fonz Morris in the Google search bar, you’ll see me. Hit me up.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Well Fonz Morris, I want to thank you so much, so much for coming on the show.

Fonz Morris:
Me too.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean your energy, I mean for people that don’t know that I’m recording this, I’m recording this after my work day, so after eight hours. Your energy has me pumped now.

Fonz Morris:
Thank you. I hear such positive feedback from people like that and last night when I was doing the mentoring with the junior designers, I got some same feedback like that. So Maurice, that’s what I was saying, I think I have a lane in public speaking because my passion for design and my passion for my community and my love for just humanity allows me to be able to share that and bring that energy to the table everyday.

Fonz Morris:
So thank you for sharing that with me because those are the type of pieces of feedback that’s really important to me. I’m no longer as focused on am I just a good visual designer? I’m focused on that. And am I a good guy? Am I interesting? Am I exciting? Am I still bringing a lot of energy to the table? So I’m glad that you were able to receive that from me because I wanted to bring that because I feel really honored and excited to be a part of your podcast. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you sir. I really appreciate it.


RECOGNIZE is open for essay submissions for Volume 2! The deadline is April 30 – enter today!

MODA and Revision Path present Creative Atlanta 2020, an interview series highlighting Black creatives in Atlanta ranging from an award-winning cellist to a Harvard GSD Loeb Fellow.

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