Nakita M. Pope

We have all had to change things up in one way or other over the past few years. But if you’re like this week’s return guest, Nakita M. Pope, there’s power in pivoting! (You might remember her from my recent talk with Jordan Taylor, or from our 2016 interview.)

Our conversation started with catching up on what’s happened over the past few years, and Nakita spoke about some of her recent projects, including launching a business course and a subscription box turned online community — Bella Boss! We also talked about her work as a design educator, the recent closing of The Creative Circus, being awarded as an AIGA Fellow, and she shared how her passion projects have impacted her career. Nakita’s love for community and giving back really shines, and I think you’ll get really inspired by this interview!

Bella Boss

Branding Chicks

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Hi, I’m Nakita Pope. I am a designer, creative director, studio owner, and professor. I’m the chief chick at Branding Chicks, which is a boutique branding agency here in Atlanta, Georgia. And I specialize in brand strategy and brand development for women owned businesses and femme focused brands.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, the year has been a little bit of a whirlwind. I was just talking to someone the other day and telling them that during the pandemic, everybody, well, a lot of people kind of slowed down. Everything got a little bit slower. The pace wasn’t as rigorous. For me, everything sped up a little bit. It was super busy. And so I feel like 2022 has been about wrapping up that kind of frenzied level of work and of coming back to center a little bit. So it’s been some ups and downs, but it’s been a good year. I can’t complain. It’s been a great year.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish this year, before the end of the year?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, get some rest. That is my goal by the end of this year. I am wrapping up some things right now, and that’s my goal is to take this last quarter of the year, I don’t know if it’ll be the whole quarter, but I definitely want to take some time at the end of this year to just sort of recenter myself and get some rest.

I’m always doing so many things at once. I kind of like it that way, as a creative, it keeps me from being bored. But I’m starting to realize that it’s been a very long time since I stopped everything. And so I’m looking forward to taking some space to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Good. Definitely, take that space now before, say, oh, I guess before the winter really starts. But it kind of feels like any time between Thanksgiving and New Years is sort of a down period for everybody. You know what I mean?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So-

Nakita M. Pope:
That’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
… hopefully, you’ll get a chance to get some of that rest. I think we all probably need that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, indeed. Indeed, more than we think.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk about Branding Chicks. Now, you’ve been in business now for what, over 12 years, now, right?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s been a while. It went by so fast. That sounds crazy, 12 years.

Maurice Cherry:
How has your business changed since we last talked? That was back in 2016. How has your business changed?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s changed quite a bit. A lot of it has stayed the same, but so much of it has changed. I think part of what has changed… Well, I’ll start with something that’s stayed the same. So one of the things that stayed the same is I kind of always worked remotely, because I have sort of a niche sort of brand. I feel like I end up working with people all over. And so it’s not specific to Atlanta, necessarily. And so that was always kind of how I worked. But now since the pandemic and all that stuff, I find that it’s expanding even more, because other people are now looking outside of their geographic locations even more.

And understanding that they can do really robust and deep work with people, even if they’re not necessarily in the same place or able to meet face to face. So I feel like that has both stayed the same and also changed. I feel that I’ve also been able to work with some amazing organizations that are doing really great work that I feel really strongly about, personally. I’ve been able to do some deeper dives with some brands, and do some larger projects with some of those brands. And to me that’s growth, to allow me to do more of what I want to be doing, and more of where I feel that I can have the best impact. That’s how I measure success. So in that space, I’m really happy with the direction that things are going in.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you seen a change in the market with respect to the things clients are looking for? Have things shifted or changed during the pandemic?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, yeah. I think some of it, from a brand strategy standpoint, I’m noticing more and more that organizations and companies are starting to understand that even if they were already committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, they are looking to build that and bake that into their brands a bit more. Which I love to see, because that’s something I’m passionate about as well. And I know that in some cases we see companies doing that, and we’re not sure if it’s going to stick.

But from my perspective, when I see companies that come to me for that and they are looking at the foundational parts of their brand and their brand personality and their core values and things like that, if they’re baking it into those things, then I find that they are more deeply passionate about it and more committed to it. So I see a lot of that happening on my end, which, like I said, I’m really happy to see. And it allows me to work in some of those spaces that I work in outside of my business, also, in my business. So it gives me a chance to bring some of that knowledge in, and also, help people build brands that they feel like really represents them in every way. So I see a lot of that shifting.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first see that shift? I’m curious.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think 2020. I think when George Floyd happened, and so much of the conversation got so much louder. A lot of us have been talking about this for a long time, working in this space for a long time, both at the front lines and behind the scenes trying to make some of these things happen. But I think overarchingly after the nationwide, worldwide conversation got so much louder, I think that some of these companies are realizing that they need to change their ways. And/or if they were already committed to it, then they need to be even more vocal about their commitment. So I feel like that was the catalyst for a lot of it, to be honest.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, it’s all over the place. Most days I am working on client work. Two days a week, I’m usually teaching as a professor. But other than that, some days I’m also consulting or I might have a public speaking engagement or doing things like this, doing a podcast interview. So it really varies quite a bit from day-to-day. But I kind of like that, it keeps me from being bored, and it gives me a chance to dive deeper into the things that I care about and the spaces that I work in a lot of different ways. It’s all connected. It doesn’t feel disjointed to me. It’s all connected in some way, but it gives me a chance to touch it in different ways.

And they all feed each other. So all the things that I learned with my client engagements brings me into the consulting with other clients. All of those experiences I can bring to my students, and give them a more robust education about how we work with clients and things that I’m working on, and what the industry looks like and all that stuff. And when I’m doing industry stuff, then I learn some other things and then bring it back to some of those other things. So I feel like it’s all connected, but it does allow me to have a different day, every day.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, has the pandemic changed business for you in any way? I know we talked about sort of have you seen a change in the market, but since the pandemic has started, has that shifted how you do business?

Nakita M. Pope:
Not particularly, to be honest. I think just in terms of my processes and my creative process and stuff, that hasn’t changed very much. Like I said, I think more people are willing to work remotely. So that’s changed a little bit of the opportunities that I’ve been getting and people that are reaching out to work with me. I think from a logistical standpoint, I think more people want to be on video these days.

Like I said, I’ve worked with people all over the country for a while now, and most times people were completely fine with just a phone call. But now that everybody’s kind of been forced to work remotely, I think that video calls are now the go-to instead of the phone call. So from a logistical standpoint, that is something that I’ve seen that’s changed. Which I don’t mind most times, but it is definitely interesting to see a shift in that. But then I saw the uptick in it and then I saw the fatigue that came from it.

So now I’ve gone back to giving people a choice, “Listen, you don’t have to be on video if you don’t want to. Let me know what works best for you. I don’t want to make it more uncomfortable for you or make it more of a heavy lift to have this meeting.” So I try to be respectful of that too.

Maurice Cherry:
I say that also when I have meetings, I actually have two separate booking links, one is for phone, one is for Zoom. And I’ll only give the Zoom to people that I like. People that I want to see, I’m like, “You can get the Zoom call.” If you just hit me up out the blue and want something, a phone call is fine. It’s the same information. So I get what you’re saying though about having that option though. Because even I think with the fact that everybody’s getting on video, folks still have not really gotten used to it. We’re-

Nakita M. Pope:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
… what, two something years in and people are still like, “Oh, sorry about the background,” or the lighting is bad or whatever. And I’m not expecting studio quality video here-

Nakita M. Pope:
No, right.

Maurice Cherry:
… even though we are very much in the future. I’m not expecting that. But I don’t know, sometimes it’s different. Plus, there’s all these different video platforms. There’s Zoom, there’s Google Meet, there’s WebEx. What else do I have installed? I have BlueJeans. I have Teams. I’m like, Just pick up the phone.

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s too much.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, just pick up the phone. It’s the same information. It’s the same information.

Nakita M. Pope:
I’m going to have to steal that one. I might have two separate links too, now. Because mine was already set up, just the default was phone. And then I realized that all the instructions said, “I will give you a call at that time,” after they book. But I still get emails, “I didn’t ever see a link to a video call.” And I’m like, “That’s because it wasn’t really supposed to be one.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’ll say, “I didn’t see a link.” Or sometimes what’ll happen with people is they’ll say, “Oh, well I’m in the car going somewhere and I’m not going to be…” Just call me. Just call me.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s fine.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s fine.

Nakita M. Pope:
It really is.

Maurice Cherry:
The phone still works. It did not go away in the pandemic. It still works. I see that one thing that you’re offering now is a course. You’re offering a course called Building a Business Brand. Talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
That was something that I did in collaboration with Small Business Invoicing Company. And they were looking to just build a library of resources for their small business audience. And so I was able to do that with them and it was really great. It was a series. I think there were three modules. But we just talked about the benefits and the value of being able to build a brand for your business. Whether you’re creative or not, regardless of what type of business you have, I think most of us start a business because we’re really passionate about what it is that we do. We’re passionate about whatever that skill set is, whatever product or service that we are putting out there in the world. And so that tends to be for most people where your area of expertise is.

But that doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily an expert at being able to brand yourself or market yourself. Even creatives that are in these spaces every day struggle with that, because it’s hard to figure out what your personal brand is or your business brand is. Sometimes it takes having some help from outside. But we just talked about the fundamentals of that, and how much of a difference it can make to distinguish you in your category.

I hear all the time where some people are getting ready to start new businesses or they come to me and they’re like, “I’m starting a business that’s this, fill in the blank. And people are telling me that I shouldn’t start a business in this, because it’s oversaturated and there’s already so many people doing that thing.” And I was like, “Well, that’s really where branding comes in. The fact that you can establish a personality or some value-add or some way of talking about your product or service that’s different from everybody else is what’s going to stand out.” So it was really kind of built around that and it was super fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you thought about expanding into doing other courses?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, for sure. I’ve done lots of workshops here and there before, both under the umbrella of other organizations, and some independent ones on my own. And I don’t know when I’m going to tackle this, because like I said, I’m trying to take a little bit of a break, but I’m looking at, one of the things that I see is that, for me, I really care so much about what it is that I do. And teaching is something that’s really close to my heart.

So I’m always looking like, what do people need? What is it that people are struggling with? Or where can I have the most impact? And one of the things I see, especially for designers is that, and not just designers, actually people that are in marketing, for instance, some people who have design backgrounds or even people that are in coming from sales, often I hear people, “I want to talk about brand strategy. I want to get into that, but I have no idea how to make that transition.”

And for designers, especially going from strictly the visual identity and the creative side of things to talking heavily about strategy sometimes is a challenge. And it’s not because they’re not already doing it. Because that was my situation, in retrospect, I realized that I was always a strategic designer. That was always a big part of my process. But I didn’t necessarily put it out there. I didn’t explain all of my process to my clients necessarily. I didn’t build it into my proposals. It just wasn’t at the forefront. But it was there underneath all the time. Before I designed anything, I did all the research. I looked at their competitors, I did all these things. But I realized that for most designers, it’s hard to make that transition, because they don’t know how to reposition themselves in the market in that way.

And they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know what they need to know to be able to take those parts that they may already be doing, and be able to go deeper with that and really make it a big part of their practice. And because that’s part of the process that I really love, I’ve always been looking at how can I do more of this? And then of course at some point I had that fork in the road, where I had to decide, am I going to position myself in this way? Or am I just going to make this a bigger part of my design process?

And so when I started Branding Chicks, that was the pivot for me to decide that I was going to make brand strategies the thing that I led with. And I still do a lot of design for my clients, but I also am now in a place where, probably, about half of my clients, I’m only doing strategy for, I’m not necessarily creating any deliverables on the design side. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like we’ve started to see designers probably over the past maybe four or five years, start to lean more into that strategy. Because it’s been pushed a lot to say-

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Yes, you can know how to do design, you can know the programs and the tools and the methods, but until you’re able to apply that in a business sense, then that’s when you’ll become truly effective.” Douglas Davis, who we both know, has a whole book about it. So it’s something that we’re starting to see a lot of designers try to go into. The thing with the courses, though, I’m really interested about, because I feel like courses are something that, and I’m dating myself here, I’m thinking way back to 2010, probably, even a little bit earlier than that, but do you remember CreativeLive? Does that sound familiar to you?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, I do.

