Azeez Alli-Balogun

Azeez Alli-Balogun came highly recommended by several former guests, so I knew that a great conversation was going to happen. Azeez currently works as a lead product designer on the globalization team at Netflix, and he’s also a co-founder of Design to Divest. But if you think that’s all there is to Azeez’s story, then think again!

We started off with a quick 2022 check-in, and then he talked about his plan to work on more Black-focused design projects, and also gave a glimpse at what it’s like working at Netflix. From there, Azeez spoke about growing up in Louisiana, becoming a jewelry designer, and how he transitioned into product design. We also spent some time talking about Design to Divest and Azeez shared what he wants the organization to accomplish in the future. Everyone has the power to make change with design, and Azeez is a prime example of this!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
My name is Azeez Alli-Balogun. I am a product designer at Netflix, a product design lead at Netflix on the globalization team. What that really entails is that we’re looking at how do we enable Netflix products and the content that we create to live in local markets, but also experience global audiences.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I work a lot on the enterprise tools or the tools that help us create the subtitling assets, the dubbing assets, and all of those things that actually help our content become very, very locally resonant in local markets and local geographies, but also accessible to global audiences.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It’s been going really great. It’s interesting. We’re in the end of January, and it’s been incredibly productive, quite a lot of work that I’ve been doing in the beginning of the year. I’ve been invited to do a couple of different types of projects that I feel were very, very impactful. I think it’s just there’s so many seeds and so many things that have been planted in 2020 and 2021 that are starting to kind of blossom a little bit, which is both good and, also, I’m getting to a point where I need to make sure I’m prioritizing myself and my rest. I want to make sure that 2020 doesn’t lead to burnout for me with opportunities coming my way.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything special in particular that you want to achieve this year?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I mean the biggest thing that I think is really focusing on some of the work that I’m doing with Design to Divest, but really starting to produce more content or areas in where people from marginalized backgrounds, particularly the Black communities and African communities and indigenous communities, to be able to access design differently, access learning differently, and be able to participate in the creation of the world that we live in through their own cultural knowledge base.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So that type of work is something that I’m looking to start to really tangibilize in more meaningful ways. So I’m pretty hopeful that with all of the work that I’m doing and the projects and the communities that I’m a part of, that I’ll be able to create these platforms that allow or bring in more Black, African, and indigenous creatives to the forefront of creating some of the institutions that are going to shape the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, let’s talk about the work that you’re doing at Netflix. You’re the product design lead for the globalization team there. Now, you mentioned what you’re doing has to do with subtitles and dubbing. I can only imagine probably after the success of titles like Squid Game and Lupin and stuff that you probably have had a lot on your plate. But tell me more about the work that you do.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. It’s a lot of stakeholder management. So it’s interesting in the sense that the team that I’m working on really crosses so much of what Netflix does. It’s an integral part to growth. As Netflix grows our global subscriber base and grows into global markets, it’s incredibly important that we’re effective in the way that we localize our content as we start to even increase the volume of content that we produce, the volume of film and the volume of movies, and really trying to create platforms for different geographical spaces outside of Hollywood to be able to share their stories.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So a lot of the work is when you go into Netflix and you’re able to see the option to choose 20 different subtitles or watch things in dubbing, all of that stuff is work that I’m directly impacting and the team that I work on directly impacts. We’re working with linguists. We’re working with project managers. We’re working across the board with so many different types of stakeholders to ensure that there is quality attached to the subtitles and the dubbing and that if a director in Nigeria creates a television show or a movie, that same movie can be enjoyed by somebody in Swedish and it doesn’t lose a lot of the cultural nuances that represent how that content or how that TV show or film was created.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So it’s a heavy task because it’s very difficult to even measure things, like what is a good subtitle? What is a good dubbing or voiceover? Can we make sure that we are staying true to the content? Because when you think about different languages, it’s very, very … If you’re lucky enough to be able to speak multiple languages, then you know that there are certain nuances and certain kind of things that just don’t translate.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
You want to be able to translate those cultural nuances so people start to really understand what it actually means to experience the culture that that film or that television show or those characters are actually situated in. So there’s a lot of really trying to figure out how do we communicate, also creating a lot of the workflows that allow our stakeholders, the project managers internally at Netflix with the linguists and the other vendors that we use in order to create all of these assets, how do we allow them to do this work very, very effectively and at the volume and scale of the amount of content that we produce on a yearly basis?

