Anne H. Berry

“The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression & Reflection” is one of the most important contributions to the corpus of design history, and I’m so glad this week to have the book’s managing editor, Anne H. Berry, on Revision Path to talk about it. I caught up with her while she’s on sabbatical from Cleveland State University, where she’s an associate professor in the department of art and design.

Our conversation began with a discussion about the state of education and teaching over the past few years, and what it means for students and the general culture. Of course, we also talked about the book, and Anne shared how the super team of editors and contributors came together through the power of a shared vision. Anne also spoke on her 2021 exhibit, Ongoing Matter: Democracy, Design and the Mueller Report.

Thank you to Anne for helping push the conversations around Black design forward!

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

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

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

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

Manny Ikomi

Photo: @queerjay

I love that Manny Ikomi has adopted a philosophy of “lift as you climb” as it relates to his career. Manny works as a UX design consultant for IBM iX, but he’s also a design educator and even streams some of his personal web development and UX projects on Twitch. It was great chatting it up and learning about how he balances his work with community outreach.

We started off diving into Manny’s journey from discovering interactive design and UX, to hitting a career ceiling and pursuing further education. Manny also spoke about teaching at his alma mater, his aspirations on working for public sector institutions, and his podcast Gay, Geeky + Tired. Hopefully Manny’s story will inspire you to make a positive impact in the world!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Manny Ikomi:

So my name is Manny Ikomi. I’m a UX designer at IBM currently, and also recently, I am adjunct faculty teaching an interactive design course at Bunker Hill Community College.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. How’s your year been going so far?

Manny Ikomi:

So far, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. I think there’s definitely been some really good ups and some really low downs. But at the end of the day, I think the net ending of that is still growing and succeeding in the things that I want to do so far. And there’s still more to come, I guess. So, still with a lot of optimism, it’s been going well.

Maurice Cherry:

How would you say you’ve grown and improved over the past year? Have you noticed anything in particular?

Manny Ikomi:

So I started at IBM in June of last year of 2022. That first year was like a little trial by fire because of the project that I was working on. But I also had access to a lot of really great mentors; people in my network, both inside and outside of the company. And so professionally, I think there was just such an immense growth in that stretch zone, that I like to call it, within my first year. And so now that I’m a little bit over a year in, as of June of this year, I’ve kind of, like, leveled out. The honeymoon phase is a bit over, and I’m kind of just like doing the thing now. Things that I thought maybe I wasn’t capable of, like a year ago. I guess I’m capable of now — teaching being one of them.

I think probably most recent, a little bit of recency bias. But teaching has been something that has been on my mind to do for a little while, ever since a professor of mine kind of planted the seeds, like when I graduated from the college that I’m teaching at now, which is another story. But it’s been a really great experience so far, like, teaching IBM only like four weeks into my class. It’s my first time teaching ever, and for the most part, it’s also been going really well on top of just working at IBM and doing other things. And interestingly enough, there’s also a lot of overlap between some of the work that I’m doing now and some of the things I’m doing for my course this year has been definitely a year of growth and stretching and learning and teaching. So sometimes teaching also is a really great way to learn. So it’s been really great.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Let’s talk about your work at IBM, specifically IBM iX, where you work, like you said, as a UX designer. Tell me more about that.

Manny Ikomi:

So yeah. IBM iX. So IBM, for those of you who maybe don’t know, because they’re not as recognized, I guess, of a brand anymore, especially for younger folks, it stands for International Business Machines. It’s a very old company. There’s lots of history. They hold a lot of patents for things interestingly that I learned about. Most notably, I think, like the magnetic stripe on credit cards is something that I never realized that they had essentially invented. And so they’ve been a very large technology company for a very long time.

And over the years, I think they evolved from more like hardware and stuff. And then now they do mostly software and consulting, so they have their own cloud offerings. And then I’m in the Consulting part of the business. And then iX, which stands for Interactive Experience, is a smaller bubble within IBM Consulting. And what I do there as a UX designer, I guess, like all of us will say, it depends. It depends on the project, it depends on the client. Because ultimately I’m considered a consultant as opposed to an in house designer. So I don’t necessarily work on IBM’s cloud services and software and products.

I actually work on clients of IBM who come to the company and say, “hey, we need UX designers for this”, or “we need design services for some sort of initiative”. And through that, I’ve really gotten to do a whole bunch of stuff, particularly within my first year, I could be doing anything from contextual inquiry and design research, traveling to clients on site doing observational research, typical, like user interface prototyping, working in Figma, doing demos and things like that. Usability testing, enterprise design thinking, which is kind of like their methodology around design thinking and how we deliver design services. Yeah, I’ve pretty much done, I think, the whole gamut of user experience, design and really just design in general. I’ve really expanded my view, I think, kind of going back to the other question about how I’ve grown. My view of what design is and how it works and what I do has definitely been a lot more expansive beyond just the tangible artifacts and things that we make.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, it sounds like your day to day work is pretty varied then. Like you said, you’re either researching, you’re doing site visits, et cetera. It sounds like there’s a lot of variety in the work that you’re able to do.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, there definitely is. And some of that is for better or for worse, I guess, because it turns you into a little bit of a generalist, which some people have opinions about. But I think at least at this point in my career, because it’s a little bit more earlier on, it’s good for me to have that kind of exposure and growth opportunities to try and do different things, especially when the risk is low for me personally. Right? Yeah, I mean, I get to work on a whole bunch of stuff. Most recently, the project that I’ve been working on is a little bit more on the strategic end and getting a local state government to actually adopt some of IBM’s design thinking methodology, which really kind of lines up to what I was talking about earlier, about teaching people about design now as like an adjunct faculty instructor. So there’s also been some really interesting overlap and ways in which I’m now delivering design that I never really considered possible up until recently. So that’s been interesting. But yeah, it’s been a really great growth and learning experience so far.

Maurice Cherry:

I kind of want to talk a little bit about that generalist part that you just mentioned there. I know there’s this book by David Epstein called “Range”. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it.

Manny Ikomi:

You know what, it sounds familiar now that you say that. I think I might have saved a sample to my Kindle at one point and never ended up buying it.

Maurice Cherry:

But it’s called “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”. And it does sort of make the case for why generalists are…they’re really sort of sought after in a way. I’m curious though, because you do so much, are you finding there’s a particular part of UX that you prefer over others?

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, that’s something I’ve been kind of thinking about a little bit lately ,and I guess due to the fact of my generalist nature, it kind of goes beyond just design and also into web development too. And so this area that I’ve been kind of occupying, at least not necessarily within IBM, but just in general as I upskill and just learn different things. I’m also like a self taught front-end web developer and so I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersections of experience, design and web development and the opportunities there for people who have that kind of hybrid skill set and can really, I guess, specialize in there. Despite considering myself a generalist in some ways, I specialize in others. So the areas that I think I’m really liking the most is research.

There are things that I’ve learned about design research and psychology and humans and their behaviors just from watching them interact with designs that I’ve made or others that I just find so fascinating that just kind of lends itself to my own just like innate sense of curiosity and wanting to learn. But then there’s also, interestingly enough, the complete flip side of that, which is like the more logistical, I guess, x and y’s ones and zeros codes and things like actually developing and building the things that I design in some tool and actually making it a real thing, because that’s kind of where I started. And that’s how I really transitioned into the work that I do now, is I started as a graphic designer and then I became interested in web design and then I would create these web designs, but I couldn’t actually put it on the Internet and have it be a website.

And all kind of roads, basically, no matter how hard I tried to avoid coding, were just like, basically “if you want to do it, you got to do it yourself.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Manny Ikomi:

So I learned coding through that and then now it’s just kind of been a skill that’s really stuck with me, I guess, along the way. It’s not a skill that I get to use or a muscle that I get to flex all the time, but it does surface in some other interesting ways, especially when it comes to collaborating with other developers and just thinking a little bit more logically about the designs that I’m creating and their ability to be feasibly implemented. So I would say between the design engineering part…so that kind of hybrid of making a design and actually being able to build it, but also some of the user research aspects of it and strategy, which I guess is kind of everything, but also specifically at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I think it’s good to have that sort of generalist, I think, sort of mindset as well as skill set. I mean, back in the day when the Web was really just first starting to become something, everyone sort of had to become a generalist in some way. Like you designed it, you had to code it, you had to slice it up, et cetera, and put it on the Web. Of course, now it’s so interesting with companies because it seems like companies want specialists and yet when you look at their job descriptions, what they really want is a generalist that has a specialization. So they kind of want that…what do they call it?

Manny Ikomi:

T-shaped.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, like the T-shaped designer or whatever where you’ve got this broad set of skills. Like, I saw something for this company; they wanted like a social media manager, but then they also needed them to be a graphic designer and they also needed to know motion design. And I was like, those are entirely different things. What you want is a designer. It sounds like you want a designer that has social media experience, but they were like, no, we want a social media manager, but then you want this person doing motion design. I don’t know if that’s also just a byproduct of how messed up the job market is right now, but I’ve seen a lot of that.

Manny Ikomi:

Definitely, I’ve seen a lot of it.

Maurice Cherry:

What are some of the projects that you’ve worked on that you can talk about?

Manny Ikomi:

For a lot of reasons, obviously, I can’t talk about a lot of details. Probably the level to what I can say is the first project that I worked on while I was at IBM was basically in the realm of safety. And so the idea was that people who were working in a manufacturing facility could record and take pictures of safety violations or safety issues that they might find and then be able to report that through a system that we developed. So the application of actually reporting and observing safety issues, and then like a whole process and chain of people involved essentially like a service design around people on the front end actually recording issues, and then all the way in the back end, actually analyzing issues and doing some predictive analytics and things like that. And then the most recent project that I’m on right now with a local state government is basically helping them adopt human-centered design thinking processes and methods and frameworks. And the way that IBM does that is through their enterprise design thinking framework, which I’ve come to really like and appreciate. It was one of those things that I wish I had known about as a student and definitely kind of opened my world to the possibilities of what design can be and how it can manifest itself, I think. And then ever since then, it’s kind of just become this thing where I’m like, “wow, it’s more than just the artifacts that we make.”

It’s also the way that we think and how we convey our ideas to others, how people interpret our ideas. And it’s really just kind of expanded my view, I guess, of what it is. But yeah, those are probably the highest level I can get with those two specific projects. The first one I was on for just under a year, and that was pretty much the majority of my entry level experience, getting hired into IBM as an entry level professional hire. And that first project was really great. I had a great team that I worked with. I got to travel a little bit as part of it, and it was a really great experience. There were parts of it that were challenging, definitely, as with any project or design engagement. But ultimately I’m really thankful for that first project and the people that I got to work with and I’m hoping to reach out to them again the end of this year to just kind of check in and see where the work has gone since I’ve left the project.

And then this more recent project that I was talking about in terms of design adoption, that one just recently kicked off like a few weeks ago. So we’re still in the early stages, but the team is also looking really great to work with and so far it’s been great. So the work has just been very varied and interesting and every time I just feel like I’m learning something new or learning something different about design than I thought was ever possible, like maybe like two or three years ago. So it’s just fascinating.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked just a little bit there about one of the projects having predictive analytics, which of course makes me think about sort of this current era that we’re in of artificial intelligence and machine learning. And there’s a number of different sort of cutting edge technologies now that have clearly bled into the mainstream that I think have been going on for a while, like AR, VR, et cetera, but now they’re becoming mainstream sort of things.

How do you see UX evolving with these new technologies?

Manny Ikomi:

I haven’t put too much thought into this. I think, obviously you know, obviously the glaring kind of observation here is with generative AI, right? And like ChatGPT and OpenAI and all this stuff that’s come out recently. I think ultimately, at least in the specific realm of generative AI, it kind of offers an opportunity to actually augment the work that we do as designers. And in some places, I guess, yeah, it will replace some jobs, but I think ultimately it will also kind of augment the way that we do work. And there are products now that are out that kind of help user researchers find patterns in their interviews and the transcripts using AI and things like that that are just really interesting. So there are areas where AI is kind of like enhancing the work that we do and allows us to kind of augment the work and be more productive. Things like AR and VR. I actually haven’t had too many experiences with, not really even in college. However, the Apple Vision Pro device that was announced by Apple earlier this year, I thought that was really interesting and had a bit of a rabbit hole of thoughts around that in terms of experience, design, and how.

For the longest time, a lot of our designs for user interfaces have kind of been at least for digital user interfaces have been kind of confined to these rectangles that you’re probably looking at right now in these screens. And so with AR and VR experiences and mixed reality with products like the Apple Vision Pro, it’s kind of like it allows us to step outside of those bounds, really, of that rectangle screen that we’re so used to designer for. And it really opens up a lot more possibilities for a lot more intuitive and natural interfaces for us that maybe we just have not developed even usability patterns for yet, or rules of thumb for. And so I find that like a very interesting area that’s kind of opening up. I imagine there are much more qualified people than me to talk about that, but it is something that I’ve been thinking about, especially since technology, it’s kind of hard to stop progress in that sense. And so as experience designers, I guess we’re also kind of well positioned in the sense that almost everything is an experience and almost everything is designed in one shape or another. I think we’ll end up having a hand in it and potentially not only just consuming the technology, but also producing ways for people to interact with it too.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think, as you mentioned, the way that the technology is rapidly advancing, I mean, I feel like this time last year, companies were just starting to kind of test the waters a little bit to see what they could do. And now I think within that past year, every major tech company has made some sort of announcement about how they’re using AI or they’re using like a ChatGPT or some sort of generative type of new technology in the work that they’re doing, almost kind of shoehorning it in in some mean. Let’s just talk about the obvious — Google Search. Google Search now will bring up AI stuff right along with these SEO-optimized results that will come up in your regular search engine results page, and it’s a little difficult, I think sometimes to be able to discern what is good with that and what’s bad with that. Like, I think everyone’s trying to sort of race to find how they can use technology, how they can make it work without really stopping to think, is it necessary? Do we have to do this?

Is it just a competition thing? Like business competition? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I mean, I feel like after a while we’ll start seeing appliances that have AI. We already have stuff like smart fridges and smart toasters and stuff, but I don’t need my toaster to have ChatGPT or whatever, just toast the bread. I mean, that’s an extreme case, but you know what I mean.

Manny Ikomi:

I totally get what you mean. I think that’s where I have the negative sort of perspective on AI particularly, is really with any sort of emerging technology, especially for these really larger tech companies, like IBM included. it’s kind of like the rat race to figure out who’s going to be able to monetize it and make the most revenue with the technology and kind of have their moat. So to speak. In that case, that’s where we end up with like, oh, let’s just slap AI on everything and see what happens. Without really, to your point, stopping to think about the impact, whether it’s positive or negative, to the people that AI is being deployed on, in the same way that it can be a really immense help and benefit to society in some case, it can also be very dangerous. And I don’t think companies are really incentivized right now to really think about it in that more ethical or social impact lens because that’s just not going to make the money. And that’s the way the world turns, essentially, right?

Maurice Cherry:

So there’s this startup, I’ll say it now, I was thinking about if I should even mention this, but I’ll go ahead and say it. There’s a startup based out of Seattle that does like AI text to speech. Essentially they cloned one of the host voices of Planet Money for NPR and did like a whole episode with this person’s voice and it sounds pretty mean. You know, I think there are still going to be certain eccentricities in the human voice that humans will be able to discern, but of course the models are getting better for it and things like that. But they’re one of the few companies, the company is called WellSaid Labs. They’re one of the few companies I’ve seen that actually has like a code of ethics behind the work that they do because it could be so easy for someone to use their service that they offer use that technology for extremely nefarious purposes.

Manny Ikomi:

Right?

Maurice Cherry:

But they actually have a code of ethics behind about what customers do with that technology and how they even plan on implementing and using it, which I would like to see more companies if they’re going to be implementing. These features I would like to also have them talk about, like we said before, those ramifications of what it means to include all of this. And who is it really serving? And this is something that we saw with, like, Bitcoin and with Web three and all this sort of stuff, where the use of all this generative AI also uses a lot of natural resources, which is something that I don’t think we regularly would think about because computers have been such an ever present just an ever present sort of thing. But I remember I was reading something I want to say, I don’t know, a couple of days ago about how Microsoft’s water usage or something has increased by 30% because of the fact that they’re like using AI within oh wait, I’m looking at it now. AI usage fuel spike in Microsoft’s water consumption, it spiked 34% because they’re using it in all these other types of programs and stuff, which you would think water, why water? But it takes more servers, space and power to do all this AI stuff, which means it has to be cooled in some way with air conditioning. It’s all tied in, so it’s not really happening in a vacuum. I would just like to see more companies talk about the ethics behind why they’re doing what they’re doing instead of just rolling out innovation after innovation that I guess we’re supposed to OOH and awe over in some fancy presentation.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. My perspective is obviously kind of biased because I work for IBM. But recently, with the whole Watson X announcement thing that you may or may not have heard of, I think part of it, and IBM does, I think. Have pretty decent programming and ethics and training around the use of AI, because that’s kind of like, one of our strategic areas that we’re trying to be leaders in. And so the whole rollout for Watson X was kind of centered around three different areas. There was Watson X AI data and then governance. And governance, I think, is really that part of it that kind of talks about making sure that it’s responsible and transparent and explainable. And then we also have even like an enterprise design thinking course where the methodology for design thinking is tailored around.

Like if you want to implement AI and you’re using a design thinking framework or initiative to do that, there’s also training that’s kind of specific to that as well. That kind of goes into some of the what is the ideal outcome or impact that we want to have, and is AI really even necessary for that in the first place? Right, so it wants you to think about those things. Now, in my personal experience, have know deployed AI in some way with IBM? Not really. So I haven’t actually gotten the chance to user these learning materials, but I think at the very least, they’re there as a resource for us employees to use. And it is in IBM’s interest for us to be very smart about the user of AI because in some ways we are kind of seen as leaders or innovators in that space. There is definitely an aspect of companies need to have more ethics and intent around how they’re using AI, where it gets deployed, what the impact is, who’s using it, who’s being affected by it. I think I would like to see more from that from every company, IBM included. But from what I’ve seen so far, I think at least at a programming and learning level, IBM seems to be very aware of that.

And it’s also from a risk and compliance perspective because we’re mostly operate as a B2B or enterprise to enterprise business. Privacy, security and compliance are things that really large businesses that IBM really care about because it kind of is what amounts to their risk and being litigated against. Right. And so when we deploy AI for a client that uses IBM’s technology, we do have to have a certain amount of ownership over what the technology does and who it impacts because we’re. Like, the designers and deployers of those things.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, we all have to, I just think, be a bit more cognizant of the usage of these tools and what they mean and what the greater sort of impact of it is. But I think we’ve nerded out enough about that. So let’s kind of shift the focus here and talk more about you. Let’s learn more about Manny. Tell me about where you’re from.

Manny Ikomi:

I’m mostly from the Boston area. I grew up mostly in towns called Saugas and Malden, and a little bit in Revere. And that’s kind of like, known as, like, the North Shore area of Boston, I guess you could say. But I’ve pretty much lived like, within 20 to 15 minutes outside of Boston for my entire life. And I’ve worked around the same area pretty much my entire life. I went to school around the area pretty much throughout my entire life, too.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, growing up, were you always kind of interested in technology? Was it something that your parents kind of tried to get you into?

Manny Ikomi:

I would say I’ve always been interested in it. I think what led me to becoming a designer and my interest in it was that combination of being able to merge my creative interests and creative outputs and curiosity with more technical implementations and things like that. I remember in high school, I went to a vocational high school for context. So we had kind of like vocational programs as part of the regular high school programming.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Manny Ikomi:

And so that’s kind of where I got my first taste of, like, I can be creative and make something and have it be like a physical, tangible thing. And I just thought that was so cool because, one, I was really bad at drawing, even though I was trying to be creative. But I did find that I had an affinity for things like the software and tooling that was available in the computer labs that we have. The shop was called Graphic Communications, by the way. So that’s kind of what led into my whole six years at a printing company and things like that. But that’s really where I started to develop that interest for the combination of creativity and technology. Although at the time the technology was printing, not as we would think about it, I guess today from a UX standpoint.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk more about Bunker Hill. Of course, you mentioned earlier that you are a teacher there, which we’ll get into, but that’s where you started off in college. You went to Bunker Hill Community College, majored in graphic arts and visual communications. Tell me, what was your time like there? Do you feel like it really kind of prepared you?

Manny Ikomi:

Bunker Hill was kind of interesting because I was kind of facing some, I guess, conflicting realities. That was actually a very huge period of growth for me, I think, relatively to where I’m at now. If I really reflect on it so with Bunker Hill, I think the programming that they had there at the time was pretty good. I think from a design perspective, it was definitely skewed more towards those kind of typical graphic design programs where your first year is kind of like your foundation year, you’re required to do a whole bunch of drawing and painting and kind of like more artsy stuff. And then in your, I guess, second year of the Associates program, that’s where you start getting into more specific studio level courses around typography, which is where I think my trajectory in design kind of started to skyrocket when I finally recognized the importance of it and my ability to influence that as a designer. Now that’s always the one thing I tell people if they learn nothing about design is Typography is like 90 or 80% of the stuff that you need to know if you want to become a designer or at least design something well if you’re not formally trained as one from there. I spent quite a few years there because I was a part time student and then I was working full time at the Print Shop, and that was mostly because I couldn’t afford to go to a full four year institution. I didn’t really feel comfortable with the idea of taking out a whole bunch of student loans.

And although I had pretty decent support from my parents, it wasn’t something that I also felt like, I guess I didn’t want them to be fiscally responsible. I don’t really think we were in a position to do that, especially at the time that I was doing community college classes. So it was really just kind of me like, finding my way, figuring it out. When I first started there, I tried to take twelve credits worth of courses and work full time at the print shop, which lasted maybe all of like four to six weeks before I was, this is definitely not going to work because that was just a lot. And then finally I found like a good balance between two classes a semester, which ultimately ended up requiring me to go twice as long to finish my associate’s degree. So it actually took me four years as opposed to two, but for the most part I was able to go through community college without any loans whatsoever, which was extremely helpful to me. Now I’m thanking myself much later in the future for being smart enough to think about that during that time because I had to be so, I guess, independent in that sense and really think about myself and my needs and ultimately my own personal finances. That’s kind of where I started to really think about my personal finance money, what success meant to me, becoming more financially literate in the decisions that I was making and the impact that it might have on me later.

Learning about debt and compound interest and investing and all those things. And luckily I made a lot of really smart choices during that time to the point where now, financially, I’m doing things less so out of fear, which was kind of like the original motivation for me to do that because I didn’t want to be broke. And I had some minorly traumatic experience around involving money and things like that when I was growing up. So it kind of started from that place of fear. And then now that I’m finally in a place where I feel much more well established, much more secure, not only in my professional life, but also my personal life and just who I am, those things are more so. They’re not top of mind for me and I don’t have to obsess about them, but I have enough of a foundation to think about it more as an opportunity rather than a risk, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:

No, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, college is a transitory time for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. And for you, you were going to college and working at the same time. Tell me about how you sort of balance that.

Manny Ikomi:

I was not very good at it. I guess work-life balance, I guess, is something that I’ve always kind of struggled with a little bit. It originally stemmed from like, I always need to have something to do. I always need to be busy, I always need to be productive. And that was kind of a very unhealthy way of thinking about it because I was kind of motivated by that fear of not having money or opportunity. But the way that I balanced it was thankfully the company that I was working with at the time, they were actually pretty supportive of me going to college and doing what I needed to do. So there were some days where I had class during the middle of the day and they had no problem with me leaving the office to I was working in the office five days a week for that job. They had no problem with me leaving work to go to class for like four hours and then do what I needed to do to get my degree at Bunker Hill. And so that was really helpful because it gave me a lot of autonomy and really, as long as I got my work done, it really wasn’t a big deal for them.

So that was like a huge help. And I know a lot of people just don’t have that sort of opportunity or luxury. That being said, they definitely did not subsidize, nor were they in a position to help me subsidize my education, but it definitely gave me, I think, the flexibility I needed. And then it was really up to me to just be very good about time management, make sure I was keeping up with my assignments, making sure my work obligations were taken care of. Sometimes that required really long nights. Other times it required really early mornings. I wasn’t as much of a social butterfly, or I didn’t really get to do all of the social things that are part of a college experience that people might want or be accustomed to. I didn’t really have a dormitory experience.

