Dr. Christina N. Harrington

Our back to school theme continues this week with a conversation with Dr. Christina N. Harrington. I first met Dr. Harrington as a contributor to the first volume of RECOGNIZE, and now she’s an assistant professor in the HCI Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and the director of their Equity and Health Innovations Design Research Lab! Impressive!

After a brief pandemic check-in, Dr. Harrington talked about some of the design research work she’s doing at Carnegie Mellon, and spoke about how her past teaching experiences helped prepare her for this opportunity. We also talked about how she got into design via engineering, the utility of design Ph.Ds, and some of her latest obsessions. I’m glad we have educators like Dr. Harrington who can expand the concepts of design for the next generation!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
All right. I am Christina Harrington. I am a Southern, black, queer creative technologist. I have backgrounds in both engineering and design. I’m a tinkerer. I’m a crafter. I’m an inquisitive, how does this work, inside mechanics, logic type person. Right now I am in the space of higher education academia. I’m an assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And I teach at that intersection of design and HCI, where we think about people and what people need when they engage with technology, why people engage with technology the ways that they do, the ways that technology can better support black and brown folks, folks that may not have the infrastructure to interact with the newest or coolest tech or gadgets or whatever, but that could really benefit from tech being ubiquitous in their everyday lives. I’m a writer a little bit, in terms of talking about design and figuring out ways to have these conversations about design outside of the walls of academia.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of writing, you were one of the first people that we published on Revision Path when we did our recognized design anthology back in 2019?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
2019. Yeah.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. You scared me with that one. It’s crazy because going through school, it was almost like you were told you can either be really good at math and science, or you can do the humanity side of things. And I always wanted to write, because I just felt like sometimes expressing ideas is just as equally powerful through text as it is through sketching something.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
When I saw that Revision Path call, I was like, I’m just going to jump out there and see what happens. And I was super, super, super nervous, which is crazy because I had done like a whole dissertation and conference preceding papers and journal articles, but I was like, I really, really, really want to get into this anthology. And I really want to do writing that has a little bit more of my voice and a little bit less of like academic, technical jargon. Very, I don’t know, polished speech. It was really, really cool. Thank you for that opportunity.

Maurice Cherry:
No, thank you for submitting it. Unfortunately we had to, I don’t know if I mentioned this on the show, but I certainly had wrote about it. Unfortunately, I kind of took a hiatus from Recognize this year. The pandemic really did a number on, honestly like the number of people that were submitting, which sort of made sense. I mean, folks were just trying to survive out here. They weren’t thinking about trying to write stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
But then the things that we would get, people just wouldn’t write to the prompt. They’d write what they wanted to write. To give you an example, the year that we did the first anthology, and the theme was space, a lot of people wrote about Nipsey Hussle. I’m not super familiar with Nipsey Hussle. I don’t know if there’s like a space theme in his rap or anything, but I was like, why are so many people writing stuff about Nipsey Hussle. This has nothing to do with space. Or maybe it does, I don’t know.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Is that the year he passed?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that was the year he passed.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I mean, I imagine that might be part of it. I don’t know anything about Nipsey Hussle either.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. If people are listening and want to clue me in, please do, because I was like, why am I getting all these … It wasn’t just that people were writing poems, people were submitting artwork. And I’m like, “No, I just need an essay, I don’t need something in Photoshop. I don’t need to see something you painted. Thank you, I guess.” I plan to bring Recognize back at some point in the future. I just think right now, probably the timing’s not great for it, but hopefully in the future, with more support, I’ll try to get it back out there.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
That’s one of the things about thinking about how we stretch design. Saying that you got so many people that we’re submitting artwork and Photoshop, and it’s like, designers are afraid to write sometimes. I’ve literally heard running jokes, designers, engineers, computer science folks that are like, “I’m an engineer or I’m a computer scientist, I don’t write.” And it’s like, “Wait, wait, wait, how do you communicate what you’ve done? Or how do you communicate your ideas behind what you’ve built or what you’re envisioning?” There’s so much space for that, yet folks shy away from it so, so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s certainly something that I was trying to put forth through Recognize, is to have more people just write because it helps you, like you said, formalize your ideas. If you’re an entrepreneur, it helps with writing better proposals, writing better proofs, just communication in general, it tends to be really helpful. I mean, we even had a writer, actually a couple episodes ago, had our first writer on the show. I think in his background, he called himself a verbal designer, which I thought was really interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s a writer, and we talked all about how writing is, at least nowadays’s, such a crucial part of the design process. It was good just to have someone who’s a writer come on and really talk about like, yeah, I’m a writer and this is how I work within design teams and on design projects and giving feedback to designers about what they could do to either strengthen their writing or improve their writing, or even see the importance of writing in the whole design process.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. Definitely. Definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, aside from the new appointment, how’s the year been going? What’s been on your mind?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
The year has been transformational and also kind of like, you feel like you’re sludging through mud at the same time. I think the world is like a really crazy place right now. I don’t know if it’s like, oh, all of these things are going on, and 2020, 2021 is like this unprecedented time in life. Or if it’s like, no, the world’s always kind of been crazy, but as you get older, you have more of a connection to why.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Politics have always been wild in the United States, but for some of us, it’s not until we get older that you start to really see how like, oh, the ways that we’re voting are impacting like, I don’t have healthcare. I can’t go to the doctor and take care of myself. I can’t do the things with my body as a person who identifies as a woman in the United States that I want to, because of the state that I live in.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think that all of those things on top of a global health pandemic are happening at the same time. I’m like, am I becoming an empath in my old age that it just … I literally have days where I’m like, “I can’t today.” Because everything feels so heavy and it feels pointless to be writing a journal article or to be writing a conference paper. And these are things that I like to do, but there are some day ease lately where I’m just, I don’t have the motivation.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I’ve been seeing a lot of memes and all of these articles that are talking about how black women in particular are just like, we are collectively burnt out. And I think it goes to earlier, the question you asked about the things that have happened in the last year in terms of really intensified racial moments. And it’s like, we dealt with a couple of months of white people coming out of the cracks of the sidewalk, asking us how we’re doing and apologizing for things. I don’t even know you. All of that contributes to this like just community exhaustion, I’m kind of feeling, from a lot of my friends and a lot of folks.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
So on the one hand with this new job and with this new role, it’s really exciting. It’s a blessing to be here. My career in terms of academia has shot through the roof to places I don’t think I ever would’ve imagined, but I am very tired. I’m very tired with just holding all of the emotions of what’s happening in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that’s been a general sort of feeling that I’ve gotten from talking with a lot of black creatives, just a lot of black friends of mine. It’s been like, we’re just tired. It’s like a lasagna of fatigue. There’s tiredness of just like, you being a black person in this country, and then on top of that, whatever other identities you have on top of that, whether you are queer or trans or what have you. Then on top of that, just like this whole pandemic and coronavirus and these variants. And then on top of that, there’s the government like forcefully pushing people back out into the world like, no more masks mandates, get back out there. Even the whole, and I don’t mean to get super political, but the insurrection was this year. So much has happened.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Time is so warped right now. Time is so warped right now. There’s no concept of time because it feels like things are back to back. And it also feels like there’s so many intertwined struggles that you can’t parse out something to say, this is what’s upsetting me, because everything’s connected.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think that when we think about the moments that we had the uprisings that we had last summer, and it’s like, you’re mad about that. You’re angry about that, because collectively, black lives have been proven over and over again to be disposable in this country. But then at the same time, within those conversations, we have to talk about how black, queer and trans people are treated when they also too are part of those black lives. And what does it mean to have to have those conversations among other black folks who are telling you, we can’t talk about that right now. Don’t be divisive right now.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And watch the number of black trans women being killed continue to rise. Watch people not mention the names of the black trans men or the gender non-binary folks who have also been murdered at the hands of the state and police. Watch folks not want to talk about the rates of homelessness and just all of these things. And it’s like, whew, you can’t touch on one part of it without feeling that thread and the whole sweater unraveling. So, yeah, it’s a different type of … I think I ask my social media once every two weeks, what’s the word for past exhausted? What happens after you’re exhausted? What is that called?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I don’t know. I feel like we’re all at some point trying to persevere through whatever that state might be called, but it’s there. Now, we’ve jumped in like both feet in this discussion. I do want to bring it back to your work and what you’re doing. You mentioned your assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon at the HCI Institute. Can you talk about what that is and what you’ll be teaching?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. So the HCI Institute, it’s kind of like a dream job for me. It’s like this collection of, they joke like a collection of almost misfits of people across computer science, human-computer interaction, design, folks that are interested in that intersection of people and technology, technology and environment, people and environment, and anything that has to do with the ways that we interact with the digital world is kind of that area of human-computer interaction.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think what’s so dope about the HCI Institute at Carnegie Mellon is it’s one of the few, if not the only spaces designated purely to human-computer interaction degrees. You could study human-computer interaction in schools of computing, sometimes in schools of design within the United States, but to find a space where they’re like, we know exactly what this is. It’s kind of thus become like the leading institution for how HCI is thought about. To be at the place where it’s kind of like, this is … Some of the work that’s come out of this institute, this university, is what we’ve based other research on, is definitely cool for me.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think a little larger than that, being at Carnegie Mellon, where they also have a really high ranked school of design. And folks that work across that so seamlessly, because they do go hand in hand. I think that that’s just, it’s really, really, really exciting for me. And a lot of what I’ll be teaching is everything from foundational courses and introduction to user experience design or human-computer interaction. I like to say that I’m a methods girl. I love design research methods. Or engaging with students around how they learn about the people that they’re designing with or for. How they engage people in design and all of that is like design methods.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
You could go your traditional research route of just doing an interview, or you could be doing like card sorting, or role playing, or artifact analysis. Like all of these really cool things that designers have in their tool belt. I will be teaching any one of those things, but also hopefully introducing courses that consider design equity and design justice and thinking about design where design has not been talked about.

Maurice Cherry:
I first got exposed to HCI, wow, I’m dating myself. This was 20 years ago. Oh, my God! It was 20 years ago. I was an intern at Marshall Space Flight Center, right outside of Huntsville, Alabama. It’s normal, Alabama’s a city. I remember my mentor at the time, he was studying HCI, as it related to like haptic interfaces. And it was so funny because he was like, “In the future, we’ll have like a computer that’s just like the size of a sheet of paper.” Basically he was talking about a tablet.

Maurice Cherry:
And this was, my God, this was 2000, 2001, something like that. But talking about like learning how we interact with haptic interfaces. I think it was still very new at the time. I mean, I find that a lot of innovation that tends to happen sometimes through NASA, eventually trickles into consumer stuff. Because that was also where I saw my first 3D printer, was back then, because they print the nose cone of the space shuttle is made out of this substance called Marco. It burns up on reentry when the space shuttles reenter the atmosphere. They print that out every time. They literally like print it out, a big machine, and replace the nose cone every time. And I was like, “Oh wow!” I was like, “So you’re printing in 3D.” I mean, that was what? 1920 at the time. It blew my mind, like you’re printing in 3D.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
It still blows my mind. I didn’t know that. Definitely learned something. HCI has been around for a while. I mean, definitely since the late nineties, just from like the academic texts that I’m familiar with. Actually let’s say, I can think of papers in the mid to late nineties that have talked about human-computer interaction because the minute we started talking about computers, we had to talk about how folks are interacting with computers. And I think initially that was done in like the human factor space. Thinking about work and cognition and like mental load and task load and what it takes for a computer to remember chunks of information and memory and how that is likened to the human brain and then what the person can be expected to be able to do and task and stuff like that.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And then human computer interaction came along. And then somewhere down the road, design kind of like attached itself in a very particular way, because we started talking about, how do we develop the tools that we’re either building computers with? How do we develop the code? How do we create the housing of the computers? We’re talking about new phones and we’re talking about new tablets or iPods. When Apple came along and started doing that so, so, so, so well, and not to say that this was the initiation of it, but it’s always my go-to example because Apple is just kind of like the Mecca of design for me, when you’re talking about technology consumer products. Then I really think folks started having conversations about the way things looked in the technology space. And the way things were experienced in the technology space. I think it’s a cool place to be, in terms of like the work that I do.

Maurice Cherry:
And now with HCI, are you focusing on hardware software or both?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Neither.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I am the anti-technologist technologist. I’m focused on how we think about everyday technologies in people’s lives. I am not necessarily trying to design the software of the phone and I’m not necessarily trying to design the casing of the phone, but I’m trying to think about how the phone can be used as a tool for health information, for folks who might not have access to medical professionals on a consistent basis.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I’m the researcher that’s trying to consider, well, in what ways can we embed public displays? How can we get community health information out there for people who don’t have wifi in the home or computers at home, such that they’re not behind … When we think about the pandemic and how out a lot of that information that was coming out from the CDC, I was seeing it on Twitter. I was seeing it on Instagram. You’re getting alerts. Like the CDC just made this update, here are the places where you can get tested and things like that. How do we get that information to people who aren’t so heavily reliant on their phone? And do we do that through computers and public libraries? Do we do that through health kiosks that are at the Walgreens or the CVS? That’s the level at which I’m thinking about technology?

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, that makes a lot more sense too, to think about it in that way. I think it’s because now, I mean just thinking about haptic interfaces and everything like that, I mean, everything that we utilize with technology, it feels like it’s through some sort of a touch interface or an audio interface or something like that. Thinking about how it works within the context of our lives and spreading information and stuff like that is really crucial.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good point that you mentioned about with the CDC stuff, because my folks are in rural Alabama. Basically I was passing the information to them on the telephone because they don’t have an internet connection. They don’t have a computer, so they’re not going to get that information in the way that it’s going out, especially because, one, they’re in the rural south, but two, broadband is not everywhere in this country. So it’s not a public utility in that way, like the plain old telephone services.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. And unfortunately, the reason I focus on digital access and design equity is because is I’ve been the poem and the quote like, [inaudible 00:24:30] on the moon. Like we’re trying to get information to our folks in rural areas, but we have communities that are literally shipping off to Mars to escape the realities of what’s happening down here. And it’s like, there’s such gap. There’s such an imbalance in the ways that technology is utilized between certain communities.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
So it’s like at some point we have to say, hey guys, we can’t keep building new, new, new, new, new, while we have communities that are still like, wait, what’s a Google Home? What’s Alexa? Oh, I could use that to track my doctor’s appointment? Like, what? That gap, that dissonance is something that I feel like I’m always going to have an area where my work is needed because we have folks that are so focused on creating these technologies for the year 2032, and we are still trying to get some folks caught up to the year 2005.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. A lot of those futurist innovations really just like, they just completely blow by a lot of communities. I mean, even with smart speakers, I think I got my mom a smart speaker, I don’t know, a while ago, probably back in the early 2010s or whatever, when they first started coming out, and Alexa couldn’t recognize her. Couldn’t recognize her accent. So it’s like, well, that’s not good. She ended up giving it to me. I don’t even still have it anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
But to that point, like, yeah, you’ve got these other interfaces and stuff like that. The tech tends to be so focused on the next big innovations when like there’s still so many issues right now that need solving. And I don’t know if it’s because these are not like flashy, sexy news making issues that need to be solved, but it’s a huge chasm between the work that needs to be done and the work that’s being done.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
It’s also why you don’t have a whole lot of people focusing on it, because it’s not sexy, innovative work. I get hit with the same question, oh, do you do hardware? Do you do software? Are you in AI? Are you in machine learning? Are you in VR? And it’s like, I’m in this space of information because folks are still trying to understand the full features of what your phone can do, to support your everyday living. To jump to, here’s a headset that can make it seem like you’re pumping ice cream at McDonald’s in Kansas. It’s like, okay, that’s cool, but we’ve skipped a whole area for certain folks. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That reminds me of what I saw on, I think it was maybe last week or this week, I think, with Good Morning America Facebook debuting these virtual reality work rooms. And like everybody’s got on a $300 VR headset to meet in a virtual space to have meetings. I’m like, this is the most ridiculous shit I have ever seen in my whole life. I mean, it’s one thing that we can’t get together because of the pandemic, where like now I have to buy a $300 peripheral just so we can sit in second life and talk about status updates? It’s ridiculous. You’re also heading up the Equity and Health Innovations Design Research Lab. Talk to me about what that is and like what some of the projects are that are coming out of the lab.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. I mean, the EHI lab is literally just that. I came through both my masters and my PhD in heavy lab cultures. I was involved in the research in ergonomics and design research lab at North Carolina state. And then I worked with the Human Factors and Aging Lab at Georgia Tech. Becoming a faculty, literally the first thing I wanted, and I don’t know why I was so obsessed, but I was like, “I need a lab.”