Maurice Cherry:
So talk to me more about the team. What does the makeup look like?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It’s a typical product team. I mean you have your designers. I lead a particular area of the globalization design side. I have two other design partners who are also design leads in other areas. I work with a product manager, and I’m in constant contact with the globalization project managers and program managers as well as vendors and linguists in order to really understand what is necessary and how to create the best conditions for their workflows to be successful in delivering on the subtitling and dubbing and other localization assets.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So the core team is I’ll have my UI front end team and backend team designer and me, as a designer, project manager. We’re the core product team building out all of the tools. And then we’re in constant communication with the project managers, the vendor managers, the linguists who are actually authoring and creating a lot of the subtitling and localization assets in order to ensure that we’re providing the tools that are really supporting their workflows in a positive way.

Maurice Cherry:
So Netflix has linguists that are doing the translating, I mean as they’re listening through to the content and making sure that those subtitles, like you said, are kind of accurate to the plot, culturally accurate, et cetera.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean there’s a whole process there of subtitle authoring. I can’t get too deep into lots of that stuff because I think it’s one of the things that does set Netflix apart from some of the other services that you might encounter, the level of detail that we go into trying to create good subtitles. There’s a lot of experimentation and things that we’re doing right now in order to enable that process to be better for our members.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember when Squid Game had come out and there had been some kind of talk about like, “Oh, well, if you’re watching Squid Game, don’t watch it with subtitles because the subtitles aren’t right,” or something like that. Or no, it wasn’t the subtitles. It was the dubbing, I think, one of those two things. But I mean I can imagine even with a show like that, there’s still going to be some sort of cultural differences or things like that that get lost in translation.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean that’s exactly right. I mean there’s always going to be some dissonance. We’re always testing things out to try to get it right. I think the one thing that’s really great about the culture at Netflix and how we go about designing and building product is we experiment in order to figure out how we can learn and improve and constantly improve. So if we don’t get something right the first time, it’s a learning experience for us. We take all of that feedback and use it to ensure that we’re doing better as we move forward.

Maurice Cherry:
What does an average day look like for you?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Average day? I try to segment a little bit of my days or my week. Some days I load up with meetings, so I’m meeting with engineers and my product manager partner and other stakeholders. And then other days, I create that space for me to kind of just work and I’m designing and creating different concepts that are related to the conversations that I’ve been having, so kind of going through the whole design process, but in very, very short cycles.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It’s not spending three months or two weeks or just doing nothing but research, but do longer cycles of discovery research on a particular area that we’re trying to improve operational efficiency on and then take that, summarize that research into some opportunities, create some concepts behind that, and then start to socialize that with engineering and product in order to start to tweak and do more of … I try to do much more co-creation, co-designing with the stakeholders, the engineers, and product all together.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That way the decisions that are being made are made with the right amount of input from the different internal stakeholders that influence how the product actually tangibilizes itself. So my typical days typically would be I have some times where I’m dedicated. I need time to intake all the information that I’ve gotten and then start to visualize that into some sort of concept.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
And then a lot of the times, I am taking those concepts in meetings and doing a lot of co-design in order to fulfill requirements and understand what the needs are directly with both the users and then my product stakeholders as well.

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Stakeholder management maybe. The reason that I would say that is when I think about the idea of complexity, what really makes anything complex is that you have a bunch of different competing priorities that happen at scale. So being able to really clearly align all the different priorities that are happening from different parts of the process and different stakeholders into something that works, I think, is the most difficult part because I’m also constantly listening and observing what people are saying, what people are doing, and then trying to translate that down into a language that can be understood by everyone who is involved.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
As you know, it’s interesting as we talk about language and linguistics, not only in different languages. There are different languages within different industries. There are different languages within different professions. So everyone might have a different way of communicating the same thing. Oftentimes, you can be in meetings where people are trying to communicate an idea or a concept with the language of their own profession.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So engineers might be communicating things in a certain way that’s different from product. That’s also slightly different from the way that the type of language that design would use to communicate something. And then our end users are using a different type of language and trying to wrangle all of those different concepts and in the way that people are trying to express what it is that they’re trying to think of in a way that everyone’s aligned on and everyone kind of understands.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s where I feel like a lot of the true power of design comes because once you start to take the language and start to visualize things, then people can have something to have an opinion about. They can have something to kind of analyze and say, “That’s not it,” or, “That is it,” or, “It’s this and this. Add this or that or the other.” But bringing life to the words that are being said by all of the people in the room and then allowing people to kind of mold what’s been created to make sure that everyone’s voices is really being heard.