There were sacrifices in that, but I think ultimately I came out better for it, and I would definitely do it again if I had to. I just might be a little bit more forgiving with myself in terms of working myself too hard, I guess you could say.

Maurice Cherry:

Trust me, you missed nothing about the dorm experience. There’s nothing about that you have missed. I don’t know if you have siblings or not, but you’ve missed nothing. Consider yourself lucky.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. It ended up working out, I think, a little bit, because once I transferred to Lesley and finished my bachelor’s degree there, although I didn’t get the full know experience there either, I did end up, you know, slowly making friends throughout the entire college experience who did have the dorm life. And we did go over each other’s places and play video games and hang out and do homework together. And not all of them were from the same college. But Boston is…there’s a lot of college-level institutions here, so I got to do some of that. But I guess you’re right. I didn’t really miss much, either.

Maurice Cherry:

I feel like Boston is a pretty extremely diverse college mean. Of course, you have the well known colleges like MIT, Harvard, et cetera, but then you’ve got, like you said, Lesley, you got Bunker Hill. There’s other universities in and around the sort of Boston metro area, so it makes sense that there would be a lot of commingling like that. Yeah, I mean, Atlanta, in a way is sort of like that, too. I mean, I went to Morehouse and there were opportunities where you would, of course, hang out with students from Georgia Tech, from Georgia State. Spelman is right across the street, Clark-Atlanta is right across the street. So you’re just all kind of commingling together. I mean, Atlanta really is a big college town. I don’t know if a lot of folks realize that it’s a pretty unique college town because the number of HBCUs we have, but it’s really a big college town, so you have all these opportunities to meet people doing all sorts of things at all sorts of different places.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I never really thought of ATL like that, to be honest. I think one person who I met was from the Savannah College of Art and Design, which I think is in Georgia, if correctly based out of Savannah, Georgia.

Maurice Cherry:

We have a campus here in Atlanta, too, right? Yeah. And you mentioned this kind of before we started recording, but one of your professors at Lesley was actually a recent guest on Revision Path.

Manny Ikomi:

Yes. So, yeah, shout out to Shanae Chapman. Ever since you reached out to me and I discovered the podcast, I’ve definitely gone in and done my due diligence. And I just think what you’re doing is really cool again. And it’s really kind of surreal, actually, I think, to kind of be part of this in the same way that they were, knowing that some of those people I either looked up to or I learned from or had some sort of influence in my life, personally or professionally. And we’ve also had some other IBM designers on the podcast as, like, I listened to a couple episodes way back with Oen Hammonds and Shani Sandy, who are both, like, design executives at IBM still. Yeah, it’s kind of a very small, interesting world, I guess, as we were speaking earlier. But, yeah, it was a really full circle moment.

I haven’t talked to Shanae in a little while, but recently we did kind of have a bit of a go back and forth because she was interested in the talk that I had done earlier this year. But, yeah, I just think it’s really cool and it’s honestly kind of an honor to be doing this right now.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m kind of…I have a question about sort of…I just kind of want to go back to your college experience for a bit because, like we said before, you were working and you were going to college at the same time. What made you want to continue your studies in design? Because it sounds like you already had — if I’m wrong here, please correct me — but it sounds like you had a nice kind of set up because the company was very flexible about you going to class and still working for them. It sounded like they really supported you. What made you want to continue your educational career?

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, so that was a combination of quite a few things. I think, for context, the company that I worked at for six years, it was a small, family-owned business. We weren’t like some large…we weren’t like a Vistaprint or anything like that. And although it was a really great experience, I think I hit my ceiling there in terms of growth and opportunity relatively quickly, probably in hindsight, within the first three years. But the reason I stayed was, like you said, because of that flexibility that I really liked, and also the pay was decent enough to get me through college, do the things that I needed to do, have a little fun on the side. It was good for what it was.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Manny Ikomi:

And then I think as I started to become more interested in things like interactive design and user experience and things like that, that I really didn’t even know existed as career paths, really, I kind of stumbled upon them by virtue of learning how to code and kind of self teaching myself that stuff on the side. Hill I was working there. I just basically hit a ceiling there. And then when COVID happened. I graduated Bunker Hill in the fall of 2019, and I had applied to Lesley. I had got my transfer papers, and thankfully they had a matriculation agreement, which made it really easy for me that they just take your associate’s degree, no questions asked, that the credits all get applied where they should, and you start as a junior in their bachelor’s program. And at the time, I was reluctant about doing it because it was going to require that I took out student loans, but I did get a really great scholarship. And the fact that they took all of my credits was really huge, because when I did the math, financially speaking, it actually made it lower cost for me to go there and do the program that I wanted than, say, to transfer and go to a state school like Salem State or Mass Art were probably the other alternatives that I looked into.

So even though the sticker price of Lesley was a lot higher, it was actually going to be net cheaper because of the scholarship that I got. And they took all of my credits, which some of the other colleges may not have been willing to do.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s great.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. And so from there, that kind of made the decision really easy for me. And then when COVID happened, the world blew up in the spring of 2020. I actually decided to take a gap for like a semester and then start in the fall of 2020. Of course, when I had planned to do that, I didn’t know COVID was going to blow up the entire world, but thus it did. And so in some ways, I actually kind of avoided that initial shock to my education experience, because, like everywhere else in the world, everyone was trying to figure out how to do virtual class instruction if they’ve never done that before. There was a whole bunch of new challenges that happened as a result of that. And so I kind of skid by those for the most part.

And then when I started in fall of 2020, I was still working at the print shop. But because I was working at the print shop remotely now, because it just wasn’t safe for us to be in the office, still, I was able to do Lesley full time and work remotely for the print shop.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Manny Ikomi:

And then in 2021, in January, because my hours and income from the print shop was drastically reduced just because business was slow and it was really tough time for everyone. And so, thankfully, I had prepared for some of this. Because going back to financial literacy stuff, I had prepared an emergency fund and kind of knew, worst case scenario, I would be able to make it through college for the most part, even if I wasn’t working a full time gig. And I could just find maybe some freelance work and stuff on the side. So in 2021, I decided to leave. I put in my notice. I left on really great terms with them overall. Actually, recently, I ended up asking them to do some print work for me for a side thing with IBM.

But, yeah, from there it was just like full steam ahead with Lesley. I was like, I just want to get my education done. Out of the way. I know interactive design is the area that IBM interested in. I know it will somehow bring me to some interesting path with coding in some way. And at the time, I didn’t really know what user experience was until a particular studio course that I had, which just so happened to be with two IBM distinguished designers who were my faculty and they were the ones who ended up asking me to apply, like, a year later when I was a senior into the role that I’m in now, essentially.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, nice. I was going to ask how you sort of came across IBM with the work that you were doing, but it sounds like you already had this kind of support system in.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I think it really started kind of like, way back in vocational school because I had a pretty good technical understanding of the tooling and the software and some of the processes for design in terms of the tactical aspects and visual design, working in hind design, all that stuff. And so for me, the real value that I got out of college was the networking, the mentorship, the one on one time. And a lot of the theory and history behind design was most valuable to me, so I could really focus on that rather than trying to struggle with some of the tooling and learning new methods that I was already familiar with. And so when it came time to really work on projects, the technical aspects of doing the design work and making the artifacts and deliverables was actually relatively easy for me. What I was most challenged by was, like, the strategic parts of it and kind of training myself to think like a designer, not just make pretty designs.

Maurice Cherry:

I hear you. Okay. And now, let’s talk about what you sort of mentioned before about teaching at Bunker Hill. I feel like that might be an interesting experience to go back to your alma mater years later and now teach. What made you decide to go that route?

Manny Ikomi:

It’s definitely been a full circle moment that I’m still kind of, I guess, pinching myself for a long time ago. So when I had graduated from Bunker Hill in 2019, a professor of mine who I developed, like, a really great relationship with while I was there for four years, she asked me when I graduated. She said, when you finish your bachelor’s degree, I would love for you to come back and teach the college. And when she said that to me, I was kind of like, what? Because I was like, I just never really considered that as a possibility before. And then ever since she said that, I have kind of noticed getting really positive signals from people that I might be good at doing that. And so over, like, I guess it was kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way, where if I found it interesting and I thought it was nice, maybe it would happen. I maintained a relationship with that professor for quite a while, and even while I was going through Lesley and doing things, I would always go back to the college and even before I got the role there, do design crits with some of their students and provide networking and opportunities and portfolio reviews, things like that, to kind of give back.

And earlier this year, I had went to a design conference. It was like the first in-person design conference I got to go to since COVID kind of unleashed everything she had just so happened to be there. The professor ended up asking me to teach, and we were just kind of, like, catching up a little bit because we hadn’t talked in a little while, but we email back and forth every once in a while, and she had told me, like, hey, we have adjunct positions opening. We’re looking for people to teach certain courses. I want you to apply, basically. And even still, I was kind of like, well, I’m still just barely my first year into this role at IBM. Am I really even qualified or ready to do this? I was hoping, I think, realistically, to get another maybe four years or five years or so in the industry and doing more practice as a practitioner. But I kind of just kind of said to myself, self, take your own advice.

Like, if the opportunity presents itself, just apply and see what happens, just like I did with IBM. And so, long story short, it was like the worst that they can say is no. Right?

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Manny Ikomi:

So I applied. I did the interview, I did the teaching demo, and then, yeah, now here I am. So I’m only teaching one class. It’s Wednesday evenings, which works really well with my schedule, considering I also tend to go into the office on Wednesdays, and it’s right down the street from my office pretty much too. And the topic that I’m teaching is interactive design, which is kind of right up my alley since that’s what I studied in college, and now that’s what I’m doing for my job, pretty much. So the stars aligned, I guess you could say.

Maurice Cherry:

How’s the teaching experience been so far?

Manny Ikomi:

So far it’s been, I think, a net positive. I think the teaching aspects of it, working with students, kind of like digging back in some of my own archives and coming up with my own content and assignments. I also spent a lot of time reaching out to some of my own professors and also students that I went to Bunker Hill with and at Lesley as well and kind of doing my own design research. I kind of just approached it as like, well, if I was to design a student experience, I just kind of treated it like any other experience design project, except my users are now students. So approaching it with that mindset kind of really helped me. And from there, I think the parts of it that I like are really going well as far as in class instruction, working with the students, providing feedback on their work. I think it’s probably one of the most valuable things I got out of my design education is like, getting critiques and feedback from other people and getting that other perspective on your work that you might not otherwise get if you’re trying to learn by yourself. And then the parts of it that I don’t like so much really are kind of like the more logistics and administrative stuff around it.

I really struggled with grading in the first two weeks to kind of figure out, like, I probably need a rubric. And then also the learning management system that we use isn’t the most user friendly thing either, which is kind of meta hilarious in a sense because I’m trying to teach my students how to design interactive systems like that. There are parts of it that are bad that come with the good, but I’d say overall it’s been going well. And despite currently maybe potentially having to fail one student if they don’t show up next week, it’s been going overwhelmingly good, I think. But ideally I would like to make it to the end of semester without failing anyone. I definitely did not set out to do that when I started teaching, so it’s kind of unfortunate that they’re just not participating or engaging. And I certainly don’t want to make any assumptions as to why they’re not doing it or assuming that they’re a delinquent of some kind because they may have things going on as a student that I just don’t know about and probably never will. But I did try to make an effort to reach out to that person and be as supportive as possible, as opposed to being punitive and penalizing, despite having to uphold the rules of my syllabus in the classroom and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I was an adjunct for two years. I think I taught for two years. It’s 2012 through 2014, I think. I taught a web development course to business majors, and it was a BIS course, like business information systems. And I get that struggle that you’re talking about, like, you go into it. Well, for me, I think the Virgo in me wanted to be like, “hey, this is all wrong.” Like, the way that you’re teaching. I remember going to the dean, like, the first week saying, “we are setting these students up to fail if this is what we’re teaching them, because this is not what we use out in the real world.” Like, if this is what you’re teaching business students, they’re going to go to a company and get laughed at, or they’re going to try to apply for a job and no one’s going to hire them.

And I offered to redo the whole rubric. I’m talking about the grading, the tests, the lessons. I was like, “I’ll redo it and make this into my course that I think they should have.” And they were like, “okay, it’s fine. We don’t care.” And also in that same vein, yeah, you go into it not wanting to fail anyone, and it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. It’s one of those sad eventualities, and it’s because, oh, how could I put this and I don’t mean this in a derisive way, but students will always try to get one over on their professor. They always will. It doesn’t matter how old they are or anything. They will always try to get one over on their professor. They will give you all kinds of excuses just out of everywhere as to why something did get done, why something didn’t get done. In this case, the syllabus is your friend. The syllabus is the contract between the professor and the student to say, if you’re in this class, these are the things that you have to do in order to succeed in the class. And we had office hours. Students would come to office hours and would wonder why. And it’s not that office hours were included in their grade, but then they would come at the last minute, like, “oh, well, can we meet on this day?” I’m like, “well, that’s not my office hours. “My office hours are on the syllabus because I’m also a working designer, so I can’t go out of my way.” You want to help the students because you’re their teacher, so I get that.

But it’s going to be an inevitability that you’re going to have to fail someone. Students are going to go cry bloody murder to the dean or to whatever, because you’re not fair. You’re a bad teacher. They’re going to leave bad reviews. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen.

The best thing that you can do is to follow your syllabus, teach the students that are receptive, because there’s just going to be some people you’re just not going to reach. Because I’m assuming you’re doing this in person. Yes, there’s just going to be people that you’re just not going to reach. I think ours was a mix of in person and online, and the online students were the worst. I mean, copying straight from Wikipedia. I’d run it through TurnItIn and get 99% plagiarized. I’m just like, oh my God. And they would swear to you up and down that they wrote it. And it’s like, “I can look at the quality of your written posts in the forum and tell that you didn’t write this. Don’t lie to me.” But it’s one of those things, unfortunately, that’s just going to happen.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that because one of the things that I had done that I had conversations with some people about when I was developing all the content, because the college basically kind of they didn’t really direct me on. Basically, it was like, here’s the course description. Here’s a sample of a syllabus that’s been used previously. Make it your own. So I had a lot of academic freedom, I guess, in that sense of being able to develop the materials the way I wanted to do it. Because, like you were kind of saying when I took this very same course when I was a student, it was not very good. One of the courses I actually took ended up being so bad that I actually went to the dean as a student, complained about the course, got a refund and then still got the credits for the course.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Manny Ikomi:

But I was also a fairly advanced student because I had already had prior experience. I had already kind of known some of the things that were out there that were happening. I also spent a lot of time investing in my learning and education outside of the classroom. So I was very aware of where the college was doing well and not doing so well at the time. And so now coming back into it, I kind of had the same mindset of like, there is no way I’m doing it this way, I’m going to do it my way. Which ultimately creates a lot of work for me in terms of having to come up with all the content and things like that. But it’s also just been kind of like an interesting way to think about my design skills in a different light in terms of designing for instruction and learning as opposed to making profit off of people, I guess. Yeah, so that’s been kind of interesting.

And then on the topic of plagiarism, one of the areas that I talked to people about is, like, using generative AI. I kind of went into it with a mindset of, like, I would rather students use it and use it liberally and experiment with it and not be afraid of it. But come to me with questions because I think ultimately, if I was to put in my syllabus, there’s no use of generative AI allowed one. It’s really hard to detect whether someone’s using it or not, unless, to your point, you’ve kind of gotten to know them a few weeks in. You can kind of see where people are at and kind of what they’re capable of to a certain extent. Right. But for me, it was kind of just like, I know. And I told them on the first day, I was like, when we were going over key parts of the syllabus, I was like, I know that you are going to use generative AI probably whether I allow you to or not.

So just use it, but be conscious of how you’re using it. Cite your usage of it when you do, and provide documentation to me so that I can see how you’re using it. Because there may be parts like kind of we were talking about where it could be harmful or misleading or maybe it’s not giving them the right information that they need and things like that. So that’s been kind of an interesting thing to also navigate. There are a few students who I suspect of using generative AI without disclosing it according to the rules of our syllabus. But for now, I’m kind of letting it slide, mostly because I just haven’t gotten that sense of familiarity with where they’re at and being able to tell one way or another. And I also have seen the negative effects of accusing students of plagiarizing their work or doing something that they are capable of that you just don’t believe. And that can leave a really lasting and poor impression on students because I remember experiencing that once a little bit where because I was working at the printing company, I had access to all kinds of printing equipment, tools, materials, and quality paper, quality design.

I also did a lot of prepress. And so I knew what it took to design something and actually have it be printed in a way that is high quality. And for one of my first projects I did that, I tried to pull out all the stops, like my work let me use what was available. And when I brought in my project, I remember they didn’t believe the work that I did was really mine and that I actually bound the book, printed the book, designed it, and did all of that. And although it wasn’t as relevant to the conversation on generative AI, I still remember that to this day and feeling like, well, if I’m in a student in this scenario who’s really excelling at their projects and doing to the point where you don’t even believe the work is mine, then why am I here, right? You know what I mean? So I try to be very careful about who I accuse or not of using it. And I think ultimately at the end, if they are going to use generative AI to essentially cheat their way through my course, they’re not going to get the return on the educator investment that they’re putting in. So I think ultimately it all ends up in my favor anyway, but the initial impact of that may work in their favor in the short term.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m glad I didn’t teach in the age of AI. I’m so glad because I can only imagine now that it’s and I mean, that was sort of a thing that came up a lot as sort of a stopping point for educators. Like, I think maybe about a year or so ago when Chad GPT really started to become used more commonly was in educational spaces. Professors really being like, prohibiting it, of course, but then also curious about it because the work is sometimes actually kind of good.

And yeah, it’s like if a student is going to mortgage their future away by using generative AI, why are you in school? Why are you even doing it? I mean, I taught business students, so these weren’t even design students. So maybe I came into it with a little bit of a bias because they really were just like, “look, this is an elective. I just need to take this so I can get my business degree and go get my MBA or whatever.” They didn’t really care about design. And not to say that I wanted to make them care about design, but I also didn’t want them to think this was going to just be a cakewalk for them.

Manny Ikomi:

Right.

Maurice Cherry:

Not to say I made it hard on well, I might have made it a little hard on purpose. I would kind of change the course as things went along because like I said, I came in and I really wanted to change things up. I would edit it from like, semester to semester. I would change some things up. And I remember this one student who I failed three times. Not on purpose. I didn’t fail them on purpose. What I’m trying to say but they failed the course three times, and it was because I would change the course slightly, like change certain things, and they would keep using the same homework and materials from the first time that they failed the course.

I would change the nature of the assignment, and they would just turn in the same thing. I’m like, did you not read what the assignment was? Why would you turn in something that’s completely different? Just…students.

Manny Ikomi:

Oh, my God, that’s so funny. I hope a year or two from now, when I’ve hopefully taught this class again, more in the future, that I don’t have students like that because I am a very patient and lenient person, and I often see the big picture of these things, I think, more than my students do. But I really hope I don’t get to that point because that’s when it’ll really start. Like, the shade will start coming out and…are you for real for real? You’re just gonna submit the whole same thing? I really hope I don’t get to that.

Maurice Cherry:

I don’t think you’ll get to that point. Again, you’re teaching design students, so they want to be there for that for the most part. I think you’ll be fine.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, it is a requirement. And one of the things that I did on our first day was do, like, a little intro survey to kind of understand where they’re at in terms of their interest in the topic of the course, but also how many hours they’re working outside of the college versus how many credits they’re taking. Mostly to make sure I’m saving students from the mistakes that I made when I started college, because I had no idea what I was doing. But it’s also just good contextually for me to know a little bit about each individual student because that may be one reason or another why they aren’t participating as much or miss a few deadlines here and there and things like that. So it’s good for me to have that kind of in mind here and there.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Now along with teaching, along with your work at IBM, you not only stream on Twitch, which I really want to get into, but you have a podcast also. What made you decide to kind of branch out into these other forms of media?

Manny Ikomi:

The way that I describe it to people is…I just like making shit and putting it on the internet. Oh, sorry, I don’t know if I’m allowed to swear, but…

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, you’re fine, you can curse. It’s fine.

Manny Ikomi:

So that’s really kind of the mindset that I guess I kind of approached it with is just, I just want to make stuff and put it out there. Well, I guess I’ll start with, I don’t know, should I start with streaming or the podcast? Which one do you want?

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk about streaming first.

Manny Ikomi:

Okay, so for streaming, the way that it kind of happened is during the pandemic, like at the height of lockdown and quarantines and things like that, we were all stuck inside for the most part. And originally I had started as a viewer on Twitch like most people do, and I would primarily watch people play video games and they were mostly within the queer community. I am a gay man for context. I don’t know if I talked about that yet, but yeah, I’m queer as fuck. And I just started watching queer streamers on Twitch who play games and I started playing with them and then I forget what it was that really kind of crossed me over in terms of the boundary of going from Twitch to entertainment, but now as a way to learn more about web development and design, because there are a few of us that stream about design on Twitch, myself included. And then there’s also quite a few and quite a bit more people who stream web development and software engineering within the software and game development category, which is typically where I stream as well. And probably like a year into being a viewer, that’s when I started to think about, well, I’m stuck at home, I’m doing some freelance and consulting work here and there, I’m doing my own thing. Let me just start like a co-working stream and see what happens and just share my work.

And then, because I had been so embedded in the Twitch community and the streamers that I had watched some of which who were still very much my good Judys, as I like to say to this day, even outside of streaming. One of them actually, coincidentally ended up living down the street from me during parts of the COVID quarantine, which is also hilariously coincidental. But those people from the queer gaming community really gave me the viewership that I needed and that initial push of support to become a Twitch affiliate. So that’s basically at the point where you can monetize your stream a little bit, you can have subscribers make emotes and do things like that. That happened within the first two weeks of me streaming and everyone was just so extremely supportive despite having little to no idea what my content was or what I was actually streaming because I was streaming my design work and some of my process. And then one thing led to another and probably now I’m a little bit more removed from that kind of like queer gaming part, but I still do participate in some of the communities and lurk in some streams here that I like to support here and there.

But then I started to really find more of the software and game development community and all of the streamers, and now some of them are also like my friends. I met some of them at TwitchCon last year for the first time, which was really great, and actually this year, later this month or in October, I’m going to TwitchCon again and we’re actually going to do a panel about programming on Twitch. And so I don’t have a significantly huge viewership around my stream or anything like that, but the people who do come and who hang out and who stay, whether it’s other streamer or viewers that I’ve had for years now, some of them have been subscribed to me for over, like, three years. And I’m like, oh, wow, this is crazy. Thank you so much for your support. And some of those people still to this day have no idea what I do, but they just support me and who I am and what I like to share and put out there. And so it’s been a really interesting and net positive way of putting myself out there. Kind of like how you’re talking about in terms of building my personal brand, I guess you could say.

It’s kind of taken on, I guess its own thing, I guess. I definitely don’t do it as much as I used to just because now that I work full time and IBM doing my own course, it’s really hard for me to stream on a regular basis as much as I used to. And so as a result, my viewership and other metrics have kind of gone down since the kind of height of my streaming career, if you want to call it that. But I still do it for funsies and I always did it for fun and I never really cared about the metrics anyway because all I really just wanted to do was just make stuff and put it on the Internet. And so streaming just happened to be the lowest barrier to entry, coincidentally enough for me to do that because when you’re live, you’re live. It’s not like a recording like this where maybe we could potentially edit out some things or something like that. For me, it’s like what you see is what you get. And also, at the same token, I don’t have to worry about editing, I don’t have to worry about scripting or being like a perfectionist on it, which kind of can take away the fun because sometimes I do have that nature about my work.

