Chris Burnett

I think my conversation with this week’s guest — artist, musician, and designer Chris Burnett — is probably the most chill interview I’ve done this year. Don’t be fooled though — Chris is a creative dynamo, and someone you should definitely keep your eyes out for in the future.

We start off with a quick talk about the creative scene in Los Angeles, and from there he talks about being an artist at heart and how his current editorial design projects have been keeping him active. Chris also talked about growing up as a skate kid, attending Cal Arts, and scoring lucrative gigs including a stint with Nike, as well as designing for Odd Future. Chris calls himself a creative superhero, and if you trust your heart and spirit, so can you!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Chris Burnett:
Hi, my name is Chris Burnett. I’m an artist, designer, musician, pretty much all around creative soul. It’s hard to peg me down.

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

Chris Burnett:
This year and probably for most people, it’s been a very much transition year, buckling down on the things that I really want to be focusing on and being more selective with my time and my energy and my creative focus. So, it’s been good to narrow down the path of where I’m headed. It also coincides with me turning 30 in two weeks.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it’s the beginning of a new decade, a new chapter. So, things have been shifting, but in a good way.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. What would you say you’ve learned about yourself since last year?

Chris Burnett:
I’ve learned that I’m an artist at heart. That’s ultimately what I really want to do with my life and my creativity. I’ve been doing graphic design at this point for maybe eight years professionally. As much as I enjoy working with clients and collaborating on projects, there’s this burning desire in me to just be the artist that I want to be, have gallery shows, release albums, have more maybe design collaborations with companies and do things like that. So, yeah, things are in the works, things are in the works. It feels good to head towards the ultimate dream.

Maurice Cherry:
Is L.A. a good city for that kind of creative collaboration? I feel like it is.

Chris Burnett:
Well, yeah, I mean, L.A. is such an interesting creative scene, because you get people who come here from all over the world to pursue what they want to pursue. So, I’m constantly meeting people from all different walks of life, different types of creatives, whether that be musicians, other designers, other artists. So, it is pretty good for that. Although a lot of my work does come from people just reaching out to me by email and the collaboration happens more in a digital space, but I’m opening myself up more to relationships that I’m developing in the city. So, I have people that I can actually meet with in person and maybe visit their studios and see what they’re doing. So, yeah, if you wanted to find it in L.A., you could, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. We just had a fine artist on the show a few weeks ago in L.A. His name is Gabe Gault. I don’t know if that name sounds familiar.

Chris Burnett:
I haven’t heard of him.

Maurice Cherry:
He painted the world’s largest mural in Toledo, Ohio. I think it’s like an ongoing project, but he does a lot of fine art work. I don’t know if you’re familiar with football, but his dad is Willie Gault-

Chris Burnett:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… who played for the Rams. Don’t get me talking about sports. I don’t know that much, but I do know that. It’s funny because I interviewed him and he kept throwing out like, “Yeah, my dad does sports. He’s in NFL and won a few Super Bowls.” I was like, “Okay.” It didn’t click to me after the interview to be like, “Wait a minute, who is his dad? Oh, it makes sense, because they have the same last name.” Yeah, I can imagine that L.A. is a really great place for that creative collaboration. We’ve been seeing so much Black creativity come out of L.A., I think largely, due to Issa Rae and Kendrick Lamar and folks like that. We’ve seen a lot of what feels like specifically Black L.A. creativity.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I’m loving every bit of it. I was just watching Insecure yesterday. I think I caught up on the latest episode, but just to see that creativity coming out of the neighborhoods that I grew up in feels like finally we’re getting the recognition that is well-deserved.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, talk to me about Colibri Studios. That’s a studio that you began last year. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, I started Colibri Studios in the middle of last year. It was right when everything went into lockdown, actually, which seems like it would be the least opportune moment to do it, but there’s an interesting story to how I went about it. I was in New York. I was visiting a friend of mine, and I’ve been working on a necklace design. I found this charm that I really liked to go in the end of the necklace, and it had a hummingbird in it. It was the first time I was designing a chain and I was really excited about it.

Chris Burnett:
The hummingbird has special significance to me, because of the way that the animal moves throughout its life. It’s not really in your face. It’s secretive. But when you do see a hummingbird, it’s like this moment for you to be present with it and admire it. That’s how I feel about myself. I’m not really in the public eye per se. I’m not too show-offy. But when I do come around people, I make my presence felt. Honestly, I always see them, which is the weirdest thing. I’ll just be walking down the street and one will fly right in front of me. I’m like, “All right, there’s some weird connection here.” So yeah, I was designing this necklace.

Chris Burnett:
I get back from New York and the necklace is ready to be picked up. I get it and I’m so happy with the design that I thought, “That’s the logo. That’s the logo for the studio.” This was before I even really conceived of starting a studio. But once I had the necklace done, that was the moment where it was like, “Okay, this is a step in a new direction that you need to take.”

Chris Burnett:
It became more clear to me over time that I wanted to create a studio that really just was an umbrella for all of my creative endeavors, whether that be music, fine art, design. I found an office space in West Hollywood. I woke up one morning. It was on Craigslist, found the space. The first one I clicked on was the one that I’m actually in now. It all came together step by step. So, there wasn’t really a big plan that I was conscious of. It was more these little moments that led to the establishment of the studio. So, that’s what it is right now at this point.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you mentioned it being this umbrella. I went on your website. You’re doing art direction, you’re doing graphic design, you’re doing collage and mixed media work. Again, you mentioned music being part of that as well. What made you decide to do such a broad range of services, as opposed to just graphic design?

Chris Burnett:
Well, I’ve always had this desire to really just be into one thing, but that’s just not how my life works. There’s so many creative outlets, and I’ve never felt limited to stick to just one. So, anything that I pursue, I want to do it to the best of my ability. If I can provide those services for other people, whether that’s producing music for people or working on an ad campaign for someone or just creating my own artwork that will eventually show in a gallery, I just wanted it to feel like it was a part of one family. So, that’s why I wanted to include all these different artistic mediums in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about how you approach a new project. What does your process look like?

Chris Burnett:
Well, it really depends on the context of the project. So, if we can start with a typical design project, I’ll get an email from a random person. I’m always amazed by how people find me because I’m not on Instagram or social media. I’m hidden, right? So, I’ll just get an email out of the blue. Someone’s saying, “Hey, we think you might be great for this project we’re working on.” We move forward with a brief, which is them giving me a document of what they’re looking for and maybe the end deliverables and the goals that they want to hit. And then I get to work.

Chris Burnett:
The process of me actually getting to work is not really standardized in the sense that I don’t have a list of things that I do every time I start a project. It’s really based on feeling and it’s more intuitive, because it allows me to be a bit more spontaneous with the end product. If I had the same process every time, I feel like it might be too stale for me and I might come up with the same thing too much. So, I allow for space in between projects for me to just sit and think about new directions or think about things I want to explore and then try to align those new things with what a client might be asking. Typically, it works out.

Chris Burnett:
For the most part, a client will ask for what I’m already good at. They don’t really ask for things that are completely outside of my wheelhouse. That allows me to use the skills that I already have, but then push it in a little bit of a new direction. Sometimes that creates a back and forth where there’s notes and there’s feedback, of course. And then sometimes I hit it right on the head and people are happy with what I create first try. So, it really depends on the project that I’m being asked to work on.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I would also imagine, because like you said, you’re not on social media and folks have to go to your website and look through your work. By the time they’ve done that, hopefully, that’s a pretty good metric for you to see that this is someone that you would possibly want to work with. I’m pretty sure you have, but I don’t know. Have you ever gotten the client that has just been completely not a fit?

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, yeah, yes. It’s funny, because me and one of my designer buddies, we always have this joke that what we show on our website is typically the type of work that we want to receive, which is why we put it there. But there definitely will be times where someone will hit me up and just be like, “Hey, I need you to design just a simple logo.” It’s not that I can’t design a logo, but that’s not really where my skillset lies and my strengths are.

Chris Burnett:
So, I can do it, but then the process becomes a little muddied when it’s not something that I’m too passionate about. They’re maybe expecting the crazy, colorful collage type stuff, but it’s a logo. So, I can’t really do that for a logo. Yeah, there have been moments where it doesn’t work, but I’m learning which projects to say yes and no to now that I’ve been doing this for so long.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What are some of the projects that you’re working on now?

Chris Burnett:
So, a lot of the things that I’ve been doing now is a lot of editorial illustration, which I’ve found that that really suits my strengths really well. It’s mostly image making, which is my favorite thing in the world to do is just create a compelling image to look at. So, when you pair that with an article for, say, The New York Times or the Guardian, that’s where I get to really flex my abilities. Over the past year, I’d probably gotten the most editorial illustration work than I ever have.

Chris Burnett:
There’s also a lot of merch design, merchandise design for artists in the music industry. That’s always ongoing. There’s always artists who need things to sell on the road or sell on their website. I help with a lot of that stuff. Some of its like under wraps because people don’t want to release info about music projects that they might be doing. But yeah, most stuff in the music industry and editorial illustration, I’d say, are my two big ones.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there a specific type of client that you prefer to work with?

Chris Burnett:
I’m always open to new types of clients, people that I haven’t worked with before just to be able to stretch myself and see, “What industries can I adapt my creativity towards?” But I think I do love working in the music industry. It’s fun to work with artists that you admire. It’s fun to work with artists that you’re playing their music in your car when you’re driving around and you get to work on something that’s for their project. It’s fun to be a part of things like that. I love editorial. I don’t know what it is about it. It’s just the pairing of an image with an article is like a dream project. It’s like they’re little, tiny dream projects, because they’re really quick and the turnaround time is super-fast, usually within a week or a couple days.

Chris Burnett:
It’s typically within those industries like editorial that there’s a little more room for creative freedom, because they’re trying to see how you would interpret the article and how that article maybe is reflected in your style and your own sensibility. So, that’s why I like it a lot, because there’s not too many notes. There’s not too much canceling of ideas. It’s very open ended, which I love.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I don’t know why for some reason, I would imagine working with musicians might be temperamental, but I guess like you said, if it’s an artist that you really like, it probably makes it a bit of an easier match.

Chris Burnett:
Well, that’s a good point. I mean, they’re definitely artists I’ve worked with in the past who are artists. An artist comes in mind a lot. There’s a certain temperament like you said that goes along with it. But I think the reason that I enjoy it and the reason I think I’m able to do it is because I am also an artist, so I understand that sensibility. It allows me to be as flexible as I need to be when working with them. It also informs my own practice of how I go about my music or my art as well. So, it’s fun. It’s a double-edged sword for sure, but I do like it.

Maurice Cherry:
I just want to say to the audience, I don’t know if Chris is being a little humble now, but his music is really good. It’s really good.

Chris Burnett:
Thank you, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
With your permission, I’d like to link to your SoundCloud because I was doing research for the interview and I just put the music on. I was like, “This is good. This is good.” I was like, “I can hear this on Insecure. I can hear this on Insecure. It’s pretty good.”

Chris Burnett:
Oh, man. I would love for that to happen, but this is their final season. I’m so sad. Yeah, but thank you. I really appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I guess to that end, talking about Black art and things like that, we started to see over the past few years that with this influx in Black television shows and movies and stuff, we’re really starting to see a much wider range of artists, not just musical artists, but visual artists and stuff portrayed through these works. We had Gabe Gault who I mentioned before on the show, and he’s mentioned that his work has been in a television show. We had Dawn Okoro, who’s an artist in Austin. Her work has been on a BT show.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m wondering, because we hear so much about this Black creative renaissance and you hear about it through these visual artists, does that exposure help you in any way? I don’t know. Has your work been out there in that way where you feel like you’ve got an exposure because it’s been amplified through, say, a musical artist or something like that?

Chris Burnett:
Not necessarily. I guess this is a little hard to explain and this is the whole point of the studio, which is funny, is that because I think the hummingbird is such a secretive animal and it’s very hidden, because it’s so small and it moves really fast, I’ve settled into the idea that my work doesn’t necessarily exist in a public space as much as it could and I’m okay with that. I think when the time comes, some more visibility might help. But in the meantime, I still get to work with the people I love working with. Whether I’m publicly associated with them or not is not really what I’m focusing on. It’s just, “How do we make the best possible thing for this person? Or if it’s for me, how do I make the best possible thing for myself and share it?”

Chris Burnett:
I mean, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had moments where my work was recognized and especially recognized for the culture. There was an article in The New York Times Magazine, I think this was last year, I’m not too sure, but by Isabel Wilkerson. She just wrote a book called Caste that explores the idea of racism, but not through a racist ideology. It’s through a caste system, which is a whole another way of looking at it. I did these two collage pieces for the article in The Times. It was heavily centered around Black imagery and police brutality. That was the first time that I actually incorporated imagery into my work.

Chris Burnett:
It was a very enlightening moment, because I did the collages by hand. I was cutting out images of MLK hanging out with Mahatma Gandhi. I was cutting out images of African American men on the floor with police pointing guns at their heads. It was the first time that I started to have my work speak in a way that was relevant to what was actually happening. That was really eye-opening for me and that led me down a whole new trajectory with my art. But in those instances, I really enjoy when I can speak to what’s happening in the now and speak to the culture.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve just always been really curious about that, because I want to make sure… I mean, I’m saying this like I’m the singular person that can make this happen, but I want to see that Black artists, visual artists, graphic artists, particularly with their work being featured in entertainment get just as much shine as the show that the artists featured on or the actor that might be in front of the art and the piece. I don’t know. Something like that, it’s making me think of… Are you familiar with Brent Rollins? Does that name sound familiar?

Chris Burnett:
No. Who’s Brent Rollins?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God. So, Brent Rollins, so he was on episode 400, but Brent Rollins is like… I forget the moniker that I saw when I was researching, but it was like your favorite hip-hop artist’s favorite designer or something like. He designed the logo for Boys in the Hood when he was, I think, 19. He designed the logo for Poetic Justice when he was 20. He was rolling in that crew with Ice Cube and John Singleton back in the day. He did a bunch of work in the ’90s and 2000s Ego Trip. God, I can’t remember the name of the magazine. It’s escaping me but it’s episode 400 if people are listening. Go back and listen to it.

Chris Burnett:
Hell yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There were these shows on VH1. One was called Race-O-Rama. One was called… I think it was White rapper showcase or something or a reality show or something like that. He had his hand in all these really interesting things around hip hop culture, but it was through his design and eye. So, a lot of stuff that you see in Vibe Magazine and stuff for the ’90s and 2000s was heavily influenced by him and his work. He is such a cool ass, behind-the-scenes dude.

Maurice Cherry:
Him and I were talking. He was like, “Yeah, man, I did this and did this. I exhibited here and there.” I was like, “Do you understand, I grew up on your work, watching your stuff, looking at your stuff at Vibe magazine, be like I want to design like that?”, and was just being so humble about it. I knew who he was because I ended up doing the research on it, but I don’t think the average hip hop fan knows who Brent Rollins is. That’s not to say that diminishes Brent’s work in any way, but why is he not as recognized as artists from that time?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, well, I think there’s a couple of levels to it. I think, on a larger scale, typically, designers are in the background, because the work is what speaks to the public, right? So, if I’m designing a logo for a company, my face isn’t going to be the face of the company, but the logo will, right? So, there’s never really been a need for the designer to be in the public eye as much as maybe the person who runs the company, or say, if you’re working for an artist, the artist is the one who is getting all the focus. So, the designer falls to the background.

Chris Burnett:
I think we’re starting to see a shift in that, especially in Black culture, with people like Virgil Abloh, who became almost like designer of the year for every year for a long time at this point. But he came from Kanye’s group, and he started to create the idea that designer can be the public figure also and not just be the one that sits in the background. So, I think that tide is starting to shift and we’re starting to see it. It also happens in music too. Back then, producers were always just behind the boards and you never really knew who was producing the music, but now, the producers are just as big as some of the artists. So, we’re seeing that shift take place and I think that’s really cool. I don’t know if it’ll happen to me, but it’s all right. I don’t mind being in the shadows.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s true. I do hope to see that day where the designers and the visual artists get that same level of recognition or at least name recognition, where folks know. They look at something. You’re like, “Oh, that’s a Chris Burnett,” if they see a collage or something like that, that thing.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, I’m definitely developing a visual language and a style that feels really specific to me. So, there are certain recognizable aspects of my work. As I’ve ventured more into music, I’m definitely going to be presenting myself and my person out there. So, maybe the moment where the tide turns and this all becomes more public is right around the corner.

Maurice Cherry:
There you go.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So, tell me what it was like growing up in L.A.

Chris Burnett:
Growing up in L.A., yeah, I grew up in South Central, specifically Manchester and Vermont for anyone who knows that area. It wasn’t really the best neighborhood at the time. There was a lot of gang violence, a lot of drugs. Police relations with the community were not great. Growing up, there definitely had an impact on me, although my parents were very, very careful in what they allowed me and my older brother to do. We weren’t really allowed to go outside after certain time. I didn’t really have many friends in the neighborhood, because that was the way that I could get caught up in some of the wrong stuff.

Chris Burnett:
So, a lot of my time was spent creating indoors, whether that was drawing or painting or my parents would put me in art classes at a pretty young age just to keep me occupied and doing something that I enjoyed versus running around my neighborhood, getting into trouble, like a lot of the kids who were there probably did. It wasn’t until I went to high school that I was taking the bus to high school to public transport. That was the first time I got a little taste of freedom. I started skateboarding at the same time. So, I would take the bus to skate parks and start to explore a little bit. That was when I really started to understand the neighborhood a little bit better.

Chris Burnett:
It wasn’t as dangerous as it was when I was a little kid, but yeah, it definitely influenced my practice and my behavior in terms of I like the area I grew up in, because to me, it feels real. It feels very honest. Where I live now is actually a completely different environment. At this point, I’m not sure that I want to stay there as much, because every time I go home to visit my folks, it’s like, “Oh, I actually really liked this neighborhood.”

Chris Burnett:
Maybe I was scared of it when I was a kid, but now I’m an adult and I know how to move. Certain things become illuminated when you’re in different stages of your life. So, back then, it was a little intimidating, but now it’s more enticing, especially they just built the big stadium in Inglewood. That’s 10 minutes from where I grew up. So, there are things that are happening in that area that wouldn’t necessarily happen. Resources are coming back down there, which I think is great. So, I might move down. Who knows? We’ll see.

Maurice Cherry:
L.A. is so big.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, man.

Maurice Cherry:
I was there actually, for the first time last year. We were set to do a live tour throughout 2020 last year. We started off in L.A. and did our first live show out there.

Chris Burnett:
Nice.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I live in Atlanta, which is pretty spread out, but L.A. is gargantuan in terms of scale. I was in the Korea Town neighborhood initially and then we did the live show. We did that down in Leimert Park, but I didn’t really get to see L.A. I saw a couple of neighborhoods.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, yeah, there’s always the pockets that people go to, but there’s a lot of hidden treasures in this city. It takes time. It takes time of living here or just having the time to explore. You got to have a car. You got to drive everywhere. But yeah, it’s massive. It’s massive, massive, massive, massive.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you grew up studying art. You were taking art classes and everything. Eventually, you went to college. You went to CalArts. What was that experience like?

Chris Burnett:
CalArts, for me, was extremely transformative. At this point, I was coming out of high school. I took a graphic design course in high school. So, that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to study in college. So, I applied to a couple different art schools in California. I didn’t really want to leave the state. The minute I stepped on the CalArts Campus for a tour is the minute that I knew that was the place I needed to be. I didn’t really even do that much research, I’ll be honest, but the feeling I got when I arrived there, it felt like I definitely made the right decision.

Chris Burnett:
The thing that I loved about that school was that there were so many disciplines in one roof. There was acting, there was costume design, there was character animation, there’s graphic design, there’s fine arts, there was music, there was set design. There was all kinds of creative people who come from all over the world to study and perfect their craft. So, that period of time really opened my eyes to all the things that maybe I didn’t get to experience growing up, especially because my parents were really careful about what I was exposed to. Once I got to CalArts, it was like, “Oh, I’m an individual now. I’m going to do it or what. I can explore. I can see what life really has to offer.”

Chris Burnett:
It was in a bubble of CalArts, but still, within that bubble, there were so many different pockets to explore. A lot of the friends I have now are people from that school. A lot of the people that I try to keep in touch with creatively are people from that school. It was just a really transformative time. I think it really allowed me to grow up. I’ve always been the youngest one in my friend circles. I have funny stories.

Chris Burnett:
When I got to CalArts, I still maybe looked like a 13-year-old or 14-year-old. It was very strange. People would walk up to me and say, “Do you go here? Are you lost?” I’m like, “No, man, I’m headed to the movie class right now.” It was really interesting. It was that time for me to grow up and grow into myself. I wouldn’t trade those four years for the world. Even though I picked up some student debt from it, we all have a little bit of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that where you met Bijan?

Chris Burnett:
That’s where I met Bijan, yeah. So, Bijan was my classmate all four years. What happens at CalArts in the design program is that you share a studio. In the graphic design program, you share a studio with your entire year level. So, there were about 19 to maybe 21 of us in our first year, which was pretty large for an incoming class. Bijan was in that class with me. We actually met the day we had a portfolio review. We didn’t know each other. We were just both coming from our high schools and trying to show our work to get accepted. He was literally standing in line right in front of me. Lo and behold, we both got accepted and ended up in the same class.

Chris Burnett:
Bijan was and still is one of my best friends. He became this creative rival, but in the best way possible, where if he was doing something, I would see what he’s doing and be like, “Oh, that’s really good. Okay, now I got to do something that’s really good.” And then he would see what I was doing and it would level him up and then he would level me up. We ping pong off each other like that until we graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s good to have that creative tension in a way, I guess.

Chris Burnett:
For sure. I’m really competitive. So, whether it’s in sports or in making a cool poster, I feel that edge or that desire to want to be the best and bring the best out of myself and others. So, we really thrived on that with each other.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. For folks that are listening, who are like, “Who is Bijan?” Bijan Berahimi founded… Actually, YouTube co-founded FISK together. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
A studio called FISK, like the HBCU but not the HBCU.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, not the college. Everybody knows. So, this came about in our first year. It’s actually a collaboration between a bunch of our classmates. We wanted to create a website where we could showcase student work and just have a digital space for us to talk about design as students. A lot of us contributed to the website. We had a thing called Things We’ve Stolen, which was posters that we stole from the walls of CalArts. We would feature them on the website. There’s a large poster culture at that school. We would interview other designers who were working professionally and ask them questions about the transition from student life to professional life.

Chris Burnett:
We would have zines, where we asked students in the program to submit artwork, and then we would throw a party for the zine release. It was a myriad of things when we were in school. After we all graduated, we settled into our own pockets and practices. Bijan decided to resurrect FISK in Portland, and that’s when it became the studio. I wasn’t a part of inauguration of the studio per se, but the initial idea was a very collaborative thing. It still is to this day. He runs it out of Portland and has a couple employees and they’re doing great.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Speaking of Portland, after you graduated, you did eventually head to Portland, because you had an opportunity with Nike, which we’ll get to, but you had another opportunity that happened to you senior year where you got to work with a pretty well-known music group. Can you talk about that?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it’s actually a crazy story about how that happens. So, my third year of college, we had a project that was to design a magazine of a subculture, any subculture of our choice. I decided at that point, I wanted to focus on Odd Future because they had just started to gain a little traction. I think they were doing most of their stuff independently. It was something that I really resonated with, because of that DIY spirit and because they were from where I was from. It was just cool to see kids like me doing cool stuff. So, I decided to make my magazine about Odd Future.

Chris Burnett:
I designed the whole thing, printed the whole thing. I gave it to my brother, who was friends with Travis, who used to go by Taco, just so they could see it and be aware of me. I don’t know if Travis ever got the magazine. I have no idea where the magazine was. I would love to see it because it’s been so long. But I did that in hopes that that would be my connection point with them. So, they can know that I’m over here doing my thing. They’re over there doing their thing. Nothing really came of that. So, by the time fourth year came around, I was setting my sights on other jobs and other opportunities.

Chris Burnett:
Randomly, on a trip to Joshua Tree with Bijan, I get an email in the car from a guy who’s running an agency that’s handling all of Odd Future’s merchandising and branding and things like that. He goes, “Hey, Chris, I saw your work. Would you love to come work for Odd Future?” I was like, “What, a year later, what?” It was so random and I was not expecting it, but immediately, I said yes. So, that was midway through the end of my time at CalArts. I started interning there. So, I would have class. After class, I would get in my car and drive all the way back down to L.A. to work with them for a couple of hours, come back to school, do my schoolwork.

Chris Burnett:
That was a balance that I struck at the end of my fourth year until I graduated and then I just started working for them full time. That was a crazy experience for me. It was one of those dream moments where these are artists that I really respect and admire. They’re doing really cool things musically, visually. Just the fact that I got to be a part of it for that span in my life was pretty amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dope story. I mean, when you think of Odd Future and of course, Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt and-

Chris Burnett:
Jasper Dolphin.

Maurice Cherry:
Jasper Dolphin.

Chris Burnett:
Hodgy Beats, Left Brain, yeah, all the OGs.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think of their whole persona, it’s so hard to pin down. I feel like you could just say, “Oh, Black Skater,” or whatever, but it’s so much more than that. I think particularly Tyler, I remember Tyler had this show on Vice a few years ago called Nuts and Bolts.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I love that show.

Maurice Cherry:
He was doing all these different design things. He’s like, “Oh, I’m designing apparel, I’m designing a shoe or something like that. I’m designing furniture.” He was doing all this interesting design stuff. This was going on, I think, right around the time there was also this reality show on YouTube that I’ve mentioned on the show before called Lace Up, which is basically, a sneaker design reality show contest thing. Because you know, there’s a PENSOLE Academy in Portland.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, yeah, definitely familiar.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, by the way, but he runs that school. He did this reality show on YouTube, where he was bringing in designers to design shoes and stuff. I remember, I would watch that and I would watch Nuts and Bolts and be like, “Why is nobody talking about these design shows?” I mean, their style is so hard for me to pinpoint. I think most people know Odd Future because of their donut logo. But what stuff were you doing? How did that creative process look like?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, that was definitely wild for sure. I mean, by the time I started helping with a lot of the merchandise and the clothing, there was definitely a visual aesthetic that was already established. That was primarily Tyler’s ideas and the group’s ideas. When I hopped on board, there was definitely a lane to work within. There was definitely visuals that I could reference, things that I knew they liked, things that I knew they didn’t like to stay away from. So, a lot of the times, what would happen is I’d be in the office with… There was me. There’s another designer named Aaron Martinez, shout out to Aaron.

Chris Burnett:
There’s another designer named Phil, who handled mostly the Golf Wang stuff, which was separate from the Odd Future stuff at the time. So, they were the two creative directors, for me, at least. They would pinpoint where I should take things and what directions I should go in. But a lot of the time, the guys, the group of artists and the music makers and the whole clique would just show up at the office. We would have these meetings where they would just pitch ideas to us. I remember Jasper one time saying, “I want a dolphin on the Empire State Building smoking a blunt.” I just graduated with a design degree. I was like, “How am I going to do this weird photo manipulated illustration and pull this off and then put it on a T-shirt? This is wild. It’s so weird.” But I ended up doing it.

