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Joseph Cuillier

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
How are you holding up these days?

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

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

Joseph Cuillier:
Come through and let me know.

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

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. Hopefully sooner than later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

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

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

Joseph Cuillier:
Stacking up their plate metaphorically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Douglas Davis

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Place like RGD?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

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Kelly Walters

We have had a good number of design educators this year on Revision Path, but how many of them have written a book on designers of color? Meet Kelly Walters, an artist, designer, and educator who is currently the assistant professor and associate director of the BFA Communication Design program in the Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York. Kelly is also the founder of the multidisciplinary design studio Bright Polka Dot. Talk about having a full schedule!

Kelly talked about the adjustments she has made over the last year with respect to teaching, and we talked about how she was exposed to the arts early, but never thought of it as a profession. We also discussed the works she’s done through her studio, collaborating with other Black design educators, and the launch of her upcoming book “Black, Brown & Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race.” Thank goodness for educators like Kelly who are helping add to the corpus of design history!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kelly Walters:
My name is Kelly Walters. I’m an artist, educator, designer. I teach at Parsons School of Design. And yeah, I make things. I make a bunch of different things. Print and digital, and everything in between.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How are you feeling so far about 2021?

Kelly Walters:
2021? You know, I was really curious to see how the inauguration was actually going to play out at the end of December. Just anxious about all the various things that have been happening. And I think the beginning of 2021 felt really rocky just for me and trying to understand the end of one presidency, the beginning of a next, the middle of a pandemic, and just a lot of uncertainty. So it felt a little overwhelming, I think. But it feels like it’s getting potentially better. As best as better can be, I guess. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but …

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I can certainly see how it sort of feels a bit like we’re starting to see the light at the end of this long pandemic sized tunnel in a way. So I know what you mean. Now especially that we have new leadership, there’s vaccines that are out there, people are getting vaccinated. It feels like things are starting to go into a different direction.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I feel like, I don’t know. I’m just anxious for everyone and making sure that we can safely make it through this second year I guess, of this new world that we’re in. And I’m also really curious to see what patterns or observations that are made in this time that will affect us longer than this time, I guess. Longer than the year and change that it’s been. I’m really curious to see what it looks like. And being able to reflect back maybe even in 10 years or five years, what I remember of this era. So I don’t know. I’m reflexive I think in that way of looking forward and back if I can at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s funny. That’s kind of, January is after the Greek, I think Greek god or demigod Janice, that has one face looking forward, one face looking back. So that’s a very kind of apt comparison. Are things different for you now than they were last year?

Kelly Walters:
I’m trying to think. At this point last year, we were maybe a week out before everything shut down. If I recall, I think the last time I was in New York was March 11th when we were told two days later, everyone had to stay at home. And I think things were more uncertain in some ways at the very beginning of that last year. And as I reflect on where I am now, I don’t know. I feel like there’s still unknowns, but I’m living to sit inside of the uncertainty. It’s very uncomfortable to do that, but I don’t know. I think more than last year, I feel like this year, you have to sit with the uncertainty in a way that I don’t know. I don’t know how to really describe that exactly. I just feel like I’m navigating what it means to not know even more than before, and not take for granted what was thought to be stable. Or what was thought to be certain, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So what is a regular day like for you now?