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I want a lab where I can curate projects, but not just for namesake or ownership of a space, but more so, one of the things I’ve really been trying to do is kind of like kick open the doors of academic research to the communities that we sit in. So I wanted something where communities know like, okay, if we’re trying to do something, if we’re trying to build something, we can come here and collaborate and build and work and voice concerns or discuss some of the things that we’re trying to do.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Most all of my work is community-based participatory design. What I call CBPD, which stems off of community-based participatory action research that you’ll find in public health sectors, where it’s like letting the community define the need, define the project, define the scope of what we’re doing, which in academia sometimes means flipping on its head, what the project outcomes are. How can we do a design research project and put something in the hands of community before we ever publish a paper or present at a conference or do a poster or whatever? And that means creating zines.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
One of the projects that we’ve been working on for almost a year now is the creation and the development of a speculative design toolkit for communities to be able to brainstorm without the leadership of a formal design researcher or a professor or academic PI or whatever you want to call it, to say, we want to brainstorm our own solution to this thing that we’ve been working on, whether it be re-imagining what to do with an abandoned building on a particular block, or we’re trying to get safety cameras put in at the basketball court, so that parents feel safe. So that with their kids being out there late, or we’re trying to get broadband access in a particular neighborhood, how can we think about that through a design lens? How can we brainstorm that? How can we iterate on what solutions might look like?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
So we’ve been developing this toolkit that we’ve been calling Building Utopia, and we’ve been working with community design practitioners who do just exactly that type of work. So, Jen Roberts, from the Colored Girls Liberation Lab. An amazing, brilliant end day who works with Black Womxn Flourish Collective, which you may or may not be familiar with. They’re one of the co-founders of that with Denise Shanté Brown. And they and Jen have been collaborating with my lab on the development of this toolkit, and we’ve been testing it and refining it and hoping to launch it maybe sometime this year, early next year.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I told myself that I wanted to do projects that I cared about. So what are the projects that matter to black and brown folks? I think what you mentioned about your mom is actually a really great example because that’s another one of the big projects I’ve been doing is looking at health information seeking with voice assistance for black elders. And how do we meet the needs of them being able to ask health-related questions of these devices that right now, for all intents and purposes, don’t want to understand our voices, our accents, our dialects, the words that we use that may not be formal language. And so that’s another one of the projects that’s coming out of my lab at the moment.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And we’ve been looking at, how do we redefine more ideal conversational assistance? How do we define what the conversational dynamic black elders want to see looks like? And we’ve been doing that in a very community-based participatory manner. I kind of let the work that I’m doing lead me, like doing this project, and when you hear enough, people say one thing and it’s like, okay, here’s that defines what the next project is. When the toolkit literally came out of us exploring speculative design with folks that are like, yeah, this is all well and good, but what are we doing when the academic researchers are gone? And the students have finished whatever project and studio classes are over, and we’re still trying to think through some of these things?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And it’s like, oh, well, what if we worked collaboratively with folks to develop a toolkit that is kind of like a resource for folks to do that work without the need of having to engage with universities or industry designers? So, yeah, that’s kind of what the EHI lab is about. And the things that I’m open to doing is really just closing that gap that I was mentioning earlier between the ways design has been used in communities of privilege and of fluency. And the ways that design can impact communities that are not defined in that way.

Maurice Cherry:
As you’ve been going through these things with the lab, it’s interesting that you said that the problems or the things that you all are working on, kind of uncover themselves as you start talking to people, as you start using the things that are coming out of the lab more. It’s almost, I don’t know, self-generating in a way. Like you’re finding new ideas as you get out there and talk with other people. I mean, I think that’s a good thing. That’s how labs are. Labs are for experimentation.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah, definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, prior to this, you were teaching at DePaul University in Chicago for a number of years. When you look back at that time, what do you think you learned that really prepared you for what you’re doing now?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Several things. Definitely I think DePaul, being one of the few formal schools of design that had a PhD, that also was open and starting to define design in this very like social good, social impact way. DePaul, A, I’d say is known very well for like games design, graphic design. And then you had folks that were also starting to define this sector of like Dr. Sheena Erete’s lab, the technology for social good and this area of social impact.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think it was a great home for me to start off and define my own research interests and my own research agenda, and how I was going to maneuver through some of these projects in an academic space. And I think Chicago was a really great city to do that because Chicago is kind of like this very, I don’t want to say social impact, when you’re talking about things outside of academia. But Chicago has this movement activist, equity driven lens just inherent throughout a lot of the work being done in the city. So I think engaging with outside organizations and then seeing how other faculty were engaging with the city and different organizers and community partners is definitely something that rubbed off on me.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And then I think DePaul as a university, being a place where you really get to harness teaching students. I’ve been in this research thing since I started my master’s program. But teaching is very rarely something they teach you how to do. Like how do you effectively develop course objectives and evaluate students in ways that’s not just throwing a 300 question exam at them? And I think I was able to learn a lot of that at DePaul.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to go general, like more into your background, because you have an extensive educational background and everything. Let’s start from the beginning. You mentioned at the top of the show that you’re Southern. Where did you grow up?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I am from Fayetteville, North Carolina, born and raised. At some point my parents moved to Richmond, Virginia. And then when my parents split, my mom’s side of the family and my dad’s was still back in North Carolina, but we had the closest relationship with my mom’s side. We literally were in Fayetteville whenever she was not on the clock at work, because that’s where her support system was. So North Carolina is very ingrained in me, but I did a lot of my schooling during the week in Richmond, Virginia.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you exposed to a lot of tech and design growing up?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
What I would consider the tech and design that I know now, no. I went to the math and science center. I was one of those kids in middle school, I went to the math and science center in middle school. I forget how I got into that. I was always a tinkerer, even in like my younger elementary school days. I was always trying to take things apart, put things together, build things from scratch. I remember one year when I had the concept of like what a birthday is and you get people a gift. I tried to build my mom these shoes by taking one of her pair of shoes and tracing it on paper and then foam. And then the stuffing of the foam that comes out of like a packing box.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I’m trying to build up these layers so I could build her a more comfortable pair of shoes, because she was always working. Because design hadn’t really reached a lot of high schools and middle schools, it was like, okay, you’re doing that, so you’re supposed to be an engineer. There was no concept of like, you’re supposed to be a designer. I never heard the word design or like designer. I literally was told you’re good at math and science, you’re tinkering, go be an engineer.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I remember telling my high school guidance counselor. I was clearly doing well. And I was in gifted honors classes, and this, that, and the third. So I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to go to college. Here’s where I’m applying.” He’s like, “What do you want to do?” And I was like, “I want to build electronics. I want to create electronics.” And he was like, “Oh, go to school for electrical engineering.” And then my uncle was an electrical engineer that graduated from North Carolina A&T.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I went to college for electrical engineering, and it wasn’t until I did a summer bridge program at Virginia Tech, that’s no longer there, but it used to be called Aspire, but it was for incoming black, Latinx. And I believe at that time, even Asian students to take these summer courses at Virginia Tech, the summer before you started your fall semester as a way to promote retention, because minority students had low numbers of finishing in these degrees at institutions like Virginia Tech.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I did this program. And so you then came into the fall semester of your freshman year with this cohort of folks. I became really close with some of the guys, because it was mainly guys. And I think it was like maybe six girls out of like 40 students. But I remember two of my guy friends that did that program with me. They were mechanical engineering students. They were getting a minor in this thing called industrial design. And I was like, “Boy, one day, I’m going to go to class with y’all.”

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I went to one of their industrial design classes. I think it was Mitzi Vernon teaching design research at Virginia Tech. And I like fell in love with it. I was like, “What is this thing?” And I literally left that class and I went into the College of Architecture’s front desk office, and I was like, “How do I sign up for this minor? I want to do this too.” And then I went to my undergraduate advisor and was like, “Okay, now how can I make my senior thesis integrate industrial design?”

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I changed my whole senior thesis to like, instead of just electrical engineering project, it became designing a sensor and designing a hardware of the sensor that could detect vehicles that were coming at joggers and bikers at a certain speed for like safety. I’ve always been about like safety and designing for impairments and things like that. I just fell in love with design, taking this design research class and then taking this sketching classes. I forget the other classes that were needed for the minor.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And as I moved through that minor and then going back to get my master’s in industrial design, I realized that like, that’s where I want it to be, because engineering, and this is no slight to the engineers, but I just felt like engineering put me in a cubicle where I didn’t get to talk to people. And I didn’t get to understand people the ways that I wanted to. And design was like, okay, you’re designing the thing. You’re also thinking about the core guts of the thing, but you’re also understanding the person that’s going to be interacting with the thing.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And the period between when I graduated from undergrad and before I started my masters, I worked at Motorola as an RF systems engineer. I was sitting in a cube, eight, nine hours a day, designing radio packages for the government. I never talked to anybody. I never went out. And I hated it. So when I went back to get my master’s in industrial design, it felt like some clouds are opening up. So I was like, oh, this is where I want to be. And the further I explored that, the better I defined like exactly what design meant to me and also realized how limited a lot of folks are in being exposed to design, because I could have been doing that the whole time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think an interesting kind of trend that I’m seeing here that is what you’re continuing in your work is that you have the idea that in terms of going into your education, you knew that you were good at these things, but you only had a very limited view of what that could look like, which in turn ended up being engineering. I empathize with that too, because like when I went into school, I wanted to do web design. This was in like late 90s, early two 2000s, and I remember my computer science … Well, no, first of all, I was told, “Oh, you should go into computer science, to design a website.”

Maurice Cherry:
And at the time I enrolled in this computer science, computer engineering dual degree program, you do three years at Morehouse. You do two years at Georgia Tech. You get out with a master’s and a bachelor’s. And I was telling my advisor, I wanted to design websites, and he just laughed in my face. “The internet is a fad. This is what you want to do? We don’t do that here.” I switched my major and went into math because Morehouse doesn’t have a design program. I do think about now how different my career might have been if I ended up going into more of that design route.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m bringing this up because what it sounds like for you is that you started out doing this engineering and then as you learn more information and saw these other paths that were open, that then shifted you more towards design. So like it’s that thing about access and I guess equity in some respect, but just access to knowing that this is an option that you can take.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. I mean, definitely. I think hearing your story fuels that point of, how often are young black and brown students being pushed towards these degrees or this area? You don’t necessarily have to have a degree to be a designer. I think design is like a skillset. Design is also a way of thinking that a lot of people inherently have or what we all inherently have, it’s just whether or not we express ourselves in that way. I wonder how we are exposing like black and brown kids to exploring that as a potential thing to do to harness your creativity or to make a living or whatever it is you want to do out of life.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And it’s not a lie. I think that there’s so many reasons why design is an expensive, especially like a master’s or a PhD in design, it’s an expensive area because design proper doesn’t fall under a lot of the NSF and the fellowships that are going to pay your way. Oftentimes people that are going back and getting post-baccalaureate degrees in design are paying out of pocket or loans. That’s already going to curate a particular type of folk that’s able to do that, and not feel financial stress.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And then I think now people have more of an understanding and a vocabulary around design. But 10 or 15 years ago, when you say, I want to be a designer and it’s was like, well, are you going to make any money doing that? And I think black and brown students are oftentimes limited in having that as a constraint when they come out. If they go to school, it’s like, I got to pick a major that I’m going to do a job that makes money. We’re not always afforded the opportunity to say, I want to do this thing regardless of what the return of investment is going to be.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And so all of these things contribute to, we push, in the past at least, our communities have been pushed to do certain things, to study certain things, and design has not been one of them. And so then it becomes this like elite thing that people think I can’t do design. [inaudible 00:46:38] doesn’t think in that way. And it’s like, if you had a problem at home this morning and you no longer have it because you figured something, you created some type of work around, or you Jimmy rigged your door to no longer creak. Or you’re trying to go in and out of your bedroom to get watermelon in night, like whatever, you’re doing design.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And it’s reframing how we think about what design is and how people think about what they can do with design. I think we’re starting to see that more now. You have designed this trickled out throughout so many sectors. You have literal government agencies that are now wanting to hire people talking about design, to address city infrastructure problems. To address urban planning problems. All of these things, there’s so much value now. And people considering design as a lens to just think through things. It might not even have to be about problems. It can just be about the process of ingenuity and creativity. But I think for my generation at least, that’s just such a new thing, because when I was coming out of K through 12, people were not talking about [inaudible 00:47:54].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I’m going to just put this out here and folks can quote me on that. I attribute a lot of that, I think, new thinking around how folks approached design to the fact that the people that are talking about design, like you look at just the general makeup, has gotten a lot more diverse than it has been in previous years, because you’ve got more black and brown people, more queer people, et cetera, bringing their perspectives, which are a mix of education and lived experience into what design is, that it’s helping for a lot of people to expand what the definition of design looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I remember in like the two thousands, I mean, I was out of college. I was like early in my career and everything about design, at least around like web stuff, because it was still pretty early. It was just all about web stuff. What’s the latest framework. And it wasn’t about, how are we solving problems? Like UX wasn’t really a … I want to say UX wasn’t a thing. It certainly wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. People did UX stuff, but it was not as, I think, known or accepted, I want to say, as being like a hardcore frontend person or backend person or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I mean, it’s amazing the titles that you see, the type of work that you’re able to do in design that is, in large part, I think there’s just more diverse people are out there talking about it, sharing their experiences and really showing other people how design is not just something that’s done like on a computer or with a pen and paper or something like that.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
But even to your point, those tools have also helped to break down the barriers to design. One of the reasons I love what people on social media and the ways, I don’t know if you saw like, it was like a couple of years ago, and someone created a movie poster, like coming soon for Set It Off 2. And it was so real that I got upset, because I was like, no, leave, Set It Off alone. We do not need a Set It Off 2. There’s nothing you can do with that. I think it had Teyana Taylor on the cover and somebody else, but it was because someone got in Photoshop and was so sick with Photoshop, that they created this thing that looked like it came out of somebody’s media company. Like it was actually happening.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
We’ve gotten so sick with our Photoshop and illustrator and just our creative skills because of these digital tools, that you have so many people that you don’t need the four year degree to be like, I’m an illustrator. I’m a designer. I create flyers. I do the promotion for this restaurant. You know what I mean? I help this photographer clean up their prints. There’s so many different ways to do it now because of digital tools.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And I think that that’s the dope thing about design, because we’ve now started to see it literally infiltrate corners where folks never would have thought about doing that type of thing. And again, like I said, that then starts to bleed back into one of designs origins of political propaganda, because now I can literally build a career doing the social media promotion for Elizabeth Warren, or I can literally build a career doing a design for Black Lives Matter direct action.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think now when you’re seeing organizations and collective designers protests and design justice network and all of these people that are coming to use design as a lens with all of these different mindsets and backgrounds like, oh, I studied social work, but I now lean heavily into design for ways to really communicate my work and to get things out there and to make change. It’s like, that’s what design to me is and how it should have been talked about for all of this time.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Design, it’s not just this insular, oh, I am in design studio for eight hours a day, studying at this university. And I have this portfolio of these very specific pieces, and now I’m a designer. Design is so many different things, so many different people coming to the table or literally the streets and moving in so many different ways. And I think that all of these things have built for us to get to this moment. I just think that that’s so, it’s dope. It’s dope, where we’ve been able to get it.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, absolutely. And one thing that I have to mention, you shouted out some of your peers earlier, Dr. Dori Tunstall Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel. Raja Schaar is a doctor also, right? I know I’ve heard her name. I don’t recall if she’s a doctor or not.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Raja’s not a doctor. But Raja is actually one of my academic mentors, because Raja was teaching at Georgia Tech when I was a student there and gave me my first teaching gig. I always have to shout that out. Raja is the first person that let me teach the class, when I was like, please somebody, let me teach. I need to know how to teach for what I want to do. Raja let me do that.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it like being a black woman at the top level of design education in this way?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
That’s an interesting question, because I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it like that. The design PhD in general in the United States is not widespread. We’re still trying to figure out what’s the utility of it. Like why do you need a design PhD? In the United States, you get a master’s, that’s the terminal degree you can teach. You can go into industry. You don’t even need a master’s to have your own firm or your own consulting, whatever. Well, you can teach in certain design programs.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Having a design PhD is, in my perspective, literally because Lesley-Ann, Dori and myself, we all do a particular level of writing and research and getting grants and things like that, to move in the ways that some of the other sciences do. I think about it less than the framework of like, oh, I’m one of the few black women that has a PhD in design.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Although I think that if I stopped and thought about it, that is kind of like, oh, that’s … Whoa! I’ve thought myself as another black woman academic. Still few. Still few and far between. Like if you looked at my department right now, it’s not like, oh, I’m the only black woman with a PhD in design. I’m the only black woman in my department. Differentiating myself in that way is not something I oftentimes think about, but I do hope, and I do see, coming on the horizon, if not already here, maybe not myself. It’s just because I don’t always put myself in that equation. It’s kind of like an imposter syndrome thing, but I definitely see where the Doris and the Lesley-Anns are shifting design.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And I think last year was a moment to put that on grand scale, because more people were coming to them, but their work was already at that nexus of like, y’all, the way Lesley-Ann thinks about design, the way Dori is talking about design, what Dori is doing at OCAD and bringing in all of these black faculty and design. And even Raja, I don’t think a PhD really matters, because Raja is one of the people that is … I mean, you want to talk design, to me, the first person I’m going to mention is Raja Schaar. I think it’s more so the impact that they’re going to have in the field of design because of the types of work that they do, not necessarily because they have PhDs, but I guess they’re probably synonymous or maybe I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, we spoke about this a bit before we started recording and I really want to talk about it more now. Last year, a lot of organizations and companies really stepped out there to talk about how they support black folks across a number of different fields, design included. And we talk about sort of what it looked like to have that influx of interest and support. Do you still see that support now, a year later?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah, like I said, I don’t, but I also am not particularly looking for it, because I don’t think anybody was naive to what that moment was. As I mentioned, there were literally foundations that came and were like, we want to put you on an advisory board so that we can start to think about the equity within our products and our projects. They were also, again, throwing out the same names that I mentioned, you, Lesley-Ann and Dori and Raja. I haven’t heard from them. I couldn’t tell you what’s going on with that project.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
It’s one of those things where it’s like take from it what you needed to take from it and continue with the work. Don’t let that be the sole motivation for the work. Don’t let the die down of that make you feel like the work is any less important or necessary. Because for a lot of us, we’ve been talking about these things and we’ve been doing this type of work, way before anybody was slapping our faces on flyers or panels or whatever. And we will be long after folks no longer care we are. And I think that that’s what energizes me. I think about like a Chris Rudd, who has been talking about anti-racism and design. That’s the whole reason that he ever started working in design. And how in the moment of what happened last summer, I’m sure he like other folks, folks became really familiar with who he was and was speaking on panels and this, that, and the third.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
But he’s been doing that. He’s been doing that work. He’s been so invested in the community in the south side of Chicago. That is his whole lens to design is equity and anti-racism and workers’ rights and thinking about design from a lens of, what would a less racist Chicago look like? What would more equitable Bronzeville corridor look like? He’s been defining those things. I hope that the moment of last year doesn’t overshadow the fact that folks have been talking about these things.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
A lot of the organizers with designers protests, Brian Lee has been doing this area of design. A lot of folks just came to know him in the moment of what happened summer of 2020, but he’s been organizing in this way. He’s been talking about design in this way. To me, I didn’t really even see the companies as much as I saw my friends and colleagues and people that I knew from afar and looked up to, kind of pushed into people knowing their work as people should.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
The companies and all of the organizations and all that, all that was like kind of noise that I knew would fall off anyway. That was never my focus. It’s more like, okay, great. Now we have folks knowing the name of Chris Rudd, of Brian Lee, of Dori Tunstall. That’s kind of what came out of that moment for me. I don’t even really think about the fact that in 2021, those organizations or whoever, are not still knocking down, at least my door, I don’t know about other folks. And the folks that I’m mentioning, they’re still doing the work. They haven’t stopped doing the work because whoever is no longer showcasing 31 days of black on their social media page or whatever, they’re still doing the work.