Maurice Cherry:
I would imagine language and linguistics probably influence a lot of the design work in general, right?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean just really trying to understand the nuances of it and how those nuances can be misinterpreted because, as you know, a misinterpretation of even body language or a language or just a word or a concept can have dire consequences. So it’s important operationally as well as it is tangibly when we’re trying to create the product and making sure that the things that we create are very, very clear and transparent.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Netflix, it’s been an interesting place working. It’s been the most different place that I’ve worked at in my career because of the culture. The culture at Netflix is very unique. As I mentioned a little bit before about the experimentation culture of just trying to do things to learn, to get feedback, and then course correct. That also kind of goes into how we’re managed as employees. There’s a lot of the idea of freedom and responsibility and then the culture of feedback. All of those feed into the way that we’re able to work and the way that we’re able to kind of explore different areas of our profession in ways that we may have been restricted in other organizations.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I think that that’s a huge part that I typically really enjoy at Netflix and enjoy working with a bunch of other people who have similar mindset of growth and discovery and learning. It really shows through whenever we’re able to create, learn from the products and the things that we create, and prove it for our members.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. That’s pretty cool. It sounds like Netflix does give you that freedom. I know there’s some companies of people whom I would love to interview, but they have a strict embargo on their employees cannot do podcasts or anything like that. So it’s good that at least they let you all be able to talk about your work and do other things freely.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean it’s definitely encouraged, but I mean there’s definitely tons of stuff that we can’t say.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I walk a line a lot of times trying to make sure that … Because there’s so much transparency at Netflix and I think that that’s one of the really great parts of the culture at Netflix is that, as an employee there, the leadership from the top down is always going to be as transparent as possible. But with that comes responsibility of we’re letting you know all of this information. We don’t expect you to go out and tell the world all of the secrets and things. This is internal information that we are providing you context so you’re able to really do your job to the best of your ability. We don’t want to hide things from you.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
But it comes with a lot of responsibility, that level of transparency and that level of trust that our leaders kind of put in us as contributors to the mission that the company is trying to achieve.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. I’m curious to learn more about you, your particular origin story. Tell me about where you grew up.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Both of my parents are from Nigeria, and I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So I grew up in Louisiana. I spent most of my childhood in Louisiana and went there to high school. I went to Southern University when I graduated high school for a couple of semesters before switching over to design and going to University of Louisiana at Lafayette. But growing up, I wouldn’t have thought of myself as being a designer. I wasn’t exposed to it in that way. I mean my dad was in school for architecture, so I was exposed to that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
But the ideas of industrial design or other aspects of design weren’t really things that came across. I played basketball, growing up. I was more interested in trying to go to the NBA than I was with anything else. But I was also an avid reader. I read quite a lot, and I did a lot of writing, drawing. So there was always that creative aspect, but I imagined myself going into medical school rather than design.

Maurice Cherry:
So when you went to University of Louisiana at Lafayette though, you ended up majoring in industrial design. Talk to me about that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean that was really the reason that I left Southern University because they didn’t have an industrial design program. So initially, whenever I was in school, my intention was to be a pediatric surgeon. Actually, I was like, “I’m going to study biomedical engineering and then go to medical school to be a pediatric surgeon.” That was my intention. At the time, too, biomedical engineering was a fairly new field of study within the higher education to where if you really wanted to do that, you had to get a master’s degree.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So while I was at Southern University, I needed to kind of create a curriculum for myself, working with my engineering faculty. I was doing mechanical engineering and double majoring in cellular molecular biology. But after a while, I was just like, “Something about this is not really what I want to do. I would love to create the medical tools and the medical devices. I’d love to design those things.” But it was just something that just didn’t feel right in terms of the education for me while I was in engineering.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I started doing some research. Maybe I might like automotive design. Through that, I found what industrial design was, and I was like, “Whoa. With this field, I can actually design medical devices. I can actually go and design prosthetic legs and all of these different things that I was interested in kind of creating.” That’s how I found University of Louisiana at Lafayette because that was the only school in Louisiana, at the time, that had an industrial design program. So I ended up going there and studying industrial design.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you kind of, I guess, looked at another way to get into the medical field then by looking at industrial design.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So in your early post-grad career after you left school, you ended up going into jewelry design. I’m curious. What drew you to that?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It wasn’t anything that really drew me. It was literally I graduated shortly after a recession in Louisiana. There were no jobs, really. It was really difficult to get a design job, especially in the South, in Louisiana. So really, what happened was that my portfolio was a bunch of … It was pediatric medical tools and prosthetics and stuff like that. The jewelry company, which had a connection to some of our professors at University of Louisiana, looked at my work and they’re like, “We really like your aesthetic visually. You have a really good sense of style and taste,” even looking at the medical tools, the medical stuff that I designed.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s literally how I jumped into jewelry design. I was interested in fashion. I was interested in design in general, but I wasn’t intending to go be a jewelry designer. If anything, I would have wanted to go to do something in footwear design at Nike because that would have merged a lot of the biomechanics and technical medical things that I was thinking about in terms of design with human performance. So yeah. Jewelry design just kind of came about. It was an opportunity that kind of came about, but it really allowed me to start to understand what it meant to design for things that were going to be worn on people’s bodies.

