Matai Parr

Happy new year! We’re kicking off 2024 with Matai Parr, a designer with a unique approach to his work and his career. Matai just finished the Masters program in interaction design from ArtCenter College of Design, and our conversation was full of fresh insights into the evolving nature of human connections in the digital age, particularly with freelancing, gaming, and social media.

Matai talked about his love for computer science in high school which eventually led him to ArtCenter, and he spoke at length about the significance of gaming communities as modern-day social hubs, the importance of advocacy in the design industry, and what he’s got planned for this year — writing about design!

Matai is all about appreciating the now and making projects that matter to him, and I think we’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the future. Thanks to Breon Waters II for the introduction!

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

The BFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts consistently produces innovative and acclaimed work that is rooted in a strong foundational understanding of visual communication. It encourages creativity through cutting-edge tools, visionary design techniques, and offers burgeoning creatives a space to find their voice.

Students in BFA Advertising are prepared for success in the dynamic advertising industry in a program led by faculty from New York’s top ad agencies. Situated at the center of the advertising capital of the world, the program inspires the next generation of creative thinkers and elite professionals to design the future.

School of Visual Arts has been a leader in the education of artists, designers and creative professionals for over seven decades. Comprising 7,000 students at its Manhattan campus and more than 41,000 alumni from 128 countries, SVA also represents one of the most influential artistic communities in the world. For information about the College’s 30 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, visit sva.edu.

Sam Viotty

We’re exploring the intersections of design, music, and social impact with this week’s guest, Sam Viotty. Not only is Sam an extremely knowledgeable program and experience designer, but she’s also the co-owner of a record label and she’s an adjunct professor at Loyola’s Quinlan School of Business. And that’s just scratching the surface!

We started off by defining program design and experience design, and from there Sam talked about her label, Rosedale Collective, and her dedication to showcasing BIPOC voices in country music. She also dove into her previous work at The Obama Foundation, and how that opened her world to the importance of design in project management and social innovation (and for starting her own company, Viotty Design Studio). Sam even talked a bit about her current role at Adobe, and shared her plans on what she hopes to accomplish in the near future.

Sam’s career is a lesson in how we can all reshape our perspective on the conventional borders of design — something important to learn in this ever-changing world!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Sam Viotty:

I’m Sam Viotty. I’m a program and experience designer, a creative at heart, and someone who really just loves design all things design.

Maurice Cherry:

Just before we really kind of get into the conversation, I’d love for you to explain just off the top, like, what does experience design and program design mean to you? And the reason I’m asking this is because oftentimes and we’ll, I think, get to this later in our conversation oftentimes when people think of design, they’ll only think UI/UX, visual type of thing. What does experience design and program design mean to you?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I think a lot of the time when I say program design, people are like, you design computer programs? I’m like, no, not that kind of design. Or they’re like interior design. And so program and experience design really to me is thinking about service and experiences for people. It really is people design in how I see it. So when we’re designing the ways that people interact with one another, build relationships, operate in the world professionally, develop themselves, that’s how I see program design. So really designing programs and experiences that people go through and then experience design, I think is a little bit more broad than program design. So it includes program design, but also thinking about events and experiences and things that people kind of experiencing go through. So events, conferences, those types of things, all thinking about not just what people are going experiencing, but seeing, smelling what they’re taking away.

A lot of it is like learning. So overall experience.

Maurice Cherry:

So it’s kind of like an encompassing it’s funny you mentioned event because that’s really sort of something that indulges or can indulge all of your senses. What you see, the swag you pick up, any sort of beverages or drinks or food or anything like all of that kind of can fall into the realm of experience, design, it sounds like.

Sam Viotty:

Correct? Yeah, absolutely right.

Maurice Cherry:

How have things been going for you this year?

Sam Viotty:

It’s been a busy year. I was traveling a lot. I took on just, like, really trying to spend a lot of time thinking about what is my life outside of my professional work. I live in Los Angeles, so I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors. Started hiking this year. Yeah, I just really trying to absorb a lot of the outdoors now that I live in a warm climate. I grew up on the East Coast, and so it’s really nice to spend more time outdoors more times during the year. And I feel like it’s definitely ignited my creativity in a way that it hasn’t before.

So I’m really excited about that. So, yeah, spending lots of time outdoors reading, trying to figure out this has been an exploratory year, and I think next year will be more of the taking action on those exploratory ideas. But I’ve been thinking a lot about I’ve always thought of myself as a designer and a creative and an artist, but recently have more thought about myself as being a curator. So really trying to dive into what that means.

Maurice Cherry:

And also, I should say congratulations are in order. I was doing my research, and I saw you were recently selected to participate in something called the 2023 Keychange US Talent Development Program. So congratulations on that.

Sam Viotty:

Thank you so much. Really excited about it. It kicked off at the beginning of October with a cohort of 25 really incredible human beings. It made my heart really warm to spend, like, three days with all of them started in October and it ends in March. So I’m really at the beginning of the program right now, and so far we’ve only had a few interactions, so one in person and two virtual events together. And I already feel like I’m a part of a community, which is why I applied. I was really excited about being a part of a larger music and artist creative community in Los Angeles. But it’s a Los Angeles, New York and Nashville based program, so we’re also the first US cohort.

So I love being a part of a pilot program. We’ll probably get into this later, but yeah, I’ve been a part of a lot of pilot first time programs, which really is exciting to me to kind of lay the groundwork for what’s to come. It’s been really fun. We’ve spent time working together. We went to Joshua Tree Music Festival together. I’ve never gone to a music festival for work before as fun, so that was amazing. Yeah. Being a professional at a music festival is interesting.

It was really so four of the participants in the program also performed, and it was the first time I got to see them perform. So just seeing the people who are your peers do their thing on stage was just like a proud mom sitting in the audience.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice.

Sam Viotty:

So, yeah, it’s a really beautiful community that they’ve built.

Maurice Cherry:

And now you said it’s the first US based cohort. Is it normally international?

Sam Viotty:

It sounds like yeah, it’s an EU funded program, so they mostly do projects in Europe, and so this is the first time they’re doing a cohort in the United States, which is exciting.

Maurice Cherry:

And now what will you be doing as part of the program? Is this affiliated with some of your other work?

Sam Viotty:

It is. So I applied as an innovator. So it’s twelve innovators and 13 musicians or artists who come together to work just professionally develop. So really thinking about what is your career? I’m the co-founder of a small indie music accelerator and label focused on uplifting the voices of people of color in country, folk and Americana music. We’re expanding to other genres of music. So think like genres that you don’t normally see people of color on the charts. We’re helping amplify those. I applied thinking, how incredible would it be to be a part of a cohort of people who are working towards similar things, trying to achieve equity in the music space, trying to change the music industry.

I’ve been working in the music industry for a few years now, and it’s very interesting. It is unlike any industry that I’ve ever worked in. I used to work in nonprofit, I moved to the private sector. But music feels very different. And living in Los Angeles, on any Wednesday, you’ll go grab lunch and you’re like, Why is it crowded? Because everyone’s having a lunch work meeting within a different culture than I’ve ever experienced. Yeah, it’s very different. I applied thinking, how do I build my music community and work alongside other musicians and innovators to change how the music industry operates. A lot of the label is called Rosedale Collective.

We really often think about how do we change the way that artists are treated and supported and how do they have ownership, in particular, Black and brown people having ownership over the work that they create. So how do we revision no pun intended, actually, how do we revision a way forward for how artists create work and work with labels? And so we’ve designed a residency program that is a year long. We’ve done a few that are shorter. We have not launched our long term, one year long program yet, but we’re working on that. But the long term vision is you support a cohort of artists throughout a year. You pay them a salary and they get to focus on making the art. And then instead of owning the It or the masters to the work that the artists create, we revenue share throughout across all of the different categories that an artist to make money. So through merch and royalties on streaming and touring.

So we split those and instead of just outright owning the work, an artist gets to keep ownership. So we’re really trying to rethink how the industry makes money with artists, and right now they’re making money off of artists. So we’re like, how do we make money with you instead of off of you?

Maurice Cherry:

First off, that is a fascinating model. I mean, I think there’s no shortage of horror stories about musicians getting shafted in some way by the music industry or taken advantage of or something. So I love that you sort of have this revenue share thing and then also the fact that the focus is on a genre of music. I know you said you want to expand it, but you’re focusing right now on country music, which, again, is probably not seen as very super diverse. Like, I can probably count the number of Black country artists. There’s more now than when I was a kid. I’ll say that in terms of visibility, but yeah, that’s such an awesome I mean, I feel like there’s a great story behind even the fact that you co own a record label. That is amazing.

Sam Viotty:

It’s a fun, actually. I met my co-founders at a conference in DC while I was working at the Obama Foundation. We got tickets to A Day of Healing and Restorative Justice. And so I was like, I’d love to not go into the office today. I’d rather be at a conference. And so met these people who are working at the intersection of social impact and entertainment. And I was like, this is such a cool job. You just get to use celebrity money to change the world.

That’s awesome. I was 25 then, so I was still doe-eyed and excited…a little jaded now. So I was very excited about that. And so I kept in contact with the people who were working there, and they reached out to me in 2020 about starting a record label and thinking about designing programs for people of color in the country music space. And so I was like, I don’t know a ton about country music. I know a little Shania Twain, but I do know that it feels pretty racist and so that I can get behind challenging that. And so how do we really think about what music would look like and how it would be different if Black people or people of color kind of were at the forefront? So country music was made by people of color. And so Charley Pride is one of our people that we look up to.

And so, yeah, how do we just reclaim a genre that really was made by Black people? And now the face of country music is not a Black person, not in the United States and not on the top charts. So how do we reclaim that? So we spent a lot of time thinking about narrative change and really redesigning the system of the music industry.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I feel like there’s a lot that has to go behind designing a label. I mean, of course you think of general things like album art and logos and things of that nature, but the design and business of putting something like that together, that seems like such a huge undertaking.

Sam Viotty:

I’m going to be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing. And I think it actually has been really beneficial that I stepped into the music industry not knowing how the music industry works, because I’ve just been doing what I think makes sense, and that doesn’t necessarily align with what actually happens. And so I’m like, yeah, I think artists should own their work. And people are like, well, it doesn’t really work that way because we don’t make a profit. I’m like, well, that doesn’t make sense. We could figure out a way to make money while also letting people own things that they make. So let’s just design that.

I very lucky. My co-founder is an incredible…I don’t think he would consider himself a designer, but he designed our logo, and I think it’s genius. It’s a circle that has lines going through it and it’s the middle of a guitar. It’s a really amazing logo. I’m very proud of the logo. So we put it on everything. I wear a sweatshirt. I have a hat. Stickers.

And so thinking about how do we take symbols of country music and redefine them? Because I think right now people think country music. I think or before this, I used to think cowboy hat, cowboy shoots, cowboy boots. So what are the symbols of country music? And what are the symbols of country music for people of color. The guitar is one of them. We work with some other organizations who really like to uplift Black and brown artists. One of them is Black Opry, and so their logo is also a guitar. So just thinking about the symbols and iconography for black country music has been really exciting because I think it’s a different language. Like, we’re speaking a different language to a different audience.

And so I spent a lot of my time in undergrad thinking about symbols and iconography. And so it was exciting to bring that piece to the label. And thinking about a label, it’s like developing a brand. We developed a brand before we did anything. We came up with colors and a logo and a design and a deck. And so so much of it was like, how do we communicate who we are and what we do before we’ve even done anything? Which lots of conversations, lots of talking to people before we did a single thing, we did a listening and learning tour where we talked to tens of musicians, like 100 music execs and people in the music industry and in the nonprofit space trying to change things, social impact people. So just spend a lot of time talking to people to be like, what are people looking at? What do people feel and how do we communicate what we’re trying to communicate? And who is our audience, actually? So goes into a lot of the design work. When I went to grad school, I went to grad school at Emerson in a pilot program.

It was called Civic Media Art and Practice. And so that’s where I learned about design thinking. And so I’ve brought design thinking into ever since I’ve learned about it, I’ve brought it into every single job. And so I think when I don’t know what to do, I just rely on that process. I’m like, it’ll be good, we’ll just figure out how. It’s like the scientific method. I’m like, I don’t know how to get an answer, but if we just use this process, I can get us to figuring out how we get an answer. We did a lot of that.

And so that first stage of talking and listening to people is very similar to the empathy stage and the design thinking process.

Maurice Cherry:

I say that all the time to people about how design thinking is very much like the scientific method. So I’m glad that we see eye to eye on that.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I explained it like that. I’m like, it’s the same thing. People just yeah, anthropologists looked at it and I guess the design school looked at it and then rebrand it’s all branding. They rebranded it, but it’s the same thing.

Maurice Cherry:

I think what you’re doing with one, shining a light on country music and also promoting and uplifting artists, BIPOC artists, et cetera, in country is great because I grew up as a musician. I grew up as a jazz musician mostly, but there was one thing about like and this might be a bit of a stretch, so if it is, please let me know. But I feel like a lot of could do really well as contemporary country songs. I feel like there’s a thin line between Toni Braxton and that being a country song. I’m thinking love should have like “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” could totally be a country song.

Sam Viotty:

I absolutely could be a country song. We used to jokingly make a criteria checklist for what is a country song. One was like, is it about love or heartbreak? Check. Does it have a Twang check? I think you’re right. The only thing missing from the twang, like, if they all had a twang, they would absolutely be country.

Maurice Cherry:

Yes. A lot of, like, Anita Baker songs could definitely also sound like country songs. She has like, a slight Twang. But I get what you mean though. There is sort of a checklist of like, is it heartbreak? Is it lament in some capacity then it could totally be a country song. Now, we talked about Rosedale, but also you have another job where you work for Adobe. Can you talk a little bit about what you do there?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, that is really exciting. I spend most of my time working at Adobe now. It’s one of those companies that when you’re young and in college and you think about design and education and what’s the coolest job you could have. It is the job I have now. And I think that’s incredible. College me would be very proud. So right now, I lead all of Adobe’s higher education professional development. So training programs for faculty and students in higher education in the United States.

We’re expanding to the United Kingdom and Australia. Starting to think globally about what does it mean and what are the skills that a 21st century college graduate needs in order to operate in the world. Adobe is notorious for being extremely challenging, having a high learning, a very difficult learning curve and being quite know one financially. And also, just like, the tools are complicated and there are a lot of them. Adobe has launched something called Adobe Express, which is the kind of premier product that I work on and work with schools to use. So think of the rival Canva as…Canva was a response to Adobe being really difficult. Adobe Express is a response to that. And so it’s an incredible tool.

I think the thing that’s exciting about Adobe Express is it has the generative AI in it, which is really helpful now and interesting, brings a conversation about ethics and IP and copyright, which Adobe is big on, especially because we’ve been working with artists and illustrators and graphic designers for ages. I spend a lot of my time helping faculty and schools and instructional designers think about what does it need to be a digitally fluent individual? And so how do you redesign your curriculum so that students are getting the skills that they need to be successful beyond college. So instead of maybe writing that ten page paper, what does it look like to help a student create an assignment that is actually a video storytelling project or create a podcast instead of the paper? So what is the alternative to the typical research paper? Because in my personal job, I am not writing research paper long things anymore. I am doing research and then applying it to a project. And so how do we do a little bit more project based learning at the higher ed level? I think a lot of K Twelve and high schools have taken this on, which is incredible. But I think the project based learning often happens either in really vocational or technical student projects. So if you’re in a graphic design class or create this poster or create a project for a client, those things happen. But in the kind of social sciences and English classes that’s not really happening.

It’s still pretty static and it’s like write a paper to respond to this. And I’m like, the world that we live in now doesn’t really do that. So how do we change how we’re thinking about it? And how do we cultivate the skills that people need? Creating presentations, marketing on social media, creating posters, creating graphics like everyone video and short form storytelling. Short form video is the primary way that people communicate now. They cannot scroll on any social media without seeing video. How do we cultivate those skills to make sure that students are signed up for success? So I spent a lot of my time doing that, which is really cool because I was really interested. I started my career in education and then I also just have always had this passion for being creative and working with creatives and just thinking about arts and culture. And so I feel like I get to bring those worlds together in my role at Adobe.

Maurice Cherry:

Now that is fascinating. You’re designing education or you’re designing the way that people are learning about these new tools and these new methods. And I’m curious, does that work and the work you do with Rosedale collectors, does that bleed into each other in any way? It feels like that could be a lot to possibly try to balance it.

Sam Viotty:

Is it’s like, you know, corporate world and also working at a small indie, but I sit in between the education team and the marketing team. And so I’ve learned so much about corporate marketing through working at Adobe, which as an Indie label and accelerator, we have the finances to play small. But I’m like how do we play big? Because that’s how the music industry works. There’s so much like everyone’s a musician, everyone can be right. And so how do you get the people that you want to bubble to the top? And it’s marketing. I was talking about those interviews earlier and we talked to so many artists, and I’d say, what do you need help with? What’s your biggest struggle right now? It is not songwriting. It is not making the music. It is not finding a producer.

It isn’t even touring. It is marketing. They’re like, how do I get someone to hear my music? It’s marketing and distribution. And so I’ve learned a lot about marketing and distribution in this corporate role and seeing how that plays out and being able to say, okay, if that’s true here, how do we apply it to how do we use some of these strategies for our artists and teach them how to do it for themselves? And so I see my role in both of them as I’m professionally developing people. They’re just different. But coincidentally, the artists that I work with are about the same age as the students who faculty are working with. I have a similar audience. Like, how do I prepare these 18 to 25 year olds with 21st century skills to be successful in the world to either market themselves, market the things that they’re working on, and really tell stories?

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think what you’re doing is just such extremely important work because I think what we’ve definitely seen over the past few years is that our systems are changing. I mean, definitely with the advent of AI and things, we’re seeing how that’s been affecting certain industries. But even like you said, with marketing and getting content out there, it’s even weird to call it old school. But the old school ways, which we knew about how to market things and how to learn things are changing. And a lot of that is due to technology. So I think you being at the forefront of that, particularly with sitting kind of between marketing and education teams, that sounds like a dream. I mean, I’m speaking for myself, but that sounds like a dream job to have.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah. Again, I think college undergrad me would be like, if someone asked me what job I wanted, it would be this one. And so I’m excited about that. The other thing that I just so excited about is generative AI. I know that it’s a hot topic, but working at Adobe and seeing just, like, how these tools have allowed people to make things that they wouldn’t have created before, same. Like, I also am an illustrator. Not a great one, but it’s my hobby. It has enabled me to create things that I wouldn’t have been able to create before.

And not in a plagiarism way, but I’m like removing the background from something. Used to take ages in Photoshop. Now in Adobe Express, it’s a like, it has saved me time. Technology is catching up with how quickly and how fast the world is. Like, things happen and then it is online in seconds, and the tools are starting to catch up to that. So I’ve been really excited about how do we leverage those tools to ignite creativity because I’m someone who procrastinates, and I also get really stuck. I think generative AI has helped me get unstuck as a brainstorming. Like, you know, let me just pop it in and see what I can start with.

Whereas before, I kind of just sit and wait and then never do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Just recently we had Andre Foster on the show and he has a motion graphics company in Detroit called First Fight and he talks about how he uses generative AI, kind of in the same way that you mentioned it. He uses it like a I think he likened it to a Pinterest board or a mood board where it’s a good place to sort of just take the idea from your head and start to instantly visualize it, to see where you could possibly go next with it.

Sam Viotty:

Love that. I totally agree with that.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked about growing up on the East Coast, so I would like to kind of shift the conversation towards that and learn more about just sort of how you got to where you are now. So you grew up on the East Coast. Were you kind of always exposed to a lot of art and creativity and such growing up?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah. I grew up in New York City, so every field trip was to a museum. When I was in school. I also had parents who were really excited about the arts. My mother was a dancer, just really excited about performance arts. And with my grandmother and then my dad and my dad’s mother. My dad’s mother was a teacher. I was excited about reading as a kid.

He spent so much time at the library. I used to pick out books, and very often I would pick books based on their covers in contrary to what you’re told. I was like, if it looks cool on the outside, I’m sure it’s cool on the inside. And so I was just really excited about that. I used to draw a lot. Like, the Christmas gifts that I used to get as a kid was like, I don’t know if you remember those. Really big. I hope they still make them.

I haven’t seen them in a while, but it’s like pastel crayons paint.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, yeah, those 130 piece art kits or whatever.

Sam Viotty:

Yes. And they’d have a bunch of pencils, and I never used to use they had, like, four types of pencils, and I was like, I don’t know what anyone’s doing with this. I like the color, so I used to get those every year. I’d ask for a new one. I didn’t always need a new one, but, yeah, I used to run the cray pods down to the bone, and so I used to play with those all the time. And so I’d, like, draw pictures of our family, draw pictures of the sky, draw pictures of the books that I’d read. Spent a lot of time drawing and. Creating.

I’d like, do cutouts. I used to play with paper dolls all the time, just always thinking about what I can now see in retrospect is design. And my dad, who just was so proud of me, used to, in our basement, created kind of like a little curatorial gallery of my work on a string through the basement. So anytime I came down or people came down, it felt like a gallery show. And so I always loved museums and art. Yeah, my art was all over the house. Like, it was on the fridge, it was on the walls, it was upstairs. And so I was really encouraged to express my creativity.

My dad was a computer nerd, and so he tried to teach me computer programming when I was younger. I think it was called Logo?

Maurice Cherry:

Logo, with the turtle!

Sam Viotty:

Yes, with the turtle! So my dad was…yes, he tried to teach me that. I hated it. I was like, this is so boring. I can’t stand this. He’s like, but you can create art with it.

I was just, I’m not interested. I really regret it. I wish I became a computer scientist, but I just constantly encouraged. I used to use the Paint app on Microsoft and on, you know, all kids, but I was really into just, like, creating, and I was really encouraged to create, which I’m so grateful for now. I think my parents really let me explore, at least when I was a child. This changes a bit when I get older, but while I was a child, in my adolescence, I was very much encouraged to paint, create, make things get messy, do whatever, and explore my creativity, whether it was, like making my own clothes, designing clothes, designing paper, making notebooks, writing stories, like, anything. And I think that I brought a lot of that into how I kind of exist now and explore my creativity now.

Maurice Cherry:

Did that shift happen in high school?

Sam Viotty:

Yang it did. And I think it’s funny that, you know, that I was not encouraged to explore art when I was in high school. I remember I liked our art class, and I did quite well. My dad was excited, so my mom passed away when I was six. So a little hard. My dad had to take on being a single parent and then remarried. My parents were divorced at the time, so it wasn’t like that stark of they’re dating someone else difference. But I was close to the woman who is now my stepmother, who I’m very close with and who helped raise me.

She was a nurse, and so registered nurse. And so just like a very practical human in a way that maybe my dad and I were not. And so she’s like, you need a practical job. Need you to get a practical skills, like, what are we doing? Which I think she’s brought the logic to my creativity, which is wonderful. But once I got to high school, I was not discouraged from taking art classes, but it was like, well, then what are you going to do? I used to use my room as a curatorial space. I’d buy as many magazines as I could, and then my walls were completely covered with images, and I just would always do that. I’d look at font type and ads. I was like, how do I create this? And I wanted to go into advertising and market and communications, but my parents were just like, maybe I don’t know.