Kelly Walters:
Well, my home, is my office, is my classroom, is my social space. So it’s the all-purpose room for many things. And I think it was weird to navigate that last year of finding what the delineation is between all of those kind of spaces. But I think depending on who you’re talking to in meetings, whether it’s coworkers, or your friends, or your family, kind of figuring out a way to feel as though even at your own environment, home environment, that in a separate area or at a certain time of the day, that it can feel as though you can feel the shift. And it’s sometimes it’s about just getting up, and walking outside, and coming back, and feeling like you’ve gone into a new room. Or changing the lighting, or opening the blinds, or turning on the light. I think it’s these small actions to make it feel like you’re in a different space sometimes. So I feel like that’s what my day’s like more and more now of just what are the subtleties that I can adjust in my home environment to feel like I’m in a different space, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Has there been a change in how you’ve been teaching or anything like that?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah, definitely. I think now, it’ll be a full year of teaching remotely online. And I think that for my program, the communication design program at Parsons, I think we had transitioned to an online teaching format. And I think what was really challenging the beginning was trying to figure out what does it mean to do a critique in this environment? What does it mean to build up student rapport and morale, and all of those, and community around students that you are working with that previously you were seeing physically in a particular space? And I think the difference between what I’ve learned in that kind of crisis, moving in somewhat of a crisis mode to teach remotely versus starting the year teaching remotely. It’s just like I’ve been working with students all year that I probably won’t ever get to meet in person. So there’s this difference in trying to figure out how to get to know someone as much as one can. An online format through smaller group conversations, or having Slack channels or things where people can sort of commune in a digital sphere. But it’s definitely been different than previous years.

Maurice Cherry:
And has Parsons kind of been accepting of all of this and all these changes that have been going on?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I think every program is navigating this in its own way. I think that including ours, we have tools, and supplies, and things that we are wanting our students to use for all these various projects. But with students kind of navigated across the world really, it makes it difficult for them to be able to have access to that. And I think that the school is aware and understands as does many other institutions as well, that the safety protocols of social distancing, and having rapid tests, and all kinds of things to kind of make sure that people are being safe on campus is understood. I think it’s just challenging overall, many schools as well. Where students want to be back, but we’re kind of navigating the pace of the pandemic and what that looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
What courses are you teaching right now?

Kelly Walters:
I am teaching a Black visual culture class, and that’s a class that I’ve created. It stems from some of my research. And then I’m also teaching a senior thesis course with our BFA students.

Maurice Cherry:
A Black visual culture class. That sounds pretty dope.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I’m figuring it out. I think it’s an experiment, and I’m learning how to teach it, and learning how to teach it from the perspective that I’m seeing, and also being influenced by how my students are seeing. I feel like I’m learning as much through them as I’m providing to the class as well. So a lot of it is about learning how to teach even this material. Just as much as I may know certain things, they also know things that I don’t. And I try to build that into the context of the class.

Maurice Cherry:
Now have you taught this in person before? Or have you only just done it virtually?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. Fall 2019, I taught it for the first time in person. It was very different. We were using the Risograph machine. We had access to come together in a classroom space and project and view, view material together. And I think it’s a little harder to do that now. But yeah, I had taught it in person before.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What does teaching do for you as a designer? And we’ll get into your design work as well. But how do those two work together?

Kelly Walters:
I feel like they’re interconnected. I think for me, teaching is a way of relearning tools, or techniques, or methods that I’m using in my own practice. So when I’m talking with students or we’re talking about projects, or conceptualizing about something, or trying to figure out how to make something, I think I feel like I’m a co-facilitator or co-collaborator in that, where we can talk through strategy. We can talk through approach. And I think it’s so important to my practice because through those discussions and my ability to kind of think through how do I deliver this material to students? How do we discuss X, Y, or Z, or think through these things? I see my own self being able to kind of in my practice, reflect on even those lessons or conversations that I’ve had with students.