Maurice Cherry:
To piggyback off of your response there, you’re a hundred percent right. I think what last summer did is that it did help to, I think, amplify a lot of the work that those of us have been out there doing. It sucks though, that that support hasn’t been continued or sustained. Like you can very much tell it was just like a, in some respects, kind of like a flash in the pan kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ll share the anecdote, I won’t name the company, but I’ll share the anecdote that I share with you before we started recording, that there was a certain, very large pharmaceutical company that I spoke at last year. That definitely was like, yeah, we really want to help out and do this, that, and the third and whatever. It had just becomes sort of very clear, because they were asking like, is this going to be like a continued thing? Do you think that there’ll be more support out there that people know about this?

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m like, “Ask me next year.” Because right now, I mean, for those of us, like I said, I have been doing this for a while. We’ve seen these kind of like spikes of support that come along as it relates to, it could be a societal issue or it could be an industry issue or something like that. And you get that little spike. That’s great when it happens. If you can sustain that, that’s even better. But a lot of that support I know of from last year did sort of just like dry up. Or the company got selective amnesia about what they said or what they promised. It’s been all sorts of stuff. It is what it is. How can the listeners get more involved in the research areas that you’re a part of?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think a lot of the organizations that I mentioned. I mean, I think that there’s always going to be like that shameless, you want to do a PhD, come to death row type comment of like, come work with the kid. You could definitely do that. I also know that academia is not the only avenue to do this work. I even push some of my students to be a part of design justice network, be a part of do the check-ins with designers protest.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think that a lot of the collectives that I’ve come to learn about, when we did the Denise and Designer project, which it started before the pandemic even hit, but we weren’t able to put things out until I think like late last summer. It kind of overlapped with, we were talking a lot about this area of design and then it was like, oh, the timing just kind of coincided of us starting to put out the zine and the website and highlighting folks on social media.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think following the Denise and Designer project on Instagram and some of the folks that we highlighted, like looking into their work, looking into the collectives that either they lead or that they’re a part of, or some of the projects they’re doing on their own, I think that there are so many ways now, as we talked about equity and design justice is becoming more widespread. There’s so many ways to get involved. I think that people can tap into any one of those.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would’ve done if you hadn’t went into academia?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Real answer, I wanted to go to culinary school. I wanted to go to culinary school. I wanted to do a bunch of different things when I was a kid. I don’t know if that’s like some sagitarious type stuff. But there was the point in time, pre 1998 when I was like, I’m going to be the first girl in the NBA. And then there was, I want to go to culinary school. Cooking was so sexy to me. I don’t know why I just thought I wanted to cook. And then I think when I got to undergrad and I was grounded a little bit more, and even then barely, because I remember end of my sophomore year under my freshman year, calling my mom and being like my, “I hate electrical engineering. I hate it here. I want to get my degree in Africana Studies and be a writer or something.”

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And my mom being, “No, you’re not [inaudible 01:04:08].” I wanted to do so many things and it was like engineering oddly was my safety net, because I was smart in math and science. It could have been a number of different things. And it still might be a number of different things, because I don’t believe that we are fixed to what we do in terms of our productivity or making money in this light. I don’t think we have to be fixed to that.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I still might end up opening a smoothie shop and being the old black lesbian in the neighborhood that’s just making smoothies and minding her business on the porch. That’s just my character and how I see the world of just wanting to do what feels good and what makes sense in the moment. I think this past year has showed me that I don’t want to die working myself to death and stressing over a job. So what that looks like in the next 15, 20 years is very up in the air.

Maurice Cherry:
Woo! You hit me with like a shot to the heart with that one. Woo! I know exactly what you mean when you say that. Stress will kill you. And if you happen to be black, if you happen to be anything else on top of that, it’s a lot out here. I don’t blame you. I think a lot of people are starting to come to their … I won’t want to say come to their senses, because that implies some form of like brainwashing. But I think a lot of people are realizing like, to be quite blunt, fuck these jobs.

Maurice Cherry:
The work is always going to be there. I think I had to come to terms with that a few years ago myself, when I really saw that I was really overworking myself. The work will always be there. I may not. Someone else can easily sub in for whatever, but like I don’t want to burn myself out trying to … You don’t get a medal for being a workaholic.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yep. I think last year I was talking to a friend about this. I mean last year literally showed us whose job was essential and whose wasn’t. And the ways that we need to let go of some of that internal guilt of taking rest, of taking time off, of going on vacation. I know at least like black, queer, trans, non-binary folk in the academia and the academy, we tend to carry that. Like, I got to work harder to get where other people are, and so, no days off. I also have the invisible labor of holding space for all of the students who don’t see themselves typically on campus and all of these things. And it’s like, we also tend to statistically die younger because of it, and not last, and still not get tenured.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think the last year has taught me, I’m going to rest. I am going to take time. I’m going to take vacations where I’m not touching my laptop. I think as burnt out as I was starting to feel with academia, one of the beautiful things that I quickly realized coming into CMU, there’s a faculty by the name of Jessica Hammer in the HCI Institute, who is all about that. Making sure that you’re working efficiently, such that you can unplug and take care of yourself and have that balance.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And I think that that’s just the place that I’m kind of in, because we watched the world go topsy-turvy, and a lot of us didn’t know how to put down productivity. We didn’t know how to not be defined by that. It was kind of sad and a little scary, watching folks scramble to do what felt like normal, but what felt like normal was work, at least in the context of the U.S.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Shout out to the Nap Ministry. I first heard about them last year. I think it might have been right around the summer of last year. Shout out to the Nap Ministry, rest is resistance. Absolutely.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Shout out to the Nap Ministry, shout out to Pleasure Activism, shout out to any messaging that is just like, take care of you. We have to be reminded of that. I think Denise is a great example in the way that they’re operating Black Womxn Flourish is like, hey y’all, we’re taking a break in a couple of weeks. And I’m like, that is like such a symbol, but I’ve never thought to just be like, no, it’s not a holiday, but I’m just going to go to the lake for a couple of days and not answer my email, and y’all will be okay. We know the jobs that are essential now. We know what we need to literally survive as a society. More than likely my journal article isn’t part of that, so I can take a break. I can take a nap.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I love it. I love it. What are you obsessed with at the moment?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
So many things from Real Housewives of Potomac, do not shame me, but I love them. I’m obsessed with that. I am upset with, in terms of design, like this concept of futuring and speculative design, but through a lens of Afrofuturism. I’m obsessed with the concept of like, there are black people in the future. I think it’s become ingrained in everything I see and everything I do, from like TV shows. I like a lot of like sci-fi and those psychological thrillers or like those, the world has ended as we know it and now it’s 2442 and here’s what civilization looks like. You watch those shows and you’re like, wait, so in 2442 there’s no black people? In the casting call, you don’t even think to put one mixed girl, nothing?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And it’s like that concept of like us, the longevity and what our futures looks like has become something that I’m super obsessed with. I’m obsessed with art, of course. I think that that’s what attracted me to design because I was introduced to design as like this mesh of engineering and visual art. So the visual art is always going to be something that like aesthetically … Like I love collecting art in my home. I love going to museums and learning the history of, especially like political art, what people were trying to say through their art. I’m obsessed with my travel bucket list. That is part of my selfish Americanism of like, when am I going to be able to just roam the world again and feel safe? Safe to the extent of being like black masculine presenting queer woman on this earth, as safe as we feel anyway.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I will admit this, but if you see me in person, I’m not going to want to engage in it in person. I’m not a LeBron hater, but I follow his career. So I’m slightly obsessed with how long is this man going to play in the NBA? It’s not even like a Vince Carter. Like where Vince was like, he’s old. He might go in for like five minutes and do a dunk and then you can see him kind of limping off the court and he’s done. LeBron is still playing as like the centerpiece of the team, going into what? 35, 36. So I’m kind of obsessed with like what that moment is going to be when he … Is that going to come? I mean, he’s conditioned his body so well, and I think he’s obsessed with proving to people that he can still do it. As an avid basketball fan, I’m kind of obsessed with seeing how long he goes.

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

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think I’ll still be doing similar work. I mean, I have great interest in doing more like civic technology fellowships, where I’m taking a year and focusing on a project that sits outside of the academic institution, like the walls of the academic institution or consulting with folks that are thinking about larger scale problems. I think that that’s the next direction that I feel like I want to go in at some point. I don’t know what capacity that’s going to look like. Because like I said, I tend to let the work lead me, but I would love to do some type of fellowship that was focused on like a larger scale problem that was dealing with digital access or design equity somewhere.

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

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
So my personal website, christinaharrington.me, although it’s not, I mean, that flashy, it’s somewhat updated of like my travel and where I’m speaking, my research project, the papers that I’ve published and things like that. You can always follow me on Twitter @adapperprof. I’m always ranting about academia, design, The Real Housewives of Potomac, rest, productivity. I have pages on LinkedIn and stuff like that. I don’t use them as much, but I’d say that those are the two places.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Christina Harrington, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I know when we first met, actually it was a few years ago, we met at black and design, which they are having again this year. So I think by the time this episode comes out, people will start hearing some of the advertisements around the events. That’ll be happening in October, again, virtually this year.

Maurice Cherry:
It was just so good to talk with you and to learn about the work that you’re doing around design equity, your new role at Carnegie Mellon. I just feel like we’re going to hear so much more from you in these coming years about the work that you’re doing, because it’s really super important. I think now that so much of our world has been driven online because of the pandemic in terms of interactions and just general socialization that a lot of the work you’re doing around design equity and stuff like that is going to be super important. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Thank you so much for having me. This is really exciting.

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Sabrina Hall

Summer is here, and we’re closing out the month with a conversation with designer and design educator Sabrina Hall. As a senior product design manager at Justworks, Sabrina oversees a creative team dedicated to helping improve the payroll, benefits, and other human resources tasks for a number of businesses.

We started off with Sabrina sharing starting at a new company during a pandemic, as well as some of the intricacies of her role (such as the overlap with strategy). She also talked about growing up in New York City, attending SVA, and her shift from editorial and print design into product. We also discussed teaching, as well as the importance of writing as a designer, and spoke on how she views success at this stage in her career. Thank you Sabrina for helping to usher in the next generation of designers!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Sabrina Hall:
Hi, I am Sabrina Hall. I’m a senior product design manager at Justworks here in New York City.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has 2021 been for you so far?

Sabrina Hall:
2021 has been a year of challenges and gratefulness. It’s truly been a year with so many new opportunities, but also just one filled with collective and community grief and finding a balance between that and self care for the past year. So, it’s been complicated.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What lessons did you learn this past year? How would you say you’ve grown and improved over the last year or so?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. Over the last year, a few of the lessons that have really stayed with me is community care and how it’s so important during a time like this in the pandemic, particularly I was able to really actively advocate and be a part of mutual aid funds and understanding how to give directly to the community and support that. Some of the lessons for me were also identifying where I needed to set boundaries for my own self care, with the idea of putting my oxygen mask on first and being able to then care for others, really continuing to be grateful for my space and for safety and for help, and really seeing how the pandemic impacted so many marginalized communities.

Sabrina Hall:
Then also, really just making space for deeper understanding and deeper compassion for folks’s experiences, as there’s just been so much collective grief, and so many folks that I know have really gone through a lot of loss in the past year.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s so interesting how, with this past year being as honestly as traumatic as it’s, how much of a rush there is now to almost forget the last year. Not memorialize it or remember it in a way that sort of holds all the loss that we’ve held, that we’ve experienced in a sacred place, but just to “get back to normal.” I’m not comfortable with how quickly the push is to make that happen without recognizing what we’ve been through.

Sabrina Hall:
I really think the concept of getting back to normal is for me, one that I don’t identify with, because normal was already, in some ways, quite challenging and possibly problematic with just some of the systems, not possibly, but problematic with some of the systems we had in place already, particularly around healthcare, particularly around flexibility from work and working remotely. I don’t want to go back to a normal. I would like to look forward on creating new futures in new ideas of what a normal even means, and whether that’s more flexibility, whether that’s continuing to think inclusively about how we work together and the experiences there for myself.

Sabrina Hall:
I was able to get together with folks who normally I might not have been able to, because it was only in-person activities. I was able to grow a community in a way that I would not have been able to if we were in a normal time and would love to continue doing that work. I think that well, for some folks, they may find comfort in normal. Their normal really just doesn’t acknowledge or make the space for addressing a lot of the issues of why we were in this space with our work schedules, with health, and I think going back to normal is not really the way I want to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Normal, I think, as we’ve all seen and experienced through this time, is highly subjective. One person’s normal is another person’s, I don’t know, paradise in some ways, because we’ve all had to deal with some level of loss or just a curtailing of our regular activities through all of this.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes, absolutely. Yes, exactly. That is quite subjective, and really understanding, how do we look to a new normal versus a past normal?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, one of the things you kind of talk about creating new futures, you kind of created your own new future. You started a new job during all of this. How has that been?

Sabrina Hall:
It’s been such an exciting time. I got a new job in the midst of the pandemic, so last year I started in August. It was quite a different process, starting remotely, getting to know the team remotely, as there not a remote based company, and understanding, how do I set boundaries as well with working at home? How do I get comfortable and have a space where I can really be productive on a day-to-day basis? Then just building partnerships and relationships remotely, which takes a different type of effort versus running into someone in sort of the, in the kitchen or different communal workspaces, where now it’s like, okay, intentionally setting up that 20 minute Zoom call to introduce myself to folks.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting with the way companies are still, I think, adjusting to it. You mentioned, like with Justworks, it sort of not being a remote-first company. Is it changing now that I guess we’re sort of starting to emerge from the pandemic, even in just a small way?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. There’ve been several changes. I would say that around the onboarding and hiring process, we come on as a cohort. So, everyone starts on one day to really make it a streamlined process, thinking about how we share documentation and artifacts and really distributing that in a way that’s easier and more accessible remotely. Then, also going into the future, how can we be flexible? I believe that currently, they’re looking at a way to keep partial work from home while still having folks back in the office as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s nice. That’s good to hear. What is a typical day like for you?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes, a typical day ranges throughout the week. My day on a Monday, like today, is really focused on kicking off our weekly sprint with various groups. I focus on, and I’m the design, senior design manager for the benefits cluster, which is a large group that focuses on the benefits part of our product and then the growth part as well. My day begins with weekly’s and kicking off with our sprints meeting with my design team and having those one-on-ones to really identify the unblocked hours for the week and how to best set them up for success. Right now, we’re in the middle of fiscal year and planning, and attending that with some of my partners, senior product managers, group product managers, working with engineering managers.

Sabrina Hall:
My day is a combination of relationship building, mostly meetings around our next product steps, and then also connecting with the design team through feedback workshops and with my fellow managers and our director as well, looking at our goals for the design team as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me a little bit more about your team. You mentioned designers. Do you have other types of people that are working under you, like researchers or strategists or anything like that?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. Currently, we have a larger design team. I have three direct reports, one senior designer and two product designers. Currently, their skill sets are really expanding and we focus on, not only the user research, which they lead, but also the visual design and the UI work involved with that as well. So, our designers are very closely working on research, also working on the user experience and partnering with engineers along the way, too.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the best part about what you do now?

Sabrina Hall:
The best part about what I do now is partnering with the designers to continue unlocking and advocating for them to reach their highest potential. That is so important because it’s something that impacts everything, the business, the future of a product, their career growth, their ability to focus as designers, and it really is something that I enjoy and I learn so much from every week.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember back when I was leading teams at … This was another place I used to work at. I mean, I just remember, first of all, there was always meetings. There were so many meetings, whether there were one-on-ones or leadership meetings, or this, that, and the other, and it never felt like I really got to work on stuff. It was more like I was working, I mean, I don’t want to say stuff, but I wasn’t working on the product. It felt like I was just more working with people. It was very much a people management kind of thing. Do you still sort of have the opportunity to work hands-on with the product in any way?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, there are opportunities to. While I enjoy it, I definitely rely on the experts of our product design team. I believe that the way I work with the product now just differs from the angle of the approach. While I may not be necessarily working very closely on a user flow, I am thinking about it strategically and how best to set our product up for success, thinking of approaches to research, trying to identify inter-department connections that we have, interdependencies. So, it’s definitely still working on the product, but yes, a little differently than before.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. So, you’re sort of making sure that the team is in the right place to do the actual hands-on work on the product, but you’re shepherding the team. You’re, like you said, removing barriers and making sure that they can do the best work that they can do without any sort of obstructions or interruptions.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Gotcha. Now, before this, you were an art director at Scholastic. How is this role at Justworks different from that one?

Sabrina Hall:
My role at Scholastic was quite similar. At Scholastic, the structure of titles was very different there as a company that was focused in the print space and then expanded to digital. So, there are many overlapping part, whether it was managing our team, focusing on the lead of a product, really doing a lot more hands-on work. That was definitely one of the big differences with regards to day-to-day being in the design process. Some of the other differences have been really getting more time and space to be focused on the strategy while not having to also do the IC work.