Maurice Cherry:
CreativeLive used to do these multi-day courses with entrepreneurs would come in and they would teach. And I mean for the time it was pretty novel. I actually don’t even know what CreativeLive is doing now. But I know that something that is pushed on a lot of entrepreneurs, it’s like, “Oh, take the knowledge that put it into a course, and then sell the course.” Which is always an option, but are your clients going to be the same people that you want to sell your course to? It feels like it opens up a separate revenue stream, potentially. But then unless you’re just not a great salesman, that’s skills you have to tap into.

I tried to do courses when I had my studio, and even though I’ve taught before, I was like, “I don’t want to sell the course.” It didn’t feel right for me to sell the course. And I know that people do, this was actually a little bit before Skillshare, but people would do Skillshare and things like that. I taught at Mediabistro and I sort of did my courses that way. And it was easy because it was just like you had a PowerPoint, you had a microphone, you spoke all through the lessons and stuff like that.
And it works, but it did add on, for me at least, it just added on this extra dimension of sales that I have to do. And I’m like, “It’s not worth it. For the money that I’m getting from it, it’s not worth it for me trying to hustle on these courses. I’ll just get some more clients.”

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, I totally get that. And I agree with you. I don’t think that any of the courses that I’ve done previously or the one that I’m going to be doing about brand strategy isn’t really targeted towards clients. It’s much more targeted to other creative professionals more than anything else. So I look at it as a form of professional development, I mean, because I did the one that you’re talking about in partnership with someone else, that was meant to be an evergreen course, so it was fully recorded and all that kind of stuff. And so they’ll have it for a while and their audiences can access it whenever.

The way that I’m approaching my brand strategy course is I’m looking at it as sort of a masterclass. I want it to be hands-on and I want it to be small and I want it to be in real time, because I enjoy that part of teaching. And I feel like there’s so much so to learn, there’s so much to share, and there’s so many questions that people always have that this is born out of my day-to-day, and people that ask me these questions or they send me emails and those kind of things. So I’m looking at how can I help them in real time? I want to answer your question, not a general question like yours. I want to answer your question.

So I feel like, for me, I’m looking at sort of a masterclass kind of thing more than an evergreen, pre-recorded course. I think there’s a lot of value in those as well, but I don’t know if that’s what I really want to do. I just like the hands-on so much more, so that’s the way that I’m looking at it. Yeah,

Maurice Cherry:
I gotcha. So while we’re talking about teaching, I have to ask you about The Creative Circus. The Creative Circus is where you’ve taught for, how long have you been teaching there?

Nakita M. Pope:
I think this is my 13th year.

Maurice Cherry:
13 years. It’s closing its doors. Jordan Taylor, who I had on a couple of episodes ago, we talked about that. How do you feel about it?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s a set of mixed in motions. It really is. Other than some workshops here and there and some guest lectures and things like that, this has been my most continuous experience with teaching and it’s something that I truly love. So it’s always going to be something I truly love. I’ve seen so many talented people come through those doors, and it’s such an amazing alumni network. And so many people, I’m still connected to both that are still in the building, people that are graduates, former instructors, and things like that. So it’s a mixed set of emotions.

I’m excited about what my next chapter looks like. I know that frees up some mental and emotional space, and also some time to do some other things. So in some ways I’m excited about that, but I’m going to miss that place. I’m going to miss my students. So it’s definitely been some emotional times, up and down, over the last six months or so.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at that time, because you not only were there as a teacher, but you were advising, especially along DEI and stuff like that, what feelings in particular come to mind? Are there any sort of memories that you have specifically about your time there?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, so many. I think the things that stand out most to me is, as a teacher, the thing that you want the most is to watch someone’s light bulb go off. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I get it now.” And I’ve seen that happen over the years in multiple ways. Sometimes it’s about a course that I’m teaching, sometimes it’s about the DEI training that I might be doing, or it might just be those life conversations that I have with my students. I just love connecting with the students more than anything else.

So many of those moments are the ones that I hold close where they trusted me to tell me something about their lives or to ask for advice. I was able to help them with something that really made a difference for them in their professional careers or their academic careers. Those are the things that I’m going to keep close to my heart, because those are the things that let me know that I was having impact and made it all worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
When you step back and just look at, I guess, Atlanta as, I don’t know, I guess you could say a design education city, I feel like over, I’d say maybe the past 20 or so years, I mean, we had Atlanta College of Art, and then that went away. Now, there’s The Creative Circus that’s going away. I’ve heard there’s been some changes at The Portfolio center, which I think it’s now just called Miami Ad School, I believe.

Nakita M. Pope:
Mm-hmm. It is.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you feel about just the state of design education in the city? I mean, I feel like we’ve had these specialized colleges for a while that taught them, and then over the years they’ve sort of changed and went away in some way.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, lots of changes over the years. I think some of it… Well, one of the things, like you said, this is definitely a design education city. When I was on the board with AIGA, I was running the education committee, and we have seven design programs in metro Atlanta. That is unheard of for even most other metropolitan cities. So even the more niche schools that you’re talking about, there’s still, Georgia State has design programs, Georgia Tech has design programs, University of Georgia, which we kind of still count. There’s other schools as well that have designed programs even outside of The Portfolio School, and more specialized schools and things like that.

So it was just such a breadth of education in that space. I think that some of the changes are good. I think some of them are going to have some ripple effects. I think one of the things that has always been a struggle, and I think with the changes in the programs it’s going to add to it, is that even though so many people have been educated in design here in the city or around the city, they tend to not stay in the community for their professional pursuits.

They get their education in this space and then they move to another place. Which nothing is wrong with that, but that has been part of the challenge is trying to retain that talent here. Because I think sometimes, especially for those students who might move into the city specifically to go to school, they don’t necessarily always have time while they’re in school to dive into the creative communities here in a real way. So they only see the little bubble that’s created for them by their programs. So they don’t necessarily get a chance to see all that’s available and what the real Atlanta creative community looks like. So when it’s time for them to look for a job, they don’t always consider staying.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like there’s an ongoing trend in Atlanta about not being able to retain, or I would say appreciate creative talent.

Nakita M. Pope:
Nope.

Maurice Cherry:
Not just in design, I’m thinking specifically about music, but music, art, design, I feel like that’s an ongoing thing, where, and I mean we’re speaking of the city as it’s a person, but I don’t know if the city appreciates what it has and what it cultivates here to the point where people would want to stay here. There’s been several musicians that have blown up elsewhere, but when they were here in Atlanta, nobody would give them a chance. I’ve certainly had folks on the show who were from Atlanta, and they may have gotten their education here, but they had to go elsewhere to find opportunities or to do big things.

I’ve had other Atlanta folks that are, I would say, other educators and other business folks to ask, like, “Why do you think that’s the case? What is it about Atlanta that’s not making these people want to stay? Is it the workforce?” I would imagine there are other factors, just cost of living and traffic and stuff like that. But I even think about when I was in my 20s, I definitely, at one point. Wanted to leave. I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling.” This is well before I started Revision Path. But I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling in my career. I don’t know where else I can go from here, unless I move away.” Maybe that’s what plays into it. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think there’s a lot of factors. I think some of them, you’ve already tapped into. The other side of it, my experience is a little different from yours. I came here for grad school. I came here to go to Portfolio Center, which is now Miami Ad School. And I was going to finish my two years and I was going to just leave it open. Where do I end up? I don’t know. But everything is wide open for me. And so by the time I graduated, I was actually looking at moving to Seattle, but I graduated in the middle of a recession. So I shot my book all over the country, and people are like, “We love your work, but we’re on a hiring freeze. We’re not hiring anyone.”

So that meant that I ended up staying here. I mean, it took me a little longer to find a job and all those things. So I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll just stay here for a while.” And so I ended up getting my first design job here. And I think, honestly, that’s the best thing that could have happened for me. The other thing I’m aware of is that my situation also isn’t everybody else’s, is that because I’m independent and I’ve been independent for so long, I never really went through the process of trying to move up in a creative agency completely.

I worked in agencies. I worked in in-house. I’ve done a lot of those things, but on the short term, or I did them for a little while. And so I did a lot of that moving around in the beginning. But for the last 12 years, I’ve worked for myself. And so for all of the things that come along with being an independent creative, and there are many, both positive and negative, I think one of the biggest positives, and I can say this in hindsight now, is that there is no ceiling when you’re on your own. When you’re on your own, you create your own path, for better or for worse. You might make some mistakes. Whatever those things look like, you’re on your own. So I feel like, for me, I don’t know if I’d have been able to do all of the things that are available to me now had I stayed in a traditional agency environment for my entire career.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Nakita M. Pope:
And I don’t know if that’s the truth for everyone else. I know other people have taken that path and it’s worked out extremely well for them. I don’t know if it would’ve for me, and it’s hard for me to know, because I don’t have the opportunity to do both. I did some in the beginning, and now I’m here, and I think everybody’s path is their own.

But I do think about that often. What would that have looked like? And would I have gotten to a place where I was like, okay, like you said, I have to move away if I’m going to move up, or I have to go do this if I’m going to move up or whatever those things look like? So I think it’s different for everybody, but the landscape of what it looks like for different people and what your personal commitments are, and what kind of lifestyle you want to live and all those things really play into whether this is a good fit for you or not.

But on the flip side, I do think that Atlanta is a lot of creatives here. And I do feel like it’s a very supportive, creative community. So I don’t know, like you said, if the city itself does everything that it can, but I feel like once you find your people here, I feel like that network is amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
I agree. I agree 100%. Once you get into that niche and you find those folks, you find your tribe, your people, whatever you want to call it, there’s no limit to the things that you can even work on. And to speak to what you said earlier, I did have to leave. I had to leave where I was AT&T, strike out on my own, and then that’s when I started to really… Well, first of all, I could never have pictured staying AT&T. There are people who I used to work with back then in 2008 that are still there. God bless them, because it couldn’t be me, could not be me. I say that to say, though, I mean, everyone has their path, for some folks staying in that very comfortable, crucible of being a production designer, if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they want to do.

I just knew that I could do better than where I was at. And this is not a slight on the people that are still there, but I could do better. And I just didn’t know, when I think about Atlanta in 2008, I mean this is pre SCAD. This is pre a lot of larger tech companies setting up offices in such here.

Nakita M. Pope:
True.

Maurice Cherry:
This is pre Uber and Lyft. I was like, “I don’t have a car. Where am I going to find a good job? I got to catch MARTA somewhere, it’s wild.” So now I think the city is definitely different in that aspect. We do attract a lot of people that want to come here for, I think, just creative art stuff in general, not just for maybe design. But over the past 10 years, we’ve really blown up with television and entertainment.

Nakita M. Pope:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And that opens up a lot of roles in the creative space. So the environment here has just gotten a lot more rich since then.

Nakita M. Pope:
Agree. Agree, wholeheartedly.

Maurice Cherry:
Now speaking of the sort of Atlanta community, you mentioned AIGA. I just want to congratulate you on your recent AIGA Fellow Award.

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you. Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Such a great honor. AIGA, for those of you out there that don’t know, it’s sort of the national body of professional organization for designers. And so we’ve got chapters all over the country. The Atlanta chapter has been active for a really long time. And each chapter has the opportunity to award fellow awards to people in their community that they feel have really moved forward the area of design or made impact on the local, regional, and national level.