And so for me, it’s a fun way to put myself out there to share what I know. And also it’s part of the reason why I think I’ve become a bit of a better public speaker, why IBM more willing to engage with public speaking opportunities, do things like this. And also people have learned things from my stream, which kind of goes back to the whole you might be a good teacher someday. And so people on my stream have literally told me like, oh, I’ve learned so much from you, or thank you so much for your feedback on my work, or something like that. And it’s just become a really positive outlet, I think, for me whenever I get to do it, just not as frequently as I used to.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there like a big web development community on Twitch? I mean, like you said before, there’s obviously gamers and such, but it sounds like there might be a pretty big community there for web development.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I would say so. We’re relatively unknown, I would say, in terms of the grand scheme of Twitch, but there are some people who have an upwards of an average of 200 viewers and there are some people who have upwards of 1500 viewers when they’re live.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Manny Ikomi:

And they could be doing anything from coding in Rust or building a silly website with animations and things like that. One of my really good friends, mewtru, I think she’s like the perfect example of how you can be a streamer and a content creator and have fun and just like, she’s just really awesome. And I met her through streaming and we’ve kind of become good friends since then. And we’ve always been supportive of one another despite not really even knowing or meeting each other up until Twitch last year. And so, yeah, it’s just interactions like that with people, whether they’re fellow streamers or viewers, it creates a community around what we’re doing. And even though I’m a designer mostly by trade, I still kind of, I guess, hold my own in terms of programming and web development. And my stream is kind of unique in the sense where I add a design lens to things from that. Again, how are you talking about the design, engineering and hybrid perspective that I think a lot of people in the category may not have except for a very small handful of us.

Maurice Cherry:

Twitch sounds like one of the rare places online now, like in 2023, one of the rare places where you can really carve out a niche for yourself. Because with things like Instagram and Twitter and things like that, a lot of stuff is very algorithmically driven. And it feels like, at least from what you’re telling me, Twitch is really more community based in that way.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I mean, that’s actually perfect because that was going to be like my next soapbox to get on. When it comes to creating content on Twitch is…the way that I frame it to people is Twitch is kind of unique as its own brand of social media, like you were kind of thinking about earlier, because it has kind of its own unique culture, to be quite honest around it with emotes and chat and how people interact with the streamer while they’re live. There’s also the kind of aspects like you were talking about around community where people who are creating content on TikTok and YouTube and podcasts and even blog articles, any form of media that you put out there. A lot of it is a one way interaction and a lot of people do it with the goal of building an audience that then they can later monetize. But with streaming on Twitch specifically, what I found is that what you’re really doing is building a community because discovery and algorithms and search on Twitch kind of suck, to be quite honest. That’s why a lot of people don’t really know there’s a whole community of us out there. But for the ones that do know and for the ones that discover us, they tend to stick around and they tend to support what we do, even if they may not like all of the content that we stream.

When I first started streaming one day out of the week, on Sundays, I would just stream League of Legends, which is a game that I like to play for fun with some of my friends. It had nothing to do with the content that I streamed two days a week during the day when I was coworking and things like that. But for the people who wanted that, they came and they stuck around and then when I was streaming other stuff, sometimes they would still come and hang out anyway. And so it really builds on that two-way interaction that I think a lot of people don’t get from other social media platforms that Twitch is really good at enabling. And in hindsight, it also kind of really aligns with, I guess, desire, you could say, to have a two way interaction with people and not feel like it’s just a transaction of like this post or subscribe to my newsletter and things like that. It really is a two-way interaction and I’ve created some really great friends out of it, some of which have helped me with the course that I’m doing right now, some of which I’ve helped with their content and vice versa. And it’s really created a nice little community around what I do, even if my particular streamer and viewership isn’t as strong as it used to be, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:

Interesting. There was a time when I was thinking of doing a live show via Twitch for Revision Path. Like I was thinking of doing Revision Path Live like one day a week. This was before the pandemic. If we manage to get the resources to be able to do it, I would love to try to branch into doing something like that because like you mentioned, it’s a totally different sort of dimension in terms of reaching people and then also in terms of communicating.

Like this conversation that you and I are having will be edited. If it was live, it could be a totally different thing in terms of where the conversation goes and what we talk about or anything like that. So I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve really been putting a little bit of thought into it, if we are able to do it. I’m kind of working on some things behind the scenes just in terms of securing funding for the show and stuff. So I would love to do a live thing maybe like once a week or something as sort of a supplement to the podcast because the podcast has been such a constant thing over the past ten years and we’ve had blog articles here and there. We did a literary anthology for a couple of years and I would love to sort of add a different sort of component to Revision Path. But yeah, Twitch sounds like it could be it.

Manny Ikomi:

That’s great. And honestly, it may not even have to be Twitch. It could be another live platform. I mean, obviously if you want help with that, definitely feel free to reach out to me. I could probably help you in some way or another. One of the things that just in hindsight that I caution people about is there are some people who maybe come from other platforms and they’re trying to diversify their viewership, their audience and things like that. And one of the mistakes that I’ve seen and that people make, what they tend to do, especially if they come from YouTube, is they still treat Twitch like an audience and not a two-way interaction.

And so what you get is people streaming their content and talking into the void, but they’re not interacting with chat, they’re not engaging with the people that are there. And that’s where I think a lot of people tend to maybe fail, I guess you could say, or not get the results or outcomes that they want out of streaming. And mostly it stems from, I feel from my very limited anecdotal evidence and observations that the reason is because a lot of them just aren’t used to that mindset shift, whereas for me it just kind of happened naturally because I started my content creator journey on Twitch. And so now when people come from other platforms, it may not, I mean people in general tend not to convert between one platform for another. So if you have a really strong audience in one type of media or platform, like the podcast for example, it’s going to be really hard to get people to move over to something else and that’s universally regardless of which type of social media or interaction you have with your audience. But it is challenging and it’s especially challenging for people to go into live streaming on Twitch for that reason I believe too.

Maurice Cherry:

No, that’s good to know. I mean, like I said, if I did it, it would be a supplement to the show and also honestly for scheduling it would be so much easier. I think it will be so much easier but in the future we’ll see. But since we’re talking about podcasting, you also have a podcast that you said you started kind of during the pandemic.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. So that kind of ended up just starting as kind of like an inside joke between me and a really close friend of mine, Kevin, who’s my co-host on our podcast Gay + Geeky and Tired. Hashtag ad. And we started, you know, during the height of the pandemic amongst all the other content creation things I was doing for fun. A lot of times the way I would socialize with my friends during the pandemic was through discord and with my friend Kevin in particular, we would have a group of us, some of us, I met my friend Kevin while I was in college, which was part of Know ancillary college experience. And so a lot of our friends would just joke with me and him about how we should make our own podcast and how we talk about so many things around current events and pop culture and queer culture and society and things like that. And so particularly music and gaming are like two kind of key areas that we tend to talk about a lot. And at one point I think we were kind of just like “should we do it? Should we do this? Is this for real? Should we really make a podcast?” And then long story short, we did. We ended up releasing the first episode, I think on my birthday in June of 2021.

It started as Gay + Graphic and Tired because initially, well, we’re kind of both in the design trade but he more approaches it from like an architecture perspective where I’m more user experience and so we thought that would be a cute title and then we ended up changing it to what it is now. But we talk about all kinds of stuff. I just explain it to people. It’s like we just talk about gay shit. We do it very casually. It’s very unscripted, unfiltered. We come prepared with some topics; we tend to rant a lot. It’s a little all over the place and you probably won’t like it, but for the people that do, and some of them have come from my twitch audience as well, they listen to it whenever we release an episode because it is something we do for fun and something we don’t really monetize.

We have had some spurts and lack of consistently or consistency around posting, especially recently now because of my adjunct role and the kind of demands that both of our jobs now require of us. But we are looking into getting back into it and for the most part we’ve been putting out episodes pretty consistently now since then. So we don’t really have a posting schedule or anything at the scale that you’re doing with Revision Path. But again, it just kind of started as one of those things that we wanted to do for fun and we still do it for fun and probably will until we don’t want to anymore. That’s what it is.

Maurice Cherry:

Now have you found that that sort of helped you out in a similar way that Twitch streaming has in terms of communication?

Manny Ikomi:

I think so. I would say Twitch definitely moreso because there is kind of like you’re talking about that multisensory experience of like you’re visually there talking to people and then they can obviously hear you because it’s a video format. I would say, with a podcast, because we have the luxury of being able to edit it and because they can’t see us. There’s aspects of it that outside of the technical parts of learning what it takes to produce a podcast a little bit and some tips and tricks here to edit audio and understanding what that process looks like. I’m not, like, an audio engineer or anything, and I’m sure your editor could probably do way better than I can at editing our pod, but it’s just one of those little technical skills that I’ve always just been able to pick up really quickly just to do something and get it out there. And nobody really complains about our audio, so I think it’s okay. And outside of that, I would say I’ve definitely gotten more personal growth and value out of streaming. But for the podcaster thing, I think it’s also just half of it is just an excuse for me and my friend to get together on Discord and just talk a bunch of crap.

So it has had value but in less, I guess, tangible monetary ways.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s more like it’s a personal thing. It’s cathartic. I got you. Okay, what does success look like to you at this point in your career?

Manny Ikomi:

When I was listening to some of the episodes with some other people, I figured this one was coming and of course I did not prepare a very well-worded response. I think success is a really tricky word and the way that I tend to think about it and the way that I frame it to people is that success is different for everyone. And for me, it’s not necessarily tied to a monetary amount of money or becoming a millionaire or doing anything like that. I think ultimately my idea of success is being able to have a positive impact on the world and the people around me, whether that’s in small ways or big ways, whether I become some notable designer, Lord, someday or something, I don’t know, I don’t care. But just being able to have a positive impact with people, preferably through my profession and personally, and being able to do that sustainably, I think. So although money is not like a motivating factor for me, it is just a reality of the world that we live in. And there are certain ways, like when it comes to the lifestyle that I want and the flexibility that I want and the security and things like that, to where money does play a role in it. But it’s not necessarily my sole motivator, I guess, like kind of going back to the key takeaway that we were talking about, it’s really lifting as I climb.

I think it’s just been something that especially ever since I got my job at IBM, it’s something that I take maybe a little too seriously. Because I recognize that there is an immense amount for someone like me who is a queer black person who may not have had the most affluent upbringing, but somehow managed to have this beautiful story of overcoming adversity and all that stuff. There are elements that I still recognize are due to elements of privilege in some way because it’s on a spectrum. And so there are privileges that I’ve had, there are opportunities that I’ve had because of that. But there are also ways that I may have been disenfranchised or oppressed, whether internalized myself or externally.

And so lifting as I climb is kind of a way that I like to give back and uplift people in ways that I can, where I have the power and privilege to do so. Like, one of the ways that I try to do that is, right before coming on the podcast, someone who I’d went to college with at Bunker Hill actually reached out to me and said, like, “hey, I saw you posted about consulting opportunities at IBM. I want to learn more about your role and what you do and how to apply and things like that.” And although I’m not in a position to hire them outright, I can at least meet with them, give them feedback on their portfolio, give them some advice, insight into what it’s like, and really just mentoring people. And that brings me joy, that brings me satisfaction. I feel like I’m helping people. I think that’s why I also like teaching so much. It’s a way to just be successful, but also make others successful with me as I go. I guess. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:

If it makes sense to you, it makes sense. It makes sense. It makes sense. I’m not messing with you. If you didn’t get into UX, what do you think you’d be doing?

Manny Ikomi:

Oh boy. To be honest, if it had started the other way around, I probably would have been a web developer. It’s probably the closest alternative, I guess. And then maybe my roads would have crossed elsewhere into UX design later on. Probably, like, out of the wild the answer would be maybe working somewhere in a nonprofit or in healthcare or in the public market somewhere like either, again, teaching — maybe not teaching design — but teaching in some form or fashion design. And it’s just something that’s been with me that I known I’ve wanted to do in some fashion or another ever since my vocational training in 9th grade. And that kind of hyper fixation and just knowing what I want to do that early has really propelled me to go really far, at least relatively to people in my age group, I guess you could say.

So I’d never really considered alternatives outside of maybe becoming a web developer and leaving design or potentially becoming a teacher. But all of those things still include design, I guess, in some way, now that I’m doing both of those things.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Manny Ikomi:

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently, aside from my craft and that intersection of design and engineering is just putting my design skills and knowledge to work in places where I feel like it aligns with my values. And so I’m trying to move towards, at least within the short term in some way, moving towards doing more consulting projects and gigs with public sector institutions, so education institutions, colleges, local and state governments, healthcare providers, things like that. And I want to do that because as close as I can get to, I guess, public service, while still very much maintaining what I do as a designer and being able to bring value there in terms of inclusive design where I can add intersectionality and a lot of those things, like socially, that some people don’t always get the opportunity to bring to their work or maybe just aren’t to because they don’t represent or have the identities that intersect in the way for the people that they’re designing for, I guess. So I guess it would be being a design consultant in some shape or form, working with local and state governments, educational institutions or healthcare.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, your work, your streaming, your podcaster? Where can they find that information?

Manny Ikomi:

Online I basically compiled if you want to know where I am on the Internet, basically just go to mannyikomi.com/links. It’s kind of like my own IBM a web developer, so I’m going to make it myself version of Linktree essentially. And that just lists all of my links to places where I show up online, including my blog, my stream, my podcaster, my portfolio is also there on my website if it’s even vaguely up to date. Yeah, I would say mannyikomi.com/links will take you to anywhere I am on the internet that you may also be.

Maurice Cherry:

Sounds good.

Well, Manny Ikomi, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show.

I think one for talking about your story, talking know, just sort of what you’re working on and even what you’re teaching and everything. I feel like you’re kind of at this point in your career where it’s all going to start to come together for you like in the next few years. I feel like it’s all going to gel. I’m listening to what you’re doing now and that it sounds like kind of what I was doing back in the day. Like I was trying to do all these different things and creating stuff and putting it online. I feel like you’re at that point where it’s really going to start to come together and gel in a really positive way and I’ll be really excited to see what you come up with when that happens.

So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Manny Ikomi:

Thank you so much for having me. This was fantastic. I’m just so obsessed with what you’re doing. I think this is great and maybe hopefully one day I’ll have the kind of impact that you’re having right now on the community. I think it’s really cool what you’re doing. So thank you so much for having me. This is really an honor to be here.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

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

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

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

Shanae Chapman

Sometimes in life, you’ve got to do what you can to make the best out of a bad situation. For Shanae Chapman, that meant using a bad post-graduation job market to launch her own agency, Nerdy Diva. Now she’s setting her sights on bigger goals and doing what she can to help others achieve success in tech and design.

We began by talking about how Shanae started her agency, and we discussed the current state of AI tools and the changing landscape of UX research and design. She also spoke about growing up in St. Louis, attending college, and shared how she used her collective work experiences to dive deeper into the world of UX. For Shanae, hard work and motivation have been the keys to her success!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Shanae Chapman:

I’m Shanae Chapman. I am the CEO, founder, and managing director of Nerdy Diva, a consultancy that specializes in UX research and design and training services and building community for people of color in tech.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. How has 2023 been going for you so far? Any special highlights?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, it’s been an up and down journey. So in addition to having Nerdy Diva as my business the past five years, I also typically worked a day job in tech as well. And I went through a layoff, as many people did earlier this year, and just have been processing, going through layoffs and thinking about what’s next in my career and in my business and getting support for myself, and then also sharing those resources out with the community.

Maurice Cherry:

I know last year there were just sort of this huge wave of layoffs from tech companies and it felt like, a little bit, that wave had sort of abated because you hadn’t heard about it much this year. But people are, unfortunately, still getting laid off from companies. So I’m really sorry to hear that. But you have now, kind of…your full focus is on Nerdy Diva, is that right?

Shanae Chapman:

That is correct, and I’m very excited for what the future holds. I’m currently working on a partnership with LinkedIn. I’m teaching a design course that will be released hopefully in Fall 2023.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh nice. So hopefully by the time this comes out — this will air in September; right now we’re recording it a bit earlier — but maybe by the time this comes out, then it’ll correspond with your course.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, it’s going to be exciting. Definitely going to be out in Q3. Later in Q3 or maybe early Q4 this year.

Maurice Cherry:

Very nice. So let’s talk about Nerdy Diva. You mentioned you’ve been doing it now for about five years, how did you get started with it?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I have always done freelance projects during my career. I’ve been working in design in some way and fashion for the past sixteen years and started out as a college student taking design classes at St. Louis University and learned the basics of graphic design while studying from professors who were working in the field and who had businesses and were also teaching as adjunct instructors. So that was a big insight for me to see that, oh, people can have their own businesses, do design, be creative and teach. And that’s something that really stood out to me and led to me trying it out myself as a 19-year-old saying, “you know what, I’m going to see how I can do this.” And I would go out to small businesses in the area and go to campus departments and ask if people had any design projects that they needed help with and that’s how I started my career.

Maurice Cherry:

Now I’m looking at the Nerdy Diva website now and it’s great that you have your values, you’ve got your mission, vision statements, stuff like that. How has business been going so far?

Shanae Chapman:

It’s been an interesting year. I have seen more of the teaching and training projects come in, like the LinkedIn course that I’m working on currently. And there are some other organizations that I’m in talks with about teaching and training on design and research. It’s been a little slow on actually doing the design projects. I think there’s a lot of economic instability at this time with a lot of companies. The layoffs persist. So the layoffs have been going on throughout this year across design, and that brings in a lot of unknowns and a lot of uncertainty about what’s next. So something that I’m doing is reaching out to organizations that we may not always think about who need design as well, like our government agencies and our nonprofit organizations who may also need support and design.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. With the way that the economy has gone now — we’re kind of recording this right now, near the beginning of some companies, like fiscal year — I think at this time, companies might start thinking like, “oh, well, what could we possibly spend money on this year?” But a lot of places are still just kind of waiting to see how the economy will bounce back, if the economy will bounce back. I know in my case, I was laid off last year and what it felt like was that companies really were just seeing what other companies were doing and just following suit. So in some ways, it wasn’t about, “oh, we need to cut back to save money.” It’s like, “well, if all the other businesses in our sector are cutting back, then maybe we need to cut back too.” But in that respect, it’s kind of been a bit of a good time if you’re freelancing or if you’re doing contract work, because companies might be more apt to do something short-term than long-term.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, and it’s good to have options. It’s good to have multiple streams of income and being a freelancer, but then going the step higher to that and incorporating your own business. And I’ve had my LLC since 2018, incorporating my LLC, and then being able to take on projects and design projects where I’m able to work on that, but also have the opportunity to hire contractors and interns who also get opportunities to be creative and to grow as designers and grow their careers. That’s really empowering and really something that is rewarding for me as a business owner.

Maurice Cherry:

So what does a typical day look like for you now?

Shanae Chapman:

There are no typical days, but generally I’m checking my email from people who are potential partners and looking at ways to get more visibility for the work that we do on design and training and connecting more recently with the local chamber of commerce here in St. Louis, but also growing in Boston, which is my second home. I went to grad school in Boston and Northeastern University and started my career in design and technology and the corporate level in the Boston area. So being able to connect more with the businesses there and definitely taking advantage of opportunities for minority owned business contracts and contracts for women business enterprises. And I think that’s something that’s really important for design businesses to also get those certifications so that we have those opportunities that come up.

Maurice Cherry:

Was it difficult for you to get those for your business?

Shanae Chapman:

It’s a process. So it’s definitely something where you have to do your homework and do your research. And for me, it’s something where I’m still in that path of finding all of the resources and tools to get certified in Boston. And I think it’s definitely worth it because it opens up more doors for you to have bigger clients and take on bigger projects. And for me also, that sense of being able to work on projects that impact everyday people. So being able to work on civic tech projects is something that is really important to me. And having those opportunities come in…yeah, it’s what I want to do. So being able to work on the things that you want to do and not just that you have to do, definitely is a game changer.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked about civic tech. Are those like the best types of clients that you want to work with or do you have kind of a broader set that you’d normally like to work with?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah. Definitely looking for more opportunities to work with government agencies, city level, state level, around building up more intuitive resources for communities, whether that’s increasing the usability of websites and apps for services, whether that’s helping people find information who are looking for ways to get around the city, as with transportation or for healthcare resources, being able to connect people to the information and tools that they need to have a positive quality of life. That’s something that’s really what I want to focus on in the work that we do. So design for good, using technology for good.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, I know a lot of Black business owners, especially those that kind of work, I guess you could say, in the DEI space — I’m using air quotes around that. But I found a lot of Black business owners kind of had a bit of a bump during the summer of 2020 when companies were pledging like, we’re going to work with more black businesses or BIPOC businesses, et cetera. I’m curious if you’ve noticed any trends with your clients over the years.

Shanae Chapman:

Trends in terms of what?

Maurice Cherry:

In terms of the type of work they’re looking for or types of services, things like that. Are you finding that as time has progressed that clients are asking for different things, wanting different things, stuff like that?

Shanae Chapman:

It kind of stems back to something earlier in this conversation about the budgeting. So there’s still a need for design and for training on how to do design, especially equitable design. So I run a two-hour workshop on designing anti-racism, and I use the EI and anti-racism frameworks in that workshop and apply it tactically to how do we use this to create more inclusive and equitable designs. Whether that is UI, whether that is using voice technologies, whether that’s using AI and understanding what it means to have representative harm and allocative harm in technologies, and how can we design more equitable solutions that are not harmful? So I think the need is still there, but it’s a factor around the budgets. Who has budgets for these projects? And I can’t speak to the industry as a whole because I’m not privy to all of that information. But I know for myself, it’s tougher to find more businesses that are able to have the budgets that can sustain this work long-term. And I think that’s something that needs to be addressed. Like, if this is really important, then this work needs to have adequate budgets in order to support the work going forward.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked just a little bit there about AI. Are you using AI now with any of your clients or any sort of AI tools?

Shanae Chapman:

I think it’s something that has potential. I think design and AI can form a partnership where we’re using AI to help with some of the more tedious things, like copywriting, for example, but also thinking about the data that goes into those tools — is it secure? Is the information that would be okay to share publicly, for example? And also during the critical thinking of determining if the information from the AI tools is equitable, is it sharing information that is actually stereotypical and being able to see that and address it? So it’s something that I think has a lot of potential, but we also have to have checks and balances with it. And going forward, working with clients who will use AI, I think that’s something that is really important to continue having those discussions about not just using the tool, but being observers of it and also being able to step in and make changes if it’s not producing what it should in an equitable way.

Maurice Cherry:

I’ve encountered some clients, I’d say probably within the past year or so, that have been…they like AI because they feel like it’s sort of like a magic machine to them, like they can put in a question, get out some sort of answer or something like that. But like you said, is the information equitable? And honestly, which tool they’re using, it matters in terms of what the information is that you’re getting out. Like, if you’re using just, like, the base [ChatGPT], I think it’s version 3 or 3.5 or something like that. Its corpus of knowledge only goes up to, I think, to like, September of 2022 or something like that. So it’s not like completely up-to-date and even how it puts it together. It’s sort of just like grabbing information from a whole bunch of different sources and sort of like, smashing it together to say, “hey, this is what I think you want based on the query that you’ve given me.”

Of course it’s AI. So it’s not thinking about it, but depending on the tool they might be using ChatGPT 4.5, which is supposed to be up-to-date and brings in current search engine data and stuff like that, but AI is getting kind of added into so many different tools. It’s getting added into search, it’s getting added into even like Google Docs and Word and stuff like that. So I agree about the checks and balances. I think it is being kind of implemented really fast and that we’re not taking time to think too much about the ethics of usage and the ethics of using what you get from it, just sort of, on its face. Like, I agree with what you say about it being sort of a good jumping off point or a starting point, but it shouldn’t be the answer.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s a big misconception that many people believe that AI tools are factual, they are the truth, they are the end all, be all, and that’s not the complete story. So knowing that these are tools that have been created and have biases and have bugs and have issues that are still being worked out, understanding that and taking that information with a grain of salt, so to speak. So I think there’s still a lot of miseducation about how far along the industry is with AI because we’re really just getting started and there’s still a lot of risk. And security is another big issue. Like, taking data and not crediting the sources happens as well. So just being aware of that is something that I encourage folks to think about.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I know, especially from educators that I’ve talked with, it’s been a big thing because students will use it to write papers or pull in information and research. But like you said, there’s no citation with it. And even if there is a citation, citation may not be correct because it’s pulling all this stuff from different parts and just sort of spitting something out that might look like it’s right doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing.