Sabrina Hall:
But so much of it was also really focused on, what are the two sides of an experience? So, at Scholastic, it was really thinking about the students using the product and the teachers using the product while the school is making the purchase of the product, and similar to some of the work I do now, we think about the admins who are working with Justworks and the employees who use the product as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, just to kind of switch gears here a little bit, I saw when I was looking at your website, you mentioned that you were born and raised in New York City.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about kind of your early intro to design.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. I was born and raised in the Bronx. My intro to design started in high school. I went to the Bronx High School of Science. I really enjoyed writing. I was convinced I was going to go to Fordham and study journalism. That was one of the first things I wanted to focus on, but I loved art, I’ve always loved art. Probably just, yeah, as far as I can remember, when I was applying to go to junior high school, I went to Eastside Middle School, I had to take off my shoe and draw it as part of an entry for that school, so I’ve always loved art. Yeah, I was like, this has got to get me in, and it was such a good experience.

Sabrina Hall:
Then, at Bronx Science, I recall enrolling in AP art, and the teacher at the time, Ms. Ash, I remember enjoying it so much. I was doing collage work and I was just enjoying every part of AP art. And she was like, “This is something you can do as a career.” I was like, “What do you mean? I don’t understand this at all.” At the time I remember also loving things like Write On, Word Up magazine, and that was the space that I was just really in. And she was like, “All these magazines that you enjoy, there is a graphic designer doing this and it is something that you can have a career from.” I was completely shook. I was like, “What do you mean? How do I do this?” That shifted everything.

Sabrina Hall:
I made portfolios, I gathered work. I was really fortunate to have parents who supported me at the time. They were not aware of graphic design as a career, and regardless, they were like, okay, if you believe you can do this, we’re supporting you, and applied to several schools and ended up going to the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting that it’s magazines that were kind of an entry point. That was like that for me as well. I grew up in the deep south. Getting Vibe Magazine and YSP, I’m dating myself now, but YSB and Emerge and seeing all of this, and one, these positive representations of blackness, but then two, to know that there were black people behind it that were designing it, was really something that brought me more into the space. Although it was much later, I don’t want to say much later in my career, but certainly it wasn’t something I went to school for. Now, you did go to school for design. You went to SVA. What was your time like there?

Sabrina Hall:
My time there was an overall positive experience. I was exposed to just so many different things in the art industry, understanding the challenges within being in that space, understanding being one of few in that space, but I learned so much. I graduated with a bachelor’s in fine arts with a focus in graphic design, and really understood that this was something that I enjoyed doing and could really thrive at and would be able to … At the time, really was thinking about how I can put my own mark on design and using it. So, that was one of the biggest learning experiences from it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, SVA, of course, is a well-known school. We’ve had several SVA alum here on the show. If you could sort of just, I don’t know, give an endorsement for the school in a way, in what ways did SVA sort of really prepare you for a career as a designer?

Sabrina Hall:
I would say that SVA prepared me for some of the challenges in design around it being a very homogenous industry, but also realistically, it exposed me in the same hand to folks in the industry who had certain networks were able to really identify what the industry is looking for and really empowered me to begin, just the beginning stages of understanding how I could use this as a career. I think, even throughout the process, it was very clear that this was something that I could do as a job, was really important to me with then graduating from any college.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, at first, your design career dealt with a lot of print work. When did you sort of make this transition more into digital design?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. I joke sometimes, possibly aging myself here, that I feel like I’m one of the last folks who graduated with a print portfolio that sort of like flew in [inaudible 00:20:50] one of these larger pieces. What I find for myself, as I started to enter the industry, was I loved editorial, gravitated towards that space. Was doing a lot of print work and branding and corporate, but found that things were changing, and things were changing rapidly. From being in a print space, I’ve always been someone who loves learning and I’m excited by change. I realized, okay, print is changing, particularly within the editorial space.

Sabrina Hall:
Things started moving towards e-publications and understanding how to design for that, and I think at the time, in-design had an add on, I don’t know what it’s called now, that was made specifically for EPUB, and I went in and tried to learn that as much as I could and experimented there. From there, I then also started to teach myself to code, because I felt like so much was moving in that direction with regards to creating blog. There was a specific time where everything was about blogs and wanting to understand that and engage in that space.

Sabrina Hall:
I would say that probably came maybe around 2010, was when that shift started to happen, so I had always begun to like dabble in that space, but then really focused in earnest when I was at the end parts of focusing on editorial and then moving into digital spaces. So, I started building websites in WordPress, started doing my own little front-end work here and there, and then really learning to expand upon that and moving into a focused lens with product design.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, with all of this sort of change in focus, I’m trying to remember, I know back then on the web, certainly there was this big shift from more, almost print-based design, I guess that’s the sort of the best way I can put it, because we were designing with tables, and then there was the shift from tables to CSS. Then even with CSS, there were shifts into pre-processors, into Flexbox, and all that stuff that sort of came later on. It felt like that change really shifted a lot more people into design. I just remember how hard it was to design around tables back in the day.

Maurice Cherry:
Largely, it was just based off a print. I mean, even some of the terms that we use for some of the tags are from print terms, like break lines and anchors and things like that. So, it’s really interesting how those shifts sort of precipitate kind of changes in the industry. Now, sort of in this time, right around then you also started your own design studio kind of alongside your full-time work. What inspired you to sort of branch out in that way?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. I was in a space where I really wanted to continue learning and do a wider breadth of work. I felt like, while I was focused on editorial, I really wanted to try new things, and I started moonlighting with a few folks after hours and on the weekends, working on projects from like, okay, I’ll build out your WordPress site with a full branding to logo design, to your setting up an app. How can I just help you with the first stage of low fidelity? What I’ve found during that time was that slowly, it went from my own moonlighting schedule to then word of mouth, that I then realized, I could do this full time.

Sabrina Hall:
It was quite a process. I learned so much in making and working for myself with regards to everything from taxes, hiring folks, partnering, distributing work, and then really understanding how to pitch the work that I do, the value of what I could bring to individuals and companies, and understanding that I was really enjoying the process of solving a business problem together with a small business, or one person who was like, I’m starting my own website for a book I’m coming out with, how can you help? That was what really drew me to doing that for so long.

Maurice Cherry:
I love how with studios, you really get to have that flexibility, not just on like, who you may decide to take on, but also just the kind of work that you do, and even the level of specificity that you want to take on with the project. It’s funny that you call it moonlighting. I haven’t heard someone say that in so long, but I get what you mean, just in terms of doing stuff. Now, what? Side projects is the new moonlighting, I guess?

Sabrina Hall:
I think so. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:25:24].

Maurice Cherry:
I get what you mean. You’re kind of working on other stuff during off hours that you probably should be relaxing or whatever, but it’s such a good way when you have your studio to do that, because you can really dabble in different things, and you can decide sort of the direction you want to go into. You can really be a specialist at stuff if you want to, as opposed to maybe being more of a generalist with things. Studio stuff is great, but yeah, the part about getting really the nuts and bolts stuff down with taxes and accounting and all of that.

Maurice Cherry:
I tell entrepreneurs all the time or designers that want to be entrepreneurs like, get an accountant. That’s the first thing you should do is try to get somebody that’s going to handle the money so you can focus more on the creative stuff, because that other stuff just bogs you down.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. I did not get an accountant for quite a long time. It was definitely lessons learned there and so many other things, even with regards to setting up proposals, understanding how to reply to RFPs, the competition in the market, and then just also understanding the industry where there were years that while I was working on various projects, that I made significant gains and significant losses as well and just really understanding that holistically for running a business and what it meant in my own work-life balance as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, like a few other people that we’ve had here on the show before, you’re also a teacher at City Tech, you’re an adjunct professor there. What made you decide to start teaching?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes, so I’m going to give a very explicit shout out to Douglas. I had always had an interest in teaching. It is connected for me through, for several years, I was a mentor in the AIGA mentoring program, and for several years after that, co-chaired it with one of my closest friends Anjali Menon. Throughout that time, I had always enjoyed partnering with folks who were interested in design community, equity, and really enjoy that space. I had been invited by Douglas to join for a panel event. In having those conversations, he was like, “There’s an opportunity here at City Tech. I really think this would be something that would be fantastic.”

Sabrina Hall:
I was like, “Well, I don’t know.” I had only done a couple of lectures at that point in time and hadn’t been fully situated. I was very nervous. How can I teach? In reflecting and saying on this now, I know that it was possibly ingrained, because my mom’s a teacher, my husband’s a teacher, so I’m surrounded by teachers. True to form, I was like, okay, sink or swim. This is the opportunity. Douglas had mentioned it, then a few months later, he was like, “Here’s the role?” And I was like, “Well, Douglas, I don’t know about the hours.” “Here’s the perfect hours.” “I don’t know about the day.” “Here’s the perfect day.”

Sabrina Hall:
Everything lined up, and I was like, “All right, let’s do it.” It has been such a humbling experience, a wonderful experience, and an opportunity to really, I think, disrupt the design industry from a perspective I hadn’t always considered.

Maurice Cherry:
What do your students teach you?

Sabrina Hall:
My students teach me how compassion is important. My students remind me that kindness is important and that you can learn with this as a structure. My students teach me that the industry is very subjective in so many ways and very challenging and continues to be challenging for folks to enter into. My students teach me that sometimes, and many times I don’t know the answer, and my role is to help them figure it out and for myself to learn alongside with them. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that with, I guess the pandemic and how that may have distanced you from it, has that changed the way that you teach?

Sabrina Hall:
The pandemic really impacted the way I taught, I believe for the better. One of the things that I felt very strongly about in supporting my students throughout the pandemic is removing the requirement for cameras. City Tech has always been really great about that, but in various educational circles, I’ve been reading and seeing how some professors are making it mandatory and really just understanding what true engagement means, and that doesn’t mean someone having a camera on in Zoom. Another thing it has really identified is clarity around teaching, specifically with increased documentation, increased expectations, and then also identifying the boundaries of that as well, particularly with being home and understanding, do I need to be engaged on this email right now after having taught for three hours or can it wait till tomorrow? And resetting the time I need to reset as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say that you’re obsessed with lately?

Sabrina Hall:
Oh, this is such a delightful question. Okay, I’m currently obsessed with the natural sciences. I have been in this really particular space. I had just finished rereading Emergent Strategy, and just am so intrigued by how the natural sciences and plants and birds and the biomimicry of things and how we can learn from that. I particularly I’m really into how certain trees grow together and support one another, and how that could be paralleled into team structures. I’m also really into birds right now. I’m just enjoying seeing documentaries about birds and how they build things, and just again, learning from the natural sciences is my like head space currently.

Maurice Cherry:
We had a designer, oh God, when was he on the show? We had a designer on the show last year. I think it was right around April or May, or so, but it’s episode 340 with Billy Almon. Billy is … He called himself a biology inspired storyteller and designer. I mean, a lot of the work that he does is around the natural sciences, like a lot of his design work and such. I first met Billy at Harvard. This was at the Black and Design Conference in 2019. He was on one of the panels there, and he was really talking about how, like you mentioned biomimicry, and that’s what sort of stuck out to me, is that he really sort of does a lot of what you’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
He looks at how the natural sciences work in other ways and other applications, and he gave this really great example about ants and how the way that ants build their anthills and stuff, how that social structure can go forth in societies. It was super fascinating, episode 340, if anyone’s listening and want to check it out with Billy Almon, but it was a really, really great interview. It just sort of got me to thinking about that when you said natural sciences and biomimicry.

Sabrina Hall:
I just made a note of it, and I too will be listening to 340, so I will be following up and anyone else who cares to listen, happy to have that Twitter conversation in regards.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Because the theme, so to go back to, I guess that conference, the whole theme was around creating more equitable futures. Now that I think about it, it’s the last conference I went to in person prior to the whole pandemic, but the conversations there were around, how can designers use all sorts of things to create more equitable futures? With Billy, it was about like using nature for design and for technology to make equitable futures, like looking at nature and seeing how nature heals and fixes itself and structures itself and think, how can we take that and just apply it to design or apply it to tech, or apply it to social issues or things of that nature. It’s really, really interesting stuff.

Sabrina Hall:
I am so intrigued. This sounds like really in alignment with what I’m interested in right now, and I definitely cannot wait to check this out.

Maurice Cherry:
Now. I love that you have, in your bio, that you are a writer. What does writing do for you as a designer? What does that sort of tap into?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. Ooh, writing for me as a designer taps into so many different things. For me, it’s accountability in a way that I hadn’t expected, and where I find I’m able to share information and hold myself accountable for some of the processes that I’m thinking through for documenting and finding ways to explain myself and continue to practice that as a skillset overall. Also, writing has been really helpful for me with regards to understanding how to build connections and relationships. What I mean by that is something like introducing yourself to a client, writing a proposal, understanding the perspective to take there.

Sabrina Hall:
Additionally, writing has been a space also where I’ve learned so much about my own process with regards to how write out the stories for my portfolio to reflecting on growing as a designer who is introverted and what that meant for social media and understanding that I can write these things down, look at them, reflect, learn from them, and sometimes I almost think of writing as just another version of design in terms of like getting all of the information put into a space that I can then use for reference or share, or just document for my own journey.

Maurice Cherry:
Writing as another version of design. I like that. I like that. I was explaining to someone recently about, they had asked me when was the last time that I had designed something, because I mean, people know that I do this show, and then like for my actual day job, I also do some work dabbling in audio, even though I’m a creative strategist, and they just sort of asked me like, when’s the last time you designed something? I got what they meant. They meant, when was the last time you sort of, I guess, sat down in Illustrator or Photoshop and visually designed something. But I told them that a lot of what I do now, these days is more along sort of designing processes and designing systems, and I do a fair amount of writing as well. I don’t know how many designers would consider writing as an element of design, but it totally is. It absolutely is.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. Even now, this show has designed the organization of how this is put together, the outcome, the way that work has been set up in terms of the research that’s done. I think of design is now moving out of a space of just like being just that artifact of a product or something in Photoshop or Figma, but more how we can also just apply it to various things with regards to that problem-solving lens and experimenting lens as well.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you think we can encourage more designers, specifically more black designers or designers of color? How can we encourage them to write more?

Sabrina Hall:
What I have found that encourages me to write as a black designer is the importance and impact of my voice to everything else that is also out there. What I mean by that is, as an industry, there are always articles that tend to be very popular and are written from specifically, which tends to be the case, the majority, a cis white hetero male perspective, and that is one perspective. I have found that in many situations, I’m unable to find that material fully helpful because of the inability to just relate. By adding my own voice. It really gives a different perspective. I hold myself accountable to that perspective to say, here is my approach to it, and here are the things that I would consider.

Sabrina Hall:
I encourage other folk to share their voice in a way that they feel best identify with their goals and the outcomes that they are looking towards, and really just saying design has many folks and many perspectives and many faces.

Maurice Cherry:
I usually also try to, I mean, when I’m talking to designers and trying to impart the importance of writing, I try to show it to them in a historical sense. Like, say you go into a bookstore, like a Barnes & Noble or something, and you go to the design section, I guess there’s … I haven’t been in a bookstore in like a year or so because of the pandemic, so I don’t really remember, but I’m sure there is a arts and design section. I sound like an old person, but I’m sure that section exists, and you go there and you’re looking for books, and you’ll probably notice that most of the books there are not by or from people of color. The importance I see to writing is to put your own words out there to be a part of the historical design corporates.

Maurice Cherry:
That may not necessarily be a book. It could be an article, a series of articles. It could be, and even I’m saying writing in terms of the physical act, but it could be a podcast, it could be videos, it could be Instagram live videos, whatever, but finding another outlet to sort of transmute your thoughts from your head into a medium that other people can enjoy it. I think writing certainly is one way to do that and I think a big way to really spread your words out there more so people can know what it is that you think and what you feel, and the thoughts behind the work that you do, or even just the thoughts about this industry.

Maurice Cherry:
I see so many people writing up a storm about stuff on Twitter. I am a very sporadic Twitter user. I really kind of only use it as a highlight reel, and I try to save all the stuff that I really want to sort of get out there. Either I make it into a presentation. I’ll talk about it in the show or I’ll write about it. I feel like that way, my words can sort of live longer, because tweets are such an ephemeral thing. No matter how many prolific tweet threads you might have, is that really going to like be around in a week or a month or a year or five years.

Maurice Cherry:
Thinking about it in the historical sense of that, your words carry weight, your words are your thoughts in this other form, and it’s a way that it can sort of live on past whatever experiences you might have or anything of that nature. It can be just sort of a historical reference in many ways.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. I even found that, I forgot, probably a few years ago, I was just looking to write about black designers and found such limited material on the surface level. There was definitely material, but on the surface level of like a half-hour Google search. There was not much. What the impact of that was, was like, okay, so this is not something that is easily accessible, how can it become more accessible and part of the entire canon or design history as well? So, I absolutely hear you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Who are some of the design mentors or anyone that have really helped you out along your way.

Sabrina Hall:
I have been really fortunate to have some great folks along the way. When I was doing a lot of consultancy work, there was a creative director named John Herr, who really, at the time, continued to create space for me to just grow and advocated for me to lead on different projects. When I was much younger and working in an agency space, there was a professor of mine who was then also our creative director, Terry Koppel, who influenced and impacted my career trajectory. Then a lot of the non-design folk, and what I mean by that are community members with regards to folks who work within the community of design, and that can be folks in research, folks really in creating community spaces, and then a lot of my peers, I would say, have been mentors, probably not actively.

Sabrina Hall:
I don’t know if they would give themselves those titles, but a lot of my peers have pushed the way I’ve thought have provided so much advice, insights, clarity, and just space for me to ask questions as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Going back to the writing again, if you had to write a book, what would you write about?

Sabrina Hall:
I have been thinking about writing a book and maybe piecing together the concept of writing a book. A couple of topics that come to mind are that connection between the natural sciences and design organizations. I’m also very interested in sharing about the experiences, my own experiences within the design industry when there is, I feel the time and space to put that together. I’m also really interested in writing about design education as well and the design of that industry in terms of the funnel of that and how we think about entry points of design and think about design education overall.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you, I don’t know, dive into that a little more about design education? Because you are a design educator yourself, like what would you want to sort of explore there?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. I believe that a lot of our design education in New York and my own experience that I’ve had, I can’t speak to other experiences, but to my own experience, has been very Eurocentric. And there has been so much erasure of the work of other folks who are not Eurocentric, without the Eurocentric lens. What that means is that a lot of work and a lot of the things that I experienced coming into the industry was, I used to really be someone who focused on Swiss design, and that was the aesthetic I went towards. And learning later on that, was that really nature or nurture, from the perspective of like, that was all I was told, yet when I brought about a different design style, that was much more colorful and focused on patterns. It was like that wasn’t graphic design at the time, that wasn’t qualified by my teachers in some cases as being like a strong enough graphic design.