And I think our chapter has honored 32 people, possibly. No, 16 people. It’s a very short list, so I was honored for 2021. We just had the celebration a couple months ago, because of the pandemic and everything. But I was given the honor in 2021. So that was a magical moment for me. It gave me an opportunity to really celebrate my community and celebrate all the things that I’ve been able to do and touch, and people that I’ve been able to meet in this community. So it was really a great night.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I’m glad that the community has come around you to recognize all of the great work that you’ve been doing, and to have their support for you. So that’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it was a great honor. It was a great honor.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of other projects, I see that you have this project called the Bella Boss Box. How did you come up with the idea for doing a subscription box?

Nakita M. Pope:
So we talked about having your people. I feel like, I don’t know about you, but my friends are the ones that always get me into stuff, especially my creative friends. They’re the ones that call you with a bright idea and be like, “So this is what I’m thinking.” So it was kind of similar to that. One of my good friends, Nekeidra Taylor, and actually we met through a client. A client of mine introduced me to her because she was like, “I think you guys should meet.” And so this was years ago. And so we’ve been friends and professional colleagues for a while.

She’s in public relations. And so during the pandemic, we hadn’t done our normal check-ins or have coffee here and there, kind of thing. And so we finally had a check-in call, and we were just catching up and talking. And we just ended up talking about our journeys as entrepreneurs and what the pandemic had been like and our support systems and things like that. And the fact that without those support systems, we wouldn’t have been able to do half of the things that we’ve been able to do.

And so from that conversation, we started thinking about what must it be like for people, especially women, who are starting businesses or running businesses who don’t have that support system. I think that I’ve been lucky, personally, because of my network and people who’ve introduced me to other people or just friends of mine who I’ve been friends with for a long time, but who are now also business owners as well. And even if your friends and your family support you in what you’re doing, and sometimes they won’t, sometimes they just won’t understand.

But even if they do, if they’ve never done it before, they still don’t know what it’s actually like. And so sometimes it helps to have someone that you can pick up the phone and call and ask a question, and feel like it’s a safe space to ask a question. Or to just vent and be like, “Look, I’m about to go work at Popeye’s.” That used to be mine when I was really frustrated with being an entrepreneur. I’m like, “Yep, I’ll just go and work at Popeye’s. I like chicken. It’ll be fine.”

And you need those people that you can call and say that, and they totally get it. You don’t have to explain it, you don’t have to do anything. They’re just like, “Oh, it’s that day, huh? Mm-hmm. So what happened?” And so that’s kind of how it was born. We talked about it and she’s like, “No, I think you should do…” We talked about a subscription box. How could we build a community of women that would be able to connect with each other in that way? So we came up with the idea for a subscription box, and I was like, That would be really cool.” And she’s like, “You should definitely do it.” And I’m like, I should do it. Why, I got to do it?”

And so she’s like, “I don’t have time to do it.” And I was like, “Well, I’m not doing it if you’re not doing it.” And then next thing I know, we’re setting up an actual call to talk about it. And that was October 2020. And so we planned this whole thing and launched the whole thing during the pandemic. We launched in April 2021. We hadn’t seen each other in person until March 2021. So this was all done on Zoom, during the pandemic. Even though she lives here, we were still kind of staying away from everybody and stuff. So it was kind of crazy.

But it’s been awesome. I feel like we’ve connected with some really amazing women all over the country who have a multitude of different types of businesses and things like that. And then just this summer we decided that we were going to pivot a little bit. The subscription box was going really well. As a designer, it was awesome. It gave me an opportunity to create things specifically for that community. We had a zine. I was designing products for the boxes, and I did all the branding for the boxes themselves, and all that stuff. And she’s in PR. She did a lot of the writing and things like that. So we really were a good fit to compliment each other.

But this summer we looked at everything and kind of like we tried to have those moments where we stop everything and start working on the business instead of in it. And okay, where are we? And where do we want to be? And we felt like the community part of it wasn’t getting as much shine as we really wanted. That was why we built this thing in the first place, so we decided to take a break and regroup and relaunch just the community.

So we’re still kind of working on that. We’re taking a break. She’s busy. I’m busy. We both have separate businesses on top of this one. So we’ve decided to just take a break for a little while, really get grounded in what we want, and then relaunch again. Preferably, we want to do an online community so that we have a chance to provide deeper relationships for the women that are our subscribers. So that’s what we really want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you’re pivoting from the subscription box to an online community. So just sort taking that notion and deepening it, I guess.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, exactly. Exactly. Because I think what we heard from our subscribers was that they love the items in the box, and they love so much of that stuff and the magazine and all those things, but they really love the idea of being exposed to other women who were doing amazing things and hearing about people’s businesses. And we would do this series called Respect on Our Name. So we would do interviews with black women entrepreneurs on Instagram. So people really responded to those kind of things a little bit more than the items in the box. And so much of the stuff in the box was also about providing resources and information. So we felt like we could wrap that all up and also bring the community to a higher level if we pivoted a little bit. So that’s what we’re looking at doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you interviewed me back in 2018 for Design Observer, and during that interview you had asked me how passion projects have impacted my career. Now I want to flip the script and ask you that question. How have your passion projects impacted your career?

Nakita M. Pope:
Lots of different ways. I think Bella Boss is definitely one of those passion projects. I probably would’ve done that even if it wasn’t a business. That’s just something I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about seeing Black women shine and succeed and women in general. And I think running a business has been such an adventure for me in so many ways. And I think that I know what it’s like even when you have support. I can’t imagine what it’s like when you don’t have support. So I always try to be that support or give people resources wherever I can. So I think Bella Boss is definitely something I would consider to be a passion project.

Mentoring is another passion of mine. Almost everything that I’ve done has come from something that holds a special place in my heart. Teaching is just more of mentorship for me. So mentorship and teaching are very much tied together. I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and I used to be terrified of public speaking. But the thing that shifted public speaking for me was looking at it as a bigger classroom. And because I love teaching so much, I’m like, “Well, you just get a chance to share knowledge with more people.”

So I feel like those aspects of my career have come out of the passion of wanting to share with other people. Branding is so much about being creative and solving problems and all those kinds of things. And I think all of those things are core to my personality and core to the things that I care about.

One of the stories that I love the most about when I was a kid is that my mom told me that I used to love puzzles. And so she would buy me all these different puzzles. So because I had so many, I got to a point where I would literally dump all the pieces out in the middle of the floor and solve them all at one time. And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I do every day. Mm-hmm. That’s pretty much the life that I’ve built for myself.” So when I think about things like that, I feel like all the things that I care about or that’s fun for me, or that’s interesting for me has been the foundation of every single thing that I do every day.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you built your confidence over the years as a creative professional? I mean, you’ve been doing this for a very long time. That longevity obviously has to come from somewhere. What fuels you as a creative professional?

Nakita M. Pope:
I try not to stop learning. As a teacher, I feel like you have to learn all the time. But even outside of that, I think I’ve always been naturally curious. And so for me, I want to ask more questions. I want to learn more. I want to talk to all the people that know the things that I don’t know. I want that, that’s what feeds me. And so I feel like confidence for me comes from knowledge and it comes from experience. And sometimes you have one without the other or vice versa, and then sometimes you have both. And I think over the years, I’ve just tried to learn as much as I possibly can on a day-to-day basis. And because of the years behind me, now I have the experience as well. But in the beginning, I didn’t have all the experience. I just had the knowledge and I had the willingness to learn.

And I think, if nothing else, I feel like those are the two things that has allowed me to grow the most and to be willing to take a chance. I can’t stress that enough. So many of the things that I’ve been able to do or that I’ve done that I can look back and be the most proud of are the things that terrified me in the beginning. If it doesn’t make me want to vomit a little bit when I say yes to it, then it is probably not going to make me grow. And so going back to our previous conversation just about being an independent and how that looks so different for me, I think the flexibility to try a bunch of new things and different things and to take on new challenges, I’ve had the flexibility to do that for the last 12 years, and I’ve taken full advantage of that.

If someone comes to me and says, “Hey, I really think you should do this thing.” And I’m like, “I’ve never done that thing before. I don’t know much about that thing. Let me go learn some more about that thing and then decide.” And then if I decide, “Well, it’s going to be a challenge, but I’m going to do it anyway.” I feel like that’s where all the growth comes from. And those are the things that have allowed me to be more confident. Not just because of what I already know, but because of the fact that I’m willing to take a chance and willing to take on the challenge.

I know that I’ve done that before and I didn’t die. And I made some mistakes, but most of the time it went pretty well. I’m like, that just gives me more confidence to do it again to something that’s unknown that I’ve never done before. I was just like, “Okay, I did that. Everything was fine. Okay, let’s try it again.” So I think so much of that is just taking chances too.

Maurice Cherry:
Whose work are you inspired by right now?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, quite a few people. Some of them are visual, of course, and then some of them are just community-based kind of things. I love what Kenny Thacker is doing with a 100 Roses from Concrete in the advertising industry. I think the programming that they’re putting together and the resources that they’re providing for young Black people are just amazing.

Visually, I am a big fan of Bisa Butler and her work, and right now I just can’t get enough of it. My best friend bought me one of her coffee table books for Christmas, and it’s like one of my prize possessions right now. But I get inspiration from so many different places and I’m like discovering new people every day, truly every day. That’s why I tell my students all the time that I use social media as a curation tool.

So I usually don’t care how many people follow me, but on any of my platforms, if you go look at them, I probably follow three times more people than follow me, because I’m just like, “Ooh, I want to see what this person is doing.” “Ooh, what is this person doing?” Ooh, I didn’t know about this artist. Let me follow them.” Or, “Ooh, that agency’s doing that. Let me follow them.” So I’m just like, “I just want all that good stuff coming in my feed when I log it on.” So I find new stuff and new people and new agencies and organizations and artists all the time. And that’s part of what feeds my creative process too.

Maurice Cherry:
What haven’t you done yet that you want to do?

Nakita M. Pope:
I want to travel the world. I do travel. I don’t travel as much as I would like to, but I would like to hit the majority of the countries before I leave this Earth, so that’s one thing. Another is I need to finish my book. I think the last time I was on with you, I might have talked about my book and it has been sitting in a dark closet for a long time. I did the first draft of it, and then I just kind of let it go. In retrospect, I think I might’ve just gotten scared and was like, “Oh, I can’t do this.” But I definitely want to revisit it. I’m going to pick it up again. I still feel like the subject matter is important. I think it’s still relevant and I still want to do it.

It’s a book about branding, and I just feel like there’s not enough resources out there that make it plain what branding really is. And I think especially for entrepreneurs who are trying to build a brand and don’t know what that means, or even for individuals who are trying to build a brand for themselves and don’t know how to do that, I think that there’s a lot of insight, hopefully, that I can provide. So I definitely want to tackle that and get it back up and running. I just hate that I didn’t finish it, so it’s got to get finished.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think if you go back and take a look at it, especially with all the knowledge you’ve gained now, you’ll probably see some things in there that you can update, that you can maybe add to-

Nakita M. Pope:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
… or something. So take your-

Nakita M. Pope:
Definite change.

Maurice Cherry:
… time with it. Take your time with it. I mean, the thing with books, I mean, I’m finding this out myself as I’m working on a book, which I guess is a sort a scoop. I mean by the time this comes out, people will know that I’m working on a book about Revision Path. But-

Nakita M. Pope:
Ooh, I’m excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve been working on a book about Revision Path and it has been a journey. Because at first I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to do it about the show or whatever.” And I was talking to my editor and he is like, “No, you have to go deeper.” And I’m like, “There’s not really that much to it. I wanted to do the show, and I did the show.” He’s like, “No, you have to go, go back further. Where did the seed start?” And it’s taken me all the way back to my childhood. It’s like a therapy session-

Nakita M. Pope:
I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
… trying to get through this book. I mean, I don’t know when it’s going to come out because I’m still working on… Well, one, I’m working on the proposal, but then just even all of the thought to go into how I’m going to approach the story and talk about it and everything, it’ll be good when it comes out. It’ll be sort of parts autobiography part about the show, but-

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man. That sounds awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s a lot. It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, it is.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
It is a lot. And I think it is a major undertaking. So I feel like even when I started it several years ago, I told myself that even being willing to take on a project that big, is a victory, period.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah-

Nakita M. Pope:
Full stop.