Chris Burnett:
It actually became one of my favorite pieces, even those one of the strangest things in the world. Yeah, they would just come in. We would print everything out, have these just big jam sessions of getting everyone’s thoughts and ideas and opinions. If they liked what we did, they would rock with it. If not, they would exit immediately and say, “Do this differently,” or “Do a different thing over here and maybe change the color of this and tweak this a little bit.” So, it was a super, super collaborative process and really wild to just hang out with them, because this was really at the peak of their stardom as a group. Super interesting, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have an Odd Future name? Did they give you a name or something?

Chris Burnett:
No, this is another thing that contributes to me being in the shadows. I didn’t really try to infiltrate into the group like that. I knew that they were already so tight knit and close friends. I’ve never really been the type to try to eat off of someone else’s success. So, I purposefully was like, “It’s cool. I enjoy working with you guys. I enjoy creating these things for you, but I’m just going to take my place in the backseat and watch you guys do your thing.” It was so fun for me just to do that. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I can’t imagine how some of those design sessions might have went. Just the ideas and the crazy shit that they come up with I imagine is… I mean, I think for any really strong visual designer, that’s a dream to have a client or to have someone that has that creative capacity to just do whatever.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it was definitely really freeing, especially to come from CalArts, which was a similar environment in terms of the freedom of creativity that we had in school and to have that as my first full time gig, I couldn’t ask for anything better. It was great.

Maurice Cherry:
So, after working with them, you got an opportunity to work with Nike, which then eventually had you go to Portland. If you could sum up your time at Nike in one phrase, what would it be?

Chris Burnett:
Oh, man. One phrase, working at Nike, you put me on the spot. I would say high level hierarchy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Chris Burnett:
I mean, I might have to explain that a little bit. When I say high level, I guess I mean, the quality of work that was being produced and the scale of work, the amount of people that would see it, the amount of reach that it had, that’s what I mean by high level. When I say hierarchy, there’s such a system in play. It’s such a large corporate company like that, that sometimes creativity and new ideas are not necessarily accepted, because it doesn’t fall within the framework of what has been successful for them as a company. So, I’ve always understood that before I started working there, so I wasn’t going in thinking that it would be another Odd Future.

Chris Burnett:
I went in knowing that, okay, this is going to be a big place where there’s a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of things that I can’t control. There’s a lot of things that I don’t have any impact over. So, it was a humbling experience to be able to contribute my ideas to such a large and fast moving company, but then it also, for me, told me that that environment wasn’t necessarily the one that I wanted to be in for a long time in terms of work in the design world. But it was definitely a great learning experience to get my feet wet. Being a professional was cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we’ve had a few designers on the show before that have worked at Nike and I don’t know if they all liked it. In a way, it’s good, because it’s like, “Oh, this is Nike.” Like you said, there is this high level reach, but each person we’ve had on has said, it’s not a great place to work.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, there’s certain aspects of it that are really difficult to stomach if you’re not capable of grinding it out. I think one of the bigger things that I had to do when I was there was just work a lot. When we needed to get a project done, we were up very late working on it on campus until it was done. It really instilled a good work ethic for me, but as far as being a sane human being, it did not contribute to that at all. So, yeah, that was a really difficult part of it, especially coming in as a young designer, who had new ideas and maybe I wanted to bring new innovations to the way they were thinking about design. It’s not that they didn’t want to listen. It’s that they already understood what works for them.

Chris Burnett:
So, for a group of young designers to come in and just shake everything up and try all these new things, it’s not really something they were looking for at the time. Now that Virgil cracked open the door with his initial The Ten collaboration, the shoes, where he was messing with the swoosh and change the game, putting it in different locations where they would never do that, it’s really opened the door for them to expand their creativity to a whole new level, which we’ve been seeing lately. But when I was there, it was still very much you play by the book, because this is the recipe that has worked for them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, if they know that it’s going to work all these different times, we’re not really looking for any variations on that. They just need you to do the same thing.

Chris Burnett:
Right. At the end of the day, if we’re being honest, they’re a company, they’re a business, and they need to make money. So, if they’re experimenting too much and it messes with their stock price or some of the shareholders get upset, it’s going to trickle down. That’s what I mean by hierarchy is that there’s so many layers to it, that it’s really impossible as one designer to go in there and really have your voice heard, but to each their own.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But I mean, like you say, because of the crucible that that design environment is, like you say, it’s strengthened your work ethic and I’m sure probably has helped you out in some way now as a designer, just having that experience working there.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, for sure. So, there were two stints that I did at Nike. The first one was in brand design for sportswear and that was my first experience there. Honestly, all of my co-workers were amazing people. I had a great time working with them. It was, like I said, grinding out a lot, just working hard on campaigns. We were doing the overarching branding system that would then be sent out to all the different categories around the world. They would apply what we designed to whatever product was being released. So, that was really cool to see that.

Chris Burnett:
And then the second stint was for the Olympics, for Rio ’16. That was wow. If I thought the first stint was crazy, the second one was… I don’t even know how I lasted, but it definitely helped put a work ethic into my brain. So, if I need to work on something, I will get it done. There’s no excuses. They always said at Nike, there’s no finish line. That’s one of the taglines. The reason I say that is work just keeps on going and innovation keeps on happening. Things don’t really stop. Even though we’re running, we’re putting our all in, things just keep moving and keep going and keep evolving. It’s a tough environment to be in if you’re not used to that type of pace of work. But if you’re down for it, it can really instill a good work ethic in you.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s how I was when I worked at AT&T. AT&T was one of these places, you walk in and they have this huge banner over their big marble reception desk that says, “Shaping human capital,” or something. You’d go and there would be this never-ending firehose of work. I think when we go in, we were always six months behind on something. Salespeople just kept selling and the work just kept coming in. So, you’re never caught up. We had, I think, roughly about 36 designers that were working there in teams of 12. They had this floor to ceiling LED board. So, everything that you design had a point value to it.

Chris Burnett:
No way.

Maurice Cherry:
As a designer, I think when I started, you have to hit 36 points at the end of the week and then eventually up to the 40. But everything you design had a point value. So, if you design a banner, that’s point nine points. If you design a three-page website, that’s five points. If you design a 10-pager, that’s nine points. So, you could hit your total pretty easily if you just design four websites in a week or something like that. I mean, this was 2006. You would pull the order from the system.

Maurice Cherry:
They have this system called Ice Blue. I don’t work there anymore. So, even if all this stuff is proprietary, I don’t care, but they have this thing called Ice Blue and you pull your rec. So, you have to go to a file cabinet, fish out the envelopes, this is my paper, fish out the envelopes that had all the assets in it. It was usually printed out Word files, scraps that the salespeople got from the company of their logo drawn on a napkin or something. You have to go to the scanner. I’m dating myself, you have to go to the scanner. There was one computer with the scanner for 36 designers.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, my God.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you had to go to the scanner, scan your stuff in, mail it to yourself, because we didn’t have Dropbox because it didn’t exist then. You mail it to yourself, you get back to your station, and then you have to trace it out. We were using Dreamweaver because it’s 2006. You basically had to build a website, retype all the information and everything. Eventually, you got faster because it’s one thing to do the actual coding and the design work and Photoshop and Illustrator, whatever, but then you’ve got all this other operational stuff you have to do like pull the rec and scan and do this and return the folder and walk it over to QA, physically walk it over to QA and all this stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Eventually, you get better just in terms of speed. So, I could knock out four or five websites in a week. If I got the packet in the morning, I could finish it by lunch. And then I could pick up on that lunch and then finish it by the time I was ready to go home. Again, this was 2006. So, this was right around the time when table-based layout was being phased out and CSS layouts were being phased in. I mean, we fired some people because they couldn’t get it. They did not know how to convert the tables to CSS, so they weren’t getting it. We fired people.

Maurice Cherry:
God, this was a long, long time ago. But eventually, I like made a little CSS work template or something that I could easily just plop in and change the value so I could get quicker with it. I still use that to this day, principles from that. But it’s one of those things where if I wasn’t in that type of design environment, would I even know to do something like that? You know what I mean?

Chris Burnett:
Exactly, exactly. So, do you think that having the point system actually helped people stay on track in terms of what they needed to get done? Because I mean, that’s almost public accountability for the work that you have to do.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, yes and no. For some people, it really freaked them out. Because if you didn’t hit your number, because you could see how everyone on the team was doing at any given point in time. So, you could see what your number was and who was above you and who was below you. So, it was one thing for you to know the number but now everyone else knows your number. So, you’ll be sitting at lunch and someone will come and be like, “You got to get the numbers up.” Keep in mind, we only could take a 15-minute lunch. So, you have to wolf down your sandwich or whatever that you brought from home.

Maurice Cherry:
And there would just be random people, random supervisors that don’t even work on your team will just come by you. Points look a little low this week. I don’t need that kind of pressure. I’m trying to try to get the work done. I don’t know if it helped. I mean, certainly, it’s one of those things where you either cut it or you don’t, but you definitely knew at any given point in time where you stood. Eventually, it got to the point where they upped the amount of points you have to get and then they lowered the point value of the items. So, you have to crank out more work to get to a higher target. It was a mess. I left there and said, “I have to do my own thing.” I didn’t want to work for another place after that. I think similarly, when you left Nike, you started freelancing too. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Yes. So, between those two stints that I just mentioned, after the first one was when I decided to leave. I just had a nine-month contract, so I never actually took full time at Nike. I was what was called ETW, it’s like a temporary worker. My contract was up after nine months. I decided that I wanted to try my hand at freelancing, which is something I had never done before. The funny thing is even coming off of the new work ethic that I just developed, all the skills and connections that I had made, freelancing did not really work for me. I think it was because I lacked motivation to do so just because I was coming off of nine months of very, very grueling work. Having this time to set hours for myself, it made me not really want to do that much work and almost like take a vacation.

Chris Burnett:
So, in that period of time, I was focusing a lot on my music and a lot of my artwork, but I wasn’t really successful at the freelance thing. So, by the time the Rio Olympics had come around, the guy who wanted me to work with him on his team, Ibrahim Hassan, shout out to Ibrahim, he became my mentor in that moment. He wanted me to come back and work on the Olympics. So, that’s when I went back. That was even more grueling than the first time, but I learned so much more by working with him and working with our team that it was very much worth it for me to do it.

Chris Burnett:
But after that, I knew that that was it, that I couldn’t keep doing it. That’s when I went freelance. The second time around it, it clicked for me. I’m not necessarily sure what I changed. I think I was just more hungry to make it work, because it didn’t work the first time.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I mean, I think, with freelancing, for me, when I first started out, I left in late 2008, I just quit my job. I was like, “I can’t do this anymore,” and started my studio. I’d say maybe those first three or four months were rough, because even though I was like, “I got all the skills, I know people XYZ,” finding the work ended up being difficult. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t do it. It was just finding the right clients.

Maurice Cherry:
And then eventually, I did end up working for a client. It was a political client. And then working on that campaign kickstarted my studio and kept me going. If I wouldn’t have gotten into that, I don’t know if I would have continued freelancing. I don’t want to say I have to link up with someone. But once you got the right client and it clicked, then you’re like, “Okay, I can keep doing this.” It makes sense. You had worked with an agency called Ceremony of Roses when you were freelancing, right?

Chris Burnett:
Right. So, after I left Nike the second time, I think there was a stint in between where I went overseas, just to travel around for a little bit. That was maybe three months in Southeast Asia, which was really fun. By the time I came back, I did another short contract at Jordan, which was still on Nike campus, so in that world, but just for the Jordan Brand instead. And then after that, it was like, “All right, I think I’m going to move home to L.A.” At the time, that agency, Ceremony of Roses had reached out to me and was like, “We have a position open at our agency down in L.A.” It was literally perfect timing because I was already moving back home.

Chris Burnett:
That’s when I decided that I was going to take that job down in L.A. when I got back. They were heavily focused on music, so a completely different world than sports and branding. They had a lot of clients in the music industry. Their main bread and butter was merchandising and creating the brand that surrounded the artists, whether that’s from tour announcements and flyers and posters to actual merchandising to websites to things for them to post on social media. So, in a similar way to the agency that I worked with for Odd Future, who was just handling a lot of the creativity, that’s what Ceremony of Roses was, but in a updated and more efficient way, I’d like to say. I stayed there for about two years.

Chris Burnett:
My timelines are always a little foggy, but I stayed there for around two years in L.A., just doing a lot of work with artists in the music industry. Janelle Monáe had released her album, Dirty Computer. That was one of the bigger projects that I got to work on. Her and her team were fantastic just because they really trusted me and they gave me a lot of creative freedom to create pieces that worked with her album and with the whole concept of what she was doing. That was one of the highlights of that job for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wonderland Studios has a great team.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, yeah, fantastic people to work with. So, I made a lot of good connections from that, from working with that agency. Yeah, we still work together today.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, cool. I know George 2.0. We went to Morehouse together.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, nice. Yeah, 2.0.

Maurice Cherry:
We went to Morehouse together. Now, this was back before she was doing the whole Android thing. She had the CD called The Audition, I think. I remember buying it off The Strip one day in the late 2000s, not late 2000s, way earlier than that. This was early 2000s. I’m not that young. But I remember getting her CD and being like, “Oh, this is really good.” Of course, they have the Atlanta connection, because she’s lived and worked here before and stuff. But their whole crew, their whole studio is doing great work.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I’ve always admired them because they operate in a way that’s different to a lot of artists. I think just their tight knit community of people that they work with, it was a real family vibe when I would connect with their team and we would talk and discuss work. It just felt really good to be around them, great people.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that have really helped you out as mentors throughout the years?

Chris Burnett:
I wouldn’t say that I’ve had specific mentors, where their role was to mentor me through the stage of life that I was in, but I think a lot of the times, the supervisors that I had at the companies I worked with took on that role in maybe a subconscious way. The first being a guy named Michael Spoljaric, who was the… I think, he was brand director or creative director. There’s so many titles at Nike that I forget what he was doing, but he was the head of sportswear brand design when I was there.

Chris Burnett:
So, when I got hired to work with them, he was the introduction into that world of professional corporate design. So, really, in terms of design and creativity, he really helped me to understand good typography, good layouts, how to design a book properly, what images to choose for a campaign, stuff like that.

Chris Burnett:
The next when I was working on the Rio Olympics, I already mentioned Ibrahim. He really became that mentor figure for me. He already saw that I had potential, but he fine-tuned it. That’s what I really appreciated about him was that he really got down to the nitty gritty and the specifics of things, the details of things, because every little detail counts if you’re trying to make something that is impactful. If you leave one little thing out, then it might ruin the whole trajectory of the story. So, he was really a figure like that for me.

Chris Burnett:
When I came to Ceremony of Roses, the two people who really stuck out to me was Brad Scoffern, who’s the owner of the company. He’s the one who brought me on board. I met him when I was working at Odd Future. He always remembered me. So, by the time he started his own agency, he immediately reached out to me and wanted to work with me. And then another guy at that company named Jared Hankey, who became my pseudo mentor at that time when I was working there, too. So, I haven’t really had specific people outside of work environments that have done that for me, but it’s always been supervisors or bosses or those who are in higher positions than me who can show me the ropes and keep me on track.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you call yourself a creative superhero. What does that mean to you?

Chris Burnett:
It means that I have a lot of superpowers. It’s always been really difficult for me specifically to classify what I am or who I am in terms of my creativity, because I can say one day that I’m an artist and then another day, I can say I’m a musician. One day, I can say I’m a designer. I can wear all these hats, and I try to wear them really well. I was always thinking of, “What’s just a cool umbrella term that I could use that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but does speak to the idea that I can do all of these different things?” I came up with that when I was designing the website for Colibri and it just stuck. So, that’s the moniker that I like to use if it’ll be on business cards or any little bios, but yeah, that’s what that means.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, I’ve read where you talked about your ultimate dream project, which was back when you were working with Odd Future. It was this collaboration with their brand, with Golf Wang and Hello Kitty. That was years and years ago. Is that still your ultimate dream project or do you have another dream project you want to do one day?

Chris Burnett:
I think I have a bunch of dream projects. That one specifically came about, my older brother, who’s also a designer, artist, musician, just like me, his name is Jordan. He was really into A Bathing Ape. This was before I was really knowledgeable about these brands at this time. He had this one shirt, which featured a character named Baby Milo, which was a very cute drawing of a little monkey. It was really simple and it had really thick lines. I was just obsessed with that illustration style for the longest time. I remember when I was working for Odd Future, Tyler had created a character called Shark Cat. He was really into cats. We used them a lot, a lot of the merchandise. I decided that I wanted to create a Shark Cat version of almost a Baby Milo-like character.

Chris Burnett:
So, I took this cat head that Tyler had come up with, and I placed it onto a very simplified body with the bold strokes and just really a cute little character. I wanted to use it for something but I didn’t really know what we would use it for. And then my boss at the time told me that Sanrio, which is the company that owns Hello Kitty, they were looking to do a collaboration with Odd Future. That was the moment that I was like, “Okay, Hello kitty is definitely in the same style of Baby Milo, and this is the moment where I can combine those two worlds. So, I can take this little Shark Cat character and I can take the Hello Kitty character. I can put them in one.” I must have created an entire capsule collection for them.

Chris Burnett:
And then I don’t really know what happened. I was told that the executives at Sanrio saw some of our futures videos and were like, “Maybe not, it’s not really in line with our brand aesthetic.” So, it never went through, but that was definitely just a dream project because I really was into the aesthetic of Hello Kitty and Baby Milo and wish that I could have combined those two worlds, but that never really came to fruition.

Chris Burnett:
But fast forward to now, my biggest dream project is more self-focused. I want to have a gallery show with… I’m working on a new body of work right now, some of the biggest canvases I’ve ever worked on. I want to have a gallery show where all of that new work is there. I want to create a couple of sculptures to go in there. I also want to perform my music at the gallery show. So, then it can be a full representation of my artistic abilities. That’s really what I’ve been spending a lot of my time in the past couple of months. So, that’s where my brain goes when you ask, “What would a dream project be?”

Chris Burnett:
If I could work with a client, it might be Tame Impala. He’s my favorite band. Kevin Parker, the guy who writes and records all the music, is the reason that I started making music. That happened at the end of CalArts, but we can get into that a little later. So, if I could work on some album packaging for him or do some tour visuals or just anything, even if I could just meet them and have a conversation, I’d be happy. But yeah, he’s a big influence on me.

Chris Burnett:
And then I also love the brand Fucking Awesome. It’s a skate brand. Here out of Hollywood, they have a store here. Jason Dill is the creative genius behind that brand. The reason I love it is because his artwork as an artist, as an individual artist, is the aesthetic of the brand. So, I don’t know if it’s still like this, but at a certain point, he was designing all the graphics. He was making all the skateboards that people would ride. That’s always just been a huge dream of mine is to either work with him or create a brand that follows in his footsteps, because I love skateboarding, too. I’ve been skateboarding for 15 years at this point. So, combining those worlds would be amazing to me.

Maurice Cherry:
I could really see that gallery show. I could even see a gallery show that combines all of this. You’ve got that, you’ve got the music. I don’t know. Maybe you have a small halfpipe in there doing some skateboard or something. I could see all of this taking place. It’s interesting now even looking at exhibitions and stuff like that, because we’ve had a few Black artists on the show, exhibitions now are so much more than just a painting on a wall. They’re really these immersive 360 creative experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
I mentioned Dawn Okoro before, and she did a show that had a punk band in it. So, she’s doing her art and has her art on the wall, but then also has a punk man performing. Wow. So, it’s like a whole environment that’s being created with exhibitions. Especially in L.A., I could see all of that really coming together.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, that would definitely be a dream of mine to have this multi-hyphenate experience for people to enjoy. A big thing for me is the more that I look at art, the more that I want it to not exist in just a white walled space.

Chris Burnett:
I understand that that allows the art to speak volumes when there’s nothing else to look at except the piece that’s on the wall, but I’ve also had this dream of having a gallery that’s outside and maybe an old, abandoned warehouse and seeing how the art that’s on the wall in the warehouse communicates with the actual aesthetic of a rusted-out building. I think that could create an interesting tension too, but a lot of these things that I feel like I’ll pursue once I established my footing in the art world and then I can maybe expand on some of these ideas. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, are you still pursuing your music?

Chris Burnett:
So, music for me has been really interesting in terms of my dedication to it. Honestly, this happens with a lot of the facets of my creativity. There are moments where I’m really into making music, and I’ll write a new song every day. And then there are moments where I just want to collage and I don’t even pick up the guitar or play the piano at all. Right now, I’m in a down on the music and I’m really focused on the artwork. So, it tends to fluctuate and I like that. Because if I was too obsessed over one thing all the time, then I think all my other things would suffer. I just can’t let anything go.

Chris Burnett:
So, I can’t ever stop collaging. I can’t ever stop making music, but they ebb and flow in ways that support each other, whether I know it or not. That’s how I feel about it. So, I am planning to release a project next year, but there’s not much in my mind that’s happening with it yet. But I know that it’s going to be released early next year. I’m sitting on a lot of music that no one’s heard. So, it was definitely enough to create a project and give it to the world.

Maurice Cherry:
All in due time.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like you’re living your life’s purpose or do you think you’re still figuring it out?

Chris Burnett:
Wow. It’s funny that you asked that, because I would say that I learned what that was this year, specifically. It’s been a long journey to get to this point. I’ve always known that I wanted to do art. I’ve always known that I wanted to be creative. I’ve always known that I wanted to do music. But for some reason, recently within the past couple months, the specific focus has been on I’m an artist and telling myself that and believing it and moving towards it. As I moved towards it, the more it feels natural to me, which also tells me that hey, this is probably what you’re supposed to be doing. Because for a long time, I was in the design world. I was a graphic designer, and I would call myself that.

Chris Burnett:
I think the artist’s part of me was really sad that I wasn’t allowing myself to embrace that. I think at heart, I’m an artist. I can do graphic design, but I think at heart, my purpose is to create art and share it with the world. So, yeah, I think I’m getting there. It’s baby steps for me in terms of establishing who I am as an artist and sharing that with the world and being a bit more open with what I’m doing creatively, because I tend to sequester myself a little bit, but that’s all starting to change. So, I’m pretty happy about it.

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

Chris Burnett:
Next five years, definitely doing more art shows. I think the ultimate goal for me is to have a bunch of solo shows and really focus in on creating work that challenges the way we think about life, that challenges the way that we interact with each other. Yeah, I see myself really settling into the art world and becoming the artists that I know I can be. It’s been so long, because when I graduated with a degree in graphic design, to me, that felt like, “This is who I am now, and this is what I have to do.” After working so long and reaching a certain amount of success that I am satisfied with, I realized that there was just something missing.

Chris Burnett:
So, this year really marks that transition that I mentioned earlier into me fully embracing me as an artist and maybe moving away from a lot of the client work and focusing in on the work that I want to be doing for myself. So, in five years, I’ll be 35. So, hopefully, by then, I’ll have a couple solo shows under my belt. I’m definitely getting better at playing guitar. That’s one of the things I’m focusing on too. I want to put a band together so that I can play shows in Los Angeles, eventually tour around the world if that’s a reality that presents itself. Yeah, but really focusing in on the artist’s aspects of me and myself. That’s where I see myself in five years.

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

Chris Burnett:
So, you can go to colibristudios.com to pretty much see everything that I’m doing. I’m not on social media, and I don’t really like Instagram. We could have a whole another conversation about social media. As much as I understand that it’s something that allows you to connect with people that may have never seen your work before, something about it just doesn’t feel right with me.

Chris Burnett:
Especially given the past couple years that we’ve all experienced in America, we’re starting to realize and understand the effects that these platforms can have on our mental health and our well-being as individuals and our relationships with other people. I’ve decided to remove myself from it. So, I can have a different type of perspective. I think it served me pretty well. So, I only have a website. That’s why I’m saying that. It’s colibristudios.com. That’s where all my music is, photography, artwork, design work, everything. That’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Chris Burnett, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, for just telling your story and really given some insight into the work that you’ve done, but I think also, it’s important when we hear your story and hear you talk about the passion behind your work to know that creativity is something that we all in some way can tap into.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s one of those things where as a kid, we have finger painting and all this stuff. But then as you get older, doing things in art design tend to be looked at as more of a hobby and less of a profession. It really seems like you were able to really lean into a lot of creative work, work with a lot of really interesting and creative companies and people. I’m excited to see what you’re going to do in the next five years, because I think it’s definitely going to be something worth talking about. So, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Chris Burnett:
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

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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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Gabe Gault

I’ve been getting into TikTok a lot lately — don’t judge! — and that’s where I stumbled across the work of this week’s guest: Gabe Gault! Gabe’s brilliant portraiture blends the work of the Renaissance masters with Black culture in a brilliant and beautiful way. Not only that, he painted the largest mural in the world — the Glass City River Wall in Toledo, Ohio. I mean…talk about impressive!

Gabe talked about how he landed this massive project, and talked about growing up an artist in a big sports family. We also discussed Black fine artists being exhibited through this new wave of Black-created media, lessons he’s learned throughout his creative journeys, and even talk a bit about NFTs and the metaverse. If you’re looking for a creative pep talk, just follow Gabe’s advice: “Go out there and create on any scale!”

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Gabe Gault:
Hi, my name is Gabe Gault, and I’m an artist from Los Angeles, California.

Maurice Cherry:
So Gabe, what’s on your mind? How’s the year been going for you so far?

Gabe Gault:
Oh, man, it’s been an amazing year. It’s kind of been ups and downs. Obviously COVID has happened and is here still. But on the bright side of things, I’ve been working on a pretty big project myself that’s been kind of keeping my morale up. But there’s been other pretty cool projects going on.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What is kind of a typical day like for you as an artist in LA?

Gabe Gault:
So I wake up. I make sure I kind of get a good start in the morning if I’m heading to the studio. So I’ll wake up, I’ll make some breakfast. I’m trying to go on a smoothie kind of diet right now because I am getting married in about three weeks or so, four weeks.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations. So by the time this comes out, you’ll be a married man.

Gabe Gault:
I will be a married man. That’s a new life journey for me. Yeah. So it’s pretty simple, I feel like, my mornings. I usually get to the studio when it feels right, but it’s usually around 11AM. And I’ll have everything kind of prepped out and ready to go. I’ll get there and I’ll just have a jam session for the rest of the day until I feel like it’s time to leave really. But it’s kind of all flow for me, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
So you kind of just get in the zone once you get to your studio and then see where the day takes you pretty much.

Gabe Gault:
Definitely. Besides that, I’m usually running errands about my manager. He lives on the west side of town. So sometimes we’ll drop off paintings or go to meetings and stuff. I try to keep it pretty relaxed. I don’t want to stress over my work anymore. That’s kind of been a big thing coming up as an artist, is there’s a lot of stress sometimes, only if you let it. But I feel like every day is a pretty good day because I get to wake up and do this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, we talked about this a little bit before we started recording, but you’re one of several black artists that I discovered via TikTok.

Gabe Gault:
Dude, insane. It still blows my mind. When anybody tells me they found me through TikTok, I’m just like, “I wouldn’t imagine this a year ago.”

Maurice Cherry:
How does social media help out with what you do?