One of my good friends — my best friend actually — he works at Ohio State University. He’s a professor and he was talking about how one of his students has submitted a paper and it had all these citations from, I think, like the University of Chicago Library or something like that, but none of those citations actually existed. Like, he followed up behind the student and contacted the library and they were like, yeah, none of that stuff is here. But apparently ChatGPT said, “hey, we pulled this from these sources from the library.” And maybe part of that was maybe a fraction of it, but not the entire thing. So it is dangerous, I would say, not so much in its usage, but moreso, I guess, in how humans are using it. Like if we’re just taking it like we said at face value and not changing it at all or fact-checking it, like you said, just assuming that it’s right is not good because it’s most likely not going to be.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, definitely. And I read a story the other day of a college student who got reprimanded from a professor who thought that they had used AI to create their paper because it was so well-written, but the student actually had not used any AI tools to create their papers. So now they’re getting dinged because the professors are having a hard time differentiating between when is AI being used and when is it not being used. So it’s a tricky place to be in right now as educators and as students as well.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Where do you want to take Nerdy Diva in the future? Like, what are your future plans?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I definitely want to continue to grow. And I mentioned civic tech earlier. So one of my goals is to complete all of the certifications that are necessary MBE/WBE and do work with City of Boston, City of St. Louis, City of Chicago, working on projects that impact everyday people and being able to use technology in a way where we’re able to share information throughout our communities and share knowledge and create more resources and more equity and also continue to grow. My presence as an educator. So very excited for this partnership with LinkedIn. First course will be complete by the fall of this year and excited to continue to make more courses with LinkedIn around design and research and emerging technologies.

Maurice Cherry:

Now let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. We’ve heard a lot about your business, but let’s learn more about you. Tell me about where you grew up.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. So I grew up in a working class family. My mom was a teacher’s assistant, before she retired, for over 32 years. And so education was very big in our family. My dad was a care mechanic and very hands on and was literally solving problems with all kinds of vehicles, and it was a lot of turning lemons into lemonade and taking what you have and making the most out of it. So those are some of the things that I have carried throughout my life is being able to see the good, find gratitude, be able to think quickly on my feet and keep learning and trying new things and being able to take inspiration and finding out how to walk in new paths and being able to be open to new opportunities. So that’s something that has stuck with me. And St. Louis — if you haven’t been there — very much a midwest city with Southern influences, so a lot of rich cultural heritage with music, a lot of blues and jazz has come out of St. Louis. Scott Joplin [the] composer; very famous in these parts as well, and a lot of appreciation for good food and breaking bread with family and friends and getting to know people and sharing what you have even if you don’t have a lot. So those are things that I still hold dear and that’s still part of who I am now.

Maurice Cherry:

Were you exposed to a lot of design and tech stuff growing up? Was that something you were around a lot?

Shanae Chapman:

You know what, I was not. So my parents were not technical folks and my parents divorced when I was younger. So just definitely being a young person, dealing with that experience of going through ups and downs and challenges, and what always inspired me was creativity. And I would see that with the art classes that I took in school and reading books and learning about new places and new people and cultures and just having the ability to learn how to use computers and new technologies as they became available at school were things that opened my eyes. Like I’m old enough to remember when we first got the big iMacs in elementary school and they had them in elementary school and taught us how to use those, and that was like top tier computers back in the day. Yeah, just being able to see that and having the Internet go from dial-up what we had when we were growing up, where you had to either choose to be on the phone, the landline, or be on the Internet, you couldn’t do both at the same time. So thinking about that and then seeing how things have evolved and now we have these fiber optics and we have such high speed 5G networks and it’s complete changes just in my lifetime of being 35 years old. So just being able to see that and see it as a user but then also now as a designer, being part of creating what those systems do and how other people get to use them is pretty cool.

Maurice Cherry:

Now you talked about going to St. Louis University and you said you took some design courses there too, is that right?

Shanae Chapman:

I did, yes.

Maurice Cherry:

Now you majored in communications. Was this just kind of part of the program?

Shanae Chapman:

In general, design courses were part of a suite of electives that you could choose as part of the communication degree. And that’s something that I highly encourage people who have opportunity to choose their own electives, to choose something that is creative, choose something that you may not have thought about studying before. Find that as a resource for you to test out if you want to get involved in something. So at least you can say, “oh, I’ve tried that and I know it’s not for me,” or in my case, “I’ve tried that and yes, I want more of that.” So the design course is important, my electives and once I took a class and had the opportunity to use Photoshop and saw how you could use design to convey messages and meaning. I knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of and just kept taking more electives and ended up doing an emphasis in communication technology overall.

Maurice Cherry:

How was your time there?

Shanae Chapman:

There were pros and cons of that experience for me. I had a really good experience learning about design and communication and public speaking, had some excellent professors and adjunct instructors who really valued sharing knowledge and helping students grow as people. So that was really empowering for me. I met a lot of friends there that I’m still close to to this day. And I worked on campus in the business school in the entrepreneur center. And they were at that time working on a beta project for Black business owners where they were building a facility in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr…or Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in St. Louis, and they were working with Black business owners to help them get their businesses ready for moving into this space. So I got to see these Black business owners come in and talk about their businesses and work with the university’s resources and learn what types of challenges they face and what types of tools are helpful for them. So I got to see, like, okay, they need accounting software. Oh, they have questions about hiring. Oh, they have questions about financing. I got to hear those questions, solutions during that process, which was really educational for me as someone who had seeds of, like, “oh, I might want to try this entrepreneur thing.” But some challenges were being at a PWI — predominantly white institution — and not having that sense of feeling known and feeling a sense of care, being in some classrooms where I was the only Black person in the room, and being asked, like, “what is your opinion? What is the Black perspective on this particular opinion?” And this is something where I, as a 19-year-old, educating my classmates and my white professor as to “this is my perspective. This is Shanae’s perspective. This is not the perspective of all of Black America.” So being able to stand up for myself and share that knowledge is something I get from that experience. But it definitely was challenging and [I] definitely had some hard days.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Colleges can be one of those sort of interesting places. It’s like, on the one hand, you mentioned, yes, try to seek out these more creative courses and things like that, but sometimes, just depending on the school, you often are put in these other sort of trying environments and situations. I can imagine that had to be pretty tough to deal with overall, though.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah. And then just being broke. That’s the thing about college. You have no money all the time.

Maurice Cherry:

When you graduated from St. Louis University, what was your early career path? Did you go right into trying to become a designer, or did you sort of kind of have to get your feet wet doing other stuff first?

Shanae Chapman:

I wasn’t able we were in a recession when I graduated with my undergraduate degree, it was 2009. So again, there was economic instability and it was really tough for me to find full-time work just in general, not even design. It was just tough to find any full-time work, being a college graduate and not having corporate and industry experience yet. And those were really tough times. And I went to my school after I graduated. I went back to the university and went to career services and did career counseling. And that was the first time that I had the opportunity to talk to someone about the shame I felt and not being able to find work immediately after graduating. And it opened up perspectives for me to hear someone say, like, yeah, “of course you would be frustrated, but understand that this is not you, this is the economy. This is competing with people who have more experience and maybe more education, who have connections. There’s other things happening that are outside of your control,” and being able to take that in as information and understand that, “okay, I’m okay, I can keep going.” And it’s not a situation where I’m doing things wrong and something’s wrong with me. And being able to have that support was really helpful. And that’s something that I definitely highly encourage folks to do.

Like, talk to someone if you’re having tough times in your career. Everyone’s had tough times. There’s definitely been times when I’ve wanted jobs, I didn’t get them, or there’s times that I took jobs that I know were not for me ended up leaving. So being able to have those conversations and also get some perspective because our careers are great, they help us support ourselves and take care of ourselves and our loved ones and do purposeful, meaningful work. But your career is not the only thing that you have going on for yourself, and being able to have some perspective about that is helpful too.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, I am so glad that you said that. I’m so glad you mentioned that because I think a lot of folks need to hear that, especially now. Especially, I think, if you’ve been laid off over the past year. And this is not to say that I feel like — and this might be a controversial statement, so rock with me here if it gets a little out of hand — but I feel like particularly in BIPOC communities, particularly in Black communities, we’ve kind of been sold this fantasy about getting into tech and it being like the solution to everything. Like, you’re going to get that good tech job and you’ll be able to pay off your mother’s bills or get your grandmother something. And I mean, yeah, you can do that with what the salaries are. But I think what gets wrapped in that is sort of your self-image is so intrinsically tied to not just the work you do, but where you work, that once you lose that, it ends up being this huge hit to your self esteem. Like, who am I if I don’t work for insert big tech company here? You know what I mean?

I really feel especially, like, oh my God, you said you graduated in 2009. Right around that time, I want to say it was like between maybe 2009 and 2011, there was this big push about getting Black folks to go to Silicon Valley. It was like, “go to Silicon Valley. Be the next Mark Zuckerberg.” CNN even had this whole special about folks like going to Silicon Valley and they had like a house and everything they were working out of. It was part of their Black in America series. And I think it was good to see that sort of like, upward mobility and prosperity. But then you had a lot of organizations that came about that were just sort of selling this notion that you get this big tech job and you’re set, you’ll be able to live the life of your dreams once you work for Facebook or Amazon or Google or whatever. But then it’s like, when you get laid off from there, then what?

And I think people need to hear this right now. One, because of all the layoffs that are happening, but two, we’re in this weird economic period now, just like back then, in 2009, and that there’s this uncertainty. It’s hard finding full time jobs. I know a lot of people that have been out of work now three months, six months, up to a year, and it’s really messing with them. They have the skills, of course, to do the type of work that they do, but it’s so tied into their self-image of like, “well, how am I a good person if I don’t work at this company, if I’m not doing XYZ?”

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, those are all good points. And I was reading Essence magazine the other day, and one of the women they interviewed, she mentioned that titles are rented; your character is what stays the same. And I was like, “girl, yes. A word.” That’s important. The titles are rented, but you’re still the same person. You’re still creative, you’re still a problem solver. You still know how to bring things together from different parts and bring them together in a meaningful way and create something that has a beautiful outcome. You can still do that no matter if you at Microsoft or Google or wherever. So you still have those skills. And I think that’s something that we forget about, that it’s not just about having the name recognition. It’s about who you are. Who do you show up as?

Maurice Cherry:

Titles are rented. I love that. And that is so true. That is absolutely true. Because who you are or who you were at one place may not be who you are somewhere else.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, in 2012, you started out as an intern at Red Hat. And then after that you started working at IBM as a UX/UI testing specialist. Given kind of the background that you had before starting there, like, what drew you to UX?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, so I was in the tech industry because my master’s degree is in informatics study of information systems and there is some overlap with UX. And like, I took UX courses as well, classes and understanding how to evaluate and how to audit for usability. So I learned those fundamentals as part of my master’s degree program and found that to be really interesting because that combines design know how. So having some graphic design, web design background, web development background, but then also understanding the psychology piece on how do people use systems and tools and how to prevent errors and how to help people get unstuck was also something that was enlightening to me. And then the technical side of it and understanding, “okay, you want to build something, how do you actually know what’s possible, what’s feasible, what could you actually build?” And being able to use the things I’ve learned in my master’s degree, that was more technical to bring that together as well.

So I applied to so many internships and entry level positions and interviewed for Red Hat and everything was in person at this time. So interviewed had presentations about why they should choose me and just waited, just waited and then heard word back a few weeks later that I was going to have this offer of this internship. And for me, it was the most money that I had made up until that point at $30 an hour to be a summer intern. And I thought, “this is great, this is great.” Now I get to start my career in tech using what I have learned in school and being able to have this big name at the time — all into the big names — have this big name on my resume as well. So it was a starting point for me. And I learned a lot. I learned a lot about how large organizations work and didn’t know before I started there that there’s so much people involvement, there’s so much. And you think about design and technology, it’s like, “oh, okay, you just kind of do your own thing.” No, that’s not how it works. When you actually work for a company, you have so many meetings, you have so much collaboration, you have so much discussing what gets designed, what gets built, understanding analytics and behaviors of trends and patterns. And there’s a lot of this back and forth and seeing that for the first time and being engulfed in that. Yeah, just definitely it was a sink or swim situation and had to learn quickly how to pick things up and just had to be unafraid to ask questions. So I asked a lot of questions and did really well in that internship. And that was a good starting point for me to move forward into other positions in technology.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. And some of those other places that you worked at. I mean, I was looking at your LinkedIn, I was like, you have gotten some great experience.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Kronos, The MathWorks, Akamai Technologies, Boeing, SmartBear, most recently HashiCorp. When you look at those experiences as a whole, collectively, what do you remember the most? Like, what do you pull from when you look back at those experiences?

Shanae Chapman:

Every place I’ve gone to, I learned something new. I learned something new about what I wanted in my career. I picked up some new technologies. I studied many places. I was also offered certifications, so I would take the time to do the work to earn those certifications. Just investing in myself. And I think that’s important.

Everywhere you go in your career, you should be learning and you should be earning. And that’s something that was also important to me as I continued to move up in my career, that I had to learn how to negotiate my salaries and benefits and RSU stock packages. And these are things that I didn’t know about. Again, my mom was a teacher assistant. My dad was a car mechanic. They didn’t have those types of conversations, so I had to lean heavily on the people that I trusted.

I’m in a chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. And so being a part of that chapter when I was in grad school and after grad school in Boston helped me a lot to understand how does this all work. So leaning on people who have been through these situations before and getting outside of my comfort zone and learning how to negotiate by taking webinars and in-person trainings and bringing that into conversations and not being afraid to have difficult conversations. For me, it’s a pattern of going to each step and going higher, learning more, growing, taking in knowledge, sharing knowledge. And that has been something that has evolved over time.

So that now I have this career where I’ve been in technology for the past eleven years and have learned a lot about cybersecurity, have learned about data analytics, have learned about creating tools that scientists and engineers and developers use, but also can take that skillset and also apply it to creating tools for healthcare or for community systems or for knowledge sharing, for education. So being able to take that information and translate it for different audiences, I think that’s something that’s really important and crucial.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, because I would imagine each of these different companies are serving different–I mean, one, different just audiences based on what they do. But like you said, as you’re going on, you’re learning more, you’re earning more, et cetera. But also the industry is changing. How have you seen UX kind of change over the years in the industry?

Shanae Chapman:

It ebbs and flows. So there’s times where UX is really top of mind and people want to bring in researchers and designers and everyone’s looking for that sense of building the right products. And then sometimes you get into situations where it’s a more “let’s build something first and see how it goes” and take a step back from actually doing the proactive work of the research and design and getting the feedback. And I think that’s where we are now.

So we’re in a place where people are tighter with their budgets and they’re trying to get the UX research and design in multiple roles. So product managers are now doing product discovery and research, and developers are doing some discovery and research, and it’s getting to a place where they’re trying to combine roles across different teams. And I think that it squeezes out having people who are dedicated to UX research and design. And I think there may have been a big push earlier on for people to share that, oh, anyone can do research and design. And I think that was overemphasized because it takes away the credibility and it takes away the practice of having the know how and the education and the experience to do quality research and design. Like, sure, everyone can go to Figma and create something quickly, but being able to actually create something that’s meaningful and that’s impactful and that takes something complex and makes it intuitive is not something that just anyone can do.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, with the work that you are doing with UX, does that also extend into voice or even AI stuff? Are you finding any sort of changes with the UX industry in those cases?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I think there’s room for UX to work with these tools. So working with voice, working with IoT, working with AI, and there’s definitely experiences that go beyond the interface. So the experience when you are speaking to Siri, for example, and what is heard and what’s transmitted back, that’s an experience also. And I think that UX has a benefit of having that awareness about human centered interaction and human centered design to be able to help teams understand how to make seamless and frictionless experiences, whether there’s an interface or not.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, what advice would you give to someone that’s listening to this podcast or hearing your story and they want to start their own UX career? Maybe they’re like a fresh grad out of college, or maybe they’re like in the middle of a career change because they’ve gotten laid off and they want to go into something new. What advice would you give them on getting into the UX industry?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of kind of get rich [quick] schemes out here where people are saying many pathways and not to put down boot camps, because some boot camps are sharing quality knowledge and it’s a step for some people to get some education and start their career. But if you do a boot camp, don’t let that be the only time that you are educating yourself.

UX is a career path where you have to continuously learn. And if you don’t want to have to keep learning every day, every year, then it’s not going to be a good career for you. You’re not going to find it enjoyable, you’re not going to find it to be that get rich quick scheme that you thought it would be so you can’t learn everything about UX in six weeks and then be an expert. It doesn’t work like that because you also have to have the lived experience, you have to apply it, you have to make mistakes, you have to learn from those mistakes. And it’s really powerful when you as someone who’s new to UX, partners with someone who’s senior and you can just observe how they do their roadmapping, how they talk to clients, how they collaborate with product management and engineering, how they set themselves up for success with their research and design process. So being able to give yourself grace and being able to be patient as well is something I would share. Many times people think like, “okay, I want to just do things quickly,” but just because it’s quick doesn’t mean it’s right. So those are my two cents.

Maurice Cherry:

Who are some of the people that have really helped you out to get to where you are now? Like any mentors, any peers, or anyone like that?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, so definitely have had community of mentors and sponsors over the years. I’m mentioning National Society of Black Engineers, previously Boston chapter, was a big resource for me. So being able to connect with other Black people in technology and some people were developers, some people were product managers and there were a few other designers there as well. And being able to share experiences working in corporate and working on teams, building software, building tools that millions of people use across the world, and being able to share those tips and lessons learned and also learn about financial literacy from some of the events that they had. Also the AAUW — American Academy of University Women — they had a lot of salary negotiation trainings when I was earlier in my career that helped me out when negotiating. And also just friends and people who take the time to listen in when I’m having a bad day when things are hard. And having your tribe of people who you have in your back pocket when things are hard is essential. So being a good friend and staying connected to your friends is something that’s really important as well. And making that time to do that so that you can show up for your people and that they can show up for you.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s bringing you joy these days?

Shanae Chapman:

I have really enjoyed learning new recipes. So I like to cook and I like to bake, and my husband is very happy to be the person who’s taste testing. Yeah, so that’s bringing me a lot of joy. And reading as well and thinking about ways to grow Nerdy Diva that are not just focused on technology. Some are thinking about creating a children’s book and a comic, like an anime book as well. Yeah, just thinking about some of these creative ideas and exploring what’s next.

Maurice Cherry:

What would you say, like, you’re still in the process of unlearning?

Shanae Chapman:

For me, that’s unlearning the need to say yes to everything and being okay with saying no, being okay with setting those boundaries for myself on my time and my energy and practicing putting me first and what I need first. And that’s unlearning the habit of putting others above myself. And I think that’s really important to remember that you have needs and you have to take care of your needs also.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, what do you want kind of the next chapter of your story to look like? Say it’s five years or so from now. What do you want to be working on? What kind of things do you want to have done? Stuff like that?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I want to continue to do the things I’m doing now and just continue to grow those partnerships. So I really want to continue to share knowledge on platforms like LinkedIn and other edtech programs for people who are getting involved in design and technology and want that to be a place where people are able to see someone who has some representation that looks like them, who they don’t often see in those spaces. Talking about design and analytics and technology and being able to share that knowledge. Also want to continue doing design work for government agencies and communities and be able to create more jobs and opportunities for contractors and interns as well.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about Nerdy Diva? Where can they find that information online?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, you can find Nerdy Diva at nerdydiva.com, and we are on LinkedIn and Instagram as well.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Shanae Chapman, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I think what I’ve gotten the most out of this and what I hope others get out of it, too, is that there’s no substitute, I think, for hard work. There’s no substitute for putting in the work to get to where you are, to sort of put in those hours to get to some level of mastery or information. Because what it definitely sounds like I’ve gotten from your story is that you’ve had these experiences, you’ve worked at these different companies, and now you’re gaining that knowledge and putting it into your business and using that to also kind of give back through the work that you’re doing with, like, civic tech or even with these courses and things like that. I’m going to be really excited to see what comes next for you in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

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

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

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

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton

I first learned about Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton way back in 2015 when I interviewed Silas Munro. Since then, Tasheka has gone on to become one of the leading voices behind discovering Black people omitted from the graphic design history canon. Even design legend Dr. Cheryl D. Miller has sung her praises, so I knew I had to sit down with Tasheka and learn more about her remarkable journey.

Tasheka spoke to me about her experience as an educator and researcher, including an examination of her teaching philosophy. She also talked about growing up in New Orleans, her shift into design, working for the Navy Reservists, and even starting her own studio, Blacvoice Design. Lastly, she discussed her upcoming book Black Design in America, and shared how the different aspects of her work keep her motivated and inspired.

If there’s any lesson you learn from Tasheka, it should be this one: you have control over your own path as a designer, so work hard and you can make your dreams come true!

Interview Transcript

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

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Hi, and first, I want to say Maurice, thanks for having me here on Revision Path. I’ve been a listener for a long time now, so I feel really grateful and honored to be here. My name is Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton. I’m a designer, design educator. I run a design studio called Blacvoice. I also am a researcher, I guess, or design historian in regards to Black designers, as well as design writer.

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

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Very busy, but good for the most part. It’s been a really, really good year with lots of new projects on the horizon. Exciting and exhausting, all at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
Any plans for the summer?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes, family vacation is one of the plans. I will be attending Typographics, and I’ll be a speaker there. So it’s exciting because I’ve never been to the conference before, and it’s kind of strange to have that my first attendance there would be me actually giving a talk, so I’m excited about that. I’m going to be teaching, I guess, this summer. I don’t normally teach in the summer, but I’m co-running a design residency program at the University of Texas, Austin where I teach. So I’m looking forward to that as well. And I have a couple of writing projects that I’ll be working on over the summer, and some design stuff as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Sounds like you’re going to have a busy summer ahead.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of teaching, you are teaching at two universities right now. You’re at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and you’re at the University of Texas at Austin, which is pretty new. You’ve been at VCFA what, for 10, 11 years now?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, it’s been 10 years in April. 10 years. I started there in 2013.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
It’s kind of crazy to think that I’ve been there that long, actually.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
What has the experience been like there?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Wow. The experience at VCFA has been truly amazing and transformative, and I think a lot of it has to do with the amazing faculty that’s there, that I teach with, who are not only colleagues but longtime friends now. It has to do with the sort of non-traditional structure of the program. We don’t have any classes or any courses. The program is, if you think about it as a two-year-long independent study, basically it’s a self-directed program where students decide on what they want to study and what they’re interested in. And the faculty is there basically, to sort of guide them and offer them resources, but it’s a self-directed program.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s really interesting. No classes or courses?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
So you don’t have to put any curriculum together. That’s great.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
No. So yeah, it’s definitely a different experience. So you do work with the students during the residency to come up with a semester plan on what they’re going to be working on throughout the semester. So as a faculty, you are there to help guide them and shape that semester plan. But again, it starts with what they’re interested in. We meet once a month. Students send their work via email, and then we have an hour conversation through, usually Zoom, and to talk about the work and sort of reflect on it, and kind of give feedback on how to move forward over the next month.

Maurice Cherry:
I love how sort of open that is, especially I think during this time when I know we’re not out of the pandemic, but certainly, I think it’s still a time where some schools are trying hybrid models or things. That sounds like the way that it’s set up at VCFA, it allows you to really still be able to learn in that type of environment.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes. I think the one thing that at the core of the program is, first of all, it’s really tailored to, working professionals are people. You don’t have to quit your job for two years to get an MFA. You can still work or run your business, or whatever it is you’re doing and still go to school. And this is something that we’ve been doing prior to the pandemic.

So when the pandemic happened, not saying that it didn’t change the program and how we teach, but we were already sort of interfacing in that way. So the only thing it stopped was having the week long residencies that we would have twice a year in person. Then that programming got moved to Zoom. But as far as the interaction between the student and the teacher, or we say the student and the advisor, that was already happening.