My dad was like, Please go into science. I was like, I’m really not good at physics. And my mom was like, Please do something practical. And so I was kind of, like, torn. And all I really wanted to do was change the world. Then I just became privy. I went to a predominantly Asian school in New York City. So 50% of the population was Asian, maybe 20% was white, and then the rest was, like, Black and Latino.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, maybe Southeast Asian. It was a very interesting mix, but just was starting to become more privy to racism, I think. Growing up in New York City, I’d always thought in high school, thought, I’d go to such a diverse school, I’ve gone to diverse schools, everything’s fine, and then realizing the world just doesn’t operate in the ways that it should. Extreme poverty exists. I want to work in that. How do I do that? And my parents were not excited that they were proud of me, but they were not excited about that career path. My mom’s like, you want to go into nonprofit, you’re not going to make any money. And so I ignored them and went to college.

So I went to college at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Small liberal arts college, about 1600 students. So very small campus was like, you could run around it. I couldn’t even really get my laps off when I go for a run because it was only a mile and barely. So it’s a very small campus. And so I was like, I’m just going to major in English. I wanted to go into marketing, communications, but small liberal arts college only had English as a major. I was like, Seems close enough.

I major in English. My parents are like, sounds fine. It seems like a scale. Great. And I start applying to internships, and I’m not getting anything. Like, absolutely nothing. I’m like, I can write things. This seems practical.

What’s going on? But I was applying to things that were a little bit more creative, a little bit more ad comms marketing, and I think they were, like, looking for someone who was in that. My junior year, there’s a new major called Film and New Media Studies, and so it sat within the English department, and so I could take film classes as an English major, and so I did. And the first class I took was race and racism in U.S. cinema. Blew my mind, was excited. I was like, this is all I want to do forever. I need to change my major right now. I know I’m getting ready to graduate, but I have to.

And I also need to study abroad. So how do I make it happen? My professor and advisor at the time. Incredible. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to switch your major. You’re just going to change it, and you’re going to go to Australia because that’s where they have a mutual program. And you’ll study film and graphic design there. You’ll make up your freshman credit for the major, and then you’ll come back and you’ll finish the credits and you’ll graduate on time.

I was like, great. Sounds lovely. I changed my major to New Media Film and New Media Studies on my resume before even changing it formally on paper. And all of a sudden I’m getting responses back on internships. People are so happy to talk to you. This is ridiculous. And that to me, is the epitome of that’s. The power of branding and marketing.

Yeah, pursued that. I was excited about Film and New Media Studies. I didn’t love actually being behind the camera. I was like a senior in freshman classes in Film Production 101, learning about Aperture. I was like, I don’t want to do this. This is not fun for me. I was like, Can I just tell someone what to do? Isn’t that a thing? And someone’s like, oh, you want to be a director? Yes, exactly. So, yeah, I moved a little bit away from technical film and really loved the theory and things like that.

And so I was able to explore ideas of concepts of social justice and equity and race and representation through that studies and then took that into my hope. I was hoping to take it into my professional career, which I did, which quite different as my first job, which was I was helping first generation college students get into college when I first graduated, which there’s more similarities than I thought. I was really excited about that role, and I wrote a lot. I helped every single student tell their story, writing college essays. I reviewed lots of college essays, lots of supplemental essays. They ended up being more connected than I thought they would be. But yeah, I did not go into a Film and New Media Studies advertising role right after college like I wanted to. But I think supporting students to get into college was really an impactful, one that led me to the career that I have now in education.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I feel like, and I’ve said this on the show also before college is really that time for you to experiment and explore exactly what it is that you want to do. And I think it’s specifically for the reasons that it sounds like your parents didn’t want you to go into some specific field. I mean, K through twelve, we’re kind of booked or we’re sort of subconsciously shaped and molded into a particular trajectory that we may not even want, we may not even want to do. I know for me, when I was growing up, I really wanted to write and I wanted to major in English, and my mom was like, no, you stay on that computer. You’re going to do something with that computer. Like, you’re going to major in something with that. And I liked web design, but I also went to a small liberal arts college, and this was in the oh, my God, I’m dating myself. This is in the they didn’t have web design, so I was like, oh, I’m going to be a computer science major.

And that was not web design back then. I mean, we’re talking 1999, 2000. That was not web design. That curriculum did not exist. You learned it on your own, and you just kind of hoped to make a way for it. It wasn’t something you went to school for. But I say all of that to say college is really that time where you’re able to branch out and see where your interests take you. I mean, there’s very few places outside of that particular type of institution where you’re allowed to explore and play and do different things, and it won’t have a detriment on your status as a human in this capitalist world.

Maurice Cherry:

You know what I mean?

Sam Viotty:

Totally. And I wish I knew it. I guess I felt it then that that’s what it was for. My parents were like, the tuition money four years, so explore all you want within that amount of time. So I felt like there was a ticking time bomb. And I was one of those kids who was like, I literally cannot go back home after college. I can’t live my parents. I am an only child who is just constantly being helicoptered.

I need to live elsewhere for all of us, for everybody. And so I really need a job. I need a job that pays me enough to leave. And so, yeah, I moved to Boston. So my school’s in Massachusetts. I ended up moving to Boston right after college and lived there for quite a bit. But yeah, college was an interesting time, and I loved school. I was one of those kids who loved school.

When I was younger, I looked forward to going to school. I think part of it was being an only child, because I make all these designs and stuff, and the only person looking at them was my dad or friends who came over occasionally. So I was so excited to go to school and get affirmation from teachers.

Maurice Cherry:

I 100% know what that’s like. I mean, I wasn’t the only child. I had an older brother. But yeah, to get that sort of validation that the work that you’re doing means something, it’s actually making an impression on other people. I was very much. Oh, yeah. Especially in college. I was very much like a school kid.

Like, I did not want to go back to Alabama. I’m like, we have to make it out. I don’t know what that looks like, but we got to get out. We can’t go backwards. Now. In 2017, you started working at the Obama Foundation, and you sort of touched on some of your early career things that you did right after Wheaton. How was your time at the Obama Foundation? Like, how did you sort of start there?

Sam Viotty:

That was like I remember getting my offer verbally, and I just was stunned. I was like, I cannot believe I’m about to work for the person who was the first Black president of the United States. It meant so much to me. I think it was after he was in the presidency, so he made a foundation really focused on organizing community work for young people. I worked on the education team at the Obama Foundation, which, again, mixing education with what I was excited to end, like, changing the world. I was like, my goodness, dream job. And it’s so, like, at every stage that I’ve had a job, it’s been like a dream job only. And now I’m in a job that I also think is my dream job.

And I’m like, what will I think years later when I have another job? Anyway, it was incredible. I have made the closest friends I’ve ever made. It was an interesting time. I think a lot of I never worked on a campaign before, but I imagine some of the campaign culture had seeped into our workplace. And so all of us were very close, spent a lot of time together trying to work towards the goal of empowering 18 to 25 year olds to change their worlds and their communities. I loved it. It was incredible. I was hired as an experienced designer, so thinking about our program, so the education team had one program at the time.

I was there for a few years, and so we developed more programs, but the original program was like a one day experience for 150 18 to 25 year olds in Boston, Chicago, and Phoenix, Arizona. And so we went to each city, and we work with community organizations. We’d work with designers and organizers to really fire up these 18 to 25 year olds, get them passionate about the thing that they were excited about. So we’re like, what aren’t you passionate about? What do you care about? And how can we drive you to a plan of action to organize towards that? And so I saw my role as one just understanding our audience. So I spent so much time talking to the 18 to 25 year olds that we worked with. I set up design workshops. I would work with them. So I used a lot of my design thinking stuff from grad school that I learned and would go through that with them.

I taught a lot of our design thinking sessions, so I go from city to city just going through project based learning and talking about, how do we like, well, if this is what you care about, how do we develop a plan for that? How do you understand them? Who is your audience? A lot of 18 to 25 year olds are like, I want to end poverty. And I’m like, yes, where do we start? Like, poverty, poverty where? And so that was really exciting for me, and it was really impactful. I can still remember the day that we brought President Obama to meet all of the students who had been in the program. Not students, community members who had been in the program. And it was just, like, the most joyful I’ve ever seen. People are crying. They’re, like, falling down. He decides to shake every single one of their hands.

He was supposed to be going to a meeting with donors, and we were scheduling him to just take a photo. He was supposed to come and take a photo with the group. We’re very excited about that, that he was going to be able to do that. But he is supposed to be rushing to a donor meeting. He was already late. He was late to come get us for the photo. He finds out that he’s late to the donor meeting and is like, oh, well, and just stands there and shakes 350 hands. And so I’m so happy I got to witness that.

And so that was the power of his brand. I was so lucky to be able to I felt like I could walk into any room and just be listened to because of who we were representing and the power that that had for people in many communities across the united States. It just symbolized change. It symbolized hope. And I’d never been a part of a brand like that. I’d worked at many nonprofits, but obviously nothing like that. And so that experience is yeah, I loved working there. I met so many incredible people, so many smart people who have worked and lived all over, had different experiences, but everyone came together for this one central mission, which was to empower people.

To change the world is absolutely incredible. I think about that experience very often.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, if there’s any brand that could get you probably in the foot of any company, it would be Obama. I mean, God, that has been such an amazing experience to be able to do that kind of work. I think you kind of alluded to this a little bit earlier when you said, like, making I wrote it down. You said something about using celebrity money to change the world. That is awesome.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, it was so great. And the other thing that I was able to do was, because I was our experience designer and helping to design our program, I got to choose who we put on so or who we got to put on a platform. And I was so excited about that. I was like, this is it. I get to choose the people of color that I want to be on stage or the people who I think are making a difference. I can get to curate that experience. So lucky. I’ve worked with Antionette Carroll and Chris Rudd, who have also been on this show, who were a part of that amazing program that we ran over the course of a few years.

So just really excited to be able to give opportunities to people who really deserve one recognition, the amplification, and just, like, the connection with the community that we really thought they were already doing but wanted to uplift them. So absolutely incredible. Got to work with a ton of designers and creators because I was working in that space, and you send an email with Obama.org attached to it, and people responded, which was, you know, there’s.

Maurice Cherry:

A saying that you can’t be what you don’t see. And I can only imagine, because you had that level of access that it probably opened up for you a lot of possibilities of what you could do personally out in the world. I know while you were at the Obama Foundation, you started your own design studio, via studio. Did that sort of come from that time of seeing what was possible because of the Obama Foundation?

Sam Viotty:

It did. I didn’t know how much money existed in the world until I worked. Mean, like, talking to donors and who you have access to and who responds and what people are willing to do, and how many people of color I’d seen and worked with who started their own companies. So many of the designers that we worked with ran their own design firms. And I was like, oh, I can see how it’s possible. I had never thought of it before. I knew I wanted to start something when I was younger, but I didn’t know what. And so I started doing design consulting, so designing programs and giving design thinking advice and doing design sprints and workshops for other companies and nonprofits at the time.

But, yeah, I was so inspired by all the work that I was doing with other people. I was like, well, if you’re doing it, I think I might be able to do this, which is really exciting. And I had help. I mean, the connections that I made at the Obama Foundation and the people and the designers that I spoke, like, I don’t think people were trying to gatekeep at all, which I thought was really beautiful. People were like, I mean, I work with them. You should totally work with them. Let me just make an intro, which I had not experienced before. I think a lot of nonprofits that I worked with before that were gatekeeping, and I understand why.

It was like, well, if I tell this company or this grant about you. Will we get the money next year, right? So it was a lot of, like, I want to keep things to myself, but it was not like that at all. I was like, this is amazing. So everyone wanted to help each other, and so I was able to make connections and get clients pretty quickly. And a lot of them came from I think all of my first clients are Obama Foundation related.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. Now, you were there for a number of years, and then afterwards you left and you went to work for a biotech startup, Curative. When you look back at that time, what do you remember? Because I could imagine it’s probably a lot different from nonprofit work, especially the Obama Foundation.

Sam Viotty:

So it was 2020. So the pandemic had hit, and I used to do programs in person at the Obama Foundation. 2020 happened. We’re doing programs virtually. I just was like, I don’t know that our programs virtually are doing the same thing that they were when they were in person. And so the world is in a really scary space. I want to be on the ground. And so I got recruited by Curative to lead all of their kind of expansion with communities.

So the job actually when I had that interview with Curative, the woman who hired me actually was in political organizing before that. And she was like, it’s actually she’s like, you’re telling me about your job at the Long Foundation, but she’s like, I think it’s really similar. I know it’s biotech, hear me out. But I think what you’re doing is, like, partnering and working with communities. We’re changing health care, and it’s the same thing, only it’s healthcare and not community organizing. And I was like, I think you’re right. So I partnered with community organizations to pop up COVID testing at the time and then vaccinations for communities of color in particular, where they didn’t have testing and vaccinations. And so I thought that I was like, this feels like a need, right? Like, people are dying.

I want to be of service. And so it was a crazy time. I don’t understand how I did not get COVID then. This is like, before, people were wearing masks. I was out helping set up test sites without a mask. And then I was wearing a mask, and I was traveling everyone’s at home, and I am on a plane to New Orleans to set up a test site alone on the plane because obviously no one’s flying. And I was, like, flying all across the country trying to make sure that people were getting tested. I thankfully, in the year and a half I worked there, never got COVID.

I got COVID last year at a conference. Yeah, literally, just like I was completely fine. But it was a really impactful experience. I got to use my design thinking skills. I did lots of marketing and trying to understand our audience. I worked with a bunch of different types of clients and customers. I worked with city governments. I worked with fire stations.

I worked with federal government. I worked with everyone private sector. I worked with schools. So many schools wanted to go back to in person, but they didn’t have a testing plan. So I was like, working with each individual school to workshop what will work best for you. And so I used a lot of what I felt like was my design thinking hat to design programs and processes that made the most sense so that people could return, not return to life, but be able to live lives that felt safe enough to live and still benefit. Yeah, it was a really crazy time.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, it feels like it’s a lot of that sort of practical application or continuation. Like the person that hired you said you’re taking that same energy and that same sort of skill of putting programs together, but you’re doing it on really kind of a more tactical level in that way, especially during a time when the pandemic affected. I feel like all of us in different ways, but the one thing we all had to do was sort of figure out how to kind of move through it, navigate through it, move forward, especially with information changing a lot. Like you said, pre masks is a time that now is a bit hard to think of because they were so ubiquitous. And I mean, people are kind of still wearing masks now because we’re kind of still in the pandemic. But in a lot of ways, because of work that people like you have done, we found ways to kind of manage our lives through it, which who knows how long that would have taken if that didn’t exist or if there weren’t people like you that were able to make that happen.

Sam Viotty:

Thanks. Yeah, I was able to hire an incredible team. Just could not have done it with a bunch of other people. And it was a wild time, and I learned a lot about healthcare. I used to hate the healthcare system. I still do. But I now understand why there are so many entities designing for healthcare. Now that I’ve worked in it, I’m like, it makes sense.

It needs redesigning. It was my first for private sector job, which I was trying to pivot. Like, the Obama Foundation was great, but I was kind of tired of being a nonprofit. I was tired of not having enough money and working really hard all the time and working to the mission, but not getting paid enough. I was like, I think there’s a way for me to get paid enough and work towards a real goal. Being in the for profit during COVID was very interesting. Healthcare. We’re trying to save the world, but we’re also making money.

So a conversation for another day about the healthcare system. But yeah, it helped me understand a little bit more about the way the world works.

Maurice Cherry:

And now you’re doing Rosedale, you’re doing Adobe. You still have your studio, and you also teach. You are an adjunct lecturer at Loyola’s Quinlan School of Business. How did that come about?

Sam Viotty:

It’s an incredible am again. So I met two people. One was someone who was one of the first community members in the Obama Foundation program that we ran. Just stayed really close to her. She was one of those people that I called her our super user. She just would do exactly what I would imagine someone would do in our program. She’s ideal. I could predict her behavior.

It was amazing. And so we stayed in contact. She started working at the Baumhart Scholars Program at the Cleveland School of Business and asked me if I wanted to guest lecture her class, like, come and just talk. So I did. And then there’s another person who was in the program I did Starting Block, the Starting Block Fellowship a few years ago, probably 2018. More than a few now, but someone else who was a designer also taught another course and was like, hey, could you come to my class too? And so I did. He was getting ready to leave the following year because he got a very cool job at Capital One doing design. And so he left, and they were like, well, we don’t have anyone to teach class.

Do you want to teach it? I said, I’d love to teach this class. So it’s a project management and social innovation class, and it’s taken a bunch of different iterations. This will be the third year that I’m teaching it. It actually starts next week. Time for me to start designing the deck. But the incredible thing about the program in particular so the Bomb Harvest Scholars Program is within the School of Business, but it is for a select group of students who really care about social impact. And so a lot of their courses are focused on it. Obviously, you get an MBA, but a lot of courses that you have to take in addition to the MBA requirements are social impact focused.

So the project management course, I’ve done lots of project management, so I hadn’t thought about it as like, how do I teach it? I was like, It’s just something that I do. I’d gone to trainings for it throughout my career, but had not thought about, how do I teach this and then how do I teach the social impact piece? And so I actually really excited about how this class was taught. I have kind of mapped the class into different sections, and each section is a different aspect of the design thinking process. So it starts with empathy and goes to reflection. I also take the design equity framework. If people aren’t familiar, it’s the kind of typical design thinking process. Empathy empathize. Define ideate, prototype iterate, and do it all.

Over again. But I’ve added kind of equity pauses, which is a term that I learned from another designer, and reflection at every stage. So I talk about doing all of those things within project management because I think that’s really what project management is. It is like working with people. It’s understanding people. It’s trying things and then doing them again, and then trying it and doing it again. And so I’m really excited about it’s. A project based class.

Every single person in the course, it’s usually a small class, but every single person, I encourage them to choose a project that they are working on at work, or they’re all adult professionals who have jobs and do this MBA mostly on the side. And so they choose a project from work. And then I want you to change something at work or a project that you’ve always thought about doing, which you have never actually had the time to do. Like, let’s use this class time because you have to take this class. Let’s do it now. So people have come up with incredible things. Someone came up with a youth program last year, which I was really excited about. Someone revamped their entire board of directors processes, which I was impressed with.

She’s on the board of a nonprofit and was like, we just don’t fundraise right? How do we rethink the fundraising strategy and how do I lead my team through a process? A lot of the work is quite meta, where they’re redesigning experiences that will be redesigned. So they’re coming up with a project plan. So I bring a lot of the design thinking aspect to the course in addition to trying to give people practical skills on how do you manage a project, like what tools are we using, are you using Trello? Are you using Monday? Are you using Asana? How are you assigning roles to people? Are you thinking about equity when you’re deciding roles for people, how do power dynamics come into play? So really intertwining all of those things. And so I’ve learned so much from all of the students because they all work at different places. Some people are working in consulting, some are working in education, some are working at healthcare nonprofits, and so they all are working together. A lot of it is group work, but the end project is individual. So I hope that they’re learning from each other about what each other is working on and challenged with. So I love teaching that class.

It’s also not that long. It takes a few months. And so it’s what I look forward to every end of year. It’s a nice close out to the year.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, it really feels like a perfect way for you to take all of these skills and things that you’ve learned throughout your career and pass that on to the next generation of, I want to say of innovators. You mentioned at the top of the episode that you had applied for this development program as an innovator, and the more that you talk about your career and the experiences you’ve went through, I’m like, I can see it plain as day. Like, you’re really out here changing minds and hearts. It’s so awesome.

Sam Viotty:

It’s nice to hear. I hadn’t thought about yeah. I guess when you talk to someone and hear it back, it definitely feels different. So thank you.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, I think what’s probably most interesting about you and your career and what you do is that you take design. And design is such a broad category. I think even when you tell someone you’re a designer, if you tell five different people, you may get five different definitions of what that even is. I mean, for you, what does design mean? Like, what’s your personal philosophy? When it comes to that?

Sam Viotty:

I believe everyone’s a designer. I also believe it’s people who want to take on that role. Like, if you want to be a designer, you can be. I think the most important thing about being a designer is understanding who you’re designing for. Graphic designer, and I someone who is a programmer, experience designer will have. What we have in common is, who are we designing for? The graphic designer is like, I’m making a poster, or maybe they’re making a poster, and they’re like, okay, well, who’s the poster for? I’m like, I’m designing a program. Well, who’s the program for? So really getting to the meat of how do I understand people? And for program design, I think it’s beautiful because it’s everything or experience design is everything. What I said earlier was, it’s what things smell like, what you’re touching, what you’re seeing, who you interact with, when you interact with them.

When we show you something, all of those things make an impression. So I think about design as design is everything. Yeah, I look at and now that I’ve been in so many different sectors, and I know that design means so many different things, I see design in everything. I can’t open a door without being like, someone made this and thought about how humans will open this door wild. So, yeah, designs and everything. I think it’s a branding. As I always say. It’s a branding, marketing.

Maurice Cherry:

It sounds like you’re really interweaving with design, at least with the way that you’re approaching design. Everything works together. All these processes work together. Nothing is in a vacuum. And I think that’s really a holistic way to look at design, because for years, people always say designers are problem solvers, but the problems they end up solving tend to be UX problems or browser problems or things like that when there are so many other things out there in the world. You mentioned healthcare. Government is another one. Government services.

There are so many huge systems that we encounter every day that could use that design eye and that design thinking. And so I hope that people listen to this conversation and start to think of design in a bigger way. Like, think outside of just what you see on a monitor or on a phone. Like, think of design in a broader sense.

Sam Viotty:

Absolutely. Yeah. I think you’re spot on.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s inspiring you these days?

Sam Viotty:

Thank you for asking that. Color. Color has been inspiring me. I started reading. I went to the library and I started reading Color — I have the book right here: “Colors for Designers: 95 Things You Need to Know when Choosing and Using Colors for Layouts and Illustrations”. And I’ve been having, like, a lull in inspiration, and I never really learned about color theory formally.

And so I’ve just been so excited about color. I’ve been going on hikes recently, and so I’ve been obsessed with the sky. I go on runs, and there’s a beautiful sunset on Monday, and I counted eleven colors in the sky. I was just like, wow, what eleven different colors? And so I’m, like, training my eye to see different colors and hues. So I’ve been really inspired by that. I started reading. I just finished the book “Stay Inspired” by Brandon Stosuy…or Stossai? Finding motivation to your creative work.

And it’s a book of just, like, a bunch of activities to get you motivated and inspired to do creative work. And so much of the book has you tap into childhood experiences. So I haven’t been writing all the activities. I’ve been at least thinking and meditating on them. And so that’s been really fun. So thinking about my childhood as inspiration for things that I create and do now has been really cool. And then, yeah, just thinking about color. Lots of color.

Lots of just trying to find inspiration and creativity. My end of year project right now is trying to create an art book. And so very similar to the fade on kind of like big coffee table books, I want to curate some type of yeah, I’ve never tried. So I’m going to just try and map that out over the holiday and see what I can come up with. Have a little theme. I love material culture, so I think that’s going to be the theme for the art book, is thinking about material culture and how artists use different materials to create meaning. So I’ve been doing lots of research. So that’s been my end of year inspiration.