Sabrina Hall:
I realized part of that education is because we’re so limited with regards to only learning about certain names and only learning about certain folks as like the most important folks within this design, and that just continues to perpetuate those norms into the industry, into how we consider what “good versus bad” work is. I put those in quotes because that, it’s just a simple binary of good versus bad, but it’s not … The nuances and the gray area. Then also really understanding how that impacts all the way up to who gets hired, who gets access to design education, why is it that design school is so expensive and that the cost for entry is so high? What happens to folks who don’t have the access, but have every interest in skillset? And just yeah, wanting to dig into that a little deeper.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that sounds fascinating. I would love to read a book about that. Certainly, it’s an interesting reflection on sort of where we’re seeing, at least what I’m seeing from black design educators, how now they’re really starting to bring in other sources to, I want to use the word decolonize, only because that’s the word that sort of has been attached to these conversations, but they’re really, I think diversifying their sources of just like, where other students can learn about design and it’s not just from, like you said, the Bauhaus or Swiss style, or German style, and a lot of these are like events, there are conferences, there’s so much stuff now.

Maurice Cherry:
Honestly, even from, before when I started this podcast, there were so many more events and opportunities and ways to learn about the history of black people in design now than there were 10 years ago. It’s amazing. I really want to see where it goes from here.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. I think it’s an exciting time. I believe that it’s really beginning to open up just so many different perspectives with regards to also who teaches design, also, to your point, how we learn about design. So, from your podcast to events where all the black designers, to various slack groups that have come up, to just how there are these micro communities, even through social media as well, where folks are asking one another questions, having conversations about the industry and their employer. And really, I believe also, there is the business side of it. We’re hand in hand with all of the civic unrest and the specificity of the murder of George Floyd. How that, how all of a sudden, everyone’s like, oh, we’re being held accountable as companies, and everyone’s looking at your board of directors and looking at your staff, at least I am.

Sabrina Hall:
I can’t speak for everyone, but starting to look at that even closer than I was previously and understanding and seeing, okay, how are these companies defining for or working around it? Because it’s also aligning with what a lot of folks are asking for, too, for themselves in the industry, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know when, unfortunately, when his murder occurred last year, and how that one really drove people out into the streets to protest, but it was amazing how so many people were calling on companies, because companies were doing this thing, where they’re like posting the black squares and saying they stand for racial justice, and everyone else was like, uh-uh, but what about in your industry? Or like, what about this industry? You had so many people that were starting to turn it around and say, well, if you’re really committed, then why does the industry look like this?

Maurice Cherry:
Why does the industry function in this way? What are the real steps that you’re taking besides just posting a black square? I have been telling folks this year, I was like, Juneteenth is going to be crazy this year, which is on a Saturday. I know last year there were a lot of companies that were saying, yes, we’re going to make this a day off and we’re going to start to observe it. I guess maybe they’ll observe it on Friday now, so three-day weekend in June, I guess. I don’t know. I’m assuming that’s going to pick up.

Sabrina Hall:
I guess we’ll see. I think that, for myself, these are some questions I had been asking before, but probably just more so in private. I think that with these conversations happening, there’s much more room for conversations publicly, not always, but just a little bit more and really understanding and also learning what’s best for folks. There’s pros and cons for so many aspects to it, but what are the ways in which it can help folks?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When you look at where you’re at now, is this how you imagined yourself when you were a kid?

Sabrina Hall:
Oh, no, I don’t think so. I feel like I would not have imagined this per se. Likely, I thought of myself in some way of doing something creative, but I would not have imagined the ability to, or just the immediate, yeah, the immediate ability to lead a team, to work through teams, to run my own business. I don’t think I would’ve necessarily imagined this, but probably felt like I could try different things. I think I’ve always just had that curiosity, but yeah, I don’t think I would have imagined this to this, and I wouldn’t, yeah, I wouldn’t change it anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
At this point, like where you’re at in your career with teaching, with what you’re doing at Justworks, with your writing and everything, how do you now define success?

Sabrina Hall:
I would define success as a few things. The ability to make decisions that I feel much more confident about. I would define success as the impact of continuing to advocate for others and continuing to make space for community work. I would define success as the recognition and understanding of my time and value, and not settling as well. I define success as being able to set boundaries and be able to say no to things as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s a very layered definition of success.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in five years, like it’s 2026, what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Sabrina Hall:
I would like to be working on projects that care, just continues to care about people in the future, whether that’s through AR, VR, sound design and interactions there. I think in five years, the mediums and tools that we use will continue to change and being able to be a strategic partner for those things. I could see myself going back to running my own business as it’s something that I do enjoy and/or continuing to just partnering in the education space as well, and always being able to make a bridge to continue to increase access.

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?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. You can find me at sabrinahalldesigns.com, or on Twitter @SabrinaHallNYC.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Sabrina Hall, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, for just sharing your story and talking about the work that you’re doing, but also really impressing upon, I think, not just me, but also to the audience, the importance of writing, the importance of really also just like checking in with yourself. Like you said, being able to set those boundaries and using that work to, of course, make yourself better and to make your community better. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Sabrina Hall:
Thank you, Maurice. Thank you for having me.

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Kaleena Sales

One of the things I love most about Revision Path is talking shop with design educators like Kaleena Sales. Kaleena is an illustrator, a design educator at Tennessee State University, and the author of Extra Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti-Racist, Non-Binary Field Guild for Graphic Designers. Kaleena is one of many Black design educators that are helping make the design canon more elastic for students by allowing Black culture and aesthetics to be a part of the conversation.

We talked about teaching design virtually at an HBCU, and Kaleena talked about growing up in Nashville and how she thought about pursuing a career as a fine artist before putting in time working in the advertising industry. She also spoke about what drew her back to her alma mater, as well as the many ways that she has seen design education change since she started teaching. Kaleena is also active with AIGA Nashville, and even shared some info about her upcoming book! With educators like Kaleena, I think the future is in good hands.

Next week: episode 400!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kaleena Sales:
Hi. I’m Kaleena Sales. I’m a design educator, illustrator, researcher from Nashville, Tennessee. I teach design at Tennessee State University where I’m also serving this year as the interim chair of the department. I also serve on the steering committee for AIGA’s design educators community.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. How’s 2021 been going for you so far?

Kaleena Sales:
You know what, it’s been good so far. It’s been really, really busy. 2020 was busy and then I feel like 2021 is just sort of a continuation of that. Lots of really cool opportunities have come up. There have been a couple of book projects and conferences and some speaking engagements and things that have kept me really busy. That’s been really nice and it sort of like serves as a good balance for me between my teaching role at TSU.

Maurice Cherry:
Is it hard kind of trying to balance the teaching along with these other opportunities?

Kaleena Sales:
It can be, yeah. I mean, this year’s been weird anyway just because of all of the virtual instruction and then having to figure out how to deliver content to students in addition to taking on this interim chairs position for the first time and learning how to serve in an administrative capacity. That’s been a lot of really like a new space for me. So doing a lot of the the book projects and sort of my, I guess field work has really started as a really nice balance. So it keeps me really busy, but I really like being able to do all of the extra projects. I feel like it really gives me the context that I need to be a better educator.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s dive into more of the work that you’re doing at Tennessee State. So your interim chair of the, which department is it again?

Kaleena Sales:
It’s the Department of Art and Design.

Maurice Cherry:
Art and design. Okay.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah, studio and design.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I would imagine with sort of this, I guess, hybrid… I don’t know is it sort of a hybrid thing now that students are getting vaccinated and such or is it still all virtual?

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. Well, we have a few hybrid courses, but this past year a lot of the delivery has been virtual. So we’ve been trying to stay away from each other as much as possible. But there have been some classes, the more studio-based courses. So like ceramics or sculpture and those types of things that are difficult to teach just online. Those have been meeting a little bit in person. For my design classes, I’ve been all virtual though.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been trying to teach design virtually?

Kaleena Sales:
It’s not terrible. I mean, obviously with design, we have the benefit of using the computer as our main tool. So it’s been fine in that way. One of the challenges though is I’m used to like a lot of other design educators and just educators in general like I’m used to walking around the classroom and assessing student’s work and sort of being there with them as they’re navigating through some of their challenges and helping them to see things as they’re working.

Kaleena Sales:
So you lose some of that within the virtual space because students are either working offline or they’re not sharing their screens with you while they’re kind of going through those processes. So that assessment and kind of critique process really has changed quite a bit in the virtual space.

Kaleena Sales:
So that’s the part that’s tough and I think that the students are having a hard time with that and that feedback loop is a little bit difficult for some of them. But again, I’m thankful though that we do get to just use our laptops for the most part to do our work. There have been some issues though with just access to laptops and software for some of my students. So a lot of the students that I teach typically rely on using the computer lab to do a lot of their work.

Kaleena Sales:
So we have seen a drop-off in enrollment because some of the students who just don’t have the materials to do it just didn’t enroll in classes this semester or this past year. So that’s been really unfortunate and I’m hoping that in the fall we’ll see that turn back around.

Maurice Cherry:
I was listening to this podcast series from the New York Times called Odessa and they have been following this… Really, it was this high school girl and her class. Her band actually, marching band. And it struck me just like it has to be so hard for students right now everywhere. Regardless of the grade because school is such a vital social function as well as a societal function. And when something like the pandemic kind of strips that away and turns into a virtual experience, it’s not just so much about, “Oh, you can’t commune in public,” but it takes away something from like the whole society.

Maurice Cherry:
So I can only imagine trying to focus and learn, and you can only do it on the computer and you can’t really collaborate in person or knock ideas off of other people in real time in that way. It’s really tough.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah, it is tough and a lot of the students… Everyone’s wired differently. So you have introverts like myself who are completely fine like being at home and away from people. But we have a lot of students who really, really do need that social component and they’re missing it. Then all the other activities that you have with just college life in general, outside of just your classes. And on an HBCU campus, one of the big draws to an HBCU for a lot of students is the community and it’s that sense of being around your peers. So when you’re back isolated at home, you’re missing out on a big part of why you even attended college in the first place.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s very, very true. Overall though, I’d like to know because I mentioned before we started recording that I’ve had a lot of design educators on the show just really this year, but what’s the experience like teaching design at an HBCU. What makes that special?

Kaleena Sales:
There’s a really I think a kind of specific experience that happens when you’re learning design at an HBCU. And I’m sure it varies depending on which HBC you’re attending and all that. But a lot of the students that I teach, they come from cities like Memphis, and Atlanta, and Chicago. They are really from like black parts of town and then they come to a college that’s predominantly black.

Kaleena Sales:
So your cultural kind of experience is very kind of specific and that comes out in your design work at least in my experience it has for the students. So when we’re teaching about international typographic style and Bauhaus, and all of that, the students are engaged to a certain extent, but they’re very much interested in expressing their culture through design.

Kaleena Sales:
So I would say that’s a really big distinction between learning or experiencing design and learning designing in HBCU versus at a predominantly white institution is because you’re surrounded by black people, black culture all the time and you’re not really in the minority yet. So the students that I teach often don’t really see a need to create work that fits the mainstream necessarily.

Kaleena Sales:
They’re not really pulled to do that or compelled to do that the way that I see black students who are in predominantly white institutions doing. So that’s really interesting to observe and it actually kind of is what created my personal research interest in general. So that’s one of the biggest observations I’ve made.

Maurice Cherry:
I would also imagine because you being a black design educator and it’s at an HBCU, you don’t dissuade students when they try to do that, right?

Kaleena Sales:
You know what though, it’s been a journey for me because I’ll be honest and say that when I first started teaching, I was teaching very much the way that I was taught. So I was teaching very much like, again, international topographic style, and sans serif, and flush left, and these are the rules. I started teaching really like when I was 27, so it’s been quite a few years ago now.

Kaleena Sales:
So I wanted my students originally to fit into the mainstream. I felt like that was going to be their path into the industry. And it very much still is to be honest, but I’ve changed the way that I feel about that and the way that I teach about that now. So instead of wanting them to squeeze into the mainstream. There’s a really good quote by an AfriCOBRA artist that says something about making the canon… Instead of fitting into the canon, making the canon more elastic. So that’s sort of like how I approach it now versus the way that I taught in my really early years.

Kaleena Sales:
So now, I’m encouraging them to consider the ways that their identity might show up and the way that their social economic kind of status or upbringing might even influence their design work.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I’m thinking on how that would look like. I don’t know. Can you give an example of what a student… And you don’t have to like call-out a student by name or anything, but what’s an example of something that a student would do in that instance?

Kaleena Sales:
I actually write about this in the book Extra Bold, but one really kind of specific example would be just even the way that we all view wealth or money for example, right? If you think about if you grow up wealthy or in a family that’s pretty well off, your view of money is normalized. So if you were to ask to design a logo for a bank for example, you might represent that in a really sort of corporate way. It’s like simplified typography and that sort of thing.

Kaleena Sales:
If you grew up like I grew up, which was like inner city and not very well off, your ideas of what wealth looks like is very different. It might be a little bit flashier and it might have gold as a representation or some other kind of symbolism that matches that type of thinking. So I see my students choosing fonts, and colors, and textures that really speak to the visual landscape and the culture in which they come from.

Kaleena Sales:
So there’s a lot of, I think, influences from hip-hop and just very like urban design. They don’t shy away from that and I don’t want them to. So those are kind of some things that come to mind when I think about that specific aesthetic.

Maurice Cherry:
The first thing when you said that what came to mind was… I don’t know if you remember seeing this, but there’s this black bank called One United Bank and they have this visa card with Harriet Tubman on it doing the Wakanda salute.

Kaleena Sales:
Oh, okay.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I saw it on Twitter and people clowned it, but leave it to a black bank to do that. You know what I’m saying? You wouldn’t see that at Wells Fargo. That ain’t happening.

Kaleena Sales:
That’s funny. That sort of pushes it into sort of a space where those symbols… And I don’t want to criticize that design, but those symbols sort of take on a little bit of a stereotype or they don’t mean as much. I think that it’s hard to talk about black aesthetics and black design sometimes because I think sometimes we feel that we’re being or we’re describing like a monolithic viewpoint or like a monolithic experience when we do that.

Kaleena Sales:
And that’s certainly not ever like what I want to suggest. I think it’s true for everyone’s experience. I think we just are all influenced by just the things around us and the media that we consume, and the way that we grow up. Even our fashion choices respond to our culture as well. So those are really the things that I see.

Maurice Cherry:
And your research focus, I mean it plays into this about black culture and aesthetics. How did you end up deciding on that as a focus?

Kaleena Sales:
Well, exactly sort of what I was just describing, which was I started to notice that my students were making some choices. So for example a lot of my students were liking like the Old English typeface. I was getting so frustrated and I thought, “Oh my gosh. Why do you guys keep choosing this?” I stepped back and I tried to be less critical and I was like, “Well, why do they like this particular typeface and why do I see certain color palettes repeating like red, and black, and white and really bold color combinations?” I started to study a little bit about the mere exposure effect and subliminal exposure. I don’t know if you are familiar with that or not.

Maurice Cherry:
No. I haven’t heard of that.

Kaleena Sales:
So it just simply says like the more you see something, the more you like it. The subliminal exposure effect essentially just says that even when things are repeated subliminally and you don’t notice that you’re seeing something over and over again, you still end up having a sort of a preference for that. So it’s sort of similar to, if you grew up in a household where people smoke cigarettes and then maybe as an adult, the smell of cigarette smoke is actually sort of calming to you because it reminds you of home.

Kaleena Sales:
Or if you grew up in New York City, and it’s busy and loud, maybe a very quiet kind of experience is discomforting to you. It’s sort of that kind of thing. So when we see things, textures of the city, the sounds of the city, even like fashion choices depending if you’re into sneakers or if you’re into certain kinds of shoes those color palettes and things, they stick with this.

Kaleena Sales:
So I see that in the research that I’m doing. What I started to do in my research was pull examples of my students work and compare it to the visual landscape of urban environments and I saw a lot of similarities between the two. So for graffiti lettering and then an interest in that kind of typography style or even textures from a city like walls or landscape and then the textures that students are choosing in their design work.

Kaleena Sales:
So I just think it’s kind of interesting and fascinating. Although, I specifically am interested in like the black experience and particularly the urban black experience, I think that this can certainly be true for people who grew up in rural areas and that sort of thing. So that’s sort of where that research interest comes from. It’s directly from my students experience and in my experience observing them while teaching.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Now, I want to switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve been talking about the work that you’re doing at Tennessee State. Of course a lot of the work you’re doing with your students. Did you grow up also in Tennessee?

Kaleena Sales:
I did. I grew up in Nashville and I went to Tennessee state university for undergrad. So that’s home and Nashville is home.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I would imagine creativity and art were probably a big part of your childhood and your environment growing up.

Kaleena Sales:
You know what, not really. I would say I wasn’t exposed to a lot of art. My parents were military parents and my dad was in the army. My mom was in the army for a while. It wasn’t really a very artistic kind of household. I was sort of the oddball in my family in terms of having an interest in that, but it was always supported though. When I did decide to pursue art as a career path, I was lucky that my parents were supportive of that. I know I teach a lot of students who say that their parents are sort of unsure or not supportive of that when they first decide to choose that as a major.

Maurice Cherry:
So growing up in Nashville, I’d imagine Tennessee state was probably just always in your backyard?