Maurice Cherry:
… absolutely. Absolutely.

Nakita M. Pope:
Regardless of what happens after that, that is a victory.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
To be honest, I’m kind of leaving it up to the universe a little bit. I think part of this break that I’m taking is just about getting some rest and giving myself a chance to take a break and be able to hear my own voice about what I want next. The benefit of all the work and the thing, the people that I’ve been connected to and done stuff with and collaborated with, it’s such a blessing that I have several opportunities to do things next, but I want to make sure that I make the right move. I want to make sure that what I’m doing next is going to be fulfilling, that it’s going to allow me to grow, because that’s always something that I want. I never want to stop growing. So I’m really taking a break just so that I can hear my own voice and decide what’s next.

But also I’m taking my hands off of it a little bit and sort of letting things unfold the way that they should unfold. I think sometimes, and I’ve had to learn this the hard way, because sometimes I just want to plan everything, but so often when we try to make plans, the plans that we make are coming from our perspective. You can’t plan something that you don’t know about to some degree. But I think that sometimes you need to let there be some divine intervention, some universe to step in, because sometimes the things that we think we want next isn’t big enough, because we can’t see it yet.

And so I feel like I don’t know what it is, but in my heart, I feel like that’s where I am. I’m at that kind of space where it’s time for something big, but I don’t know what that thing is, yet. So I’m just going to center myself and take some time and figure out what that is. Branding Chicks, of course, will still be part of the equation, at least for now, but I feel like there’s so much more to do and so many more people to have fun with and create with. So I’m excited about whatever it ends up being, to be honest. I just don’t know all of what it is yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I think that’s a good place to be though. To know that you have this possibility or all these possibilities ahead of you and just be excited for what that could be. That’s a great place to be, because a lot of folks are stuck if they don’t know what or whatever they think might be coming next is just more of the same thing. So to have that, I guess, opportunity to dream in that way, that’s priceless. That’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
You have to believe it first. That’s what believing really is, right? If it was already concrete and set in stone, then you don’t have to believe in it. It’s just there. So sometimes you have to just believe that it’s going to be great and that it’s coming and that it’s yours, and that you’re going to have what you’re supposed to have, period. I believe that. So I don’t know all of what that’s going to look like. I don’t know all the details, but I do believe that I’m going to have what I’m supposed to have and I think it’s going to be good.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
You can check us out at brandingchicks.com. That’s where you can find all of my work there. And Bella Boss is bellabossbox.com. The site is on hiatus right now while we pivot, but you can still find us there. And also on social media, you can check out Branding Chicks, both on Instagram and Facebook, and for Bella Boss Box, also on Instagram, Facebook, and I don’t think we’re on Twitter, no, but Facebook and Instagram.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, Sounds good. Well, Nakita Pope, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I feel like every time that I see you, and I know that you and I haven’t seen each other in a while, because of-

Nakita M. Pope:
I know.

Maurice Cherry:
… the pandemic, but every time I see you, you are such a just bright light of just like energy and positivity. And I know that the Atlanta community, of course, knows this, that’s why you have that AIGA Fellow Award. But when I think of somebody that is always such a positive, just, influence in the design community locally and otherwise, I think of you. So I’m just-

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you very much.

Maurice Cherry:
… so glad that you’re still doing your thing. I’m excited to see what you come up with next. And thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Nakita M. Pope:
Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so much for that. And thank you for always supporting me. And I love these conversations, whether they happen on the podcast or not, where we’re just catching up. So thank you so much. I appreciate it.

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Kevin Hawkins

The good thing about design is that if you have access to the right opportunities, your talent can really take you places. Take this week’s guest, Kevin Hawkins, for example. While he cut his teeth in the Washington DC design scene, for the past few years he’s been working in Europe, including his current role as global UX director for Glovo in Barcelona, Spain.

Our conversation started off with learning more about Glovo, and Kevin shared some of the rewarding bits and some of the challenges of his work. He also spoke about how his parents inspired him to be an entrepreneur, designing in DC and San Francisco, and how a trip to The Netherlands influenced his decision to work in Europe. Kevin’s story is a great example that when you take a chance on yourself, you will never lose!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kevin Hawkins:
Hello, I am Kevin Hawkins. I am the global UX director at Glovo in Barcelona, Spain. I manage a team of designers, researchers, operation specialists, content writers, and it’s about a 90-person team working on global food, grocery and everything delivery, in about 25 countries.

Maurice Cherry:
And I should also mention that you also live in Spain. You’re not just working remotely because of the pandemic.

Kevin Hawkins:
Correct, yes. I’ve lived in Barcelona now for just over six months. I moved for this job, and it’s been going really well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. How’s Barcelona?

Kevin Hawkins:
Super hot. The heat wave has been roasting Barcelona, but it’s also the time of year where they have neighborhood festivals. So it’s been super nice to get to know the city and see it come alive, but also see all the tourists sweat in the sun.

Maurice Cherry:
So aside from this move, how’s the year been going in general?

Kevin Hawkins:
The year’s been going really well. A lot of unexpected changes. I was previously living in Amsterdam, so it’s been a lot of big changes; another move for me, a new job, a new house, a new language. So it’s been a year of change.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the work that you’re doing at Glovo, where you mentioned you’re their global UX director. Talk to me about Glovo.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so Glovo, if people don’t know, it’s really big in Europe, Northern Africa and Western Asia. We don’t have a presence in North America, but we used to have a presence in South America. It is essentially if you were to combine DoorDash plus Uber Eats plus a little bit of FedEx. We are a delivery logistics company that started out doing food. We do groceries, we do appliances. We’ve started doing COVID tests. Essentially if you want anything in the city, we deliver it, we schedule it, we get it to your door. And we operate in 25 countries and just recently merged with a big group. So now we have about, let’s say, total, a couple billion orders a year that we handle as part of Delivery Hero.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. How has business been going during the pandemic? I’d imagine probably pretty well.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. This is one of the kind of outlier industries that did really, really well. As everyone started ordering from home, we ramped up. We were one of the first in Europe to start scheduling at-home COVID tests, because we could deliver you the test, but we can also deliver you the test with a nurse or someone to actually administer the test. So it was a really good time for us to launch new features. I only joined in February, so I came in on the high wave of all this growth, really trying to use that extra momentum and the profit margin that came with it to really invest in big things to keep that momentum going as people go back into the world and things open back up.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the team that you’re overseeing.

Kevin Hawkins:
The team is my favorite part of this job and favorite part about the entire company, honestly. So Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, which if you know anything about Spain, the different groups and factions, they fought for a while. There’s distinct cultures, so it’s different than Madrid, it’s different than Valencia or other areas of Spain. Very humble, very sweet, very down to earth people. The founders are both from this region, and it’s very much seen in the culture of the company. And so I really love the people. The roles that end up reporting into me are typically design and research, but also design ops, research ops, localization and internationalization teams that handle our translations and cultural differences, as well as the content writers and little bit of program management.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a sort of typical day look like for you?

Kevin Hawkins:
There is no typical day, I will tell you. So I am the highest ranked design person at Glovo. I report directly in to the chief product officer. So my typical day is a mixture of diversity and inclusion and hiring practices, meetings, making sure that research plans are adapted to different countries, dialects and languages. I have one-on-ones with five different heads of UX. Generally, I’m talking to a software account manager about renewals or new feature development, planning a research trip, or as part of my work with an employee resource group, we are planning an event or sharing new guidelines or new fact sheets to inspire the company to be more inclusive.

Maurice Cherry:
I was just about to ask you about that. You head up this ERG called Colours at Glovo. Tell me about that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, Colours of Glovo is a really fun part of the work I do. So the employee resource group is dedicated to diversity and inclusion as well as cultural differences related to ethnicity, race, and a lot of the nuances that happens within countries or within cultures. So generally speaking, we have ERGs dedicated to Pride and women’s inclusion and disabilities, but our ERG tackles all of the gray areas, the really specific things regarding operating as a company that has a bunch of gig workers. How do you handle the issues felt by the couriers, who are often immigrants? How to be adapt the product to be mindful of cultural differences and sensitivities in Western Asia and the Middle East and Northern Africa and Islamic countries? How do we modify for language, a number of things, delivery to women in homes where a man can’t enter the home? The number of things that comes through the ERG is super fascinating, and we help the company navigate these kind of differences and choices.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think Glovo will take off in the US? Is that a plan, to expand into this market?

Kevin Hawkins:
As someone who was born in America, I definitely think about this a lot. I don’t think we will. We have a really successful strategy, which is based on being number one or number two in all the markets we operate in. Given the intense competition of Uber and DoorDash and everyone in the US, I think it would take a very dedicated expensive effort to come in and be number one or number two very quickly. So I don’t see it happening in the near future. But now that we are part of Delivery Hero group, we are in the top three delivery companies globally.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I would imagine if Glovo were to expand into the US, you’d have to contend with Amazon. And they’re just everywhere, I mean, ubiquitous. I’m surprised, I know they used to do food delivery. It’s funny, they used to have Amazon restaurants or something, but I guess they just decided to give that up. And now they just do, of course, package deliveries, they do grocery deliveries, et cetera. But for what you’re mentioning with Glovo, it sounds like this FedEx, Door Dash, Uber Eats kind of hybrid sort of probably covers some gaps that maybe something like an Amazon wouldn’t cover.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, we have a couple of things people don’t expect. There’s a really famous feature from the very beginning of the history of Glovo called Anything Picture, or in Spanish, [Spanish 00:09:21], which is you actually describe what you want to receive and the courier will go out and get it. And that means you could say, “Hey, I need two pillow cases and a pillow from Zara home.” Zara Home isn’t a partner of Glovo, but this courier has a credit card and can go into the store, buy it, expense it to you and bring it to your house within 25 minutes.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s pretty good. That’s pretty good. That reminds me of … Oh my God, I’m trying to think of … Do you remember Webvan?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my god, it reminds me a little bit of Webvan, from back in the day. I don’t know if they were that exacting, but I like that feature. That sounds really cool.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, there were a couple concierge apps that came out back around then. It was like Cleveroad, and there’s some older ones that are no longer existent, because the margins were terrible. And trying to accommodate random requests at random times always became very challenging. But it’s cool because we still have that part of the app, because it’s the oldest feature, people love it. And when it works really well, I mean, it’s a moment of absolute customer delight.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We have a place here in Atlanta called Zifty. And Zifty has been around probably since, oh my God, maybe 2003 or something like that. They’re like the pre-Uber Eats or pre-DoorDash or something. If you wanted to get something from a local restaurant, depending on where your zip code was, they could get it for you. But also, they had a little grocery store. So if you needed to get toiletries or aspirin or whatever, you could get that along with your food, and they’d sort of bring it all together. I think they might have taken a bit of a stumble during the pandemic.
Well, one, services Uber Eats and such came about, so now you didn’t have to use Zifty. You could use any of these other services, which were cheaper. But the thing with Zifty is they were really good about trying to make sure that all the drivers were paid a livable wage, all that sort of stuff. They weren’t trying to undercut your own tips or anything like that, as maybe a similar type service might do; not naming any names, but you know what I mean. They might not try to undercut them on that sort of stuff. I don’t know how well they’re faring during the pandemic, because they stopped doing the grocery stuff, because I think just the possibility of transmission of COVID. And so now it’s just restaurants. But they’ve expanded into a mobile app.
I’m curious to see how they weather it through, because they’ll be coming up on 20 years next year. And it’s amazing how they’ve managed to weather the storm as society has changed. Because I think in the beginning people were like, “Wait a minute, the only thing I really would order delivery would be pizza or maybe Chinese food.” And now you can get pho, you can get sushi, you can get pillows, like you mentioned. You can get anything now via delivery.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes, exactly. The thing that we saw really spike during COVID was what we call quick commerce. So it was these brands like Gorillas or Getir, in some cases even grocery stores, directly offering what was 10-minute delivery for things. And this is what led to the same rat race that Amazon triggered when they launched one-day delivery. All the retailers have tried to scramble to get three day, two day, one day, same day, few hour delivery, sparked by this kind of, “Oh, that’s possible.” So then people find use cases they didn’t normally have.
In our space, it was quite literally the grocery store companies and these quick commerce companies pushing food, because food was always, “We get it to you.” You have companies that have couriers like us, and then you have some restaurants that have their own drivers, like notoriously Domino’s. And we merged them together.
But then you had products that were committing to $10 or a 10-minute guarantee and you get your money back, which is significant pressure on the logistics company, because you don’t have staff. People are volunteering. They get online when they want to get online. It can rain. You might be in a hilly city like San Francisco. The number of variables were endless, let alone things being out of stock. So we had to contend with this really, really heated race. Getir raised a billion dollars almost in funding, which is an unheard of number for a company that just started. So it was a really fun time for the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
It also sounds like, I think you mentioned this earlier, but you are also delivering COVID tests too. I don’t know of any other services really doing that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think it took a long time, but I think Uber eventually decided to start letting you schedule COVID tests with CVS, and then perfectly scheduling to pick up and drop off. But that was the closest I’ve seen on the large scale. We were actually delivering tests and then also delivering practitioners who could administer the tests, because it was just a perfect remedy. We started doing supply-based delivery. So if you were ordering an appliance, we’d have an installer; you’re buying a TV, we have an installer. Imagine everything from Best Buy, they have that service called Geek Squad where they come and install things. It’s just timing and scheduling of a person to arrive with goods. So we were like, “We sell goods, we deliver them on time, why couldn’t we deliver a person with them?”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So it’s sort of also like a TaskRabbit in there too.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, a little bit, as long as we could estimate the cost before, because TaskRabbit, there could be overage. We didn’t really get into that. We have a single transaction, single promise, single sale. It was applicable to many, many things.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you mentioned the team being the best part about what you do. What would you say is the most difficult part?