Maurice Cherry:

At this stage of your career, even just looking back to where you’ve come from and where you’ve worked and the impact that you’ve had, how do you measure success now? What does it look like for you?

Sam Viotty:

So do I feel happy? Do I feel good? Do I feel motivated? Has been whether or not I feel successful or those are my metrics for success. Are things feeling right? Feels a little woo. Woo. I think it’s because I live in La now. I don’t think I’d ever talk like this before, but yeah, a lot of it is. Like, how do things feel? I think I’ve had a lot of moments in life. I have ADHD. I also have quite a bit of anxiety.

And so a lot of my life has been me trying to get around those things. And so my metrics of success now have been, do I not feel anxious? How often have I been feeling anxious? Is it less? That seems great. That feels successful. So, yeah, just kind of just like, monitoring my mental health and feeling good about where I am in life right now and being content, spending a lot of time just being happy with what I have right now. It’s hard because I think, how do you balance that with wanting more and being ambitious? I’m wrestling with that now, but just be happy with what I got.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there anything that you want to do that you haven’t done yet?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I really want to curate a show. Like an art show. I say it every year. So now that I’m saying it out loud to you and shared with the public, I think I have to do it. So maybe it’s on the 2024 docket. Yeah, I really want to curate a show. I’ve always said I plan for it, I figure it out. But maybe 2024 is the year that I start actually doing it.

Maurice Cherry:

You’re right there in La. That’s a great place to do it. I know that United talent artists has an artist space, but, I mean, there’s just so much art and design in Los Angeles. I feel like you could definitely make that happen.

Sam Viotty:

Thanks for saying that. I live close to the UTA artist space, and I’ve contacted them before just for other stuff, so yeah, thank you. You know what? Yeah, it’s going to go into the like when I envision boarding for 2024. This is it. Thanks for this.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. What kind of work do you see yourself doing in the next five years? I mean, I feel like you’re someone that, because of the skills and experience you’ve had, you could really almost go anywhere. Because what you do is you help build systems and you help build processes to work through things. So say it’s five years from now, what kind of work would you like to be doing?

Sam Viotty:

The thing that I have not dove into that I would like to do more is or just curation in general. So I think I want to move to a space where I think I’ve spent a lot of this part of my career being like, I want to be the artist, I want to create, I want to work with people and uplift them. I think I can do that in a different way. Whether I’m curating music shows, which I’ve started to do with Rosedale curating an art show, just like doing more curation and leaning into, I don’t have to be the person that’s doing the thing. I can support the people doing the thing. And so I think that’s where I want to go, and I want to do it across I imagine it being across a bunch of different sectors, and maybe it’s not just visual art. Maybe it’s also fashion, and maybe it’s also interior design and objects and vintage and stuff like that. So I want to dive more into my creative self of putting things.

I feel like a lot of the work that I do ends up being behind the scenes or I don’t get to share it very often, or it doesn’t feel like I share it very often on a public platform. So I would like to move into that space a little bit more.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to wrap things up here. Sam, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, your projects? Like, where can they find that information online?

Sam Viotty:

I occasionally post on my personal instagram, which is @samviotty, S-A-M-V-I-O-T-T-Y. But my art stuff is at @theviottystudio on Instagram, so both of those are on Instagram. I occasionally tweet. I’m @samviotty on most things. I think I’m also the only Sam Viotty. So if you google Samantha Viotty or Sam Viotty, I’m pretty sure you’ll find me anywhere that’s mostly I respond to DMs. People can also email me at hi at sviotty dot com. So happy to chat.

I love just talking to other people about what they’re working on.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Sam Viotty. I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, when I was doing my research, and I think what really kind of blew me away was, like, this is a program designer that’s like, trying to change country music. It felt like this weird sort of combination. But now that I’ve talked with you and I’ve gotten the sense to kind of see how you work and how you think, you’re the kind of person that I feel like the design industry needs to have more of. Like someone that can really synthesize all of the things that design can do and use them in ways that can help forward, move people forward, move systems forward, move companies forward. I mean, there’s been so much talk about generalist versus specialist, right? And I think what you embody is, like, the true kind of generalist type of designer that I wish more designers were like.

I wish more people were able to take their knowledge and think of it and use it and apply it in ways that can really sort of benefit the world. I mean, we live in a very crazy time right now, and a lot of the systems and practices and things we have are designed and can be and should be redesigned. And it’s just so empowering for me to see someone like you that’s doing this work out in the world, and I’m glad to share that with the audience here. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Sam Viotty:

Thank you. I’m so happy that you have this platform. It’s incredible. Everyone I’ve listened to a few episodes and people are really inspiring. So I’m honored to be on the show. So thank you so much.

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Carl Bogan

Artificial intelligence has been a running theme on the podcast this year, and I couldn’t think of a better person to talk shop about this with than the one and only Carl Bogan. Through his studio, Myster Giraffe, he’s created viral mashups that have racked up millions of views across social media.

Carl spoke a bit about his experiences as a visual effects artist, and then we went into a deep discussion about all things synthetic media — generative AI, deepfakes, media literacy, government regulations…you name it. But we didn’t just geek out about that! Carl told his story about how he got interested in visual effects, what motivates him, and where he wants his work to go in the future. This episode will definitely give you some food for thought!

A selection of Myster Giraffe’s work:

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Carl Bogan:

My name is Carl Bogan, and I am a digital creator and VFX professional living in Los Angeles.

Maurice Cherry:

How’s 2023 been treating you so far?

Carl Bogan:

2023 is…every year is a bit different. This one is no different from that. Starting out, very interestingly, more inbounds from Myster Giraffe. The VFX industry is a bit slow right now. The strike isn’t making it much better, but of course, always optimistic, looking for new opportunities in every single direction.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’ve been hearing from friends of mine in L.A. and other folks in the entertainment industry how the strike is kind of…I guess it’s reverberating throughout the industry. Because it’s one thing when the writers are striking, but then that affects production, it affects actors, et cetera. So, yeah, I mean, we’re recording this now as the strike is going on. I have a feeling it might still be going on by the time this airs. Given that, what plans do you have for the summer?

Carl Bogan:

Lots of family traveling time, creating new projects, coming up with new ideas, new ways to create new ways to engage with people. And so sort of never stop creating is one of my mottos. So the strike doesn’t really stop that.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Is there anything in particular that you want to try to launch by the end of the year?

Carl Bogan:

I’m still working on a list. I have a long list, I’m turning into a short list, but Myster Giraffe is always sort of near the top of that list. It tends to act as a calling card in general, and so I keep creating every — I don’t know — every six weeks or so, maybe every eight weeks of a new piece in order to keep the beach ball in the air.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you’ve mentioned Myster Giraffe a couple of times now, and I think listeners have probably seen your work a lot on social media. If not, I’ll make sure to link to a couple of clips in the show notes. But yeah, talk to me about Myster Giraffe. Like, I’m really curious on where that name came from.

Carl Bogan:

So Myster Giraffe is an online handle I created in April of 2019 as a way of honing my deepfake skills in a world that was very much pre-deepfake, generally speaking. And so the name Myster Giraffe was sort of a flippant reaction to wanting to put something out there, seeing if it had any value, and so it just sort of stuck after the first video went very viral. So now I was married to it, so it didn’t matter if I didn’t like it or not at that point.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Carl Bogan:

But I do like it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, it’s a pretty unique name, Myster Giraffe. And also, I guess the spelling of it probably also calls into a bit of mystery as well.

Carl Bogan:

Now, that was on purpose, namely because Myster Giraffe was born out of not seeing any…I had seen deepfakes to date at that point, but not any deepfakes that I could identify with in terms of Black culture or pop culture. And so I wanted to be that voice, but at the same time, knowing that history has told me, for good or bad or indifferent, you can be marginalized as a Black creator. If you show your work and then put yourself next to your work, the work may not stand by itself. So the M-Y-S — the mystery in Myster Giraffe — the goal was to be sort of more of a Banksy character, and that did work for many, many years and it really stoked the interest of many media outlets and people. Like, I wanted the work to stand by itself instead of having to say, “oh, well, that’s good for a Black creator,” or for that, sometimes people can put an asterisk next to your accomplishment.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, brother, you do not have to tell me about that. I know that all too well. I mean, it’s one thing…yeah, you put your face or your likeness or something next to it, and then people will automatically kind of either discount it or buy into it. But when I was doing the Black Weblog Awards back in…I did that from 2005 to 2011. And even though it was, like, gaining notoriety, like NPR had reported on it, et cetera, I knew that people would not even pay attention to it just because it had “Black” in the name. Like, it would just go in one ear and out the other. And that was also when Obama was running, and so everything was post-racial. So if you mention anything with “Black” in it, you must be racist. So I know that feeling all too well and kind of being able to stand behind a bit of a pseudonym or just to kind of obfuscate your personal self from the work helps the work stand out on its own.

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely. Not to mention, I was thinking about having a clear delineation between me and Myster Giraffe, in case I get into a bit of trouble. You know, deepfakes are still sort of new, and so I didn’t know what I would create that may or may not get me in hot water. So I wanted to be able to put up a firewall just in case. So I can go get a sandwich and not get attacked.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s interesting you say that, because I thought about that as I was looking at some of the clips, and one of the last clips that I remember seeing from Myster Giraffe was — you probably know the one I’m talking about — is Jonathan Majors and Michael B. Jordan, you know, doing the Dennis Edwards and Siedah Garrett, you know, “Don’t Look Any Further”. And I think that came out and then maybe it was like the next month or so, those allegations about Jonathan Majors dropped, and it was like, ohhhh.

Carl Bogan:

Mm-hmm. You never know.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. And it was in that media time where he and Michael B. Jordan were doing a lot of press together for Creed III and everything, and people were kind of speculating on their friendship or their bromance or what have you, and then that happens, and…yeah. I get what you’re saying. I get what you’re saying.

Carl Bogan:

Yes. You can’t always control the narratives when they leave your mouse click.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. You mentioned wanting to do the studio to kind of hone your talent, but what was the other inspirations behind starting your own studio?

Carl Bogan:

When I first started doing Myster Giraffe, I got a lot of inbounds from different people who wanted to work with me. This is even before I was really ready for the attention. I had been in freelance visual effects for maybe fifteen years at that point, so I was very familiar with freelance work. And so the demand kept growing and growing and growing and growing and working more and more brands, more and more music artists. And so it just made sense to launch an entire effort in order to take advantage of the inbounds.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay, so just sort of have one place to kind of funnel everything into.

Carl Bogan:

Sort of. That’s correct.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Now, do you have a team that you work with or is it just you?

Carl Bogan:

Generally? It’s just me, unless thee job is too big and I need to scale it. And so if I have to do production onsite, I have to scale the team. I have people I go to and I hire, and we work very well together. Friends of mine, colleagues of mine. But for the most part, the Myster Giraffes online as far as the social media effort, that’s just me.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. How do you come up with the ideas? I think some of them probably certainly are just inspired by, of course, Black culture. A lot of them are. But like…Steve Harvey as Megan Thee Stallion? Where do these ideas come from?

Carl Bogan:

There’s an instinct that only shows up during certain times. There’s maybe about 10 out of the 40 that I’ve created, I think around 40 or so, that I knew what they were going to do before they did it because there’s a little tickle that you get. There’s a little sort of…where you can’t stop giggling. You’re working on it and you watch it 37 times and you’re saying, “this is a good one. This is really good.” So I allow myself time in between creations. That way I don’t wear that muscle out. I wanted to always be able to recognize the funny before it shows up. Some of them I do them for me. Some of them I do as an experiment. Some of them I do as tributes. But there is a certain section that I have an idea for what’s going to work well within the demographic that I’ve sort of created or taken home in.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, some of them certainly are really fun. I mean, they’re all fun. I don’t want to say some of them aren’t, but I think the one that really sort of stuck out to me and I was like “wait a minute, who is this?” I think it was one for Insecure…for the HBO show. And Issa Rae singing Luther Vandross.

Carl Bogan:

That’s one of my favorites. Well, because that one’s fun. So what normally I like to do when I first started out, it was a bit more cheeky. Man over woman, big difference over here, big difference over there, chasm in the middle. That’s where the joke is. But then pretty quickly I realized, “oh, you can really tell stories with this and sort of come up with alternate realities.” So that was before the term metaverse had really — or multiverse had really — sort of come to fruition. And so I had the idea of Rick and Morty’s intergalactic cable mixed with what Myster Giraffe sort of became. And so each of these sort of are their own reality and their own channel in a multiverse somewhere existing in simultaneous fashion. And so that one was all about the love triangle between Issa and their two male interests on thee show. And so it lines up with the lyrics of the song. Who doesn’t love that song? It’s an iconic song. Who doesn’t love Issa Rae? She’s fantastic. And so you put them together, you cut a trailer around it to help the story get sticky and then you put it out.

Maurice Cherry:

Now when you put that out, was it for HBO and the show, or were you just doing it just to release it through the studio?

Carl Bogan:

That was spec, but I wanted it to look as if it was commissioned because why not? I have no doubt in my mind they would have commissioned it or asked to repost it had it not been a day before they launched the next season. I just kind of got to it late because I don’t rush through these things. It’s like, oh, let me sit down, I’m ready to create again. And so Luther Vandross actually reposted the video — or rather his team — and most people from the show reposted it minus Issa. I’m not sure if she liked or she didn’t. I guess that’s not really the point. It’s to make art that I like and then see if others can appreciate it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. What does the process look like when you’re working on a new project? Like, you have an idea for one of these deepfake videos, or if it’s something from a client, like, what’s the process behind going from idea to conception?

Carl Bogan:

I would say if it’s for me, the process is 80% concept and that is a very passive process initially, whether that’s daily Twitter usage or Instagram usage or TikTok usage. It’s a sort of…collecting things, collecting daily life into your brain. And then I sit down when I’m ready to create. I just kind of feel like, you know what, I’m ready. I sit down and it takes about three to four hours of just kind of going through, combing through what I want to say. I think… I want to have an idea. I think I want to do something with 70s African-American hair care products. I think I want to use this person. This person’s sort of been of the zeitgeist lately. Let me see if I can work them in. And so I kind of have this rolling list of people and topics in my head over in between the pieces. So then when I sit down, that three or four hours, I march, march, march, march, march and then I eventually end at a singular point which is a video. And then I back into it. So I always choose a person second. So I always choose the video first. It’s easier, I found, to not have to force a person into a place. So the people…if I wanted to do a person right now, I wouldn’t really be able to because I haven’t found the piece of media that fits yet. So finding the media is much harder than finding the subject. But if it is a studio, they normally come with thee concept [of] what they want to do. So that’s the easy part. Then they say, okay, great, they have an idea. I’ll either go on set and VFX supe it to make sure they’re shooting it correctly, because there’s a lot of things you can get wrong. We do a data collection of the person that you want to put in what they just shot, you know, we use a stand in. And so I’ve also created a very unique process of data collection for the subject. So that takes about half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, and then I take all the data back to my workstation, my home office, and I make a data set of the data. I get the plates from the studio and it takes about an hour to pre-process everything. And then I start training. It takes about a day and a half or two days. Then the compositing takes about a week, depending on how long and short it is, how perfect they want to be, how much they’re paying me to be perfect. So for the Myster Giraffe stuff, I purposefully don’t spend more than a day on the compositing because it’s not about how perfect it is, it’s about the story that it’s telling. If I do that, I’ll never get done because of my VFX background. I know too much in order to make it take less time.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Carl Bogan:

That’s about it. That’s sort of the broad strokes.

Maurice Cherry:

So it sounds like with Myster Giraffe, at least for your self initiated stuff, you kind of want to be a little bit more and this is not a diss by saying this, but it’s kind of rough and dirty, like you want to go ahead and get it and get it out there and get a reaction from people.

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely. I didn’t want to chase the pixel perfect deepfakes that some people chase, which is fine. I want them to push the technology forward. But I also realized, like I said, from being in visual effects, the goal is to have it be so good it disappears. Good VFX are invisible. And so since putting different faces on purpose, on different people, the goal is to create cognitive dissonance. So being perfect there is sort of working backwards. And so I do a good job of blending skin tones, face sizing matting and masking around the faces. Yada, yada, yada. So I get a lot of praise on how well integrated they look, but nothing past that because if they can’t see the job that I’ve done for this particular world, then I think it goes against the work that I’m doing. So sometimes I see an error and I just leave it in.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

Because it’s not worth the three hours to fix it.

Maurice Cherry:

Right. I’m curious also…when you put it out I’m imagining people aren’t coming back to you saying “oh, between this timestamp and this timestamp it’s a little off” or something. They just like the concept.

Carl Bogan:

Correct. I have yet to hear anyone complain about the compositing or the face generation because the story generative is so enthralling that it doesn’t really matter that it’s not 100% perfect. I will take 85 to 90 for this since it’s just for social media.

Maurice Cherry:

And I think that’s probably just an important thing that creatives listening can kind of apply to their own work. Like don’t let perfect get in the way of good. I don’t know how that saying goes. It’s something like that. But done is better than…

Carl Bogan:

Done is better than perfect.

Maurice Cherry:

Done is better than perfect. Thank you. Because you can spend a lot of time trying to get something to what you think is perfect. But the reality is that once it’s out there in the world, the person that sees it already thinks it’s perfect as it is. I mean there’s going to be some that will scrutinize, but for the most part, just put it out there and get feedback. You can always iterate on your own time but don’t let that stop you from releasing the thing, you know?

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely. Put the work out. Don’t worry about it. You can always go back and fix it, but put the work out. I remember the very first one that I did — very first piece was a Will Smith and Cardi B that he ended up reposting. I’m going to believe, to date, it’s still the third highest viewed post on his social media account. And I remember getting ready to really get granular and get into each pixel, make sure it’s perfect. And I stopped myself and said “you know what, this is good enough.” And I know sometimes you hear that, oh, “good enough is never good enough.” Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is good enough depending on the place you’re sending it and what you want to use it for and the time that you have and the effort that you have. And so I would say that examine that before you really spend a lot of time on something that may not matter in that context.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s good advice. Now you’re working in…the area that you’re working in is known kind of generally as synthetic media, which I feel like is the talk of the tech industry these days. Generative AI, personalized media, deepfakes, like you said, with some of the social clips that you’ve done. And I’m sure that you’ve got thoughts on all of this. So I do have some questions. I’d like for us to chop it up a little bit and talk about some of this stuff. Now, the most obvious thing is synthetic media has the potential to kind of blur the line between what’s real and what’s fake. When you’re working with synthetic media, are there sort of ethical considerations that you think are completely essential for doing this work? Like, when a project comes in or when you’re working on your own project, what are sort of the ethical considerations that you have around creating something?

Carl Bogan:

So I will start with saying deepfake porn is a scourge on society, and they need to legislate that into the ground. It’s not okay. And I say that because that’s where all of this started.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

I say a lot of the tech industry is born from video games and porn. Well, this is no different. And actually, as quiet as it’s kept, a lot of creators would use a forum on a deepfake porn site because that’s where all of the information was on how to do this, how to do that. It was sort of an oddly placed forum in sort of a deep, dark place on the Internet. Sort of, I would imagine, in the same way that YouTube was created and how to get compression rates down and so on and so forth. So I don’t know how it still exists. I won’t list the website because it’s not important. But the sites that do indulge in that practice, I think they should be held to a much higher standard and shut down, so to speak. Because permission and consent in synthetic media is extremely important. Which is exactly why I and many other creators do not do work or use anyone’s likeness for money where they did not consent to it. And so if someone came to me and said, right now, “hey, I want you to put Steve Harvey in a commercial, I’ll pay you money,” I have to say no, because I did not get Steve Harvey’s permission to do that. And so when it’s all fun and games on the Internet, I’m not getting paid for it. It’s fine. It’s parody. As soon as you take money for it, it steps outside of parody and it’s paid for hire. And now you’re infringing on his likeness. Now, that being said, here’s where it gets tricky. You take Steve Harvey’s likeness, you put it into the machine, it turns those pixels into numbers. The numbers turns into whatever goes into the latent space of the training, and it spits out something that looks like Steve Harvey, but legally, is it Steve Harvey? Because I always ask sort of this thought experiment: if you have two twin brothers who are identical, one is a senator and one does pornography, what happens? It hadn’t happened yet. But is the twin brother who is in pornography, is he allowed to practice his pornography as well as next to his brother who’s running for Senate? And so that’s sort of, at least from where I’m standing — how do you handle likeness and what [someone then] does with something that looks like you, right? And so we’re kind of reaching this grey space of what to do with that and I don’t think anyone really has the answer right now. But I will say that having ownness over your likeness, not in the way that it has been done for the last 20 or 30 years, but in a new way…that hasn’t yet been created, I believe that’s going to become very important.

Maurice Cherry:

Last year, right around this time, I was working with a startup. We were doing a magazine and we were doing this issue on Web3 and it was really like my first time diving into, in a deep sense, learning about a lot of these issues. And it was amazing. Like, just hearing about the concept of digital twins and people considering licensing or putting some sort of restrictions around their voice, because someone could take like…someone could take this podcast and the hours of audio that I’ve done and put that into some type of, I don’t know, whatever sort of generative AI type of thing and spit out something that I’ve never said, but they’ve cobbled it together from the words that I’ve said over the years and stuff like that. It was fascinating in like a Black Mirror sci-fi kind of way. But I could see there being some really heinous implications if that is used for nefarious purposes.

Carl Bogan:

Five years ago I was talking to several generative audio companies, and none of them were really that good, if I’m just being honest. But something happened the last six months, because in AI, six months is like six years. And now, all of a sudden, from this one podcast, my voice can be cloned. Your voice can be cloned. And we can be singing Frank Sinatra or saying really inflammatory things about different races and cultures. And so where is it going to be in six months from now? I don’t know. But I will say the technology is allowing for less data to do better impressions visually and audio wise. The future of that I believe is going to…someone’s going to come out with a way to identify or there’s going to be some protocol that everyone’s going to have to adopt if they want to seem as if they are with the time. Sort of like the Truth campaign which got rid of a lot of smokers or stopped a lot of people from smoking. It was a social movement and if you were seen smoking, you were seen as sort of a disgusting act. And because of that, many people do not smoke. And I don’t think the Truth campaign or the Truth company get enough credit for doing that, but I believe it’s going to take that sort of social movement in order to prevent people from being ripped off. Or I think you’ve heard of the kidnap scam where people take your voice and they say, “oh we have Maurice. Maurice, say something.” And you’ll say, “help me, help me give them whatever they want,” just that little bit. And it triggers your family to then go into their banks and their coffers and pull out whatever money they have to satisfy the demands of the would be kidnappers. But little do they know you’re just on vacation in Hawai’i.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

And so that is a real thing that will also happen. And not to be too dystopian or anything, there’s so many other good things that are going to happen.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, yeah.