Gabe Gault:
Social media is a powerful tool for the better or for worse, and TikTok specifically is one of those things that really twisted my mind because it changed the way I thought about social media. I was on Instagram for a number of years. It took me a certain amount to get a certain amount of followers. Not that that’s like an end all be all. But that’s what I was kind of working up on there and getting a decent views on my work. And then I went to TikTok.

Gabe Gault:
And I think in the course of a couple months, I’m almost about to surpass my other social media platforms and all the hard work I put into those kind of seem irrelevant now compared to TikTok. It’s a great tool because you get to interact with people and you get to talk to people in a way you just couldn’t really do in real life. You get to show people a little bit of your life, or whatever you want to show them, really. It doesn’t have to be your real life, I guess, as most of you will know. Yeah, it’s an amazing, powerful tool. But it is, at the end of the day, just a tool you can use to better yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, the interesting thing about TikTok, and I’ve been on there now for, I don’t know, maybe a few weeks now, just kind of casually observing, is one, it really has the spirit to me of like the old way of… I’ve been around on the internet for a long time. I remember the early web and how really just sort of wide open it was. You really could just go down these deep rabbit holes of information and find all kinds of weird things.

Maurice Cherry:
And I think what’s interesting with TikTok that platforms like say maybe Instagram or twitter don’t do is how they take your one piece of content that you make and it almost like splinters it out into these different ways that people can discover you. Of course, say you do a video. There’s the video that people can see if you come up on your ‘for you’ page. But the video also has audio. And the audio can be your own audio, or it can be like pre recorded audio that you select from their database or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
And then as you type up the description on the video, you can have hashtags. all of that stuff is also its own like search portal in a way. People searching for that sound can now come across your video or people searching for that hashtag now come across your video. And so you get people discovering your work in all these kind of weird and interesting ways that maybe they wouldn’t before on another platform because it’s only funneled into one mode of discovery.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. And I feel like it’s just so different from everybody else’s. You can have a completely different TikTok from the person sitting right next to you, just like the algorithm and what videos you see. I’ll be sitting next to my fiancee and she’ll be like, “How have you never seen this video?” Her videos are all pumpkin, spice lattes and witches and astrology. I’m on the completely other side with people dabbing and doing art and doing murals. Everything is just completely different. Mine is like video games. It really makes you see how big the internet is just only on TikTok, but it’s an insane space and platform.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and the creativity is just out of this world. I mean, of course, the tool itself has all these different kind of features that you can edit video and change the duration and the speed and all that sort of stuff. The trend that I’ve been seeing recently that is really dope is… And I don’t know if you’ve seen this. And it’s funny because by the time this comes out, it may have already passed.

Maurice Cherry:
But there is this trend now of like, you remember like fighting games like Tekken? There’s like the ‘you lose’ screen where the opponent talks smack. And so you’ve got all these different people doing these different versions of what that looks like, but to the same sound. If you search that sound, there’s like hundreds of videos of people. You’re the like vaguely weird character with the random move set or you’re the sleepy character with all the power. It’s crazy. It’s so wild.

Gabe Gault:
I love those so much. I’ll be on there for hours on end. It’s just unhealthy. But at the same time, it gives me so much joy, so I think it is healthy. But yeah, it’s a crazy platform. I think the Glass City River Wall video I did of my Ohio project, it did like 1.3 million views. But I remember shooting it and I was like, “Oh, I’ll just take a picture of this, just some random clips and put it together.”

Gabe Gault:
And then that was the biggest view count I had on that page. But it’s just crazy. You never know what’s going to hit or what’s not going to hit. I feel like you put together just something random and somebody is going to appreciate it. It’s just like putting that stuff out there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you mentioned this mural, the Glass City River Wall project. Talk to me about what it is and how you got involved with it.

Gabe Gault:
That’s a whole project that had a global call for artists. They had about 500 or so submissions. They narrowed it down and I was the artist chosen for it. It’s a giant grain silos in Toledo, Ohio. There’s about 28 silos in total and it’s about three football fields long and 134 feet high, I believe. So they’re pretty massive. By the end of the thing, it should be the largest mural in the nation.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Please talk about it. What was that process even like?

Gabe Gault:
So it was a pretty lengthy process. This is where we had to put together all our resources we ever had and really figure out how to get this thing done. Because it’s one of those things where nobody has done anything on this scale. So you have to figure it out and get the right team. And luckily, what I love about Toledo, it’s this big, small city, and everybody’s just super hard working there.

Gabe Gault:
I had so many people reach out to me and offer their skill set for the project, whether it’s like donating coffee or juice or doing footage, drone footage. Actually, two of the guys who reached out, this guy, Nick, reached out, and he was a videographer. He shot documentaries and stuff. So he reached out. And another guy, we call him Dino, he also reached out, and he’s a local artist in Toledo.

Gabe Gault:
And it’s at the point where I couldn’t see this project going the way it’s going without those guys because they’re just such a huge asset to the project. So it’s like a little bit of knowing what to expect and then expecting the unexpected and taking whatever wins you can. But it’s a good project. I feel like we’ll be done by end of November, possibly.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. What is your creative process like when it comes to starting a new project? I mean, I’d imagine something as big as the Glass City River Wall project, that happens on a massive scale. But say it’s just a regular painting or something, what does that creative process look like?

Gabe Gault:
I always try to put some kind of meaning. I like coming up with conceptual concepts. I sometimes do a lot of portraits, which are pretty straightforward, depending on the subject. But sometimes I get to mess around and paint people who are inspiring to me. So that’s usually the subjects that I choose, are people who inspire me and so shape our way. I want to talk about the background as well.

Gabe Gault:
I do a camouflage background, which represents blending in and standing out. People who blend into your everyday life and stand out by doing something that impacted you in a positive way. And that’s usually how I like to choose my subjects, is somebody who has changed me forever.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I’ve seen some of the ones that you have on your website, and they kind of range. You’ve got Nipsey Hussle, but then you’ve also got Yayoi Kusama. You have a big range of portraits that you’ve done.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. I feel like there’s been a kind of gradual change as well throughout my whole, I guess, timeline of painting. Because I started out painting a lot of pop figures I looked up to or I liked or somebody I knew loved them. And now they’re changing slowly into pop figures and they change to people I would interact with daily, every week and learn something from them or learn a lesson or love their story and want to paint them.

Gabe Gault:
And now I’m kind of leaning into a conceptual phase of painting different… I’m working on this project called Afro-Rama, which is like African Rome. The first piece I did is Romulus and Remus, which is like twists on the foundation of Rome. Then I’m working on like a Medussa kind of piece and so on and so forth. But more to come from that.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting. So kind of like a play on some Greek mythology kind of stuff.

Gabe Gault:
Exactly. Yeah, a play on that and some Renaissance age. It’s kind of like rebirth of the black Renaissance, really. You have a lot of black artists doing some amazing traditional pieces.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I want to go kind of more into your background. Like you mentioned, of course, you’re now in Los Angeles. Is that where you grew up also?

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. So I grew up in Venice Beach, California. And me and my family, we kind of migrated to the valley eventually. Now I’m in the valley. I’ve been here the past… Geez. I think I moved to the valley in 2006 or something like that. So it’s been a while. I mean, I love it here. It’s my home and it’s kind of like the central point for me to get anywhere to get downtown, to get to Los Angeles or Hollywood or the Palisades or Malibu.

Gabe Gault:
So it’s been a pretty nice run out here. It just gets like super hot. So that’s kind of a big problem. When it comes time to paint in the summertime, my studio is outdoor, so it kind of like limits me. But I can’t complain. It’s a great spot.

Maurice Cherry:
Growing up, did you have a lot of exposure to art and everything?

Gabe Gault:
I would say I did in some senses. I was actually inspired by… I remember this very clearly. When I was about four years old, I think my parents turned on the TV and Dragon Ball Z was on. And then I was just inspired by anime and manga and all that kind of culture. I feel like a lot of creators actually kind of came from that era of like early days of Toonami and anime and stuff back in the day.

Gabe Gault:
And that was later in high school, like translated to me just kind of drawing that stuff and getting more acquainted with that. And drawing portraits of friends, whether they were good or bad. I was a pretty big sports player. I come from a pretty big sports family. My dad played pro ball for the Super Bowl Bears and the Los Angeles Raiders, hence why I moved out here or why I was born out here.

Gabe Gault:
So that was like a little bit of a conflict of interest, where it’s like, I was a artist, but my dad wanted me to play sports from time to time. Of course, at the moment, he’s super into me being an artist and he’s been one of my best supporters for the past years. And interesting journey, like going from high school, drawing, to getting more serious about it in college.

Gabe Gault:
And then I took SMC art course for about two years. I ended up dropping out. I did an internship with my mentor, Rob Pryor. We did that for about six or seven years. And from there, we were actually working on like a fully hand painted comic book. We did a bunch of cool jobs throughout those years of training. We did stuff for Heavy Metal magazine. He was like a part owner of that.

Gabe Gault:
So I did a lot of comic book stuff. I did a lot of concept art for video games and movies and all sorts of weird, odd jobs. And we were actually working out of this building in Burbank, where we ended up kind of getting laid off of the comic book job. I ended up pursuing ‘fine arts.’ That’s where I wasn’t making any money. Then I was breaking even. Then I was like, okay, I can do this for a living.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get connected with Rob?

Gabe Gault:
He was a friend of my dad’s, actually. I don’t know how they met exactly. I think they met through like a photoshoot or something. Rob is a pretty strict guy. He doesn’t take any bull. He’s like a pretty heavy metal dude as well. So you get in there, it’s pretty extreme. He’s blasting music. He’s a hooligan, for sure. But he’s my hooligan. He’s a super talented guy, Rob Pryor on platforms. But he does stuff for all kinds of different music groups. He does conventions. He’s an interesting dude.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to go back briefly to what you said about your dad kind of wanting you to go into sports, and then you were kind of more artistic, was there a point where he finally saw you as an artist?

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. Actually, kind of leading into the internship, I think around the time I was doing that, that’s when he started to recognize that this is like a career choice and path. Maybe it wasn’t as smart as going into sports at the time, which they’re both kind of pipe dreams, to be honest. Yeah, I think that he got on board when he saw that I could make a living doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
That seems to be the case for parents, I think especially for black parents. Your artistic and they see that you do this, but it doesn’t really click that like, oh, this can be a profession. It’s kind of always just like a hobby. And it seems like there’s always this point where hopefully they finally sort of see you as like, okay, you’re an artist. This is work that you can do. And it usually comes around money.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. I think money is the revolving factor right there. There’s a lot of different jobs that have happened in the past 20 years that just weren’t available to us, I think as well. So before, they had no idea. I was like, “Dad, check out these guys. They’re making millions of dollars playing Call of Duty or video games or whatever.” He’s like, “What? Oh, my God. What is going on? What do you mean? You should have been playing that. What are you doing?”

Gabe Gault:
And it’s just like, “Dad, I couldn’t. There was no option.” There’s just different avenues that have popped up that blow my mind. It’s like, if I knew you can make money doing videos and YouTube and stuff like that before, I mean, I just wouldn’t have been so worrisome of like, what am I going to do? There are so many options nowadays, in my opinion.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s so interesting. My best friend, Chris, who’s been on the show before, if people want to check him out. I think he’s episode 40, Dr. Chris Stewart. But he’s got two daughters, and his oldest daughter kind of wants to be a YouTuber. I think she’s probably, I don’t know, maybe about eight or nine years old. She wants to be a YouTuber. And he’s sort of like adamantly against it, like, “No. Go to school and learn STEM stuff and all that sort of stuff.”

Maurice Cherry:
And I kind of had to tell him, you got to think about it. Back when we were kids, even working in computers and the internet was like an impossibility because it barely existed. What we do now back then made no sense. So if what she’s doing now doesn’t make sense, congratulations, you’re old. But also, this is where career trends are going. Things are going now towards doing things online and being a content creator.

Gabe Gault:
Exactly. I would say, kids, just stick to TikTok. There’s going to be some probably big money in it too if you want to turn that into a career. I would also recommend to artists starting out that have some kind of money income. It doesn’t have to be glamorous or anything, but it would have helped me, for sure. Doing this full time without some kind of like financial stability was pretty rough.

Gabe Gault:
My dad was pretty rough on me already financially growing up, which was good. I’m glad he was. But yeah, it’s rougher to just not have any kind of money coming in, and you got to worry about making a painting or whatever to sell it or to get some kind of comic book job. That stuff is pretty hard to do as a creative. Whatever creative job you’re doing, I would always say, if you can, have some kind of like financial support from yourself, if possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. You don’t want to fall into that like starving artists trope.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah, that’s the worst. I do not miss those days at all. That’s one thing that I would go back and change, is maybe I should just get a part time job or something right here and figure it out. But yeah, it’s all been good. Everything kind of works itself out at the end.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, back in 2017, you had your first solo exhibition. Take us back to that time. What was going on then?

Gabe Gault:
Oh, man. That was a huge, huge year for me. A couple things happened within that year and a half lifespan or timeframe. That was my first big show in 2017 at MRG Gallery. There was a guy, Michael, I met, and we’re still pretty good friends. I actually saw him pretty recently, like about a week ago. But that was my first gallery and solo show that I ever had. I had maybe about 15 pieces in there that I worked on throughout that year.

Gabe Gault:
I think I finished seven of them in the last month of that. So yeah, that was like a big turning point of how I thought about creating art and selling art and how to get people there, how to get people engaged, what kind of steps you should make, what people were gravitating towards, as well, what they liked. I remember correctly, we didn’t sell any pieces at this show, but I think we sold some following the show, which was pretty good, I guess, for my first show. I had no exposure in that world at all. That was a fun experience. It’s just one of those things that twist your brand and changes your life forever.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine it’s probably like the culmination of so many things. I mean, of course, you’re working to create this sort of singular body of work for this exhibition, but also it’s kind of like your aha moment in a way, like, “Oh, not only am I an artist, but I am in like capital A artists with like an exhibition and a gallery. I’m an artist.”

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. I think it was maybe the first time where I really had something centered around me. That was very important and that helped me move forward and get me used to people wanting to see my work and I’m an important person. I am who I make myself to be. And that kind of helped me move forward a little bit more in my career.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I asked this question to Dawn Okoro, who I had on the show a couple weeks ago. She’s another artist actually, I mentioned to you I discovered her on TikTok. We’re starting to see a lot more black fine artists and their work being just exhibited in general to the mainstream over the past probably 10 years or so. I mentioned the Dawn Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. I mentioned those two specifically because they did the Obama portraits, but also those portraits are now on tour in the country.

Maurice Cherry:
Now they’re going around to different cities, so everyone that maybe couldn’t make it to the National Portrait Gallery in DC can now see it in their city. But also we’re starting to see more black artists and their work being exhibited through black media, movies, television shows, etc. And you had even mentioned before we started recording that some of your work has been included in some media like that. What are your thoughts about that kind of exposure? Does that really help you out as an artist?

Gabe Gault:
I think it does and it doesn’t. I think if you’re on some of those… I was in a show, I think Big Trouble. I think I was in like a documentary on Netflix, somewhere on there. I’m sure somebody can find me somewhere. I feel like exposure wise, it does help kind of build your credit and credentials. But I think more importantly, it’s great because black shows and black media can pay black artists. And I think that’s an important part to move forward for any black artist because that can fuel their next six months or whatever.

Gabe Gault:
That kind of bit of breaking point where after that six months, they had to stop producing work, and then it kind of slows down. But all those little things are wins, in my opinion. Because every time you’re hiring a black artist or you buy from a black artist, it helps that kind of community grow and it helps that black renaissance movement that’s kind of happening right now with Kehinde and everybody. It’s all upgrade.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And certainly now, what I would love to see, because through this show, I’ve been very fortunate to talk to a lot of people and now see their work out in the world, my hope is that the black artists kind of get that same level of recognition as say like, I don’t know, Jordan Peele or Issa Rae, just in terms of like you are also someone that is also creating these visual representations of the world and they’re out there for people to see. People need to know that black contemporary artists exists, period.

Gabe Gault:
I a hundred percent couldn’t agree more. For me, personally, I’m an artist, and I want to branch out. I want to do in a similar fashion what Jordan Peele or Issa Rae do. They’re kind of entrepreneurs in general. Black entrepreneurship is very fresh and it’s popping right now and I feel like it’s a good time to be one and express different avenues of creativity. If you’re an artist and you want to get into fashion, I think people are now supporting that more than ever.

Gabe Gault:
If you’re into fashion and you want to get into making movies, there’s no stopping you, really. I feel like there’s Donald Glover’s of the world who want to just be an actor, be a comedy writer, be whatever they want to be. You can kind of make it all come together. I feel like you don’t have to necessarily be one thing anymore. It’s just like, how hard do you want to work?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Being the kind of black creative, multihyphen it. I don’t want to say it seems like it’s necessarily the norm, but I think we’re certainly starting to see it, or rather, I think it’s starting to be normalized. We’re mentioning Issa and Jordan. Of course, there are several others that fall into this camp that do multiple kinds of creative work, or they do multiple modes of creative work within one thing. Like Jordan, I think we know from comedy first, but then also is clearly this horror buff also that can really flourish in that realm also.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. I just saw Candyman, not super recently, but whenever it came out. But that was an amazing movie where it kind of reminded me of a black Blade Runner, like the shots of it. And then it had its horror elements. I love his stuff because you always forget that you’re watching a horror movie till something pops off and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, this is Candyman. I forgot what I was watching for a second.” Honestly, I just get inspired all the time by people like that and Issa Rae and everybody who’s doing something remarkable.

Maurice Cherry:
Where else do you pull inspiration from?

Gabe Gault:
Man, I pull inspiration from a little bit of… God, what do I pull inspiration from? I feel like I get inspiration from a little bit of everything. I’m into comic books, I’m into games, I’m into mythology. I feel like there’s bits and pieces that I’ll deep dive into and I’ll get on kicks of. I was kind of like going to Roman kick lately of the artwork over there and kind of wanting to replicate what was created back in those times of ancient Rome and what kind of stories were coming out of there.

Gabe Gault:
Then I also remember old stories, African stories that my mom used to tell me back in the day, and I’m starting to kind of research those in the past week. So it’s a little bit of whatever I’m feeling in the moment and I think makes sense and is close to me, or makes sense for me, then I’ll kind of draw inspiration from that.

Maurice Cherry:
Are there any other artists out there that you admire?

Gabe Gault:
There are a ton of artists, I feel like. Actually, to get my art style, I think I took my five favorite artists. And this is something I tell younger artists as well. Take your five favorite artists who are still living or dead. Take one element from each artist, mix them together, but making your own. And then you kind of have your style right there. And that’s something that I used personally and it kind of made up to figure out what was me and what did I like and what did I enjoy that I won’t get burned out on?

Gabe Gault:
But yeah, some of those artists I grabbed from were Shepard Fairey, Kehinde Wiley, Retna. Andy Warhol, of course. I feel like you got to at least give him some credit on some aspects of your life. There’s a couple of them that are pretty mainstream that I draw from that I really liked growing up. I’ll usually draw from one piece of theirs and then be like, okay, why do I really like this piece? What makes me want to create more pieces similar to this? What’s the element that is affecting me like that?

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that you kind of want people to see when they look at your work?

Gabe Gault:
I want them to like there’s a little bit of that person who I’m painting in them. There’s a piece I did, I think it was for We Rise show in downtown LA. They had those yearly. I think maybe the last one was Into Action. No, it was We Rise, and they do this other show, Into Action. But they do these amazing kind of museum pop ups that they were doing yearly. I think they took a break during COVID because of regulations and it’s pretty hard.

Gabe Gault:
But there is a couple pieces I did during that show. One was the first camouflage piece I did, which was a piece of Tupac and he was wearing a Kaepernick jersey. That was my first camo piece I did. That actually didn’t even make it on the wall. It was a funny story. That didn’t make it on the wall. That was put behind like a DJ booth almost. That was like a whole bummer. Everybody there is super cool.

Gabe Gault:
They really tried to make it work, but there were so many artists and very little space left on the walls. But that ended up being one of the biggest pieces of the show. Everybody kind of like went over there and they were like, “Oh, what’s that piece over there?” It kind of made it mysterious a little bit. I was just behind the DJ booth, which I thought was funny. But not on purpose or for any specific reason.

Gabe Gault:
But I think during that time, that was a big piece. I have people sending like paragraphs to me on Instagram how much that meant to them, how much they appreciated it. It was a big time because that was right after I think Kap took a knee for that. I think it was just impactful for a lot of people to see that. It almost meant, what would this person do today? Where would this person stand politically? So I had Tupac, I had MLK and Cesar Chavez all in Kaepernick jerseys.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s amazing. Let’s just kind of talk about Tupac for a minute. I mean, he was 25 when he died. He was a kid.

Gabe Gault:
He was a baby. 25 is like a decade now.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s amazing because I would think of folks digging in Tupac and others, even MLK, as you mentioned. They were really young when they were killed. It is kind of part of just, I don’t know, creative imagination to think about, what would they have believed at this time? Who would they have been as artists or as activists or whomever?

Gabe Gault:
Yeah, it is crazy. I just wonder sometimes how our history would have changed if it wasn’t… What if they didn’t die? Would it be better? Would’ve anything changed? Would it be worse? It’s a crazy concept to think about what happened. If MLK was still here, would we have gone further? Did that happen for a reason? I don’t know. It’s just nuts.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, also, just what they managed to accomplish in just that short time. When I was 25, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I was just trying to make it. At 25, I was four years out of college. I think I had just got fired from a job. I remember vividly now. I just got fired. I was working at Autotrader and I got fired. I was answering phones or whatever. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

Maurice Cherry:
My mom was like, “You need to get it together. What are you going to do with your life.” I was always designing and doing websites and stuff on the side as like a hobby. Because this was like 2005, 2006. There wasn’t really a market for this really yet. And certainly it wasn’t something you could just like go to school and learn. And so I had just found a one ad in the back of our local weekly newspaper here in Atlanta and just applied on a whim. And that ended up being the start of my design career. But I can’t imagine like as a celebrity with that kind of cultural impact that you’ve had at that age. That’s amazing.

Gabe Gault:
You have to be making some moves back then, for sure. That’s also insane to think about just how, nowadays, you can jump on social media and just become an internet superstar, whatever. But back then you had to really be, I feel like, pushed by everybody. Everybody had to really know who you are, know your name or know your craft. Not that they don’t nowadays, but you know what I mean.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a whole new ballgame.

Gabe Gault:
A whole new ball game.

Maurice Cherry:
And the internet has made it that way now, where you can really kind of make a name for yourself. And not to say you can make a name for yourself without any sort of discernible talent, although we have seen that. But the internet at least sort of I think in a way democratizes how people can become influencers because the barriers to get to that level of influence have kind of been flattened.

Gabe Gault:
Yes. It’s definitely more open to the public, for sure, as like who can be seen and who can be heard the loudest, in a sense. I feel like you could be a kid from nothing. I think that’s like my favorite part of the internet, is when you get somebody who really had no opportunities or no kind of way of getting out of a bad situation. And then they started to put themselves out there on the internet.

Gabe Gault:
And now they’re just like mega successful in their own right. So I think that’s kind of a better version of the area that I like to see the most. Obviously, you have all sorts of variables of that. They could be super crappy people and get that same situation. But that’s kind of how the game works.

Maurice Cherry:
In recent years, what would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

Gabe Gault:
I feel like I need to trust my intuition more. That’s been helpful, trusting that people will accept me for who I am and what I want to create and make and paint and will support me. I think that’s been a huge, huge influence throughout the past couple years and it has really changed my life and impacted me because I didn’t always have that. I didn’t really always believe in myself to get this far or get where I am or get in the position I want to be in. So I think if I knew that a little bit earlier, it would have saved a lot of stress.

Maurice Cherry:
Who would you have been if you didn’t become an artist?

Gabe Gault:
I was never fit for like an office job. I would’ve either been a scientist or a bum. I don’t know. It’s either/or. It’s no middle ground. I feel like I always had to be an artist. I had no choice because I can’t really do anything else in whatever field I wanted to be in. I wasn’t too great at math growing up in high school and stuff. I was like, “Oh, I want to be a scientist.” But there’s all these equations and stuff. So screw that

Gabe Gault:
But funny enough, I think the true answer to that probably would have been like sports probably in some shape or form. And it’s just funny because I don’t keep up with sports at all nowadays. And that’s like kind of what I grew up off of. That’s like my dad’s bread and butter. But it probably would have been sports are something in video games, some kind of analyst or something. I don’t know. I really couldn’t answer, but something along those lines that is just completely different, I think, in some way.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you kind of mentioned video games. You’ve mentioned that as kind of a through line throughout this interview. Is that like a dream project that you’d love to do one day?

Gabe Gault:
Yes, games will be a cool kind of way to be integrated into my current career. I’m actually creating NFT right now. I’m kind of getting into that whole space of digitally sold artwork. And I feel like it’s all kind of leading to that, in a sense, in some shape or form. If I never do that, that’s totally fine. And it’s not like a dream killer, because I feel like I’m living my dream right now just doing art and making a living off of that.

Gabe Gault:
But there are certain things that it’s kind of crazy when it happens and it comes full circle. I did a project for Madden, where I had to paint Aaron Donald for like the 99 club. And that was like weird and kind of full circle, because it’s like, with my pop’s background, it’s like, I never thought that it would kind of end up back at football in such a profound way. It’d be cool, I think, if that happened, for sure.

Gabe Gault:
There’s been a couple opportunities where I have gotten into like a video game world and worked with some pro gamers and stuff. But sometimes those are pretty weird deals to make happen with like fine art. I also have to stay on brand sometimes. I don’t want to do something completely out of pocket and go south of what’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I can see that. I mean, certainly when it comes to tips, and even that with video games, that’s another medium that has really grown and changed a lot, thanks to technology. I mean, the games back in the day really were pretty one node in terms of what they could be. And now, especially on the indie game kind of community, video games can look so many different ways, they can be so many different things.

Maurice Cherry:
I do wonder if that does afford more opportunities for artists to get involved in that way. There’s this one person in particular who I really want to try to get her on the show, but her name, she goes by Momo Pixel. She made this game. Goodness, I think she was working at Wieden+Kennedy at the time, but made this game called… Actually, I forget what the name of the game was called.

Maurice Cherry:
But the premise of it was this black woman going about her day and people trying to touch her hair. And you as the black woman had to like swat all the hands away. She’s on the plane, she’s in a taxi, she’s on the bus and people are trying to touch her hair. And you just swat all the hands away to get to like the end goal or whatever. I played it at XOXO, which is just internet conference that takes place in Portland.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember playing it there back in 2018 And being like, “This is the coolest shit I’ve ever seen.” There’s no way I would be playing this on Nintendo. But she just made the game. And it’s like, yeah, this sort of stuff is wild. I can imagine there are so many opportunities like that.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah, that’s no joke. I feel like I have a couple friends who’ve been in the indie game space. It’s no easy feat to just make that stuff. It’s kind of like years of understanding how to code and make the art in game design. It’s always something I’ve just been interested in throughout my whole life. So if you find a game, you got to send that to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. I’m looking on that. It’s called Hair Nah, H-A-I-R N-A-H, and it’s at hairnah.com. She’s on Twitter at MomoUhOh. M-O-M-O U-H-O-H.

Gabe Gault:
Shout out.