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. How long were you a jewelry designer?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I was there for about two to two and a half years.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It was quite an interesting experience, but even though while I was there … This is also the field of user experience design or a lot of the digital product design, all of that stuff. That was still fairly in its infancy. So even while I was there, I participated in some things, some interface things that were very interesting. From there, after I left that company, I wanted to discover what is it that I really wanted to do, but I also needed to look at where the market was going.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Industrial design jobs weren’t en masse. A lot of these jobs that when you’re designing physical things, they don’t have incredibly large teams. Just seeing the digital world kind of pick up, I started to make some pivots over into really learning that particular skillset, branched off to try to do a little bit of my own freelance work, both as an industrial designer. But then what I found was that I was getting more clients, more people looking for branding and web development and more digital kind of stuff.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s kind of how I ended up pivoting or going to grad school to learn really more of a service design kind of method to incorporate both to be more agnostic about what my skillsets delivered and more focused on what the outcome needed to be of whatever it is that a client or somebody wanted to create.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good way to put it in terms of trying to be more agnostic because what I’m hearing, and you can please correct me if I’m wrong here, it sounds like you were just trying to find where you were going to fit in. You’ve graduated. You have these design skills. While there certainly were things that you wanted to do in terms of design, those opportunities just weren’t available. So you were trying to see what could maybe your skills transfer into.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean I think that that’s a good characterization. I’m a person who is always ready to adapt to a situation. I have my core values and principles that I’m going to stay in those, and I’m not going to allow my value set and my principles to be swayed. But those principles aren’t rigid outcomes. They just help guide me in terms of the decisions that I need to make in life. But at the same time, I don’t create a level of rigidity to what it is that I can be and what it is that I can do.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Because it in the same way of when you’re designing a product or a service for someone or for people or a community, you need to allow it to be what it needs to be rather than always trying to force it into being something that you envisioned from the beginning.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when did you decide to go to grad school? Was that during this time as well?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. That was during this time. I was looking at a handful of schools. I was looking at Pratt, RISD. I almost went to SCAD for the service design program because I had a friend who I was in undergrad with who was there, and he told me it was a great program. Service design’s still kind of a fairly newer field in design in the United States. It’s still catching on. You’re starting to see it more so now than it was years ago. I mean it’s definitely been something that’s far more developed in Europe than it has been in the United States. That’s just a reflection of the market and how we view the utility of design here at organizations.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Hearing the service design methods and methodologies, that was very interesting to me, and I was ready to go to SCAD. But also, another friend of mine who I was in undergrad with had mentioned ArtCenter to me before, and I really liked the rigor that ArtCenter placed on developing your technical skills and the level of polish that a lot of the portfolios and a lot of the students had the capacity for after graduating from ArtCenter. And then also, ArtCenter had this program with the Drucker School of Management where the graduate industrial design program also could be a dual MBA degree.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Once I got there, I didn’t see the usefulness not necessarily in an MBA because I did take MBA classes at UCLA. I do see a benefit in that, but I didn’t see the benefit for that particular school that ArtCenter was partnering with. So I didn’t actually go forward with that, though it was a decision that I made to go to ArtCenter in the first place because that option was available.