Carl Bogan:

But these are just the immediate things that are sort of the low hanging fruit. Especially because we’ve been in the media lately and we’re making tools and we’re using tools but we’re not really getting ahead of them fast enough. But not necessarily saying that these things will happen, it’s just that they can happen. But oftentimes things that can happen will happen.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s true. That’s true.

Carl Bogan:

I forgot. Is it? Occam’s Razor. No, I think it’s something it’s one of the laws.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s probably like Murphy’s Law or something like that.

Carl Bogan:

Murphy’s Law. That’s what you have. Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, to that point, you know, you’re right. I mean, I even think about, you know, some technology that we have now that we take for granted, like cell phones and things like that. Those were inspired by science fiction. So you kind of have this interesting, almost symbiotic relationship of how the technology can be influenced by fiction and then that ends up influencing what people actually do with it in real life. It’s a weird sort of process and I think you’re right; it is going to have to get to some point where there’s some type of protocol or regulation. I know the government has been talking to Sam Altman from OpenAI about artificial intelligence and how it can be used. So I can see the government trying to put some guardrails around this. But in the meantime, what do you think? Actually before we do that — side note, you mentioned Truth. I was on a Truth street team in 1999.

Carl Bogan:

Thank you for your service.

Maurice Cherry:

No, you mentioned that and I was like is the Truth campaign still a thing? It’s still a thing. It’s been around for 25 years. Damn.

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Carl Bogan:

Now little did we know that they would go from cigarettes to vaping which I think depending who you ask is better or worse. But at least we don’t have to smell it.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Carl Bogan:

So maybe that was the goal. I’m not entirely sure.

Maurice Cherry:

But to go back to that whole thing about protocol in the meantime, what do you think we can do to sort of cultivate some literacy or some critical thinking around how folks can sort of, I guess, navigate and discern between what’s synthetic media and what’s authentic media? Like we’re already starting to see political campaign ads use kind of this generative video or generative AI for some things of course. I think probably earlier this year you were starting to see people do those AI avatars and stuff like that. And I know one way that people were sort of saying, like, “oh, well, you can tell this is fake. Look at the hands, because they could never get the hands right.” But now they’re starting to get a little better with the hands. But in the meantime, until this sort of protocol is implemented, how can people start to spot the fake, I guess?

Carl Bogan:

Well, for video, it’s easier right now. So for fully generated, like, prompted video, the data is not there. The computational math hasn’t really been done yet on the full models to make them fully realistic. Yet six months ago, it was much worse. Six months later, it’s much better. Six months, it’ll be even better. And two years from now, it’ll be almost impossible to tell. Sort of like Unreal Engine. And they got really, really good at generating rock formations and trees and landscapes because they’re using scans of actual rocks and trees and landscapes. Science plus computing power plus data equals reality, essentially.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

And so eventually, we won’t be able to tell. And so I actually work with a larger group put on by MIT. It’s sort of like a disinformation panel of people all around the world, and we get on a call once or twice a year. We talk about where things are, what can we do to help usher in a safer future, a more honest future, and a more ethical future for everyone, so that we don’t end up in a Black Mirror episode, which we’re rapidly racing towards. And so one of the easiest things, I believe, that always comes up is just an identifier, whether that’s a logo or a bug in the bottom right corner or somewhere on the screen that lets you know what you’re looking at has been generated. That’s it. It’s nothing terribly difficult to do, but there just has to be one commission or one protocol that everyone signs up for says, you know what? I’m going to be a part of the winning team in terms of wanting to make sure that disinformation is not spread, whether that’s innocent or whether it is really damaging. There was a person who went to the Met Gala. Allegedly, she wasn’t there. Someone posted her in a beautiful gown on thee red carpet, and she was at home in her pajamas, so that’s not a big deal. But then you see, like, you’re saying, the political information where you see Trump kissing Fauci.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

And that’s a big deal. And so these are just images, or the images where you see Trump running from arresting officers.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, I remember those. I remember seeing those. Yeah, yeah.

Carl Bogan:

Which is weird because you would imagine with the video capabilities of deepfakes and whatnot, and especially with voice generation, you can do a much better fake, but the more data points you have, humans are really good at spotting things that are not real. And so with images, they say a picture is worth 1000 words, but people are generally pretty bad at noticing what’s fake about one single image just because of the way we’re wired. Ever since we’re born, we open our eyes, we start collecting data about what’s real and what’s not, about what does a human face look like, what proportions, what are the microexpressions, so on and so forth. But you can’t capture any of that from a single image.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, you know, what you mentioned there is sort of an interesting corollary to what I tell people all the time about design. I often have encountered people over the years that are like, “oh, I’m not creative, I’m not a designer,” that sort of thing. But I tell them that everything that they have used or encountered in the world is a byproduct of design. Like the clothes you wear, the chair you sit in, the car you drive. Someone had to really think about that and cater that to a human’s usage or what have you. And so we know when something has been designed poorly. We don’t have to be a designer to know that, but we have enough just sort of like tactile experience with designed objects to know when something is poorly designed. So it’s kind of a corollary to what you’re saying with we see and know enough as humans to know when something is just not like maybe it’s in that uncanny valley, but something is just not quite right about the image that we’re seeing. Like the Pope in a white puffer jacket or something like that. Is that real, you know? That kind of thing.

Carl Bogan:

Exactly. I was reading a book about that, about design. I believe the author called it the Norman Door. Have you ever gone up to a door and you didn’t read the push or pull sign? But it had a handle, and handles generally mean grab and pull.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Carl Bogan:

But you grab the handle and then you push in where you’re supposed to push. And so you feel kind of stupid. You grab the handle and you pull toward you and it goes and then you see the word, it says push. Well, that’s not your fault, right? That’s bad design. Yeah, flat surfaces are for pushing and pulling gives you a handle and there’s no two ways about but, you know, depending on where you stand.

Maurice Cherry:

Like I like that analogy. That makes sense. One thing that I love what you’re doing with Myster Giraffe, and you talked about this earlier, is kind of…you’re using synthetic media to kind of amplify otherwise, I think, marginalized voices and faces. Honestly, looking ahead, what developments or advances do you see in synthetic media, and how do you plan to kind of contribute to that through Myster Giraffe?

Carl Bogan:

So what I would like to see, for one, is I’d love to see the world’s first synthetic host for an awards show. I think you can really get away with that for an awards show because the stakes are low.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

Or like a Dancing With The Stars or something where it’s purely entertainment. There’s no real weight on it. And then what I’d also like to see is…I’d like to see someone take the reins, if they haven’t already yet, and design a show specifically to allow you the choice of who you want to be the main character. So let’s say you have three identical body types. You have 5’10”, brown skin, clean shaven. There are several actors that can fit in that category. And so if you take three of those actors and you have one sort of dummy body, if you will, run through the scenes, run the acting, and still tell a good story. Right. And then let’s say, much like Bandersnatch on Netflix, you could choose your own adventure. I would love to be able to sit down and choose who I want to see in that role for that film and then watch it three different times to see how I feel about it. Because a lot of the times how we feel about actors changes how we feel about the film. And so if Jim Carrey was Vin Diesel in Fast and The Furious, the whole movie would feel different.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

Even if he wasn’t being funny in the moment, he would feel funnier because of who we know Jim Carrey to be. And so sort of experimenting and playing with that juxtaposition I think will be cool to see. I think also allowing us to…there’s no reason why when shopping online, we shouldn’t be able to see ourselves in the clothes that we want to wear. Why do we have to buy the clothes and send them back? We should be able to see how we look in them before we waste the fuel and polluting the environment, not knowing how it’s going to look on us. So we should be able to deepfake ourselves pretty much wherever we want to, whether that’s in a…I’ll give an example. Let’s say Cardi B comes out with a new music video, but she comes out with a version where you can put yourself in it and then everyone can put themselves in it as a means of creating another viral sensation. I mean, there’s so many different flavors of ethical ways to engage with people, allowing them to have fun with it instead of it being all sort of doom and gloom and, “oh, no, they’re gonna come get you.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. You mentioned that about the shopping, and that immediately made me think about what Snap is doing with augmented reality. Like, I think it’s like a Snap…I think it’s called like Shop Suite or Shopping Suite or something like that, where you can do just that. You can sort of use augmented reality to see how clothes will look on you before you buy them. So you can get a sense of like, “oh, this might work for me.” I think Target does this, Amazon does this, for some products where you can use AR to see how like a piece of furniture or a plant or something might fit in your space before you actually buy it. Because you know, if you go to the store, you got to measure, then you got to go to your spot and measure and make sure that it fits and all that kind of stuff. Whereas now you can just use AR to kind of approximate for the most part how something will look on you or in your space. So I could see that being fleshed out more certainly as technology kind of gets better.

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely. I’ve seen them for shoes. I’ve seen people…I just saw someone was just acquired or started working with Amazon for putting, trying shoes on, which is great because the hardest part about trying on shoes is that you have to go there and they don’t have your size, so on and so forth. But being able to see that the shoes are on your feet now, you still can’t feel them, which is the other half of that, but at least you’re halfway there. But I think there’s a lot of ways to use the technology and use your own face. Or my favorite one, or actually two of my favorite ones — one of them is…there’s a quote that says, “today is the youngest you’ll ever be ever again and tomorrow you’ll be older and older and older. So for online creators whose faces are their money or their investments, they spend a lot of time on skincare and wellness products and Athletic Greens to make sure their skin is glowing and they never bank the data. They never bank the data. And so right now you could take 30 minutes out of your day or every year 30 minutes and bank your data and keep…and sort of put this version of you in carbonite. So in five years from now, gravity, sun, wind takes us all down eventually. Why not be able to call on that older version of you to essentially freeze a digital version of you in time and have that be your Internet facing version forever?

Maurice Cherry:

I like that.

Carl Bogan:

That cuts down on having to get plastic surgery if you don’t want it, having to get Botox if you don’t want it. Just having an independent version of you that only lives online. Sort of like a Max Headroom that never changes. And I believe that’s going to be a way we’re going to interact with the Internet sort of in the near future. Sort of like a Ready Player One way where you just have your avatar and you can choose to show up how you want to show up because you should have freedom and individuality on the Internet.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Carl Bogan:

And the second one is — and I’m really passionate about this and I haven’t found the right candidate yet because I don’t know if I’m approaching it correctly — is that I would like to offer a burn victim the chance to restore their face digitally for use on the Internet, depending on how severely they were burned and so on and so forth. But if they have enough data of their face before the accident, you can restore their faces if they so choose.

Maurice Cherry:

If they choose, yeah.

Carl Bogan:

There’s so many different use cases that have yet to be seen that I’m really excited about either Myster Giraffe creating them or other people creating them.

Maurice Cherry:

You know, you mentioned the thing about the digital host, and immediately I was like, if there’s any media entity that I think that could probably pull that off and it would work, it’s probably BET. Like, BET had “Cita’s World” back in I was hoping you would like early 2001, but not only that, they brought Cita back. I think it was in 2021. BET had a reality show called “The Encore” that had these like it had like, Black girl groups from the it had like 702 and Total and I think Kiely Williams and some other folks and they were like all in a house, like, trying to make a hit or something like that. And Cita was the host. I mean, granted, it was only like, on a television, but it was like a more updated version of Cita that would be the so, like, if anybody, I think, could pull it off and at least has a precedent for it, BET, I’m putting that out there.

Carl Bogan:

You know, I’ve used that example and depending on the room you’re in, they won’t know it. They don’t know who Cita is. They’ve never heard of Cita.

Maurice Cherry:

Right!

Carl Bogan:

Cita who? Cita who? But that was ground– And this was 20 years ago. Yeah, actually, I was reading the story behind that and it was a couple of brothers out of Atlanta, I believe, that came up with the idea. And it was very popular and it fell out for whatever reasons. But I think you’re right about that. I think they definitely have the prestige in order to bring that back or to be the first. Let’s just say…let’s hope Tyler Perry gets to buy BET and puts it up.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, speaking of Atlanta, I want to kind of shift the conversation because we spent a lot of time, you know, just kind of talking shop, But learning some more about you as I was kind of doing research for this interview…you’re from Atlanta originally?

Carl Bogan:

I am from Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:

Tell me what your time was like here.

Carl Bogan:

So I’m from Atlanta and I went to elementary school through high school and college. I started out going to…I got a band scholarship to go to Clark-Atlanta University. I was in the drumline, like most of the people in 2001 who played an instrument at the time. Only stayed there for a year, went to Georgia State for a couple of years for a graphic design foundation. Wasn’t really thrilled with the program, wasn’t really into graphic design as much as I thought it was. I was more into the motion. And so I left Georgia State after two years and went to AIU for the last year and a half to focus on visual communication, where I really dug into 3D, specifically Maya and After Effects and whatnot. Graduated, did an internship at Riot Atlanta, which I believe was absorbed by Company 3, and got my start. Left there three months later, worked in graphic design and motion graphics for the next six months, then I said, “you know what, I’m just going to go for it.” So I left to go to Los Angeles.

Maurice Cherry:

And so for your time here in ATL at Georgia State and then at AIU — I’m kind of trying to place this in terms of the time frame. I’m guessing this is like right around late 90s, early 2000s kinda?

Carl Bogan:

I graduated college in 2005.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. So a little bit later. Okay. But I was trying to think of what the curriculum might have been, because what it sounds like is what you wanted to learn, there might have just been maybe just a limit in terms of how much the school could teach you.

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely. Everything was still books. YouTube didn’t really exist in the way that it did now. I believe They just got started and everything was 240p. And so if you wanted to learn it, you get a book and you get a DVD and good luck. So that’s not my preferred way of learning. Neither is most people’s based on the success of online courses. But I would say I didn’t really learn what I needed to to be competitive until I left Atlanta. Unfortunately, I had to come to Los Angeles, which at the time, and I think before the pandemic, they were still the number one market for motion graphics and visual effects. Now it’s much more global, so I don’t know if they’re still number one, but I do know that a lot of filming still happens in Atlanta, but rarely, if ever is there any post-production done in Atlanta. It still comes back to Los Angeles.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, you know, we talked about this a bit before recording. You were like back then, the only places you really could have gotten a job was, like you said, TBS. What was the other place you mentioned? I forgot already.

Carl Bogan:

TBS, The Weather Channel…

Maurice Cherry:

The Weather Channel! That’s right. The Weather Channel. Or if you’re lucky, Cartoon Network.

Carl Bogan:

Correct. That was sort of it. It was sort of a one horse town in terms of post-production. Now it’s maybe a three horse town, which is great. I’m happy to see them growing, but there’s still not a lot of shops and certainly not — I know Method Studios opened up an office there, maybe a couple of others, but it’s definitely not a booming industry there yet.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Atlanta, I feel like, has always been…and God bless them. I was working in the tourism industry like in 2005 and 2006. And I got to tell you, Atlanta was kind of as a city, and I say this only from, like, a tourism perspective, not from a cultural perspective, but from a tourism perspective…Atlanta was kind of failing because we had lost as a city…we had lost this really big convention. I think it was the Home Builders show. And that was like something that brought in like a billion dollars worth of revenue into the city every year, and then they just chose another city. Hurricane Katrina happened in…I think it was 2005. I think Katrina happened, and Atlanta picked up a lot of their convention business, and that really kind of turned things around, I think, for the state to the point where they were able to lobby to state government. And then state government started putting in these tax credits for entertainment. And then that’s how these production studios started coming here and filming. I’m curious as to what Atlanta would have looked like if we hadn’t…I mean, benefited is probably the wrong word, but if we hadn’t benefited from being able to pick up that business from New Orleans, because a lot of people, at least back then, really didn’t want to come to Atlanta. They had a really negative perception of Atlanta, partially from Freaknik, that just carried over into the next decade, but then also know people would come downtown and there was nothing to do. Like, they come downtown, and after five o’clock, everything is dead. And conventioneers would often be angry about thee fact that they can’t walk from their hotel to the restaurant without getting accosted by homeless people. And I don’t want to bring my family here, and there’s a whole bunch of strip clubs, there’s a lot of Black people. I just don’t know what to know to do…that whole thing. And the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau was really trying hard to, like, we need to find a way to brand the city. Like, we need something like Milton Glazer’s “I Love New York” or something like that. And they paid this agency like $8 million to put together this Brand Atlanta campaign. Were you here when Brand Stlanta happened? I think you might have been maybe on the way to L.A.

Carl Bogan:

Might have just left. I left in 2007.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, they did this whole Brand Atlanta campaign, and they paid for this really bad logo that was like a combination…like, if you took the Target logo and the Ubisoft logo and put it in a blender, it basically just looked like a bullet hole, which probably was not a great visual for the city. It’s like ATL in this red bullet hole. And they had produced a song called “The ATL” with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Ludacris, because I remember being in the [Georgia] Dome when that happened, when they premiered it, I was like, “this is really bad.” And granted, people still come to Atlanta for the music, and the entertainment and stuff, but they wasted so much money on that branding campaign, it was ridiculous. I say all of that to say that Atlanta really sort of benefited from that in some ways in the creative industry. But like, I think in other ways, you know, it took a while for the schools to catch up because Atlanta is pretty unique in that we have so many HBCUs, but then we also have kind of some top tier schools like Georgia Tech or Emory or something. And there’s also like art schools here. There’s [The] Art Institute [of Atlanta]. Well, Atlanta College of Art got absorbed into [The] Art Institute [of Atlanta], but the Portfolio Center, SCAD now has a campus here, but they didn’t back then. And now the city, I think, is known for its creative output. But for creatives that are here, and I can tell you this from trying to do the show, it’s been so hard to try to get Atlanta people on this show. They don’t want to do it. Or there’s always some excuse, or…and I mean that this is probably neither here nor there. But I say that to say I think Atlanta outputs a lot of creative work. I think it’s tough to be a creative and stay here because the infrastructure is just not supported from the business end. It may be from the community end, but not from the business end. There’s a lot of folks, a lot of really talented folks I know that have had to pick up and leave because the opportunities aren’t here.

Carl Bogan:

The opportunities aren’t there. I would agree with you. I just shot a music video in Atlanta maybe five weeks ago. Hopefully it’s going to release soon. And shooting the music video there with a small budget and three days of prep would have been impossible in Los Angeles, be completely impossible. I was able to show up on a Friday afternoon with nothing, no talent. Well, I had the main talent, but no supporting roles. It was a two day shoot, had zero locations, and in a day and a half I had everything. So I had the warehouse location that had proper lighting and had the white psyche and they had the robotic arm. I had the people who knew other people. I mean, it’s a very small community. The people working in post-production or production in Atlanta is a very small, insulated community. But I was able to find one person who let me into that community enough for me to get the resources that I needed. And so as much as I say Atlanta is not ready, it is ready if you have that one person. But if you show up to Atlanta and you know no one, you’re going to have a really hard time with trying to make it happen.

Maurice Cherry:

That is true.

Carl Bogan:

So, you know…it can be tricky, but they kind of saved my bacon. So I do want to say that. Now, that being said, all the post-production went back to Los Angeles, but in terms of getting stuff shot, finding makeup artists who actually know what they’re doing, B-camera operators, producers. Those people do exist in small amounts. There’s no strike going on there right now, so I think they’re okay.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’m pretty sure there might be some strikes here. I haven’t heard of anything but then I also haven’t really been looking, so I’m not sure. Now, right before you started, Myster Giraffe, you joined Aliza Technologies as their chief technology officer. This was in 2019. Tell me about that experience. How was that?

Carl Bogan:

So I had been freelancing for about a decade at that point, and I was looking for a new opportunity, and I really wanted to build something instead of just being the hired mercenary to solve this problem, which I really like doing, and I’m talented at it, but I just wanted to sink my teeth into something. So I reached out to a buddy of mine who has a company — shout out to Zerply — who does a lot of hiring for the VFX industry, and he connected me with someone who was looking for someone to build a team to create digital avatars. And at the time Lil Miquela was coming out, she was making a lot of noise being the first big one, the first American influencer to be an AI robot, and people didn’t really know what that meant, instead of just I don’t know. It’s sort of like a weird time. Anyway, Brian Lee of the League of Zoom Company, the Honest Company, and ShoeDazzle, had this big idea to have a universe of influencers, and he needed someone to help build the team and get the influencers created digitally. So I was hired in 2018 to facilitate that as a consultant. So I hired people from around the world working from home and getting those sort of…this quarterbacking that process, getting the designs from the concept artist to the sculptor to the renderer to the look of that person. When everyone was created, he said, “all right, we want you to come in here and lead the team and get everything going in person.” So April 1, 2019, got in the office, and besides building computers and setting up networks, asked, “where can I provide the most value?” And he said, “I want you to figure out how to animate these characters.” Prior to that, two months prior to me starting, I talked about deepfake, and they didn’t know what it was, so I told them about what it was and how maybe we can use it to animate the characters, because initially I gave them a budget, a VFX budget, and it was very expensive. And I said, welcome to VFX. And they said, can you make it cheaper? I said probably. So I told them about deepfakes. It was open source code out of the Eastern bloc, so from day one, I start specing out a machine to start learning on, and I don’t have a machine learning background. But what I do have is a method of solving problems from working in VFX, so I didn’t have to have a machine learning background or to solve a problem, so long as I would approach the problem methodically and chart my progress, so on and so forth. So three months from April 1, we were seeing really good signs of progress, and the task was to turn 3D data into a data set that could be used for machine learning to make animation 80 times faster and cheaper. And so three months later, we’re seeing some progress. Six months later we started filing patents. We got granted five patents, and those patents still hold. And that was sort of my role at Aliza was many things, but mainly focusing on the animation of these characters and how to get them, how to use a real human to drive the character, replace their head with a CG character in order to save time and money.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m curious if that work kind of helped feed into what you were sort of doing with Myster Giraffe. Not to say it’s like on-the-job training, but I’m curious if that kind of helped you out in that aspect.

Carl Bogan:

It was absolutely off-the-job training because I would do it on the weekends or in the evenings, because I was trying to, as a person who was not a deepfake artist at the time, I was just practicing. And so what Myster Giraffe started was it was really just scratch paper. I have this idea, I want to know what happens if I use less data for this, or I want to know what happens if I use three different types of data here. And so each of the first, I would say ten or twelve videos was just me trying different things. And then it became, well, I wonder how people are going to respond to this sort of thing. And it just became this sort of social experiment of how are people going to respond to this? Whereas it started as, I wonder how this is going to look if I do this XYZ, how much data do I have? What kind of data do I need? How big does video have to be? So on and so forth.

Maurice Cherry:

So it sounds like that was just a really good, I think, like you said, you had to have something where you could focus on building one thing as opposed to kind of doing these off, I guess, freelance type work, like working, doing one thing here, doing one thing there. You kind of had some stability, it sounds like.