Kevin Hawkins:
I mean, it’s also the size, the scale. The differences within the markets that we operate in is probably the difficult part. Whenever you come up with what you think is a simple solution or that makes sense, it is never going to apply equally in Portugal as it will in Kurdistan. It never really makes sense the same in rural Nigeria or rural Kenya as it does in downtown Barcelona or in a very dense three-city country like Poland. When you have urban sprawl, when you have a six-language barrier, when the couriers or the partners speak completely different languages than the average customer, these complications, these nuances, these details makes the work for the team really complicated and also makes funding and prioritizing research … I would say fun, some would say complex.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you’ve served at a number of different companies. You’ve even worked internationally before, which we’ll get into a little bit later. I want to take things back to the beginning and sort of talk about your origin story. Tell me about where you grew up.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I don’t get to talk about this too much, but I’m originally from the Washington, D.C area. So my first home was in the city, and then we moved back and forth between Rockville, Maryland, Silver Spring, Maryland, and back into the capital. And I spent pretty much all my time in D.C., with a lot of travel with my dad, who is from the military, and then my mom’s family, which is African, from Liberia. So we spent time flying back between the two continents, but also just around the US at different military basis.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. First generation. I like that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have a lot of exposure to art and design and stuff growing up?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so my mom was a nurse and then broke away from the family expectations going into medical because she wasn’t happy, and became a fashion designer. And that was a big inspiration for my ability to problem-solve and really understanding when people say they want certain things but what they really want is something else, which is of course a big skill for designers. And then my dad was in the military but then left and became a labor rights attorney, and was really working with a lot of politics and advisory, and also had his own business. And so I was always surrounded by creative thinking, problem solving, a lot of politics, a lot of public relations. And it always made me think about, what if I did something similar to this? And I ended up helping them build their websites and their marketing collateral. And that’s really how I got started.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you of know that this was something you really wanted to study and go into, as a kid?

Kevin Hawkins:
So, that happened really early. I think it was probably as early as 10. So when I was super young, this is like seven or eight, if you went to school in the States especially, you know had to get a book cover and you had to get a binder cover sometimes, because you had even and odd days in middle school. And all your textbooks were either rented or they were really expensive, so you wanted to cover them to protect them, maybe sell them back later on in the year.
And my mom and I came up with the scheme of making the coolest covers. And so we had a little business called Cover Me Cool. And I essentially would be the model at school, and people would ask questions, and then you would sell them. And that got really big, and we ended up going to a trade show. We talked to me to Mead and Five Star, we got a patent attorney involved. It was my first [inaudible 00:18:29] really getting involved in business. So by 10, I had sold a company and had understood a bit of the politics of trademark law and copyright law, and decided I wanted to be more on the creative side of business. But definitely my teeth wet, and was really excited to do more independent design work.

Maurice Cherry:
So you had your own business and sold it by the time you were 10?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I would say sold is a nicer version of this. Ultimately, we couldn’t afford to scale and license NFL prints and everything. And someone [inaudible 00:19:06] buy from us. And we said, “Obviously, that sounds great.” So we sold. Sometimes I think about what would happen if I hadn’t, but I think ultimately, it was a great learning lesson.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, look, an exit is an exit. And the fact that you were able to sell off the business and still keep going, that’s a great thing. I say this of course as you are a child, but that’s great that you are able to have that experience really early on that way. So given that, did that sort of put in your mind, this is something that you really wanted to do as a business, was design?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes. I still wasn’t sure what discipline within design, so this is when I started looking at school differently. I used to be very anti-school. I was very good at primary school. I really hated tests, so I didn’t really the process of going to college. But then I was like, “Maybe I can be excited by the idea of web design,” and what they were calling new media back then, because I was like, “Oh, this is not traditional. This is not just marketing collateral. This could be service design. This is marketing automation. This is branding.” It always had a bit more to do with the business than just the service provided. And I liked that, and that’s how I got started.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of school, you did end up going to the Art Institutes for a while. You studied web design and interactive media. What was that time like?

Kevin Hawkins:
It was really intense. So my family, I’m the child of divorced parents, and so money wasn’t always consistent. So me having these jobs where I was doing websites and making templates on WordPress and stuff like ThemeForest and all this was a great revenue source for my mom and our household. And so when I went to school, I had a job already, and I was still working full-time doing marketing and creative service stuff for nonprofits in Washington, D.C. And I was like, “Oh, okay. So I really like my job, but I should go get certified and get a degree and get some kind of accreditation for it.” Ultimately, I ended up learning more from my job than I did from school, and that’s ultimately why I ended up leaving school.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like that’s a lot of the case when it comes to design, I think particularly design … And I’m just sort trying to place this in terms of timeframe. If you did this anywhere in the early 2000s, I feel like that was totally okay, because a lot of schools didn’t really have curriculum that spoke to web design, visual design. Maybe they had advertising or communication design, or you went to a for-profit school like the Art Institutes and you learned stuff there. But a lot of what you learned, because of how the industry was moving, was just being hands-on. You learned through working.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly. I learned a lot more always from learning from people I looked up to, people who wrote books or spoke or were generous with their time, or just people at the workplace who were willing to teach me or delegated work they didn’t want to do. Whatever way it came to me, I was able to take these opportunities and find a way to make myself passionate about it.

Maurice Cherry:
And now after you left the Art Institutes, you worked at a lot of different places. And I won’t go into all of them, but I’ll list off just a few of the more prominent places where you’ve worked, which is Chase. You’ve worked at Capital One, Gap, the Brookings Institution, PwC, EY, many others. When you sort look back at that time, because you were sort of contracting from place to place, talk to me about who that Kevin Hawkins was. Who was he? What was he thinking? What was he trying to accomplish back then?

Kevin Hawkins:
I never intended to go to any of these companies and leave. I think that’s one of the things that millennials get blamed for, the whole job hopping fad. I ultimately always wanted to stay, but I just had a lot of, let’s say, self worth from my mom and the way she raised me. And whenever I dealt with workplace discrimination, ageism, racism, any of these things in the workplace, I always said it would be better for myself and my career for me to be happy at work than to … I never saw going through discrimination and oppression as earning my dues. So I found new places or I worked on startups or I made enough money making websites for people to give me a month or two to find a new job.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a powerful statement there, and I think it’s something that … I don’t know, it’s interesting, when you think about people in their early careers, is that whole pay your dues sort of bit. I get that. Look, I got a Black mama too. And she certainly was like, “Sometimes there’s things that you have to do that you don’t want to do to get where you have to be.” And I understand that to a fault. I get that there may be some things where you just have to learn it, this is how you learn it. But if it’s like you’ve said what you’re putting up with these pervasive isms at work, racism, sexism, et cetera, why stay? You’re not winning any awards by staying, you know what I mean?

Kevin Hawkins:
No, exactly. And that wasn’t always the reason why I left. Sometimes new opportunities come, sometimes you start to stagnate or you stop learning. I always say either you’re there to learn or to earn, and sometimes there’s other motivations like a passion or a mission that aligns with you. But when you’re not learning, when you realize the industry is getting bigger, it’s getting very profitable, the work is extremely valuable, it’s being tied to massive growth and revenue, you also want to start earning more. And because I came in without a degree, I was originally second-guessing myself. So my whole tactic was I’m always more valuable in the interview phase than I am two years into a company. So if I want to make up for the money than I’m not earning by not having that degree, it makes more sense for me to take opportunities when people present them to me, than to trudge through the interview process and promotion panels, with the people I’ve been working with for two and a half, three years.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, you just raised something interesting there I want to touch on. So you did go to the Art Institute, you got an associate’s degree, right?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So even though you had that degree from an institution that someone could look at and say, “Oh, you must be a designer,” did that still not help you throughout your career to have that as sort of a … I almost want to say a status symbol of sorts?

Kevin Hawkins:
No, honestly it wasn’t looked at the same way. The Art Institute doesn’t have the prestige of a Corcoran or a SCAD or a RISD. In addition, I got into web design and I was doing a lot of user experience, information architecture, HCI work. So they didn’t see it as directly relevant. I got a two-year degree but I didn’t take the final exam and do the official ceremony. So I always had to send in transcripts versus the official diploma letter that comes from the university office. And I didn’t really care. I was really happy that I made that choice to leave, and the work spoke for itself, more often than not. But then there would be companies, especially as I got higher up in D.C. or in New York that just would look at nothing else. And California and Europe started getting more and more attractive.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I’m just curious about that, because for example, I don’t have a design degree. I did go to college, got a degree in math, and then started out as a designer, even though I just picked up design in my spare time. And even now at this stage in my career, I’m at least 20 years out from my first design position, me not having a design degree I think is still looked at some places as like, “Oh, well, you’re not really a designer,” despite the fact that I’ve run my own studio, have all this design experience in other companies. They’re like, “Yeah, but you don’t have the degree.” And I feel like companies sometimes still place way too much emphasis on that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Certainly. I mean, I can tell you the number of jobs where I actually got to the final round … I even have jobs where I was given the offer, and then it was rescinded because they hadn’t checked which degree I had.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, man.

Kevin Hawkins:
And I thought that was insane. Some of these companies had public stances on articles and in Forbes, “We don’t look at degrees anymore. Degrees are not a requirement for most of our jobs.” But the second design started getting a seat at the table, design was informing P&L, it was informing business strategy partnerships, they started really looking at designers, especially when you go into UX, as part of the business organization. Sometimes you reported in to COOs or CMOs. And they ultimately saw it as flywheel effect, that you invest in UX, you get customers happy, they buy more, you have more customers, which is great. But at the same time, we’re still always interviewed based on portfolios, you’re based on references, you’re based on the work you’ve done in your past. So why is the degree so important, when you spend 80% of the interview looking at work done?