Kelly Walters:
And I think they inform each other. And I think my design practice with things that are happening outside of the classroom, those experiences working with clients or working with other artists and designers. For me, those are examples that I can draw upon to kind of bring into the class about this is how I did X, Y, or Z with whoever. And I think it lends a bit of a credibility to it as well, because it’s not like I’m just making stuff up. I’m speaking from the various experiences that I’ve had. I think it’s helpful to draw upon as lessons in the classroom space.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting. Because I’m sure that like you say, the students are informing you, as you are going through all of this. I wondered though if it was maybe easier because now you’re teaching over kind of an entirely visual medium. Teaching over the web. You can use Zoom, you can point to YouTube videos. But I don’t know. Have you found that it’s been a little easier in some ways?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. In some ways it is. Because the only thing that’s between us is the screen. Right? And what I’ve really loved about this time is being able to draw on the screen over the design. So when a student is sharing the work of let’s say a book that they’re making, or progress on some design work. Once it’s up, I have the ability to annotate on the screen. And I’ve been doing more and more of that because I can point out very specific details. Whereas previously, it’s harder to do that with everyone just looking at one big projector screen. So I think there’s a hyperfocus in some way that the screen sharing and annotating various tools on the screen, or me just sharing how I do something in a software or program. Just seems like the focus and attention is a little bit more direct than sometimes it can get lost in the classroom. Because you’re running to class. You’re tired. You’re not really looking at the screen. Your head is down. Lots of other distractions sometimes in the space when 15 other students are with you. So I think that there’s some positives to the hyperfocus that I think lends for some students.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve been focusing now on your teaching and the work that you’re doing there. I’m curious, were you kind of always exposed to design and art even growing up as a kid?

Kelly Walters:
I think so. I look back at this. In elementary school, I went to what was called an arts magnet school. And I don’t think I really fully thought through this until you’re asking me now, further back than even college. But I think in elementary school, because it was an arts magnet, there was a huge emphasis on creative projects. And from movement and dance to artistic projects that were happening in the art room, plays, and musicals, and all these various things. And I don’t think I fully thought through how much of an influence it’s had on me. Because once I left elementary school, I was still interested in arts, and I always did band, and was definitely a music and band person. But I think what happened was that you had to choose, right?

Kelly Walters:
I think for middle school and high school in particular, you could only do one art or art focused discipline as part of your credit sequence. And I chose marching band, and I chose band, and would always be in a lot of the music classes. But because of that, I only got to take one art class at the end of high school, which was a graphic design class.

Kelly Walters:
So I think I was exposed to music or creative environments. But not really knowing what to do with it, or just thinking that it might be a hobby. I think through middle school and high school, thinking that art could be a hobby, not necessarily as a profession.

Kelly Walters:
But at the same time, there was one other project that I did in eighth grade where I think I wrote away to Pixar. And Pixar sent me back a folder of all of these inserts from all of the different animated films, and Toy Story, and Bug’s Life, and all this stuff. Again, I think there were things that happened, but I didn’t connect the dots I think at that time that I was interested in some kind of computer animation or computer generated imagery kind of thing. But not knowing exactly what to do with it.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s something interesting that you mentioned there about how in elementary school, there were all of these different arts and music. And I don’t know, you were exposed to a lot of it. And it had me even thinking about when I was a kid, we had school plays. We had of course music classes with recorders and the little xylophone blocks, and all that sort of stuff. And it was always just kind of presented as options. Not necessarily, “If you stick with this, you could be a musician.” But more so just showing you that this is kind of out there. It’s an option.

Maurice Cherry:
And of course as you go through your education, you go from elementary school, to middle to high school, it appears like those options kind of winnow away a bit. It’s less about arts and more about humanities and science. Depending on what school that you go to. I’m curious, knowing that that was your experience as an educator, does that help inform you when you’re teaching your students now?

Kelly Walters:
Just the types of exposures that I’ve had you mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean for me, I think what’s really important is that people feel like there’s versatility, that they can have adaptability, that they can use these different skillsets in different ways. And I think my exposure to music for example, while I’m not a musician anymore, play the clarinet like I used to, I think being in the creative musical environment for as long as I can remember, there’s just a sense of improvisation. A sense of listening for others, hearing other voices. So those things have translated for me. Even again just using marching band for example, the ability to be a single individual playing inside of the sound while also creating sound, I think is just something that it translates in other areas I think of my practice. Where you’re kind of trying to be attune, and listening, and taking note, and being observant. So I think that those things have definitely translated to teaching and working with students.