Carl Bogan:

Yeah, I had some stability. I had now had a full time job for the first time in a decade, which was odd because I had not been in that role, but at the same time, I wanted that role so I could sink my teeth in. And so when everyone was settled and in the bed on a Saturday night, I’d show up to work at 8:00 p.m. and stay ’til 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. Wow. And just experiment, experiment, experiment. So there’s a lot of bloods and tears on intimate draft. I would say out of everything I’ve posted, that’s only about 10% of the work I certainly that’s only about 10% of the work I show. The other 90% is in a graveyard of stuff that is either too inappropriate to show because of it’s funny when you try to tell a story sometimes and you’re also trying to use comedy. Sometimes you try to toe the line, but you accidentally fall over to one side or thee other, and if you get lucky, you’ll stay on the good side. But sometimes thee experiments end up on the not so funny side and then you have to bury them or the data doesn’t work out. Like, I’ll give you an example. Some of those videos I’ll sit on for two or three years, and I’ll know I want to use them, but because I don’t have the right data, it doesn’t work out. So Michael B. Jordan, I’ve been trying to get the data of him for two years, and when he was with Lori Harvey and when he was doing different press campaigns and so on and so forth, I couldn’t get the right data. But because of this newest run for Creed III, I was able to get the right data, which made that video happen. So it wasn’t really up to me when I got the data. It just had to sort of arrive and now I could move forward with it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, interesting, because yeah, like you said earlier about consent, you couldn’t just put this together if the footage didn’t really exist or you didn’t get that permission from them. But now that he’s doing this press work, he’s out there. You’re now able to sort of gather these sources and then use that to put together a clip like that.

Carl Bogan:

That’s correct, yeah. There’s tons of people I would love to do, but I just can’t get the right data for them. Like Prince. He’s gone now, unfortunately, and he looks so different every time you would see him. But it’s hard to really nail down a good data set of him. So it just may never happen. But that’s okay because that’s how it should be.

Maurice Cherry:

Personally, over the years, how would you say you’ve evolved as a creative?

Carl Bogan:

I would say I’ve become more thoughtful in what I create. I also spend less time creating and more time thinking. I used to create for the sake of creating, which scratched a different itch. But I think as I’ve gotten older, I want my creations to have a bigger impact with less effort. Because I believe that’s…when you’re creating a painting of a Campbell Soup can, you know, it seems like student work, but yet that’s one of the biggest American pieces. And so I think the more and more I do Myster Giraffe or anything for that matter. I try to spend more time thinking than time doing. That way I can do it correctly the first time without having to make a lot of changes to end up at the same place.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, this work with synthetic media, I think is only going to improve as technology improves. What kind of keeps you motivated to continue with this?

Carl Bogan:

I would say the storytelling aspect of it all. There are so many stories that need to be told. Whether they’re in still format or whether they’re a full video, whether it’s found footage, whether you have to go on set and shoot something. There are so many stories to be told. And I think that to be Black in this country is to have your culture cherry-picked for what it’s worth. But rarely do we get a chance to be at the forefront of technology and to tell the stories that we like to tell. Which is why there are so many slave biopics we don’t need anymore. Yeah, we want afrofuturism and afropunk to see the newest Spider-Man and to see the character that was the British punk character, but he was Black, was mind blowing for a lot of people because most people have never seen a Black British punk character in their lives. And while that was an entire movement, maybe the 70s, 80s, and 90s and in Europe, we never saw it in the U.S. And so I think just being able to see something and tell a story around it just because we want to, I think that is important and powerful because we’ve never been able to do that before. So now that the technology is being more democratized, I think is the best time to do it now.

Maurice Cherry:

To that point, I’m pretty sure that there are listeners that are hearing what you’re doing and they might be interested in wanting to try to get involved in synthetic media creating it or something in some way. What advice would you give them if they want to try to delve into this deeper?

Carl Bogan:

I would say to start just by absorbing as much knowledge as you can. Everything you ever wanted to learn is now on the Internet. Everything, every single thing. And if you don’t want to learn it, you don’t have to. But if you want to, just go read, go watch a TikTok video, watch a YouTube video, read a Reddit entry, go on a forum, ask someone. But there’s no more excuses for not doing. Everything is available right now.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Maybe this is a little hard to kind of see because of how the technology is changing so rapidly, but what kind of work do you want to be doing in the future?

Carl Bogan:

My immediate goal is to produce the very first deepfake leaning entertainment show. That’s my first goal. There’s a deepfake show that has not been created in the U.S. Yet. There’s one in the U.K. that didn’t do so well. But I would like to create the first deepfake entertainment show in the US. And then from there have a slew of game shows, talk shows, so on and so forth, proving that you can use the technology in an ethical way and have sign off on everyone who watches it.

Maurice Cherry:

I love that. I think you can make it happen too. I really mean it. You’re in L.A. You’ve got skin in the game clearly for doing this. I mean, you’re a pioneer as far as I’m concerned when it comes to this. So I feel like that’s definitely going to happen for you.

Carl Bogan:

Well, I appreciate that. From your mouth to God’s ears.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to wrap this up, where can our audience find out more information about you? Where can they see the clips, the studio? Where can they find that information online?

Carl Bogan:

Sure. So you can find me online on Instagram at @mystergiraffe, which is M-Y-S-T-E-R. Giraffe. G-I-R-A-F-F-E. Or you can just send me an email at carl@mystergiraffe.com.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Carl Bogan, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Like I mentioned before we started recording, I was super excited to talk to you and this conversation did not disappoint at all. I mean, like I just said earlier, you’re a pioneer when it comes to this. You’ve had skin in the game for years. You’re making work that is one I think showcasing and celebrating Black culture. But you’re doing it in a way that is fun, it’s informative. It’s not like you’re not trying to incite anarchy or anything like that. I mean, really, you’re at the forefront of this as far as I’m concerned. So I really am interested to see how far you can take synthetic media in the future and I really do see that show for you in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show, for sharing your story and everything. I really appreciate it.

Carl Bogan:

Of course, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed the time together.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

Kevin Tufts

Kevin Tufts is the real deal when it comes to tech and design. With over two decades of experience working across a number of companies in the Bay Area — Lyft, SendGrid, and Twilio, to name a few — he’s now a product designer at Meta working on their Creation team. So believe me, we had a LOT to talk about.

Our conversation begin with a look at the current climate inside Meta (pre-Threads, FYI), and he gave some thoughts on where the company is going as it approaches its 20th anniversary. From there, Kevin talked about his path to becoming a product designer, and we took a trip down memory lane recalling the early days of web design and what it was like working during such rapidly changing times. He also spoke on what he loves about product design now, and how he wants to help the next generation of designers through mentorship.

Kevin’s secrets to success are simple: seize opportunities for growth where you can, embrace collaboration, and remain flexible. Now that’s something I think we could all take to heart!

Interview Transcript

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

Kevin Tufts:
I am Kevin Tufts. I am a product designer currently working at Facebook, and I live in San Jose, California.

Maurice Cherry:
How has this year been treating you so far?

Kevin Tufts:
I’d say personally the year has been pretty good. I am grateful to be employed and obviously you’ve seen in the media that Meta has had several waves of layoffs, unfortunately. So all things considered, I feel pretty grateful. Feel pretty good, but a little anxious. I’m human, so it’s definitely some wild times not just within Meta, but the tech ecosystem as a whole.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you have any plans for the summer?

Kevin Tufts:
Plans for the summer are going to be pretty chill. So one of my side hobbies is I’m an avid cyclist, so I’ve been doing bike events from beginning of April up until just a couple of weeks ago. So this summer I think I’m just going to chill, stay local and got some family stuff happening. I got some folks coming into town, so should be hopefully a quiet summer.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s good. Is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish this year, like for the rest of the year?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, there’s some kind of like more career-oriented things that I want to sharpen up on and that’s with mentorship and maybe doing more design oriented workshops where I’m teaching kids from different backgrounds but mostly from people of color how to use design tools and how to get into product design as a whole.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think that’s a really good thing, especially now when I’d say I feel like over the past two or three years we’ve started to see a lot of the younger generation, like Gen Z and younger are starting to look at tech more as a viable opportunity for them to go into for their career. So that’s a good thing. I hope you get a chance to do that.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, looking forward to there’s a couple of avenues and programs that I’ve been working with here in the Bay Area that’s been awesome. So yeah, there’s some big things on the horizon for me personally.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Talk to me about the work that you’re doing at Facebook. Like, are you working on a specific product there?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, mostly working within what’s called Creation, and that’s the organization that handles a lot of our creation tools like Reels and Stories. And so for me, a lot of my work swirls around Stories, so I get to touch everything from the gallery to the Stories composer, just the experience itself, which has been pretty cool. And then I also work across Facebook, Lite, iOS and Android. And I call that out because most people that are listening, that are here within the US. May not be aware that we have such an app called Facebook Lite, but it’s a stripped-down version of the app that runs on Android and it’s a popular app in kind of like more developing nations.

Maurice Cherry:
So like if you’re using, say, like, I know there’s this terminology of a dumb phone as opposed to like a smartphone, but like a phone that’s not maybe always connected to the Internet.

Kevin Tufts:
You got it. Yeah, you nailed it. So there’s different flavors of that where you can go into low data mode, and then you’ll see almost just a very plain Jane. Just a few images and some text, just a stripped down version of the core app.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your team look like that you work with?

Kevin Tufts:
Team is pretty big, so within the organization there are different pillars that handle different aspects of the experience. I’m on the Creation Growth team, so we run tons of design experiments. It’s a really fast moving, fast paced.org, can be challenging, but really fun because you get to try all types of different unique design directions that you wouldn’t necessarily try in other product spaces around Meta. And we have quite a number of designers as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what does a regular day kind of look like for you? Are you working remotely? Are you back in the office now? What does that look like?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, I’m working remotely, and just recently, like most companies in the Bay, we have a new return to office policy. So a lot of us will be continuing to work remotely. And some of us that live here in the Bay are going to be going in three days a week.

Maurice Cherry:
So you would have to be going into the Menlo Park office then?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, that’s my closest office.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m trying to place the Bay geography. How far away is that from where you’re at in San Jose?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, it’s about a 20 minute drive. 25 minutes? I mean, it takes a while because of traffic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Okay, that’s not that bad. That’s not that bad at all. Yeah. The last time I was in San Francisco was in God. Oh, that was 2016, actually was 2016. I spoke at Facebook, and I remember it took…oh, wow. I think it took an hour to get from San Francisco to Menlo Park. And I was thinking, “people make this commute every day. This is a lot.”

Kevin Tufts:
That sounds great compared to doing like an hour and a half or two hours if there’s an accident.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to approach this part of the conversation rather gingerly. I feel like there’s a third rail that I really don’t want to touch with regards to Facebook. But what’s the mood like there right now? I mean, as you mentioned, they’ve been in the news recently because of conversations around the metaverse. The Meta Quest 3 just dropped fairly recently, and then right after that, Apple dropped their AR headset. Yeah. What’s the mood like at Facebook overall?

Kevin Tufts:
I think because of the frequency of the layoffs, you know, we went into the end of last year with the first big wave, and then we just had the two more recent ones. People, they seem to be resilient, but a lot of us are kind of reserved and really just a little numb because all this stuff has been in such close succession, right. So ultimately everyone is just kind of moving forward and performing their duties as they always would. I think a lot of us are just trying to like, ride this out because we know that it’s going to be challenging for at least quite a few number of months before the dust truly settles. After every large layoff at any company, then there’s always the trimmers that you experience, right, because you’ll have a series of reorgs, so then you have to ride those waves. So that’s kind of where we are right now. But for the most part, everyone is pushing forward and we’re now into roadmap planning season. So it’s like our minds are occupied with just trying to plan for the next half.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it can be a very odd place to still work somewhere after a layoff. Sometimes you have I guess the best way to call this, or the best thing to call it, would be survivor’s guilt that you’re here when maybe a team member has left or someone else you knew at the company has left. And then especially when these kinds of things happen in succession like that, it can almost kind of feel a bit like you’re walking on eggshells, I guess.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, in some regards it’s exactly like that because this is also impacting our performance reviews, right. So a lot of us engineers as well, you’ve been working on a project or maybe you’ve been reordered. So now the work that you had going on, you had to drop it midstream to go pick up something else from someone else’s team. And yeah, it’s chaotic and so there’s the stress of like, hey, how is my performance review going to look? That’s just kind of like where we are. It’s like you can only worry about what you can control. And I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we all get there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now for those of us who have been online for a very long time, when I say that at least 20 years or so, we remember when Facebook launched. Facebook launched in the early 2000s, like 2003, 2004…I think right around that time. And we’re now about to come up on Facebook’s 20th anniversary, which is wild to think of for an Internet company. What do you think, like Facebook’s place is now in this kind of modern internet era that we’re in?

Kevin Tufts:
Well, obviously we’ve tried to well, I shouldn’t say try, but we’ve entered the VR space, so I don’t see that going away anytime soon. But I think what we’ll start to head is maybe putting more development and focus into AI things as everybody is sort of racing to get there wherever there is. So we may have more of a shift towards AI oriented experiences and less attention on the metaverse and then obviously just kind of moving forward with the ultimate goal of just having a totally connected planet. Right. And what I noticed between the US. And just working on things that will be tested in other countries is that here in the US. The way the media spins things is that Facebook’s dying. And it’s really just kind of how the media frames things. But it’s not. It’s like the popularity of the app hasn’t really dipped and it’s actually increasing outside of the U.S. market. And then within the U.S. market, there’s quite a number of unique things that I think we’re going to be able to latch onto and really just kind of like shock the general public.

Maurice Cherry:
Sort of reminds me of that saying about the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated or something like that. I think Mark Twain said that probably. I mean, with a company as big as Facebook that has a global reach like that. I get what you’re saying about the media, like tech media here or even the more mainstream outlets here will make it seem like, oh, Facebook is this big dying site. But Facebook is still the number one website in the world. And the world is a big place. It’s not just the U.S. I mean the U.S. media scene, the U.S. tech scene, et cetera. Facebook has not only just Facebook the social network, but Instagram and WhatsApp. And there’s other apps and things that are out there in the world that are heavily used. So to say that Facebook is dying feels kind of premature just because it has a reach that eclipses so many other products, so many other companies. It’s a lot bigger, I think, than we might think that it is based on what the media might say it is.

Kevin Tufts:
And we don’t think about a lot of the other sub-products. Right. We have Groups, which is the communities based product within the app. It’s extremely popular messenger. We’ve got our foot in so many different pools right now that it’s really just kind of like the media, the U.S. focused media that’s always basically picking on the company.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And I mean, folks that have listened to this show for any period of time know I am not a Facebook fan. I’m not going to say I’m a Facebook hater, but you can’t knock the fact that Facebook has…it’s got its reach in a lot of different places across a lot of different products. And so just the social network itself is not the entirety of what Facebook is about.

Kevin Tufts:
That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kevin Tufts:
And I never thought that I would be working here. And now that I’ve been here almost three years, I could definitely see both sides of the coin, especially in terms of how the media positions things, but also rightfully so. We have a huge trust deficit that we’re continuing to try to improve. But it’s a hard mountain to climb, especially after the ways of layoffs that we’ve just seen. And some of the initiatives that the integrity teams have been cut. It’s tough, it takes time, and unfortunately things move faster than we can react to.

Maurice Cherry:
And some of those things are not even in Facebook’s control. Like the things that happen with workforce reduction and things, a ton of tech companies are doing that because they’re looking at the economy and seeing is the country going into a recession? So they’re trying to sort of react and pivot to what might happen. Like they’re trying to forecast the future here. So I think the longer a tech company and I’d say this is any company, not just tech companies, I think tech companies are specific in this case because they span so many different industries outside of just like software development or whatever. But the longer a tech company sticks around and almost feels like the more issues people will find with it one way or another, the companies are going to mess up. They’re going to inadvertently say something or inadvertently do something or maybe purposely say something or do something. Like the longer a tech company sticks around, it feels like…I’m a Math guy, so if I think of the duration of a tech company as like the limit of a function, it’s like as the limit approaches zero, or wherever the end of the company is, so to speak, things are going to happen. Things are just going to happen because social media influences culture and that influences technology. And so what might have been good five years ago is no longer good now. And if there’s one thing that’s going to be constant, it’s change. And I think when a tech company sticks around long enough, unfortunately they’re going to possibly come up on the short end of the stick when it relates to that.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, definitely. Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, enough pontificating on my part.

Kevin Tufts:
Love it.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s turn this back on you. Let’s learn more about you and about your journey as a designer in tech. I want to really take this back to the beginning here. So talk to me about where you grew up.

Kevin Tufts:
So I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the town and city known for LeBron James and it’s river catching on fire in the 1970s and terrible sports. Right. So that’s where I was born and right around the time I turned like eight or nine is when I moved to Southern California. So I have a big group of large group of family in Ohio, and then I have a family based in Southern California between the L.A. and Orange County area.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Were you exposed to a lot of design and technology growing up?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, so I was fortunate growing up that my dad, he was a computer guy, so I had a computer in the house growing up, which is completely rare, especially for the 1980s. So my dad, coming out of Vietnam, he was in a program that taught him how to work on mainframes. So when he got out of the military, he ended up landing a job in downtown Cleveland at one of the it’s really just kind of like a storage company, I guess you would say. I remember going to work with him and one computer took up the entire room and there’s these big reels and tapes. Yeah, I’ve always been exposed to tech stuff. And he was also like a big science fiction guy. And between having a computer in the house and then playing games at the arcade at the mall and just really watching science fiction flicks with him, there’s no surprise that I ended up doing what I’m doing today as for a career.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you went to Cleveland State University where you majored in design. I’m curious, before that, did you know that design was something that you really wanted to study?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So by the time I went to Cleveland State and it was a total fluke because I moved to Ohio for other reasons. And while I was there, it looked like I was going to stay for a few years. I just come from Southern California and went to Ohio and got myself enrolled in university because I wanted to make sure I didn’t have any huge lapse in time to get my education out of the way. By that time, I had already been doing freelance things. Like, I was pretty much thinking I was going to be a print designer around that time. So the late 90s, probably around like ’96, ’97 is when I had thought, “okay, yeah, I’ll get into graphic design.” At the time, I didn’t even know it was called graphic design, but I was always the kid at high school doing the hip-hop flyers, a lot of flyers for open mics raves. So it was like the starter. The inkling of me being coming to designer was back in those days doing like bootleg flyers.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, those early print days back then were something else. Just the amount of creativity that you had, even though the medium itself was sort of fairly limited, I mean, that was a lot of fun.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. Do something like really weird on the computer and then print it out. And then I would take some markers and then do something on top of that so it’d be like this multimedia flyer thing. Cut stuff out, paste it on and then xerox it again like at Kinkos. All that kind of stuff. Using QuarkXpress.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, man. QuarkXpress. I just had someone on recently and we were sort of talking about those early days with like PageMaker and Quark and trying to figure all that stuff out because I remember Quark specifically because I used that along with PageMaker to design my high school newspaper. And the instruction manual that it came with could choke a horse. That thing was huge.

Kevin Tufts:
And you had no one to read that stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Nobody was reading through all that. This is way before online documentation. I mean, this thing came with a brick of an instruction manual that you had to go through. And I’m like, I have to know all of this just to use the software. It almost didn’t feel like it was worth it.

Kevin Tufts:
Right. Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, while you were in college, you were also a working designer too, is that right?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So I went to college, I was probably in my mid 20s, so basically I thought I had the world figured out because after high school, I didn’t go straight away to college. And that’s when a lot of my high school friends and people around me were just getting hired out of high school to just do HTML and build some wacky website. So I followed that path. And then when the.com bubble burst, it was a hefty smack in the face of reality. So that’s kind of like, what got me into Cleveland State. But by that time, yeah, I was working for E-Business Express, which is a web hosting company. So I was very fortunate. I was already kind of knowing my destiny, what I needed to do, where I wanted to go. And then I was also, like, in practice where other students in the class were just kind of like, figuring out what Illustrator is or Photoshop.

Maurice Cherry:
E-Business Express is like a quintessential 90s online business.

Kevin Tufts:
Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Exactly. What kind of stuff were you doing there?

Kevin Tufts:
I started off as a Linux server admin, so I wasn’t even doing, like, design stuff. But what I was doing that was valuable was because it’s a web hosting company is now I understand how things work behind the scenes, like how websites function. So I had that foundation of, like, I guess you would say webmaster at that time. That’s what it was considered. But yeah, just understanding how DNS works for www, your web domain, registering names, taking servers offline, like, really heady stuff. But I enjoyed it. It fulfilled, like, a side of me that I really like to tinker and explore things, and just being a Linux admin that it did it for me. But then it also gave me access to kind of like host my own little microsites and really just enable certain things on the server that people just don’t have access to. Right. Or if you’re designing a website, you’re certainly not thinking about uploading things on the command line and just really kind of Star Trek stuff at that time. That’s how I treated it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, also the thing back then is a lot of that stuff around web hosting was very opaque. Like, you almost had to be a command line or a terminal coder to know how to really get around, because the graphical user interface, or the GUI, I guess what we called it back then, like, the GUIs, were just not super user-friendly to that point. So you did have to know maybe how to telnet or how to or use a Linux command in order to change the permissions on a directory. Like you couldn’t just click a button or something to make that happen.

Kevin Tufts:
That is a great point. Yeah, in the early days it wasn’t for everyone. You definitely had to have some technical prowess in order to upload a file or to get your web address, like get it all working, pull up a page.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember I was in high school in like the late 90s, and I remember even doing FTP stuff and being told at the time…I think maybe one of my teachers that told me was like, “oh, so you’re hacking, you’re a hacker now.” I’m like, it’s not hacking, it’s just FTP. But because they don’t see any graphics, all they see is just code. Because you know, this was like right before The Matrix or right, Matrix came out in ’99. I remember because I was a freshman in college, it came out in ’99 and yeah, all that stuff about FTP and oh my God.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, it was crazy, right? It’s like the only context the common man had was like some science fiction movie and then you think about it…it’s really like quite simple stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, in hindsight, when you look back at it, it definitely is simple stuff. But yeah, during that time, just knowing how to do some of that sort of stuff, like people thought you were like a magician or something. You can make a website, you can put a picture of yourself online. How do you do that? And even what does online mean? Because the concept of being online in the 90s, like mid to late 90s, is such a different thing than now because social media didn’t exist. So for you, do you remember what that time was like for you?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, it was a whole new world and it felt like there wasn’t much online to look at. But I do remember like in the early days you had to work hard to make friends. So forums were real big, the IRC channels, so forums and chats, so AIM or Instant Messenger, Yahoo Chat. I remember all those different worlds and rooms and just whatever your interest was, you would just go out into that forum or chat, find your folks and then it was just kind of like not even instant replies, especially in the forum. You go in there, you chatted up, and then maybe 24 hours later you got a response. A lot of that stuff was amazing. I remember downloading my first video and it was a clip of a race car. It was like a drag strip. It was a 30 second clip. And I think it took like an hour and a half, maybe even two hours for that 30 second clip to download so that I could watch it over my 56K or whatever the modem was at the time. But yeah, it was just such a cool adventure and tinkering around with HTML and doing all the corny stuff like making the animated tickers. It was the Wild, Wild West, and I loved every bit of it. But it definitely took some patience. And you had to work hard for anything that you wanted to do on the Net.

Maurice Cherry:
Going back to E-Business Express for a minute, I mean, you worked there for almost eight years. When you look back at that time, what do you remember the most?