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, that’s true. That’s very true. I remember vividly when I got … it wasn’t my first design job, but I was working at AT&T as a senior designer. And it was one of the campuses here in Atlanta. And pretty much everyone else on the design team not only had a design degree from the Art Institutes, but they kind of all went to the same classes and stuff together. It was very much a pipeline from this school to this company, which I think may be why some companies look at that, and think, “Oh, well, if you’ve come from this school and you have this degree, then you can automatically meet maybe this baseline level of work.”
But when I tell you I was designing circles around those jokers at AT&T … and a lot of them paid me dust because I didn’t have a design degree … and these would be other Black designers too, wouldn’t even talk to me. And so when it was time for me to leave, I was like, “I’m out, I’m out. I’m gone. Peace.”

Kevin Hawkins:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And so I 100% understand the want to get at a company and you want to be there, and it just doesn’t work out. And it’s not anything that has to do with you. It’s company culture stuff, it’s all kind of other stuff. And it’s like if you don’t feel happy here, why stay?

Kevin Hawkins:
Exactly, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I noticed from just doing research, you also had your own things that you were doing throughout this time. So you weren’t relying just on working at these companies to, I guess, fulfill this creative want that you had. You founded other companies, Pipevine, QReview, BravoScore. Talk to me about those. It sounds like you were pretty busy.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I’ve always had this, and I think it’s probably from watching my parents be in jobs they weren’t super happy about and then watching them start their businesses parallel to their work, so I always thought, “Oh, that’s a thing you can do.” It isn’t like you have some contract where you are enslaved to one employer and you need to tell the employer you’re going to leave before you do work for a new employer. I always saw that small businesses are often started alongside full-time jobs.
And I said, “I do like what I do for a living, and ultimately, I see myself advising business. I see myself advising product directors and program managers. And this is what they use to determine budgets and this is what they use to determine expansions and launch strategy. I can do that. Why shouldn’t I launch something as a UX designer with the background that has worked also in research? I can validate a problem. I can talk about size of the market. I can talk about who is addressable within the first version of the product that we release. I could do a pitch. I can definitely do this.”
And I started looking of course more and more at San Francisco and startup companies and how they got their start. And you’re like, “Cool.” Designers, I personally think … this is even before Brian Chesky and Airbnb … because designers, I think, are better startup CEOs. They pitch things, and you want to listen; they’re beautiful, if they do their job with communications design very well.
And I said, “Let’s start some companies.” And I had no idea where to look. And I ultimately looked to people who were already that passionate founder visionary type, and they didn’t know how to build great user experience. They didn’t know how to collect email and newsletters and do a landing page and build up momentum before it launched. And I partnered with them as their technical co-founder because I knew enough code, enough front end, enough design to be dangerous. And they were the business, finance people.

Maurice Cherry:
So you really got your own business education in a way, too, by running these businesses and working with them.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I definitely can empathize with that. I’ve always had my own thing on the side, wherever it is I was working. And I’ll tell you what’s interesting, some of these new startups, and I know this just from working in startups in the past five years … And I don’t know if a lot of them have them, but the ones that I worked in always had a clause that you had to disclose anything else that you were doing outside of work that might … I don’t know if it might conflict or whatever, but they just wanted to know that, “Well, what else are you working on that’s not the 9:00 to 5:00 job?”
And sometimes I would answer and sometimes I wouldn’t, because it’s really none of their business, because none of the places I worked for had any sort of relation to what I was doing, which was this podcast. But I find it interesting now that companies are like, “Yeah, what else are you doing to try to, I guess, I don’t know, capitalize on your time?” I know there’s this whole thing now about quiet quitting. And I hate that term so bad because it’s really just about setting boundaries at work. It’s not, whatever, I don’t know, 19th century Industrial Revolution thing you might be thinking about with quiet quitting. I just hear that just, I hate that term.

Kevin Hawkins:
It does hurt me, honestly. It’s like, okay, either it’s disengagement or it’s just the phase before someone gets fed up. But it’s not disingenuous to be tired of bad conditions or being undervalued or underpaid or outgrowing opportunity. If you feel like life is taking you a different direction than your current employer, there is always going to be the phase before you quit. And that isn’t called quiet quitting, in my opinion. That’s just called really assessing your worth, your value, and your future.

Maurice Cherry:
I might get in trouble by saying this. Part of me feels like that the media is a little bit complicit in this, because I really am only hearing this from Business Insider, Wall Street Journal, stuff like that, that are talking about quiet quitting. But I feel like it’s also retaliation to a lot of workers, at least here in the States, now realizing the power that they have with unionizing. And so they’re cutting down on this whole quiet quitting thing, because I mean, at least in some of the places I worked, that quiet quitting, I’m using air quotes here, were the seeds to start unionizing. That was the fertile ground for people to start thinking about, how can we campaign for having better work conditions, et cetera? And they talked to a union rep, and now we got a union. Like I worked at Glitch, and we unionized, shortly before they laid most of us off, but we did at least have that happen. And I want to say that the fertile ground for that was a lot of people just being sort of fed up with how certain conditions were.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. And honestly, businesses will always have, let’s say, a fiduciary interest in not wanting people to unionize, because it’s easier to manipulate and get what you want as a business, for your shareholders, or even for yourself, when you are dealing with individuals. It’s also why the whole idea of people knowing what everyone makes is dangerous to businesses, because then you know if you’re getting paid less, and you know if they value that same work at a higher value. Some of these things are solved in some places in Europe, and it’s still the same battle. I have to deal with lots of cultural differences, and this is one of them. A lot of the teams and companies I work with and some of my peers in Spain and Portugal deal with this, which is, I think it’s quite positive, but it is tricky, that our employees talk to each other about how much they make. If we do a market adjustment and someone was adjusted more than someone else, it definitely comes up much quicker than you think it will.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you were running these businesses, you were working at these different places. It sounds like you were doing a lot here in the States, between all of that stuff. But eventually you ended up moving, you moved to Amsterdam. What was behind the decision to do that?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. So I moved to San Francisco for four and a half years, and I was really happy out there, but I really couldn’t see myself building life in terms of buying a house, starting a family, with just the cost, the income disparity, the homelessness crisis, and really just it’s quite out of touch, if you stay in certain bubbles. And I always had a really good balance. My family is quite mixed, African, Filipino, American. I see different classes within America and other countries on a regular basis. And so to juxtapose the comments and things you would hear in Silicon Valley with the reality of most of the world became a bit frustrating. And I said, “Am I really doing myself a service, spending all of my money, all of my energy just trying to survive in this city, or maybe I go back to D.C., or maybe I finally go and try out Europe?”

Maurice Cherry:
And Europe ended up winning.

Kevin Hawkins:
Europe ended up winning; winning at a very interesting time, who got elected-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. Yeah.

Kevin Hawkins:
… safety of Black people in America. I mean, a number of things, right? And so I was really happy to be able to go and visit. And then once I was able to secure a job that was able to sponsor me and keep me there, it was a big sigh of relief that I exhaled, because it was just such a significant upgrade on my quality of life.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you ended up working in Amsterdam, you were working at booking.com. And then now you’re here in Barcelona working at Glovo. I’m just curious, I mean, this is from the dumb American perspective, so forgive me here, but is it easy moving between countries like that in Europe?

Kevin Hawkins:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Kevin Hawkins:
No. I really wish it was simpler. Honestly, the visas don’t transfer between countries. So we were just talking about the whole degree thing. And I won’t talk too badly about my new home country, but I had a high qualified migrant visa in the Netherlands because I worked in tech, and they wanted more tech workers. And I made good money and I brought lots of job opportunities and revenue by having a high-funded, well-run company be headquartered in your country. But that same visa wouldn’t transfer to Spain, so I had to requalify, do background checks in America and in the Netherlands, do fingerprinting, do a degree certificate, all these things all over again, as if I hadn’t just lived four years in Netherlands and bought a house. I considered myself European at that point, but that’s not how it works.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And you’ve been now in Barcelona you said for about six months?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yep, about six months.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the design scene like there? Have you sought it out or have you found it there?

Kevin Hawkins:
So there are probably around like 2,500 startups. Glovo isn’t definitely in that top group of the biggest. We’re a unicorn. But the design scene isn’t as large, of course, as a London, which is massive, or as an Amsterdam, which is definitely a tech hub, but it’s very warm, I would say. The UX community in Barcelona has big players like HP and Amazon who are directly our neighbors. As Glovo, we’re in a neighborhood called Poblenou, which is the tech hub. But then you also just have to factor in the culture.
There’s a lot of illustration and animation in the UX and design community within Barcelona, just because of the culture is so rich in architecture and detail and craft. The community is very warm because the city is very warm, and people are generally happier, in my opinion. And they have beach meetups, and there’s a thriving tech scene that’s definitely growing. And it’s really fun to be there at the moment where it’s blossoming. It’s definitely going to surpass, in my opinion, some of the bigger cities. The only key difference is that pay in the south is lower than in northern Europe, which models very similarly to pay in the South of the US versus New York, for example.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. How would you compare the design community to, say, the one in Amsterdam or in D.C.? Was that something that you thought about as you went to these different places?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly. I think that I always think about diversity of groups and communities. And D.C.’s definitely a melting pot. Amsterdam’s a melting pot. Barcelona is one of the largest cities in a region of Spain, and therefore it’s not Madrid, it’s not the capital. The tech that’s there isn’t one industry, like the military or government or FinTech. And so it’s a lot of people from completely different backgrounds, a lot of immigrants from other Spanish-speaking countries or from Latin America or Hispanic America, like Brazil and Argentina. And so, there is this really interesting new kind of perspective that you get. A lot of the competition or comps we talk about at work like Roppy and companies that don’t even operate on the continent, because of the backgrounds people have and the different kind of work they’ve been doing. And it’s really cool. I still do all of my work in English. And I’m still able to navigate the community, and the community’s very open and friendly to expats. They often speak three languages. And it’s a very vibrant, different community, but I really enjoy it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good to hear that they’re friendly to expats. I had always been curious about that sort of thing. I mean, I’ve been considering … at this stage where I’m at right now, as we’re recording this, I am currently, we’ll say, between opportunities at the moment. And look, I’ve been in the US for a long time. I’m from here, whatever. But I also know that the skills that I have, I’ll look for the types of positions that I do, and most of them are in Europe. None of them are in the US. And I’ve thought about possibly maybe doing it, like, oh, just visiting or something. Part of me is like, maybe I’m a little too old to do that. Also, I’m close to my family that’s close to where I live here, and I don’t want to put an ocean between us. But it really sort of sounds like you’ve found a way for yourself throughout your entire career. You didn’t have one set path that you really were trying to follow. You just of went where your passions led you.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think the only thing that’s been consistent has been I wanted to be a C-suite executive. I think that’s something that my family makes fun of me for, from being a kid. I used to be called the governor. I probably am still called the governor [inaudible 00:42:23] family because I always projected these long-term visions, five-year plans, “We’re going to do this.” I was always rallying people towards a mission or a goal. And so I’ve always known I wanted to be in a leadership position, but as I got into design, I didn’t really see one. So I was always trying to navigate my way into learning new skills, because I wasn’t in the business area, I wasn’t in operations, I wasn’t in marketing, I wasn’t in the area that had C-suite positions.
And I said to myself, “If I’m ever going to get there, it has to be the story of the receptionist who learns all the skills by being around all the people in the business and eventually become COO and then CEO.” So I told myself, “I’m in design, there’s no direct ladder to that role, so I’m going to have to get close to the marketers and close to the engineers and close to sales and close to legal, and really understand the in and out of every business I worked for.”