Maurice Cherry:
What did you play in the marching?

Kelly Walters:
I played clarinet.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice.

Kelly Walters:
Yes. The small fin, less heavy instruments.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a good instrument.

Kelly Walters:
It is. It is. Woodwind instrument.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When did you know that working with design and art was something that you wanted to do for a living?

Kelly Walters:
When did I know? When I entered undergrad, I was still uncertain. I went to UConn up in Storrs, Connecticut. And I came in as an undecided, undeclared major in my freshman year. And I think I was again, the idea that art could be was present. There were things that I was doing that was creative. But I guess I just didn’t know or have enough awareness of what could be or what was possible. But I did know that I wanted to start taking some more art classes. And it was in that process of taking, I think it was a drawing class or painting class in my spring semester is when I was like oh yeah, this is immersive conversation. The looking, and the thinking, and conceptualizing, it just felt right. And I think it’s when at that point, I applied to get into the graphic design program. And I think it was once I was in that program, and I was seeing, and I was exposed to more pathways that I really was excited about that discipline.

Maurice Cherry:
While you were at UConn, I’m curious. What was your time like overall outside of just studying?

Kelly Walters:
Well, I also did marching band in college. So for me, I really liked it in that you got to go to football games, and basketball games, and things like that. And I think on one hand, I was really just trying to find myself as an undergrad and navigate this really rural environment. I was coming out of more of a city suburb backdrop previously just growing up. So Storrs, Connecticut was really rural. So for me, there was also this kind of tension of navigating being in that sort of isolated space. And it also being really predominantly white and feeling like I was missing … I think towards the end as I was about to graduate, I was ready to kind of move to a more eclectic, more diverse space. But I think as my time evolved while I was there, it took me time to figure out who I was, and what I was saying, and what I wanted to say. By the end, I was like okay, I’m ready to go elsewhere or try something new.

Kelly Walters:
But I think it had its challenges. I think that I was one of very Black students in the art program. Luckily the year that I went through, I think we had in graphic design, I think there were three of us that were kind of in the program together. And I think the other kind of interesting thing about UConn is that it’s known for basketball and science, right? So those are giant components of the campus culture. And everyone kind of fawning around all the basketball players, or science and research were really dominant focuses of the campus. As I look back, I was just learning how to become who I am in some way. and navigating again, what I needed to do next.

Maurice Cherry:
When you graduated, did you feel like you were prepared for the design world, prepared to work as a designer?

Kelly Walters:
When I graduated, I felt bereft of the academic environment in some way. Because my thesis project as an undergrad was called Black, and I was investigating my identity, who I am, what I wanted to say like I was saying before. And the design work was very, it might even be if we were to kind of situate it, almost kind of as a contemporary artist. Right? So I was making work in a way that what I was concerned about was how it was going to be perceived in a more corporate context, and how I could apply for jobs with my thesis saying Black very visibly on it.

Kelly Walters:
I think I was just trying to, when I finished getting out of school, I was trying to figure out what my design community would be. And it was a very different time. We have all these different digital spaces, Black spaces where people are convening, and connecting, and meeting each other. Yeah. I don’t think that I knew what it meant to have a community. I didn’t know what kind of design I really wanted to do or go in. So I was a freelancer for the first year or so out of school, where I was kind of navigating through job boards, and finding places to do smaller, freelance gig projects with.