Maurice Cherry:
While you were there, you also managed to work on an internship which let you transition into product design, right?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I did a couple of internships there. The education, too, in grad ID, the name can be misleading because it’s industrial design. But really a lot of the training was for us to be innovation leaders, to be able to come in and really understand what the business needs are for a company and help them pivot into creating products and services that now are able to accommodate the changing landscape. So we would routinely have different companies come in. This is part of the ArtCenter education where different companies come in and do these studio projects.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
We did one with Uber whenever I was in maybe my fourth semester or something like that, where Uber was creating their Uber Air platform. We worked in groups with other students from other departments. So we had transportation designers, automotive designers, as well as interaction designers, in addition to us in graduate industrial design and worked with some of the key executives for that particular unit doing the Uber Air. Our task was really to design what that whole experience would be if we were to create air taxis.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
If Uber were to go into this business, how do we start to visualize what that whole experience would be, all the way from understanding what the airport security type situation would be to what is the interior of the electric vertical landing takeoff vehicle going to be, all the way to really understanding the market. So if you create this type of service, well, who are going to be the people to use this service and who are going to be the early adopters all the way down to the late adopters in order to get this service off of the ground?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So it was a pretty involved project that took a whole semester where we built life-sized mock-ups to test out what the interior of the vehicle could be and could look like. We did a lot of architectural design and sketches to understand where would we create and put some of these what we call sky ports, which would be the airports for people to access these vehicles, designing also how would we implement or integrate this into the existing application, so if somebody wanted to catch an Uber Air vehicle. So it was a pretty involved project that spanned the scope of a bunch of different design skills from automotive design to interaction design to industrial design and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
Kind of sounds like a air taxi, in a way.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Exactly. It was an air taxi. There’s so many different nuances in terms of what that whole experience could or would be. And also, there are limitations to the technology that existed at the time, still even to right now. A lot of that technology is still being developed in a way that could make it really feasible and economical to launch a service like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would imagine also even just getting FAA certification because, unlike something like UberX where anyone that has a driver’s license can drive, that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone with a pilot’s license, I would imagine, would do Uber Air or something like that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. There’s definitely some technical and some licensing, piloting things there, especially, also, I mean you’re thinking about just air traffic control as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s right.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I mean that’s been there for a while. There’d be some adjustments and things that would need to be made in order to allow for another set of vehicles to be in the air.

Maurice Cherry:
So after you graduated from ArtCenter College of Design for grad school, you ended up working at a couple of other places before Netflix. You worked at a biotech company called Script Health. So you, I guess, in a way managed to get around to doing some work in the medical field, even in this sort of roundabout way. But then you also worked at IBM working on products on their data, AI, and cloud integration teams. When you look back at those two experiences specifically, what do you remember the most?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It was interesting because with Script Health, one of my friends who’s a pharmacist, that was his startup that he was creating. I was actually working on that while I was in grad school and helping him really design and bring to life the vision of that product and that service that he was trying to create. So I won’t go too deep into it, but the gist of that really was building out a service to deal with the opioid epidemic and providing the right type of medication for overdoses, things like naloxone, to places in rural communities.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
There’s a huge lack of access to the right types of drugs and services in the most marginalized communities or the most affected communities. And then that learning, kind of taking a product from zero to one, the amount of work and effort that it takes to do the research and then finding a market fit, pivots and things that need to happen, partnerships that need to be made and created, and then visualizing the concept and telling the story and the narrative in a way that is going to inspire and communicate what it is about.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That was also a crash course for me, really working with engineers as well as working with outside agencies that were taking my design work and starting to code it into something and really understanding what are the specific things that I need to communicate in order to make sure that what I do design ends up being the thing that gets created and it not being some kind of mangled version of that because there are details that I left out or things that I didn’t communicate that they just had to make a decision on, and it may not be the right decision.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
When it comes to IBM, the thing that I learned at IBM really was a lot of stakeholder management and also a lot of leadership skills, what it means to manage up, as well as how to align people and influence people around a shared objective and a shared goal and then trying to get things done within a short period of time. I feel like those were some of the key things. I mean I can dive really deep into aspects of that, but I think those were the main things that I’ve learned.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Working with people, I think, is an incredibly important part of being a designer, and understanding how to do that effectively, I think, is something that it takes a lot of designers a lot of time to really understand what it actually means to do that beyond just your hard technical skills.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, another thing that you sort of created that came about while you were at ArtCenter was Critical Discourse in Design. Talk to me about that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. That happened while I was at IBM. So this was after my graduate program. I still have a lot of really great connections with a lot of the faculty at ArtCenter. After the murder of George Floyd, there was just a lot of energy around something needs to be done. I’m in the design community. Think about racism. When we think about prejudice, when we think about all of the things, these institutions that are perpetuating these things, they are designed institutions. They’re created.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
For me, in addition to, okay, well, protesting is one thing. But based off of my own skillsets and my own proximity to the type of work and things that I do, how can I start to impact or influence the change that I want to see in the world? So I started these conversations with some of my friends who are still faculty at ArtCenter to try to uncover what is something that we can do. We didn’t really have an idea of what it was going to be.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
But through the conversations and through a lot of the things that I was talking about in terms of how … A quote that I constantly say is that, “Design is the invisible hand that shapes all lived experience.” So Critical Discourse in Design came about when we started really thinking about when you think about oppression, oppression needs physical tools and objects. It needs a physical space. It needs to be designed.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So when you think about you can go throughout history and you can look at what are the tools or the innovations of oppression? A noose, a prison cell, all of these different things. So if you can design for oppression, then you can design for liberation. Critical Discourse in Design came about like, “Well, what does that conversation of designing for liberation, what does that actually mean? How do we start to translate theory into action? And then who are the voices that we need to bring to the table in order to be able to have these conversations?”