Maurice Cherry:
Now one of the professors that’s also there, we’ve had on the show. Oh God, that was a long time ago. We had Silas Munro on the show. This was I think, episode 85, 86, something like that. But he’s also a professor there, I believe.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah. So Silas, so you brought Silas up. Silas is one of the reasons, that’s how I ended up at VCFA actually.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
He’s one of the founding members of the program and Silas and I, we overlap by a year at CalArts. And so yeah, when the program was starting up, he sent me an email and asked me to join the faculty. And I wasn’t able to join at the time because of obligations with teaching. But then the following semester in April of 2013, I was able to come on board as a visiting, as a guest. Sort of a preliminary or, I wouldn’t say probationary period, but just to test to see if it would work out for me and if it would work out for the program.

So yeah, I credit Silas to bringing me in to a community in the program that’s, like I said, it’s been really transformative. Especially, the sort of approach to design pedagogy, this openness and not having this one idea of what design is. That sort of shift and change and marks according to the students, and the type of work that they’re interested in, and the type of diversity and the faculty and what we study and research, and type of work we’re engaged in. So that’s the thing that I really like, and it’s probably one of the few places that I’ve worked where I really felt a sense of family with my coworkers. Not that I didn’t have that relationship with other places, but there it’s really genuine. It’s not forced, it’s not fake. We actually truly do like and love each other.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, first of all, props to Silas for bringing you in, but it sounds like it is a great environment because you’ve been there for 10 years. Nobody’s going to stay there for 10 years if it’s not good.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, no, that’s true. Actually, you saying it, it’s technically the longest job I’ve ever had.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
When I think about it, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’re also teaching at University of Texas at Austin, which is fairly new. Tell me more about that. How’s that experience?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Wow, it’s been great, to be honest. I haven’t been there that long. I just moved to Austin, so I’m new to Austin and I’m new to UT. It’s been a really good experience as far as working in an environment with, I guess kind of similar to VCFA, where you don’t feel like there’s this sort of one way that the faculty or the program is trying to teach design. It’s a little bit more flexible, it’s a little bit more nuanced where students get to dabble in a lot of different areas of design. Graphic design, industrial design, interactive design, design history, product design. So it’s really sort of flexible in that way and that’s one of the things that sort of drawed me in into UT.

The program itself was revamped around 2017, 2018. So the program as it is today, design, it’s the Department of Design and Creative Technology, is fairly new in a sense compared to a lot of other programs that are out there. So I think there’s something about that sort of newness. There’s a lot of vulnerability and a lot of questioning about the direction of the program. So it’s kind of exciting to be somewhere where we’re constantly thinking about ways to evolve and improve the experience for the students.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What is your teaching philosophy? I would imagine, between the work you’ve done at VCFA and are currently doing, and now with teaching at UT. And you’ve taught at some other places as well. What’s your overall teaching philosophy?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Well, one is, I try to approach teaching, one of the things that probably on the first day of class, I let my students know that, “Hey, I’m interested. I’m more interested in what you’re interested in learning, and what you’re interested in general out there in the world.” Not that I don’t have anything to impart or to give to them, but it’s less about me walking into the classroom saying, “Hey, listen up, I’m the expert here. You all need to learn what I have to offer.” Obviously, there is an important exchange that’s sort of happening, but I’m not interested in the hierarchies that traditionally plagues, I think, academia. So that’s the first thing is, to let my students know, “Hey, I’m curious about you, who you are as a person, and what you’re interested in.”

The other part of my teaching philosophy is, so how do I nurture that? How do I give them assignments, and give them projects and things to learn, to help nurture those interests? So often, I give projects and things that are about to help students investigate their community, and their environment and their identity. I think it’s really important for students to feel a connection to the project brief, to what they’re working on. And to figure out how to sort of channel their life’s experiences, as well as who they are into their projects. There are some practical exercises that are given to topography to talk about kerning and leading and that kind of stuff. But the start of bigger projects, I really try to figure out how to give assignments to help them sort of explore who they are in their environment and their community. Also, really, I think it’s important, one of my other goals is to make sure that I’m giving them projects or I’m giving them things to read and write about, and to consider about what’s going on in the world.

I like having discussions and I don’t shy away from, I won’t say controversial conversations, but I don’t like to shy away from, there’s always a group of students that have a certain perspective about another thing, and then you might have another group that have a different perspective. So I like having those type of conversations so we can learn from each other, because too many times that we all are always listening to and engaging in conversation with people who have the same perspective as we do. So, I always often give reading assignments, or articles or essays, or just come up with topics or things that might make some of them feel uncomfortable sometimes, where they have to talk about things that they don’t know how it’s going to be received by their classmates. And also, try to give them a sort of sense of agency and responsibility when it comes to their own learning, and not just take everything at face value to question, even question me, right? But obviously with the mutual respect, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
I’d love to hear an example of something you would cover in class with your students.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Sometimes, it’s as simple as, I think this project isn’t something kind of, out of the park, but giving them … One time I had students design sort of protest signage. So they could approach it with whatever topic, anything that they felt really strongly about. Some people feels really strongly about, you should have solar panels on your house. Some people still feel really strongly about abortion, which sometimes for me, some of these topics that are still surfacing are kind of surprising. And some people feel strongly about police rights and things like that.

So any type of way I can give them some kind of assignment that addresses these issues, usually I try to get them to think about stuff that’s relevant in the media. Things that people are on opposite sides or sort of butting heads about, just to see, how do you handle that in the design context? Even, how do you handle as a designer having conversations about, “Well, if you have a very specific social or political agenda, what does it means to do design? Or could you do design for somebody to have a different perspective than you do?” So those type of conversations I think, are important to have.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I totally think that’s important because at any point throughout your design career, you’re going to encounter some conflict. I mean, I think we know the goal is to try to not have this sort of conflicts with clients or prospective clients or anything like that, but it’s going to happen. I mean sometimes you’ll have a client, you think they’re one way, and then you start working with them and it’s completely different. And even as you’ve said about personal views and such like that, it can get really tricky because the world is not just, I mean, not to use this as a racial thing, but it’s not a black and white place. There’s all sorts of ambiguity and things in there. So the fact that you’re able to work out those scenarios and issues with students in a learning environment is really important, because then they don’t get out there in the real world and have greater consequences for those sorts of scenarios.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah. So that’s one of the reasons why I do it, because I feel like if we can’t have these open discussions and conversation and academic space, then what’s the point of education or school in that environment? At least, that’s how I look at it.

Another project that I did when I was working at NC State last year was, I tasked my students with doing some design research in their hometown. So if they were from Charlotte, if they were from, I don’t know, somewhere in Germany, it didn’t really matter where they were from, but they had to do research about design in their particular community, where they were from. It was up to them if they wanted to pick where they live presently or somewhere where they were raised. And I gave them some sort of guidelines or places to start, I would say, because obviously if you said, “Okay, go research Charlotte, they may not know where to start.”

So I gave them four different areas to start. So I said, “Hey, why don’t you research the educational institutions, find out what schools offer design programs and research their faculty to see who’s working there? What type of design work or research that they do? Research the history publications in your particular area,” because I think newspapers and those type of print media is a good place to find the history of a place, sort of like the pulse, right? Design studios, talk to people there, make a list of all the ones that exist, maybe find out information about ones that used to exist. And I think the last place was printers. If they’re like print shops, go talk to those people. So those were the different areas as far as starting points that I gave them to start their research.

And then they had to interview people to help fill in the gaps of trying to create that sort of storyline. Because part of what they had to actually design was some kind of information design, but this wasn’t about charts and graphs. It was more like a storytelling or narrative sort of based research project, if you will. And then it was all the data, information was sort of collected in this zine that each student sort of designed together, and got it professionally printed at the end of the semester.

And I think it was a really good project. They learned a lot about design from where they were from, that they didn’t know, that they probably wouldn’t have even thought about if they didn’t have this project. And they learned something about themselves. I think for some of them, it was confidence boost. If you’re from somewhere or you come from an area where maybe design isn’t talked about or there are not a lot of people you see in design that look like you, and I think this project sort of helped them do some research and some discovery in those areas.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what do you learn from your students? I mean, you mentioned earlier that you tell them at the beginning of the courses that you’re interested in learning from them. What kind of things do you learn?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I learn a lot from them. I think I can admit as a seasoned educator professional, but sometimes I go into the classroom with certain types of assumptions or misconceptions. So a lots of times, I might have assumptions what I think they might be interested in or what they should be. But then I learn actually, what they’re actually more interested in, and that sort of shifts and change sometimes. So for instance, a lot of students, now what I’m seeing, maybe something that’s trending because of technology is that, this sort of longing for tactile things, this longing to create and print things. Lots of times I think that students wouldn’t be interested in learning about letterpress, or screen printing or these sort of, or electroset. Electroset is something I love, doing electroset exercises with my students. And I really enjoy being able to talk to them about the history behind these all ways of printing.

But I find they’re really interested in these things. And I mean, you do have some that are like, “Okay, I’m really more comfortable in a digital space, and that’s fine.” Again, I’m not there to try to not nurture what their interests are. But, I feel like I’m also there for to say, “Hey, look over here. There are these other ways of making and approaching design that sort of outside of maybe what you think you should be doing.” Or lots of times, I feel what I have learned is there are very specific things that sometimes students think, “Okay, design should be this way or look this way.” And a lot of it has to do with the tools that they’re using, because everybody’s using Adobe Sweden, everybody’s using Illustrator or whatever. And I try to tell them, “Well, if we’re all using the same tools, then everything starts to look the same. But why not take your ideas, and have your ideas and the content have to dictate what type of tool you use.”

So a lot of times I learn a lot that I shouldn’t make assumptions, about technology or different ways in which how they’re interested in making, or what they actually want to make. Sometimes I assume, “Oh, they’re probably interested in developing an app,” and they do have those type of interests, or they’re interested in AI. But then I find so many of them when it comes to technology, they’re like, “No, I don’t even want to touch that stuff over there. I want to get my hands dirty.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That is so fascinating to hear that students want to do kind of tactile things. I do a lot of different types of judging throughout the year. I’ll judge design competitions. I look at portfolios and things like that from students. And I have started to see more actual tactile work books, or pamphlets or zines or something like that. It’s such a stark contrast to 20 years ago. Now, I didn’t go to design school, but I knew people that were in design school at the time that I was also in school and everybody wanted a piece of digital. I guess it’s because it was just coming about at that time. I mean, when I went to college, there were computers. I remember vividly wanting to, I majored in computer science, computer engineering, and then switching my major over to math. Because I told my advisor I wanted to learn web design, and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s a fad. No one’s going to be into that sort of stuff.” And the school that I went to didn’t have an arts program, didn’t have a design program, so I just switched over to math.

But I knew people that were at the Atlanta College of Art, which existed back then, and the Art Institute of Atlanta. And everybody was just clamoring to try to do something with digital because they were tired of print. They were tired of, I guess, I don’t want to say they were doing maybe more traditional things like electroset or things like that. But everybody wanted to get in on the newness. And now, 20 years from then when technology is everywhere, now students want to get tactile, they want to make stuff. Yeah, I think that’s pretty cool.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, I think the thing that I have to keep in mind is that the way they’re growing up and how they’re entering these spaces in this world is very different from how I entered it, where I was there prior to computers and then post. Not that, to be honest, I don’t have the pay stop experience. I mean, I was in school at the advent of, Adobe was already there, Photoshop was already there. The Mac computer was already there in the early two thousands. So I was sort of a little bit post the desktop publishing area. But I think the thing that I forget is that, well, they’re so consumed, this is all they know. So for them they need a break. They are exhausted from the screen is what they tell me. So they’re kind of exhausted from it. And so when you show these other analog processes, they really light up. It’s really nice and encouraging to see that they still have these interests.

But again, there are some that are really interested in the technology. A lot of them are interested in the 3D sort of space and the digital space, but also the physical space. There are sort of a range. But I think that’s what I learn. The more I teach, the more I learn about what the sort of dynamics to what they’re interested in. And they have various interests and it’s not good to even put them into a box and assume what they’re interested in because, it’s a lot of different things that are out there.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I love that. I love that. Students are tired of screens. I’m loving hearing that. Now, let’s learn more about you. Let’s hear your origin story. You’re originally from New Orleans. Is that right?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about what it was growing up there.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, I grew up in the inner city, not on the outskirts. I grew up in New Orleans, we sort of identified with the wards, which are actually voting wards. So I grew up in the seven ward, New Orleans, which the time that I grew up was predominantly Black or all Black maybe, don’t know the statistics on that, but a very urban inner city. Grew up poor, single mom, family. I’m the oldest of four siblings. Had a good childhood. I remember going outside and play, making games up as we go, just started using resources and things that we had around to play different sports, so to do different things. My mom was always really supportive in whatever it was I wanted to do. So when I was younger, I wanted to go to law school. Actually, I wanted to be an attorney. And so, I actually approached going to college, thinking that I was going to go to law school and practice law, actually.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow. What interested you about law?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
To be honest, Maurice, it was, the part of it that was probably really superficial, meaning I watched a lot of court shows growing up, and I got sucked into the drama of the investigations. And this aha moment when the real person, suspect was revealed. And the banter in the court and the back and forth between the attorneys, all the drama. So that seemed exciting because I always felt like, I’ve always had a strong voice, I guess, and a strong personality and perspective in that way. I can be very argumentative about things that I’m super passionate about. So I just thought I would be a good attorney. Why not? I was a good student, usually brought home good grades. So yeah, I could do this law school thing, and I can go to law school and do that.

The other side of it is, I also saw law as something that oppressed us as a people for a long time, and I wanted to understand it better to help us. So that was the sort of flip side of my interest in going to law school. But yeah, that faded when I actually, I mean I was really, up until my last year in college, I was still pursuing going to law school, to be honest.

Now, I was at Loyola, I was an English writing major. And the reason I picked that major was because I was told … I can’t remember if it was a job fair or a college fair when I was in high school and somebody said, “Oh, people who do really well in law school, they major in English because of all the writing and research you have to do,” whatever. So that’s really how that came about. And I did a lot of reading growing up. So the idea of having to read and write was kind of made sense, something I was sort of interested in. So yeah, that’s how that came about was because I wanted to be a good law student, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:
So you had been on this path, I mean, to the point where you went to school, you were studying in it, you were getting all the way up to your senior year. Was there a deciding incident that kind of changed your trajectory?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
The incident was preparing to take the LSAT, I would say. So it was more like a process. So I want to say the first semester of my senior year, I was preparing to take the LSAT, researching what schools to go to. And all of that became extremely overwhelming and stressful, but it wasn’t exciting in a way, how things could be really overwhelming, but you’re still sort of excited about it, and if it’s you’re anxious. And so then I did some soul-searching and it was like, “Well, why do you want to do this Tasheka? Why do you want to go to law school?” And so, one of the things that is at the time it was really hard for me to admit, was that I honestly didn’t think I was good at anything, or I didn’t know what I was really good at. So because I was always sort of a good student, I just kind of looked at it as that way. I can go to law school, I’m going to be a good student, and then I’ll get a decent job.

I have always been a very goal driven oriented person. And so for me, it was always just sort of scratching things off the list. So go to school, major in English writing, do well, go to law school, take the LSAT, get a high grade, study. It’s just this constant thing. But when I actually really looked within, I realized that, well, I didn’t want to do it for the right reasons. You shouldn’t choose a career path just because it’s sort of checking off the list. I can accomplish this thing, but it’s not something that, I mean, I had a genuine interest in the law, but when I look back, yeah, it definitely wasn’t the right path for me.

So I just remember there was this one day, I used to do work study in the library. I just started going online and doing research about what do creative people do. So copywriter came about because I’m getting a degree in English, but at the time I didn’t feel too confident about my writing skills. So I was like, “Eh, I don’t really want to do that.” And then I remember, topography kept popping up, and this isn’t a time where in the early two thousands, when they had a lot of portfolio schools, like Miami AD and those type of schools.

So I was doing research and those type of schools kept popping up, and then I kept seeing topography and I’m like, “What is topography? I don’t even know what that is.” So I looked in the school course catalog and I saw topography one and two, and then it was graphic design and I didn’t know what any of these, I wasn’t aware of any of this stuff, or what that meant as far as a career. And so the more I read and the more I did my research, I was like, “Oh, this design thing sounds really interesting.”

So the next semester, I just went head first. I signed up to take a type one and a design one class, the year, the semester I was supposed to graduate. And then I fell in love with it. And then I pushed my graduation back about a year so I could get a minor in graphic design. And I didn’t get a true minor. I kind of had a relationship with the director of the art department at the time, because throughout my time in college, I took drawing and painting classes as my elective, because I’ve always had an affection for art and drawing. So I talked to her at the time and about getting a minor, and so they sort of told me that, just take the main classes. I didn’t have to take the foundations and stuff like that. So they sort of fast tracked me into design one and however many classes I could take within a year, because Loyola is a private Jesuit liberal university, just very expensive. And I was on a scholarship, so that extra year, I could only go to school those two extra semesters.

So I did that. After that year, it was like, “Okay, I’m a graphic designer now. That’s it. This is what I want to do.” Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really interesting turn. I mean, you were already set to go along this way, and then you kind of just had another idea and there you go.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah. It wasn’t something that was obviously planned out in that way, but I’ve never looked back. I can’t honestly imagine being in any other field than design, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s really awesome that it sort of came about that way. I’m curious now on what Tasheka the lawyer would be like, if you would’ve went there.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I think about it, too. I don’t know, honestly. I mean, I think there’s a way that I would’ve found my niche. I would’ve found an area of law that would’ve been good for me. I don’t know how lucrative that would’ve been, especially if you think about going to a private undergraduate school, and then law school and then student … It’s just sort of the bills and student loans to pile up when you think about it. So yeah, I don’t know. I think I would’ve found my way, but I think that it definitely wasn’t the right path for me. And I think the sort of activist in me, I would’ve found whatever I guess sort of industry I would’ve ended up, I think I would’ve found that sort of angle.

But I do remember this one conversation I had with a lady at a job fair my senior year, and she said that her husband was an attorney and that he had a studio in their attic and he was a painter. And she said that, but once he started really getting into law, he stopped painting as much as he used to. And so I started thinking that I never wanted art to not be a part of my life. So that was sort of a reality check where I was, “Oh, I don’t want to go into law if this is going to prevent me from being creative or being a maker,” I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you graduated from Loyola, and I know later you went and got your MFA from CalArts. Between then, did you get out in the working world and experience a little bit of what it was like to not be a student for a while?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes. It was a very short time. It was exactly a year and four months to date. So yeah, after I graduated, I end up working as a designer at the Navy, which was such a strange thing for me personally, to end up working for the military. But yeah, I worked for the Navy Reservist Public Affairs Office, and they hired me because they saw my resume, that I took topography classes, which is kind of funny when I think about it. Because it’s like, well, when you go to, you study design, you take topography. It wasn’t nothing special. But anyway, but one of the other reasons they hired me was because they wanted somebody young with fresh ideas. And at the time, they were publishing and producing a tabloid newspaper. And so they wanted me on board to help transition that newspaper into a monthly magazine.
I actually stayed there long enough just to do that, basically. We had a few firsts. I guess half the time I was there, we were publishing the newspaper. Then the second half, we transitioned over to a magazine, and that’s my first job. I will say that it was a really great learning experience in school, as far as print production and that kind of stuff. You don’t necessarily learn. So the Navy, I would drive to Panama City to go see the publication on press, that kind of stuff. So I learned all the production there. So yeah, it was a really good experience for me, as far as my first professional design job.

Maurice Cherry:
And you were able to get that, I mean, one right out of school because you had this small amount of design experience just from studying, and they were like, “Yeah, we’ll go with that.” Nowadays, for entry level position, they already want you to have three years experience somewhere. So it’s good that they kind of took a chance and said, “Yeah, we’ll move forward and see what you have.”

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, I will say it was actually a head hunter that found me, or like a temp agency, I would say. And they put me in contact with the Navy. And I think that they were, because they were producing a publication, it was probably a time crunch. And so, I don’t know if I was the first person they referred them to. I don’t know if they had interviewed a bunch of other people. I have no idea. But I just knew that, oh, they were also impressed that I studied abroad. I’m trying to think of the things that they said to me during the interview or that made them sort of intrigued or want me to come in. They liked that I had spent some time abroad and that I took topography courses, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Where did you study abroad?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I studied abroad in Prague, in the Czech Republic. And it was mainly, it was more of a printmaking study abroad than graphic design. I mean, the graphic design aspect of it, was it that there was this workshop or this class that we took to set up design posters by hand. All analog, which was great, but it was really for printmaking, like lithography, learning to do aquatints and that kind of stuff.

And it was interesting, because it was actually with a program that was through NC State, and one of my professors at Loyola at the time was the person who was in charge. I had started that study abroad program. So it was kind of weird last year when I worked at NC State, it was like, “Oh, I did a study abroad program at this place and now I’m teaching here.” So I don’t know, it’s just kind of funny how things kind of happen that way in life.

Maurice Cherry:
So tell me how your experience was getting your MFA at Cal Arts.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
That in of itself was an experience. CalArts was tough. I mean, I definitely went there knowing that it was going to be difficult, that it wasn’t going to be easy. Actually, I was there for three years. I got accepted for the three-year track. So a lot of schools now have a three year and a two-year track, and normally the three-year track is reserved for students who don’t have a traditional graphic design background. And so since my degree wasn’t in design, it was in English. And then, I had that limited experience, that year and a half working for the Navy. So I actually did three years instead of two. So the first year was, I guess an adjustment and challenging, in and of itself. For one, I was the only Black student there in the graduate and the undergraduate program, which for me was pretty shocking.

And the reason it was surprising is because I think, to be honest, at the time I was just starting, right before grad school and doing my first year of grad school. I was just starting to notice how there was a lack of visibility of Black people in design, or how the design profession didn’t seem to, or the lack of diversity that existed. Honestly, I don’t know why it took that long for me to actually realize that, but it wasn’t until, I think it was the 2004 AIGA conference that I realized that, where I saw maybe four or five other Black people at the conference. It was in Vancouver, I remember that. And then that’s when, that was not long before I actually started school at CalArts.

So that experience, and that was the thing that I think started me on this kind of trajectory, or the path into doing the research that I do, was looking around, not seeing anybody like me. Not learning anything about anybody who looked like me with the history class, or so, yeah, that’s sort of where I started. And me being at CalArts as a student, sort of asking the question, talking to faculty or just saying. Even sometimes it was in my work, I was questioning, where are the Black designers? When was the last time CalArts had a Black student in the MFA program? Nobody can answer that question. Or can you tell me something about Black people in design history? Nobody can answer that question.

So it became this thing where, and I know we’ve done similar sort of scavenger hunts. It’s like, “Where the hell are all the Black people?” So anyway, that is where my research started. So because I couldn’t find anything out there that was tangible to hold onto, I just started doing my own research and investigation. Because I was like, “There’s nobody who’s here to tell me or give me that information. I have to discover it from myself.”

But I will say the faculty there was all, for the most part, it was, I felt supported. Although it was tough. It was like bootcamp, going to CalArts. It was a really, really tough, intense program. But I did feel encouraged most of the time for the type of projects that I had. And some of them was filled with a lot of emotion and anger, and aggression and frustration, and a lot of times that came out. But I will say that they sort of helped me nurture and cultivate my voice, and they also always encouraged me to be true, to keep that investigation and then that energy, and to being inquisitive about my design, Black design history, and culture and identity.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s such a good thing now that it almost feels like, I’d say maybe within the past, I don’t know, 10, 15 years perhaps, we’ll say that. But we’ve started to see more Black design educators out there, and we’ve also started to see community efforts. I mean, Revision Path is one of them, but we’ve started to also see community efforts with making sure that Black people, and I would say Black and brown, I mean, I would kind of widen that lens a bit. But we’ve started to see now more people of color in general, being talked about, recognized, showcased, researched as it comes to design. I mean, I don’t know if we’ll get to a point where there’s full equity with regards to that, but I think within the past 10 years, we’ve seen a lot of headway in that direction, where we’re starting to now see more Black students, or at least more talk about Black designers throughout history. You know what I mean?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes, I would agree with that. There is definitely some sort of shift. I mean, if I’m honest, I’m not seeing it enough or as much as I would like to see it. But I’m also aware that things do take time, and especially when you have things that are so systemic and that’s a part of system that’s been there for so long that it’s not, it takes a long time to sort of dismantle it.