Kelly Walters:
It was also in that time that one of my former professors had reached out about teaching in a class at the University of Bridgeport. So I was like, “Really, can I teach? Can I do this really?” And I think her reaching out, and because my mom is a teacher, they were really supportive of figuring out the thing, or not figuring out, but helping me figure out how I could begin to teach in this collegiate environment. Because I started in that way, it was like freelancing. I was teaching. I started out with a hybrid practice, and I feel like I’ve kind of maintained that ever since in some way where there was a kind of a triad of working in industry, teaching, and having also a research practice that may not necessarily be for clients at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
And now is this the beginnings of Bright Polka Dot?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. And actually, Bright Polka Dot was born out of a web design class that I had in college, because we were all asked to create portfolio sites. And my name is so common, that there’s hundreds of people that have my name, Kelly Walters. So I was trying to come up with these different permutations of Kelly A Walters, Kelly Ann Walters. I was just trying different versions of things. And I didn’t like the other options that were left, like .biz .net. So I was like, well maybe I’ll just go in a very different direction and just kind of think about a moniker, if you will.

Kelly Walters:
Many of the fabrics and the patterns that I always gravitate towards are polka dots. So I was really interested in this idea of polka dot. And then I was also interested in adding bright to it. Also a metaphor for myself, but also just kind of a lively addition to polka dot, I guess. So I went with it. And there’s a very particular pattern that I use for one of my design books that is kind of also the very specific inspiration. I don’t know where it is. It’s somewhere in my apartment somewhere, but that became my website name. And I’ve kept it ever since. And I don’t know. It felt right I think to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Now as you sort of started Bright Polka Dot, and then even as you’re kind of navigating the postgraduate world, how did Bright Polka Dot change? Did you sort of start it off in one way and it shifted into something else?

Kelly Walters:
I think what’s interesting for me was navigating wanting to work with different design studios, right? And different agencies. And again, trying to figure out how to mesh more corporate work that has nothing to do with me versus projects that are kind of self-driven and are interested in various topics or themes.

Kelly Walters:
In the very beginning, my portfolio on my website would reflect a lot of work that wasn’t necessarily from me, but might be client oriented. That was I don’t know, it was just really corporate in a lot of ways. And I wasn’t sure what I needed to have up there to get a job, to look a certain way. I think I was very conscious of wanting to put up work that looked like a thing that would impress someone else. As I’ve gotten older and as my projects have changed in what important values are important to me at this point, what was more important was having a blend of projects that I was excited about, that were really connected to me, to communities that I’m a part of. That could really just push forth topics, conversations, have a critical point of view. And I think that that’s what’s kind of shifted in the last several years as my portfolio has continued to change, and projects that I’ve done are kind of again, discussing large or grander topics than I had previously.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s talk about some of the projects that you’ve done through Bright Polka Dot. One of them that I saw, I think it was one that I saw right off the bat was … and forgive me, I might be getting this wrong. I think it’s God is a Black Woman, I believe is what it was titled.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. So The Black Woman is God.

Maurice Cherry:
The Black Woman is God. Thank you.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. So that one, the curators for the exhibition were Melorra Green and Karen Seneferu. And when I was living in the Bay Area, I worked with SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco. And one of the exhibitions that I was invited to work towards for the design components around was The Black Woman is God. And it was the first time I think … I’ve worked on it two or three times in different years for a different theme. But the first time was super exciting for me to connect with curators. And the show essentially featured black women in the Bay who were presenting art and design works in the SOMArts Cultural Center gallery space. And I think through those projects and thinking through the visual identity, I was just really interested in playing with color, playing with typography, and subverting expected visual tropes about what blackness is, and really kind of draw upon inspiration for things that I was seeing as typography in either old film posters, or one exhibition was called Reprogramming The God Code. And I was just thinking about the digital component of what reprogramming means and trying to think through typography that had a certain kind of digi vibe. So yeah, I was just really thinking through the approach in a lot of different ways for those exhibitions.