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah, it was. It was the only college honestly that I even considered going to. When you grew up in Nashville, especially I went to like a black high school and was in the band. So you get used to that, that culture. So we would march in TSU’s homecoming parades. So it was just always there. I think about this sort of in hindsight sometimes because I didn’t even know of any art schools back then. When I was thinking about going to college, I just had never heard of like MICA or RISD. They were completely foreign to me. So I think about that too in terms of exposure. I wonder if I would have known what choices I would have made.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny you say that about going to a black high school and sort of being close to another historically black college. So for folks that know that have listened to the show, I grew up in Selma, Alabama and the nearest… Well, we have a HBCU there. We have Selma University, but it’s a small college. We don’t even have a band. Nobody really pays attention to it. But Alabama State University in Montgomery was always like the school that we kind of, I wouldn’t necessarily say, emulated, but we also would march in their homecoming parade and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
So that whole culture of all of that is just so rich. Oh. See, now you got me thinking about marching band and memories of all of that is so rich. But it’s interesting though about not really knowing about the possibility. I mean, when did you sort of know that you wanted to study design to go to Tennessee State and to study it?

Kaleena Sales:
So I had an art teacher in high school and the class that we were in was called commercial art. I didn’t know what that meant, but for some reason I really liked the way it sounded. So I used to draw a lot. I didn’t know anything about computer graphics or what commercial art even meant, but for some reason I really grabbed a hold to that title. So when I was choosing a major, I chose art.

Kaleena Sales:
After the first year or two of studying as a studio art major, I realized that I liked painting and all of that, but I really did not… I was sort of afraid of pursuing a career as a fine artist. I didn’t want to have to… I’d had this weird vision in my head that I would be standing on the corner trying to sell paintings for a living. I was afraid of that lifestyle and I was just like, “I need to find something that has like in my mind more stability.”

Kaleena Sales:
I was reading a magazine, I think it was like essence magazine or something like that and I came across the titles in the beginning of the magazine and it listed like art director and all these other… And I thought I don’t know what an art director is, but that sounds like something that I want to do. So I really clung to that and I started researching like early internet days. I started researching art direction and found the VCU’s Brandcenter. It was called the Adcenter at the time, but found that program online. And that’s what took me off in that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. And VCU’s Brandcenter, I mean is well known, I think internationally well known. We’ve had another guest on the show, Brandon Viney who also went. I think he grew up in and around Virginia, but he knew about VCU. So certainly their program definitely cranks out people that can perform at a top-notch design level. How was it when you were there?

Kaleena Sales:
It was amazing to be honest. When I discovered the program and I set my sights on going there for grad school, I’ve sort of like obsessively stalked their website and tried to emulate the work that I saw coming out of that program. When I got accepted and I went, it was all that I was hoping it would be like it was intense and rigorous. I don’t think it’s really meant for… I mean, I have thoughts now about how it sort of does exclude people who could not go through a program like that because maybe they had to work or had other kind of obligations. But for those of us that were privileged enough to not have other obligations and could do that, I really learned a lot about how to just think and how to solve problems and how to process ideas.

Kaleena Sales:
So I feel like although I’m not working in the ad industry anymore, it definitely has affected every part of my career since then in terms of just me being able to think about things in more of a problem-solving and strategic viewpoint.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know you interned for JWT for a while and then you worked for several years at Doe-Anderson which is an advertising firm. With that whole experience, how did it sort of bring you back to Tennessee eventually?

Kaleena Sales:
When I worked at Doe-Anderson, I worked there for a couple of years right out of grad school. It was a good experience, but 2008 right when the country was going through a recession, we lost a big client and I got laid off. I was like, “What? What is happening?” I had just won some awards and I thought everything was going great and it was one of the early shocks in my career that things could be turbulent and things could not go the way that you think they’re going to go.

Kaleena Sales:
I don’t know why I was one of the ones that was let go and honestly, it’s sort of a side note. I do think that it’s possible that there was some cultural fit issues. But that’s what made me move back to Nashville. I thought, “Okay. Well, I’m out of work. What do I do?” And I started freelancing as a graphic designer.

Kaleena Sales:
That was really the first time that I really started to think about my skills as a designer a little bit more seriously than when I was doing the art direction thing. So I got pretty serious about learning craft and investigating typography a bit more and that’s sort of kind of is what paved the way into me teaching design.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, the ad industry though is notorious for being like… It kind of chews people up and spits people out so that could have been for the best.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. At the time, it felt really crappy. I was like things happen for a reason and I’m so happy with… In hindsight, I’m happy with the direction that my career has taken since then. But it’s a tough industry to be in. I mean, so many ups and downs. So many people that I know that still work in the industry that have just been uplifted so many times and moved. I think it’s great if you have a passion for it, if that’s your thing and that’s what you’re really interested in and that’s rewarding. But I think my forceful exit was what I needed to refocus on the things that I really care more about.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve mentioned you’ve been teaching for a number of years. We won’t do the math on that, but how have you seen design education change since you started teaching?

Kaleena Sales:
Oh, man. I think that one of the biggest ways is that the conversation surrounding diversity and the canon and decolonizing design. I don’t know if I was just disengaged or if those conversations just weren’t really happening when I first started teaching. So that’s been one of the biggest ways that I’ve seen a significant shift in terms of pedagogy and just the ways in which we are considering what we’re teaching to the point where if I do teach things that are traditionally in the canon.

Kaleena Sales:
I make sure that I’m providing context whereas early in my teaching days, I wasn’t doing that. So that context might be the reason why we’re learning about this person is because there are other people that were excluded that could not be a part of this conversation. And the reason why we’re learning about this particular design style is because other design styles aren’t in this book at all that we’re using.

Kaleena Sales:
So I see that across the board. It’s not just something that I’m doing. There’s tons of design educators that are revamping curriculum and really trying to respond to some of the changes that we’ve seen socially over the past few years.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. it has really been interesting how… I didn’t go to school for design so I can’t really speak on it from a historical standpoint, but certainly I know since I started doing this podcast back in 2013, it’s amazing to see how educators have really started to come together not just in, as you say kind of elasticizing the canon or like teaching outside of the canon, but also even coming up with other curriculum or even opening up their class to talk about these sorts of things because students, like you said, you teach at HBCU.

Maurice Cherry:
So students are coming with these questions or they’re coming with these viewpoints and to not shy away from them and to be able to speak to them and place it in a modern context and place in a cultural context. I mean, it’s amazing just how much that has changed. Really, it feels like within the past maybe 10 years or so, it feels like it’s really started to grow around that. I’m seeing it even from mostly white art institutions. I’m seeing the same thing start to happen. I’m glad that it’s starting to take shape in that way.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. I think that a lot of people recognize the opportunity to make these changes and are feeling some of the responsibility. I think as educators we are certainly sort of on the front lines of reshaping the next generation of designers and the way that they approach design. So I’m really happy with a lot of the conversations that I’ve listened to or been a part of even over the past couple of years that are really starting to push things forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I guess the pandemic maybe might have accelerated this a bit, but now you’ve been seeing more events around this. I remember 2015, Harvard’s graduate school, they have an African-American student union there and they put together this conference called Black in Design. And the first year that they had it was in 2015. I remember trying to get people that I knew like peers and friends to go like, “Let’s go. It’s at Harvard.” The tickets were less than $100. It was super cheap.

Maurice Cherry:
But they were looking at the program and the thing was it was called Black in Design but it wasn’t digital design. At least for the first year, they have the conference every other year. And for the first year, the theme was around the concept of space like the city, the neighborhood, the region, et cetera. So people are looking at that and I’m trying to get people to go and they’re like, “But they’re not talking about Photoshop. They’re not talking about illustrator. Why would I go to a Black in Design Conference when they’re not talking about digital design?”

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “How many black design conferences have you been to in your career? None. Let’s just go. It’s cheap. Let’s just go.” I’ve been fortunate to go every year that they’ve had it. I’m interested to see how they pull it off this year because I went last in 2019 for their third installment and I want to see how they do it this year. I mean, last year for example and this year as well, there was State of Black Design that went on. There’s Where are the Black Designers? I’m seeing even other colleges doing small little designs speaking events and things like that. So it’s really starting to blossom. It’s wonderful to see.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. There’s been a lot of really great programming. The State of Black Design, the one that you just mentioned with Omari Souza. I mean, incredible. So I love it. I think the more that these types of things pop-up, it’s just going to further the conversation, get more people involved and engaged and really just recognize that this movement is happening and it’s not just like a fluke.

Kaleena Sales:
I think when there’s just like one conference here, maybe some people will catch it, but when it’s happening over and over and all around us, at some point you can’t avoid it. So you have to kind of decide whether or not you’re going to engage in this change, in this movement.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you seen any sort of pushback against it, I’m curious like from a student standpoint?

Kaleena Sales:
Not directly. My students have not pushed back against it. They’re all about it. They’re excited to learn about, again, black culture, black history and whatever discipline that comes from whether it’s in their art history course or whether it’s in one of my design classes. So not directly with my students. I have seen questions maybe from design educators surrounding how do we engage students who aren’t interested in this?

Kaleena Sales:
So I would imagine at predominantly white institutions where this might seem like it’s sort of like breaking from the norm of what’s being taught. There may be more pushback, but I think overall even at predominantly white institutions there’s a lot of excitement or a lot of recognition that these are important areas. So yeah, I mean overall it’s going in the right direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s good to hear. That’s good to hear.

Kaleena Sales:
At least in my experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What would you say your students teach you?

Kaleena Sales:
Oh, man. Well, I think just they taught me to be a better professor and to understand context more. They also taught me how to give feedback. I think when I first started teaching one area where I struggled was how do I communicate the things that I would like for them to focus on in a way that they’ll understand it and in a way that doesn’t feel subjective and just a personal opinion.

Kaleena Sales:
So I had to learn that and I had to sort of read them and read their responses and figure out what was landing and what was not landing. So I certainly have learned that from them just based on the ways in which they respond back to me when we’re in class. They also have really great ideas. I just sat in on a bunch of meetings today and yesterday where our seniors were presenting their senior thesis projects and they’re choosing such interesting topics that are sort of blowing my mind.

Kaleena Sales:
One student is interested in fashion and she was addressing ways that the pandemic has changed our outlook on clothing and fashion. Another student was thinking about the ways in which bias and stereotypes can be addressed through animation and cartoon. There’s all these like topics that they come up with that I’m just like, “Wow, that’s really interesting.” I love to see like the way that they’re processing how to use art and design in those ideas. So I’m constantly learning from them.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really interesting. I don’t know. I mean, of course kids now have just so many different experiences that they’re pulling from especially during this current time. That part about the fashion though, I mean I can just personally attest. I’m looking at my closet and I want to get rid of everything. I want to adopt like a minimalist capsule wardrobe at this point. I look at my slacks and my suits and stuff, I’m like, “I want to get rid of all of this.” Because I haven’t had to wear them. I haven’t had to go anywhere with it.

Kaleena Sales:
That’s exactly what the student was sort of suggesting. We’re liking this comfort thing. Let’s get more of that, more yoga pants and sweatshirts. Then even just sort of like this particular project for example. The student was even questioning, “Are we learning more about sustainability? Are we not comfortable being as flashy anymore?” So she was just really posing some really interesting thoughtful questions and those are the things that are really refreshing to hear especially from really young designers.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a great question. Now, that you’ve mentioned that I’m just thinking like when I scroll through Instagram, that is exactly what I see. I see so many tie-dyed sweatshirts. I mean, of course there’s like muted color palettes. There’s talk about sustainability and organic and all this stuff, but everything is very beige.

Kaleena Sales:
That makes us feel like we’re being socially conscious because beige is the color of being socially conscious.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve been talking about design educators kind of touching on that earlier, but there’s also been this kind of pretty regular conversation in the design community around maybe the lack of black design educators. What do you think contributes to that?

Kaleena Sales:
I just think that we’re underrepresented across the board in the industry. In design and in education, higher education, and the end of higher education, I mean most accredited… Well, I guess depending on if your state school or how your funding works, you have to have a terminal degree to work as a college educator. So that’s the MFA in most cases. So that already pushes a lot of people out of the possibility of pursuing this.

Kaleena Sales:
I know a ton of amazing black designers that went to college for it and would be incredible, but like a lot of other designers, they’re working. They’re doing their practice and so they didn’t go and get that MFA teaching degree. So that’s one of the ways that I see that it’s limiting because it begins to be really expensive. Obviously, the more education you’re pursuing. So those advanced degrees you’re having to decide on do I want to get student loan debt? Is this worth it? Is the college teaching job going to sort of offset the cost of all of this?

Kaleena Sales:
So that’s a really big consideration depending on who you are and where you’re from and what sort of like… Maybe even generational wealth you might or may not have. So I think that can contribute to the lack of diversity in education in general, higher education in general. But then even as designers, there’s just so few still, so few black designers working in the space that it just gets narrowed even further when you add in another criteria. So it’s black designer and educator. The numbers just get real slim. So, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I could see that. I mean, I think visibility is sort of one part of that as you mentioned. You just don’t really see that many. Although now, I think you’re seeing more and more with these events and speaking and things like that. But also I wonder if students as they’re learning, are they also being enlightened about going into design education as well?

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. Probably not as much as we should. Actually, just before joining this call with you, I was listening to Jacinda Walker do a presentation about the work that she’s doing and she pointed out that there are, I think 300 and something black design educators across the country. That’s a really tiny number and she actually just mentioned something about to your point, we sort of need to do a better job of advocating for our career and talking about it and communicating to younger students what it is that we do and some of the things that we enjoy about this.

Kaleena Sales:
I think that there’s still, I guess, a little bit of a misconception in terms of what teachers do. A lot of people, I think there’s still a little bit of that idea of like if you’re… What is it saying? If you’re good, you do and if you’re not, you teach.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. Like those who can do and those who can’t teach.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. So I think that can sometimes, the mindset of a lot of creatives. So if you’re in a creative field, you really do have that itch inside of you to do the work, right? You want to practice. So teaching feels like, “Well, I’m not going to be able to do the work. I’m going to be in this box where I’m not really practicing.” But what I would love for people to know is like when you’re working in higher education as a professor, research component that a lot of us are asked to do allows for us to grow our practice and really do a lot of personal projects that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do if you’re working in the industry. So I’ve seen my personal work grow since being an educator.

Maurice Cherry:
Now is that sort of how you came across doing the book?

Kaleena Sales:
Extra Bold?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I was trying to give you a good segue into it.

Kaleena Sales:
Well, yes. I actually met Ellen Lupton. She came to Nashville, I think it was 2019 and she was AIGA Nashville. I served on the board for AIGA Nashville and we hosted her. she was actually doing a presentation for one of the really early iterations of the book before it took the shape that it is now. We took her to dinner. The board of directors for AIGA Nashville took her to dinner and we sort of chatted and just touched base and kind of do what you do when you’re at dinner.

Kaleena Sales:
She followed up and asked a few questions. Then eventually I was going to be a contributor for a small part of the book along with so many other amazing contributors. That was where it was for a while and then I got an email last year sometime from her where she invited me and to be a co-author and do some more writing in the book. So that’s how that took shape.

Kaleena Sales:
So it’s been amazing to be a part of that collaborative project. And what I love really most about that book in particular is that it involves so many different voices and perspectives and narratives. You hear from people like me who I don’t think typically has this sort of platform. So I love it. I feel like I’m learning so much from the other co-authors and the other contributors in the book.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when does the book come out?

Kaleena Sales:
So Extra Bold will be released on May 11th, and so really soon. It feels like it’s been in the works for quite a while now, but just a couple more weeks. At least from the time we’re recording the podcast. I don’t know when it’ll be released, but May 11 is when the books will be on the shelves.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. So I’m excited about that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. By the time this airs it’ll be out.

Kaleena Sales:
Oh, good.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. So that’s exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
So about your work with AIGA Nashville on the board, what is it like sort of serving a chapter that’s in a city like Nashville? I’ve had other people from Nashville on the show before and even other people from Tennessee, but I don’t know if people might think of Nashville as being a really sort of design hub or a design city of any sort.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. Nashville, we’re known for our music, country music. But we do have a pretty good design community in Nashville. What’s really interesting about the board and what I love about AIGA’s national board is it’s extremely diverse, much more diverse than the industry is. We have maybe 50% black designers and lots of women designers. It’s just a very welcoming kind of place and community to be a part of. It was really the first organization that I took on any sort of a leadership role. I was the director of education for a while and then I transitioned over into being the director of diversity and inclusion.

Kaleena Sales:
And just by being involved, I have met so many other like wonderful designers. I didn’t realize that I was missing out. I think that naturally a lot of artists, designer types are kind of in our own little like circles or worlds. When I joined the board, it sort of forced me to grow and be a part of the larger like Nashville design community. And I certainly feel like I’ve benefited from doing that. I love just being a part of the events and figuring out content that will service the community there.

Maurice Cherry:
What are some upcoming events and things that you all are planning to do this year?

Kaleena Sales:
Well, we always participate in Nashville Design Week. So we’re brainstorming some ideas for that. It’s not released yet, but we typically invite in some inspiring guest speakers. Last year, we did a panel with Mitzi Okou from the Where are the Black Designers conference and Forest Young, and Bobby C. Martin. We just had an amazing conversation about the experience that they’ve had working as black designers in the field.

Kaleena Sales:
This year will hopefully be like a continuation of those types of conversations. We also do a lot of programming. I don’t serve in the educator role anymore on the board, but we do a lot of programming for students. So we do a lot of like portfolio reviews and meetups for students. So that’s always fun to help them get their foot in the door.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I kind of want to switch gears here again. We’ve been focusing again a lot on your work and the things that you’re doing, but I’m curious what is it that sort of keeps you motivated and inspired to really continue this work?

Kaleena Sales:
The more that I work and the more that my work sort of shifts, I really want people to feel seen and I want to value the different experiences that black and minority designers have in this industry. So that might be again looking at the ways in which there might be some differences in the ways that the portfolios from an HBCU might look versus again a predominantly wide institution and advocating for us to remove bias in our review practices.

Kaleena Sales:
So it motivates me to talk about that and to share students work and students experience. And it motivates me to continue to have conversations about just diversity and design in general and sort of like the implications of the lack of diversity on our experience when we’re working as designers, how does that affect our confidence? How does that affect our mental health? How does it feel to be the only black designer in a creative department? Similar to when I was working at the ad agency and sort of it motivates me to talk about that so that other young designers who are black and are in those situations can feel seen, feel understood and sort of recognize that they’re not doing anything wrong. It might just be the industry needs to catch up to fully appreciate their point of view.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to accomplish this year?