Maurice Cherry:
She’s an artist, indie game developer, creator of Hair Nah. Final NFT in Origin Story drops soon. She’s even on the NFT route too. Interesting.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. That’s another another crazy space that’s kind of popped up in the past year and a half on a bigger scale. I know it’s been around for a couple years now, six or seven years really. But that’s also an element of being an artist, that you have to adapt. There’s a lot of different things that come up over the decades and I feel like always shoot for what’s next. Have that open as an option.

Gabe Gault:
Because if you kind of look at artists of the past or yesteryear, they’ve always kind of adapted to what’s the newest trend or what’s the newest adaptation. Not that you always have to make something that’s trendy or whatever, but it’s always cool to keep an eye out for something to help yourself and your work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you feel creatively satisfied?

Gabe Gault:
I feel like when there’s big projects like the Ohio project, yeah. There’s always, what’s the next big thing? Or, where do I go from here? And I think for me, there’s a couple of bucket list goals of art career choices that I want to kind of check off. So I feel like I’m never quite satisfied. I think the day that I am, I’ve hopefully kind of completed that bucket list.

Maurice Cherry:
So that ends. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work would you love to be doing?

Gabe Gault:
I mean, I guess a longer goal for me is hopefully in the next five years, my work is different. I wouldn’t say completely different. Hopefully, by the end of my career, it’s completely different. But hopefully, in five years, my work is different from it is now and there’s different platforms and different mediums that I’m working in.

Gabe Gault:
You can always kind of elevate yourself a little bit and I’m trying to branch out from just painting on canvas. I want to get into the sculptures. I want to get into painting cars, whatever it may be, doing more NFT stuff, doing some 3D work. So I think that’s where I see myself in five years is kind of completing all those goals and making a living doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like the big thing now that we’ve talked about NFT’s, but I’m starting to see platforms start to go towards the metaverse, which is… I mean, honestly, it sounds even weird for me to say it because that sounds like some shit that came on like a ’90s Power Rangers, VR Troopers, we’re going to the metaverse kind of thing. I’m starting to see platforms think about what it is to be in the metaverse, Facebook most specifically.

Maurice Cherry:
But there’s also artists that are starting to work in that medium or starting to do things in that whole medium. I know NFT’s are part of that like NFT’s, generative art, digital art, all that sort of plays into it. I mean, I think even Sotheby’s did like a virtual gallery in the metaverse.

Gabe Gault:
It’s insane. The metaverse is an interesting place where kind of anything goes. The whole crypto space is the wild west right now, and I think it’s going to be that way for a while. You can make anything, you can create anything you want to create. I wish I knew 3D better so I can kind of jump in there a little bit more. But there’s always opportunity, I think, for anybody.

Gabe Gault:
I have a friend who made like a metaverse thing, Frank Wilder. He’s on IG. But he did a whole metaverse kind of reality where he’s making cars and planes and get your NFT Lambo or Rolls Royce or whatever you want, making art and also in that space. So it’s a crazy thing that’s, I think, going to be pretty popping in the next 5 to 10 years. It’s going to be I think the future, really?

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

Gabe Gault:
You can find out more about me on TikTok, first and foremost, at Gabe Gault. I’m on Instagram at Gabe Gault and I also have gabegault.com. I’m sure I’m like on other platforms as well. I’m on Twitter and other things. But I think mostly you can get a good idea of my work on those.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Gabe Gault, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, thank you for just sharing kind of the process about your work and really talking about some of the projects that you’ve done. But also I think it’s always great when you have an artist that’s really kind of doing these things that are, I don’t know, kind of a mix of classic imagery, like what you do with your portraits, but then also you’re putting your own kind of interesting twist on it.

Maurice Cherry:
I think the work that you’re doing is completely sublime. It’s really dope work. I can’t wait to see what stuff you’re doing the next few years, and hopefully more of the world will be able to see what you’ve done from this interview. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Gabe Gault:
No, thank you so much. That keeps me going. So I appreciate being on here.

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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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Eric Bailey

You may not have heard much about Eric Bailey, but there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve encountered his work out in the world. As the VP of experience design at Zillow, he brings over 20 years of strategic thinking, imagining, and making to revolutionize the process of buying or selling your home.

Our conversation began with Eric discussing how he builds culture and maintains joy on his team, and he spoke broadly about what he calls “the limitless possibilities of UX design.” He also talked about growing up in Ohio, being around for the early days of the Organization of Black Designers and Project Osmosis (which he co-founded), building his brand Properganda, and he gave the secret for how he’s maintained his authenticity throughout this career. According to Eric, anyone can look within and fulfill their potential through design — and he’s absolutely right!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Eric Bailey:
Well, my name’s Eric Bailey, and I’m a design lead. I lead a team of designers at a company called Zillow, and I’m also a graphic artist.

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

Eric Bailey:
It’s been going really well, not without its surprises. I think the big lesson in the last year and a half has been just be flexible, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Eric Bailey:
And be open to change. And so I would say that’s the one thing I’ve really learned is just be ready to expect the unexpected given the pandemic and given just changes in life that we can’t control. So be flexible and be ready also to take advantage of opportunities as they come up. But in general, me and my family, we’ve stayed healthy so we’re really, thankful for that. And yeah, and just really working through the different ways now that we interact with friends and family and also the way we work has changed shape for us. And so, yeah, I would say lots of silver linings for us.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, I got to spend lots of time with family, really meaningful, deep time, things that we would probably never be able to do or have in any normal circumstances, so I have no complaints.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, this past year and a half, I mean, I guess really coming up on two years now that I think about it, it has been transformative in many ways. I feel like that’s the most apolitical way that I can state that. It has been very transformative. It has changed all of us in many different ways that I think we will still be unpacking hopefully years after this time has passed. There has definitely been a general shift in the collective consciousness that I don’t think we’re going to just snap back from.

Eric Bailey:
That’s right. That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah. Yeah, it’s a great way to describe it, is just transformation in every aspect of life. And so, yeah, it makes you realize that you have to become, I guess, a being of transformation, right? You have to be able to change yourself too so that you can adapt. So, yeah, adaptation has been, I think, that keyword for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s the only thing constant in the world, change.

Eric Bailey:
That’s right. That’s what it is. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the work that you’re doing at Zillow where you are a VP of UX. How are things been going during the pandemic with the team?

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, no, they’ve gone well. The pandemic created a big threat to human beings and our way of life, but also to business. And so, there were some real questions about how Zillow as a company or the real estate industry, in general, was going to fare. I think that because the company, Zillow that is, is really part of the technology frontier around real estate, automating processes, consolidating processes, Zillow actually did relatively or very well during the time. There was lots of activity, lots of engagement with the business, one, because now people are doing so much online, and then, two, because they’re starting to think about how the pandemic might shape where they live and how they live. And so, that was a boom to the business.

Eric Bailey:
I would say to the design team and I think the workforce, we really took seriously the taking on remote work as the de facto way we approach our day-to-day. And that was a big shift. That was something that was, I think, we entered with real interest and did deep research with the workforce to get a sense of where their sensibilities were. The overwhelming majority felt like remote or having at least the option to work remotely was preferred. And so, we’ve done everything we can to really put in place processes and tools and even aspects of our culture structured around remote work and asynchronous work. And so it’s really interesting. I think, great, lots of benefits, obviously, right? Now we can work with folks from many markets, many regions. We have really now diverse teams when it comes to that. Obviously, people don’t have to commute as much. So lots of benefits there. But there were some trade-offs too.

Maurice Cherry:
What sort of trade-offs?

Eric Bailey:
I’ve been at Zillow for about three years, and I was a part of the team that was localized into an office, and now I’m part of a team that is distributed and virtual. And so, having experienced both, I would say one huge benefit of being in a physical space with folks is really the kinds of bonds you can build. I think that, eventually, we will need to, even with a remote workforce, we will need to create time together. We’ll be making plans for team offsites or onsites, I guess, and team meetings and really strategic moments for us to get together and collaborate. And that will be around problem-solving, but also mostly it’ll be around just building relationship and community with our team. So being in the same place just really does allow people to really get to know each other, I think, in a way that it’s difficult to do online.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How many people are on your team?

Eric Bailey:
I have about 22 people on my team. I lead what we call an experience area. And that experience area is called buy, sell, and transact. We’re focused on creating end-to-end experiences that support someone’s ability to buy a home from Zillow, Zillow sells homes, to sell their home to Zillow, and the transactions necessary to make that happen. So all the way through closing. And so I lead a team of product designers, essentially, that focus on that. And then I partner with research, user experience research, and content strategy. We partner to create those experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s interesting. I guess, over the past maybe year or so, I’ve talked to other design leads, and it’s really interesting to see how content strategy has… or really content in general, written word has become more of the design process to the point where they’re considered designers or they sit on a design team in that way.

Eric Bailey:
That’s right. Yeah. Well, hence the word strategy in there, right? So not just writers, but these are folks that are creating strategies for basically touching and building bridges with customers, particularly when we are creating experiences that are either unprecedented or our customer base is unaware of, right? Most people know Zillow because of your ability to dream and shop, you come and look at homes, and you look at your neighbor’s home and how much they pay for it and things like that. But then there are all these other services. Well, you can actually sell us your home, or you can actually buy a home from us. These are things that less of our customers are aware of. And so, to really reach out to them and connect with them, we really need to be strategic about the way we communicate. And that’s more and more of an imperative for our business.

Maurice Cherry:
Have there been any particular insights aside from just, I think, team makeup and asynchronous work and stuff? Are there any particular insights that have arose over the past year now that the team is distributed?

Eric Bailey:
Yeah. Well, one, remote work for some companies is old hat, but for Zillow, a company that’s, I think, we’re 6,000-plus, a large company like ours, I think we’re still navigating how you build culture, how you sustain culture. I think the company has a really strong and rich set of cultural values, and it’s very good at holding one another accountable and living up to those values. But then there’s sort of the unspoken things. In a virtual world, I think maintaining the joy of your experiences is something that requires a real attention and real intention. And so, our design team has spent a lot of time, especially our design leaders have spent a lot of time really trying to be creative about, “Well, how do we keep our team engaged? How do we have fun at what we do in lieu of having a space where you can improvise, right?” And so, we’ve really been experimenting and there’s still lots of work to do there. But sometimes it’s important just for us to get together and have fun.

Eric Bailey:
The amount of effort and energy that actually goes into architecting those is pretty large. That’s, I think, a big insight for us.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I didn’t know Zillow was that big. 6,000 people?

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, don’t quote me on the exact numbers. But yeah, we’re-

Maurice Cherry:
In the thousands.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah. And that’s because we’ve grown from this online platform to now a broad range of services and products. We’re a lender, so we offer mortgages. We have rental experiences and services for landlords and for renters. So just a really now a broad range of experiences around the home. And so in that, lots of different service providers under one umbrella.

Maurice Cherry:
I know a lot of people have been moving or downsizing or just changing up how they’re living because of the past year and a half or so with the pandemic. It’s interesting. How has Zillow helped to facilitate that outside of, I guess, what it’s for, which is real estate buying, selling, and searching? I don’t know, I guess I’m wondering, are there any particular ways that Zillow has helped out during this time in that process?

Eric Bailey:
For its employees or for just in the world?

Maurice Cherry:
For the world, yeah. For the world.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah. That’s a great question. Well, there’s definitely this migration, right? The economists talk about this migration from urban centers and across state lines. Many folks now are not bound to a specific region to make a living, there’s an influx of movement of folks that are moving to other states. Some are moving back to the states they came from, right? They would’ve been centralizing in Silicon Valley and in Seattle, but now maybe they’re going back to the Midwest or maybe they’re going back South. So huge migration there that is, obviously, an opportunity for Zillow.

Eric Bailey:
But also there’s this multi-generational trend, right? We have now families that are thinking about, “Well, I should probably live closer to home or maybe even with my parents or even grandparents.” So there’s also an influx of folks coming together and actually buying homes or bringing families under one roof. So really interesting market trends. We have internal folks that look at this, but those have been some of the big macro trends that I think are really interesting. And then obviously just doing everything remote, the fact that you can now actually sell your home online, you can purchase a home completely online or almost. There are a number of companies also they’re springing up around this capability. But yeah, the future of buying a home and finding a home is going to change dramatically over the next five to 10 years.

Eric Bailey:
It could be very similar to something like trading in your car, right? You drive into the dealership with one car, you leave with a loan and a new car, and you’ve left your old car. It’s all just one stop where you were doing that, you’re solving that problem for yourself and you’re focused on that thing that you want to buy. That should be the experience of buying a home, and eventually, it will.

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

Eric Bailey:
Typical day…

Maurice Cherry:
Does that exist?

Eric Bailey:
No. Well, yeah, right, no day is typical. It’s interesting. I think for me and my team, there are a few things. One, we work really hard to try to package our meeting times to a very specific timeframe. So between the hours of 10:00 and 14:00 are when we try to make sure that our hours… this is when we have core meetings. One, it’s to accommodate for multiple time zones. But it’s also to make sure that the other times outside of that are considered flexible and should be focused on getting the work done. And so, that’s a practice that we are all trying to employ and adhere to, or live up to.

Eric Bailey:
On a day to day, there’s probably logging in in the morning, attending some meetings. There would either be team meetings. There might be critiques for the design team. They’re usually planning meetings, some meetings that are about the work that we’re going to do in the future. And then there’s usually heads down working time. And yeah, I think some of the meetings if you’re getting together with a team you might be working on a project, you might be in a sprint, so you’re working at some point in the sprint process like you’re ideating or maybe brainstorming. And so, we’ll be doing some sort of remote activities, collaborative exercises to arrive at some outcomes there with teams. There’d be multifunctional teams, so product managers, designers, engineers, even folks from marketing, and obviously content and research. But yeah, now it’s mostly online, whether it’s collaborative or heads downtime. I think that’s how I’d sum it up.

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned earlier about the challenge with building culture and maintaining joy. How have you been able to do that with your team specifically?

Eric Bailey:
I think I have two teams. I see myself as a part of a group of peers. I partner with other product managers and engineers and folks that are cross-functional. And so, I do what I can to create somewhat of a culture there. And then I have my working team, my team of designers and design managers. But in terms of design and design managers, some important things are maintaining my one-on-one. So I have weekly one-on-ones with all my direct reports. I have two team… They’re not critiques, they’re really focused on having the team share their work at earlier stages to get coaching. So it’s less about giving direction and telling someone to make it blue instead of agreeing and more focused on changing the arc of their thinking. So pressure testing their strategy and the questions they’re asking and the answers they’re coming up with. So those, I would say, are two review meetings where leaders are giving feedback to the design team.

Eric Bailey:
And then there are monthly meetings. We have a team monthly meeting. We’ve opened that up as open format to make it… We let folks from the team lead it. And so, there’ll be someone who’ll volunteer and sometimes they’re workshops. Sometimes they’re about learning. Sometimes they’re about problem-solving. Sometimes they’re about bonding or connecting, but there could be a range of things. But really the meeting is the operating system or the lever you have to create culture.

Eric Bailey:
I mentioned that other team and the other team is those cross-functional peers. And a lot of what I try to do there is really break the frame of your standard meeting format. When I’m leading meetings, I’m trying to make them interactive and make them conversations. I want them to be generative, so a lot of times I’m asking people to use the right side of their brains, folks that aren’t necessarily used to doing that. So giving them really solid provocations and asking them to think big with real big boat-like, “How might we,” statements?

Eric Bailey:
And then also done even some silly things like role play. I played Lori Greiner who’s one of the sharks from Shark Tank. We asked cross-functional teams to create concepts, and then I played a shark and evaluated the concepts, and they had to pitch those ideas to me. So even just trying to bring some humor into an otherwise what can be a, I would say, less than exciting format to computer screen.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you wear a long blonde wig too?

Eric Bailey:
I actually had a cut-out of her face. [inaudible 00:20:49]. And then actually before they came, I got them excited about it. I told them that we were going to have a guest actually, that Lori was coming. And so I’m a VP, so everyone thought, “Wait, maybe he knows her, maybe she’s coming.” They really got their pitches together for that, and of course, yeah, they got a big laugh when I came on with the mask.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, that’s good. I mean, that’s one of those ways that you bring joy is to just shake it up a little bit, you know?

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, and not take yourself so seriously. We can’t do that, right? We have to have fun and remember that we’re human beings.

Maurice Cherry:
I think more so than, I mean, just being human beings, we’re all human beings that are now going through this shared kind of traumatic experience. And so, I think anytime that when you’re at work, when you can let that facade down of it being so serious and just open up and be human, I think that’s what everyone just appreciates that now more than ever, I think.

Eric Bailey:
That’s right. Yeah, be authentic, your authentic self.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when you initially booked the interview, and people that have listened to the show noticed this, that I always ask this question about what do you want people to take away from the interview? And one of the things that you had mentioned early on was that UX is a field with limitless possibilities. Of course, you’re AVP of UX at Zillow. Can you expand on that for me? How, from your perspective, is UX a field of limitless possibilities?

Eric Bailey:
For those that know me, they know I’m really into self-actualization. I really come to the realization that my purpose is to create user experiences that help people become who they hope to be. And those would be experiences that end customers or users would use, and obvious industries are healthcare, education. In this case, it’s finding a home, right, finding a home is both existential for people, but it’s also aspirational. You can change the arc of someone’s life in finding a home. And then it’s also through my teams, right, creating experiences for them that help them become the vision of who they see in the future. I develop over the years, and I can talk a little bit more about that later. So I think humans have a limitless possibility, and I think that the design field is really the perfect platform for that. It’s a perfect sort of Petri dish at least for creative people to discover who you are, who you want to be.

Eric Bailey:
That’s because of a few things. I think, one, it’s really, really broad. It’s open to so many different kinds of talents. So we mentioned content, so people that are writers, people that are researchers, that are inquisitive and empathetic, people that are artists, and people that like to make and create, and people that are builders and people that are analytical. And so it’s just so open to the array of skillsets that it’s so welcoming, I think, to so many folks left and right-brained that I think it’s an incredible career. I started out as a graphic designer, but UX really is this thing that is multidisciplinary. Yeah, I think it’s a really rich field.

Eric Bailey:
I think some of the skills that come to mind for me are there’s research, there’s synthesis, there’s storytelling, there’s facilitation, there’s interaction design, there’s service design, visual design, prototyping, right? These are all things that a user experience designer might be asked to do. And that doesn’t mean that you have to be an expert in all of them, but chances are you are going to bias us towards one or two of those, and you’re going to become an expert. You can have a team that has certain expertise in any one of these dimensions or two or three, I think is incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s really been interesting how really UX has exploded as a field over the past few years. Of course, you’ve got General Assembly and you’ve got other types of boot camps and other programs that are really cranking out UX designers into the industry at the same time as the design industry has gotten more lockstep in with tech. Companies have went from being just strictly visual designed and now being more product-based. And so, the market has changed, and to that end, the workforce has changed to go along with that. So I can see how those possibilities are really there because a UX designer can be called six different things for six different companies.

Eric Bailey:
That’s right. That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
They could be UX, they could be product, they could be-

Eric Bailey:
That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
… like you mentioned before, content, things of that nature. And so, it’s really flexible in that way.

Eric Bailey:
It is. Yeah, it’s incredible. And like I said, it’s welcoming, right? That means it welcomes folks that are the anthropologists and ethnographers. It’s just a really diverse field. I don’t know of another one that is as diverse. One other thing it’s really important to note is there’s real symmetry between the design process and new ways or progressive ways of learning. The field of education right now is really embracing the design process. You have a question, you go out and get answers to that question. You form a hypothesis, right? You answer that question. You experiment with your solutions. You validate them, and you learn from it. That is the basis of learning, and here is a field that you can do that every single day. Every single day you are applying progressive learning, and you’re following basically this process. You’re continually learning throughout your life. And that’s one thing that I just find really fascinating is that they’re really the same thing. That’s incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you’ve mentioned before about being a graphic designer. To that end, I want to really go back and learn more about your origin story. Tell me about where you grew up.

Eric Bailey:
I grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Maurice Cherry:
All right.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah. East Side.

Maurice Cherry:
We’ve got a lot of Ohio folks, specifically Cleveland, on the show. I’ve even got some family, they’re in Cleveland, they’re in Youngstown, they’re like right around that area. Yeah.

Eric Bailey:
Yes, that’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
Cleveland’s a great design city too.

Eric Bailey:
I think so, yeah, and we always represent. It’s an incredible town. Well, I grew up drawing. I loved to draw. I loved comics. I grew up creating characters and writing comic books and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh cool.

Eric Bailey:
I think my parents put me in some classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art. They have an industrial design program, so it’s the first time I saw these models of people making, basically, the cars of the future. I mean, Cleveland Institute of Art is a pretty top-notch school. It’s affiliated with the Cleveland Museum of Art, which is one of just a handful of world-renowned art museums, something that I was exposed to really early too. So, yeah, it’s a hidden gem in the Midwest, and a lot of talented people come out of Cleveland.

Maurice Cherry:
I was first there… When did I first go to Cleveland? I mean, aside from family stuff, but as a designer, the first time I remember going was in 2014. Yeah, 2014 I went. I spoke at a conference there. Damn, that was seven years ago, Jesus. But I spoke at a conference there. There’s a local studio there called Go Media, and they had this event called Weapons of Mass Creation. I don’t know if they still have the event. I don’t think they do, but every year they would have a number of different panels. It was a multi-day event. They would have live painting. They’d have break-dancing. It was a whole thing, and that’s how I really got introduced to Cleveland as a design city. I was like, “Man, this is great. This is wonderful.” And got to meet other designers from nearby, from Chicago and from Detroit and stuff like. So it was great. I want to go back to Cleveland once all this pandemic madness stuff is over. But, yeah, sounds like your parents really kind of introduced you to design and exposed you to that early on.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I mean, they knew it was ordained that I was going to do something creative. I mean, I had been drawing since I was maybe two years old, and I would spend hours and fill up sketchbook after sketchbook. I just loved to be creative. Yeah, they just did what they could to expose me to different things. I didn’t want to be “a starving artist” artist. Obviously a stereotype, but I didn’t know what design was. But I applied to a graphic design program in Cincinnati when I was coming out of high school. So it’s the University of Cincinnati in graphic design in School of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning and-

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, it’s a mouthful.

Eric Bailey:
… really… Yeah, it is. DAAP is the acronym. But it was an amazing program. I think like many of my experiences, it was serendipitous. I just followed a calling, but I didn’t know what it was going to turn into. One, it was a five-year program, and two, it had a… First year was foundation, so you spend that first year with architects and industrial designers and fashion designers all doing the same thing, learning the same fundamentals. And then you break off into your expertise. And two, it had an internship program or a co-op program that wound up being six quarters in the field. So every other quarter I would-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Eric Bailey:
You wind up working the equivalent of a year and a half before you get out of school. And so that was an incredible experience.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m not saying this to date you, but this is-

Eric Bailey:
That’s okay, you can date me.

Maurice Cherry:
No, but I mean, this is in the early nineties, this is really prior to the advent of the personal computer and design really coming into its own through things like CorelDRAW and Photoshop and stuff like that. It sounds like, I mean, that sort of hybrid program of work plus in-class instruction was really good.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I would say anyone looking at design programs should choose or take very seriously programs that have internships, right? Just the amount of autonomy and independence and the amount of clarity I got on what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do was incredible. The other thing is as part of that program you move from city to city. I worked at the National Park Service working on the publications and brochures that they use in the national parks. I worked in St. Louis at a retail doing design for retail. I worked in Dallas, Texas doing environmental graphics at an architectural firm. And then I worked at a small but cutting-edge design studio in Boston. Every quarter I was moving to a city, finding an apartment, and either living with other students or living on my own and had a full-time job. I mean, it was incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I don’t know if there’s really any design program like that now that really put you out there as a working designer while you’re still in school in that way.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, I think there are a handful, and they’re definitely worth you tracking down. I’ll any day hire someone from Cincinnati as an intern or full-time.

Maurice Cherry:
How was your early career post-graduation because it sounds like you’ve managed to gain a good bit of work experience while still being a student?

Eric Bailey:
Yeah. I definitely didn’t want to stay in Cincinnati. I came out of high school in ’90 and from 1995 was an undergrad. When you’re from Ohio, you do a few things. You either stay in Ohio, you move to New York, Atlanta, or Chicago. And so, I started applying to jobs in Atlanta and Chicago. I had some family in Chicago. I actually wound up a conference for The Organization of Black Designers. It was the first one, it was held in Chicago. Through that, I think I wound up landing some contract work in Chicago. So I went ahead and moved to Chicago. And then while in Chicago, I attended at a conference, and that really got me connected to a number of opportunities. But that was a really pivotal moment for me.

Maurice Cherry:
The Organization of Black Designers, wow. Revision Path and OBD kind of have a… I don’t know, I don’t want to say a history, that makes it sound contentious. But since I’ve started the show and I’ve been talking to people, the organization has definitely come up several times. I’ve tried to get David to even come on the show. But we’ve had other past folks that have been on the show, we did a whole oral history of OBD back in… Wait, when was that? 2018, I think, something like that. I mean, it’s just amazing hearing about how that organization came about it and really how many people it helped out because it’s something that I don’t think a lot of black designers even know about because it’s hard to really pin down-

Eric Bailey:
I know.

Maurice Cherry:
… that history. It’s not a story that’s like AIGA or something like that. I mean, you tell me because you were around, was OBD for the black designer back then?

Eric Bailey:
For me, I mean, one, I was probably maybe one, maybe two black students in my cohort, right? At least I would say I identified as black and that I was making it really clear I’m black. I kind of led with that. But very few in the design program in Cincinnati, very few… In all the internships, I was probably the only black person in all the internships, maybe one that I interacted with in the corporate environment. And then moving to Chicago and working at these firms, just seeing so few black designers. So this is the first time in my life I stood in a room and saw hundreds of black people that were creative that were just like me, and fashion, art, graphic, industrial design, you name it, architects. To do that for the first time is transformative. You just realize you’re not alone.

Eric Bailey:
So I think that’s what it did for me, just make me feel a sense of belonging in a way that I had never felt before and realize even if I do go back into these other spaces and I go to my nine to five at this company over here where I’m still the only black person, I know we’re out there, and I’m validated by that. I know I have a lifeline to them. I can always touch base with them. A lot of what I was doing was taking the people on that list and calling them up and saying, “Hey, I’m looking for work.” So a lot of it was pre-Linkedin, just using that network to see if you can make inroads and either get a job with them or have them refer you.

Maurice Cherry:
But right around that time, you also got involved and helped co-create something called Project Osmosis. Can you talk about that?

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, this is part of the oral history of OBD. I think I had the fortune of meeting some of the folks that after that initial conference in Chicago, there are designers there that convened themselves on a regular basis from that point on and kind of became the Chicago chapter of OBD. And that was led by Vernon Lockhart. You met with him before. He really helped coalesce a team of folks that we call ourselves OBD, Chicago, and we were representing OBD and that chapter. And so I was attracted to that group, so I joined them and had other friends that joined. And so, we got really close and just really bonded and tried to carry on the legacy of the larger org to both network, but then also to try to do some more outreach to the community and primarily to younger folks.