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Because when you think about the design industry, also where the Black designers is calling out is the 3% or 4%, depending on who you ask, of the people who are designers are Black. So the voices that are the most impacted by the things that are being created in the world are not at the table to voice how they feel things should be. They’re not able to provide their cultural intelligence to the institutions and the systems and the tools and the things that get created in the world.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So Critical Discourse in Design really was a response to that. It was really a response to how do we start to now bring in these voices and also to leave people not with just new words and new theories, but a theory that can turn into practice and really starting to understand what the connection between pedagogy, what people are learning, is with practice, how people create, how people experience and actually deliver things into the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, let’s talk about Design to Divest, which it sounds like came out of Critical Discourse in Design. Tell me about that. I know you’re one of the founding members of this collective. We’ve also had another member of the collective on the show before, Michael Collett. But yeah. Talk to me about Design to Divest.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. While I was actually creating Critical Discourse in Design, one of my really close friends who was working with part of Design to Divest messaged me and said, “Hey, do you have some capacity to join the steering committee here? This is what we’re doing.” So I joined Design to Divest. At the time, it was really meant to mobilize design skills and different designers, to mobilize those design skills around social impact projects. It was very like graphic design-based.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I think part of what I was doing whenever I joined the team was really thinking about what Design to Divest actually meant as a concept, and what are the most impactful ways that we can create positive change or the change that we want to see in the world? That started over the past two years that we’ve been just having these discussions and doing projects and working on things to manifest into a version of what it is today, where we have a lot of things that we’re going to be releasing this year, hopefully, and that really talks about what it means to divest the inequitable systems that have been designed and created in the world. How do we start to celebrate and design for the communities on the margins?

Maurice Cherry:
I mean I think that came about at such a monumental time, during the summer that you mentioned where, of course, there were people out in the streets that were protesting against police brutality. You talked about the murder of George Floyd. Again, it seems like this was a time when a lot of people were really looking for this kind of thing. They were looking to hear from Black voices, but also just looking for ways that they can, I guess, channel whatever frustrations they had into something more positive.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. Not to say that that time still isn’t happening now, but [crosstalk 00:45:33]-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. We’re still in it very much. Yeah.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
We’re very much in it, but it was reaching fever pitches. It wasn’t just in the United States, it was globally. Me being Nigerian and seeing with SARS and the protests that were happening in Nigeria, the protests that were happening in South America, things happening in Brazil, it was everywhere, where you started to see people were really fed up with the institutions and the things that were meant to serve them. But people were just like, “Nothing is actually serving any of us, and nothing is serving us in a way that’s going to provide any level of comfort or any level of support. It’s actually doing the opposite.”