Kaleena Sales:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from launching the book, I should say.

Kaleena Sales:
That’s a big one. But I want to actually write more, but I really would love to find a way to connect my illustration interest with design. I feel like right now they’re still living very separate lives. I do a lot of like illustration work and portrait drawings and things, but also obviously, I have a really big passion for design and writing. So one thing I’d love to do is find a way where they can sort of… Like these things can co-exist. So I do a lot of experimentation and I’m trying to figure that out. So I’ll feel really satisfied if I can get to some sort of a solution on that. And especially if it continues to elevate black voices and experiences.

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

Kaleena Sales:
I was serving like I said as the interim chair. So the next year I’ll be the chair of the department. I think I’d like to be still in that position in five years. So that’s a lot of administrative work for the department. But what that looks like for me is like revamping curriculum and thinking about ways to get more of our students working in art and design spaces and facilitating that experience for them. So again, changing curriculum, getting them connected to mentors in the industry and just doing all of that sort of work on behalf of the students that I teach, but more from an administrative role and capacity.

Kaleena Sales:
So that’s where I see a lot of my time being spent. I would also love to do illustration work for some… I don’t know. I want to take it away from just sort of something I’m doing on the side and maybe do more commission work in that space.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have like a dream client or a dream project that you’d want to do?

Kaleena Sales:
Sort of. There’s not a specific client. I think that I would just… I sort of believe that if I continue to work on my craft and then refine it, that whatever’s meant to happen will happen and that right opportunity or that right client will find its way to me. So we’ll see. I would love to do some sort of partnership. But I don’t know what that exactly looks like. I’m really open to wherever that goes.

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

Kaleena Sales:
So I am on all the social media channels on Instagram @kaleenasales. On Twitter @kaleena_sales. I think that’s right. And I’m on LinkedIn. I would love to connect on LinkedIn to whoever would like to connect and stay in touch that way. I’m on social media. My website is kalinasales.design, if you just want to kind of check that out and read a little bit more about what I’m up to there.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And we’ll also put a link to the book in the show notes.

Kaleena Sales:
Yay. Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Kaleena Sales, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really helping to teach the next generation of designers. I mean, it floored me the first time when I heard a teacher tell me that they actually use this podcast in their class because for people to know, I do this at home in my bedroom. And the fact that it has this kind of reach where I know educators are teaching it around the world, I think also speaks to this greater elasticization of the canon that you’re speaking about. I’m just glad that you’re there to help really guide and shepherd the next generation, and also keep them true to their cultural identity as they do it. That is super important. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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

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Joseph Cuillier

“If you don’t see it in the world, see that as an opportunity.” Wise words from this week’s guest, the one and only Joseph Cuillier. Joseph is perhaps most well known for The Black School, an experimental art school teaching Black/PoC students and allies to become agents of change through art workshops on radical Black politics and public interventions that address local community needs.

I spoke to Joseph fresh from his move back to New Orleans, and he spoke on how the city feels now in the midst of gentrification and other new developments. We also spoke on his work with The Black School and the school’s principles, the unique studio model that helps fund the school, and how he works to center Black love in such a unique learning space. Joseph is truly building upon a family legacy to help educate the next generation and beyond!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Joseph Cuillier:
My name is Joseph Cuillier and I’m an artist, a designer, and the founder and co-director of The Black School.

Maurice Cherry:
How are you holding up these days?

Joseph Cuillier:
Good. I am good. I just recently moved from New York City. I lived in Harlem for about five years, and Brooklyn before that for about five years. I just moved to new Orleans after 10 years in New York, and I think I’m much better because of it for a lot of reasons. There’s been a pandemic and people have been trapped in small apartments, in cold climates, and it’s good to get away from that. It’s good to be closer to family, I see my family a lot even though I lived in a different part of the country from them. I would come home holidays and summers, and that was difficult not being able to see my family. Being closer makes it so much easier. And trees and sunshine man, that’s a long way. That’s long way, and good food, and good people, and good music. Everything that makes New Orleans great is healing me at the moment, at this traumatic moment for all of us.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to go to new Orleans so bad.

Joseph Cuillier:
Come through and let me know.

Maurice Cherry:
I will as soon as all this pandemic mess is over, and I feel comfortable jumping on a plane I want to go to New Orleans.

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. Hopefully sooner than later.

Maurice Cherry:
I know you’ve been away for 10 years, but does the city feel different to you now?

Joseph Cuillier:
It is very different. To be clear, I moved to New York from Houston. I was living in Houston at the time, but both sides of my family are from new Orleans so I would always be here. Holidays, summers, things like that or whenever, a birthday party, it’s family reunion, just to come down and see family. I think new Orleans is going through a lot of the things a lot of black cities and black communities around the country are going through. There’s gentrification, there’s new things happening in this city for better or worse. And I think a lot of people feel frustrated because they’re not being included in the decision-making of the new thing.

Joseph Cuillier:
Or the new thing is coming and that means you have to leave which is messed up. There’s a lot of displacement in New Orleans, and in a way it’s a little bit more kind of celebrated due to the aftermath of Katrina, and the displacement that man-made disaster created. It is very different but in a lot of ways it’s still the same. There the blackness, there’s deep love, there’s deep creativity that is just baked into the city that I don’t think gentrification is strong enough to ever change that. Natural disaster or anything I don’t think is strong enough to change that.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been kind of working and moving through this pandemic? Was that a loaded question?

Joseph Cuillier:
That’s a layered question. A layered question. What does that mean to me as a husband and a father? What does that mean to me as a designer or an artist? What does that mean to me as a person that creates platforms? A person that brings people together to exchange knowledge? First it’s been difficult but not insurmountable. Our family, we found ways to make the best of it. We found ways to still have romance between me and my wife. We have our indoor dates or our out in the park dates. We found ways to meet with folks, meet up at the park, chill on the porch, chill at the patio, things like that. And as a kind of artists and designer it’s been a shift. For me it’s been less about making work and showing work and more about purpose, more about spirituality, more about laying foundations.

Joseph Cuillier:
And before the pandemic we were rolling, I talk in the we because I don’t do this work alone. My wife is my partner in life and in our endeavors, our ventures in the world. Shani Peters, she’s an artist very much in her own right doing really big things. And also just the work I do is very collective, I bring people together to work on issues and problems much larger than one person could address or transform. This slow down gave us the opportunity to refocus and think about the long-term vision for the work. The Black School was in New York, it was functioning as this kind of school that was mobile in architecture, so we would attach ourselves to host other schools, would be high schools, middle schools, youth organizations, art institutions, and we would do programming and collaboration.

Joseph Cuillier:
And now we couldn’t really do that, we couldn’t get people together. I mean we shifted some stuff to Zoom, but it’s only so much that could shift and keep going the way the world was turning. We shifted to thinking about where we wanted to take the organization. After all these years of programmatic success doing the art school, doing The Black Love Fest, doing the design apprenticeship, we felt like we really needed a space of our own. That meant sharing that idea with the people and be like, “What do you think? Is this something you would support?” The response we got was overwhelming yes. Folks came out of the woodwork, we ended up raising 300K to build the community center in my hometown of New Orleans. We’ve raised money for staffing the school, we’ve made all these connections of people who want to support in any way they can.

Joseph Cuillier:
Long answer, the shift, the slowing down, the re-jiggering we had to do to work in this moment meant that we had to do some deep thinking, and some deep listening, and have some deep conversations to really think about, “We’re standing still, how do we see the future? How do we want to see the future?” Because we have a moment now to really think about the future. And for us that meant moving to New Orleans and trying to build a school, trying to build a radical black art school in the Seventh Ward.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s jump more into The Black School, because I’ve been hearing about it for years now from different folks who I’ve had on the show. I was a mentor at… Well, I guess you could call it the mentor. I don’t know. I think they called it mentorship at NEW INC in New York City. I don’t know if that’s where I first heard about it, but I definitely heard about it during my time kind of mentoring and helping advise folks there. I really want to learn more about in essence what this radical black art school is all about. For those who are listening who may not know, can you just talk a little bit about the school and its mission? And we can sort of dive in from there.

Joseph Cuillier:
The Black School is an experimental art school that teaches young folks and old folks black history, design, activism. And the idea is radicalizing our people to envision a future where we’re not just tolerated, but a future that we create, that we build with our own hands so it’s a radical black art school.

Maurice Cherry:
And now there’s a lot of different principles that the school follows, among them self-love, prison abolition, environmental justice, LGBTQIA rights. How are these principles reflected to students?

Joseph Cuillier:
Well, the principles were developed by students. The first workshop we did was we did this community engaged research. This high school in Brooklyn, we went around the surrounding area and within the school. And we asked folks what you love about your community? What you want to change about your community? And what The Black School should teach? And based off of that feedback we got from folks we did this principle, this platform creating exercise, where we just went through the things, the issues, the ideas that folks are raising. And then we distilled them down into these overarching principles. And we’ve continued to add as we go, especially looking back to ancestors, the history, the things that were laid down for us before we even got here. And we took those kind of principles and built this larger kind of I guess rubric to learn from.

Joseph Cuillier:
And that includes self-love, it includes black love more specifically, and includes all the guiding principles of many different black radical organizations. We took inspiration from all these different ways black radicalism has popped up through feminist initiatives, queer initiatives, art movements. And that’s kind of how we came up with the principles, and we share those back in our card deck, we share them back in our website, we share them back in the topics that we explore in the school. Maybe a workshop will be based on this one principle or these two principles. We are making sure our young people know what we stand for, know something that possibly they can stand for, and are aware of a political language to describe the experiences that are happening in the world.

Joseph Cuillier:
They may see white folks from out of town moving into their grandmother neighborhood, they may see the cost of living in their neighborhood going up, they may see the bodega start to sell different things, but they may not know what gentrification is. And they may not know the history or the tactics that folks have used in the past to fight those issues. It’s our idea that we create learning tools, and learning opportunities to share that back with folks so they can know what to do, so they can know that they don’t have to recreate the wheel every time they see a problem. They can just build on what’s already beneath them.

Maurice Cherry:
And now the interesting part about the school is that it also contains a design studio, is that right?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. The Black School studio is full service design firm. We do client work. I’m traditionally trained as a graphic designer. It was a matter of seeing the teaching that I’m doing. Since I graduated that’s not just something I do on the side, but at the center of my practice. And the studio allows me to do that to the greater extent. We do client services, we have experienced upper level designers, but we also have apprentice. And the design apprentice are young folks, high school age who have no experience in graphic design. We teach them the basics, the fundamentals of graphic design, typography, image making, grids, all of those fundamental things. And then we teach them Photoshop, Illustrator InDesign. And then once they know just those basics, then we put them on actual client projects so that they’re learning on the job from seasoned designers.

Joseph Cuillier:
And we’re collectively creating too, because I mean what company doesn’t buy and sale, or trade on black cool? What company doesn’t use black youth culture to move their message forward or sell their products? It’s our idea that instead of having all these people coming into our community take the things we create and sell them back to us, how about we talk to our community? How about we communicate with each other in the ways we know how? And how about we harness the power and energy of black youth culture, a culture that has made it all around the globe and back? And right now black youth culture is the culture, so how about we harness that power? And that’s the idea, that’s the vision behind the design school being rooted in a school… I mean, that’s the vision behind the design firm being rooted in a black school.

Maurice Cherry:
And how do the studio and the school work together? Does the studio help fund the school or what are some ways that they work together?

Joseph Cuillier:
That’s the vision. When you’re doing this type of work it becomes very easy to become very reliant on grants, donations. And that may be fine but what happens when funding trends change? Right now black people and black liberation is kind of a hot topic but 10 years ago it wasn’t, we were in a post-racial society. What if we go back to a post racial society quote unquote, and these foundations start funding other causes, other issues more aggressively. I mean is what we’re doing really self-determined? If that’s the case, in my opinion the answer is no. Not to say the money we get from foundations isn’t cool, that’s our money, that’s the money, the wealth our great grandparents have generated for this country. But being realistic we need our own.

Joseph Cuillier:
I believe in black nationalism. I think we need our own everything, but we definitely need our own sources of revenue if we’re going to run a sustainable organization. The idea from the design firm is the design firm can generate income, earn income and fund the school. Now it’s two years old so we’re not there yet. We’re still kind of trying to figure out how it works, how it functions but that’s the idea. But the school and the design firm they’re kind of tied together. And we have students from the art school that come through the design firm. Students that show a little bit more interest, students that maybe want to learn more about graphic design specifically, students that may need opportunity to make some money, need a job, or a seasonal job or something.

Joseph Cuillier:
This is our way of generating income for our community. Because it would be irresponsible to go to black youth and be like, “There’s economic future for you in art.” Because honestly I’m a professional artist, my wife’s a professional artist, and it’s hard to make money out of art. It’s hard for us. We do all these other things and generate income in all these other ways, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable setting some young people that come from disadvantaged backgrounds, that are economically oppressed. I would be irresponsible to tell them, “You know what, you can make a living in art.” I mean you can, but I need to give you the tools, I need to give you the map, and the pathways that I found to make a living in art. And design is one of those pathways.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I mean, that makes sense, you want to definitely… Especially with kids at that age, they see a lot more than I think we think they do in terms of picking up on patterns and behaviors and stuff like that. And it is one thing to say, “We’re the black school and we want to do these things.” But then also… Or even as you’re saying, making money as an artist but then having to do these other things. You don’t want to lie to them essentially.

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. I don’t want to send them out in the world unprepared like what we call real art schools do. Sending their students out in the world without necessarily the tools to do the most basic of things, sustain their lives. It wouldn’t be a radically black art school, it would be just an art school if we did that. We do pay our students. It’s a very different way of looking at schools. We pay our students to learn because we believe our students need it. If you’re not flipping burgers or stacking grocery sales, how are you going to generate income for yourself, for your household, if we’re asking you to come spend this time with us learn about black politics, learn about home design, learn about the nexus, where they meet. We have to be realistic about what the needs are of our young people while they are in our care.

Maurice Cherry:
And then this might… I don’t know, this might be a silly question. I think basing some of this off of my personal experience, but as you’ve been doing this have you been getting a lot of black community support financially?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. We did a crowdfunding campaign to go fund me. I mean, everybody supported, black, white, Asian, Latinx. Everybody supported, saw the vision, but a lot of our support was from black folks. Monetarily, just connections we made. The black folks at Adobe reached out, folks that work there. We found ourselves in very different places, and we find ourselves with a lot of resources that the story being told about us is like we all come from a lack. But there is a lot of resources in our community. [inaudible 00:25:25] showed up with those resources, made what we do even possible. If it wasn’t for the black community there would be no Black School.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, as we’re recording this, and it’s interesting because we were supposed to do this a while back. And I know you were moving and everything, had a bunch of stuff kind of going on. But I had written back then… And just so people who are listening, this was… When was this? About the fall last year I think we were supposed to record initially?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I wrote down about how several major cities in the US have been protesting against the death of black people at the hands of police. Fast forward to now, same thing. And then you of course have all these companies that are committing themselves to at least saying black lives matter. Although it’s now been shortened out to BLM and I feel some kind of way about that, how quickly people just sort of roll it off the tongue. How are you talking about these things at the school?

Joseph Cuillier:
That’s funny that you say it because there is this linguistic activism, insane black lives matter. I never thought about that, shortening it to BLM defeats the point. But you’re right, you got something there. But I’m sorry I was distracted by what you just put on me there genuinely. Say again the end of your question.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How are you talking about what’s happening now? I guess I could say two black people, but there’s a lot of shit happening to black people right now. But I’m speaking specifically about people protesting against the death of black people at the hands of police, companies that are now kind of coming on and giving their support and saying that they support black lives even if it’s just for show. How are you talking about these sort of metacultural thing at the school?

Joseph Cuillier:
How are we talking about it? It’s hard for me to say specifically to this moment, but generally it’s been a while now that the light bulb came on for me. And I realized that history is a cycle, and you say from fall to now we’re in spring, this cycle has turned over once more. And our folks are in the street, and companies are pandering pretty much to the movement the same way it happened this past summer. This happened when I graduated from Pratt around the same time while I was at school. I was in graduate school for design and Trayvon happened and it was there… It wasn’t there that happened. Everything that’s happening now has happened to a lesser extent. It’s more intense now but it was happening. Then Eric Garner happened a couple of years later.

Joseph Cuillier:
Well, I’m referencing George Zimmerman getting off, because that was a moment for me because I didn’t see him getting off. If I’d only looked at history, of course he was getting off. There was no way he was going to jail if I looked at history. But we get into these moments where we just forget about history, everything’s out of the window, we live in a new world. But history tells us this cycle of black people being brutalized comes to a boiling point and black folks said, “No more.” And white folks say, “Let’s figure this out, let’s make this right.” Then time passes, white folks stop caring, black folks continue to be brutalized, boom cycle continues. That’s why The Black School exists, to be 365 know.

Joseph Cuillier:
Every day of the year to yell that we need our own. How many times are white folks going to have to tell us no before we realize the answer is no. You want your freedom, you want your justice, you want economic opportunities, the answer has always been no. We ask they say no, we ask they say no, we ask they say no. And the cycle happens where the no’s are replaced to, “Maybe.” The no’s are replaced with, “Okay. Give us some time.” The no’s are replaced to, “Later.” But always behind all of that facade it’s always no. This moment still weighs heavy on my shoulders, it’s not like it doesn’t affect me anymore. But I know that this is just a cycle, I know they’re not going to stop killing us.

Joseph Cuillier:
I just know it and it’s not because I’m a psychic, history tells me. 400 years in this country tell me, if I opened up the books they wrote it’s going to tell me. I just got to take that note and say, “I’m going to build with my people. And my vision and what I would love to see in the world is a black nation for Black Americans.” Of course there’s a lot of black nations in this world, but a nation for Black Americans, that’s my goal. And if that’s not the answer, cool, but that’s the direction I’m walking in. We need all of it, it needs to be ours. What that looks like I don’t know, but we need our own.