If I’m honest, I do believe that it doesn’t have to, or it shouldn’t take it as long, but I understand it. I try to understand it. I do think that things can happen a lot quicker, but I do realize that there are still certain structures that are there, that’s way more difficult to dismantle to where it takes a lot longer. But I am happy to have colleagues. I didn’t think that I would see a day where I could name at least three other Black women that are doing similar type of work or things like that. So I am happy to see that there’s a change, and there’s a lot of work and way more work that needs to be done. But yeah, I agree. There are more efforts, I guess, and more initiatives that are happening at different places.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think with schools, it’s just always going to take longer because schools are just such, these large institutions. Of course, they get funds from different philanthropists and foundations and stuff like that. But I agree with you, in that I think the change could be happening a lot quicker. I a hundred percent agree with you there.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah. I just think that one of the things that I liked about UT was they started changing their admissions process. I think there are still more work to be done, but they have done away with the traditional portfolio. And so, their admission process is more a design prompt, so a student could … So the design program looks at just that one particular piece that they’re doing, and then they submit a 60-minute video that sort of talks about their process and their ideas, alongside the piece that they made for admissions.

So I think that, that takes a lot of pressure off because you still have so many students that, they don’t have the resources in their high schools to submit even a fine arts portfolio, let alone something that’s specific to design. Where you need all these different, you need a computer, you need the Adobe software, you need all these digital tools that a lot of high schools still don’t have those type of resources. So it’s nice to see that they’re at least trying to change that process a little bit, to make it more equitable for students of color to have access to the program.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, along with you being a design educator, and you mentioned this a bit earlier, you have your own design studio called Blacvoice Design. Tell me more about that. What are some of the projects or other work that you’ve done through your studio?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Well, a lot of projects I would say, first start off with the type of clients that I work with. So most of my clients are educational institutions like universities, colleges and things like that, nonprofit organizations, as well as kind of start up or small businesses. And I actually like the work that I do within those spaces. The type of projects that I do, format wise, most of them are books. I design a lot of books, but I don’t like to just consider myself a book designer because I do do identity projects and things like that. But a lot of the books that I do design, because a lot of my clients have modest budgets, usually I’m given texts and that’s it.

And so, I think that’s why I wear this hat of an image maker, because a lot of projects might call for me to take photos and I’ll take my own photographs for a particular project, or I do my own illustrations and create my own imagery for them. And so that I actually like. I like that whole process of generating the imagery, and doing the type setting, and doing the layout and the design. I really do enjoy being a part of that process from the beginning to the end. I thought at this point in my career that I would want to be in a more creative director sort of role, but I actually like and still enjoy being hands on.

So some projects that I’ve worked on in the past that are really kind of dear to my heart is, I used to do some work for a nonprofit organization. They’re now called 826 New Orleans, but they used to be called Big Class. And Big Class is a nonprofit organization. They started off basically sort of reaching out to the inner city public schools. And so, they would have writing prompts or writing projects for students to engage in after school. And so they would come up with themes, the students would come up with themes or topics that they wanted to write about. Usually it had to do with their feelings around their culture and their community.

And so, what I would do is basically, I would come in, talk to the student editorial board, find out what ideas they have about the design and the design process, and basically use that as information or inspiration and design a book for these individual projects. And so Big Class would take those books, they would have these readings, they would get people, they had their own press and their own imprint. And so they would publish and sell the books, and then they would just feed and go back into the sort of program. And I really like that program, because it not only gets students excited about writing, and writing is a form of expression, writing can be creative, right? Writing, I think gave them a sense of agency because they get to write, they get to publish, they get to put it out there, they get to have open mic and spoken words.

And so, I really love to see the sort of confidence that it gave these students, that maybe in their school, they may not ever have that type of experience. So for me to provide a platform for them to express themselves through words, through writing, I really did enjoy working with them. But now they’re part of this larger, more national collection of programs, that’s like 826 New Orleans, you have 826 Valencia. So 826 sort of exists in a lot of different cities. And my hope is to, there isn’t an 826 in Austin. Honestly, have no idea how to even start one. And it’s not that I even want to be in charge of one, but I would love to try to figure out how to create a rapport with some of the schools, some of the public schools here in Austin to try to get one started here. And then that way, it’s something that I would like my students at UT to be involved in that process, of helping those students design and get their work printed and published.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m a big advocate of designers needing to do more writing. A hundred percent. We had at one point in time, kind of design anthology called Recognize that we were doing through Revision Path, where we had designers just like, we would give a particular prompt or theme. I think the one we did before we shut it down was reset. I think reset was the theme. And so based off of that, we wanted people to submit essays up to 3000 words, centered around reset in whatever way that they wanted to. But it had to be design focused, like design writing. We didn’t get great ones. I’ll be completely honest. I think a lot of people rather wanted to design something than write something.

And even the first year that we did it, we would get some pushback from people, “Well, why do I have to write something?” I’m like, “It’s a essay.” I mean, you have to write something because that’s the structure of it. I do want to bring it back one day if Revision Path can get the right funding and all of that. Because, I’m still a big proponent and believer of designers, I think, need to be, they need to know how to write because of course, it just helps you get your ideas out there. But it’s just so helpful for, and I think this probably ties into your research focus. It ties into your work being part of the cannon. If you can write down what you did, the work you did, case studies, et cetera, if it gets put out there in some way, if it gets preserved in some way, you’re now part of the cannon.

One thing with me, when I try to find guests for the show, it’s very hard for me to book a guest when I can’t find anything on them. I could maybe find-

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, you could maybe do some research.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, yeah, because I can maybe find a website or there’s maybe a blog post or something somewhere, but I need to be able to see what you’ve done so I can get a sense of who you are as a designer, if this is going to be a good fit, that sort of thing. But I say all of that to say that I’m a big, just huge fan of designers being writers, and write it down, write down your work, show your work.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I agree with that too, Maurice. And even as a person, I still think I have a very strange or uncomfortable, I think it’s a better word, relationship with writing. It’s something that with my teaching, I always make sure that there’s some writing component in a project for students, whether it’s a reflection to something they read or something they saw. I think it’s really important. I see a lot of similarities in the writing, in the design process. So for me, it’s been, although it’s still a place where I’m super uncomfortable in lots of times, a few years ago, to be honest, I think it was back in 2017 when I was teaching at Southeastern Louisiana University, and I had just gotten tenured there. And I didn’t realize at the time that until I was at NC State during that interview process, that up until that point, I had got tenured because of my creative work, because of doing exhibitions and things like that.

And at that point, I realized that with the research that I was doing, and then at that time, my research was startup, sporadic, how I was engaged with it. I started this research in graduate school, and then I would start to engage with it from time to time when somebody would ask me to give a lecture. And at some point, going back to what you were saying about the importance of the canon and sort of writing things down, that became a real turning point for me because at that point, I wanted to change my practice a little bit, and have it more focused on writing and publishing. Because in my mind, I’m like, “Well, I can continue to do these lectures and talk about this stuff, but then what?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
What do you with it? And so I knew at some point I always wanted to write a book about Black design history. I knew, even from grad school back at CalArts, that’s something I wanted to do. I think, not until that point, I became more intentional about it. I was like, “Okay, if I want to shift,” not do away with making, not do away with freelance, not doing away with that work, but I wanted to be more intentional about the scholarly part of me, I guess, in that work. And sort of getting it out there and not have it just be through lectures. And I think, oral history and that stuff is valuable. I’m not trying to devalue that at all, but I do think there’s something about having something written and on a page, and printed and sort of documented. Right? I mean, I think it’s really important for our work and stuff to be documented, so it can be passed on.

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. I mean, the oral storytelling, and I realize we’re saying this on a podcast, but is mean that is important. But being able to write it down, pass it on, put it in a book, have it stored somewhere, that is what is really, that is the canon. That’s what you end up preserving. Speaking of books, I mean, we’re both working on books, but part of the research that I find is trying to find these writings and trying to find where people have talked about stuff. And you know what we’re doing now? Interviews. We’re having to talk to people because we can’t find where folks have written stuff down. So to that end, about books, as I mentioned that just now, you’re working on a book called Black Design in America. Talk to me about that.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, so I’m a co-author of Black Design America, African-Americans, and African Diaspora and Graphic Design, 19th to 21st Century. My co-authors are Silas Munro and Pierre Bowins. And how this book came about is not a linear kind of trajectory of story. So back in 2020, when George Floyd was murdered and you had the protests going on, and a lot of things were sort of happening online, VCFA had started this sort of virtual programming. I believe they contacted me and asked me if I was interested in doing a lecture or something about my research. And so at the time, I want to say around that time, I can’t remember exactly, but I know at some point, me, Pierre, and Silas had created a Google Doc, and we just started populating it with our research. And some of our focus on our research was slightly different. There was some overlap, but we started this Google Doc, and I think we started it with the intent of writing a book someday.

So the idea was that, “Okay, we want to have this document populated to start working on the outline.” So VCFA came to me. I decided that I didn’t want to just be the only voice talking about Black design history. So I invited Pierre and Silas to also give a lecture. So they call it these micro lectures. So still had the same amount of time that I had to give my lecture, but instead of me talking for an hour or 45 minutes, we each had 15 minutes to do a micro lecture, a mini presentation about our specific research.

So again, around that time, I met Dr. Cheryl Miller, and she was just starting, or had already started her archive for Stanford, a Black design history archive. And somebody gave her my name. And so, I met with her about sending my work there. And something that I still feel weird about saying was that was my first time hearing about her and her work, but I’m glad I did. I’m glad that we had that opportunity to talk and connect. And now she’s a huge mentor and influence, inspiration in my life. But that conversation with her sort of gave me a little focus. So I was like, “Oh, I’m really interested in the history of Black women in graphic design too.” So my portion of the lecture was about that.

So we’re in the midst of the pandemic, and Silas had this idea. And so we all talked about how this information needs to get out there. I don’t know if we have time to go through the process of writing a book and getting published, and trying to do all the stuff that you have to go through, as you you’re working on one yourself. It’s a huge timeline. You don’t just do it overnight. It takes a lot of time. So Silas and his studio, that’s how they came up, and they put together the BIPOC Design History Classes, went live January of 2021. And so again, it wasn’t the intent to have the classes. And that sort of happened first. That idea, we thought, prior to the pandemic and whatnot, that we would be working on a book first. So that happened. That was the success. And so then after the chorus, then we felt like, “Okay, now we have to write this book now, because we kind of already have a structure. We have content.” But little did we know, Maurice, that it was not that easy.

These small classes. Okay. Yeah. There are chapters in the book, but I don’t know. It’s just, yeah, they’re still talking to people. There’s still more research to be done. There’s still more archives to visit. So it wasn’t just that simple to just make that transition from the series of classes, and then to make it into a book. So we’re still in the process of writing now. We have a hard, hard deadline coming up on June 1st, where we have to really turn over the manuscript. And we’re all also collaborating on the design of the book, too. So yeah, it’s been an interesting process.

And I think the thing that, I know for me, and I think from my co-authors as well, the thing that’s been most difficult is that it’s a design history book, but we’re not approaching it like a Meg’s book in a way, or this book came out a few years ago, it’s called Graphic Design Pioneers, or Pioneers in Design, where it’s focused on individuals. So we do talk about individual designers and sort of their impact, but it’s more about the diaspora, it’s more about Black experience in a way, and what we had to go through and deal with. It’s more about how we’ve been represented through visual culture, and who’s responsible for that and that kind of stuff. So it’s not necessarily about a clothesline of designers, although we do talk about individual people, because you can’t write a history book without acknowledging individuals. But, it’s not just about highlighting people, I guess in that way. It’s more about the different movements that happened, throughout time and throughout history.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because I mean-

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
And we’ve been affected by it, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Because you’re, like you said, it’s set up with, it’s in the context of America during that time, and so there’s been wars, there’s been civil rights movements, there’s been other sorts of radical movements. And so, being able to talk about how Black design has been a through line with all of that in this country, we don’t learn it in school, in K through 12 schools. And based on what you’re saying, and probably from others, it’s probably not even something that’s really readily learned in colleges.

So having a book like this is super important, I think, not just to the design canon, but just like to American history in general. Because everything that we go through in this country has been designed in some capacity. That don’t necessarily mean that it’s been done with a pen and paper or in some visual aspect, but the systems of oppression that are in this country and many other things that sort of hold people back or push others forward, these are designed constructs. And so being able to talk about Black design in this country is super important to, I think, informing that for a lot of people. So, I’m excited to see the book when it comes out. Congratulations to you, because I know it’s a lot. I know all too well. Yeah.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I mean, I think writing a book is a challenge, in and of itself, but I think history, and I think we have a special challenge in the type of history that we’re trying to bring to light, because it hasn’t been well documented or readily available. So it’s a lot of things you have to do to discover these stories. That’s definitely been a challenge. I think, one thing that I want to say I’m proud of about how we approach the writing in this book is that we sort of try to do away with … we’re being ourselves. We feel like using I, then we use I. If we want to throw in a little snarky, something that maybe a long time ago would be unorthodox for a history book, but we are just throwing it and putting it all out there. We’re not sort of concerned about our voices being the same, and we like that our voices are fluid and they’re sort of interchangeable.

We collaborated and wrote the introduction together, and there are parts of it, it’s like, I don’t even remember what I wrote. And we do have our chapters that the three of us have been responsible for, and we have contributors to certain chapters as well, but we’re not sort of concerned with the more traditional approach to this type of book. We don’t even call it a textbook. We’re not really approaching it in that same traditional way, I guess, if you will.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you’re teaching, you’re running your own design studio, you are working on a book, you’re doing this research and your research focuses on, as we’ve talked about throughout this interview, Black people being omitted from the graphic design history canon. Given all the different spaces that you occupy, designer, educator, et cetera, what does the path forward look like for you?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I think about that a lot. I think it’s going to continue in this realm of writing and publishing, and designing. I think I like the idea of being a content generator and being the one to design that content. So I see more books around the same topic, but in different iterations. So for instance, I’m completely obsessed with Louise E. Jefferson. She is a Black woman who was one of the first art directors in the publishing industry at Friendship Press. She started working in the mid, late 1930s, and she was a designer, a calligrapher, a cartographer, an illustrator, a researcher. I mean, she was a real true renaissance woman, and she rubbed shoulders with all kinds of people during the Harlem Renaissance. But I’ve been doing research on her for a really long time. And so, I envision writing and designing a book about Louise E. Jefferson. And right now, I’ve been in touch with Friendship Press where she worked at as an art director for 20 years, and they’re interested in me writing a book about Louise and her work.

So those type of projects I see still continuing. The past few years have been great. The writing, the lecturing have been amazing, meeting amazing people, and have been great with giving me more opportunities to write into research. But I would like to hopefully, have more of a balance between that and my making, especially maybe even more so personal projects. I really enjoy doing small collaborations with other designers, whether it be zines or just random, creating compositions and giving files, going back and forth between digital files and things like that. Well, not really knowing what the outcome is. I think I just miss making and playing, and having fun.

Not that the design work that I do isn’t enjoyable, but it’s just a different type of making, I guess it’s different. You’re doing research and you’re writing. That’s a lot different than like, “Okay, I have this idea for making this thing using these materials, or even this tool or this technology. Am I making?” I’m really interested in this sort of synthesis, and analog and digital tools and how they sort of come together, and how to expand our uses in ways that they weren’t actually meant to be used. So I would like moving forward to be able to engage more, and just being a maker and not thinking about what I’m making so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, being a designer and an educator and all these things, you’ve talked now about how you want your path to go forward, but in your current work, how do you balance these different aspects? Do these different roles inform each other in some way?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, I mean, I definitely see there are so much overlap in … For a long time, I actually didn’t know how to bring all these things together, especially in the classroom because it took a while before I started teaching design history, and actually I’m not teaching it right now. I haven’t taught it in maybe three years. But I think, that doesn’t mean that I can’t still bring that into the classroom. So to me, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care that I’m not teaching design history. Whatever I’m teaching, you’re going to learn something about Black design. Some kind of way I’m going to insert my agenda, because I know that these are things that are, in part, it’s not just Black design history. I talk about queer history. I talk about other areas of design where people are marginalized or we don’t know a lot about, and I know a little something. I still try to impart that to my students, so I make sure that I’m trying to be equitable in that sense.

But yeah, I’m just starting to see where these roads and where these things are starting to overlap. So am I making? Now I think about, well, how could, besides designing books about Black design history or whatever, and the publishing aspect, but I start thinking about, well, what are other things that you can make that sort of has to do with your research? So I’m starting to think more about that, like timelines and things like that. So to me, the crossover is starting to happen. It’s slow and maybe not as fast as I would have liked them to be. And then I see them in the projects that I give to my students too. So it sort of reverts back to the classroom in that way.

Maurice Cherry:
So, I like that it all feeds into each other then. That’s good.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Kind of makes less work for me in a way, as opposed to try to compartmentalize everything. So for a long time, everything used to be in these separate buckets. Black design studio, freelance here is writing and lecture. But now, they’re just starting to morph together, and that has been good, and that’s how I would like things to continue in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey, look, work smarter, not harder. I get it.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to someone out here that’s hearing your story, that’s hearing about all these different things that you’re interested in, and they want to follow in your footsteps? What would you tell them?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I would say, learn how to be comfortable in your voice, in your skin, and how to … I didn’t always feel comfortable being Tasheka, being authentically me, because sometimes I had moments where I didn’t want to step on people’s toes, but I noticed moments where I did do that, and I was just kind of myself and just kind of put it out there. Those have been the best experiences.

And I would say that we all have control. You have some kind of control over your path, and so if there’s a certain direction that you want your practice, or your craft, or your skill or whatever it is you are into to take, that you can kind of plan for. Talk to people who are doing the thing that you want to do, align yourself. Reach out to them. I know sometimes, we think and we look at people that we admire and we put them on this pedestal, but if they’re the right people, they’ll talk to you and they’re not full of themselves. And lots of times, people are more than happy to talk to you about your path, and this is especially to younger designers. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who you admire, and have conversations with them about what they do and how they got to where they are. But yeah, I just say be bold.

Maurice Cherry:
Be bold.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Be bold and intentional about how you move through this world.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want the next chapter of your story to be?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I do see myself still teaching. I do see myself still being at UT, and I’m hoping, my hope is that in five years, I have a couple of books under my belt by then. Maybe, I’m just going to throw it out there, Maurice. I would say at least three of them, because I have a list of projects that I’m really like. It’s kind of like these have to be done before I die. No, maybe they don’t have to be done in five years. That’s pretty ambitious of me, but I’m already working on one, so I can get the other two at least in the works by that time, that would be great.

I do have sort of a passion project that I’ve been sitting on on for a while. I have a collection of drawings, maybe it’s like 200 and something drawings, that I would like in five years to have their own sort of brand, where it’s a collection of, whether it’s greeting cards or home decor or apparel. Not or. I should say and. So I’ve been procrastinated on this project for a really long time, and I hope in five years that that project sort of sees the light of day.

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

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I’m probably most active on Instagram and Facebook. So Facebook is Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton. On Instagram, it’s Blacvoice. I am on Twitter under Blacvoice, but I’m not that engaged with that platform as much. But, I’m on there and I tweet every now and then. I’m on LinkedIn, which is, you can find me under Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton. Again, that’s not a platform that I’m super engaged in, but I’m there, and you’ll probably find me multiple times under LinkedIn, but I’m there. But Instagram, I would say, it’s probably the place to see me. I’m more active there. I would hate to throw out my crappy Adobe Portfolio website. That’s just a bunch of stuff that’s thrown on there right now. But hey, why not? Blacvoicedesign.portfolio.com. That’s just something that’s there right now, just to have an online presence, until I have time to do something else with it.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. You and your work have been on my radar for many years, I think probably, maybe since 2015? For a while now. And it wasn’t until recently, I had spoken with Cheryl, had Cheryl on the show for 500th episode, and she sung your praises to the high heavens. And I was like, “I feel like I reached out to her before. Let me reach out again just to see if she might be interested.”

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Actually, you did, Maurice. I thought about that. I was actually just telling my sister right before, and I was like, I feel weird because you did reach out to me a long time ago, and I think at the time I was just not ready, and something that had nothing to do with you or the show. I love the show and listen to it, and I think that was just like, “I’m still in my boldness. I’m kind of shy too, and more of an introvert.” So I think that, yeah, it just took a while, but you did. You did, but I’m glad you reached back out again.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but I mean, I also just want to say from hearing your story and hearing about everything that you’re working on, I think it’s evident that you have a passion for design. You have a passion for honestly getting the story right, whether it’s through writing, through education, through your visual design work. I’m really excited to see and hear more from you in the future. I feel like you’re one of our bright shining stars that are really going to help represent us, as we move forward in this crazy world that we’re in right now. I feel like the work that you’re doing is really going to stand out and help showcase what Black designers are doing everywhere, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Thanks again for having me, Maurice.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Rudy Manning

Agencies play a critical role in ensuring that the next generation of creatives reflects the world we live in, and Rudy Manning takes that responsibility very seriously. As the co-founder and chief creative officer of Pastilla Inc., he is dedicated to not only providing services for a diverse range of clients, but also for making opportunities to get more people of color working in the design.

Rudy starts off talking more about Pastilla, and showing the ins and outs of what it takes to operate an agency. He also spoke about growing up in Panama and Germany before coming to the U.S., shared some stories of his early days designing DVD magazines, and how the combination of these experiences brought him to founding his own creative agency. Rudy also talked about teaching the next generation of designers at ArtCenter, being board president at Art Division, and gave some great advice for anyone looking to start their own agency one day. Rudy’s passion for all things design and his drive to help uplift others truly makes him a design leader worth following!

Interview Transcript

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

Rudy Manning:
My name is Rudy Manning and I am a creative director. My title is the Chief Creative Officer for an agency that I started about 18 years ago or 19 years ago now, called Pastilla based out of Pasadena or Los Angeles, California.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s pretty good. So you’re coming up on 20 years of that.

Rudy Manning:
Yeah, yeah, I know. We’re getting excited. We put a big event together for everybody who’s been a part of this journey. So yeah, it’s a big milestone.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It feels like the milestones sneak up on you. You’re so busy sometimes in the work and doing it that you look up and you’re like, “Wait a minute, I’ve been doing this for 20 years?”

Rudy Manning:
Yeah, I’m telling you, it goes by… When you’re in it, sometimes it feels like it’s treading along, but then you look back and you’re like, wow, awesome. Yeah. Super grateful to still be in business and have it continue to thrive. So super excited.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2023 been going so far?

Rudy Manning:
Really, really good. There was a lot of things shifted in the agency about five years ago. I merged with another agency that was one of our partners. They were doing a lot of development for us and probably for most of the time at the agency, up to that point, they were the main development partner for anything we did that was digital base. We decided after a long relationship to just come together, it just made sense. And that really shifted the trajectory of the agency the past five years. We’ve matured, we’ve grown substantially in that time. Really, really just have a little bit more of a focus.

2023 is, I think, really excited because, although a lot of things in the economy are uncertain, I feel like we’ve done some pretty smart things that have kept us afloat and kept us strong. Definitely the kind of work that we do in those years of the pandemic really ended up helping out for us because we’re a creative branding agency, really branding led, but we do a lot of digital products. So obviously there was a lot of investment in things digital. So that really helped out and now we’re positioned for a very steady growth of 2023. So, so far so good.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, were there any big goals that you wanted to accomplish this year?

Rudy Manning:
Well, last year one of the big goals we had was growth. I’m going to go a little bit into agency talk. This might go a little bit deep, but I think if somebody’s out there listening and has an agency, I think this is really important. Every year is different. Sometimes it’s like revenue, sometimes it’s profit, sometimes it might be people. There’s the goal, growing. And last year it was a lot about refining the team, making sure that the people who we had were working well together. Not only just processes, but the personalities and the right roles and the right balance of folks that really can help continue to lead and build the company and service our clients.