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re in the C-suite now. Would you say that’s sort where you’re at now with Glovo?

Kevin Hawkins:
Almost, yeah. I mean, no one else above me does design work. I report to the chief product officer, but I am solely responsible for all the budget for design research, content. It’s about a 90-person team and growing. And so it does feel like I’m almost there. I think the one thing that would get me there would be a VP of experience position or, very few companies have these, but a chief design officer.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you worked to stay your authentic self throughout your career?

Kevin Hawkins:
It actually is easier to answer than I thought it would be. It has been teaching. So I never did it with the intention of keeping myself grounded, but I always felt and was making time to mentor people into the industry. I have some close friends now who came from program manager jobs at NASA or were teachers or bankers, and now they’re in UX or in different areas of tech. And I always found it really, I don’t know, just thrilling to show them how transferable their skills were or show them that you have a passion to make apps, and yes, app companies and companies in general fail at the 90% mark, but these are the skills you need to be able to validate your assumptions and listen to customer feedback and iterate quickly and fail fast, and get them into positions where they either were launching their own companies or working in UX or in different tech roles. And that is what led me to eventually teach a class on data visualization at Georgetown University and then start teaching in general UX courses, design thinking courses, sort of about six years of me teaching now.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. So you’re teaching. Is that something you’re also doing now in Barcelona, or are you’re just working at Glovo?

Kevin Hawkins:
I am just working at Glovo. I was working with a bootcamp in Amsterdam called Growth Tribe, but now that I’m in Barcelona, I’m looking for new opportunities, mostly by partnering with the department with local universities, Ironhack in Barcelona, building an apprenticeship program, which I feel like is really missing in the industry; when we talk about not enough junior positions, at the very least, people should be teaching and bringing in people who are early career programs and apprenticeship programs to build that pipeline for juniors.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I find a lot of companies now don’t really want to talk to people. When it comes to positions and stuff, they’ll make sure that the, I don’t know, applicant tracking system does all the work. They don’t really want to talk to you or interview or get to know you unless you pass through those hurdles and stuff. But that apprenticeship part certainly is something that’s missing. I feel like that’s something that has been identified throughout the years, and a lot of companies just haven’t tried to make that a part of what they do. I mean, they still have take-home tests within interview processes, so I feel like having an apprenticeship, it might be a little bit too much for them to handle at the moment, but I would like to see more of that kind of stuff too.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think there’s always a scapegoat, whether it be time or team maturity. But having an intern, having an apprentice, having a really early junior requires that same level of consistency with how the department or organization is run, with also there being clear career paths. But then in addition, having someone actually be responsible and given credit for molding the mind and techniques of a new person in the industry. And I think because of the number of operational admin and HR-related aspects of this that are not in place at most companies or are always in some state of shift, they always want to say, “Oh, we just won’t do it,” but then at the same time will complain about why it’s so expensive to only hire seniors or why the [inaudible 00:47:06] maturity isn’t great when none of your team has any experience mentoring people.

Maurice Cherry:
I know I certainly hear it from … I’ve heard of that, companies I’ve worked for, where they’re like, “Oh, we can’t find any good candidates,” or they’ll put out a listing and get 300 resumes and then not look at any of them. I don’t know. Hiring in itself is broken. And I may be speaking from a bit of a jaded place at the moment, because I’m looking for work. But that’s something I’ve noticed though throughout my career at places I’ve worked, where designers, it really is that thing about you have to know someone. It’s really hard to just come in right off the ground floor to get into some companies. But that’s pretty sad.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I would agree. Design is becoming like real estate. Everyone has to get some comfortable shoes and go door-knocking and cold-,calling and there’s tons of doors being slammed and phone calls being hung up on. And especially with any kind of recession, it gets really tricky. The majority of my career, I would say, post- the engineering marketing design stuff I was doing, was in 2008, 2009. And obviously, it was the worst time. But I came in super humble, obviously didn’t need a ton of money. In terms of what people were expecting for the top of the band for certain positions, I was undercutting them, because I was there to learn. At the same time, I also was keeping all of my expenses super, super low. That is impossible anymore. The market is insane. The cost of inflation has gone up just for living in places. And we’ve all talked about this ad nauseum at this point, about whether people should be paid living wages or not, which is an obvious answer.
And design has, and tech in general has been such a savior for some people because it has been rapidly growing in income, and people are making great salaries and new positions are being formed in leadership, and there’s career paths. But then when it doesn’t have respect at companies, you can look at Fannie Mae for example, you see whole divisions being cut or companies no longer investing in UX. And it really shows you that we have to, not just because we find it interesting, you have to develop these other skills, you have to develop these networks. And that awkward phone call or email or walking up to a random person at a conference feels like a luxury we can ignore for a lot of the time. But when it comes down to it, those are the people and the connections that have saved me most at times when I didn’t have a job or went to a new country or got laid off or in one instance got fired.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the best piece of advice that you’d give to someone that they’re hearing your story and they want to follow in your footsteps? What would you tell them?

Kevin Hawkins:
I would say, and this is going to be a quote, because I love quotes … I want to get this quote correct. “So it is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed,” which is a quote by Napoleon Hill. And it’s just me being generous with my time. It’s me taking random phone calls for Brazilian graphic design students at 12:00 PM when it’s their 5:00 PM, so that they can ask questions, how to go from graphic design into UX. It’s me going to a Lesbians Who Tech drink in D.C. randomly to see if anybody’s there because they’re looking for a technical co-founder or they don’t know how to do something. It’s just me volunteering at design critiques or UX speed dating, where you’re giving people advice quickly or you’re answering questions in a Q&A.
I think these things are the things that we can always make time for. Ultimately in the moments when I didn’t have a job, I did more of them, because they build connections and there is a bit of a bias or an interest for me to make connections. At the same time, it’s what keeps me motivated and inspired and keeps my spirits high in the lowest moments, is the people who I’ve helped or the people who use me as a reference or call me when something has shattered their world. But for me, it’s something I’ve done 10, 15, 20 times, and can easily walk them through how to navigate it.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel satisfied creatively?

Kevin Hawkins:
In my current role, yes. I think I haven’t been for a little bit of time. I’ve been a director now for three years. I was a director at a small company and then I was in management but not a director at Booking. And at Booking, I was extremely, extremely happy. And then the recession hit, and that was ultimately why everything fell apart and I left. And I was looking for about a year and a half, almost two years for another place where I could see myself being home. And Glovo definitely is that. But the director role is less about designing mock-ups. It’s more about designing career paths, designing a culture, designing product marketing and employer brand.
I’m building the team I wish I was on, I’m building the kind of company culture, onboarding practices, promotion processes that I wish I had in my career. And then I’m also building myself up to hopefully be an inspiring speaker and leader and even better teacher. And I look up to people like Bozoma Saint John, who was the former CMO of Netflix, and in that kind of realm, always looking to share more knowledge, invite more people into the room at a seat at the table, and just constantly question the norms we see.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say you’d make a great public speaker. Have you been looking into doing some more of that?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes, every chance I can get.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Where do you see yourself in the next, let’s say, five years or so? What do you want the next chapter of the Kevin Hawkins story to look like?

Kevin Hawkins:
This has gotten trickier ever since I moved to Europe, because I think the answer used to always be some version of fame or being CXO, chief experience officer, at a thing or a really notable household name globally. But now it really has to do with about being … like I’d rather be really, really important at a small company for people who really need our services than to be just another person in a role at a very large company with customers who don’t really feel any passion towards our product.

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

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so I’m most active for work things on Twitter, which is @KevinHawkinsDC. And then on Instagram, @KevinHawkinsDesign. Same thing on LinkedIn, Kevin Hawkins Design. I’m often posting about work we’re doing, public events. I do quite a bit of public speaking both in the US and in Europe, so I have several talks coming up this fall, but I’m mostly sharing work-related things, things tied to my business, and how I’m developing myself and my team on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Kevin Hawkins, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Sort of like I alluded to earlier in the interview, I can really tell that you’re someone that has continually throughout your career, throughout your life probably, really taken a chance on yourself. You know the skills that you’re able to bring to the table, you know what you’re able to do. And instead of waiting for an opportunity to come to you, whether it’s starting your own business or moving to another country, you are taking the chance on yourself to further your own career and further where you are in life. And I think that’s something that’s super inspiring for anyone right now to really hear. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kevin Hawkins:
I really appreciate the time. I really love the show. Big fan. I think that everyone should reach out to whoever they want to talk to and learn from. And like you said, take a chance on yourself. And you’d be surprised, the odds are in your favor.

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Kamar Thomas

Every designer or artist wants to be able to make a living from their work, and this week’s guest embodies that desire. Generally, Kamar Thomas splits his time between being a design educator at two institutions — Centennial College and VCAD — but outside the classroom, he’s a prolific artist who specializes in vibrant oil paintings filled with deep meaning. He also just finished his first book, The Artist’s Creative Vision, which publishes this winter. Very nice!

Kamar started off talking about his teaching career, which also includes stints in the U.S. and Jamaica, and he talked about getting into art and painting as a kid before attending college at Wesleyan. He also spoke on the themes of the Black figure, masks, and abstraction in his work, his first gallery show this year, and what he ultimately wants to convey in his paintings. For Kamar, you can make art from wherever, and also have a great career!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kamar Thomas:
My name is Kamar Thomas. I am a fine art painter, primarily an artist. I’m also a professor at two colleges, Centennial College and Visual College of Art and Design. And lastly, because I have finished a manuscript, I will be an author of a book called The Artist’s Creative Vision.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations on the book.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you, thank you. When it comes out, hopefully it does come out, I hope it makes an impact.

Maurice Cherry:
It will. I think every person’s book makes an impact, especially for the person who wrote it.

Kamar Thomas:
Especially for the person who wrote it.

Maurice Cherry:
Book aside, how has the summer been going so far?

Kamar Thomas:
The summer has been busy. I fill essentially three roles. I teach and I make and I write. And the summer is my season of making and writing, so I’ve had an exhibition in the summer. I’ve been going to museums quite a bit, and I’ve been just polishing up the manuscript, which is a whole long process in itself.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I see on the websites you’ve got the book here available for pre-order and everything. We’ll also make sure to put a link to it in the show notes so people can check that out.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you. I’m very grateful. I need it.

Maurice Cherry:
What was your inspiration behind it?

Kamar Thomas:
It came from solving my own problem, which was I was a starving artist, and I didn’t want to be a starving artist anymore so the book is written to, if I can, eradicate that concept, get rid of the idea. And to solve that problem, it’s… The real issue is how does one come up with work consistently that people want to buy? Rather than just making and following the muse and blindly following inspiration.
And I sat down and I came up with a system. And by sat down, I mean with trial and error and teaching people and tried a few other method here and picking up things through teaching and applying them to myself. And the system is combine your interests with your biography, with art history, repeat. Eventually someone will buy.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds pretty simple.