Kevin Tufts:
I remember that it really helped me understand how the web functions and everything that’s needed for standing up a business. Because E-Business Express also specialized in helping medium, like small to medium sized businesses get set up online to sell. So it also gave me experience working within the realm of e-commerce. And then while working there, I worked there for eight years. And part of that was because the first few years I spent doing Linux admin stuff before I moved into becoming a full-blown just web designer for the company. So I’d switch roles, and the back end of my tenure there is what gave me experience with design, working with clients. So working more in, like, an agency style format is where I cut my teeth, as I guess you’d say, a traditional Web designer before moving into product.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, let’s talk about that shift. After E-Business Express, you’ve kind of started your career as a product designer at DotNetNuke, which now is known as DNN. How can I explain DotNetNuke? It’s a content management system. I have minimal experience with it. I worked with it briefly at WebMD and just thinking, like, how could someone make software so convoluted and confusing?

Kevin Tufts:
Well summarized.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Tell me about your time there.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, so the company is very unique because, as you said to CMS, and we had a lot of big government contracts, and there’s some educational institutions as well. And it was I’m trying to think of how to compare it maybe like a behemoth compared to WordPress. WordPress was really easy to get up and running. But there is a large community for Net Newt and primarily ran on Windows. So then you’ve got the IIS crowd of folks that are into it. So you got the engineer side, a lot of developers that supported the community. And then you also have the support side because there’s a lot of folks that were spinning up businesses around, like installations and helping you get up and running. On DNN, we also had those services as well. And then for me, it was awesome because it was my first foray into product thinking and product design. So when I worked at the company, we had, I think, three designers. Two of them were in marketing, I believe. And it’s just one product design person that did everything. It was like the jacket of all trades, but it. Was really cool. This is the first time getting experience with a design system where at that time we had a sticker sheet. So working in that capacity and then also working on product features. So where I’ve kind of come from more or less building websites that are catering to businesses to sell online now I’ve moved into kind of like more enterprise software. And a lot of the nuances of working within these product spaces and different product features and how to plan accordingly and doing a light amount of user research to the community, things like that. So kind of like an entry level crash course into product design.

Maurice Cherry:
Now. Was it a big shift from E-Business Express? I mean, you’re going from this web hosting environment where you said you were in the back half of your time there doing design to now focusing on product, which I feel like during that time, if we’re talking like, the early 2010s, product was still kind of a new ish sort of term in a way. Did you know what a product designer was when you started there?

Kevin Tufts:
No, because I think around that time also, we were still seeing on job listings, UI/UX. We were seeing like a myriad of job titles that meant the same thing, like visual designer or UI/UX and product designer. So when I moved out to the Bay Area, I had to kind of wrap my head around like, okay, I’m seeing these titles, but the job description is just a product design role interaction designer even. And then the description would be nothing more than just, like, a product design role. So, yeah, it took a while to kind of figure out what the companies were looking for. And then also, what did that mean? Like, what are the job functions that are necessary for me to be successful?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there was definitely a shift in the industry right around that time where web designers, graphic designers, visual designers just suddenly started becoming product designer, UX designer. And, I mean, that’s something even I’ve encountered now. Like, if I tell people I’m a designer, I feel like nine times out of ten, they’re going to think that means a UX designer. And I’m like, oh, actually, I haven’t done UX design. Maybe not in the way that they’re thinking it, but I feel like that shift just kind of happened. Was that something that you noticed also?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, I did notice. It naturally sorted itself out because prior to that, I guess in our era, we kind of came up around the time where you’re expected to know all these different things. You had to be a visual designer. Also, Flash was pretty big too, so it’s like you had to know Flash and then programming languages, right? There are all these things. And I was also a front end developer at E-Business Express, so I did a lot of the integration work as well. And when I came to the Bay Area. I still had that mindset that I had to be a jack of [all] trades and know all these things. And then I was noticing that there are actually specialized roles now. Like, no longer are we living in a day and age where they’re expecting you to be a webmaster. Like, I hated that term and seeing that, it’s like you have to know Java. JavaScript, there was all these back end languages that were on our job description roles. When you just want to use Photoshop.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When I worked at AT&T as a designer, I think my title was just web designer. But we were doing web design, we were doing graphic design, we were doing front end design because we had to, of course, actually build the whole thing from scratch. And this was at the time when layout switched from tables to CSS. So you had to learn that with all the different cross browser compatibility, especially with IE6. And yeah, we had to know like, a little bit of Flash. Actually we used…oh my God, do you remember Swish? Yeah, Swish was like “Flash Lite”, I guess. It wasn’t made by Macromedia, which Adobe ended up buying, but it was a totally different company called Swish, and it was a more, I guess, sort of user-friendly interface to make Flash animation. But we had to know Flash. We had to know a little bit of Java, and I mean, like actual Java, not JavaScript. Ironically, we didn’t have to know JavaScript, but we had to know Java because we would do these web audio applet things and so we had to know how to troubleshoot the applet. So this is one position, graphic design, web design, Flash, Java, and you’re also sometimes doing some debugging of other people’s stuff. It was a lot into one particular title, and I feel like now that’s five different jobs at a company. After your time at DotNetNuke, you worked for a lot of other companies out in the Bay Area. You worked for — I’m listing off here — Workday, eBay, SendGrid, Twilio. And before Facebook, you were at Lyft for a short period of time. When you look back at those positions collectively, like, what stands out to you? Do you remember any particular things?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, I remember at DNN had an amazing time there and I felt like that was the kickstarter to my official tech career in the Bay and just getting my feet wet with engineering teams because we had a team of roughly like 100 engineers or so. And so that was the first time going from like a small web shop where there’s three developers and they’re within arm’s reach, to now I’ve got to talk to engineering leads and have these presentation reviews. So that was kind of like the world that I was living in at DNN.

And then when I moved over to Workday, that was my experience into the world of enterprise software and really how to work within the confines of a design system. Coincidentally enough, I worked on the internal tools team, so that was really unique to be on the team that has to essentially vet and take in requests from other product areas, different components that may need to be built or reviewed to see if there’s any efficacy to having engine spin up resources to bring to life. And then also working across different time zones. So Workday was amazing. And having to work with engineering teams in Ireland, and I’ve also got a couple of trips to Europe out of that as well. So can’t complain with that. The design culture at Workday at the time was growing, so design hadn’t been around at Workday for too long before I got there. I think maybe like a couple of years at the most. So we had a young but super talented design team that was working at Workday at that time, research, I want to call that out as well. So we did have a few research partners that were at Workday. So that was my first time interacting with research, other than me standing up some guerrilla survey or just doing kind of like personal research. My own living from Workday.

So I left Workday and went to eBay. And eBay was awesome because I met some incredible people and I’m still friends with a lot of them to this day. eBay was just a special time in my career where I was able to again, work at a massive company, work on different product spaces. And also, I’m an avid eBay user, so I came in with some personal knowledge of how the product works because some people that work at eBay, they don’t necessarily use the product. I’d say the same thing is probably like for a meta as well, right? Which probably is problematic. But I actually used the thing that I worked on, so that was really cool. Several opportunities to travel throughout Europe, mostly Germany, and eBay was close to home, so I didn’t have that long commute, like a lot of folks in the Bay Area. So that fulfilled my mood, was incredible back then.

And then transitioning from eBay, this is where things get interesting. So I ended up at a company called SendGrid. And SendGrid is kind of like an API communications company, more around the email marketing space. Really powerful tool. A lot of companies use it today. It’s kind of like the rival to Mailchimp for anyone that’s not familiar with SendGrid. So if you know Mailchimp, that’s basically what SendGrid is. And SendGrid was acquired by a company called Twilio. So that’s how I ended up at Twilio — through an acquisition.

When the acquisition took place, SendGrid had a very mature, young, but mature design organization, and Twilio was engineering centric, so they really did not have design. And I think literally there may have been like four designers, four product designers there at the time of the acquisition. Funny story. I’d actually interviewed with Twilio before the acquisition, maybe like a half a year prior to that, and got an offer. Decided that wasn’t quite where I wanted to be in my career because I wanted to go somewhere that had a mature design organization and I didn’t want to go somewhere where it’s just you kind of have to fight for your seat at the table. So I’ve seen some things at that time during the interview process that the folks were incredible, they were great, but I’m like, maybe I’ll pass. So I ended up going to SendGrid and I kid you not, on my first day, my first day in the office with my team and our first team meeting, we got an announcement to basically shut our laptops and we need to receive some news. And the news was that we had been acquired by Twilio. So the company I ran from was the company that ended up acquiring. They got me anyway, so I was the most expensive hire ever.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So to wrap things up, Twilio was just an interesting time. PDs were basically working across like anywhere from 4:00-9:00 p.m. At a time. I think I had eight that I was reporting to. So it was pretty chaotic, but at least you were shipping work like, daily. We didn’t have enough design resources. And also it was challenging because I mentioned that Syngra had a mature design culture and organization. So when we came in with a lot of our process oriented things and checkpoints with design briefs, which is necessary, especially in large, fast moving companies, we were trying to get the company to slow down so that we can improve the quality versus just kind of like PM coming up with an idea and ends just building it. And if it doesn’t work, oh well. We wanted to kind of move away from that mantra and more towards being design led. So tiny bit of friction around there, but ultimately they’re getting to where they need to be. And Lyft, I know I’ve done such a tour of duty here in the Bay Area.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to say.

Kevin Tufts:
Finally — it’s going to stop now. But Lyft, I would say Lyft was a cherry on top for my career. It fulfilled so many things that I had been looking for, where I want to move fast, ship quality work, have a mature design organization, and a mature design system. Right? You don’t ever have to worry about what’s real, what’s not real, what’s in flight. Our design systems team at Lyft, product teams, everyone was just incredible to work with. And so I worked on the community safety team. My short stint at Lyft and the team that I worked on was unique because we got to wedge ourselves in between different product spaces without actually being a full-fledged member of the team. So I got to work on the Driver app and the Rider app. And then there’s some kind of like, unique things around the rental car space, which is Fleet, so there’s a lot of interesting work. And because it wasn’t a massive company, you could move fast. There was a researcher embedded on my team, so it was almost like bi-weekly we were testing things, and I just loved it. So I didn’t have to worry about the design system. Inevitably, when you’re working on the thing, sometimes you’re not working with a system that’s flexible enough to adhere to your needs and what you’re trying to solve. But while working with Lyft, I didn’t have to worry about all that. I just worried about the experience itself and everything else just fell into place.

But the pandemic is what got me to Meta. So when the pandemic hit and no one was going anywhere, no one’s driving, no one’s riding, I’m watching my colleagues, like almost weekly, like different goodbye emails that are going out. And it was a wild place to be in the year that everything seemed to have melted down. So out of self-preservation, and a need for not legit thinking the company was going to go over, I ended up making the jump over to Meta.

So I’ll stop there. And that’s the whole transition to where I am today.

Maurice Cherry:
No, like you said, that is quite a tour of duty. One question I think that really stands out among all of that is, like, how have you seen product design change over the years? I imagine from company to company, it’s probably fairly similar because you’re working on software products. I guess you could say Lyft is software, but it’s transportation as well. But how have you seen product design change over the years since you first started?

Kevin Tufts:
The tooling. I would definitely say, in terms of ease of collaboration, that is one of the biggest things that I’ve seen change. And then the tooling itself. So now that we’ve got these robust prototyping tools, it’s so much easier to demonstrate the design and the experience that you’re working on without having to know some hardcore programming languages. Like, back in the day, it was like you had to know JavaScript or jQuery just to maybe animate a dropdown, right? Or you may have had some ideas around something fancy that you wanted to do, maybe you wanted to have a side drawer appear on a website. But in order to do those things, you had to know a programming language or just mock it up in After Effects, which is also tedious. So I would say just the sheer volume of tools in the collaboration space and prototyping is just incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s another podcast that I produce — I’m not going to mention the name of it — but there’s another show that I produce, and one of the things that we have been exploring through that that I feel like is also relevant to our conversation is like, just how much the browser has become a tool in and of itself. Like, the browser used to just be about presentation. You made a website or something like that, you put it online, whatever. But now, as the browsers have gotten savvier, as different frameworks have been created and such, the browser itself is such a tool to the point where there are services now that only exist in a browser. They don’t exist as standalone software, like an executable file or something like that. Like Figma, you can do full fledged graphic design all within your browser. And like, ten years ago, that would have almost been unheard of.

Kevin Tufts:
It is mind blowing to do that in a browser. Like, through Figma, you’ve got these other tools like Webflow, and trying to think of some other ones that are out there canva I mean, it’s just totally jealous of the new designers, by the way. Every time these tools come out and I have to interact with them, and I’m just like, wow, I really couldn’t use this back in the day when I had maybe 100 buttons that I need to make a change on it. I had to go touch every hundred, you know, component.

Maurice Cherry:
Listen…modern designers will never know the pain of cross-browser compatibility. They will never understand how much of a pain in the ass it was to try to get one design to look the same across different versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox and Opera. Oh, my God.

Kevin Tufts:
Safari. Safari behavioral things. Yeah. [Internet Explorer] 6 through 8 were probably like the nightmares. Six and seven, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, for a while. I know. There was, like, a whole cottage industry around basically browser emulators. Because if you were on Windows, of course you couldn’t really use Safari. You’d have to use I mean, the Windows version of Safari you could use, but it didn’t even render the same between Windows and Mac. And so you had this software that you’d use that could hopefully reliably look the same between everywhere, and you had these little HTML shivs you had to do to make certain properties work. It was man, it was a jungle out there. It’s only like ten or so years ago. It was wild. Yeah.

Kevin Tufts:
Not that long ago, when I was at E-Business Express, we bought a dedicated iMac for that very reason, so that we could run all the browsers on the Mac to see how they were responding as well. It’s like, I don’t miss those days, but I am so grateful that I got to experience it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right? No, absolutely. Because, I mean, I think there are certain skills, I think, that you build because of that, like being able to really debug and even to sort of refactorize your own code that you’re doing, because you know that if you do it this other way, it’s going to look bad in this browser. So now you sort of learn all these little eccentricities and stuff like that. So now things are pretty standardized between the browser, I feel like, and I haven’t done front-end in a while, but I feel like things are pretty standardized now between the modern browsers like Edge, Safari, Chrome, Firefox are pretty much going to render things pretty much the same.

Kevin Tufts:
Yes. And I think a lot of it’s like the proliferation of frameworks like the CSS frameworks have helped out with the consistency as well. Right. The browsers have the support built in for a lot of the neat CSS tricks that you can do. But then also a lot of people have adopted these frameworks that have that stuff built in as well. So it just really speeds up the design and development process. And I could say, like, for people that are front end developers and they’ve moved over to just being a designer, it’s always been easier to communicate with your engine partners too. So when you need to go into engineering meetings as well, it’s always refreshing to communicate in their language as much as you can. Right. So it helps you out that way as well, career wise.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve said that there’s no better time to be a designer than now, and I feel like we may have kind of talked about that a little bit now, just with tooling, but expand on that for me. Expand on that thought.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So let’s say FigJam, the collaboration tool within Figma. It has really opened up my world where I could send people just a design, like an early design. They can go in there, they can comment, or we can comment, live the collaboration aspect, especially in the remote world. Obviously we’re not all in the same space, but it has been world-changing to get early buy in through Figma, through sharing a link and even doing research. The tooling for research has been a lot better over the years. The last ten years, it’s improved greatly. And so speaking to that, yeah, I’m all about collaboration tools because we have to do a lot of virtual brainstorm sessions or design sprints. And without having that mechanism, I’m not sure where we would have been today. We could have probably been doing design sprint in Google Sheets or something like that, right? Which would be terrible. That has just been world changing for me in terms of just building more momentum and getting buy-in.

But also with prototyping. I’m a big fan of prototyping and I do remember the days of struggling for weeks and weeks through using JavaScript and jQuery to do something relatively simple or maybe I had an idea that’s kind of elaborate but do not have the technical skills to pull it off. So prototyping in Figma, Origami and some of the other tools that are out in the market today. It’s like you spend maybe an hour or two going over some tutorials and then all of a sudden you’re off to the races, making a really immersive, native-feeling prototype that you can view on your phone and even share it. So that’s why I kind of like saying, I’m so jealous of all the folks that are becoming designers now because they’ll never know the pain of taking days or even weeks to do something really simple and sometimes it just ends up being like a throwaway thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I didn’t even touch on mobile. But you’re like, absolutely right about that. I mean, mobile is another thing where a bunch of different environments across different smartphones are going to render things differently. That’s a whole other part I didn’t even consider. I’d say also just education back in the day a lot. I mean, this stuff was really online. We were all just sort of reverse engineering and looking at View Source code and trying to figure stuff out. And there were books that came along eventually because some people might have been a little bit ahead of the curve, but you couldn’t really go to school for this. And now you have like, Treehouse and you’ve got General Assembly and there’s no short share skillshare. There’s YouTube videos. There’s so much stuff now around education that just did not exist when we were trying to learn design back then. Especially if you were self taught. Like, if you were self taught, you really were self taught because there were not even just these educational platforms to help you to figure this stuff out. You really were doing a lot of trial and error.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, great point. I don’t know how I could even forget that because that was a huge part of my life and career and I felt like I took a long road to get to where I am because of that fact. Back in those days, there were very few tutorials online. You could find some Illustrator tutorials. Shockwave. I’m trying to think of some other Macromedia products. That ColdFusion. Fireworks. Yeah, you could find some really remedial tutorials out there, but that was about it. And so those early days, I had to go to a bookstore and look at design magazines. I think Computer Arts was a godsend coming from publishing [in] the UK. But yeah, that was it. It’s like you go to a bookstore and you get all these design books and then I would get some programming books just to see what’s going on. But like you said, maybe you found a website that was cool and you got to go view Source and like, okay, what’s going on here? And then you try to break it down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kevin Tufts:
So, yeah, all this stuff that we have, like, access to education and just these online schools and I love it. I’m here for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I remember back in the day I used what was it called? Dynamic Drive. Do you remember Dynamic Drive?

Kevin Tufts:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
So Dynamic Drive was the site that basically just had code snippets. Like, they didn’t really give tutorials. They kind of told you how to implement it, but say you wanted to make it so someone couldn’t right click on your website. Right? Yeah. You could go to Dynamic Drive and find the code. Snippet copy it, copy it, paste it between the head tags, and then all these different no one could right click. Yeah, they really tell you how it worked. You just were like, oh, this can do this. There was a lot of trust, I’ll put it that way, that you weren’t putting something malicious in your site. You would just, oh, copy, paste that and…oh, God, what’s the other one I used to use a lot that was sort of more educational based that’s still around now called…W3Schools. Yeah, that’s right. W3Schools. And I remember because I was also teaching design at the time, this was like, what was this, 2011, 2012, maybe? And I remember telling my students, like, don’t use W3Schools. They call themselves W3Schools because it was www. But I think folks also confused it with the W3C, which is the Worldwide Web Consortium. And I was a member of their Web Education group. And they would tell us, do not tell people to use W3Schools. It is not sanctioned by us. It is not our thing. But it was also still teaching people. It was teaching me how to use some of this stuff. But I would have to tell my students, don’t use W3Schools. Think of it as a reference, but don’t just copy and paste stuff from W3Schools and then turn it in as homework, because I’m going to know that you did that, because I do that, so don’t do that.

Kevin Tufts:
Oh, my goodness, man. Yes. Absolutely. We said dynamic drive. I wasn’t even like it didn’t even ring a bell. But I remember using them to get a script, to do the animated cursor. It had all the types of weird, just weird things. It was almost like the dollar store for scripts.

Maurice Cherry:
Not the dollar store! That’s a very accurate piece of comparison there. Back when HTML…I think it was called DHTML back then. Yeah. Oh, man, what a time. What a time.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to someone out there who’s they’re hearing your story, they want to follow in your footsteps. What advice would you give them?

Kevin Tufts:
You know, as you’re trying to figure out what aspect of design you may want to focus in? Experiment, try it all. And as we were just talking about, there’s so many resources online where you don’t even have to pay a penny to try something out, right. But really just be curious on how things are done, whether it’s processes related to product design or maybe how to run a design sprint. There’s so much, and you’ll kind of eventually find your way. Some people generally know, like, hey, I’m not a great visual designer, but they want to get more into the UX of things. Right. And that’s great too. So it’s all about kind of like, figuring out your career path and what your passions are, what your strong suits are.

For me, I love product design, but I’m also really heavily into micro-animation, so I lean towards these prototyping tools. But yeah, it’s like, sky’s the limit. It’s kind of like the advice that I would give them informal training. Like, if you are able to get into a good school that has a great product design program, that is awesome. I know Carnegie Mellon has one. Tufts University has, like, an HCI class. I think most big universities these days probably have some facet of, like, a product design class, but then don’t also have to go to a giant university for this type of an education. Like we already mentioned, it’s all right there online. Just use the resources that are available to you.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I noticed that the URL to your website is pathstraightforward.com. What does “path straight forward” mean to you, like, in terms of your life and your career?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So I was trying to have a domain name that sounded relatively cool. And at first, I’m like, this is not going to have any type of esoteric meaning or anything, but really, it just summarizes the journey that I took in order to get to where I am today. Because it was really long. It was hard, but I knew that I had a plan, and I just kind of stayed focused on the journey and the path moving forward, and that’s kind of what’s got me here. And I still have a long way to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I mean, you’ve mentioned this kind of tour of duty that you’ve had around the bay at these different companies and such. What does the future look like for you?

Kevin Tufts:
So there’s a couple of things. I think I want to start to move more towards design systems because I really do enjoy working with my design systems partners. And so over the years, I’ve had a number of contributions to different systems that are available. But between that and mentorship becoming, like, having a stronger influence in mentoring younger designers, I mentioned that I was involved in a program here in Oakland, but it’s really impactful when people can have someone that they can talk to and get directional advice for their career. So I want to have more of a stronger influence in mentorship circles.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience where can they find out more information about you, your work and everything? Where can they find that online?

Kevin Tufts:
Yes, you can reach out to me on LinkedIn. So it’s LinkedIn.com, and it’s my first and last name, Kevin Tufts. So feel free to connect with me. I am always willing to have a coffee chat with anyone that’s curious about my background or just really general questions about design and my website since I’ve been employed for so long. I’ve kind of taken down a lot of the work there, but also there are some social links in there. You can reach out to me on my website and contact me directly.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Kevin Tufts, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mentioned this prior to us recording. We have a mutual colleague, Kim Hutchinson. Now she was Kim Williams when I first interviewed her, but Kim sang about your praises. She was like, “you got to get Kevin on the show. He’s such a cool guy. He’s such a good guy.” And I can tell just from this conversation, like, she’s 100% right. You’re down to earth. You know your stuff. And anybody that I talk to that has been around since the early days of the web that has built stuff from scratch is, like, automatically cool with me because, you know, the trenches that we’ve had to go through to still be…I would even say relevant. I want to say that. But to go through the trenches, to still be working and doing what we do now after 20 years is amazing. And I think you certainly built a fantastic career for yourself, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what you do along with the mentoring track and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
So thank you for coming on the show.

Maurice Cherry:
I appreciate it.