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I think Design to Divest became, especially for designers, because I think so many designers get into design feeling that they can change something or that there’s some sense of positivity that they can use design to affect, but no one ever tells them how. And then it typically falls flat with very altruistic ideas that really don’t connect back to impact. It just connects back to some sense of moral I don’t want to say superiority, but just a sense of moral reflection that you did a project that did something, but it doesn’t necessarily connect back to impact.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I think with the idea of Design to Divest, we really want to give people a path to connect the things that they do to the impact that they want to see in the world, the impact that they want to see in institutions, and the impact that they want to see in the different products and tools and experiences that we experience in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of that impact, given now that the collective has gone on now, what? I guess this will be your second year of going into things?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to see Design to Divest accomplish?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Quite a lot over time. But I think about education is a really core thing in terms of … One of the things that we’ve identified, too, is that there’s so many designers on the margins, designers of color, but particularly Black and indigenous designers who don’t have access to any type of content or education that teaches design in a way that validates their culture, in a way that validates their identity, in a way that celebrates the cultural intelligence of their heritage towards the creation of the things that exist in the world.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
When you look at design, the canon of literature and text that’s being taught to designers all are from European white men, and so there’s always a cultural disconnect. Essentially, what it does is informs people getting into design that you need to either erase your culture and assimilate into this culture if you want to find success in this profession because your culture is devalued or isn’t valued as a producer of good design, if you call something good design.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So part of what my hopes for Design to Divest is to really provide that platform, on one hand, for Black and indigenous designers to be able to have content and community to engage with around design that validates their identity, that validates their cultural heritage, and then that brings them to the table of creation. I feel like the world is a group project and, typically, only a select group of communities and culture have gotten to participate in creating the institutions, organizations, and business that shape the lived experiences for all of us.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I think it’s time that we create this space of ownership. I think this is what equity means, ownership and creation, and stop blocking these communities that are on the margins, Black, indigenous communities from participating in the creation and the stewardship of the world. I think that I want Design to Divest to be that platform that allows Black and indigenous communities to harness their ability to design through their own cultural intelligence, to create and populate the institutions and things in the world that are going to serve our communities.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that inspire you?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s a tough question because I’m typically just inspired by people, in general. I’m inspired by culture, in general. Obviously, I’m inspired by my family, by my parents, aunts, and uncles, especially coming from Nigeria, making a way for themselves as expats into the United States and balancing multiple cultures. I’m also inspired by other designers, other creators, but also other people in other professions. I constantly draw inspiration from economists, from lawyers, from doctors in the way that they approach the work that they do.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I can say, as of late, too, I’ve been inspired by people like André Leon Talley and Virgil, who both passed, but seeing the impact that they’ve had. You can see that by the outpouring of support and the outpouring of responses that people have to their passing. To have that level of impact on community, I think, is also something that’s incredibly inspiring to me.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to somebody that is looking to enter into the design field? Because it sounds like, with your career, you’ve managed to really take that and apply it across a number of different facets of design and, even now, you’re still kind of paying that forward with the work you’re doing in Netflix, but also with this community work through Design to Divest. So if someone’s listening to this and this is inspiring them to want to get into design in some sort of way, what would you tell them?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I mean one of the most important things, as a designer, is to be curious. I think that one thing that I would tell people is you just kind of have to do it. There’s so many people who are going to have something to say about whatever it is that you do. It’s also kind of that’s the idea of design is that whenever you design, there’s a difference between art and design in a sense, whereas design is really not meant for yourself. Design is outward. It’s meant to be critiqued by the people that you’ve created it for. So you can’t wait for perfection.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I think I would tell people that they have to just go out and do it. But another one of the most important things, too, is that design is a very community-driven profession. I think that it’s not done in isolation. I think that that’s in contrast to the way that we were taught about design. We were always taught about these individual people who are design heroes, whether it’s Dieter Rams or Frank Gehry or whatever. They’re not doing these things alone as individual people. They have a network of people. They’re talking to people.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
They are influenced by people, and they are finding different people who is inspiring to them to communicate with and also build with. So one of the most important things is to constantly seek out the people who are doing things that you find interesting and try to have a conversation with them and try to build your own communities, because that’s going to be the path forward for you finding the opportunities to design the things that you want to design, to create the things that you want to create and with the people that you want to create.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
And then lastly, too, I would also say is that you really want to start from a place of purpose. So if you don’t really have a purpose yet or you haven’t identified what that is, definitely just take some time to think about it. As everything, it could be an iteration. Your purpose whenever you were 16 could be different when you’re 24 or 50. But having a sense of purpose and principles to back that purpose then allow you to make decisions a lot easier. It gives you something to filter the opportunities that come your way with something that means something more to you than just existing.

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I’m doing a lot of the work that I want to be doing in combination with Design to Divest and some of the freelance projects that I’ve been working on as well. But I think more of that work, more of the work that I’m doing with Design to Divest, more of the creating the platforms, creating archives and things who are Black and indigenous designers to be able to participate in the creation of the world. Also, I mean I do quite a lot of mentorship.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I’d love to be able to build careers and create more pathways for designers from other marginalized communities, including Black communities and other marginalized communities to have a pathway to create. So I see within the next five years, continuing to grow and scale the impact that I’m able to have on the design community from both a pedagogical, educational standpoint as well as a practice and people standpoint.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So when I think about the practice, it’s really illustrating to both the business and design world that you want to be able to take … What it really means to be diverse and to harness diversity for innovation is being able to take the different cultural knowledge systems that exist, where there’s the aboriginal system of knowledge, the African system of knowledge, and being able to apply that to the problems that you’re facing as a society or in your particular company, reframing the problem underneath those systems of knowledge, and then allowing those systems of knowledge to be able to deliver on solutions for you.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So doing work that allows me to bring more of those different systems of knowledge and those different diverse perspectives into the creation of things, and then on the people side of just continuing to bring more of those people who are holders of that knowledge, the descendants of African people from different African cultures who hold that knowledge or indigenous people, Native people, and providing a platform for them to use that knowledge that’s been passed down to them to design and create things that make the world a better place.