Maurice Cherry:
What does it look like to center black love in a learning space?

Joseph Cuillier:
I think it looks like we all have seen it in our own experience. Maybe it’s learning from your mother over the kitchen table, or maybe it’s learning from a grandfather out in the garage and the driveway. There’s all these ways we learn in our community that are rooting in love, and rooting in care, and rotting in blackness. I think we can look to that, go back to history, we look at our personal histories and what kind of learning spaces felt loving, and felt effective? What kind of learning spaces worked for me? You’ll probably think of your living room, you’ll probably think of your kitchen, you’ll probably think of your backyard. That’s where we’re taking inspiration for the architecture of the school. Whether that be bricks or just how we’re structuring the curriculum, how we’re exchanging when we’re in this space, how we’re talking to each other, how we’re laying out the desks.

Joseph Cuillier:
We don’t even have desks, because when I think about the ways I like to learn it wasn’t in the desks. It was maybe over a work table, maybe it was an artist studio and it was over a work table, maybe it was in a circle on the floor. It’s all these other ways that are not being showed or even explored in the conventional school. One way is asking folks what they want to learn, not walking into a space with any assumptions. Before we start a workshop we ask our students what you love about your community? What you want to change about your community? And we may show up with screen printing supplies, or collage materials, we may show up with part of the workshop. But the rest of it, what we’re making, why we’re making it, who we’re making it for, that comes from the students.

Joseph Cuillier:
We are sharing the skills we have and the resources we’ve been able to generate and acquire, but it is an exchange. They are sharing their experiences, they’re sharing their needs, they’re sharing their passions, and that’s the learning community. It goes both ways, it’s not a teacher at the front, students lined up at the back. They are empty vessels, I have the knowledge, I put the knowledge into the empty vessels, they go out into the world [inaudible 00:34:30] repeat. It’s not like that. It’s really about you know about this very specific thing in the world, I know about this other very specific thing in the world, let’s put it together and what could we build?

Maurice Cherry:
Now there’s a third part to The Black School. I know we talked about the actual school itself, we’ve also talked about the studio. There’s this sort of third component to the ecosystem which is events. How have you been able to keep that going even with this sort of pandemic that’s keeping people apart?

Joseph Cuillier:
We haven’t kept it going. We have done workshops which is events, but specifically Black Love Fest, our music festival we do, we just paused it. Right now it’s going on the second year. We do it every summer, so last summer we didn’t do, this summer we’re not doing it. When it comes back it will be in collaboration with the New Orleans African American museum so it will be in New Orleans. The past three years it was in New York city two years, and then Houston at Project Row Houses.

Joseph Cuillier:
If you’re into the black school and the work we do check out Project Row Houses if you haven’t already, because they are the precedence that we’re working off. They’re the antecedent, they are the ancestors when we’re talking about ancestors that have done it, are still doing it. We essentially paused it, which was needed, we were tired anyway before the pandemic even came. And there’s no sense in getting people together and potentially hurting the people that the whole intention of the festival is to care for our people. It would just be a contradiction. And honestly I’m Zoomed out. I’m Zoned out.

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

Joseph Cuillier:
No more Zoom so we’re not doing a Zoom festival. I don’t think the intention behind the festival would even translate to Zoom. The intention is a barbecue, a cookout with some guiding principles behind it that we’ve talked about already. We can’t recreate everything in the digital space, we can’t create the real barbecue that we’re trying to create in a virtual space. It just makes sense to pause it, again do some deep listening, some deep thinking, some deep compensation. And then bring it back when we’re ready, when the world is ready for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, when we started doing… Or we were going to do a live tour in 2020 with Revision Path. I had been talking to a couple of AIGA chapters, and we had started the tour. I started in February in LA, did a show out there in Leimert Park with a local architect. It was great, standing room only. And when we’ve done past events… And I get what you’re saying, it’s the actual space itself that becomes this crucible for fellowship that you just can’t recreate over a Zoom call. Even when we’ve done events in New York, we’ve done events here in Atlanta. And for me the best thing about the event is when it ends, and people are still staying around talking for an hour, hour and a half, the venue-

Joseph Cuillier:
Stacking up their plate metaphorically.

Maurice Cherry:
… Right. The venue’s kicked us out, we’re standing outside and folks are like, “Well, let’s go to a bar and keep talking, or let’s go to a restaurant or something.” That kind of fellowship you just can’t do the same thing over Zoom. When the lockdown sort of first started happening and the chapters were getting back to me like, “Oh, well we can do a Zoom call and we can do this.” I was like, “I don’t want to do that. I’m already Zooming enough for work and I don’t want to have to try to do the same thing over Zoom.” One, because it’s just not the same. What I think the audience gets out of it aside from listening to the people, is to actually meet up with other black creatives in their city that they may not even know about. The fact that the event exists means that people are coming to it, and without that actual physical event then it’s just not the same.

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. There’s a lot of things the internet can do, what you’re describing ain’t one of them. We haven’t figured that out yet with the internet. I think the intention is to love up on each other, the vision is to create this movement that will get us to where we need to go. When we’re doing the festival in Project Row Houses, Fox News actually came by. The local Fox chapter not the Fox News, but the local Fox station came by. And they asked me, “What is this about? What are you doing?” And I was like, “This is a movement. The purpose of this is to start a movement for black love, and to center black love at the center of what this country is.” Don’t we deserve it? Don’t we deserve to not just be tolerated, but to be loved after all we’ve done to literally build this country, to expand the freedoms and the rights of this country, to fight for them, die for them.

Joseph Cuillier:
I mean I was a little more and more crass. I was like, “The intention is for America to pay reparation, and dissolve, and reconstitute under black love.” I told Fox News that, they did not air it but that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do. And we’re using the vessel that is the cookout, that is the street art, the public art, that’s some part of our culture, that is the performative nature. You dress up, we sing, we dance, we do all of these things that is just natural to our way of being, our blackness. And I think that it’s worth the wait, if it takes two years for the pandemic to subside it’s worth the wait. So we’re just going to wait.

Maurice Cherry:
Now kind of switching gears here a bit from the school which we’ve talked about for a good while now. You mentioned being in NYC, but you’re originally kind of between Louisiana and Texas. You kind of mentioned you kind of went back and forth a bit. Being in that sort of part of the South, I’m pretty sure art, music, and design were kind of a big part of your growing up, right?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah, for sure. I mean, it didn’t look like graphic design or fine art, but it’s definitely been with me since day one. The story I tell growing up in Baton Rouge, where I went to elementary and middle school. And my family we would go to Southern University football games, and it’s a HBCU so we had tailgate. All day before the actual game in the evening, we would barbecue or have a seafood boil. And this was every weekend which is crazy. The amount of food that we would buy, cook, eat with people, it’s crazy that we did this every weekend. I’m realizing that as I’m been growing up, and I am doing seafood boils now, I’m hosting them or I’m hosting a barbecue. But the funny moment that I always remember is maybe the week before the season started, my mom came home with a handful of clothes like the Polo’s and the Tommy’s. The things we were wearing at the time. And the other brands like the Sean John, and all that, and the FUBU.

Joseph Cuillier:
And it was such a moment of joy. I can see now that I was being brought up and cultivated into fashion design. I was being made a connoisseur of design. That may have been the intention consciously, or maybe an intention subconsciously, to have just a big stack of fresh clothes just thrown on my bed like, “Here, now you’re set for the whole season.” And as long as I can remember I’ve loved fashion, I’ve loved clothes, and I think that kind of introduced me to design. But when it came time for me to figure out what do I want to make myself as opposed to not just being a connoisseur but a creator. And I tried fashion, I tried street art, I tried a lot of different things, but graphic design was the thing that I don’t know, just came the most natural to me. And learning about it, learning the history of it, it was fascinating to read about the Bauhaus, read about the International Style, read about the shifts that were happening in art and design in a world that was creating these new ways of thinking, and these new ways of making.

Joseph Cuillier:
And technology too, also being so [cordially 00:44:20] in term with it. And that kind of put me to graphic design to study that. But even with that, the medium, the form making was interesting to me, but I think of myself as the designer that doesn’t really care about design. I know about the Bauhaus, I’ve been to the Bauhaus, I’ve been invited to the Bauhaus but I don’t care anymore. At the time I did, but right now I’m way more interested in learning about Orishas. I’m way more interested in learning about my family history, and how that relates to New Orleans. I’m way more interested in learning about black radical politics. The work I do is me just taking those ways of making and those ways of seeing, and just imply my interest to it. And as a result I think I look a bit different than most designers. Like my career, the things that I make, the things I put out and produce with these skills, in a lot of cases may not even look like design, period.

Joseph Cuillier:
But I think that’s my approach and it comes from those early influences, those early cultivations that my family placed on me. I come from a line of educators. My grandfather Joseph Cuillier, Sr, has a school named after him in New Orleans on the West Bank. There’s reasons for me to approach art and design from the lens of a educator. And it was kind of put into me before I even realized it was there, it’s been there. Growing up in Houston, being around Project Row Houses at the time that I was discovering fine art, it kind of put in pressure in my head like, “Oh, that’s fine art.” I learned about fine art in a city that took a very different approach to art. Thanks to the folks that Project Row, and Rick Lowe, and all the artists, and collectives that came together to create their vision. To be clear, Project Row Houses is a organization that started from this artists being challenged by young people in his community.

Joseph Cuillier:
They came to the studio, the folks from a local high school, and they saw what he was painting and they were like, “We don’t need you to paint about issues happening in our community. We know the issues. Who is this for because it’s not for us. You’re a creative person, how about you do something about it? How about you use your creativity and try to apply that to the issues and see if you could get some moving and shaking.” To have that down the street while I’m in college, and I’m just starting to go to galleries, and just starting to go to art spaces, it kind of made me think, “Oh, this is fine art.” When really it’s this ghetto eyes pushed it aside version of fine art that hasn’t really been supported in the same ways like an object maker is supported in the fine art world. Someone who makes paintings and sculptures. Long story long, the way I came up and where I came up has everything to do with the type of artist, the type of designer I am and I’m grateful for it. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s been this thing that’s been going around lately around this concept of decolonizing design, where I think the notion is that you’re sort of introducing different sort of design cultures or things. It’s a person’s teaching practice or design practice in order to break them out of particular I would say just Eurocentric design sort of standpoint. Would you say that’s what you’re trying to accomplish with The Black School? Is something similar to that?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yes. And I’m just trying to decolonize not even in a metaphorical sense. I’m literally trying not to be a colony anymore. My wife was talking on this call and she was talking, and it was a group of folks from around the world. I don’t remember the country. Or I would’ve know the callers to even know the country. But it was an African sister and she was saying that decolonization has nothing to do with America. Africa we were colonized, what y’all got over there is something different. But really the opposite is true. I mean, not the opposite but we are still a colony. The colony never ended, we never decolonized. I feel like design, the tools we have to transform are tools that we can use to just de-colonize, period.

Joseph Cuillier:
I do believe decolonizing design is a part of that. We got to learn about the contributions of black folks to the design discipline. But we also have to learn about the contributions of black folks, period. We got to learn about the contributions of black folks to revolutionary thought. We’ve got to learn about the contributions of black folks to cultivating land, to building economic engine systems. And I think that will help you as a designer of course, but I think it will help us to the eventual goal is liberation, freedom, justice, these bigger ideas. Because I think design has that power. I have a deep faith in art and design, not the art world or the design world, but the actual mechanisms, methodologies, the act of creation.

Joseph Cuillier:
I think we can not only make it look sexy as far as revolution. I think we can make it look good because we have the skills to do that, but I also think we can do it if we use design in ways that are decolonized. It doesn’t have to be all about client services, that can generate revenue, that can generate income, that could generate economics in a community, but it also can be about… There’s an issue of gun violence, maybe we can design our way out of that, and it’s not going to be about typography. But there’s this certain set of perspectives and approaches that we use in design that can translate to bigger problems we see in our communities.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that keeps you motivated and inspired these days? I mean, I feel like… And just for people that are listening to this, we’re recording this the week of April 19th, we don’t really know… Both Joseph and I don’t really know kind of what may transpire the next few days, that by the time you listened to this podcast might’ve already set some shit off. But it’s a rough time for black folks right now, which is an evergreen statement these days. But what keeps you motivated to keep going?

Joseph Cuillier:
Family for sure. Baby got to eat so got to get up and do what you got to do to make sure that happens. I just got this book and I just came back from Jackson, Mississippi. Freedom, by Edward Onaci, I think he pronounced it. And it’s inspired by another book of the same name, Dr Imar Obadele. And Obadele was a part of this black radical organization called the Republic of New Africa. And their vision was to take the southern states of the United States, so from Louisiana to Georgia and build a independent black nation. Which is one of the most creative, imaginative visions I’ve had or I’ve witnessed for black liberation. I’m super inspired by the work of those folks. At the moment that’s what I’ve been reading about. I just came back from Jackson, Mississippi, where they tried to get it going. And we obviously don’t have a black nation in the borders of the United States, but they got…

Joseph Cuillier:
Or folks inspired by that movement have bought all of these properties in West Jackson. We’re staying at this co-operative for New West Jackson that owns 67 properties in the hood. And they’re building farms, they’re building housing, they’re building economic engines in the space to employ people, to bring money to the space that has been all but abandoned. Isn’t crazy. Jackson is the capital of Mississippi, and if you drive around Jackson you come away with a clear idea that white folks in Mississippi don’t care. They do not care that it’s their capital, it’s like 90% black. And all you got to do is roll through West Jackson and you can see how much folks do not care. You would think, “Oh, this is a image of this state that we are projecting out to the world.” That does not matter, not to the white folks in Mississippi. And this cooperative has…

Joseph Cuillier:
Like you turn the corner onto a block and it’s like just walking into a oasis after walking through hundreds of miles of desert. It’s beautiful, the houses are beautiful, the land is beautiful, the people what they’re doing, and their vision for the world is beautiful. That’s one of the things that is inspiring me. I’ve really been into kind of reconnecting Afro spirituality, Afro spiritual practices like the hoodoos, and the voodoos, and Orisha based Yoruba kind of religious concepts. That’s been super inspiring to me today, I mean for the last couple of years. But right now it’s something I wake up thinking about, going to sleep thinking about, and it’s a lot of different things. My mind goes and gets pulled in a lot of different directions. Like yesterday my tufting gun arrived in the mail. You know what a tufting gun is?

Joseph Cuillier:
It’s a rug creating machine and it looks kind of like a gun, but the gun shoots yarn through a back in fabric you would use to make a rug. That’s one thing that I’ve been super inspired by. In that instance, buying that comes from my still love and interest in fashion. And it’s showing up in my practice as like I’ve been making these textile art works lately for the last few years now. I’ll create a collage, and Photoshop, print it out on fabric. And then sew it together, or make some new kind of construction out of it, some new kind of architecture out of it. That’s super inspiring to me, riding my bike is super inspiring to me, my wife and daughter. I lack no shortage of inspiration which is a good thing and a bad thing, because it distracts me from finishing one thing. Get super excited about something, then move to the next thing, then move next, but I’ll always come back.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Has there been a piece of advice that has stuck with you over the years as you’ve gone through life, as you’ve built out the school and everything?

Joseph Cuillier:
It’s hard to call anything to mind specifically. I think there’s lessons learned that may not be succinctly wrapped up in statements of advice. With certain lessons you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t, which sound depressing. But it’s taught me that you might as well just do what you want to do, because either way you’re going to end up at the same place. You might as well just say F it and be who you want to be, do what you want to do. Because I mean you could fake it, and be unhappy, and still not reach where you’re meant to reach.

Joseph Cuillier:
Or you could just live in that thing and deal with the initial discomfort of just being in your skin, and being who you are. But I think eventually you will end up where you need to be. I really believe in purpose right now more than ever, because I’ve been forced to sit down and think about that a lot. I believe what’s meant for you is meant for you, can’t nobody stop or take that. But it takes time for folks to really figure out their purpose, and it’s not just like a goal, it’s a moving target. I say figure out what that is for you, and live that unapologetically. Just go hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing? How do you want to… I imagine of course you’ll still be wanting to build out the school, but what does 2026 look like?

Joseph Cuillier:
Whoa, I think I need to put some pen to paper about that very soon. But hopefully the school… Not hopefully. What it looks like is the school will be built, will be functioning, doing art and civic engagement initiatives with our local community. That may look like our design workshops, or apprenticeships, or a community garden where we’re feeding ourselves food from the land. Hopefully it looks like me still creating, making things. I think of myself as a person who does two sorts of things, or artist or designer who does two sorts of things. I make things, object making, and I make experiences, platforms, producing and sharing knowledge.

Joseph Cuillier:
And I see those as two different kind of sides of a coin and hopefully I have a balance. Right now it’s real tilted towards the platforms, the community building, but I would love to spread it out a little bit more evenly. Hopefully The Black School is up and running to a degree where it’s second nature. We have our rhythm, we have our stride so it allows me, frees me up to do all the things, follow all those inspiration, and passions, and pursuits that kind of make me happy, and fill me with joy and fulfillment.

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

Joseph Cuillier:
On Instagram, you can follow me at Joseph Cuillier first name, last name, or at The Black School. On the interwebs you can go to my website, josephcuillier.com or theblack.school. Not .com, not .org, .school, so theblack.school.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Joseph Cuillier, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Really thank you for talking about the school, and really how you’ve built it out, what you’re trying to do in the community. I’m glad that we were able to spend a lot of time really diving into what it’s about, and its structure, and of course what you’re trying to do in the community. I think it’s something that is super important and I really want to see kind of where this goes from here. Thank you for coming on the show, I appreciate it.

Joseph Cuillier:
Thank you, brother. Appreciate you, appreciate what you do. You’re building this platform for folks like us to just share knowledge, share experience, share space, it’s super appreciated.

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Douglas Davis

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Place like RGD?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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