Maurice Cherry:
And one of the others, I know your research does focus kind of a lot on Black cultural media in a way. There’s another project Superfly and Shaft.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I think what’s also a part of my practice is looking at visual identities, and again, typography that are a part of really influential or iconic spaces, media spaces. Whether that’s films, television, music. I’ve been doing just deeper dives around who created this work, right? Was it created by black designers? Was it created by non-black designers? What does it mean that this image or symbol is actually, it represents blackness, but not have come from a black artist or designer, I guess? And just thinking about what that means from social and cultural standpoint. And how within the Superfly work, just kind of amplifying and looking closely at what was significant. For me, out of that poster was the letter forms, and hyper isolating into certain areas, and then remixing. And in some way, I think the music influences that I’ve had. And I think about as if I were a DJ, right? What are the remixes and the samplings that I can do from these different eras, from these different visual graphics? And how do you reassemble them, where they can maybe speak to someone who like my parents, grew up with those films. But also, the visual and the type of graphic play potentially speak to someone right now who’s an emerging designer, and maybe not has ever seen that film or series of films. So I like the idea of remix and juxtaposition.

Maurice Cherry:
And now as we sort of delve into that more, which is your research focus. as it says in your bio, you focus on how sociopolitical frameworks and shifting technology influence the sound, symbols, and styles of Black cultural vernacular in mainstream media. Which sounds like a mouthful. What sort of research is happening right now on Black visual culture? You can talk about some of the other work that you’re doing, or maybe something that you’ve seen from peers, anything like that?

Kelly Walters:
The thing that I’m finding really kind of interesting right now is that a few years ago, I was just reading articles about digital blackface. And the circulation of memes, and gifs, and things like that on a social channel, like Instagram, or Facebook, or Twitter. And I was drawn to kind of understanding what does it mean to have something that’s digital blackface? And what is blackface? And I think I was going down a path in terms of research of just trying to understand more historically about how blackface has surfaced in the United States and what its history and its lineage has been. And I think there’s so much kind of visual content today that has a connection to that lineage. We just don’t always know what it is, or it’s been suppressed in various ways where it’s not been analyzed and talked about in the context of graphic design. But it’s analyzed and talked about in many other disciplines. Whether it’s media studies, or Africana studies. Things like that, I think that there’s so much scholarship that’s been generated around images, and understanding the root of those images.

Kelly Walters:
So anyway, I think for me as a designer that’s working with type and image often, I just wanted to have a better understanding of that history. And I began to kind of do research around music publishing, and early music publishing. And for me, was trying to trace the lineage between a music album cover to that early music sheet cover, and forms that have surfaced in between. So I think that it’s been a lot about excavation, and trying to see what I can find. And using digital collections to see what’s available and look closely at who was publishing various works. If there’s information about the artist. Sometimes, the artist’s name is embedded on the illustrations of those early works.

Kelly Walters:
So it’s just been for me right now, navigating a lot of that historical information. And I think what I begin to do with that is again, the remix part is wanting to look closely at the topography. And these become typographic specimens. And I think what’s really loaded and charged about doing that is the time is really charged. So I’m trying to be mindful of what does it mean for my own positionality to be working on top of these works, or fragmenting, or cropping them in particular ways? What do I find sacred? What can I touch? What is uncomfortable for me in creating a collage or a remix, if you will? And I think that I struggle and tangle with all of those things I think in the creation of work that responds to that research.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re also coming out with a book soon, right? Is this the culmination of this research?

Kelly Walters:
No. So the book that’s coming out is called Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race. And because for me, there’s multiple avenues of my practice and things that I’m exploring, right? The research that I was talking about is one avenue. Another of my design practice is collaborating and connecting with other design educators or designers of color. And this particular book that’s coming out features 12 interviews. One of which includes myself with design educators from across the United States and Canada. And it features kind of an interview of our experience getting into design, navigating private and public university and college settings, and what it means to now be teaching in the environments that we are. So I’m super excited about this book coming out at the end of the month actually on March 30th. Just because it’s the first time that I’ve had a public, a really, really public project I think like this, that is being published at this scale. So I’m excited, and scared, and all the things in between as well.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. Congratulations on the book.

Kelly Walters:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you hope people get out of it?