So that was a really huge goal and we owe huge testament to a lot of people in our agency, but definitely our HR team and we really refined a team. At the end we started off the year now knowing that the staff that we have is solid, they’re working together, a really well oiled machine and I feel like we’ve achieved that last year and this year now it’s becoming about really working. I’m calling the title for this year, nurture the details, which is about going a little deeper into the relationships that we have with our clients and not just servicing them, but really understanding their needs from a full 360 to be able to deliver as much value as we can. Not necessarily growth from growing clients, but growing the clients that we have currently.

So that’s really what I’m focused on for this year, and so far so good. We’ve already in the first two months have been able to do that pretty well. So I’m looking to continue to foster that in the team. And from the creative, the same thing. Being able to push the creative further and further, be able to deliver the best at every single thing that the client sees and making sure that they continue to stay with us, continue to come back and continue to see us as a strong partner to be able to service them in other things that maybe they didn’t even think we can help them with.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s jump more into talking about Pastilla. You’re the co-founder and chief creative officer. You’ve already given a little bit of background about the team and the services and stuff. What really sets Pastilla apart from other agencies?

Rudy Manning:
It’s funny, when I was in school, in design school, I graduated and a lot of people during that time were like, “Oh, I’m going to jump into web. I’m going to work in motion. I’m going to work in print.” But really at that time, you had to know a little bit of everything, but I really liked having to cross-discipline position and I was working everything from packaging to environmental to doing film titles, commercials, apps, even back in 2003, 2004. I’ve always been in this cross sector of creative where it didn’t matter what discipline it was.

Now, that’s been really fun. A really, really exciting 20 years. I’ve learned a lot. It wasn’t easy because you do have to, to continue to sell, there is a certain pattern and you want agencies or you want clients to have that one thing that they think about you. And when you’re working and building the agency, it’s really tough to figure that out because you’re just taking things as it comes. And especially if I’m the kind of person that’s excited about a lot of different things, it’s been tough. It was really tough, I would say the first 12, 13 years. We were doing motion one year and the next year we’re doing the launch campaign for Microsoft Surface Tablet in 2012 or ’13. So very, very different projects, but exciting nonetheless. But made it difficult because when you tell the story of who your agency is, you really want to have the repeat factor. Even if it’s a different story and positioning, you do want to have this focus. So that was tough.

Around that time, 2013, I decided what we really do well and what I really like to do the most out of everything we did was branding and really looking at every client that came to us from a branding perspective, whether it was a brand new client where it’s a brand new company where you’re doing strategy, naming, identity system, and then executing that, which makes sense because we had that full service. That was something that finally, I would say at that time, we were able to start really honing down who we are as a branding agency. But at the same time, what made it interesting is we also had a deep understanding of how to put that company or that brand in action. So how it applies in digital, how it applies in motion, how it applies in print, and being able to do the full picture after we do the identity system.

It took a long time to do that and to get to that point, but I feel like that was one huge defining point at refining who we are, that made us stand out, at least let’s say in 2013 to 2016 or so. Then, I would say around that time, 2016, I started feeling like I wanted to do work that mattered a little bit more. Not that any of the work that we did didn’t matter, but something was in me that felt like I want to be able to be a part of the communication and deliver creative to projects and initiatives that had some kind of social impact through some different situations.

I ended up learning a little bit about the government work and how to approach it. It took a very long time, but I really got interested in being able to service the same kind of level of high end creative, the same kind of level of thinking and focus that we give to the private sector clients, but give it to more civic, public or nonprofit clients. And I would say it was specifically public sector. So we won one project, for the city of Pasadena we did a anti-tobacco campaign. That went really, really well and that’s when I got the bug of like, “Wow, I really like this idea of designing for the people directly, designing for communities.”

And now looking at eight years later or so, just last year rebranded… Well, this year, we actually just finished rebranding a city, the identity, the strategy and we’re going to continue to serve them. It was a really amazing experience to be able to put all that we’ve learned this first 18 years into branding a city. One of the reasons they picked us was because we weren’t a typical public sector type of agency. They said it right in the first town hall that they had. They chose us because we were not the typical public agency that spoke government and so forth. They felt like we were a little bit more on the ground and had a fresh perspective. We commend them for that as well because I know that often we lose because there’s other agencies that know how to speak that.

So I would say we have this well-rounded full service agency that’s branding focused, most of our clients come through us for that. And that we’re civic minded, civic social impact minded. We do things in sustainability and so forth. And sometimes some private sector clients come to us because of that. We also have that passion for doing work that matters and that directly affects people and communities.

Maurice Cherry:
I would have to imagine that city branding project was a lot of fun. When you think about the scope of what that entails, it’s not just, “Oh, we’re going to make a logo and a style guide.” There’s so much that has to go into that level of branding because a city is more than just a company, it’s more than just a brand. It’s not a society but I say that to say that the scope of something like that is immense.

Rudy Manning:
Yeah, absolutely. We underestimated some parts of it. The discovery and the research that we had to do, especially because we’re not based in the city. It was the city of Corona and we’re maybe about an hour away from them. One of the comments in the beginning when they first introduced us to the city council was like, “Oh, why didn’t you guys go with a company that was in the city of Corona, or from the city?” We had to invest a lot of time into proving that an outsider, an agency that comes can have a fresh perspective, can do just as good if not a better job than somebody who’s really close to the city.

So the discovery and the strategy was a lot of work, a lot of workshops, a lot of meetings, a lot of popups that we had to do to get engagement and really validate the messaging and the final outcome of the identity.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s tough to get right, because so many people that are in a city, it’s not just business, it’s not just commerce, it’s everyday citizens. It’s so so hard to get right. I guess the reason I’m speaking about this so passionately is because I’m in Atlanta and we were known for a spectacularly bad city branding campaign back in the early to mid 2000s. I happened to be working in the city, working in tourism. So I got to see it unfold from the inside about how bad it was. But yeah, we were known for a spectacularly bad branding campaign called Brand Atlanta. I was working in the city in tourism at the time, and just seeing it unfold from the inside was horrible because you could tell that the people that were putting this together, and I think they got a local agency to do it, but what can happen, and I think you probably know this too, is that the client can get so held up in what their vision of it should be, that it’s hard for the agency to do the necessary research and work that needs to happen in order to really provide good work.

And so basically we just had all these suits that were in our tourism board. There were like, “Atlanta is this,” and as someone who… I’m not from Atlanta, but I’ve lived in Atlanta, I’m from the South. I was like, “Atlanta is so much more than these things that you think it is.” They thought Atlanta was the zoo and the baseball team and all the very family friendly, squeaky clean sort of stuff. But I’m like, “Atlanta is also hip hop and strip clubs, it’s all of that. And you’re trying to sanitize this vision of what the city is, because at the time they were trying to get more conferences to come to the city, which was the main point of them doing the rebrand is to make the city seem more appealing.

They did it. They rolled it out. We had, I think it happened at a Falcons game where they did the whole Brand Atlanta rollout. They had the symphony and they wrote this song. They had this song that was written with T.I. and Usher and it was all horrible. People hated it. It was so bad. It was so bad. There are very little, if any traces of it still around in the city because they quickly covered it up after it went out. So city branding is tough. It’s so tough to get right.

Rudy Manning:
That would be our worst nightmare. And actually, there’s one project that we had pitched a couple years ago. I can’t name the university, but we came in very close to winning it. We ended up losing it to another company who had a lot of experience in higher ed. One of the main things I pitched that got us very close is I said, “This is not a logo identity we’re doing. We’re really doing a political campaign in a sense. We have to approach everything we do to get people, the students, the instructors, to believe in the direction before we even go in that direction. So we have to really understand what it is that the students and the faculty need and what do they believe to then be able to communicate an identity system.”

But what happened is at some point it seemed like they jumped the gun. We didn’t get it. Three years later, they end up reaching back to us saying, “This was a horrible experience what happened to us, everybody hated the logo. There was political nightmare, PR nightmare, communication nightmare in the school.” And obviously it was too late at that point, but they’re like, “Definitely we should have gone by you.” There’s literally an email saying, “We regret going with this other agency. We should have gone by you because the direction that you were pitching was exactly what we needed.”

One of the ideas was the students at the school, the graphic design students, they need to be a part of this identity for the school. They need to have their hands in it in some kind of way. All of that just really gets people to feel that this came from within. It has to feel like that with anything like that. If not, it’s really, really hard. So I don’t know. It’s crazy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rudy Manning:
[inaudible 00:18:34]

Maurice Cherry:
When new projects come in with you sitting at the head of the company, do you get to work hands-on with them?

Rudy Manning:
I do. We’re about 35 or so people with some contractors definitely goes up to maybe even close to 50. The design team, we’re pretty nimble. So I’m the creative director. We have an art director and we have a few graphic designers and UX designers and so forth. But I still am, as the acting creative director, at least maybe for the next couple years, I am potentially looking to bring in a creative director.

So that means that basically I don’t design, but I review. I give critiques. I give from either my art director or my lead designers, senior designers. They will go and do the work themselves and then come back, present to me. I give them feedback, I give my thoughts. They present to me, I give them feedback on how to present, what kinds of things to say. And every now and then I’ll have to present. But seldom, less and less. I think my team’s gotten to the point where they’re pretty good at understanding my vision and so forth.

Sometimes in the beginning I set some parameters, I would say, around the direction of where we should go based off the strategy or whatever it may be. But often they’ll come to me with some ideas and then I’ll take those ideas and give them some feedback on refining them, even if it’s just general higher level concepts.

Maurice Cherry:
So you’re not, like you said, working hands on but you’re still pretty close to the project in that you get to see it unfold, kind of step by step.

Rudy Manning:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I do a lot of other things. My partner now rents most of the operations, but I’m still really responsible for a lot of the business development, the relationship of our clients and overseeing all the accounts, not just from the creative, but managing the entire perspective of the direction of that client.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a regular day look like for you?

Rudy Manning:
Lot of calls. I think these days, we’ve had an office for probably the first 15 years of our company and just after we merged with Kremsa, is the name of the company that we merged with. Just after that, we decided, you know what? Let’s go remote for a little bit. We were trying to figure out how the two companies were going to come together. We did that for about a year, year and a half. We started looking for an office. Then the pandemic hit. So it was frustrating for me working remote, but I literally learned to adapt. We all have adapted pretty well for it. Sometimes we obviously meet, and I say that because one of the drawbacks now is on a lot of meetings because we have to force those kind of interactions between people. So that means my days are pretty booked up with calls.

I would probably say I spend about at least five to six hours a day on calls. I would say half of it is internal things, whether it be operational meetings or looking at something we’re doing internally to market ourselves or project stuff, account managers presenting to me where we’re at with the client, the margins, what new projects are coming along and so forth. So I do that and then probably 10, 20% of the day might be some creative meeting that I have with the team where they’re presenting some ideas or so forth. But most of it’s operational business meetings. Yeah, I would say that’s basically my whole entire day.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Business development’s important though, because you got to bring them in, you got to bring the client work in.

Rudy Manning:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s always been something I’ve done forever, just naturally, it’s been something that I’ve always just somehow understood. So it’s the thing that probably, from a financial point of view, that’s the biggest value right now that I bring to the company is the business development. Most of the projects come through something of my relationship or some doing of our content or so forth. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Is it tough balancing the creative and the business sides of running an agency?

Rudy Manning:
It is, and it’s getting harder and harder because I talk about how we’re now remote and how many hours I’m on calls, because so much of it is that higher level strategic thinking of the business, the client, operations, who do we need to hire? What’s happening with this hire? Do we need to bring in another person for this? Hey, there’s an issue with this client, this is what we need to do, or here’s some cool things that we can do or new projects, pitches, proposals. All of that really takes up most of my time.

So staying creative is really, really important for me. I try to do that as much as I can. I sort of time box it. So one of the things, we just moved into a new house a year and a half ago, two years ago. So I’ve had a lot of fun just doing interior design and designing the space and just remodeling the house and not just hands on, but the actual design part of it. So I’ve had a lot of fun doing that and bringing my design into that. It’s been something I’ve been enjoying. At least right now, that’s definitely a way I’m getting my creative output. Also teaching is really great as well. Hearing students work and giving feedback at that level as well, that also feeds me tremendously.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to talk more about your teaching later, but before we get to that, I want to learn more about you. I want to learn about how you got to where you are now, where you’re running an agency and you’ve got it staffed with all these designers and things like that. So tell me about where you grew up. Are you originally from California?

Rudy Manning:
No, actually I’m Panameno. I was born in Panama. Yeah, I came here. We immigrated with my parents here when I was seven or eight years old. We came here. My dad joined the Army. He thought this is probably the best way for us to make a living for him and provide for us. Immediately after that, I would say about a year after we moved here, he got shipped to Germany. So I was basically, that’s where I learned English was in Germany.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Rudy Manning:
I only spoke Spanish, so I was there for about almost four years, I think. Then we came back to United States when I was 11. We were basically in Los Angeles, and then we moved to Rialto. So basically from 11, 12 up, I’ve been in Southern California area. I went to high school in Redlands. After my mom and dad divorced, my mom moved towards that area and that’s where actually I ended up meeting somebody who gave me a little bit of a hint about me wanting to maybe study graphic design at the high school. So I went to Redlands High School and then from there I graduated, went to Cal Poly Pomona for a couple years, and then ended up transferring to ArtCenter, which is what brought me to Pasadena.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, back before you went to Cal Poly Pomona and everything, as you were traveling between these different countries as a kid and then eventually settling in California, did you always have an interest in design and creativity and stuff like that?

Rudy Manning:
I think it was mainly just drawing. I loved to draw since I was a little kid. My brother as well. We both used to just draw together, and he’s a graphic designer too. My dad studied architecture for a little bit in Panama, but he’s always drawn and painted his whole life. We have a pretty artistic family. So my dad, since we were little, always was drawing and we’d copy his drawings and he’d go one by one and then we’d follow what he was doing. We’d do that all the time, in front of the TV. We’d sit down and he’d be talking, he’d be showing us what to do. Did that for many years and my mom, a little bit after, my mom and dad divorced, my mom started a business. So then got to see that part of it. She’s been really successful at it.

So got to see the benefits of owning your own company and your own business and what kind of freedom that gives you, and the satisfaction and seeing her in it, that drove that part of it as well. So I think those two things combined is what got me the framework of thinking of building an agency.

I would say, I remember I stopped drawing at 11 or 12 years old. I don’t know why.I think I just ended up playing baseball. My focus was different and I was just playing baseball all the time. And then one day, I don’t know why, I just remember, I was 14 and I was just like, “You know what? Let me draw a baseball player.” That’s what I loved. And I remember I drew Orel Hershiser. I had it in my art class and I took it to school. I remember that feeling of everybody like, “Oh my gosh, you drew this? How did you…” That reaction, you kind of had a similar background as an artist, you’re like, man, there’s this feedback that you get that’s a little bit of this high. I’ll never forget that. So I just kept on drawing and then that went to painting, and then I was just taking art and painting classes. And eventually that took over my passion for baseball, and that’s all I wanted to do, was draw on paint sports figures.

I wanted to be like Leroy Neiman, who’s a very famous sports fine artist painter. And then until I was in one of my art classes, I think I was a junior or something, it was a student in there who was a really good artist who was going to graduate. And I asked him, “Hey, what are you going to do after school?” And he’s like, “Oh, I’m going to go to PCC, Pasadena City College, and then I’m going to transfer to ArtCenter and study graphic design.” I’m like, “Oh, what’s that?” And he’s like, “It’s like doing things for MTV.” And I remember going, “Dang.” That was the days of MTV, MTV, the real MTV. And I was like, “That is amazing. Graphics for MTV.” I didn’t even know the word graphics actually. I just thought art for TV that people could see. So I remember that, and that always stuck with me.

So when I graduated, I was just looking for a school that had graphic design, which wasn’t that many. And Cal Poly ended up being one of those schools. So that’s where I dove into graphic design for the first time there.

Maurice Cherry:
How was your time at Cal Poly Pomona?

Rudy Manning:
It was interesting because I think in high school I was pretty kept in. I didn’t do a lot of stuff. I feel like when I got to Cal Poly, I was in the dorms and I just got this freedom of like, “Oh my gosh, I’m on myself.” So I went down that, it was a lot of fun, but it was like I probably didn’t know what to do with all of that energy. So one thing is I would say my focus wasn’t there as it should be those first couple years. I want to say, despite that, I struggled a bit with graphic design there. For whatever reason, I didn’t make the connection.

There was a lettering class I remember. The lettering class that we had, it was all about craftsmanship. You had to draw, let’s say the letter E with Prisma color, and it was like a five-inch height type and you have to draw it so it literally looks like it’s printed. It was very difficult that class for me, not because I couldn’t do it, I could do it, but I didn’t have the patience. I wanted to design. I wanted to draw. I remember the instructor saying, “If you get a C or under in this class, I highly suggest you don’t continue in graphic design, ’cause graphic design is really tough.” And I remember as, not to say fine artist, tough as well, but in terms of, I think what he was saying is, “You really have to love this to really continue in this direction.” It was one of the first classes in graphic design you were suppose to take.

So towards the whole class, I was just like, I’m struggling. I think I’m going to get a C. The final project was you get to draw something and use letter form and typography and visuals together. So I got to do this book cover. I remember I did a Malcolm X book cover and you put it up to class, the final, and everybody was just looking at this project, looking at my project, and the teacher was like, “Who did this?” It was the first time out of the whole entire term that I felt any kind of positivity in that class. All the time, it was just like… I remember going, “What’s happening?” And so I walked out of class and the instructor, said, “Hey, I know I said you shouldn’t be in graphic design, or if you get a C or lower, I think you’re going to get a C.” I’m like, “Yeah, I know.” And he’s like, “Well, I think you should stay in graphic design though.” So I was like, “Oh, huh, okay.” I walked away, still struggled, still was a tough time in the other classes.

Somebody had told me, “Hey, you got to take a class at ArtCenter. You’d be really good at it.” I’m like, “I don’t know what you see, because I’m struggling in every graphic design.” I did great in the painting classes. Those are the ones I really loved. So I took a night class. She ended up just convincing me, and I was nervous because I thought, man, back then I thought ArtCenter’s this sort of mecca. I took a night class, like an extension class while I was still at Cal Poly.

The first day you go and you present your ideas for a logo. I was just drawing and sketching and concepting stuff, put it up. I knew the moment the teacher started talking, the first, not even to my project, another student, I thought this, I’m in love. I literally felt like this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. And I just never took another class at Cal Poly. Again, Cal Poly, this was early on in Cal Poly for their graphic design. So they really were working things and some amazing designers came out of this. So that was just me at that time. But I just fell in love with graphic design at ArtCenter. I eventually finished my foundation at Cal Poly. Then I got a full scholarship actually after a couple classes I took at ArtCenter. I built my portfolio, some from Cal Poly, some from the ArtCenter, and I got a full scholarship, a James Irvine scholarship.

That was it. Kind of changed my life. The only hiccup during that time is a girl that I had been dating ended up getting pregnant. So I ended up having a child pretty early on. So I was starting ArtCenter while learning to be a father at the same time. So that’s another story.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rudy Manning:
Definitely all came all at once, but definitely matured me and I think eventually was all for the good, of course.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’ve heard from a lot of folks on this show that sometimes when they go into school having a lot of this artistic ability and love, sometimes the school can almost effectively snuff it out of them through the professors or the courses or anything like that. So it’s good that you still had that spark and decided to continue it by going somewhere else that was probably more focused in the direction that you needed to go, which of course now, based on where you’re at right now, that was a good direction to take.

Rudy Manning:
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s crazy. You never know. Those little moments. I remember thinking like, “Oh gosh, the classes are at night and this and that.” But yeah, I loved those classes. I wanted to spend all my time in the ArtCenter at night classes then. So, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve graduated, you’re out there as a working designer. What was your early career before you started Pastilla?

Rudy Manning:
As I mentioned during school, I definitely like to get my hands in everything that was design. I think it’s one of the reasons I mentioned earlier, I like even just interior design. I have a passion for anything that is where you’re taking these elements of your artistic being and putting into some physical space or visual space or designing a city. So I definitely can see how all those things combining works together. And I did the same thing at school. And so when I graduated, I wanted to work somewhere that didn’t want to push me into one direction. I didn’t want to work in an agency that only had me do print, only doing web, or only doing motion. So the best place was a company then called… I had a couple different companies, but I think towards the end it was called Quick Band Networks or DVD Mags, which was you basically are designing a DVD magazine is what they call it.

So every month you would get a subscription of a DVD. One of them was short films. You get one DVD of short films, another one was music. So you get to have these music videos and all this content on these DVDs. I got to design basically the editorial, but the interactive part. So I got to do the identity of each of the magazines. I got to do the interactive part of the DVD. I got to do the animation of the DVD. I got to do the ads. So that to me was perfect. I got to get my hands in all of that. That’s really where I started for the first couple of years. I started freelancing a little bit after that. And that took me to Nokia for about four years. I worked there really as a freelancer.

I had a feeling at that time that at some point I’m going to start my own company just because I really enjoyed working with my own clients. So in between that, I took freelance projects at night and weekends, and I really enjoyed having full control of like, I’m presenting to the client, I’m giving them my vision, and I’m able to directly connect with them to be able to persuade them of the concept that I think is right. Rather than, here’s a bunch of ideas, now you have somebody else pitching it for you. So I really love that. So I thought, I’m going to start my own studio. But I needed to build up enough momentum as a freelancer.

So I really freelanced for about six years. Then when I was at Nokia, I said it was a time of my life, I got divorced in my late 20s and I thought might be a good time for me to do this now for a lot of different reasons. So I told Nokia, “I’m going to start my own company. If you guys would like to hire more of me, I’d be happy to take the work and continue as my own company.” And so Nokia was my first client. So I’m super thankful for that. For the first couple years, a lot of the work we did was Nokia. And so that was the first momentum of Pastilla, which was then called Pastilla Studio.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. You must have made some really great relationships at Nokia in order for them to entrust you with that. Say, I’m going to go out on my own. And they’re like, “Okay, great. We’ll still toss some work your way.”

Rudy Manning:
Yeah, definitely. I worked really hard for them, was really great people, a lot of them, some of them I knew from ArtCenter. I got to meet people from all over the world there and really was a time where technology was in a bit of transition. Imagine that was like 2000, a couple years before that. The iPhone definitely hadn’t come out. But before that, Google had just come out a couple years before that. It’s really early on. So I think I came with that diverse background of motion, interactive and print, and being able to cross-discipline. I think that really, the design director, Gerardo, liked that so I was able to really use my diverse background and experiences to Nokia and help the team out for those four years. So yeah, we did some great work.

Maurice Cherry:
Honestly, coming with those skills at a time when as soon as you said DVD magazines, I was like, oh, I already know when this happened. This is turn of the century or turn the millennium, whatever, like ’99, 2000. I remember those DVD magazines vividly. But yeah, coming with all those skills at a time when technology and design and the web were growing at this rapid pace, the stuff that you were doing didn’t really even exist 10 years ago. The advent of the personal computer and the internet becoming something that was no longer bound to DVDs or CDs that you get in the mail. The fact that things were growing at this rapid pace and you’re coming in with all these skills, especially at a time when companies are trying to decide, “How do I become a part of this new thing? How do I have a website? How do I take orders online or do all this stuff?” And you show up to the scene well-equipped like, “Hey, I’ve got the skills if you got the work.” Sounds good.

Rudy Manning:
Yep, exactly. Exactly, exactly. It was a really fun time.

Maurice Cherry:
And now while you were building Pastilla, it sounds like there were other ventures that you were doing as well, right? You did some work with an app, you founded a film company, I guess. Tell me about those other ventures.

Rudy Manning:
Obviously from let’s say 2004, those first 10 years were extremely busy for me. Continues to be anytime you’re a business owner. But those first 10 years I was basically raising my kids. I have a boy and a girl from my first marriage. And so I was raising the kids while starting this company essentially. We have 50-50 custody. So they got to share that experience. So those first 10 years was extremely busy. I would say around 2014 maybe, 2013, a friend came to me about an idea that he had for a startup, and he wanted me to look at it and see if I was interested in being his partner. He presented to me, did this whole pitch. And basically what it was is, to be honest, it’s not that different than what Instagram Reels is, what TikTok is now. The only company that was doing something sort of similar was musically that ended up becoming TikTok back then.