Eric Bailey:
And so, that outreach was through University of Illinois Chicago. We were doing programs either with students there or through local high schools, middle schools. I also did a little bit of internal visioning and journeying and we together came up with this idea of more like an outreach, like a consistent outreach to creative youth that would eventually enter the design community. And so, the idea was we know that there are creative folks out there that have this innate talent and they probably don’t see any pathway for themselves, right? They don’t see that there are these fields out there, these roads to success that they could take, and using their talent something that they could have fun and in joy every day.

Eric Bailey:
We wanted to expose more and more creative kids to these fields, to industrial design, fashion design, graphic, architecture, et cetera, and so we decided to create a program around it. There was this woman named Lisa Moran, Keith Purvis, Vernon Lockhart, Marti Parham. There’s a number of other folks, I don’t want to leave them out, but we basically came up with this idea of Project Osmosis. And that was, of course, these kids learning from the design professionals, and that was the genesis. We actually converted OBD Chicago into Osmosis. And that was its next incarnation; we were no longer OBD.

Maurice Cherry:
And shout-out to Vernon Lockhart. I mean, he is still keeping.

Eric Bailey:
Oh my gosh, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
… Project Osmosis going to this day.

Eric Bailey:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
To this day. Shout-out to him. Wow. So you were working for a few different design studios back then doing a lot of graphic design work. What do you remember the most about being a working designer from that time?

Eric Bailey:
It’s funny you mentioned the adoption of computers. I would say I was in my second year in college when we were using Mac computers and Adobe software. I was using those all through college and in my internships as well. And so, yeah, most of my work then going out, I would kind of… I think the first year or so I was a freelancer and I would use my network to see who’s looking for a designer, and I would join these small studios. There was a studio called Metaphor. There’s a number of others I can’t even remember right now. Pivot Design. I would just go work with them for a few months and work on mostly corporate communications and things for whatever local restaurants, whatever, doing mostly print work. But I wound up working at a small web design shop for the first time. They were working on websites, and that’s when websites and web marketing was just taking off. So this is 1997, ’96, ’97. And yeah, that’s when I started learning web design at this place called Streams Online Media. No longer around. And then I wound up joining a company called Giant Step, which was the digital arm of Leo Burnett, a larger ad agency, and so made my way into web design.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s hard to overstate just how much of… There was nothing back then of web design.

Eric Bailey:
True. True.

Maurice Cherry:
There were maybe a couple of books, but even those felt like they were being written on the fly. There was just a lot of view source and figuring it out.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, absolutely, especially when it came to digital design. Digital design, it was a gamble, right? The paradigm for designers was you’re a graphic designer. You either work at either a large graphic design agency or you work at an advertising agency. And then you eventually become a creative director, right? Your Paul Rand was the prototype for your career. But I think digital, really those larger agencies didn’t have experience in that. So it was really the small tech companies and webshops and things like that that were really starting to hire designers and do groundbreaking work.

Maurice Cherry:
Because they could move faster because they were smaller.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember, let’s see, ’97. I was in high school in ’97, and I remember that’s when I got my first HTML book. We had went to a… Was it a Walden Books?

Eric Bailey:
Walden, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It was Walden. We went to Walden Books in Montgomery. I’m from Selma, but Montgomery’s 50 miles away, so we went to Walden Books and got this big HTML book. It was orange. It was like a thousand-page book. I don’t know, back then, they had a bunch of books like this for different languages. There was one for HTML, one for ASP, different things like that. And I remember this big, huge thousand-page book, and I would carry that around with me at school. And whenever I got a chance to go to the like… We had a supercomputer lab in my high school, and we had computers in the library. Whenever I had free time, I would just go in with that book and I had a Tripod account, and I would just start trying to figure out like, “What does the blink tag do? What does the marquee tag do?” Just trying to figure out how it works. Because it’s one thing to see it in the book, but then to actually do it on the web and see how it works in real time, to me that was just such a transformative time in learning design. Because really there were no rules.

Eric Bailey:
That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
You really could do what you wanted to do.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah. And this is also when so many of those other roles were starting to enter the field, right. You might be a graphic designer who was usually doing comps and mock-ups and doing layout for, let’s say, posters or books or write other corporate communications that was like a… we’ll say layout, but then there were people who were technologists, right? There were people who are anthropologists who were becoming information architects. And so yeah, just sociologists and cognitive psychologists. So that now as a designer, you’re starting to interact with these people. They’re also people with backgrounds in motion design and film design, and so they were starting to come together at these companies. And so that was really interesting, was just now interfacing with such a range of creative people, whereas as a graphic designer you might interact with a photographer and maybe an illustrator. But yeah, really interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would say for of those of us, like designers that are probably 40 and up, to really see how the entire design community has changed from those early days in the nineties to now, it’s been really inspiring to see just how much things have changed.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, absolutely. That is why I also say that UX or user experience is such an amazing field is just because it is really on the cusp of that Moore’s Law of continual transformation and change. It’s almost as if design is becoming something new, and UX is sort of, I think, on the forefront of that. So the fact that it’s, yeah, it’s constantly growing and changing it’s really exciting. It has a continual frontier, right? There’s a continual green field in front of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now even with all the design work that you’ve done over the years, you also have your own side business, side project that you do that’s called Properganda. How did that come about?

Eric Bailey:
That’s a great question and great timing for that question because what we’re talking about right now, this moment for me was a time when I stopped doing that kind of work. So when I was an undergrad, I kind of… Really short story here, when I was an undergrad, I did really well my first year, my second year in school I started to get really just uninspired and really had a hard time understanding how… I was this black kid. I’m pretty much the only one in my program, there’s one every year in the program. Really felt isolated. How is Gestalt psychology and semiotics, and how are these things… Will they have anything to do with me, all these Western theories and things?

Eric Bailey:
And so, I even had a professor approach me and say… I had a really hard end-of-year review, and he pulled me aside and said, “I look around the city, and I see so many black folks basically. But then I look in the program and you’re really the only one. I would think that you would want to essentially represent your race… or represent your race better.” One, he was not black so I had no [inaudible 00:47:33].

Maurice Cherry:
Of course.

Eric Bailey:
[crosstalk 00:47:33].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s pretty wild to say. Yeah.

Eric Bailey:
I mean, it was a jaw-dropping moment for me. And from that point on, I was singed by that, like really burnt by that. But we had a project shortly after that where we had to take a word and manipulate it and have it mean something else, a typographic study. Something clicked at me and for some reason, I chose the word Thanksgiving. I started playing with the letters in the word.

Eric Bailey:
I started with red letters, and I changed one letter to white and another letter to white and another one and then started making the red letters disappear, and it started to simulate population. I started thinking about the reds and the whites and how whites move in and reds start dying off. And at the end I added, I just added an E to both words and wound up with the words take and give. And there was white take and red give at the end. So it was really just repeating the word Thanksgiving and changing the color of one letter each row. So the statement was obviously about colonization, about gentrification… well, not gentrification but genocide essentially and the Holocaust, American colonization, and was through a typographic study. And that was the first time I realized, “Oh, I can use the tools they’re teaching me to make the statements I want to make.”

Eric Bailey:
And from that point on, it took off for me. I really loved visual pun. I really loved to use really simple graphics to make a really hard-hitting statement. And so the rest of my career there in undergrad was really making really cutting, really socially critical statements in my work. And that was my way of pushing back on that professor and basically on my cohort.

Eric Bailey:
It was really liberating for me. That’s what got me excited about design, was that I can use this craft to make a statement. Most designers, you’re meant to be objective, you’re not meant to make a statement. You’re meant to channel, right? This was my ability to communicate. So of course, I graduated. I went into the workforce, entered corporate America, and I stopped doing that kind of work. And that was around the time we talked about when I moved to Chicago and started working in health. So fast forward probably 15 years, I was working at a startup. I was a lead of design and really uninspired. I was really unhappy. I was burnt-out. For those years, I knew that I was not fully self-expressed.

Eric Bailey:
One night, I took out some of the old pieces that I worked on. The first one I took out was Thanksgiving, and I just updated it. I redesigned it, refined it. And that was really me getting in touch with that old self through the craft of just reworking those pieces. I picked up another one and started reworking and kind of updating it. And then from there, I started making new pieces, and they were usually some critical statements. An obvious, easy target is social media. That’s one that I have a love/hate relationship with. So started making lots of pieces around social media and its impact on us.

Eric Bailey:
That was it. I just was creating for the sake of creating, and it really breathed life back into me. I was up until 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the morning, multiple nights just not being able to stop creating. That was kind of the genesis and coming back to that idea of Properganda. I had come up with that nomenclature in the nineties, and so I decided to bring it back and say, “Okay, I’m going to build something around this.” So Properganda it was.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Properganda, I like that because, of course, back then, proper was part of slang back then saying something was proper. I’m curious, have you heard of the book Visual Puns in Design?

Eric Bailey:
Eli Kince.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Eric Bailey:
Yes, yes. Yeah. Tell me, how’s that top of mind for you?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, God, a few years ago, I was really seeking out design books by black designers.

Eric Bailey:
Wow. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I got his book. Saki Mafundikwa has a book called Afrikan Alphabets that is super hard to find, and I managed to get that. And yeah, that’s how I first found out about it.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s my jam. When someone can use the visual image to break expectation or to change perception and change meaning, I just think it’s so brilliant. He’s actually a University of Cincinnati alumni.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, so he went to my school, he went through my same program, and he probably had that same instructor. Yeah, I love that sort of compendium of work that he collected there. I actually reached out to him maybe a few years ago when I picked Properganda back up. I was compelled to reach out and try to meet him. I think we chatted for a little bit through email. But, yeah, that’s so interesting you bring that up because that’s a really, I think, a great north star for me. Really impressed with this brother who, who was from my neck of the woods, basically,

Maurice Cherry:
I’m going to try to get him on the show. I reached out to him a few years ago too, and I think we were trying to get something going but he was busy at the time. So I’m going to try to pick that back up because that is a really good book. And for folks that are listening, you may be able to find it on eBay or Etsy. Because I don’t even know if it’s still in print, but I know that there are some copies of it floating around if you’re trying to find it.

Eric Bailey:
Yes. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like having Properganda as that side project really helped fulfill you as a creative, even as you did your regular nine to five work.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah. I mean, I think it was I became really aware that my full-time work was not enough for me to be fully self-expressed and be fully self-actualized, and it was only going to be through doing that work that I would be my whole self. So from that point, it’s been a great ride. I mean, it’s hard. Like I said, I was compelled to do all that work. So I created a lot of work and lots of hours. I’m a full-time parent and have a full-time job. And so to do this as well, it’s a commitment. But yeah, it’s a part of me that has to be expressed otherwise I’m not fully myself.

Eric Bailey:
A lot of it is really not only just I have to create, I want to have that experience of creating. Because as a design leader and a manager, I create so little nowadays, right? I create success through teams, and my design is really people and their careers. And so then it’s like, “Well, but I still want to make things.” And so this gives me ability to do that. I call myself and this work the armchair activist, the person who walks through life, knowing that things aren’t quite right and just knowing something… It’s that whole matrix, right? You know that things aren’t right, but they need that tipping point. They need something to say, “Hey, look,” like nudge them and say, “You should be questioning this phone that you’re staring at for 10 hours a day. You should be questioning the things that you’re consuming. You should just think critically about your own behavior and how these things shape your behavior. So that what that’s based on.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s a designer I had on the show a few years back, his name is Andre Hueston Mack. He is a designer who had some experience in the financial industry but then later became world-class sommelier and now has his own brand of wines. They’re called Mouton Noir or Black Sheep Wines. His design, I don’t want to say it’s something similar to what you’re doing, but he also does these visual pun sort of designs as well. His design studio is called the Get Fraiche Cru, but fresh is spelled F-R-A-I-C-H-E like creme fraiche, and then cru is C-R-U, as in a vineyard because he does the wine. Actually, for people that are listening and for you too as well, if you all want to go to Bon Appetit’s YouTube channel, I know that that has had its own controversy, but if you go to Bon Appetit’s YouTube channel, he’s done a series of videos where he talks about wine and stuff so you can get to see his personality and stuff like that. But if folks want to check him out, I think he’s episode like… I want to say 313 or something like that, Andre Mack. It’s in the 310s from what I remember. I tend to remember pretty well who does what when. It’s a weird quirk, but if folks want to take that episode out, 313, it’s pretty good.

Eric Bailey:
Thank you for sharing that.

Maurice Cherry:
So between Properganda and the work that you do with Zillow and everything, and even, I guess, throughout your career, how have you worked to stay your authentic self?

Eric Bailey:
Well, I think Properganda is part of my authentic self, so even manifesting that. One, acknowledging it, “Hey, I need to pay attention to this aspect of my personality, and two, I need to feed it, and I need to make it public and build it around it.” Acknowledging that in myself, and I think that’s advice I would give to everyone, listening. I do a lot of internal listening. I usually do visioning exercises at least once every two years. And that’s to check in with myself on, “Okay, what experiences you want to be having and what skills do you want to be developing?” And so, Properganda is a manifestation of that. It’s like that happened in order for me to be whole.

Eric Bailey:
I think at work, a lot of it is around… Working from home was a milestone, something that I wanted to achieve. I just had the good fortune of things making that the case. For me, going into an office, commuting for three hours a day or four hours a day is not sustainable even though I’ve done it for 15 years. And so, having a better integration of home and life because home is the authentic me, so integrating that, that puzzle piece has fall fallen into place but that’s been important.

Eric Bailey:
I think also you talked a little bit about the last two years and not just the pandemic, but all of this sort of… I don’t call it social up upheaval, but it was just folks tired and pushing and being vocal. Whether it’s the protest or the election or whatever, but they’re the real issues about equity in our country and race. Those issues now have become part of the discourse at work and/or on in day to day. Now people are talking about things that they would rarely talk about or in spaces that they would rarely talk about. And so that is really important to maintain that. Now if I’m at work, we will talk about being a black designer or a black design leader or being a black male or a black woman or a black trans person, all of the diaspora and all of the issues that go with that, those are now part and parcel of the things that we talk about in work in our daily lives.

Eric Bailey:
So being authentic to that and putting words to that is really essential. I think I spent many years compartmentalize my blackness from work. And so, now that’s what part of being my authentic self and bringing that authentic self to work is that we can talk about aspects of my identity, other people can talk about aspects of their identity, and then we can talk about these things that go along with that. One thing is also working on things that are relevant to my own interests. Zillow is really pushing to create a social impact agenda and initiatives that are focused on changing paradigms in the housing industry and the fact that housing is kind of key center point around inequity, especially in [inaudible 01:00:47] communities. So being able to participate in work and help steer work, that’s focused on creating social impact, like doing that also is a part of my full-time job. It’s not just about paying the bills but being able to move certain boulders that are important to me in my life and then also being more and more myself. Those are the things I really push for, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you feel satisfied creatively these days?

Eric Bailey:
I do. I do. I think my biggest challenge right now is probably I want to do so much more and there’s just so little time. The last year was tough because the kids were home during the day, so we were working and we were parenting. And so by the end of the day, it’s just like, “I’m done like toast.” And so, there wasn’t a lot of bandwidth to do other things. Now the only thing that limits me in terms of my happiness with being creatively expressed is just time. But I now have the things that I know I love to do. And so, yeah, I would say the answer is yes.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want the next chapter of your life to be like? Where do you see yourself in the next few years? What kind of work do you want to be doing, projects, stuff like that?

Eric Bailey:
I think in the future I want to work to live, not live to work. And so that means that I want to work smarter not harder. I want to work on things that I’m really good at and do that with ease. And then I want to be able to take advantage of the benefits of my accumulated knowledge and expertise. So if I’ve worked for 25-plus years, I should be able to take the foot off the gas. And so, to be honest with you, it’s less about what new kinds of work I want to do and more about the balance I want to strike between work and life. I want to do less of busy work and logistics and administration and less churn and more generative and creative, and then also connecting with my family. I know that doesn’t directly answer your question, but, yeah, that’s the goal.

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

Eric Bailey:
They can find me on LinkedIn, so Eric Bailey. I think you’ll share some links there. I’m Properganda1, the number one, on Instagram, and then propergandadesign.com is a website for Properganda. Yeah, and there’s zillow.com. So you can obviously connect with Zillow and all the great things we have there for folks that are looking for a home, whether they’re renting or buying. And let’s see. Yeah, I think that’s not a huge digital footprint, but those are the things I keep it to.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Eric Bailey, I want to thank you just so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, I mean one, sharing your story about how you really have become a designer and have made your way up in your career, but also really sharing how you’ve been able to balance these parts of yourself, whether it’s doing Properganda on the side, whether you’re building your teams. It sounds like you’re continually striving to have that sense of balance among the creative and the professional and the personal aspects of your life. And I think that’s something that all of us listening can really learn from. So thank you so much for coming on the show, I appreciate it.

Eric Bailey:
Maurice, my pleasure. Thank you. I’m really honored, yeah, just to be a part of a illustrious cohort of interviews, so thank you so much.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

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With over 25 hours of keynotes, luminary speakers, breakout sessions, workshops, musical performances and even a few celebrity appearances, it’s going to be one-stop shopping for your inspiration, goals and creative tune-ups.

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Explore over 300 sessions across 11 tracks, hear from amazing speakers and learn new creative skills…all totally free and online this October.

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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.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Janessa Robinson

Summer is over, y’all. As we head into a new season, it’s a perfect time to pause and reflect, gain some clarity, and reassure yourself about your purpose. That’s exactly what this week’s guest Janessa Robinson is doing, particularly now that she’s at the beginning of a new adventure — moving to Los Angeles!

Our conversation began with Janessa talking about the recent move, and she spoke a bit about her day job as a content creator. We also dived into the backstory behind her company Artistry Land, and Janessa discussed how she works as a creative with Asperger’s, and how she cleverly uses design thinking as a way to manifest success in her life. Big thanks to Steven Wakabayashi of QTBIPOC Design for the introduction!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Janessa Robinson:
I am Janessa Robinson and I’m an artist and an entertainer.

Maurice Cherry:
So how are things going for you right now? What’s on your mind?

Janessa Robinson:
Oh, well, things are going great. I just moved to Los Angeles a month ago, actually drove down here from San Francisco.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Janessa Robinson:
It was an interesting experience. That’s the first road trip that I’ve taken by myself before. It was amazing because as I pulled into Los Angeles, it really hit me that I live here, that I’m moving here as a resident. Each other time that I came to LA, it was to visit. I stayed with a cousin once who lived in east LA, she’s a screenwriter. Every time before that, it was like I came through LAX Airport on my way somewhere else. So I just wanted to stay. I’m very happy that I’m here. It’s a very significant change for me because I spent three years living in San Francisco. And ever since I was a small child, I’ve always wanted to live here, and not just live here, but be a leader in the community here to contribute something. I just saw that my life is here. So it’s an amazing experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It sounds like you’ve had a pretty transformative year then, especially with this move.

Janessa Robinson:
I would say COVID is interesting. There’s a lot of change for everyone. For me, I went from, oh gosh, spending four hours in traffic, just commuting between San Francisco and Santa Clara to staying at home. And me being like, okay, great. Well, now I can spend all the time I want on my art because we were essentially confined to our homes in the beginning. I decided that I would start dancing every day. I was recording myself and posting these videos on Instagram. I actually made a very intentional decision that I would turn my Instagram page into like a television channel. It’s like a show. It’s like an entertainment show. I called it Variety Nessa. [inaudible 00:06:08] dancing and rapping and singing and just shooting really interesting content in ways that would engage people since we were at home. I was like, “Hey, check this out.”

Janessa Robinson:
That led me into doing music actually. I was producing, writing, singing, taking singing and song arrangement lessons, piano lessons, mixing and mastering my own music. I used an algorithm actually to master my music. Yeah, it was really interesting. And sharing it on Bandcamp. My first project, I actually worked with a producing partner where he did the mixes and masters. So I just spent the last year growing tremendously, artistically, getting in FTs and graphic design, just blossoming, just honestly blossoming. It’s an amazing, amazing year.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re also breaking a bin into Hollywood too, right?

Janessa Robinson:
Yes. Yeah. I actually literally live in Hollywood. That’s my community.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Janessa Robinson:
That’s where my home is located, which is really cool. Yeah, I am training at two Hollywood acting studios right now. One is Shari Shaw Studio, which is physically located in Hollywood, although I haven’t gone there yet because of COVID. And then the other is Leslie Kahn & Co. Both of these studios are very special to me. The instructors there, my classmates, the energy and the way that we all invest into each other, it’s just very special to me. Then I’m very happy because for me, Hollywood, physically, and more metaphorically, the Hollywood community, which is spread out across the world. There’s Hollywood the location, and then there’s Hollywood the industry, which is just, it’s a bunch of us who are very, very fond of entertaining and see a lot of value in it.

Janessa Robinson:
For me, something that over the last year I was really reminded of is my family history in Hollywood. I have a great, great grandmother named Eva Wheatley Jones who danced with Josephine Baker. She’s one of the first “tan girls.” Meaning that she’s light-skin, brown, but not dark-skin brown, but at that time it was considered progress, I suppose.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I guess they all just call it colored back then, right?

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. Yeah, I guess so. I think that didn’t even come on mind. Yeah. She’s one of the first tan girls to dance with Josephine Baker. She is married to a comedian and he was a part of a comedy dance duo, same as Butter Beans. Then I have a great uncle, Arthur, who played in a jazz band for Al Capone at the Copacabana in Chicago. There’s just a lot of people in my family that have really contributed to make the Hollywood entertainment industry what it is today. The inclinations that I have for all of these different forms of art, I just love art, I just love design. For me, it’s about the process and the experience. Whatever the tools are, I’ll just use them to just make something magnificent. I don’t really care what the tools are. I want to do cool stuff.

Janessa Robinson:
It occurred to me when my mom was sharing all this information with me, that was shared with me in my childhood, but this is now, I’m in my adulthood, and now it resonates more to understand, oh, I see. These are the giftings that my family, that my ancestors, recent and much further back, that they’ve bestowed on me. So I feel very, very blessed and very grateful and appreciative to be in the position, to know that, to see that, and to activate on what it is that they have deposited into me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. It sounds like it’s literally in your blood to be an entertainer. You come from that lineage. That’s great.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. It is. It’s in my blood. That’s what my mom says. She goes, “This is who you are. This is in your DNA. These are your genes.” That’s what she tells me.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s talk about one of the things that you’re currently doing. You’re a content creator for a company called News Break. Talk to me about that.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. It’s interesting. So, News Break is a news publication that is available as a website, newsbreak.com, and as a downloadable mobile application. So people can go visit their App Stores or Google Play Store and download News Break. It is interesting because it solves a problem. It solves the problem of gathering local news over, gosh, I don’t know, the last, you could say 20, 30, 40 years. It depends on how far you want to go back. But we know that for some time, there’s been a trend of investment into local news dwindling. News Break prioritizes local news on the app and the website based on the geolocation of the user. It also pulls in national news. But the thing is that national news, it’s pretty repetitive. [crosstalk 00:11:37] the news wires. So it’s the same story over and over. It just has a slightly different, it depends if. It’s a news wire, it’s just going to be the exact same thing.

Janessa Robinson:
But in most cases, it might be a slightly different tone based on the writer’s style or it just has a different mass head that it’s under. But national news, now that we have Twitter and YouTube and all these things that help us communicate one story to billions of people instantaneously, it’s just pretty repetitive. So local news is pretty cool because it’s specific to what’s happening in your community, in your neighborhood. Like what’s going on. I first started writing for News Break just as I was leaving San Francisco. I was writing stories there, and then as I moved here, I switched to writing local stories about Los Angeles. Honestly, I like to report on really interesting people, local businesses. I love reporting on food. I’m a pescatarian and I’m allergic to dairy. So I like to go out and see, well, where are the best seafood tacos? Because I love seafood food tacos. Where can I get a really good salmon sandwich? Just write about that. Also, I like to eat those things.

Janessa Robinson:
I like to be in that moment and just allow my palette to be dazzled and then take all of that energy in and write about that so that I can recommend to people where to go. I’ll say that LA is LA. There’s no place like Los Angeles. Reporting here has been very interesting. I just did a story on a luxury experience service company called the [inaudible 00:13:27]. I hope that people do not, the French people do not criticize French accent, but I do speak a bit of French. I’m sure it’s mostly accurate, but yeah, I got to report on this luxury experience company and meet the owner who’s a very private person. So I’ll respect his privacy.

Janessa Robinson:
But it’s the fact that I’m talking about luxury experience company that we will, if I say, Hey, I wanna fly to Monaco for a private shopping trip tomorrow, they’ll put that together right now. They’ll have a driver come pick me up. They’ll have a private jet waiting for me. There’ll be food, snacks that are on the way, all these things. It’s just this amazing company that in comparison to my time in San Francisco, it’s not to say that that doesn’t exist there, it’s just maybe not as ingrained into the culture like in San Francisco. It’s more like, where’s the best vegan place to eat or what’s a really good mountain to climb, is what draws people there more so than LA, which is how fabulous can I live?

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds very LA, something like that.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, I think so.

Maurice Cherry:
LA was the last city that I visited before all this pandemic stuff. We did a live show there back in Jan… Well, it was January or February. It was February. Yeah, it was February of 2020. We did a live show down in Leimert Park. That was pretty good. I didn’t get to see a ton of LA. I just remember LA being so big. I stayed in Koreatown and the event that we did was in Leimert Park. Then I was in another part of town, not too far from Koreatown. Because I was also there for a work conference. People that were there were like, “Oh, you should go to the beach.” And they’re like, “Oh, but it’s going to take about an hour to get there.” I’m like, “Well, that doesn’t really sound like something I want to do if it’s going to take that long to get there.” It’s still in the city, I guess I didn’t realize the enormity of Los Angeles until I actually got there and was like, this place is huge, really spread out.

Janessa Robinson:
It is, it is very large, honestly. First of all, I hope that you come, that you return to LA and do another live show so that I can be on it. What I was going to say is that before I moved here, the last time I visited was just before the pandemic. I don’t know if it was around the same time that you were here, but it was just before the pandemic, where the Los Angeles Clippers flew me out here for an interview. I was interviewing for a job there and they flew me down from San Francisco. And oh my gosh, when I got to LAX, I had about, I think like maybe 45 minutes or an hour between landing and the time of my interview. I was like, oh, that’s plenty of time [inaudible 00:16:27]. I was like, oh my God, am I going to make it? What is going on?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Janessa Robinson:
It was just so stressful and I almost missed my flight on the way back. Because I was in those interviews all day and then I was like, I don’t think they know what time my flight [inaudible 00:16:47]. No one’s paying attention. So apparently I have to tell them, “Hey, I have to go catch this flight.” I almost missed it. When I was in the process of traveling back to San Francisco, I was like, wow. Yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a city that’s really large. I’m from Chicago. I lived in New York for a bit. Then I started to wonder, I was like, a city with eight million people? LA, do I want to do that? I don’t know. But then I do. I was like, I don’t care. I’ll deal with it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

Janessa Robinson:
So now it’s like, sure, it’ll take an hour to get to Santa Monica. That’s fine. I’ll just listen to some good music and chill in the car. It’s no big deal.