Kelly Walters:
I think what I hope the most is that folks like myself, emerging designers, emerging students in design can see themselves in this book. I think we’re only a sampling. We’re not everyone. And we can only share our perspectives from our own backgrounds and what we have accomplished and done. But I think that my ultimate hope is for there to be visibility, and to see it as a pathway, to see it as … like if you’re interested in teaching, you’re interested in design, and you’re a person of color. And specifically, you’re Black, brown, or Latinx. It’s just a sampling of folks who are doing it, and working through their own design practice, and navigating challenges that are coming up. And also to validate any other educators who are experiencing similar challenges or successes. And to recognize that we are a bigger community than we realize. And we’re only a step away from each other in some way. I think that that’s something that I’ve learned a lot about.

Kelly Walters:
And in this book, many of the people that I’ve interviewed have become such good friends now. And I’m collaborating with them on multiple projects. And I just think to feel connected to each other has really been life-changing for me in the last year. Because I think the project was born out of a panel presentation at the College Art Association. And I think that was literally the last and the last time that I’ve seen many of the people in this book in person. And I think for us to be together in that space was life-changing for me. I’m sure it was for others just to think about a panel that reflects us, talks about our experiences. It feels like it can be very rare. And I think I’m wishing and wanting us to get to a point where we don’t feel like we have to feel rare. That there’s many of us here. And there’s just a bunch of us in different places.

Maurice Cherry:
I have to say one thing that has been an interesting kind of, I don’t want to say improvement, I’d say an interesting development from the last year or so is just how many of these types of events, or panels, or things like this have happened where you’re starting to see more Black designers come together. Whether it’s Black design educators or just regular design practitioners, etc. That are kind of outside of what we may have seen prior to this in terms of other types of events or conferences. Like for example, The State of Black Design that happened last year. You were a part of a Where are the black designers? from Mitzi Okou. These sorts of events didn’t really happen before. And now, it’s so exciting to see these happen now. And that people are still continuing to work together. And even to your case, writing books. You’re now contributing to the corpus of design history by putting out a book that people can then go and reference years and years down the line.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the really exciting part that as I’ve met more designers, as I’ve met more design educators. And I’ve been trying to kind of navigate within my own practice what the importance of a book like this can be. There’s so much power in it, and it’s such a privilege to be able to do so. And learning even how to do this process, and learning what it means to kind of work with a publisher. And all of that, sometimes unknown, inaccessible, out of reach opportunities. And I think that it’s so important that as we learn is this how it works? How are we sharing that back out to the folks that we might be working with that may not know it as much about that process? So I think to contribute to the design field in this way is an honor. It’s a privilege. I’m excited to do so. And I’m also really just thankful for everyone in the book. Because to be open and share their stories also can be a very vulnerable position to put yourself in. And I’m mindful of protecting their stories, and making sure that they feel like they’re best represented. So I’m so just thankful for their contributions and participating, because it wouldn’t have come together without their stories.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you are an artist, you’re a designer, you’re an educator in academia. How do you balance all of that? Do you find that there are opposition at times? How do you make it all work?

Kelly Walters:
You see it as a kind of rotating hats. I think sometimes, the focus is on one thing more than the other during the year. Teaching fall and spring semester is really a primary focus. And then sometimes in the summer, what’s really nice is there’s a bit more expanse of time to work on more self-driven projects or other kind of commissioned works and things like that. Commissioned work happens I think year-round. So it happens even as I’m teaching, and collaborations with different people as well.

Kelly Walters:
So I think that it can be a lot at times. But I also, as I’ve gotten older, kind of navigating what it means to kind of rotate the focus and figure out what takes precedent right now. And how can I sort of not overtax myself, but create a balance such that things can rotate? And I think by seeing things rotate, I’m less scared that I’m never going to get back to X, Y, or Z? Or I won’t be able to do that kind of work or that kind of work. I think I’ve been more interested in telling myself that things can shift and rotate, and you don’t have to do everything at once. And I think that that has been really freeing for me. And it also just allows for a flexibility in yourself, and your life, and all the things that you want to try. There’s an opportunity to kind of space it out. Because what’s always important to sort of be aware of too is not trying to do too much where other things suffer, or you’re diluting the power of what it could be, because you just don’t have the bandwidth.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the best thing about the work that you do?