Kevin Tufts:
Maurice, thank you. And I really appreciate you having me on the show. And it is awesome that you’ve got a platform that you can expose different types of people from various backgrounds. So, yeah, man, kudos. I appreciate it.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

Natalie Marie Dunbar

We’re keeping the content strategy train rolling this week and chatting it up with Natalie Marie Dunbar, a UX-focused content strategist with a unique blend of skills as a journalist, writer, and researcher. She’s also the author of From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice. Very impressive!

We started off discussing the inspiration behind the book, and Natalie shared her thoughts on the changing meaning of “content creation,” and on what it takes to maintain a strong content strategy in this current tech landscape. She also talked about her early career working with huge brands Kaiser Permanente and the Food and Drug Administration, and spoke on the importance of prioritizing her own well-being through yoga. Natalie is a true content strategy maven, and I think you’ll walk away from this interview with a new understanding on its importance.

Big thanks to Louis Rosenfeld of Rosenfeld Media for the introduction!

Interview Transcript

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

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Hi. I am Natalie Marie Dunbar. By day, I am a senior manager, content design, UX content design with Walmart, and by night and weekends, I am an author, a speaker, workshop facilitator, and sometime yoga teacher.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s a lot.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Yes.

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

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
It has been full of travel. I think I’m making up for lost time during the pandemic. I’ve been on a plane every month since last September with the exception of October and February. I did do a road trip in February, but was not by plane. I have been traveling for speaking and work. So it’s been a very busy year.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So aside from the travel, I’m curious, how has 2023 been different for you than say last year?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
2023 has been, aside from the travel but because of the travel, things have been opening up more. I’m finding that whether, for work or for conferences and things, there’s a lot more in-person appearances happening again, a lot more in-person just interaction, which I definitely have missed, but I think my battery for my energy, I have a different level where I’m able to withstand what I call peopling. After a while, it’s like usually I can be out and about for hours, I can work a full day and then go to a conference or go to a meetup or go to a social event, and I’d be fine.

Nowadays, I have to think what time does it start, how long do I need to be there, and when do I need to shut down so I can take care of myself. So that’s definitely been a highlight of this year, especially with all the travel.

Maurice Cherry:
I just started back traveling, doing speaking stuff last year in October, and I 100% understand what you mean. Prior to the pandemic, I was traveling for work. I would be in a different city or something every month, and it was just, I don’t know, I guess I just had that rhythm, but because of the pandemic, I’ve really lost that. I think some of it is stamina and some of it is also-

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Innate.

Maurice Cherry:
… just we’ve all gotten comfortable for the most part at home and breaching that to go into the outside world, you’re like, “I want to go back home now.”

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Exactly. Exactly that. I can relate.

Maurice Cherry:
So do you have any plans for the summer? You’re doing more traveling?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
I definitely want to connect with family. I’m in California. Most of my family’s in Texas area, Louisiana, some in Tennessee. So I’d love to be able to reconnect with family members that I haven’t had a chance to see since the traveling and everything started up again, and I would like to actually take a trip that does not involve business or any type of work. I haven’t figured out what that is yet, but we’ll see.

Maurice Cherry:
I think you can work something in, especially if it’s going to be in the way, not in the way, but in the path of family or something. Maybe, I don’t know, go to New Orleans or something like that. Who knows?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Definitely. My sister and I got together last year in August after not being able to visit for a while, and we have this plan. We haven’t implemented it yet, but we are wanting to go to Cape Verde off the western coast of Africa and just really immerse ourselves in the culture there. So hopefully that’ll be something. I don’t think it’ll happen this year, but I think looking forward, maybe in 2024.

Maurice Cherry:
That’ll be fun. That sounds like a fun trip. So with everything you’re doing, you mentioned you’re working, you mentioned this book that we will talk about in a little bit. What does a typical day look like for you?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Oh, wow. I have my day job. I am in a lot of meetings. I set aside quiet time for myself to actually be heads down to actually do content work. I think the meeting thing is just part of that is working virtually or remote and just trying to get all the meetings in, especially across time zones. We’re lucky enough to have very talented team that works from all points of the US. So that’s a thing, but sometimes there’s the occasional 7:30 in the morning meeting. For me, I’ve had them, well, not in my current work, but at a past job, I remember being on calls at 6:00 in the morning, not always though, thank goodness, but yeah.

Then after that, I try to take a break, whether I’m taking a walk outside or just hanging out with my pups, connecting with family here in the house, regrouping, touching down on the stuff that makes you human. Then I usually spend an hour or two doing something having to do with the book by extension, maybe looking at speaking opportunities, calendaring, trying to figure out, “Oh, is it time for me to send out my newsletter?” which I need to write myself a note because it actually is note to self.

There are days sometimes though I’ll tell you that I’ll start with the day job at 8:00, 8:30, 9:00 and I’m still going at 9:00 at night on my other stuff. I close one laptop and then open the other. Just depends. I’ve had to put a limit on how many meetups and different things that I sign up for because there’s so much good knowledge out there and so many different organizations that I’ve found as a result of the pandemic. I’m able to attend the meetup that’s hosted in Australia because I can do it on my computer, but I have tended to overextend myself, so I have to take a moment and walk away and have that quiet time.

Maurice Cherry:
The pandemic has really opened up these opportunities to do, I guess, distance meetups or distance talks or things like that, but in that same vein, it can be super easy to just take on a lot of stuff and then at the end of the day, you’re just completely spent because there was this whole thing, I want to say, maybe earlier around in the pandemic about Zoom fatigue, which I think people still have now. One is the frequency of just doing a bunch of different video calls and stuff, but also, it just takes a lot of stamina to be on camera and paying attention and being active that day in, day out for hours at a time, whether you’re giving a talk or you’re doing work stuff. It can really wear you down.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
So true. That’s where just protecting my wellness and taking screen break. At any given moment, I may have two laptops and a large screen going, plus the cellphone and occasionally the iPad. So I try to definitely take that time to just be like, “Okay. I need to walk away from all this blue light,” and the tendency is to want to go turn on the TV, and I’m like, “No, that’s a screen too.” I’m still a person who really enjoys reading actual physical books even though I do have a Kindle. So if I’m in that mode, I’ll try to read a book or like, I said, play with my pup. That usually gets me outside, get out in the front yard even if I’m just sitting out front and just enjoying folks walking by and saying hello and making a little bit of contact that way, but yeah, really trying to be purposeful about not staring at screens all day.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m the same way too. One thing that I’ll do, especially for meetings, I will ask upfront, “Does this need to be a video call or can this be a phone call?” because if it’s a phone call, then I don’t have to look at a screen. I’ll probably be more likely to take that meeting because then I can do it … Like you said, if you’re outside, if you’re taking a walk or something, where I don’t have to be on. I don’t know what your setup is at home, but for me, I have a light on my desk and then I turn on all the lights in my room. So it’s almost like a little mini sound stage. I’m like, “It’s bright in here. It’s hot. I have to be on camera and stuff.” So if it could be a phone call, I’ll do a phone call.

Also, it is just about pacing myself. I’ll get to a certain time of night if I’m working until 8:00 or 9:00, and I’ll just stop because I’m like, “I’m not getting a medal for trying to finish this tonight. If I finish this in the morning, it’ll be just as done then as if I were to try to do it now. Let me go to bed. Let me get some rest. Let me get some sleep or something.” So yeah, trying to strike that balance, especially when you’re doing things on your own or off the clock or something like that, it can be a lot to try to handle.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about your book, Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice. Now, for those that are listening, we’ll put a link to it in the show notes. We’ll also have a discount code for you so you can get 20% off, bit for those listening who might not have heard about it, can you give them a brief synopsis of what the book’s about?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Yeah. Unlike so many great books out there that are about how to do content strategy, what it is and how to do it, this is not that. This is more about how do you assemble a team or act as a team of one to create a dedicated, UX focused, in my world, the user experience focused content strategy practice. I’m a purist. I still use the phrase content strategy. There are folks who … Actually, my day job title is now content designer. We could have a whole separate conversation about if there’s a difference and if so, what is it, but I’m talking about building a content strategy practice where all the flavors of UX and content can come together and support an agency or organization in, number one, identifying the importance of content as an asset to every business of any size, and then how do you build and sustain a practice where it coexist either, say, with a design op team or a UX team or within an agency if they have a dedicated digital experience team. That’s basically the synopsis of what it’s about.

Maurice Cherry:
So you mentioned content designer. To you, what’s the difference between a content designer and a writer or a copywriter?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Oh, boy, I’m going to get in trouble now. So again, I always lead with UX because I’m a user experience fanatic, I would say, but user experience and focusing on the human centeredness of the digital experiences that we create that are more focused on the user interface with a digital experience and helping them with things like wayfinding and achieving whatever their top task is, whether it’s on an app or a website. I’m not so much interested in my writing about selling you on a brand or product. I’m more interested in helping you get the product or service that you came to the website or the app for.

So that’s the difference between, say, marketing copywriting for digital spaces versus the UX content strategy and content design that I’m talking about. There’s also content marketing strategy, which is more, I’m going to oversimplify, but that’s more about, say, content that is created by a brand that you then will disseminate to third parties, whether it be through social media or a guest blog post or … That is all a part of a larger content strategy, but that more focuses, again, on marketing and selling someone on a brand or getting them to buy a product versus, again, how do we help them navigate in a digital space. Hopefully that was clear.

Maurice Cherry:
That was pretty clear. I think so.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
For content strategy and content design, we’re still having conversations about what is different. Content strategy has evolved. There were a few folks before Kristina Halvorson, but her book tends to be the one, Content Strategy for the Web, that everyone remembers, the red book that came out that was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s what we’re doing,” so where you have content people working with UX designers, interaction designers back in the day, human factors engineers that were designing interactions.

So content strategy looks across an experience end to end, but a content strategy life cycle is actually a circular thing where you’re constantly, you’re doing your discovery work to figure out what’s out there. You’re finding out where your gaps are in content, what you might need to create. You’re getting rid of content that might be outdated or stale, and then you’re launching with whatever new content and, by the way, some content strategists also write the content and some don’t. They hand off to another team who does that. Could UI/UX writers. Could also be content designers. It depends on the organization.

Then the good old optimization, optimizing, testing, and then going through that cycle again and again. So the content strategy work, I always get asked, “When’s the content strategy going to be done?” and people cringe when I say never because it should never be done. It should be something that’s cyclical that you’re always going back to make sure that your content is measuring up to whatever your goals are.

Within that, content design has emerged as content that’s created. I’ve heard it referred to as product content design, where your product may be an actual something that you could buy on an e-commerce site, but it may well be an actual service, say, per bank or financial institution, FinTech, but there’s some product or service that you’re selling. So content design tends to focus on helping users transact by the thing, make the bank transaction, whatever it is that, again, their top tasks that they’re doing, but they’re all related.

Like I said, there’s a lot happening within the industry where we’re still trying to not carve out, well, it could be carve out a niche, but it’s just to better articulate what do we mean when we say content strategy, what do we mean when we say content design, so on and so forth. So hopefully that didn’t confuse people. Hopefully it gave them more to think about and go look up and see what you find.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s amazing how I would say maybe within the past, I’d say roughly about 10 years, how content has started to become more included on design teams. I distinctly remember when content really used to be more of a marketing domain and design was more visual. Well, it’s still visual, but design was visual in that they didn’t have non-designers or non-visual designers on their team, and now we’re seeing team structures where there’s a content designer or a content strategist or they’re included along with designers on these multimodal teams, which I think is pretty interesting.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
If you look at places where Agile is practiced, Agile software development, you will find in some places, especially larger enterprises where you have scrum teams, for example, that might be for a business unit or it might be several within one business unit or whatever it is, but you’ll have a UX designer, UI/UX designer, interaction designer, a program, sorry, a project and a product manager, and the content strategist or content designer on those scrum teams that are embedded in those teams or you may have within certain product areas where you’ll have, like what you just talked about, content designer embedded in those teams or there’s the model where it’s content more as a service to an organization where you’re your own team and then you send folks out as work comes in, whatever resources are available. You could be writing a white paper, you could be writing video script, you could be writing anything, and you create content for anything.

From a strategic point of view, you’re looking across experiences though to make sure that the content that you’re creating is consistent, that your voice and tone is consistent, that if you call a thing [inaudible 00:20:21] over here, that you’re calling it the same thing over there kind of thing. So that’s where your strategy starts to come into play, where you’re looking across experiences and across channels to make sure that even if your team and your work as a UX-focused content strategist is not to create, say, the accompanying marketing pieces for a particular product or service, you still want them to be aware of how they’re describing things because you may need to incorporate some of that copy or content into your work as well.

I find that I do that often at my work. I have marketing counterparts that I work with so that … Think of a handoff. If you think about a marketing funnel where at the top you have people that are curious about a product or service, and then, say, they’re shoppers, and then they start to go through the funnel and maybe there’s conversion where you want them to sign up for loyalty program, there’s a natural handoff that happens in that space where you’re not so much marketing to them anymore. Now, you’re helping them way find and get what they need, but they don’t need to know that that’s a separate handoff. So you need to have that constant communication with your marketing and other departmental partners that create copy so that the experience for the user is seamless.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you seen content online change since you, I guess, started working as a content strategist? You’ve been working with content now for a very long time since the early days of the internet. How have you seen just content in general change?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Everything when I was really getting into digital content, it was SEO, SEO, SEO, keywords, keywords, keywords. We were not doing questionable practices like keyword stopping and all that stuff, but that was the big focus when I got into this work. The content was longer form, even contextual help content, which we now often will classify more of your UX writing, and UI/UX writing is that wayfinding content that helps you get from one part of the experience to the next.

Back in the day, it was long help pages and FAQs. We weren’t thinking about necessarily the fact that maybe if we create the digital experience in a way where FAQs and things like that aren’t needed, then we’re looking at less content and fewer words and getting out of the way of the user. So I think we had to evolve through that space. I think that’s one of the places where content partners, well, with user experience researchers, because we can put that, put content in front of people and talk with them in realtime using prototypes and sometimes even stuff that’s out there in the wild and understand what it is that people really want and need because there’s a tendency still for some that think that the more content, the better. We want to have everything so everybody can find all the stuff, but the problem with that is that it becomes so cluttered that people get frustrated and maybe the better is to help them with the wayfinding. Maybe it’s the IA, the information architecture, that needs to be more intuitive.

So we’re helping, “Where would you go to find this thing? Where would you go to find that thing?” and understanding that behavior more than just throwing big chunks of content at people and wanting them to consume all of that. We know that, well, there’s still the camp that people don’t read, especially on mobile screens, but I think people do, but their attention goes to finding the thing that they want, and they will read that. If we give them too much, then we’re overwhelming them. So I think the TLDR is that content has gotten shorter and more concise and to the point of what the user has come to the experience for in the first place.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, there’s this flood of content I feel now. We’re still in the web 2.0 age, which is user-generated content. I remember a web before there was user-generated content, but now, of course, you have tweets and blogs and TikTok, and videos, and all this stuff. Now, you have AI in the mix, so there’s a lot of AI-generated content that’s out there. In your opinion, what does it take now to really maintain a strong content strategy?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
It takes people. I have only scratched the surface of the whole AI. It’s overwhelming to me. In the environment that we’re in right now, so spring 2023, there’s been so many folks, particularly in the content design, content strategy space that have been laid off partially due because we think that some of this AI technology can take the place of a content strategy or content design. I think what people are finding out is that it could be assistive, but it’s not to be relied on. You still need that system of checks and balances. You still need that human touch and human voice to help an experience be engaging and relatable to the human that’s on the other side of it. Yes, things like AI and chatbots and all that, those things are getting more sophisticated, but I would argue that in order to establish and maintain a robust and relevant content strategy, that you need people to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad you mentioned people because we are recording this right now. It’s May 18th when we’re recording this just so people know. I just saw, I think it was maybe yesterday, maybe today, that BuzzFeed, which just shuttered their news department, et cetera, had been talking about how they are going to start using AI to help generate … I guess the best way to put it would be to generate affinity content. I don’t know if affinity is really even the best term for it, but essentially, he was telling investors, Jonah Peretti, the guy who created BuzzFeed, was telling investors that they’re going to use AI to generate content, headlines, infinite quizzes, and develop Black, Asian, Latino identity-based content to help corporate brands tap in authentic voice to sell products. That sounds sinister.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Yeah, it does.

Maurice Cherry:
So you’re going to get AI to try to not only just replicate humans, but also replicate Black, Latino, Asian, and then have the nerve to call it authentic, but I see companies try to do that though. I’m seeing brands that are looking at how they can tap into AI so they can do that to generate more content.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
I’d heard that BuzzFeed had shut down their news division, which was shocking but not. This is news to me and the fact that the word authentic … Is that what you said, authentic?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s in the transcript that he said.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
I got to go find that. I’m going to go find that. I have lots of thoughts, but there is no authenticity without tapping into humanity. I don’t care how many eyeballs are on AI and how … We’ve all heard, I hope, the stories of the people who sit in Africa and other countries who are having to look at some of the worst content. I even hesitate to call it that on the internet to help filter the bad stuff out, but that’s only one aspect. Again, we need humans. So all of that still has a human element to it for better or for worse, but there’s no way that my lived experience as a Black woman of color … Well, that was redundant. In the digital space, in technology, you’re not going to find AI-generated anything that’s going to be able to relate my story the way that I can or the way that maybe one of my Asian American counterparts can share their stories and their lived experiences. I mean good on them for being upfront about it, but hey. Wow, that gave me chills. I’m like, “Really?”

Maurice Cherry:
That like some Black mirror shit.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
[inaudible 00:29:19]

Maurice Cherry:
It’s very sinister been. I’ve seen some stories, and we’ll get back to talking more about your work and everything, but I’ve seen some stories where, say, an influencer will train a ChatGPT model on tweets or any long form content and then use that in lieu of themselves almost like a digital twin to generate content for them. I’m wondering, and I don’t know, let me not even say that. I don’t even want to put that out in the ether, but I feel like I could see a future where companies are trying to mine content that’s currently online, like what ChatGPT does now, and use that in some weird regenerative fashion, as Peretti was saying here, to create, quote, unquote, “an authentic voice.”

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Good luck with that, Peretti. I think the thing that comes to mind too and, again, I have stayed out of the … I can’t ignore the AI conversation completely because it’s coming after my work, not my work at my job. Let me just say that. Not my work, but just my discipline, the thing that I’m most passionate about. You just can’t get that authenticity. At that point, then just insert a chip into my brain and let’s call it done. That’s scary for me.

The thing is too that I’m hearing is that a lot of what, I guess, people are finding from ChatGPT or whatever other services there are out there is that there’s still a lot of what is generated that’s not accurate, attribution to … I have not gone out and said, “Hey, ChatGPT, who’s Natalie Marie Dunbar? What do they do?” or whatever. I know people have done that and been served up some very interesting information about things that they’ve never done in their life. So there’s that. So you still need batch checkers. You still need human validation, and that’s what I’ll say about that.

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned there are these contractors that are working in Africa and in overseas, places that are being paid pennies on the dollar, basically, to be that human check, to be that moderation, which is, I don’t know, it’s all just really sinister to think about the fact that content is starting to go down that route.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Yeah, but we’re going to keep fighting to pull it back.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. I think so.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
I think this is cyclical. I think this is the flavor of the season, and folks are excited about it. I think there’s a lot to be, I don’t want to say afraid. I would hesitate to think that this is the end all be all to we’re going to save a whole bunch of money and not have to have a bunch of content folks because we could just generate it from this thing. I think there’s a lot of danger in that, but I think that also has to come to fruition hopefully in not a horrible way, but yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s switch gears here a little bit and learn more about you and your backstory and how you came to be this content strategy maven. You’re currently in Pasadena, California. Is that where you’re from originally?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Nope. I was born in Texas in a town called Port Arthur, if that’s familiar to anyone. Janis Joplin was born there too. Any Janis Joplin fans out there? I grew up on the East Coast, in New York and New Jersey. We traveled. My father was by day of pharmacist and by night a jazz musician.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
When the jazz took over, that’s when we moved east so he could be proximal to all the amazing jazz clubs in New York City, which I will say back in the day, you could actually take your small child to one of those gigs and sit her over in a corner, this may or may not have happened to me, and they could listen to the music and be served french fries and a cola. That was my life. It was great. In the summer, I would go with my dad sometimes to some of his gigs, and it was amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What did your dad play?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
He played jazz guitar.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
I was lucky enough to see Herbie Hancock. Well, that’s the one that comes to mind because I remember we were at the Village Vanguard, and I remember my dad sitting in on a set, and I always loved Herbie Hancock’s music even as a kid, and just sitting there just eyes wide open like, “This is amazing,” and going to … My dad recorded a bunch of albums of his own, but also as a session guy with other musicians and being able to go to recording sessions, which were painfully long, not like it is today, no computers, but yeah, and I was just a normal kid going to school, always, always, always, always reading or writing though from the age that I could do it. So that’s been a theme throughout my life is writing.

Maurice Cherry:
So knowing that, was that something that you really wanted to focus on when you went to high school, went to college? Is that what you ended up focusing on?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Yes and no. So I knew you that I wanted to be … At some point, I refined. It’s like, “I want to be a writer,” became, “I want to be a journalist.” I wanted to write for newspapers and magazine. That was my jam. Then I went to college and majored in sociology and criminal justice. I don’t know what happened. I took a sociology class and I was just like, “I really like this. This is really cool.” Definitely related, the study of social science because how else can we understand the masses of people. I remember when … Oh, this is going to date me and age me, but the area of study in college at that time was mass communications. So we didn’t have all the many channels of mass communications that we have now, but that was the thing that I knew that I wanted to somehow insert myself into that space.

I got sidetracked by sociology and fell in love with criminology and criminal justice. Somewhere along the way I was like, “I’m going to be a lawyer.” That never happened. I had a few friends that graduated a couple years before me, and we were all on that same path. We were very creative people, definitely into … Any class that allowed writing essays and all that stuff, I was all for it. It’s like, “Don’t give me any tests and make me write 10 papers. I’m good.”

I had a few friends that went on to law school and they said, “Don’t do it. Here’s why.” I think for me, I think I had some health issues in my last year or so of college. So that delayed me from taking LSAT and all that stuff. I did a reassessment and then I went and did something. I did nothing with my degree for a while. I did nothing with really anything. I graduated college and then ended up working managerial retail for a while, but I was still writing on the side, not very good. I was trying to take a class here and there and everything. I went a very, very, very roundabout way to land in becoming a writer, really becoming a writer.

By the time I did, I ended up in marketing communications at Farmers Insurance. The way that I got there was I had been writing. I was in a completely different department. I was actually in our real estate owns and property management, but I was a volunteer for all different kinds of things. We did things with the March of Dimes and Easterseals, and I would write for the employee publication and do a little article about those kinds of things.

Eventually, I started getting clips together. Then I had people outside of my full-time job saying, “Oh, I heard that you write. I’ve got this friend. She’s got an independent magazine,” so on and so forth. So I started amassing this collection of clips as we called them back in the day. Eventually, I felt like I had enough to start actually applying internally for marketing communications jobs, and I finally got one. So I started in marcomm. I did this really backwards. I started in marcomm, left that world, ended up being a newspaper journalist for Pasadena Weekly, and then got back into digital and jumped right into the user experience space. So that’s my crazy background.