Maurice Cherry:
I was surprised by how much traffic there was. I live in Atlanta, which is notorious for traffic, but Los Angeles has Atlanta beat it hands down. The traffic that I would see, or that actually was stuck in on the one on one was hellish. It was ridiculous.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, it’s tough. I’ll say, I don’t have my only comparison points for being in traffic or me being a passenger because this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever driven regularly. This is the first car that I’ve ever owned. [inaudible 00:18:03]. I don’t know. When I was growing up, everyone drove me around for the most part. Even when I got a license, that was still the case. And then when I graduated high school, I went to undergrad. I studied at St. John’s University in New York, where very few people drove regularly around there.

Janessa Robinson:
Then by the time, I transferred and graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans, so by the time I did that, Uber was a thing. It was not yet an app, it’s text-based, but you could just text this number and a black car would pull up. I thought it was sketchy at first. I was like, [inaudible 00:18:47] kidnap me. Who’s in the car? But yeah, so then I just Ubered around for almost eight years. Now I own a car and I’m like, oh, traffic, this is what it’s like to drive in traffic. So yeah, it’s interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
I missed those early days of Uber when they just had the black cars. But for what I remember, I would take them in different cities, but the one thing that I remember is how much the drivers hated it. Because for them, they’re used to, I guess if you’re a black car driver, like a Lincolnton car or something like that, there’s a certain, I think, clientele that you’re used to in terms of decorum and all that stuff. Now they’re picking up drunk kids at the bar and driving them three blocks and then having to clean up vomit from the back seat.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember talking to, I did it for an article, this was back in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Jesus, maybe 10 years ago, I think. God, wow, [inaudible 00:19:48] services have been around that long. But I remember talking to some drivers and them being like, “Yeah, I hate it. I don’t know what this Uber thing is, but it’s some extra money. But I don’t like the fact that we have to pick up these folks and they give us attitude. And it’s just a different thing.” Now of course, ride sharing is a pretty, I think, common thing because now folks can even use their own cars. But I remember in the beginning though, just taking those black cars and it just felt so official. Like, oh, this is nice. I felt wealthy.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, it is. I would agree. I’m sure they’re used to a very specific persona for clientele. I remember when I was in D.C., I was out with some friends and we ordered, this is when Uber was an app, but I think we got Uber black, because it was so many of us and we’re like, “Let’s get a SUV or whatever.” I had this friend who was giving the Uber driver directions, which is already like, I don’t know why you’re doing this, he has a map, what are you doing? He tells the driver, he was like, “Yeah, bang a right right here.” And the driver drove straight through the intersection.

Maurice Cherry:
Whoa.

Janessa Robinson:
He doesn’t know what bang a right means. He was like, “I don’t know what that is.” He was like, “Bang a right, what is this?” And just kept going straight. I think also, he maybe didn’t like that this guy was leaning over the seat, giving him directions. But yeah, there was some clear maybe mismatch of energy there. So, those funny.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to talk to you about this term, content creator, because it’s certainly one that I think has popped up, I don’t know, maybe with over the past two years or so. We’ve been seeing this generalization of people that maybe before have done specialized stuff, like they’ve been writers or illustrators or whatever. Now it’s just this generic term, content creator. When I hear it, I feel like it’s mostly associated with video. But I’m curious, when you hear that phrase, content creator, what does that mean to you?

Janessa Robinson:
Honestly, I don’t know what… I don’t know. It could be in a lot of things. I have Asperger’s. One of the characteristics of that is a person might see a word or a phrase and their mind starts to run through the multiple meanings or ways that it could be used, the etymology, at least for me because I’m a linguist. Honestly for me, it’s like a placeholder, just some words, just some letters, some syllables that go there to describe the way that someone moves through the world. It’s used in a lot of ways, I agree. Like sometimes it’s used for writers, sometimes it’s used for people who run podcasts, sometimes it’s for video people. I think in the context of News Break, it’s [inaudible 00:22:45]. I think it’s because they use content creator because in a lot of cases, they’re looking for someone who’s more than a writer.

Janessa Robinson:
Being a writer is great. It’s an excellent skill. But in the digital space, when you’re developing articles, unless you have a full editorial staff where you have photographers and art directors and video producers that are their own individual team, then the writer, the journalist becomes the person who wears all those hats. So I’m that person. I do interview people. I develop sources and relationships, I interview them. I shoot photography, I edit photography, I shoot video, I edit video and I polish it all up and I drop there. So for me, I guess that’s what I associate with now, is if I’m a content creator, I’m someone who I create any kind of content.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s like the same thing where I’m like, yeah, I can make my own music from end to end. Whatever the content is, it’s something I can create. It’s [inaudible 00:23:48] the way that I see it, but I don’t know. I think it can be one, is that now going to be the expectation. Our specialties no longer going to be as prized being a really excellent writer. I think for some people that might be maybe all they want or maybe they only want to do photography. I don’t know. I feel good about it because I can do all those things and I like doing all those things, but what about someone who doesn’t want to do all those things? But if they have a very strong interest in one area, I hope there’s still space for those people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It sounds like it’s a new way of looking at Jack of all trades. That’s how, I guess, it used to be called, where you did a lot of different things. You just brought a lot of different skills to the table. I had a friend that, actually, he really explained it to me in a way that made sense. It’s like, he says, “Content these days is water and whatever the medium is or the platform is the container that content can fill.” So for example, let’s say, oh, so there’s this guy, he’s a chef. His name is chef John Kung. He was mostly doing stuff on TikTok, I think. But the concept is him cooking, which can be extrapolated to any number of different platforms because he’s using video.

Maurice Cherry:
So in that video format, yes, it could go on TikTok, but it could also go on Instagram. It could also go on YouTube, but you could see how these different platforms would have different audiences, different levels of engagement, et cetera. But someone could also take that and take the video out, and now you just have the audio and that could be a podcast. Or someone could transcribe that audio, and now that’s an article. Or someone can take that article and make images of it, and now it’s an infographic.

Maurice Cherry:
So content ends up being this, it’s the idea and then whatever that medium or platform is, is how it can trickle down and filter down. But yeah, that’s if you want to do all of that stuff. For example, I consider myself a podcaster, but I have had people call me a content creator because I can do video dah, dah, dah, dah. I mostly just do podcasting because that’s what form this particular idea is in. But yeah, Revision Path could be video and articles and all this stuff. I choose for it not to be, but it could be. I hear that term, content creator, and it’s like, I was bristle at it a little bit because I’m like, be specific. But then maybe that’s just me being older thinking it has to be in one of these finite categories or whatever.

Janessa Robinson:
That’s interesting. I think I like it because it is flexible and broad. For me, today I might want to write articles, tomorrow I might want to shoot a film. I don’t like figuring out the way to label myself in regards to the way that I contribute artistically. I don’t know. I end up with a lot of words. If you go to my website right on Janessarobinson.com or artistryland.space, there’s an area in both places to read my bio. And it says Janessa Robinson is a publish journalist, a writer, an actor, a photographer, a this, a that. There’s so many, what would I call this? I was like, I don’t know what to… I like when there’s something that’s flexible or broad enough. The word artist, I love it because you could be a performance artist, you could be a singer, you could be a poet.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s flexible enough in a way where someone who creates art at this point is not just a singer or not just a poet. If you’re an artist, it means that you have a particular artistic vision, artistic gaze and artistic process and you apply that to whatever medium. The medium at that point isn’t as relevant as it is to maybe whatever the message is that you want to communicate. The question that becomes, is this the best medium or is this the proper medium or the best way to reach people? What’s the goal? So with content creator, I like it because otherwise, it’s like, well, am I a writer, video producer or this? And it’s like, it becomes this long list. In Hollywood when someone is multi talented that way, we used to call it a triple threat. Like Jamie Foxx, he’ll sing, he’ll act, he’ll produce like comedy, whatever. You call this person a triple threat. Today, we call it a multi hyphenate because triple is not true.

Janessa Robinson:
At that point, it’s less about the specific activities, like what it is that someone’s doing and more about who they are and what they bring to whatever they touch. That’s how I identify. It’s like if you give me a camera, I’m going to start shooting things. If you give me a microphone, I’m going to start singing. It’s more this artistic energy. So with content creation, I feel very similar. Whereas my content creation might be NFTs and graphic design today. It might be videos and editing, cutting together audio the next day. I like that.

Janessa Robinson:
When I formed my company, Artistry Land, you have to fill out this business paperwork and articulate, well, what are the products of the services? One of the things that I put is digital and physical content. Then I put some examples. I said, including but not limited to, because it’s Artistry Land, it’s a land of art. It’s just going to be whatever I need it to be. I don’t know, I’m figuring that out every day. I love that exploration. I think that’s amazing. I get to learn a lot and connect with people in ways that are relevant and timely to the present.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about Artistry Land. This is a company that you started a few years ago. Tell me more about it. What are some of the projects and things that you’ve done through Artistry Land?

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. I was already operating as an entrepreneur since maybe 2014. I began freelance writing and I was gaining all of these opportunities to be published in really great sources and publications like Huffington Post and Salon and Ebony and WAC, [inaudible 00:30:21], The Crisis Magazine and The Guardian. I just thought that was a cool thing to do on the side. And then maybe two years ago, I think, it was occurring to me that I could formalize this business. I could formalize this business into something that grows beyond just freelance writing. My father is an entrepreneur. He’s been an entrepreneur for a long, long time. He actually is a former professional basketball player. He was drafted to the Utah Jazz and then he went to play in Europe for about eight years.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. Then when he came back, he did some sales stuff while he still had entrepreneurial things going on, and then I just grew up with watching him build businesses. So I thought to myself, well, you know what I really like about my dad’s entrepreneurship, that it allows him to live, to be fully human, to not be tied to someone else’s schedule, to make his own decisions about where he needs to be, and when particularly as it relates to him living his purpose. So with Artistry Land, I did these brainstorm exercises and I was like, well, what is my business? What does it do? Who does it serve? Before I came to a name, by the time I went through my research, I was like, okay, well, who’s Janessa? Janessa does love to write, but Janessa is so much more than that. Here I was dancing on Instagram and I was like, yeah.

Janessa Robinson:
At this point I had also had a short film. It’s a 30 second film featured in Time Magazine and Ava DuVernay’s Optimist issue, [inaudible 00:32:10] Optimist issue video project. I was like, I do love film. I studied cinema and I grew up in theater and I did do some acting classes in college. I was like, here I am, I want to do music. I was like, well, what is this company? So I just formalized it into Artistry Land as I developed my own artistry. I operate a blog at artistryland.space, where I do produce content. It’s mostly written, something I started doing. But this year, I think in the summer, was just highlighting artists because Artistry Land is really focused on the intersection of art and wellness. I see these things as so intrinsically tied together. I don’t know a single artist whose mental health or physical or otherwise holistic health isn’t impacted by their art or their ability to produce their art or the reception of it.

Janessa Robinson:
Every artist I know has some health related experience to practicing their art. And for many of us, I’ll speak for myself, art is healing. I love the idea of artists who are doing well and living well. And that’s exploring what that means, what it means to do well for yourself and to do good in the world and to live well. What are the practices that you do that cultivate that experience? I’ve begun interviewing artists who do good in the world and they live well. I ask them questions about what artistic projects are most meaningful to them, what art they practice?

Janessa Robinson:
I interviewed a friend of mine who’s an opera singer. She lives Japan. She’s a black woman. She’s an opera singer. It’s the year 2021 and she lives in Japan. She’s a rarity by definition. She talks about her time studying Buddhism, particularly while living in Japan. For just discussing how important it is for her to be a black woman, opera singer in this very old, traditional art form, I get to learn a lot. I think it’s really important that artists continue to learn from each other. There’s a lot of folks who talk about the need for artists to support each other, which I agree 100%. I just find that it is maybe more motivating if it’s clear in terms of what we’re learning from each other. If I’m learning something, I’m going to show up. If you just go, “Hey man, you should support me.” I’m going to be like, “I would like to, but this is like you’re asking me to hug a porcupine right now. You’re not being super endearing about this.” So if you go, Hey, this is what we’re learning together, then I’m very motivated to show up.

Janessa Robinson:
That’s my approach with Artistry Land, is to say, well, I want to learn from you. I hope that people, by reading your interview and being introduced to your art, by following you on Instagram or Twitter, or checking out your website, that they learn from you as well. I think that’s what’s really important. Something else that I’ve done with Artistry Land is I’m developing relationships with clients. I do design work under Artistry Land. Graphic design, brand strategy, brand design work. So I have some business to business clients. One of them is called, Where is My Meeting, which is a digital video production company. I think most recently they ran a press conference for Muriel Bowser in D.C. about COVID and vaccinations. But they also did, I partner with them on this, it’s like a virtual talent show in February, which feels like a really long time ago. I was like, is that last year? It was definitely [inaudible 00:36:07]. It is called Celebrate Black Voices Talent Show. Where is My Meeting did the video production for, and we gathered all of these black artists to spotlight. So there’s poetry and there’s rap.

Janessa Robinson:
I shot and edited my own music video and aired it in that talent show, which is really cool. Then I also, I’ve just been searching for organizations to partner with and invest in. One of them is, oh, you probably know this, it’s the Queer BiPAP Design.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. [inaudible 00:36:47].

Janessa Robinson:
Exactly. I saw what they’re doing in terms of promoting design, thinking, empowering queer BiPAP people with resources to be designers professionally. And I said, “Oh, I would love to contribute.” So I decided to donate after our call that I had with Steve to just learn more about who they’re serving, how they’re serving people, what the offerings are. And then another organization that I decided to donate to is one that I used to, it’s a theater that I used to train at when I was in Chicago, it was called the Chicago Beverly Arts Center.

Janessa Robinson:
When I was in high school at Morgan Park High School, I participated in an off-campus drama program at the Sphere. Because every Thursday, I was done with classes, maybe like, I think halfway through the day. Then I would go to the theater and we’d be in class all afternoon to the evening. It was me and a small group of students. The staff at the Beverly Arts Center trained us one theater. They took us into the theater onto the stage, which is not the first time I’d been on stage because I did do stage plays in elementary school. But they go, “This is downstage. This is upstage. This is what happens behind the curtains.” And then we went and we started to replays and then they had us write our own play, produce it. Do costume design, then we get to act in it.

Janessa Robinson:
It was the most amazing experience ever. I called the Beverly Arts Center a few weeks ago and I said, “Hey, do you still have this partnership with Morgan Park High School?” The artistic director at the time said, “Yeah, I actually need to write a grant for scholarships.” I said, “Okay.” So I donated some money for that purpose so that students there would have a scholarship to help cover their classes at the Beverly Arts Center, because it now dawns on me that someone did that for me at some point. I didn’t know. I just was there having fun, but I didn’t know that someone paid for it. Now something that I’m exploring with the Beverly Arts Center is as someone who has Asperger’s and has learned in my adult life in the last maybe year and a half, two years about it.

Janessa Robinson:
When I look back, I see how much growing up in theater camp and drama class really helped me understand social settings, social norms and expectations and experiences. Because when you’re reading a play, whether it’s a table reading or you’re performing, you could be off book, whatever, you have this concept of setting and characters and relationship and subtexts under the dialogue and action. It just broke down things to me that were somewhat confusing. So I thought, Hey, maybe I can talk to the Beverly Arts Center and see if they’re interested in doing something that focuses on empowering people on the autism spectrum through this particular medium, through theater and acting.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s something we’re having a conversation about. It’s something we’re exploring. I hope that we’re able to come up with something because I just know the impact of that on my life. People have all these conceptions about, if they’re aware of autism or Asperger’s to begin with, then they might have conceptions about the way that it presents itself or what the person looks like. Generally speaking, people seem to think that I don’t “look like someone with Asperger’s,” which is like, whatever. [crosstalk 00:40:32]

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, what does that mean?

Janessa Robinson:
I don’t know. I cringe, but then I’m like, I just listen. Thanks for sharing that. Thanks for being open and honest, but I agree. There’s not a look. And then the second thing they’ll say is, well, also I can’t tell. You don’t seem awkward or whatever. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s interesting. Because, one, I studied communication. I work in that field. So I was like, this is a very intentional set of choices of media. And two, I’ve spent my life in acting and theater and speech class and all these things that I guess at this point, people, they have no idea. But when I was a child, I remember being sent home a lot because I would go play with friends and then something would happen.

Janessa Robinson:
I don’t really know what it is, but they would send me home and be like, “I don’t know, sometimes she’s not getting along with the children. She won’t apologize.” And I’m like, “What would I be apologizing for?” I just didn’t understand. They’re like, “Are you sorry?” I’m like, “No.” And they’re like, “You’re supposed to say you’re sorry.” I was like, “Why would I say something I don’t mean?” It’s not that I don’t have a problem with remorse or regret. I’m a human. It’s just that whatever the social norm or expectation that I broke, I didn’t understand the concept of it. I was like, what is it that you’re expecting? Because you haven’t stated it directly to me. And if you haven’t expressed it verbally to me or in writing, that’s preferable. If you put it in writing, then I don’t know what’s going on. I was like, I just don’t…

Janessa Robinson:
Simple things like… A friend was mentioning to me the other day, he knew a child on the spectrum and he sat down as a child on the sofa and started talking to him and the kid was just locked gazed on the television and wouldn’t look my friend in the eye. And I was like, even that, I don’t get that. If you came over to sit down next to me and I’m watching television, you’re now disrupting me. I was like, [inaudible 00:42:38]. I don’t understand. So anyway, I like Artistry Land because it gets to explore these different aspects of art in the way that it shows up in people’s lives. It’s typically connected to someone’s early childhood experience or some transformative life change that they’ve made in their adulthood, but people that I talk to feel drawn to it.

Janessa Robinson:
I see Artistry Land as a publication by an artists for artists and also this house, this art house of content that I am developing as I grow my business. At some point I want to hire people. I’m just trying to figure out how to go about that. The whole thing about being a business owner with employees, that seems intimidating, but it’s really important because I want to employ artists. So I’m figuring it out along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I think LA certainly is going to be a great city for that. To me, I always see it as this destination location for people that are trying to strike out on their own. I think that’s just part of the, how am I going to say part of the American story of moving out west, manifest destiny, going into parts unknown and that sort of thing? But LA in particular, when it comes to creativity, it’s one of the few cities people really look to make a name for themselves. They’ll do that in LA or they’ll do it in New York. It’s one of those two places.

Janessa Robinson:
I agree, 100% agree. So funny you say that because what led me out here at this point in my life is a series of very mystical metaphysical experiences that drew me to say, I was working in policy in Washington, D.C. at the time, which is if you work in DC, you pretty much work in policy. What else are you going to do there? Yeah, I enjoyed the work in that it’s so impactful. I worked with an environmentalist organization, human rights organization. I met community leaders and organizers from Guatemala, from Brazil. People were literally fighting for their land rights, for their homes, for their access to food and water. Yet as an artist, I was not being fed. I don’t know what the bounds are of this podcast, but I’ll just mention that I did [shrooms 00:44:59].

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Janessa Robinson:
Okay. It was a very, very interesting experience that led me to being reconnected with these aspects of myself that weren’t being fed. So art and being an artist is one of those things. I had all of these moments in meditation, where I saw myself living in Los Angeles as an artist and doing so in a way that’s incredibly meaningful. Because I had built up all of this awareness about politics and the intersection of race, gender class. And these are all things that I was writing about. Yet we were looking at Hollywood at that time like, why is it not getting what’s going on in the world? Why does Hollywood not understand that some of these pictures are not going to do well or that some of these narratives are no longer acceptable?

Janessa Robinson:
Basically, it just came to me that I’m going to be moving here and I’ll be someone to contribute something of significance in the area of progress. It all happened very quickly. I found myself quitting my job. I was in a relationship, breaking up with my boyfriend, breaking my lease and just all in two weeks, everything changed. I actually traveled around the country for a bit at that time. I visited LA, where I stayed with my cousin in east LA and I spent time walking around. I visited Vegas and Arizona and I went to concerts and then I spent all my money and I had to go back to Chicago.

Janessa Robinson:
I had to go back to Chicago. I actually went to take care of my grandfather because he was in his late age at the time. And then I worked at my father’s basketball program called In the Paint Basketball. I had to go back to Chicago, not just because I ran out of money, because I had $70,000 in student loan debt at the time. So I needed a lot of money, and that’s where I rebuilt myself. I spent about eight hours in meditation per day just getting to understand what most fulfills me and allowing my subconscious to open itself up to my super conscious mind so that it became very clear to me about what to do and how to do it. So I went through the process of job seeking. I did some temp work for a little bit and I was interviewing.

Janessa Robinson:
Then I landed a job at Greater Good Studio in Logan Square on the north side of Chicago. It was a really amazing experience because when I got there, I was introduced to design thinking. I had been curious about it, heard about it, but when I got there and I learned about design thinking, I learned that there are some elements of it that I had already been using, which helped me find that job, like this idea of developing product features. So sometimes designers will write whatever product is or what it’s meant to do at the top of a page or they’ll use a board and use post-its or whatever. And then they’ll write down its features. Like what does the product do? How it does it feel like physically? What color is it? If it makes sounds, what are the sounds it makes, what do those sounds indicate? Where’s the product use?

Janessa Robinson:
You have to think about designing this. And it could be a physical product or it could be software, it could be artistic project. But I was stunned because I had already written down on a sheet of, excuse me. I had already written down on a sheet of paper, “Janessa’s ideal work environment and Janessa’s ideal job.” Then I wrote down all these characteristics, which as a writer, is the word that [inaudible 00:48:55]. Like these are the characteristics that make up this experience. As a designer, you go, these are the features. I wrote down that it has to have sunlight and people were really kind. I wanted something that had an industrial feel and it was open air and I needed it to be near places I could eat at. So when I showed up for my interview at Greater Good Studio, I was like, this open air office with exposed brick had these huge windows and across the street is this vegan place. I was like, “Oh my God, this is the place. This is so cool.”

Janessa Robinson:
I got to work with people that were very artistically and creatively inclined, as well as people that are very research driven. I worked on a project where our client was the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And the name of the project is called Raising Places. It’s basically a community design project where we went to communities across the United States, those six communities from the west coast to the east coast, and we taught them the process of design. So we had workshops and design sprints and research fronts. We just helped them map their community challenges. Some of the challenges that came up were street lighting and safety, safety for bikers on the streets, like people who are bicycling across the road and they want to feel that there’s enough space for them, food security.

Janessa Robinson:
I spent time on a native American reservation, it’s Crow Nation, reservation in Montana, and they have one grocery store on the reservation and it didn’t carry very many fresh foods and vegetables. And there are so many systemic reasons about what created those conditions. We could look at policy, we could look at legislation, we could look at the land grabs from native Americans, colonization overall. These were very, very heavy, serious conversations. Yet there was a lot of fun because the people are, they’re just families, they’re just people.

Janessa Robinson:
We got to get to know people and share a bit about ourselves and do as best as we can to empower them through that process. It was a very good experience. It was a lot of traveling, is what I’ll say. I did 18 trips in six months across the country. Some of those flights were from Jersey to LAX or [inaudible 00:51:35]. And it was like, when I got on the plane, I was eating dinner. When I got off the plane, I was like, should I eat breakfast? Because I don’t know if my food is digested. It was very confusing. It was just [inaudible 00:51:49], but it was an amazing experience. I hope that there is some lasting impact overall that really improves the conditions that people experience.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s a post that you had up on Artistry Land, where you wrote about using design thinking to help manifest. I’m curious, how has that practice helped you as a creative? Because I’m pretty sure our listeners might be able to learn about how they can do that themselves.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, it’s interesting. Some of that gets into the example I gave with Greater Good Studio, where I was as a writer, writing down characteristics. I was like, oh, Janessa really loves politics and photography and writing and she loves traveling. I was just writing down all of these lists of things about myself. I was doing that as a manifestation tool. So I meditate in a space that’s very open and honest and vulnerable. That might be physically, it could be anywhere. I just mostly sat on the bed or laid on my bed or sat on a yoga mat. But when I closed my eyes and began to breathe very intently, I did so with the intention of being vulnerable and being honest and being true to myself. Because previously living in Washington, D.C., I ended up there because I basically decided not to go to law school.

Janessa Robinson:
I’d spend all this time applying to law school again and got in to Loyola in Chicago, decided not to go and move to DC. Wasn’t really happy with my life there, and it’s because I wasn’t being honest with myself. I didn’t really want to go to law school either. I wasn’t being honest with myself. So I had to sit down and go, what do I want? And find this intersection of what do I want with what is very meaningful to contribute to the world? Because the thing about manifestation is sure, people can manifest objects or experiences. However, I believe that the point at least for me, is to do so in a way that is contributing to my purpose. So I’ve come here with a life assignment. So I would just visualize what is most meaningful to me. I have allowed these visions to pour into me.

Janessa Robinson:
Sometimes they’re very sharp and clear and sometimes it was like a little bit of light in a room full of darkness. And in any case, I’ll be come out of meditation and then go and write those things down on a sheet of paper. Then as I was job searching or apartment hunting or meeting strangers, I just found that the things that I have written down on a sheet of paper with a pen, it’s not like, no one can see this, just me, just me in the universe. Those things manifested before me. It just happened. So there’s a particular frequency that I was operating on that is beyond myself though. I think that’s really important to say that the intention for me was to move beyond my own ego. Because if it was just ego, it would have been like, I probably would have gone to law school because lawyers make a lot of money. [inaudible 00:55:01].

Maurice Cherry:
Pay up those student loans. Yeah.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, done. But that would have made me happy. I think the issue with that is that it not making me happy means that my contribution to the world wouldn’t have been from a place of love. So even as an attorney, I may have thought that I would have been helping people, but how much would I have been helping people if I wasn’t operating from a place of love and compassion because I wasn’t being loving and compassionate to myself? So finding some balance between, this makes Janessa happy and this is what Janessa contributes that also makes people happy and is compassionate. So it decreases their suffering. There has to be balance there. So yeah, the design studio, I became more trained in design and I’ve since worked in Silicon Valley and completed a product design bootcamp in addition to that. Now I use design thinking and manifestation. I don’t know, they’re the same thing to me at this point.

Janessa Robinson:
What I do is I’ll write at the top of a page the year, like 2021, and then I’ll sketch things that come to me. At one point I sketched a studio, and in the studio there’s a microphone and a camera and a whole desk set up. Then maybe nine months later, I realized that I was living in a place that I sketched on that book. And I didn’t even [inaudible 00:56:30]. I didn’t go out and say, oh, let me match this sketch. It was just, it happened. So I think that when it comes to design thinking, design thinking is about understanding a problem and you apply these phases of design thinking to the process. So there’s a point where you’re only focused on the problem. And for me, that was, well, I just blew my life up. I was like, I really need to understand what’s going on here.

Janessa Robinson:
So I spent months just focusing on that. It doesn’t have to be months, but you do have to focus on the problem so that you can be clear about what solutions you can develop. My solutions were, it’s pretty simple, what area of my life do I want to focus on? Personal life, family relationships, intimate relationships, career, home. I can find solutions in these three areas. And those solutions would be, well, what is that balance between Janessa’s happiness and increasing happiness in the world? Going to work in a design studio is one of those things. Because I knew I’d learn a lot of things that I could use in other aspects. Moving to Los Angeles, moving to California in general, it’s very sunny and there’s a lot of nature and I’m surrounded by people who also value those things.