Kelly Walters:
The best thing that I like is when I’m connecting, and meeting, and bringing people together. I think that that to me, of all the various projects, and specifically all the different design projects where I’m meeting people or people are meeting each other. To me, that’s the most important thing and the most exciting thing. The most beautiful thing. I’m just thinking vividly of times when they’re like, “You’re over there? I didn’t know you were there.” Being able to kind of help facilitate that is exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
If you hadn’t gotten into design, or I would say even if you hadn’t gotten into education, what do you think you would be doing?

Kelly Walters:
I would be talking about race probably still. Whether, I mean in fairness in college, I was a dual major. So I studied graphic design in the art program, and I also was a communication sciences major. So if I wasn’t doing design, I feel like I would still be facilitating conversations around topics of race and representation. I may not have been a designer I guess. But I think I would probably be still very focused and interested in these topics if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel creatively satisfied?

Kelly Walters:
I think there’s always more that can be learned or done. And I think what I’m learning is that sometimes, it’s okay not to have it all immediately. Does that leave you wanting more, wanting to try more? Perhaps. But I think I’m okay with that. I think I’m okay with not fully always having everything, and working towards more. Working for something else. Because I feel like it creates a drive and makes it so that you’re not complacent and staying in place. So I think it’s okay that I’m not always satisfied, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. Where do you kind of see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work would you love to be doing?

Kelly Walters:
I feel like in the next five years, I would love to work towards other book projects. I would love to collaborate with other designers. Some of which is happening right now. I want to keep learning. I want to keep growing. There’s so much that I still don’t know. I want to continue to find ways to connect with folks or bring people together. I know that seems really simplistic, but I think it can be … it’s actually more challenging. And to do it successfully can be an art. I’m learning what it means to be able to do that and to kind of work with folks passionate, interested, and excited about all aspects of design. And I just want to continue to be inspired by those that are doing really interesting work right now and celebrate what they’re doing just as much as I’m trying to work towards things in my own practice.

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

Kelly Walters:
You can find my work on Bright Polka Dot. And that is if you’re searching online, you’ll find it in the browser. And then on Instagram and Twitter, I’m also @brightpolkadot. So you can find me there as well.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well Kelly Walters, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really talking about the focus behind your work. I’m excited to read the new book. Actually [Wes 00:50:48] sent me a copy, so I’m excited to kind of really get into it. But for those that are listening, we’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. But no, I really like the approach that you have to your work. And I hope that people kind of feel empowered and inspired from hearing your story. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kelly Walters:
Thank you so much for having me.

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Danny Shaw

We’re keeping the design educator streak going this week with an interview with Danny Shaw. Along with teaching at NYC College of Technology, Danny is also the director of digital design and branding at Brandshare. He brings a wealth of real world, working knowledge into the classroom, and helps empower the next generation of designers to take over the industry.

Danny talked about growing up in New York City, and spoke on how that made an impact on him as he moved throughout his career. He also spoke about his time working at Essence Magazine and offered up some great advice on resources for up and coming designers.

Danny, thank you for giving back to the community through education!

Resources

David Jon Walker

Let’s start off Black History Month with some education, shall we?

Meet David Jon Walker, owner of the graphic design studio Rhealistic, and a design professor at Austin Peay State University in Nashville, TN.

Our conversation started off with a brief look back at 2020, and from there, David spoke on adapting to teaching design during this socially distant time. He also talked about growing up in Nashville, discovering design during college at Tennessee State University, and shared some of the goals he wants to accomplish this year. I’m really glad there are educators like David out there to help guide the next generation of designers!