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I try to not be so visible online all the time. They can find me on my Instagram, Azeez_Alli. In the near future, we’ll be releasing a new website for Design to Divest where they can check out some of that work that I’m doing. If anyone wants to chat with me or anything like that, they can always shoot me a message on LinkedIn. I definitely try to respond to people who reach out to me and might not be immediate, but definitely something that I’m open to chatting more and more with people who resonate with some of the things that I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Azeez Alli, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, of course, for telling your story about how you got into design. But I think it’s really important, especially now, as a lot of people are really looking at the work they do and try to figure out how it can make an impact in the world, I think the way that you’re taking your design knowledge and, one, how you’ve been able to apply it to different parts of design, but then, two, also using it in a way to pay it forward to the community is something that is super important.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope that we get to see a lot more of that in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Sponsored by The State of Black Design Conference

The State of Black Design

Texas State University’s Communication Design Program is excited to announce The State of Black Design Conference, a three day virtual event March 4-6, 2022.

This year’s theme is “family reunion”, and there will be over 50 amazing speakers, including author and educator Jelani Cobb, and world-renowned poet, activist, and educator Nikki Giovanni.

This year debuts the State of Black Design’s Resume Book initiative, so if you’re a Black design student, or you’re a Black designer looking for your next role, then listen up!

You will be able to submit your resume and your portfolio to the Resume Book, along with your institution of study and major if you’re a student, and recruiters and employers will have access to it before the event. If you’re interested and you want to be included in the Resume Book, send your info to blackdesign@txstate.edu with the subject line “Resume Book”. You have until March 3, 2022 to submit.

The State of Black Design Conference is brought to you with the support of the University of Texas at Austin, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Microsoft, General Motors, Design for America, Civilla, IDSA, AIGA, and Revision Path.

Visit The State of Black Design Conference website for tickets. Hope to see you there!

Chris Burnett

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Burnett:
I haven’t heard of him.

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

Chris Burnett:
Oh, wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Burnett:
Thank you, thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Burnett:
No. Who’s Brent Rollins?

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

Chris Burnett:
Hell yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
There you go.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
L.A. is so big.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, man.

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

Chris Burnett:
Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Is that where you met Bijan?

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Burnett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Burnett:
Jasper Dolphin.

Maurice Cherry:
Jasper Dolphin.

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

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

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I love that show.

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

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, yeah, definitely familiar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Burnett:
No way.

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

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

Chris Burnett:
Oh, my God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Wonderland Studios has a great team.

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

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

Chris Burnett:
Oh, nice. Yeah, 2.0.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
All in due time.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gabe Gault

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get connected with Rob?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Where else do you pull inspiration from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a whole new ballgame.

Gabe Gault:
A whole new ball game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabe Gault:
Shout out.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you feel creatively satisfied?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eric Bailey

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
What sort of trade-offs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
In the thousands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Bailey:
Typical day…

Maurice Cherry:
Does that exist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Bailey:
That’s right.

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
All right.

Eric Bailey:
Yeah. East Side.

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

Eric Bailey:
Yes, that’s right.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh cool.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, it’s a mouthful.

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Bailey:
I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Bailey:
Oh my gosh, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
… Project Osmosis going to this day.

Eric Bailey:
Yes.

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

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

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

Eric Bailey:
True. True.

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

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

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

Eric Bailey:
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

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

Eric Bailey:
Walden, yeah.

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

Eric Bailey:
That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Bailey:
Eli Kince.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

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

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

Eric Bailey:
Wow. Yeah.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

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

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

Eric Bailey:
Yes. Yes.

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

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

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

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

Eric Bailey:
Thank you for sharing that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

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Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

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

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

Did I mention it’s free?

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

To register, head to max.adobe.com.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Janessa Robinson

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, I think so.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Whoa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, what does that mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Pay up those student loans. Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

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Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

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

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

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

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

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