Janessa Robinson:
Then also, it is important to me to have economic security and to develop wealth because in order to do the things that I see myself doing, where I see myself contributing, I have to have some resources. So for me to say, Hey, I want to donate to the Beverley Arts Center because that place helped make me who I am, I have to have money to do that. I can donate my time too, that’s a thing. But I was specifically wanted to donate money because that’s what got me the time to be there in the first place when I was in high school. Well, someone somewhere got a grant or developed a relationship with a funder, and that pulled me to the Beverly Arts Center. So for me, it is really important to look at the intention behind whatever is desired to manifest and to be very clear and honorable in that intention.

Janessa Robinson:
Once there’s clarity about that intention, I use design thinking as a way to align my physical reality with my metaphysical reality. I think sometimes with manifestation, I’ve learned that someone might be seeking to manifest something and they’ve created, say a vision board. Maybe they stop there. So they’ve gone to the metaphysical reality by using intention and finding things that represent these experiences or objects they desire. And in the physical world, they’ve gathered magazines or cut them out. But then they stopped. Where I think it’s important to look at is to say, well, how do you continue to align your present physical reality with the metaphysical? And metaphysically, all things exist simultaneously. But the way that we experience them in a physical reality is a bit different. We have this perception of time or limitation. Metaphysically, there are no limitations. Everything is infinite.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, sure. In infinity somewhere, there might be a version of you that has whatever you put on this vision board and this reality, what are you going to do? What steps are you going to take to actualize that? Now, design thinking can say, let’s research it. If you want to manifest a trip to Paris, well, let’s research that. What does it take to get to Paris? I would add, and this is my secret sauce in manifestation and design thinking, is who do I need to be? Who is that version of me that’s living in Paris? What am I doing there? Who am I meant to meet? Whose life am I meant to contribute to? What lessons do I bring back with me? Those are the things that make it very clear about what I meant to do. If I know that I’m living in Paris one day and I’m there as a filmmaker, and I’m telling the stories of people who otherwise might go unheard, then I know, okay, I need to be someone who is somewhere contributing to a community that needs me. Otherwise, I don’t become that person.

Janessa Robinson:
So, design thinking can say, okay, let’s research it and let’s ask questions about, well, if it could be very basic, what do you need to get to Paris? Passport, all these things. But what types of people visit Paris? What are the choices those people make? What are the problems they’re looking to solve or the solutions they bring if they’re business people? What person might be an expert there? How do I become that type of person? What version of myself is that? And it becomes very clear once you’re doing persona-based work, what the decisions are that someone’s making, but it’s important to be clear about the desired outcomes.

Janessa Robinson:
So is it just to live in Paris? Oh yeah, I would love to live in Paris. Is it to cultivate a sense of culture there so that I can translate? Because I do speak French and I want, personally, I’d like to increase my proficiency so that I could be a translator in a way that’s very diplomatic and I can particularly communicate amongst French-speaking countries and English-speaking countries across the world. I think it’s really important to think big and to be specific about what can I do for where I am right now? So if I want to be a translator, a diplomat who translates and deals with issues and builds alliances between French-speaking and English-speaking countries, well, where can I learn more about French-speaking countries? I can research that for my computer. It doesn’t stop me from doing that. That’s simple.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s something that I use in a way that at this point it’s very intertwined. I think I need to find my own name for this approach because design thinking is a very specific thing and manifestation can show up in a lot of different ways. There are folks who do have approaches and particular rituals and ceremonies that they use. A vision board is a great example. It’s just that it has a title and I don’t have a title for my process yet. So I’ll add that to my list of things to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I know you’re, it seems like throughout your creative career, you’ve been on this never ending Odyssey in a way. And now you’re here in Los Angeles, you’re about to start off with this new, really this new chapter of your life. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want to accomplish?

Janessa Robinson:
I see myself as continuing to lead innovation. I don’t just mean from a technical standpoint or innovation and business. Innovation and business, of course, innovation in the way that we experience our human lives. That would be leading in Hollywood in the area of diversity, inclusion, equity. I’m looking at things that would create system change and practices change, particularly when it comes to people on the autism spectrum. But also people generally, that identify to have disabilities, people of color, queer people and women. Because when I was in Silicon Valley, I got to lead, I got to advocate for and develop the existence of employee resource groups at a publicly traded company. And then I became the co-chair of a specific employee resource group or employee belonging group is what they call it there. So I want to apply those learnings to Hollywood and develop ways of working with people to grow our consciousness awareness and to shift our habits and behaviors to reflect our values.

Janessa Robinson:
Then simultaneously, I see myself continuing to build relationships more broadly across the business to make it more collaborative and to make it more reflective of a community oriented mindset. That may be the millennial in me, where for me what’s really important is to collaborate with people and yes, be inclusive. I think that competition is somewhat innate to us as humans, as human beings. There is some sense of an animalistic side where there’s competition. I don’t think that we need to over-rotate on that, particularly given the circumstances of climate change or a public health pandemic. I don’t think that we need to over-rotate on being competitive. I think it’s a time where it actually behooves us to be more collaborative. That’s something I see myself approaching through content development, through my choices in who I partner with business-wise, through working with different organizations to see how do we embed those values into the way that we practice our work, whatever that is?

Janessa Robinson:
I’m interested in seeing Hollywood be more dynamic in the stories that we tell and how we tell and what we do with those results. And when I say results, I mean monetary results in this sense. I would like to see that Hollywood is contributing to the communities of the stories that we’re telling and that we’re telling stories that are broad enough to represent all communities because people show up. Well, most of theaters are closed or limited, but people show up to the theater to watch stories. They’re watching those stories either in their own community or in a community that’s adjacent to them, but someone across the world or across the country might’ve produced that picture. I would like to see that all of the parties that are participating and contributing to that picture are compensated well. Additionally, that the communities, it’s not enough basically to have black folks in your movies. That’s what I’m saying.

Janessa Robinson:
I want to see that these communities who are having their stories told are, one, having those stories told in a way that’s justified and respectful. And two, that they get to benefit in some way economically from having their stories told. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but basically it’s to say it’s not enough to commodify someone’s story and be like, oh, but I told your story. It was like, okay, yeah, you walked away with all of the material benefits of that. I want to see that communities are being reinvested into, and that people have the chance to develop their own content and their own stories. And that the way that the system operates is in a way that’s more integrated and collaborative. That may be, I don’t know, I don’t know if that’s a new idea or a repackaged idea. I’m not sure.

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

Janessa Robinson:
The audience can find out more about me at janessarobinson.com. They can find out more about me also on social media. So on Instagram @JanessaE.Robinson, it’s here I’m often hanging out, is on Instagram. And then folks can also find out more about Artistry Land at www.artistryland.space.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Janessa Robinson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really, one, describing where you’re at right now in embarking on this new journey in your creative career, But also really diving deep into how the sum total of your other experiences, whether it’s been traveling or working in other industries and such have brought you to where you are right now. I hope that when people listen to this, they take away that they can have these divergent paths that can lead them towards what their goals are, Because it certainly seems like you’re doing that for yourself. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Janessa Robinson:
Thank you for having me, Maurice. Thank you. I love your show. I love the work that you’re doing and I’m very excited to be a part of it.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

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Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

Adobe MAX is the annual global creativity conference and it’s going online this year — October 26th through the 28th. This is sure to be a creative experience like no other. Plus, it’s all free. Yep – 100% free!

With over 25 hours of keynotes, luminary speakers, breakout sessions, workshops, musical performances and even a few celebrity appearances, it’s going to be one-stop shopping for your inspiration, goals and creative tune-ups.

Did I mention it’s free?

Explore over 300 sessions across 11 tracks, hear from amazing speakers and learn new creative skills…all totally free and online this October.

To register, head to max.adobe.com.

Sponsored by Black in Design 2021 Conference

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On the weekend of October 8-10th, join the Harvard Graduate School of Design virtually for the Black in Design 2021 Conference!

This year’s theme, Black Matter, is a celebration of Black space and creativity from the magical to the mundane. Our speakers, performers, and panelists will bring nuance to the trope of Black excellence and acknowledge the urgent political, spatial, and ecological crises facing Black communities across the diaspora. You don’t want to miss out on this weekend of learning, community, and connection!

Visit them online at blackmatter.tv to learn more and be a part of the event.

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.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Michael Collett

“A better world is possible if we approach our work with a class- AND race-aware lens.” Michael Collett was dropping gems like this, and we hadn’t even started recording! I have followed Michael’s work since 2016, and I’m glad we finally finally got a chance to talk on Revision Path about his career and his overall philosophy to life.

We talked about his involvement with Greenworks and Design To Divest, and Michael shared some of his origin story growing up between The Middle East and the United States. He also spoke about class awareness and politics among the Black creative class, working in San Francisco, and the one piece of advice that has stuck with him over the years. We need deep thinkers like Michael in the Black design community to keep us all honest and accountable!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Michael Collett:
My name is Michael Collett, and I’m a multi-disciplinary designer based in San Francisco, California. I’m on the steering committee at Design To Divest which is an organization that seeks to center and uplift black creative talent wherever we find it. And I’m a partner at a company called Greenworks and our slogan is tender loving care for plants and people. Thank you so much for having me today, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no problem. Wow, it’s so formal. My goodness. This is a night live.

Michael Collett:
I hit my ribs real quick. [crosstalk 00:03:24].

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

Michael Collett:
It’s still 2020, right?

Maurice Cherry:
In some ways, yeah, it feels like it.

Michael Collett:
Yeah. I mean, not bad truthfully like still walking around, still freelancing and keeping as busy as one can. San Francisco conspires to be approximately 60 degrees while the rest of the country is boiling, so I suppose I should just be grateful.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s right. Just so folks know we’re recording this right now where there’s like this massive heat dome over the Northwest United States, like it’s crushing most other cities, but San Francisco seems to be like the ice cube in the middle of all this.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, they’re joking that even the heat can’t afford rent here, yes. Understandable.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What has San Francisco been like now that I guess the state and everything’s opened back up?

Michael Collett:
As a San Franciscan, I hold the right to criticize my city a lot, but I will say that the pandemic and broadly reopening has been handled halfway okay. People were generally pretty willing to put masks on, San Francisco is very, very dense, we all sort of live on top of one another and quite literally.

Michael Collett:
And the mask rate was really, really high, people have and myself included quibbles about particularly things like outdoor dining and the way that that’s come to pass. But we’ve mostly reopened the cases aren’t really spiking touch wood. I don’t think it owes much to our political class so much as just our citizenry though.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s been weird how like Atlanta and Georgia, for the most part, it’s largely been open since, I don’t know, like May of last year.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I have friends in Atlanta who say the pandemic never happened.

Maurice Cherry:
It really never felt like it happened. I mean, certainly there were companies that had closed down like movie theaters and such, and even the city itself went through this whole reopening phase. Right now we’re in phase four of five of the city fully reopening, but it never really felt like the city closed.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, traffic’s been the same going out and about is largely been the same. I think there might’ve been certainly a time in early April where it felt like, “Wow, this is going to really affect the way of life here.” And then everyone was like, “You know what? We’re good.” They just kept going.

Michael Collett:
We just kept going hard and fast here by American standards for sure and the city, and much has been made of the exit is from San Francisco that the numbers don’t really back up, but definitely a lot of boarded up shops that quickly got covered with graffiti. I don’t know, I liked my city with a little bit of an edge to it. San Francisco in the last five years particularly had gotten to be a bit of a Disneyland, so a little more bite to the town always, always suits me.

Maurice Cherry:
So you think it’s sort of changing that way now that there’s been that Exodus?

Michael Collett:
We’ll see. Like I said, the Exodus is I think a lot more hyped up than real, like maybe some of the folks who were pulling down six figures and never really cared to be here other than for the job itself are in the East Bay now or somewhere deeper into the valley, but there’s still just roughly the same 800,000 plus people here.

Michael Collett:
I think what has sort of been interesting to see is that we all, for the most part, looked around and went, “Okay, I’ll put this mask on and do what I’m supposed to do.” And it broadly sort of worked, I think of criticism that I’ve had of everybody throughout the pandemic, both presidential administrations to governors and mayors, and everybody.

Michael Collett:
As citizens, we’ve been left to our own devices to figure this out, and it was pretty cool to see San Francisco by and large sort of figure it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I finally got to see you speak at this year’s where are the black designers confident. For folks that don’t know, I knew Michael, when Michael… Is Michael Collett still-

Michael Collett:
Michael.

Maurice Cherry:
… working Michael?

Michael Collett:
I probably shouldn’t say that it’s still my email address, but yeah, it’s still my email address. It was a numb day brand or whatever you want to call it for a while. I’m mostly using my full initials as a professional mark these days, but I’m always working on something that was why the name existed to begin with is because what are you doing or I’m working.

Michael Collett:
Back in the day, it was a lot of black collar work service industry stuff and that kind of work as much as graphic design. So it was an homage to being on both sides of that fence, but these days it’s mostly just graphic design.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but seeing you at this year’s conference and getting to hear you speak on that panel, I was like, “Wow, this is dope.” I was the whole event for you.

Michael Collett:
Pretty seamless, I tuned in, I was out and about on Saturday on some personal business, but tuned in and watched a session before on Sunday. And much as Zoom we’ve grown to joke is and Design To Divest is pretty notorious for glitching out whenever I get too political. The technical part of it was seamless, and then I don’t know if you stuck around for the online little after party, but there was just a wonderful sort of sense of community in particularly like the slack rooms and the chats that were going on.

Michael Collett:
I’m always impressed that people manage to produce anything resembling a human connection when it’s just Zoom screens and chat windows, to organize a real event. And then I’m somebody who grew up on Okayplayer message boards, and the old BB boards days, and that kind of stuff.

Michael Collett:
So I know it’s possible, but the idea of like running a whole conference just digitally, still strikes me as really impressive. So I was just blown away by all of it. The branding I thought was really, really nice, just some lovely illustrations and all the way through to the Zoom backgrounds for presenters, really well thought through. You know how designers can be, God, we’re so nitpicky, but I felt really touched to be a part of it and to be asked to be there. So that was really great.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I gave the second day keynote for the conference, and that was something that I mentioned was now more than ever we have, of course, like these physical groups of people that got together, pre pandemic, we have Bay Area black designers, black designers of Seattle, and other kind of similar groups.

Maurice Cherry:
But then like the number of events that sprung up over the last year, because someone, like you said had a Zoom account, they’ve got a Slack room, boom, put it together. You’ve now got a conference venue where you can bring people in and they can give talks. And like the technology has progressed to the point that allows us to sort of spin this up pretty cheaply and pretty robustly which is great to see.

Michael Collett:
And credit to the organizers, I think particularly of this year is where the black designers, without naming names I’ve been to some other things that just felt like workdays, you’re just in Slack and on Zoom all day and I’m like this doesn’t… Whereas like designers this year did not have that feel, and I think that’s the real secret sauce, if you will, is being able to take these tools that let’s be clear have been built for business purposes and to use them for something that is deeper and beyond that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think that just like black folks though?

Michael Collett:
It sure is.

Maurice Cherry:
Making something out of nothing. But yeah, the amount of different events and things that have come on and I did some of those events last year and it has varied wildly, some of them have been super easy, super smooth, and then others have really felt like work.

Michael Collett:
The first versus, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right, right. Yeah. So like you mentioned, you’re a partner at Greenworks, talk to me like…

Michael Collett:
Greenworks.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, talk to me about that. What of work are you doing?

Michael Collett:
Tender loving care for plants and people. So Greenworks is a fun story, I was up in Sacramento in December looking after a family member who had some medical work done. And while I was just trying to calm my nerves, I started flipping through a shelf full of books and posting on my Instagram. And when I found cool typefaces, just mindless research type of thing you do when you’re twitchy about something.

Michael Collett:
And a buddy of mine, Mohammed Sillerman in New York saw one of them and it was this old ’70s plant care book called Greenworks. And it had that one of those classic ’70s wobbly font types, you can sort of picture it in your head. And the tagline was tender loving care for plants. And he joked and he said, “That would make a great T-shirt.”

Michael Collett:
And I said, “Oh yeah, tender loving care for plants and people, why don’t we do it?” And so we dove immediately into the print on demand T-shirt economy. And the more we kept trying to type set the words, tender loving care for plants and people on a Gildan T-shirt the more and more it felt like we were just really fucking up. It was just this fundamental disconnect between what we were saying and how we were doing it, because look like Gildans and the cotton T-shirt economy in general is not a fantastic one.

Michael Collett:
And we wanted to do more than just add another T-shirt to the world, right? Like in what way were we improving on not doing anything? And so we stepped back and my buddy Mo realized that he had a friend Anj in Seattle who had worked with all kinds of different manufacturing and was currently working in the legal cannabis industry there. And that we ought to reach out to her about how to take this T-shirt thing on.

Michael Collett:
And so there was a particular design detail that we wanted to do, and we were having a hard time conceptualizing it. And so we reached out to Anj, and Anj not only had already solved for that design detail but immediately picked up on the problems that we were having with the quick turnaround print on demand object universe. And said, “We’re at a point now where we cannot do this.” And we all said, “Yeah, why don’t we not do that?”

Michael Collett:
And so Greenworks now is a research company more than anything else. And what we’re trying to do is provide as holistically as possible solutions to problems that we encounter as designers. So with T-shirts, for instance, rather than running immediately to a 100% cotton blank that you don’t know how it’s produced, but you probably can guess, we’re searching out looking for and working with people who grow hemp and use recycled cotton, and who are looking at the water impact and waste diversion from what they do.

Michael Collett:
So rather than simply treating the T-shirt and the thing that goes on it as the design problem, we’re looking at as much as we can, the whole thing from stem to stern. So we’re in the process right now of developing a line of houseware solutions since we’ve all been inside this year and nobody needs really another T-shirt, but everybody could use a new pot for some plants or a blanket for their couch or an ashtray to burn some incense in, or a nice water bottle. And there are ways to produce those that are in keeping with our ethos.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. When I looked at it initially, and this I don’t know if this was an intentional comparison in general, but when I thought of it and looked at it, it sort of reminded me of what Seth Rogen is doing with houseplants with his brand.

Michael Collett:
There’s definitely I think some similarity there, I would admit that we are perhaps similarly aligned about various kinds of houseplants if you will. But what I will say is that rather than approaching things from a hype beast standpoint, we’re really interested in products as the result of design solutions rather than products as ends in and of themselves, if that makes sense, we were just having a conversation about this yesterday.

Michael Collett:
One of the things that we’re really interested in doing as we produce objects is being really transparent about processes because what we’re interested in is tender loving care for plants and people, and that extends to the people that are making the objects that we’re designing.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s a new, maybe not a new challenge for designers, because if you go back through industrial design history, there’s certainly that awareness of it. But when we think about the holy grail for us as graphic designers is passive income. You make T-shirts, skateboard deck, coffee mugs, that kind of stuff. And people buy it because they liked the design of it and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Michael Collett:
But that stuff isn’t without its own cost and it isn’t without its own ethical problems. And the challenge I think for us as designers now is to look at not just the object, but the process as the design challenge. So that’s what we’re doing.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like that’s an ethos that has started, I think, in some aspect to creep up now because the pandemic because one thing certainly that this period has done is that it’s really exposed supply chains and how fragile they are.

Michael Collett:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
And so when it comes down to people trying to create new sorts of products or things like this, hopefully they’re looking at more ethical ways to do it ways that won’t be a big tax on other resources and stuff like that.

Michael Collett:
And selfishly ways that won’t get stuck in the Suez Canal for a month, like there’s also just the fundamental functional problems of hyper globalized manufacturing in that, your stuff is literally on the other side of the planet until it’s not. And I don’t know, I’m a designer I’m picky, that seems like a really bad way to have as much control as possible over what I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s the designer way, isn’t it? To nitpick over the details and to really create something that is, I think more towards art, particularly with physical works. I’ve had so many designers over the years where yes, they may be digital designers by profession, but in their spare time they’re doing pottery or woodworking or something, they’re making something tangible and they’re doing it with the amount of care and precision and such that they probably would with a digital design.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah. Oh, well, I mean, I think once you look at the world that way, it’s hard not to do that in every part of your life. I bet you are very, very intent on how your onions get chopped, even if you’ve never worked in the kitchen before, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michael Collett:
And that’s I think partially how I was raised both my parents are landscape architects and I grew up around them and not only in their professional peers. And so I’ve long believed that every moment is an opportunity to bring a design sensibility to things which to paraphrase Minari, I think is just a planner with an aesthetic sense. So if you’ve got a plan and a sense of taste then you’re halfway to a design. And even if that’s just chopping onions.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny you mentioned that about onions. I remember reading something, this was years ago, about how an onion will actually taste differently depending on how you cut it.

Michael Collett:
That’s exactly the point. Yes, that’s exactly it, right? Like sometimes you want the long slice, sometimes you want the diced onion. Sometimes you want to put it in before the garlic, sometimes you want to put it in after, sometimes you don’t want to put them in together at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, good point. Yeah. You’re also on the committee for a collective that’s called Design To Divest. Talk to me about that.

Michael Collett:
Design To Divest. I am just so full of love for these folks. So Design To Divest started in the context of the pandemic and the summer protests last year by a designer creative based out of Brooklyn named Vanessa. And they reached out to their network and extended black creative networks, initially for people to essentially for graphic designers to lend their skills to existing social justice organizations who needed design help.

Michael Collett:
And we quickly became a little bit of a running crew, speaking of assembling community online and in virtual spaces, it’s definitely sort of how that came to be. And over the course of, I guess, now the last year and a half, we’ve gone from hosting regular weekly meetings for black designers and allies to pulling back a little bit from the regular grind of the digital ecosystem and trying to be really, really intentional in the work that we’re doing.

Michael Collett:
And so we’re about to release in collaboration with San Francisco print shop a butt whole press that’s beauty, W-H-O-L-E, for those listeners with sensitive years. Our first Dezeen, our first publication that’s going to grapple with critical race theory and Afrofuturism and all kinds of things that are imminently topical right now that we’re only just fringe ideas six months ago when we started talking about this.

Michael Collett:
And broadly we are immersed in the process of trying to create something that I mentioned during our panel discussion last weekend, like a walled garden for black creators. And this is something that is not only, I think, a priority for me with Design To Divest, but is also a priority with my work with Greenworks.

Michael Collett:
I fundamentally believe that keeping up with particularly the Instagram algorithm for creatives is an inherently toxic and losing game. And I think anything that we can do to literally just provide a space for black creatives and black creators to develop outside of that really consumptive and extractive digital space is something worth doing.

Maurice Cherry:
And with Design To Divest and you all sort of coming together and doing these things, I guess, where do you want to see this collective grow into? Are there larger things also that you’d like to accomplish?

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, we’d like to divest from white supremacy in design in general. Yeah, that’s the large goal and design as broadly as possible and divest as largely as possible. We are I think, I’m going to say today, disgruntled optimists, as much as anything else about the possibility.

Michael Collett:
It’s cliche for designers, like design can change the world, but the world is designed. So yeah, I mean, sort of, right? And that’s not to say that like any one poster is going to solve racism, but there is a level at which we can be looking to develop spaces, institutions, cultures that are not based on extraction from black people.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really curious about that notion that you said of divesting from white supremacy and design, because one thing that I’ve seen probably over the past two years now is just how much more political, I guess I would say black design initiatives have become, that they’ve been largely steeped in these concepts of decolonization, divesting from white supremacy, et cetera, because it makes sense like you have to sort of strip that away in order for us to really get back to what we hope is the root of what it is that we do, because it reminds me of an essay that the late Sylvia Harris had written for Stephen Heller’s at the education of a graphic designer, where she talks about how black designers have fallen into this pattern of imitation rather than innovation.

Maurice Cherry:
And that the work tends to mimic what they might’ve been taught in schools or whatever around like the Bauhaus or like Swiss Style or something like that, and it’s less about their own kind of cultural touchpoints. And that’s not to say necessarily that that cultural touchpoint is a direct line to Africa, like a tribe or a country or anything like that, but just like where you come from. I mean, as African-Americans have a very unique culture in this country that is ripe with inspiration for so many things…

Michael Collett:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
I had Brent Rollins on the show for episode 400 and I mean, just the shit that he has created out of his experience is so uniquely like African-American, but also is hip-hop and film. And I mean, the man made the logo for boys in the hood for poetic justice when he was like a teenager.

Michael Collett:
That’s very much I think the point. When Design To Divest first came together, I remember we had a conversation, somebody on the call had lamented the fact that there wasn’t a black graphic design tradition that they could call upon in school. And I was like, “What are we talking about? What are we talking about? Absolutely not.”

Michael Collett:
When it comes to the combination of text and image in terms of its resonance in our culture, black designers are without par, but we just don’t consider that graphic because it’s not Swiss School publications, poster, nominations. I mean, has the AIGA ever recognized Pen & Pencil Studios?

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t think so.

Michael Collett:
Then they are not talking about graphic arts in this country, because Pen & Pencil Studios is a Seminole, Pen & Pixels, Pen & Pixel Studios is this Seminole studio when it comes to not just the African-American, but the American graphic design tradition, if we’re really getting down to brass tacks, right?

Michael Collett:
Whatever kind of design you want to focus on, but as graphic designer, there’s a huge black graphic design tradition that we don’t even think about because it’s so denigrated. And so when we talk about decolonizing and divesting, that can get really heady. But what I mean is that like, we should be in the same way that so much of the Bauhaus and Swiss School is about, so the Swiss poster thing, that’s about wheat paste posters that the Swiss put up on the street for advertisements.

Michael Collett:
That’s what that’s about. That’s the root of the Swiss poster and all this other thing, it’s street advertisement. So if we’re in thrall to street advertisement, then let’s go find those iconic street ads for hip hop records, for clothing lines, for all of the representations of black American culture, which has been the primary driver of American culture since time immemorial.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Collett:
And so when we talk about like, what does that walled garden look like? What we’re trying to do is to coalesce and to ideally produce and publish this knowledge and make it available for people. It kills me to see it’s definitely a common refrain among folks, take us off the mood boards and put us in the creative directorships.

Michael Collett:
We are already as black people inherently creative because you have to be fly in the face of systemic oppression. And then our creativity is never what is compensated, while it is what drives all of the cultural engine. You can find discreet examples of that like the young woman who created the concept of on fleek, has the millions of dollars worth of advertising that have used that word in the last, I don’t know how many years, provided a dime to her.

Michael Collett:
But it’s so symptomatic of the extractive nature of our social media platforms, I think in particular where so much, especially now during the pandemic of our culture is not only consumed but creative.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s interesting. As you mentioned, kind of social media and the algorithm, like there are people now that I don’t want to say that they’ve come up, but what you’re finding now is like this new instantiation of a designer who is more curator than creator. It’s less about what they may themselves be making it more about what they can pull together from what others have made, because there’s so much noise for lack of a better term out there, that they’re the ones that can say, “Okay, here’s the good ship that you need to pay attention to.” And like, then that person ends up being like a tastemaker or something in their own right because of that.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah. Well, and the ability to manipulate the algorithm has now been passed off for creative direction.

Maurice Cherry:
True, true that.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s okay, sure, it is creative direction, but it’s creative direction in the service of what? And so for me, the at all opportunity is trying to turn away from the algorithm as a driving factor in the work that I’m creating, is a big point for me these days.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I’m curious to know about the Michael Collett origin story, where did you grow up initially?