Maurice Cherry:
So you had a roundabout way of coming back to it, but I’m curious, during those times when you weren’t, I guess, you weren’t professionally writing in that it was your main thing, but you said you were working in retail and stuff like that. I feel like those experiences are still important, especially right out of school, particularly if you went right from high school to college with no break. Sometimes you need a break. That’s not to say that it has to be something that you really have to do, but I’m thinking of myself. When I graduated, I didn’t really get into design until I think maybe three years after I graduated. I was selling tickets at the symphony. I think I worked at Autotrader for a while. I got fired from Autotrader. I had a math degree, and I didn’t want to go to grad school because I was just tired of school, but I had been doing design on the side like how you were writing on the side. I was still designing and doing things like that, but had eventually, also like you, amassed enough work and built a portfolio to the point where I could start actually getting design jobs, real design jobs.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s a good thing, that stuff. I’m going to sound old by saying this, but I feel like it builds character. That stuff builds character.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
It does. It builds character. As I’m listening to you talk, I realized that maybe I’ve been telling my story a little bit wrong. I think what it does too is help you in the content world, in the writing world find your voice. I know my father used to tell me, “You will find writing work when you know the story you want to tell and you have something to say,” or something along those lines, and I was like, “Okay. That’s deep. I’m going to go think about that for about three or four years.” [inaudible 00:40:18]

I think from a design, especially visual design, I think you’re learning your aesthetic, it’s the way I want to say it, is seeing the things that make you react, seeing in bad or good ways and honing in on figuring out what your own style is. I definitely have a way when I write long that’s different from the microcopy that I write day-to-day work because sometimes it’s just not appropriate because I definitely have an edge to the way that I tend to write, especially articles. I still dabble in writing long little form articles for blogs and things these days, but yeah, I think I was just learning and refining my own voice in the way that you would learn and refine your own aesthetic. All of the things are valuable. All of the experiences that we have make us the designers and writers that we’ve become.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because I think what it also does is it gives that perspective of what it’s like to be … I guess you could say, quote, unquote, “a user” as opposed to being the practitioner. Even now when I think about working at the symphony and working at Autotrader and these other places, yeah, I wasn’t doing design. I was answering phones and picking out tickets on seating charts and stuff like that. It wasn’t design, it wasn’t math either, but what it did do is just give me a general education about what it means to talk to people, to help people out, to find out, “Well, why is this thing confusing? Oh, I see why it’s confusing. It’s confusing to me, so of course it’s confusing to you.” If you’re the person that maybe designed the process or the thing, you may not even see that because you’ve got your blinders on to how it was built as opposed to how it’s being used.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Oh, my goodness, yes. That just reminded me of … I might be jumping ahead a bit, but in that crazy circular route that I took, no, it was more of a zigzag to get to the work that I do now, even after getting into digital experience, consumer experience, user experience because it had all those names back in the day, I actually started in content and then I was like, “What if I became a product manager?” and I did that for a little bit. Mind you, the product that I own was user-generated content, so I was never very far from content.

Then I was like, “Well, okay, what do user researchers do?” and that was when I was like, “I am finally going to use my sociology degree,” and I put on the user researcher’s hat for a while, and I did use research. The reason why that came to mind is that there was nothing more compelling than sitting on the other side of the double mirror that we had in our usability lab watching people struggle with something that we thought was so straightforward.

It was like, “Oh, people are going to be able to use this watch. They’re just going to come in. They’re going to do this.” We would have the engineers in there. We would have product people, anybody that wanted to come and observe all the way to the CEO, “You should come and watch people try to use this thing that you wanted us to build, and we’re telling you it’s not going to work the way that you think it is and go through that usability testing,” and they’re like, “No. I don’t think this works the way you think it does.”

Then relating that back to what you were saying about working at the sympathy, and then I’m going to use a word that rhymes, empathy. I’ve built that, and I’m sure you have through those experiences, those very analog experiences, actually, where we’re not using computers and different things to help people and now we’re expecting folks to pick up a digital device of some sort and be able to find their way with beautiful designs and very little words. It’s like, “So how do we make that happen?” and that’s that building that user empathy. I think working with the public, that should almost be a prerequisite. Don’t tell anybody I said that, everybody that’s listening. That’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you worked for a while for yellowpages.com. You were doing content strategy, you were a UX product manager, and folks that know that listen to the show, I worked there as well for two years. It was AT&T, but it was yellow pages.com doing website designs and doing … Oh, God. What were those little graphic tiles? XMEGs and X tiles and all that stuff for the yellowpages.com website, essentially those little tiles that would pop up that people could click on. That was what our department was doing, and making a ton of webpages, one page sites, three page sites, five page sites.

In hindsight, I liked the experience. It was a good experience because it just taught me how to design quicker in that way. You have to take the information. Basically, you go into … Oh, what was the thing called? Ice Blue, I think, was the name of the software that we used. You go into Ice Blue, you pick the company you’re doing it for, you have to go and pull a physical packet of where the salesperson has talked to the business.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
I remember that.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s a physical packet of the text that you have to put in and maybe their logo that you have to scan. Our department had one scanner for 30 designers, and you had to scan the logo so you could use that, maybe trace an illustrator, and you’d have to put all this together into a website usually within a matter of hours.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
One page sites, I think the limit that they had us at was three hours, and then five page sites … No. One page sites were three hours, three page sites were five hours, and then if it was five or more pages, basically the whole day, but you were not meant to spend more than one day on building a site. So because of that, even with a team of 30 designers, we were always behind.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
The managers were always yelling at us, “Why aren’t you all getting more work done?” It’s like we’re designing three webpages, full-fledged webpages a day, design content, all that stuff, putting it together.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
It was a harrowing time, but I look back on it fondly because it did teach me, I think, the utility of just shortcuts and working fast and not really having time to mull on a decision for something. You just have to put it out there and do it. I feel like some of my best designs were just shot from the hip because it was like, “I don’t have time to think about how this might look. I just have to do it.”

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
“Brand colors? Okay, we’ll work with this,” blah, blah, blah. How was your experience working with yellowpages.com?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
So as you’re talking about this, I’m remembering when that push came, when those sites were being built for the folks that had listings and they had more than the free listing. So my experience was the site that held all the listings, we didn’t really touch the listings that much except for when we would add features like these websites. So we had to determine if there was going to be a button or link that was going to … how do we get people from the main yellowpages.com listing site to go into the listing and how do we organize that information on the listing page.
Beyond that, we impacted everything from the homepage to the … We used to have city guide pages. Eventually, we had some product pages. We started adding articles and different things to the website to the yp.com main website. When I joined, I still have images of this on a laptop somewhere, which is our yellowpages.com branding. At the time it was … Oh, what was it? I forget the tagline. I thought I had it and I don’t, but meet something. That’s how far back I go.

Then we had a bunch of just links. There was very little imagery on the homepage and it was links. Again, that was that SEO, which is like, “We have city guide links. What are the most popular cities that people are looking for? Okay. What is our data telling us? Well, we should have this link. Okay. Well, if we’re going to have that link, then what’s going to happen when people click on it? Oh, we should have a rich content-driven city page,” and that was stuff that I wrote about Jacksonville, Florida and Orlando and Los Angeles and so on and so forth, whatever the … I think it was the top 25 cities that people would search for we had the most robust content for.

Eventually, we built that out, and that was when content strategies started to be a thing in the back of my mind. It’s like, “Oh, well, we’re not just saying, ‘Oh, we’re just going to have this whole bunch of content and we’re just going to have SEO value,’ but now we’re going to think about, ‘How are people going to interact with that content? What are some of the ways that we can expand on this?'” So eventually we started thinking about other sites that had UGC, user-generated content, because when I joined, ratings and reviews were not a thing yet. That was the big, big thing beyond SEO. We were looking for that organic SEO from user-generated content, but people weren’t writing reviews on yellowpages.com. It really took time to get some traction around that, and then eventually we did.

Back in the day, you could make a deal with different third parties to bring their reviews onto the site to get critical mass, and then digging into, what is that experience like? How do we discern what is a yellowpages.com original review versus one that we might get from a third party? So all of that is now we’re talking about content strategy. Now, we’re talking about not only what does it say, but what does that experience look like because content is not just words. Content is an aggregate of all elements, whether it’s images, video, whatever it is. All of that is content, but how do you put it together to tell a compelling story and to help people get to what they need? That was the thing.

So that’s full circle, but yellowpages.com is where I wore the hat of editorial producer, which is what I was called back in the day. Then I went to product management, then I was a user researcher, and then right before I left, I was still dealing with the user researcher stuff, but I was also getting back into content because we started doing articles and things like that. I tell people I cut my teeth in all things digital. I did everything but code.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I remember my time at Yellow Page. I feel like I did, and this was at a time when … For folks that are listening, it was the transition from table -based websites to CSS websites.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So not only were we having to create these new sites, in some cases, we had to convert sites. We had to take table sites that maybe another designer a few years ago, maybe that doesn’t work there anymore, we had to take those sites and then change them to CSS. I remember I had written a CSS framework called Slats, and I was trying to get my team on board, get my team lead on board because I was like, “This will help cut down on the time it takes because now all you have to do is just go in and choose a CSS variable, it’ll automatically float to the left, float to the right.” We’re dating ourselves. They were like, “This was still when IE6 was a thing, and cross-browser compatibility was tough.”

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
It was.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember writing it and I sent it to my team lead and she was mentioning, “Well, we’re not sure about if we’re going to use CSS for layouts because of different people’s browsers and maybe they have Internet Explorer, maybe they have Firefox, maybe they have Opera.” It ended up not being used. Even for web audio, we were using Java applets. This was a long time ago.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
The cut your teeth part, I totally get that because the time it takes to put that stuff together, at least on our end, was we didn’t have time to really talk to the client or talk to the business about what it is they need. It’s like you get whatever’s in that packet and you just have to make it work.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
It almost felt like a reality show design challenge. You’re presented with such limited information, then you have to throw it together, and then it gets sent over to QA, and once it’s out of my hands, I’m onto the next because it was basically just a never-ending stream of sites. Honestly, the time that I spent there is what inspired me to quit and start my own studio because I was like, “Wait a minute. I can do these websites like the back of my hand. I’m going to take this little framework that I created and I’m going to go and try to serve some clients,” which is what I ended up doing.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Excellent. Yeah, that’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve worked with numerous brands over your career. Just to name a few, the Food and Drug Administration, Anthem, Kaiser Permanente, et cetera. When you look back at those experiences, what really sticks out to you the most?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
That’s a favorite question of mine because what I find that is the common thread between government agencies like FDA and CTP, Center for Tobacco products, et cetera, and places like yellowpages.com, which was owned by AT&T and Anthem, highly regulated. They were all highly regulated. You’ve got your yellowpages.com owned by AT&T, so we had telecom regulation. They got your healthcare, which is a whole another ball of wax as far as regulatory compliance. You’ve got your different government agencies that have their own compliant from agency to agency. I think that’s been a common theme for me up until … Well, I don’t want to say up until now because the e-comm definitely has its own regulatory exposure as well.

I think those experiences helped me learn to balance business goals, user needs, voice and tone all while being very mindful of steering clear of violating any regulatory compliance issues. I think that’s the common thread. I didn’t go seeking them, but I think that’s explains the trajectory a little bit where there’s a common thread for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned earlier in this interview about how you’re doing all this traveling and stuff. Of course, you’re promoting the book and everything. You’re doing your day job and you’re really big about prioritizing your own wellbeing alongside your work. You do yoga. You’re a yoga teacher, is that right? Yoga instructor?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
That is right. I’m on hiatus right now because of the book thing. I’ve been a little busy traveling, but yeah. Somewhere back in 2005, I decided that it would be a really fun experience to do a half marathon, and you may say, “What the heck does that have to do with yoga and wellness?” Well, a lot because I was going to do one-half marathon, I was going to walk that thing and I was going to be done and I was raising money for charity. 10, 11 years later, I was still doing it, and I had become a marathon coach. It was a side thing. I was [inaudible 00:56:17] for a volunteer organization, but what I found was I was not only coaching, I was also, I use the term racing very loosely, but I did finish every marathon or half marathon that I ever started, and that number is somewhere around 25 or 30 now.

The knees start to hurt and hips start to hurt. Someone said, “You should try yoga,” and I’m like, “But I did and I didn’t like it.” I was in somebody’s living room trying to pretzel my body into a pose and there was no instructor because we were watching a video and I had a really bad experience with it. So I went and I took a couple of classes because I had my coaches telling me, “This might help you. Just go check it out,” and I’m like, “Oh, this is different when you have an actual instructor,” but I’m a person who lives in a larger, curvier body. What I found was that there were instructors that did not know how to teach me yoga. They would just say, “Well, if this is too difficult for you, you could just [inaudible 00:57:16] in child’s pose.” I’m like, “Holy. Okay.” I would walk into studios after doing a training walk or run because eventually I did start running more of 15 miles that I would have a yoga teacher literally look me from toe to head and go, “You know this is going to be hard, right?”

So yes, it’s a little plug for a little bit of body positivity and awareness. So I started looking for yoga for people like me, and cheesy as it sounds, I figured out I had to become the yoga teacher that I wanted to see. During a time where I had gotten laid off from a job and I was only marathon coaching and doing two weeks here, one month there content work, someone said to me, “Have you ever thought about …” I had a dance background when I was a kid. “Have you ever taught about teaching dance again?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” I started seeing online material from a yoga teacher that was Bates at the time in Nashville, and she had created this platform called Curvy Yoga. Hello. One thing led to another, and I was consuming her content and practicing along on her website.

I remember getting an email saying, “I’m going to open up yoga teacher training in the coming months, and if you’re interested, send an email.” I sat there and I thought about it and I’m like, “Well, this is probably not going to be my career career, but I’m already doing the marathon coaching thing.” Ironically, one of the ways that I would try to help people, quote, unquote, “get into their bodies more for marathoning,” I bought a yoga anatomy book because it makes sense to me.

Lo and behold, that was one of the books that I had to buy because I did sign up for that yoga teacher training. I did my 200-hour training, and it helped me to be not only a better marathon coach, but when I got back into the corporate world, it made me aware of the fact that working 10, 12, 14-hour days was not doing my body any justice. It was not psychologically safe. It was not tenable for years and years at a time. I’m still good for a 17-hour launch because sometimes it’ll take that long.

I just started to be more and more aware of how I wasn’t being kind to my body and still expecting to put out the hours of work that I was doing from week to week and day to day. So yeah, so that focus now. Ironically, as I am going out and speaking about my book and talking about the importance of content as an asset and that kind of thing, the talks that I’m doing now are more focused on a chapter that I talk about maintenance and specifically what it takes to keep a strong practice core, focusing on the health and wellness of the practitioners who make the practice what it is.

The thing about content strategy is there’s a part in the book where I’m talking about, I think I call it three persistent principles. One of those things is always be educating. You’re always going to be explaining to whether it’s a new designer, a new product manager, a person in senior leadership, the importance of content as an asset, the importance of content strategy and content design. I can lament for days with other content practitioners, don’t even have to be a manager or leader. Somebody always has that one deck that explains, “Okay. This is what content strategy is. This is what it’s not. This is what we do. This is what we don’t do. This is how you engage us,” and so on and so forth.

As much as it sounds like I can repeat that from rote and it’s not taxing, it actually is because you’re always advocating, always. I don’t know why, but it is a thing where we’re always having to advocate for the importance of content as an asset and having the people on board to get that work done, which is why I wrote the book because people often ask me, “How do I find people like you? How do I build a content strategy practice? What does that even mean, and do I actually need one?” So full circle, yoga and book, there we go.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s really smart that you were able to pull that insight out of something that, just as we spoke about earlier, pulling insight out of something that may not be directly related to the work that you do but you’re still able to apply it. So even as you’re going through this with yoga, you’re finding out, “Oh, this is analogous to something I can use to talk about content strategy.”

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
My first talk that I pitched to Confab, which is Brain Traffic, Kristina Halvorson’s big content strategy conference. We actually just celebrated the last one a few weeks ago, but a couple of years back, I pitched a talk called Yoga, UX, and Content Strategy. It still continues to be my most requested talk.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
I married the two because I was so passionate about both of them. In that talk, I talk about creating safe and accessible spaces. In the same way that we do in a yoga studio for people of differently abled bodies, we also want to be able to bring that same approach to the digital information spaces that we create in. I was trying to keep the two separate and then somehow they got conflated and I was like, “Well, let’s just run with it.” That’s dope.

Maurice Cherry:
Those are the best talks though too when you can really make an analogy between two disparate things. For some reason, those really seem to click with audiences. So good on you for that.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Yeah, thank you.

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

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
I don’t want to describe myself as necessarily a late bloomer because I’ve been over here blooming for a bit, but I think the book has elevated things. I started getting into more public speaking literally weeks before the lockdown happened. I spoke at the local World IA Day conference, which the LA chapter actually met or the LA version happened here in Pasadena because we’re just north of LA, and that was one of those places where I did a talk and it was about information architecture and content strategy, another mashup, because I did a play on … What is it? Does it spark joy? The Marie Kondo whole bit about creating nice spaces. Now, things are escaping my brain.

Anyway, that was another mashup talk that I did. I’m not an IA. Even though I do dabble in information architect, I wouldn’t self-describe myself in that way, but we’re often joined at the hit with IA and content strategy. So I was trying to show the places where we overlap and how we support each other. That was one of those places where somebody was like, “Oh, my God, that talk was so great. How do I find somebody like you? How do I go a practice?” that kind of thing.

Then two weeks later, lockdown. I started looking at places where I could … All of a sudden there’s like, “I can’t go to that conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, but it’s going to be online, I could probably pitch a talk.” I started pitching talks. Then somewhere along the way, I belong to an organization called Women Talk Design, so women and non-binary folks. It’s like a speakers bureau and training place for folks who are in this design space who are maybe underrepresented as speakers and facilitators and that kind of thing.

I think that’s where Lou Rosenfeld encountered some of my talks and articles that I had been doing, and he asked to be introduced to me, and I kid you not, I was like, “Oh, he must want me to speak at the conference because that’s what I had been doing.” I tell the story all the time, but I’m going to tell it again. 25 minutes into a 30-minute conversation was when it was like, “Oh, he’s wanting me to maybe write a book. Okay. That’s different.” He’s like, “Maybe we should schedule more time,” and I’m like, “Yeah, let’s do that,” and here we are. That was pretty phenomenal and very unexpected, but if you’re going to write a book, I would say doing it during a pandemic was not a bad thing. I had something to do with my time.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that sort of keeps you motivated and inspired now to continue this work?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
I am accepting my place as … You used the word maven earlier, and that’s one of my favorites now. Accepting my place with humility and grace, but also, I’m reminded often by my son, I did not get here by being lucky, that I put the work in. So now, I’m wondering where does that take me. I love the work that I’m doing. I love the team that I’m on. Design and particularly content design is elevated as much as research and visual design, and I have a lot of respect for the leaders of our org where I work at Walmart.

Beyond that, I want to continue to motivate others, whether that be through some type of coaching. I was at the last Confab a couple weeks ago, and just seeing … Particularly, there was a time when, again, identifying myself as a woman of color in the tech space in content where I was the only one in the room, and to be at Confab and to have more than a dozen people who look like me coming up and saying, “How’d you do it?” or, “Thank you for doing it,” or just being motivated by their excitement of being in these spaces that weren’t necessarily paths that we could see ourselves in, and just reaching out and really just … When people ping me on LinkedIn and they’re like, “Can I bend your ear for a few minutes? I’m curious about this or that.” Yeah, just wanting to be able to talk to people and, again, wave the flag of the importance of content as an asset. I think I’ve said that 20 times now if your listeners accounting.

I think eventually helping people who may read the book and still say, “I’m only a team of one and I need help, and can you come help us build this team?” maybe that’s in my future as a consultant, but right now, I’m happy with what I’m doing and there may be another book in me. I don’t know. I like writing long. I enjoy it.

Maurice Cherry:
So as we get to the end of this, I’m curious, what do you want the next chapter of your story to be? Where do you see yourself in the next five years or so?

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
I have been lucky enough to be included in a group of peers that are leading in the content strategy and content design space, whether it’s authors or leaders at certain large companies. I was trying to think of the word enterprises and it just went out of my head. We’ve recently published Content Design Manifesto. If you Google it, you’ll find it. Literally, it came out a week or two ago. There was a gathering of a small group of leaders in the space who came together to actually think about, “What is the work that we’re doing now? How do we define it? Where do we want it to go?”

So in similar ways to the Agile Manifesto, we got together and did this. We framed the document, the purpose, and the whole thing, and released it out into the wild. I can’t even remember how many hundreds of people have signed this thing to say, “Yes, we’re on board.” So I think for me, helping to not direct, but just contributing to what this discipline can still become. Aside from ChatGPT and all that stuff aside, when folks come back and go, “Yes, we actually do need content people,” being ready for that and helping people ramp up again.

I’ve done that in my career already, probably twice now. There’s been some waves where it’s like, “Eh, we don’t really … We’ve got content. It’s good. We don’t really need a full practice or a full team,” only to find in a couple of years later, “Actually, yes, we do. We’ve got way more content than one person can handle or that no person can handle, and we really need someone who’s adept at getting this done.” So I see myself as being a part of the folks who collectively have a voice in guiding and mentoring the direction of where the practice of content strategy and content design are going to take us.

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

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Oh, my goodness. I am still on Twitter. My handle is TheLiterati, T-H-E-L-I-T-E-R-A-T-I. I have same handle on Instagram. I do try to keep things updated with where I’m speaking, teaching, not yoga, but content strategy stuff. I’m on LinkedIn. I do welcome people to reach out. Just look up Natalie Marie Dunbar. By the way, there is a Natalie Dunbar who is an author who writes romance novels. She is a woman of color. When I had the very fortunate problem of how do I disambiguate, that’s why I used my middle name because that was one of the things I asked, the first thing I asked Lou Rosenfeld. I’m like, “I never thought I would be able to ask this question of a publisher, but now that I have one, how do I do that?” and he’s like, “Use your middle name.” I’m like, “Duh.”

So I’m out there, and all of those, LinkedIn, Instagram, all of those will link you to my … I have a website. On that website, you can sign up for my newsletter. I always tweet a link to my newsletter. I put it on a monthly-ish. Again, I’m late so I need to get on that within the next couple of days and that’ll tell you where I’m speaking and all those good things. So I welcome folks to follow along in my adventures.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Natalie Marie Dunbar, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I think if there’s anything that people can get from this is that you have such a passion and a curiosity for content strategy and how it just works within not only the digital world, but in our world at large, and that’s something that, especially as more and more content gets created … We talked about AI and all that sort of stuff. As more and more content gets created, I am drawn back to what you said about it still is going to need humans. It’s still going to need people in order for content to really thrive and to have good content strategy. I hope that people get a chance to pick up the book. Like I said, we’ll put it in the show notes, but I’m so glad that we have you to be someone that is a practitioner of this to help steer us all in the right way. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Natalie Marie Dunbar:
Thank you. Thank you so much. I appreciate it being here and chatting with you.

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