But even then it was very different, the UX. So basically at the end, what it was is you select video clips from your phone and it strings a video edited to music together. The thing that it did a little different was it took the music patterns and did the edit based on the pattern of the music, the rhythm, the beats per minute. There were 5 second ones, 15, 20, 30 I think it was. And so we built the app, we started it, we got some funding.

I learned a lot. Number one, I was able to use all of the tools and experience that I have learned, not just from owning an agency, but also working with clients as well. So it was really great. But it was tough. It was tough because it was at a time where we saw Instagram really starting to, I hate to say it, but just copy what everybody else was doing, so see what’s happening. And so like, “Oh, I like discovery. I like how Snapchat’s doing. Okay. Yeah. All right, let’s do this.” And then they bought the music catalog of Universal then.

And that’s where, okay, this is going to be really tough to… Even though the technology was different and interesting, it was not going to be able to compete because it had to be a platform. So it was more like a tool and a feature. So after I would say couple years, we got some awards and things out of it and definitely some really good recognition. But we decided to close that. Around that time, I got married in 2014, so we’ve been married about nine years. And my wife is actually a filmmaker. She has always wanted to be a director. And during that time, she was building her career. So she started making brand films. She’s an amazing storyteller. It was perfect because obviously I had done motion, I had been part of doing BFX for films and so forth.

So we started… It’s her thing. This is what she runs to this day now. It’s been maybe five years, but we took some of the experience that I had in motion and put it into what now it’s actually called Fe Films, Fe Brand Films or Fe Films. So she does brand films, she does motion graphics work, but really the thrust is she’s looking to have it be a full-fledged feature film company. So she’s doing some short films and some narrative work on that. She’s got a couple scripts that have been optioned and she’s been working with. So that’s, when you saw Fe Brand Films, that’s what it is. All of the motion parts that were Pastilla or most of it got diverted into Fe Films now.

Maurice Cherry:
And now also you’re board president of Art Division. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Rudy Manning:
Yeah. About two, three years ago, let me back up a little bit from that because, say about 10 years ago I had this thought and I had mentioned to my wife, “Wow, our studios are empty on Saturdays and Sundays. Wouldn’t be amazing to go out and bus students from the different areas in Los Angeles and different groups and be able to teach kids graphic design?” I’ve always had a passion for kids. And at that point I had just started teaching as well. So I thought, yeah, this could be really interesting to do. And so I had it in the back of my head, but with everything else, this was really busy and I never really was able to put the gas on that.

And then about two, three years ago, somebody recommended me, introduced me to Art Division, which was a school in Rampart District of Los Angeles that was teaching fine arts, visual arts to kids specifically in that area, primarily of Latino immigrants. Me speaking Spanish, being Latino, I felt like, I wanted to get to know a little bit more about the school. So went in, heard a little bit about it. Definitely saw some potential for me from my background coming from teaching at ArtCenter. Also, some of the things I have been thinking about in the past and learning from what they’re doing, seeing if that could be something I can learn from and be a part of something that was really giving kids who have graduated high school, have amazing art talent, be able to give them the ability for another chance to develop a career in arts. And then me maybe be a part of introducing design to their curriculum.

So after six months of being on the board, I was selected as the board president. And for the past year and a half, that’s been my role. What I’ve been doing is slowly trying to find ways to include graphic design into the curriculum. And we hope, hopefully by this fall, we have at least a couple classes that we start to teach. We’re developing that right now. We’ve done some graphic design workshops where kids have come in to hear a little bit about who I am. I’m also looking to introduce some of the designers from Pastilla also potentially to even go there and do some teaching and so forth and be able to give back to these kids. Because some of them, they’re artists, they have a passion for art and design, but who knows? That art background could end up becoming a design passion and graphic design passion and can end up having a career. It’s really tough and really expensive to go to school these days, especially art school. So giving them some of these opportunities I think could be really interesting. So I’m looking forward to how this develops.

Maurice Cherry:
Now along with this community work, which by the way sounds amazing. I would love to have been a part of a program like that when I was a kid. But you’re also an instructor at ArtCenter College of Design where you went to college. You’ve taught there now for almost nine years. Tell me a bit about what you teach.

Rudy Manning:
Yeah. I started teaching in the product design department, which is industrial design, we call industrial design, product design at ArtCenter. I was brought in to teach graphic design to the product design students essentially. And then that turned into me teaching the students, there was a class that helped the product design students or industrial design students how to brand themselves as they get ready to graduate, how do they position who they are and so forth. Those first classes, I would say that first year, year and a half, which for me to just get my feet wet and see do I like teaching period, how can I fit into my schedule? Does it work for me? And what are we getting out of it myself personally? And also am I being able to deliver and be good at it?

I loved it. I really, really liked doing it. I got as much out of the students as they get as much out of me. It’s definitely a very symbiotic relationship and I think that really helps my perspective in how I teach. And so I taught in that department and immediately obviously, I wanted to teach in the graphic design department. I was a natural inkling. It’s kind of tough to jump into teaching, especially ArtCenter because you have some of the top designers in the world and artists in the world teaching there and everybody wants to teach there. So I ended up getting asked to teach a branding class. They knew the work and stuff that I did. So I started teaching what now, the bulk of those years, up until maybe last year, I was teaching what was called Transmedia, which is basically a branding class that looks at what I mentioned, the cross sector of how branding and identity systems get implemented into and go into action when it comes to digital, motion, space, environmental.

So that was my class and I absolutely loved teaching, it was called Communication Design Five, Branding for Trans Media, I think. I did that for about six, seven years. I took a pause on that class. I was teaching two classes a week while I was still running the agency, still with this transition of the two new companies. Well, last summer I took a pause for two terms because teaching remotely and being remote as an agency was taking a toll on me. The classes at ArtCenter are about five hours. So if I was teaching two classes, that’s two days that I’m on class for five hours on screen. And then as I mentioned, my work is screen time stuff. So I ended up feeling after six, seven years, I don’t know if I have enough bandwidth.

Things started opening up obviously in the fall, but I started now with Art Division and my focus on there, I’m started to rethink a little bit of my long-term strategy in teaching and am I going to continue teaching at ArtCenter? So currently, I’m still teaching now. I’m back to teaching in the masters program, a branding futures class, which is I’m teaching with another instructor about strategies of future casting, how brands could future cast either their audience, either the business models, any kind of future strategic thinking of a brand. So I’m teaching that class now and I’m going to be teaching one more during the summer. But I think that after that I’ll be taking a pause for a while to do some art work and thinking with Art Division and put my time into that.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, you got to fill up your own cup first. It sounds like with everything you’re doing with Pastilla of course, and then also with teaching, you can get depleted very quickly.

Rudy Manning:
Yeah, definitely. Definitely. It all kind of works together in a way. So it is definitely a lot to juggle, but it all works for the greater good, really, ultimately also of Pastilla because when I do things for Art Division, not only am I helping feed ourselves, but we also tell that story of how we’re involved in Art Division when we work with some of our other clients. So that’s really a important part, shows that our agency isn’t just working directly with clients that have social impact, but we are actually volunteering our time as well.

And then for ArtCenter, the same thing. I’ve learned so much from teaching, communicating your thoughts of visuals. I’m sure you know this, it’s very, very underestimated how difficult it is to be able to say, communicate in words what something should be visually. I don’t think we think too much about that, but it’s extremely hard and it’s definitely an art to that. I learned a lot of that through teaching and different personalities of creatives and designers and so forth that I think has also helped Pastilla. And also just teaching at ArtCenter as my brand, my personal brand has definitely just validates the agency, validates me and so forth. So it all works together in my head for a bigger vision.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, no, it makes sense. It all feeds into each other. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but the work you’re doing teaching, of course, that informs how you talk to clients or how you present the business to clients. But then you also say, “We’re not just an agency, we also give back to the community.” And so that is where Art Division comes in, where you’re saying, “I’m doing this to help out students that are interested in design or kids that are interested in design.” So it does all feed into each other, but I think what it does overall is it shows just how passionate you are about design, just outside of a client-vendor relationship. This is your lifeblood. You live and breathe this stuff.

Rudy Manning:
Exactly. Love that. That’s exactly it. Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
What do your students teach you?

Rudy Manning:
Patience. I think, number one, it absolutely keeps me on the cusp of the, I hate to say design trends, but how culture is affecting design. How each generation takes what we’ve done and reinvents it, takes what they see in their environment and mixes it up to have this new creative aesthetic and how that continues to evolve. Absolutely, I always want to make sure that I am not blinded by my past or my history of what I always thought the design aesthetic was. I always want to feel like I’m at the edge of what’s happening, if not what’s also how things are changing and looking even ahead of that. So the students definitely keep me on my toes when it comes to that.

Second is understanding different design, creative mindsets or personalities. Different students take feedback completely different. And how you have to be very agile and nimble in how you communicate things. It could be how direct you are. It could be how open you are about a direction. Some students are really great at giving, they need very prescriptive directions on something and they need to develop that. They need to know things aren’t going to be so prescriptive. You need to connect the dots yourself, but you still have to be somewhat prescriptive. And then other students, if you’re too prescriptive, they literally will get stuck and confused because they don’t really understand exactly what you’re saying. And there’s everything in between.

So being able to read, pick up on how a student is reading you quickly, that’s really important, and being able to adjust your communication style. And that’s the same for our design team in-house and also clients as well. Communicating to clients, like you mentioned, we’re all creative to some point and when we’re communicating visuals, I take those little tools that I’ve learned in communicating to the students and I borrow those things to communicate to clients as well when I need to.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you are at a really unique vantage point, I feel. One, you’re an agency owner with Pastilla, you’re also an instructor, so you’re teaching the next generation of designers. How has being a design instructor informed how you approach Pastilla?

Rudy Manning:
It’s funny because we ended up changing the name of Pastilla from Pastilla Studio and in 2012 to Pasta Institute. It was supposed to be this sort of cheeky way to institutionalize something that isn’t really institutional and formalize it when it really isn’t formal. It was a very small studio then still. But there was something that made it feel like it’s established, but then at the end you’re kind of like, no, they’re a very buttoned down agency. So the one thing is that it was funny because the kind of person that I was and the designers that I would get, was naturally sort of a mentor and people would say, it’s kind of like a school where I saw designers really grow when they came to work at Pastilla and go and do amazing things, even after Pastilla.

And so that teaching part, I think was a part of Pastilla from the beginning, just naturally, I guess, maybe it just came from me or maybe just because I had to. Because I needed help and I needed freelancing and I had different people from different points of view, and that’s just my communication style. So that institute, I remember that now, it’s just Pastilla, obviously. We simplified it, but that part is still there. And for I would say a good eight years, every quarter at least, we had a different intern. I wanted to make sure that the designers that we have respect the interns and part of the work is that they do have to mentor. I’m mentoring as a creative director, the student, and also our design team that’s also working with the mentors is also teaching.

Teaching, it’s absolutely critical to any leadership. You can’t have a leader, not be a good teacher. You have to have somebody that can have that empathy of understanding that how to communicate to do something is an important part of being a leader and that not everybody takes or understands the same words or receives the same kind of communication the same way. And I think that’s an important part of being a good leader. And I felt like that’s an important part of Pastilla. And the creative team, the account team, the management team, and I try to continue to infuse that. Sometimes probably, I would say maybe the designers are like, “Oh my gosh, there’s too much work. I’m teaching and designing.” But I think in the long run, they’re going to see that this is some important tools that they learned.

So in short, before I was teaching at ArtCenter, I think we had that part embedded into our culture, that teaching impact or that element. Then I started teaching, that just got elevated, and then I just literally created with Pastilla, I would just have internship programs. So the students would come from ArtCenter. They’d intern at Pastilla for three months, continue getting taught there.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you mentioned with the education work you’re doing with ArtCenter, that part of what you’re teaching is about future strategic thinking. From your perspective, what do you think agencies can do moving forward to ensure that the future of creatives reflect this world that we’re in right now? Of course we hear a lot about diversity and inclusion. There’s always going to be some new bleeding edge tech, which right now is what AI, Chat GPT, et cetera. How can agencies start to move forward, making sure that this next generation of designers, creators, et cetera, really reflect the world that we’re communicating and creating for?

Rudy Manning:
I think one of the things, along the line of teaching, I feel like at least that was a feeling when I was in school, was that if you don’t come with a absolutely impeccable portfolio, you cannot work at some of these big larger agencies. This was the case. Thankfully, I went to ArtCenter, I had that experience, I had that portfolio at that time. But not everybody gets those opportunities. Not everybody finds those paths. Maybe they might have the opportunity, but they somehow didn’t have that one person that said, “Hey, take a class here,” or whatever. There’s lots of amazing schools in the world, in the country. But I feel that a lot of it starts in looking, when you’re interviewing somebody, agencies and design companies need to look farther deep into who that person is that they’re interviewing, way past their physical, where they’re at, at that moment with their portfolio.

Because for us to start developing or having the agencies and creative agencies, digital agencies, every kind of agency, reflect the real world, the designers that we have, the copywriters, the creative directors, the animators, the programmers reflect the world that we actually live in. We have to know that not everybody is getting the opportunities that everybody who’s working currently in the agency’s got, period. And to do that, we have to take some risk and we have to take initiative. I think the number one thing is to open our eyes to giving opportunities to people who are not at that moment fully polished to be working at that company. And there’s portfolio schools, there’s lots of different ways that somebody can advance themselves, but most of it is about the work. But you can get that experience sometimes working at an agency. If you have just a little bit of the excitement, the passion, the energy, and that natural creative tendency, even without having a finished portfolio, if you’re given the opportunity at an agency, you can develop that portfolio quick.

I know it’s not easy. It is not easy, and it’s expensive because the design teams, everything we do is labor. So things will take longer, the people. But I think in the long run, we have to give people the opportunities to, especially underserved, people of color when they come knocking at our doors as an agency and you see their work, you see where they’re at, not turn them down or away just because their portfolio isn’t fully finished. There is space for them to grow. And those, sadly, a lot of the opportunities that come are because of that network. And I understand, you get portfolios come at you 24-7, but every now and then I’ll get one and I’m like, huh. Their portfolio is not fully fleshed out. And they don’t have the ArtCenter, art school, art design, design portfolio, but there’s something in their personality, something in their CV, something in their work, one project, it could be that can show some kind of interesting perspective that you could look at. And if we’re looking closer, we’re able to maybe find some talent that just hasn’t had the opportunity.

I’ve seen that with Pastilla. One of our top designers that we have, I would say one of the top designers we’ve ever had at Pastilla didn’t go to art school like that. He went to a two-year school, it wasn’t a really fully flushed out program, didn’t have that kind of portfolio at all. We gave him that opportunity and he’s an amazing designer. So I think agencies need to be open to giving more experiences like that. That’s what I hope to do with Art Division is take that with the designers that go there, is find those ones that have that passion, be able to connect them. If the student wants to be connected, connect them to some of these other agencies. Just a simple, “Hey, check out this person’s work. I thought this. I thought this was interesting.” And giving them an opportunity.

Maurice Cherry:
I highly agree with what you’re saying. I was just talking to a colleague of mine, Ricardo Roberts. He has a agency in New York called Bien, B-I-E-N. They do an apprenticeship type program where they bring in designers, maybe they’re junior designers or maybe they don’t have a fully polished portfolio, but they help to give them that experience that they need in order to then get out there and really work, whether that’s with agencies, whether that’s directly with brands in house, more of those types of opportunities need to be available.

I agree with you, as I’ve talked to folks here on the show that have worked in advertising and such, agencies can be pretty stuck in their ways about the type of people that they want and the type of experience that they have to have. They have to have followed almost a particular script in order to just get in the door. This is even at smaller boutique agencies. So it definitely sounds like that whole world needs a bit of a paradigm shift, I think.

Rudy Manning:
Yeah, no, absolutely. I love that. I would love to hear more about his program. I think formalizing something like that is awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
I will connect the two of you after this interview. I will most certainly do that.

Rudy Manning:
Yeah. That’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you stay creative and inspired in your work? With everything that you’re doing, I feel like you have a lot of input coming at you.

Rudy Manning:
I’ve always been a pretty curious person and I hope that I continue to be until my last days because I feel like that is the thing that hopefully will keep me up to speed on everything that is design at that moment. I would say design’s going to be completely different the next 30, 40 years. And I hope to know what’s happening and not be like, I would always say when I was in school with some of the older instructors, everything that we were doing was like, “Ah, everything looks the same.” And it’s like now I see some designers say the same thing to people in their early 20s. We have to understand things evolve, things change, and I want to be able to have that understanding. So staying curious and questioning and being, like I mentioned earlier, teaching and having young designers is a really important part of understanding that, how things evolve.

And so that definitely always keeps me fresh. I always have that curiosity of what is new, what is next, definitely keeps me fresh and excited. Right now obviously, everything happening with AI is really, really interesting to me. It’s something that we’ve always known is coming and we’ve seen it coming. And now tools are just more in front of us and the potential to be now in design where we’re going to see a total evolution of, and even fast forward of how we think and how we can be more hyper-focused in the creative and not so much of the doing. How we create is going to change as well. Even how to take simple things like a logo, what does that mean now in AI? Can a logo be so dynamic that it’s absolutely never static? Can a company have a logo where every customer has their own version because it’s that dynamic? Asking these questions I think are going to be super interesting. So always being on top of what’s happening, combining that with my experiences in the past, taking that in, I think that excites me.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give for aspiring creative professionals out there? They’re heard your story in this interview. They see everything that you’re doing in the community. What advice would you have for them?

Rudy Manning:
Wanting to be, let’s say, own a design agency or just jumping into graphic design?

Maurice Cherry:
We’ll say wanting to own an agency because I feel like a lot of folks that I speak with now are definitely leaning towards more entrepreneurial efforts. Even folks in-house are trying to strike out on their own. So yeah, approach it that way.

Rudy Manning:
I would say, number one, you need to be extremely patient. We hear that. We know like, “Oh yeah, you got to be patient. Things come to those who wait.” But it really does. In that patience, you’re going to have a lot of times where you feel like you can’t continue. I remember the first 10 years when I started Pastilla, there was about three moments that I thought… Okay, I remember the first time was in the financial crisis. I thought, “Okay, crap, this really sucks. I don’t like this feeling. I don’t like this uncertainty. I don’t like this weight that’s on me.” And I thought, “If I make it through this and something like this happens again, I can’t continue.” And then four or five years later, boom, another blip and you’re like, “Crap. Dang it. No, I’m going to continue, but you know what? This is it. After this one, that’s it.” Then you get one more, boom.

And what’s crazy is that over time, you learn that those blips, those bumps, you just learn how to deal with them. You’re smarter behind dealing with them. It’s not that the blips go away, you just aren’t scared of them at all. You’ve faced everything and every single time you’re a better entrepreneur, you’re a better planner, you’re more strategic. You know how to handle the downturns. That tends to scare away people. I know because I had those thoughts and I thought like, “That’s it.” But every single time you have to have that faith of, “You know what? I’ve got to believe in myself. I think I can do it. I love this.” You have to love this design industry. You got to love what you do. You got to love your clients and who you work with, and being creative, that definitely has to drive everything because if not, you could just be a banker or investment banker or something because there’s other ways to make money.

But this definitely is a combination of a lifestyle. And yeah, obviously there’s financial reward with it as well, but it definitely isn’t easy. Then I would say consistency. It’s not a sprint, it’s definitely a marathon. And there’s I would say in that marathon, there’s a bunch of small sprints. It’s one sprint and then you go into one phase and you got a marathon, marathon, marathon, another sprint. But it’s the consistency, the compounding effect of all of those moments of sprinting and marathoning and sitting and waiting and moving that all compile together for the good.

I would say in terms of, I think probably the biggest thing is people always ask, “How do you get clients?” And things like that. I think for me, one of the things that I learned early on, and I learned this as a freelancer, and this might seem super simple, but to this day, it’s probably the main thing that continues to feed our business, which is show people the work that you do. You finish a project, show it to people, tell the story. In the beginning, one on ones. I remember I was freelancing. I’d finish a project and then I’d have seven or people that I wanted to share that work with. And I’d say, “Hey John, how’s it going? I haven’t seen you for a while. We should have lunch, da da da. Are you still working at blah, blah, blah? I just finished this project. It’s down around where you live. It’s a new identity. It was a lot of fun, da da da.” That’s it. It was like a PDF or jpg in the email.

That was the first five, seven years of that I continued to freelance work that then got to start the company. And to this day, that’s exactly what I do. Now, it’s more formalized. And we do more of them. It’s not just projects, it’s articles, it’s stories. It’s the same thing everybody does. But I was doing it very early on where I didn’t really have anything to say other than sharing my work. And it was very intentional and very sincere as well. Because this business is about relationships. It’s a lot about relationships.

So you treat people good, you do really good work. You do everything you can to make sure the client’s happy and that will pay for itself. And from there, you share the work with those people, they’re going to tell other people about that, about you. And that continues to build more and more and more.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want that next chapter of your story to be?

Rudy Manning:
The past five years, we’ve grown exponentially. I feel that things are a lot more, I would say self-running, automated. The agency and the team is much more structured than it ever was. There’s some positive and negatives to that. The positive part is that it’s less weight on me. The positive part is that we can grow necessarily, not directly with me having to be on the ground every single second. There’s things that are built that can continue to feed the company on its own even without me. So those are the good things.

The downside is that there’s a lot of weight, or the downside I would say is that I do less creative than I did before, and I do more strategic thinking of the company. There’s been great things and I have to continue doing that. And I know in the next five years with that growth that’s happened, we have had some interest in people acquiring us, purchasing us. But I think we’ve contemplated a lot of those things in the past, especially last year and we continue to. But I think this kind of growth in the next, I would say five to seven years, is probably going to continue.

But what we’re going to do is, it’s a hard question because I think we’re in the middle of pivoting a little bit, but I would say potentially doubling or tripling in size to then have a bigger creative team, to serve more of the same kind of clients that we do, that we have right now. And where I feel, and that by note means we’re going to be a hundred million dollar agency or anything like that, but that’s going to be able to scale us to the point where I don’t have to do the kind of operationalizing, the strategic business work that I do on a day-to-day. I think that’s the goal. Where I then focus my time is on more of the relationship parts of the company, my relationships and how to continue to foster that and less being on the ground for the business right now.

To do that, we’re probably going to find maybe more partners to do that growth or maybe do some larger hires. We have to see. There’s some different strategies we have and options we have to do that. But I think double, triple in size than where we are now and me being less of those… Let’s say if we had another talk, Maurice, like in five, six years, I’m not telling you that I’m on a call six, seven hours a day, maybe three. And then the rest of the time I’m maybe meeting people or maybe more involved in Art Division or have some other nonprofit that’s maybe a part of not Pastilla or part of Art Division that is involved in the same kind of topics that we’re talking about, bringing art and design to youth to create more opportunities. Something like that.

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

Rudy Manning:
Our agency’s website is pastilla.co, so pastilla.co, P-A-S-T-I-L-L-A .co. You can also find our agency on Instagram. And our Instagram is, it’s Pastilla, P-A-S-T-I-L-L-A, Agency, A-G-E-N-C-Y. That’s her Instagram. And my Instagram also is Rudy, R-U-D-Y, M, V, so upside down A, V-N-N-I-N-G. So again, Rudy, R-U-D-Y, M-V-N-N-I-N-G. You can find me there as well. Yeah, those are my main channels. I’m also on LinkedIn. You probably just search me there. I don’t know what the exact profile name is there, but probably search Rudy Manning, you could find me on LinkedIn as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we’ll find it. We’ll link it all down in the show notes. Rudy Manning, thank you so much for coming on the show. I think it’s definitely evident from your story, from the work you do out in the community, your education work, Pastilla, like I alluded to earlier in the interview, it’s clear you live and breathe design, but outside of that you have this sort of fiery passion to give back to the community and to also push the industry forward.

I think you’re doing it at a pace and a rate and a breadth that is inspiring for me to see. I hope it’s inspiring for our audience as well, for them to see what more can they do to try to really advance and push things forward. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Rudy Manning:
That’s awesome, Maurice. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it. Awesome podcast. So thank you so much for having me again.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get started? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.