Michael Collett:
I was born here in San Francisco, and like I mentioned before my parents are both landscape architects. And in the late ’80s the Bechtle company was hiring lots of landscape architects to work on a project in Kuwait.

Michael Collett:
And so my folks being relatively young and fresh out of school-ish, first couple of jobs said, “Hey, pay looks good, live abroad for a couple of years. We’ve got this kid, they’ll pay for his English school out there. Sounds great.”

Michael Collett:
And so I want to say mid-’88, we packed up here in San Francisco and flew off to Kuwait and planned on being there for, I think at least four or five years. Oh God, the timeline escapes me. But the summer of the first Gulf War, before it was the first Gulf War, we went on vacation to Cyprus to visit my godfather in Scotland and to visit some family in New York.

Michael Collett:
And when we got to New York and got settled in, in our hotel, and these were of course, the days before cell phones and people had to know where you were going and call ahead, there was a message from my aunt saying to turn on CNN and that she hoped we had packed winter clothes because Iraqi Republican Guard had not only entered Kuwait, but had set up its command center in our apartment building.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh shit, wow.

Michael Collett:
So what was the vacation very quickly turned into, I guess, we’re coming back to the states now. And we returned to San Francisco, but from there we bounced around a bit. I mostly grew up in Davis, California, which I will mostly hold my tongue about. There’s some very nice people there and some less so people there, I’ll put it that way.

Michael Collett:
But then I went to a few different schools, first University of California, Riverside. Then when my mother got a job at Penn State, I went to Penn State main campus, that was a bit of a culture shock. University of California at Riverside was the first minority, majority UC school. Penn State main campus was 85% white when I got there and it snowed in October.

Michael Collett:
And like I said, I’m from California and not built for that, but I met some wonderful people at Penn State in spite of it being occasionally a pleasant villi in the horror. And then came back to Sacramento, having not finished and then went moved to Philadelphia outside of which is Penn State Abington in order to finish my education there.

Michael Collett:
That was sort of a choose your own adventure degree, I had originally started studying political science and bounced around and did a bunch of stuff. As the child of designers, I definitely did not want to join the family business for a long time, or at least I thought I didn’t. The punchline to that story is I’m currently now enrolled in school for architecture. So obviously I did not want to do it that badly, but you know how kids are great? You know how to get [inaudible 00:34:30] against everything, I’ll go be a lawyer. And then I realized that was a horrible idea.

Michael Collett:
So by the time I got to Penn State Abington, I definitely needed to write some very persuasive essays to convince these folks why all these disparate classes from three different schools about to do a degree, but we did that. And then I ended up back in Sacramento twiddling my thumbs. I worked a traveling salesman job for a Mormon windows heating and air conditioning company just as the economy was cratering in 2007, which was weird, definitely got chased off of some Stockton front porches by the sound of cocking shotguns, et cetera, et cetera.

Michael Collett:
Surprised I didn’t get turned into a hashtag, although I don’t know if they had those then. And from there, I realized that because I could passively photo edit in Photoshop and export to PDF that for boomers, I was essentially a computer Wiz and could pass myself off as a graphic designer to people who didn’t know any better. And then I quickly realized that I was in over my head and needed to go learn a bunch of stuff, which I spent the next 10 years doing, and here I am.

Maurice Cherry:
So one of your early design gigs was there in San Francisco. You were working for Mule Design Studio, which I think for people that are listening to this show that know about design and probably heard of Mule Design because of its proprietor, Mike Monteiro. How was that job? I’m just curious. How was it like working there?

Michael Collett:
Mule was a really, really interesting gig. Mule has since shuttered and I think both Mike and Erica are consulting and mostly doing speaking and writing gigs now. But Mule was a really educational experience for me as much in terms of design as it was in terms of how to deal with clients and I think particularly about the politics of design work.

Michael Collett:
And I say politics in a lowercase sense that I mentioned that I studied political science in school. And one of the things that early, 101 political science courses talk about is this idea that politics isn’t just party A, party B, big national election. Politics is the struggle for power in any group of people larger than one.

Michael Collett:
And when you look at it in that lens, particularly client work is a lot of political reading and handholding of the organization that you’re performing the work for. One of the things that we used to talk about at Mule that I find is such a great metric for things these days is that the main navigation bar of any organizational website will tell you so much about the politics of that organization, if you know how to look at it.

Michael Collett:
An organization that has a very succinct and easy to understand top menu bar, top level nav particularly, is one that… I mean, might have its internal problems still, but at least has a proper delegation of powers, like a hugely overcrowded main nav is a symptom of something organizational and much larger than just the design.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s as much, if anything, the key that I took away from Mule, is that design is a reflection of the organizational priorities and politics of whoever it is in question.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. Now, I’m thinking back at the last two places that I worked before my current gig and how design was… It was a reflection of internal politics, like the first company I remember starting at it, started out as… or at least when I started there, it was just sort of small, stable, fairly well-known software company. And their design was pretty basic, off stare, nothing that’s like winning awards, nothing mind-blowing, but they were also very well-funded and stable and all their employees loved it.

Maurice Cherry:
And then we switched to becoming the startup overnight and the branding was so… I use chaotic in a good way, but the design was like, oh my God, I’m really trying to accurately pinpoint how weird this was. There was like late ’90s, early 2000s like Murakami anime style, where it was certainly trying to like push a boundary.

Maurice Cherry:
And this is a tech company, like trying to push a boundary, but then it’s also like bordering on juvenile because I mean, honestly we were a young company, we had went from being this old company to a startup overnight. And that really reflected as the company went on, the people that attracted, the way that we sort of did business, unfortunately the internal politics as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And then the second place I worked at was this very stoic Eastern European tech startup, and the design very much reflected that it was just black. I started, they had a logo and they had black and two shades of gray, and that was the brand. And that very much reflects the monoculture of the company like, “Oh, okay. Yeah. Wow. That’s a really good perception there.”

Michael Collett:
Yeah, that I think was one of my big takeaways from Mule. The other one, and this was, I think, credit to Mike Monteiro where it’s due, was that it’s just websites. I think a lot of our industry, a lot of our profession is beset with a really inordinate amount of stress and anxiety and pressure.

Michael Collett:
Some of which are self-generated, some of which is client-generated, some of which is generated by the fact that we live under capitalism. But at the end of the day, like it’s just websites, like everybody needs to take a deep breath.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s something that I’m glad that I’ve been able to keep in perspective throughout my career because I started designing websites. God, this is date… I started designing websites in 1997.

Michael Collett:
Hey.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, this is basic SHTML geo cities, Athens Roads 1130. You know what I’m saying?

Michael Collett:
I thought those sites could still run, I bet [crosstalk 00:41:17] probably.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, they definitely could still run. Absolutely. I’m pretty sure if there’s a geo cities archive somewhere in my old website with my full address and phone number at the time.

Michael Collett:
Oh God.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s probably still on the web somewhere.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah, but the privacy fails, we all committed in those days.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. And I remember when my mom found out about it and I mean, she chewed me out, like, “Why are you putting that? Why are you putting that address on the internet?” I was like, “Nobody’s going to find it.”

Michael Collett:
Strangers on the internet.

Maurice Cherry:
“Nobody’s going to find it,” like come on. Like, yeah, there’s going to be some hacker in Stockton, California that’s like, “I can’t wait to get to sell my Alabama and find…” That’s not going to happen. But I say that to say, like having been on the web, building things on the web for such a long time, all of this shit is so ephemeral and like, it’s going to get redesigned and over it, which is why I never really sweat or stress web design in general. Like some people really like live this shit like Moses came down from the mountain with two tablets. And I understand-

Michael Collett:
[crosstalk 00:42:20] fake my eyes, I just don’t get it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, and I understand that, but it’s like, I’m like, “Dude, in 10 years, all of this is going to be like sitting on a hard drive somewhere. None of this is going to matter.”

Michael Collett:
Not only that like, I hate to break it to web designers, but your cookie acceptance banner takes up half the goddamn page to begin with, so I don’t know what you’re looking at to start with.

Maurice Cherry:
The speed at which that has taken over every website in the past two years.

Michael Collett:
GDPR killed mobile web design and I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you go to a website and there’s like three success of pop-ups, there’s a full-page modal to subscribe to their newsletter with some snarky dark pattern. No, I don’t want to save 20%, and then you’ve got the cookie banner and then something else pops up. I’m like, “I just wanted to read this news article. Oh, wait, it’s behind the paywall, damn.”

Michael Collett:
Oh, reader mode. There we go.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh man.

Michael Collett:
But I’ll just go find the tweet and read it on reader mode because you’re not getting my eyeballs for this, but I mean, this is where we’ve arrived. This is the world we’ve designed ourselves into, or that has been designed around us, because I mean, I’m not responsible for the GDPR modals, but it does, I think come back to again that pressure that we have, not pressure necessarily but the potential that exists for us as designers to unfuck some of this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Collett:
Hopefully, I mean, I don’t know what can be done about Shell oil or whomever, but at wherever we can there’s that potential to sort of rest things towards not sucking.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny. You mentioned that about Shell. We’re thinking, God, it might’ve been earlier this year where Exxon’s shareholders have to come to them and say, “Look, you all have to do something else besides oil.”

Michael Collett:
I mean, dissolve, like what else does Exxon do besides oil? I don’t know, I feel like that’s like walking up to the Fox and being like, you’ve got to eat something other than chicken I mean-

Maurice Cherry:
Diversify.

Michael Collett:
… not Wu-Tang Financial like it’s Exxon. And if anything they should be held liable for crimes against humanity and dissolved, but like, what are we talking about? Shareholders aren’t going to vote for that, but I’m sure they’ve got some crack in diversity initiatives going right now.

Michael Collett:
I’m sure there’s a bag for somebody waiting at BP to stand there and be the blackface of their diversity equity and inclusion extraction initiative.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. The higher, most likely. And I hate to say this, but it’s only because I’ve seen it as a pattern, but they’ll hire a black woman to do it.

Michael Collett:
Oh, I know. I know. And run her out like Google did to…

Maurice Cherry:
Tim Nutt?

Michael Collett:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Michael Collett:
Oh, I was just, I mean, it’s a shameful practice that particularly, I think a lot of the techies are very guilty of. We had brought up previously an article I had written a while ago, but there’s another one I had written this also a while ago now. But I think when I was at Mule, because we had a day in the office laughing about Google, having spent a quarter of a billion dollars trying to solve their diversity problem over the previous five years, and somehow not having solved it. And my immediate question was, “Well, have they tried hiring black people?”

Michael Collett:
And apparently seemed that nobody who took their $250 million suggested that to them, but then they do that and then they do how they do. So it’s sort of a damned if you do damned if you don’t, but…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s something I’ve always been wary of. And I’ve taken, I mean, in like speaking of where are the black designers, because we talked about that earlier. When I did that presentation initially in 2015 and I gave a very reluctant updates to that presentation in 2020.

Maurice Cherry:
And I say that because when I gave it, and I mentioned this in my keynote, but for people who didn’t hear the keynote, I got so much shit for that presentation after I gave it that it pretty much tanked my studio. I had to go out and get a job because like all my business stuff had dried up just because I said.

Maurice Cherry:
The answer to that question of where the black designers should not come from black designers, it has to be from a coalition of people from organizations and businesses and schools. And quite frankly, black designers create the problem, so stop asking us, and so…

Michael Collett:
That’s not an answer people want to hear.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but like I say, I reluctantly gave an update because I let it, I recorded it, I put it up on YouTube, and it’s been up there since like March of 2015 with like no comments or anything. It wasn’t until last year, like in the wake of people getting on the streets and protesting and companies saying, “Well, we want to uplift black voices and share black voices and such that people found the presentation were willing to give me money for,” and shout out to reparations.

Maurice Cherry:
And we’re talking about it now in this new light to this honestly now newly perceptive design community that was willing to hear it and was like, “Oh, this is actually good advice. Why didn’t anyone take this advice five years ago?” I mean, who knows? But I gave that reluctant update.

Michael Collett:
Obama had been president, what more do you want?

Maurice Cherry:
And listen. But I gave them a reluctant update to it because one, I was like, I really don’t have anything else to contribute to the conversation, first of all. And secondly, not much has changed. Now, I think some certain statistics around it have changed, like when I talked about the percentage of black students at schools, but I also spliced in economic data.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “Look, white households in this country have like 10X to 13X the net worth of black households.” And so if you’re looking to these high tuition schools to try to find black designers, it’s going to be hard to find when black families largely can’t afford them. But also saying that companies need to stop building pipelines, because when I hear a pipeline, I think of something that strips resources out of a place and transfers it to another place.

Maurice Cherry:
And there’s always a talk about all the pipeline, there’s a pipeline problem. It’s not a pipeline problem, there’s a relationship problem because what’s happening is these companies are looking at HBCUs and black design groups and such as like this fertile soil that they can keep harvesting from, but not planting seeds. And it’s like you keep…

Michael Collett:
Mentality is totally extractive, it’s totally extractive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s totally extractive. I’m like, if you’re not also helping buy, like for a school, for example, maybe offer to embed an employee there as a teacher or help to get their curriculum up to the point where harvesting has… I don’t want to say harvesting, Jesus Christ, but like pulling students from those schools makes more economic sense in terms of getting them up to speed with what’s in the market and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I said, “Look, I’m not giving another update to this presentation, like this is it. This is it.”

Michael Collett:
Well, and the truth is, is I don’t need another pipeline, there’s a gentleman on the steering committee with us at Design To Divest, Aziz Ali. And he has a great quote he says, “Black people are over mentored and under resourced.” And I really love that as… It’s one of our organizing principles at Design To Divest, we know what we’re doing, just get off the money. At a certain point, pipelines and internship… No, just stop.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Michael Collett:
Pay your taxes, pay your ties if you’re a credulous person, but just get up off the money, because that’s what it is. And whether it’s a pipeline, or some other kind of extractive relationship with black communities, it’s not the way forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve just come up off the money, write the check, or as a Tiffani Ashley Bell put it, I think she said, “Send the wire, make the hire,” or something like that.

Michael Collett:
Exactly. That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m probably butchering that quote, but it’s something to that effect, yeah.

Michael Collett:
Send the tracking number and we can get on the flight, shout out to Larry June speaking in San Francisco. At a certain point, like there’s black squares and, oh, look at, we were so sad about the way we treated all those folks in the past.

Michael Collett:
Well, have you paid them out? Are you paying us out now? Like what are we talking about? For stringently, capitalist and profit focused culture that we live in, all of a sudden everybody’s real touchy feely, talking about platitudes and emotions and shit, when all of a sudden it was the quarterly report and making sure those metrics worked.

Michael Collett:
I certainly don’t want to hear about emotions from tech companies whose whole thing is that we make data-driven decisions. Well, your bank account is data, drive it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Just go ahead and make that detour.

Michael Collett:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Seek that exit, yeah.

Michael Collett:
I mean, it’s not even a detour, because like speaking of San Francisco and particularly the way that companies behave extractively, we’re not just when we talk about the algorithm on Twitter on Instagram, and we’re not just talking about that in terms of extraction, but these are companies that have fermented and precipitated huge amounts of displacement in San Francisco who have gotten sweetheart deals from local politicians going back multiple administrations now who have never paid their fair tax share who in the state of California for companies like DoorDash and Uber, have been instrumental in demolishing worker protections in labor law just to pad their own bottom line.

Michael Collett:
So when we talk about extractive stuff and especially where design is concerned, that really covers the whole industry in a lot of ways.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that you mentioned, wanting to talk about, and I think it’s probably tangential to what we’re discussing now is about class awareness and politics among the black creative class. So I want to open up the floor so we can talk about that, and so you can go more in depth with that topic.

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, I think a lot of it ties into some of what we were talking about on the panel discussion. When we talk about particularly like, are black people capable of appropriating from other black people? Are black people capable of being gentrifiers? Are black people capable of behaving in these extractive ways?

Michael Collett:
And the example that we brought up on the panel was the Michael B. Jordan now untitled again Rum brand that had run a foul of people who are deeply invested in the history and traditions of carnival. But there’s any number of examples with that, I know for black southerners and for people who are invested in the south.

Michael Collett:
The attention that Tulsa has been getting, for instance, there’s been a lot of discussion around who’s right it is to tell this story who benefits from the telling of it. And these are questions that involve the black creative class. If we’re in the business of telling stories like that’s who we’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Listen, listen. I’m from Selma, Alabama. So let me tell you about how black people can gentrify other black people.

Michael Collett:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay? When Selma, the movie happened-

Michael Collett:
I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
… Selma, the city did not have a movie theater. I didn’t grow up with a movie theater. My first movie theater I went to I was 17, 18 when I first moved to Atlanta. But I say this to say like Selma… And I’ll let you get back to what you were saying, but when you said that, that’s really stuck out to me like, I just remember during that time and my mom telling me about how so many celebrities are coming through the city.

Maurice Cherry:
To me I’m thinking, “Okay, well what’s going to happen when they leave? Are they putting resources and things back into the city?” Because I know when I go home, downtown is boarded up. Selma is still like one of the most violent cities in Alabama, probably the number one most violent city in the state. There’s parts surrounding Atlanta. I’m not Atlanta, oh shit.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s parts surrounding Selma that the World Health Organization has classified as bad as third world countries, like you want to talk about how black people can gentrify and take from other black people. Why is Selma always a political stop? Obama and them come through and march across the bridge and then what?

Michael Collett:
And drive right out.

Maurice Cherry:
Right out.

Michael Collett:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Sorry. Sorry.

Michael Collett:
No, no, no. That’s exactly my point, right? Is that as designers, as people who deal in symbols, we need to be critical about how symbols are used. And that’s something I think that is often missing from, and the class awareness of that, because like not only is Selma this major political stop, but it remains a bastion of entrenched generational poverty there.

Michael Collett:
And the way that the black political class, the black celebrity and entertainment class, but also the black intelligentsia and the academic class and those of us, myself included, in the creative class treat not just Selma but other places and parts and people in our culture as symbols to be pointed at, as opposed to people to interact with.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s something that is often that I find, I’ll try to be as sort of politic as possible, but that I find is often missing in some of these larger conversations. And when we talk about extractive, we were joking about the diversity and equity and inclusion at Exxon, but I don’t know how much of a difference I draw between Exxon and Uber in that regard.

Michael Collett:
I don’t know how much of a difference I draw between Exxon and Facebook in that regard. And it’s one thing to go get a bag and I’m not trying to call anybody out for that, but I do think that in getting a bag, we have to make sure that we’re not continuing to enable things that are detrimental, not only to communities that were part of the larger ones.

Maurice Cherry:
So back in 2014 you wrote this piece called “Now is the time for a Black graphic design”, and there’s a line at the end, I’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. But there’s a line at the end where you say, “A black data processing associates have organized to support one another.” Why can’t we? Or maybe the better question is who’s going to stop us? Do you still feel that way?

Michael Collett:
I mean, honestly, yes, now more than ever, I want all working people to organize whether we are white collar workers, blue collar workers, black collar and service workers. As working people, we have much more in common with one another than we do with our bosses. As black creative workers, I think it is incredibly important on us and imperative for us to organize in some way or another. I am blown away, speaking of black creative talent by the TikTok strike.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Michael Collett:
Just got out the TikTok strike because I am too old to have it on my phone, but I see it come through my social feeds. And I know that they got those white dance thieves heartened right now, because they are not putting it together for it. And I think that is maybe it’s for jokes, but I think it’s really serious. And that is very much what I’m talking about by when I say, resisting the algorithm, the commodification and the extraction of our culture, because TikTok has turned some of these offbeat as white kids into millionaires.

Michael Collett:
When the people whose dances they’re stealing are still working with cracked phones. And it’s like, I think now the hidden upside, if you will, of our digital era is that so much of what’s already been going on for generations is now not only visible but hyper compressed.

Michael Collett:
It took 20 years for Elvis to get famous from stealing from black artists. But now these kids are doing it so fast that you can still see the people they’re stealing from, and I think there’s something to that. So yeah, I absolutely believe that black creative workers of all kinds need to organize and need to unite because we are, and continue to be the driving cultural force in this country and massively, massively under compensated for it.

Michael Collett:
And that’s whether you’re talking about music and dance, entertainment, production, but also graphic design and the way that design influences popular culture.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Michael Collett:
I mean, a lot of things. The thing that I’ve been getting really into at the moment is, is something that we’ve been working on for Greenworks which is 3D printing with ceramic.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I’m fascinated by a lot of the potential for new materials production and new ways of doing micro industrial production, and thinking about how to rest the utility of a lot of the new manufacturing and production methods back towards more artisanal or like small run kind of production things. But I mean, I’m obsessed with lots of stuff, man, how much time we got?

Maurice Cherry:
We got time.

Michael Collett:
The other thing that I’m endlessly passionate about is the history of the city of San Francisco. It’s partially just being a unrepentant homer, but in a lot of ways I’ve always felt that San Francisco can be a bit of a bellwether for the nation, particularly both politically and economically.

Michael Collett:
This has always been a bit of a neoliberal hellscape from the gold rush onward, of course. And if you learn to read the history of it, as much as I suppose the history of any place, it becomes very clear why what’s happening now is what’s happening. And I think especially as a designer, as somebody who’s admittedly very online knowing the… And it’s also, like I said, it’s my hometown. So knowing the nooks and crannies and the how we got here is very important to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel satisfied creatively at this stage in your career?

Michael Collett:
No, never.

Maurice Cherry:
Why is that?

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, there’s projects that I haven’t even finished coming up with the ideas for yet. I may have mentioned it offhandedly, but I’m also currently beginning to go back to school now for a license for architecture. The built environment, of course, having landscape architects for parents has always fascinated me. And the license to change the built environment, which is what an architectural license is, feels like a real sort of Mario Star for designers, right? Like oh, you can make a website, you can make a chair, but this is the thing that sets off the theme music and lets you do literally whatever.

Michael Collett:
So no, I’m nowhere near creatively satisfied because I feel like there’s just all kinds of things I could be sinking my teeth into. At 35, I finally feel like I’ve got my feet under me. A decade in the industry has shown me a lot and shown me as much of what I don’t want to do as what I do, but the things that are possible.

Michael Collett:
And I think especially now like what the possibilities between… The one thing about Greenworks that bears mentioning is that we’re all on separate coasts basically, Anj it is in Seattle, Mohammed’s in New York and I’m in San Francisco, and we’ve created a company and got up and running without ever all being in the room at the same time.

Michael Collett:
Which I guess in the context of the pandemic is a little less remarkable, but to me that’s still kind of wild that you can do something like that. And I’m really excited to explore the potentials that as much as I was poo-pooing global supply chains, the potentials of global networks of communication and idea exchange to me are just incredibly exciting when it comes to creative work.

Michael Collett:
And then potentially the idea of like I was talking about with 3D printing, being able to empower people to create things for themselves to take part in what had previously been seen as sort of enormous isolated industrial processes at a real personal level.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think back over your career and where you’ve worked, the type of work that you’ve done, et cetera, people you’ve met, what advice has really stuck with you over the years?

Michael Collett:
Oddly enough, I would probably have to give another shout out to Mule here, particularly Erica Hall, who is one of the partners there. And Erica was the one who was broadly engaged in a lot of the really naughty kind of personal one to one facilitation that enabled the graphic design work to run as smoothly as it did.

Michael Collett:
And she would occasionally come back from a tough session and flopped down on the couch in the office and let out a sigh and say, “Humans are fascinating.” I think that phrase and just that sense of not necessarily like emotionless detachment, but a professional detachment from our work that as engrossing and as occasionally anxiety inducing as it can be that it’s just websites, and people are fascinating.

Michael Collett:
And we’re very, very lucky to be able to do the work that we do in a lot of ways. And if we can keep that in mind, even in the roughest moments, there’s still something to be gained out of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you see yourself doing? You’ll be 40 at that point?

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I suppose I will.

Maurice Cherry:
What kind of work do you…

Michael Collett:
Thanks for reminding me that.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey, look, I just turned 40 this year, so I’m well aware of the change.

Michael Collett:
Right. [crosstalk 01:06:16].

Maurice Cherry:
What do you see yourself? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Michael Collett:
Having undertaken now via, and now set it on a podcast. So I’m really fucking responsible for it. The effort to return to school for an architecture license, I would love to be working in the field in five years in some capacity or another I’m not really… I mean, between my politics and everything else, not super interested in going to work for the big firms.

Michael Collett:
I think again, the attraction is being able to alter the built environment in small and measurable ways myself. I’ve got some dear friends that go way back with who are in the construction business. And so pie in the sky, just a small little design build firm to take on particularly affordable housing, adaptive reuse. Like I said, both the city of San Francisco and the idea of being able to work on the built environment are both very important for me.

Michael Collett:
And so I think there’s ways to alter that and to encourage that change that ideally are possible.

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

Michael Collett:
The best place to start is probably the Instagram account at greenworks.earth, because all of the stuff that I’ve been talking about throughout this podcast will be slowly starting to dribble out there over the next few months.

Michael Collett:
I’m on Twitter at either __mclc or mclc__, I can never remember which. And hell, I guess I said my email at the beginning of people do want to get in touch on workingmichael@gmail.com. I don’t keep much of a web presence as is in keeping with a lot of the things that I’ve spoken with you about here today. But I do maintain a small portfolio of some work at HTTP://whatifitoldyouihadnoweb.site.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I’ve been there and it’s like a little, it’s a presentation, it’s pretty dope actually.

Michael Collett:
Thank you. Thank you. It is, as the presentation that is linked there says, now is not the time for portfolio sites. Now is the time for a black graphic design as it was in 2014, it’s still the time for black graphic design. And that’s I think what I’m focused on as much as anything else.

Michael Collett:
And also find Design To Divest @designtodivest on Instagram, which is probably the easiest place to get on our website. We’re also on a wonderful platform and I’d like to shout them out, the folks at Are.na. A-R-E dot N-A. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve heard of them.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I’m on Are.na, just regular old MCLC, that’s probably the easiest place to find out what’s going on in my brain these days because it’s where I collect a lot of my shots.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Michael Collett, man, this conversation I feel like has been a long time coming, but I just want to thank you so much for coming on the show, so much for sharing your wisdom, your perspective. I mean, I knew when I first encountered you years and years ago, I was like, I feel like you’ve got something to say, and I don’t know if there was maybe a reluctance to talk about it, but just to see how much you have been doing over the past few years and even, like I said, hearing you’re at the most recent where the black designers conference like I want to hear so much more from you, just like your work and your words and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
And so I hope that this interview in some way can be a catalyst for that. But yeah, thank you for coming on the show.

Michael Collett:
Maurice, thank you. Absolutely. I really, really appreciate it. I think what I will say is that, I probably was trying to, I mean, this may be easy to exchange opinions over a Skype call, but in the same way that where the black designers may have thrown you for a loop, I haven’t won a lot of friends with a lot of my takes when it comes to design and politics in my career.

Michael Collett:
And so I think maybe all those years ago, I was probably still trying to play it safe, but at this point they haven’t killed me yet. So I might as well just keep going.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s a morbid way to put it, but I totally agree with what you’re saying. If there’s ever a time now to get it out, this is it.

Michael Collett:
Yeah. No, this is the time to be living as authentically as we can.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Again, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Michael Collett:
Thank you, Maurice.

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