Kamar Thomas:
Sounds pretty simple, just like saving money is simple, but it’s really difficult. Just like exercise is simple, but it’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, I want to get more into your work as an artist, but let’s talk about your work as a professor first. You mentioned teaching at two universities. You’re teaching at the Visual College of Art and Design; that’s in Edmonton, Alberta. And you’re teaching at Centennial College, which is in Toronto, which is on in Ontario. That’s east coast, west coast geographically. How do you balance teaching at both of those schools?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, balance is a strong word. Let’s just say… What’s the word? Manage. Balance supplies. For a season, there is teaching Visual College of Art and Design is online, and their classes are two to three hours long. And I fit them in the schedule where I can. And I teach at Centennial in person; I’m full-time there. And that schedule is largely immutable. The meetings have to happen, the classes have to happen, and I have to physically be there. And so it’s just a matter of systematizing and being rather ruthless with what I say yes to and being very hands on with the planning. I spend a significant portion of time just planning just 20 minutes here and there. I think if I added it up over the week, it would be at least an hour and a half just on planning what I’m going to do with the time that I have.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it’s good that you manage both of them because it sounds like one’s online, one’s in person, but then the schedules don’t seem to really cross over either, so that’s pretty good.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. If it’s one thing I’ve learned from teaching, it’s systematize. If you repeat anything, figure out the best way to repeat it rather than having to make yourself figure it out each time.
I have a complicated system of things coming into my inbox to moving to a… I gather up a place, I put them in a folder, and then once a day I go in the folder, I put those into the planner ,and the the next day I get out a physical piece of paper and I write down the things from the planner. And I keep it on my person so I won’t have to keep checking the planner. And then somewhere on the paper on my person, I have somewhere to put the new stuff coming in so nothing really slips through the cracks. Some things do, but for the most part, 90%, 95% do not.
The same with art; a system that you can go back to, that you can rely on to produce results is much better than inspiration-based or client-based. It’s more of if you have a method of working, you go, you consult the system. I do this. Let me check art history. What do I have inspired there? Let me draw something from my biography. Go.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting, I didn’t really realize that about teaching myself until I started teaching. Which when I was in college, I would always have professors that would… They wouldn’t necessarily repeat themselves, they’d always just tell you it’s in the syllabus. It’s like, “It’s in the syllabus. I put it in the syllabus.” And I’m like, yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Then when I started teaching, I was like, I get it, because the syllabus is like your system. You put everything in there, and it’s up to the student whether they read it or not. If they don’t read it, it’s not your fault. You put it in the syllabus. They should have read it.

Kamar Thomas:
Correct. It not only has everything, it has when everything is going to happen and it has how you expect it to happen and it has the consequences of if they don’t happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Yep. And then the students get mad when they’re like, “Well, I didn’t read the syllabus.” Well, that’s your problem. The syllabus is the key to the system for me, so I get it.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. That’s exactly right.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve been a teacher for awhile now. Not just with these two colleges, but you’ve taught in Canada, you’ve taught in Jamaica, you’ve taught in United States. What do you learn from your students? Are there any differences between students in different countries and stuff?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, there sure are. In Jamaica, the difference in students in Jamaica, I was teaching high school. And the difference really… Well, what would have made the difference there is finances, it’s money. A lot of the issues could be solved by a few dollars here and there. The main challenges I was up against was actual art materials, was the space to make the art, was the resources. Once you have the money, those problems are solved.
In the United States, when I became a professor, the problem I faced the most was a problem of agency. And that I loosely define as is this thing for me? The students, a lot of them didn’t feel like making art was… Nevermind being possible, it’s possible, but just for someone else. And so a lot of my teaching was geared towards having students not only believe that it’s for them, but making projects that reinforce that belief. And there are very few things more encouraging than a few dollars in your bank account.
In Canada, it is the students I teach now, it is a equivalent of a community college. And the students I teach are adults, and they want to be professionals, and they need tangible results. The difference in Canada is students are a little more responsible because they’re a little school older. But they just need the resources. They need to know when and where what’s happening. A lot of my job is just finding things for my students to enter, finding outlets for them.
In Jamaica, it is a straight financial barrier. In the US, it is a problem of agency a lot of the time. And in Canada now, it’s a matter of finding and connecting the students to the resources.

Maurice Cherry:
I found when I talked to some educators here in the States that teach at HBCUs, it’s a combination of those things that you mentioned. If they’re teaching on HBCUs, it’s often the lack of funds and resources as well as the agency, depending on what program it is or how many people are in the department and such. It’s interesting how the problems scale based on not just country, but also just where you’re teaching and the students that you’re teaching, the type of students you’re teaching.

Kamar Thomas:
That’s correct. The agency is a rather complicated problem because it’s not an individual problem. You can’t really solve it by one student, you have to get the whole class to want to do well. And as a result, the individual will do well within that, so you have to set the expectation and then you have tom in a way, make it known that what they’re doing is hard, and it’s supposed to be hard, and see if you can get them on board for the difficulty. It’s a really delicate dance. But the US, that was the problem I faced, and hopefully I rose to the challenge. And I apologize to the students if I have not.

Maurice Cherry:
Do your students take you up on office hours?

Kamar Thomas:
Yes, they do. Because drawing is a bit like singing where it’s your voice, with drawing it’s your hand, it feels, and it’s your art, it’s what you are trying to say, a lot of the things that I give in class, it feels like I’m attacking them personally. They take up the office hours to tell me that I shouldn’t have attacked them personally. And then we have sessions to show them, no, it’s not you, it’s understanding of the subject matter that we’re doing is not quite there yet. This is what you’re doing. You’re over here. I need you to get to here.
An example of that would be I’m teaching measuring things, just measuring, and I’m I say, “You draw a line, a straight line, a perfectly vertical line and then you measure every other angle from that.” If I say picture a 90 degree angle, you have that in your head. If you cut that in half, you have a 45 degree angle. If you’re looking at a line, you can guess what that angle is because you know what 90 is and you know what 45 is. If it’s below 45, you can say, “Oh, that’s about 30,” et cetera.
And what students do, they don’t do that, they just guess. They just put it down, it looks right, and they come to office hours and say, “Hey, you were picking on me.” And I said, “I knew you guessed because you immediately put down something before attempting… Before I even finished the sentence.” Yeah, they take up office hours, they get extra time at the beginning.
Now, at the advanced level, when they’re about to graduate, they want to know if there’s a gallery showing, which ones I should contact. If there’s an art festival, how do I get in? What do I do now? I’m about to be out there. What do I do now? And I have a whole packet for them. I have what’s the steps that they take. What are the expectations? I break out the spreadsheet. Rent is $1,500. If you sell for $500, you need to sell three every month. You need to contact 10 people every month as a result. It’s 30 days in a month. If you do one every other day, you’ll get to 10; three of them might buy. And if you do this over a year, you won’t run out of money. That’s what my office hours are for.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, back when I was teaching… Oh my goodness, this might have been over 10 years ago. I started off teaching in person, and then I asked to be moved to teach online because my students were wearing me out. One, well, my students were all older than me, and so a lot of them tried to think that they would punk me because they’re like, “You’re my son’s age.” And I’m like, “So? I will fail you if you don’t get these assignments right.” Some of them would ask me to… They would bring their kids to class and they would try to use office hours as babysitting. They would have their kid come to office hours. And I’m like, “Where’s your mom?” And they’re like, “I don’t know.” What am I supposed to do? I’m not running daycare over here. And I asked to be moved online because I was like, I can’t keep coming out here and fooling what y’all doing this stuff.
And online is just different because the students just have to have more discipline. And again, this was 10 years ago, pre-pandemic. Now where I think everyone’s used to doing virtual work. Just trying to get them to have the discipline to just say something in the forum, just participate in class. Because there was a participation element to their grade. And then when they have office hours, it’s just like, “Well what can I do to make up for the time that I wasn’t speaking?” I’m like, “You can’t. You can’t make up participation. There’s no extra credit for participation. You didn’t speak up. That was it.” Trying to do anything they could just to pass. I would have students that would try to justify why they thought it was okay cheating because the class was online. And if the class wasn’t online and Wikipedia wasn’t there, then why would it be available as a resource? They’re very creative.
I was teaching a… It was basically principles of web development to business students, which was probably why they were so duplicitous, because it wasn’t design students, they were business majors that just needed a credit. They didn’t really care to learn, they were just like, “What can I do to get past you?” Essentially. And it would be just so disheartening because I would have students that would fail my class two and three times coming back doing the same stuff, and it’s like, “Do you want me to just pass you out of pity? Because it’s getting there. It’s hurting me to see you doing the same stuff. The assignment has not changed from semester to semester. I would think you would be better at it because you’ve done it before.” Yeah,. I do miss teaching though, I just don’t miss all of that, I don’t miss all of that.

Kamar Thomas:
Some people you’re not going to get when you are in… What is it? The lower school levels of everybody, and everybody’s decent. But as soon as you go to high school and you’re high school as 2,000 people, you know at least one or two crazy people, just absolute… You see them, you cross the street.
In teaching, some people it might be they might not make it. It might be that they, for whatever reason, their motivation, they’re unwilling to do the work; and that’s fine. I do my absolute best to not take it in any way personal. I actually take it as a point of pride to produce the same professionalism, no matter what the student comes with. And I treat them extra, extra nice just to make the D or the E that they’re about to get a bit more palatable. But I’m-

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, did you say D or E?

Kamar Thomas:
Listen, there’s no time machine. You’re going to fail this class. It’s over for you.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait. There’s a grade that’s a E?

Kamar Thomas:
There’s a F.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Kamar Thomas:
It exists, but I explain in great detail, the grades that are coming, and I explain the connection. And I try and point out what they can do next time, provided and they take it again. And I make it really long, and it takes a long time for me to do it. When they come back the next time I say, “Remember that long list I sent you? You haven’t done it. You showed up when there was three weeks remaining in the semester and you were asking me to perform a miracle, but I am merely a teacher. I am not the Lord. I cannot turn the water into wine. I’m sorry, I can’t make time return itself.” If you plan on making it, you have to come to a certain number of them to get participation. A lot of it is merely giving people the benefit of the doubt that they’ll try again and not taking it personally. And I’m going to be honest; it’s been really difficult.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine. I can imagine.

Kamar Thomas:
It’s very, very difficult. But again, systematize. I’ve seen it before now. I’m actually mad if it bothers me at all when I see the second time. I always think you’ve seen this before. You really [inaudible 00:21:30]. You see it’s not the first person that has come in three weeks before. Go look for the three weeks before folder, search to your computer. Oh, here it is. Oh yeah, this is what I said. Got it. And then I go and set out the template.
And that way, again, because in the US, agency was the problem, I always wanted to preserve the idea that this person felt like what I was teaching was theirs. And so I would try and be excruciatingly kind, the kind of understanding, “Oh, you’re still going to fail, but it’s an understanding fail.” It’s with love, it’s with kindness, it’s with accountability. And I think if the students have changed me in any way, I’ve become way more understanding and way more empathetic. Still going to failure you, though, but way more empathetic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I get it. Sometimes I know students are going through a lot, and you try to do as much as you can. You want to get them to the level where they hopefully are understanding and doing it for themselves, and then sometimes you just don’t have that. But I think as educators, you and I both realize that it comes with the territory.

Kamar Thomas:
Unfortunately, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit and talk more about you. I think, as folks can probably tell by now with the quiet storm voice, that you’re from Jamaica. Tell me what it was like growing up there.

Kamar Thomas:
I’m from port Antonio in Jamaica. Place called Boundbrook, which is near the town of Port Antonio. Yeah, it’s called Stony Hill. As the name suggests there are stones. It’s a hill in areas. Not forest. There are trees, lots of them. There are dogs wandering on your properties. That’s your dog now. My neighbors knew all of my business. It’s a small place and it’s…
My parents, man, they did a great job. They did what they were supposed to do. And as a result, I felt like I could… Not only was I supposed to do well in school, but it was like, yeah, when I pass any exams and I come home with some a good report, all right, that’s nice, but we were expecting this. And that environment, I think, is what I credit for my trying so hard at anything.
Growing up there, our national heroes are all Black people. Every teacher I ever had was a woman. The prime minister was a woman at the time. When I came to the US and the term African American or Black had anything negative attached to it, I was very, very surprised, to say the least, because we don’t really have any negative connotations towards a Black identity in Jamaica at all when I was growing up. Things may have changed. But when I was growing up, we didn’t.
I come to the US and, oh. In Jamaica, you’re a man, and you come to the US, you’re a Black man. What does that mean? And my work is a direct result of trying to answer that question exactly. What does that mean exactly? And the answer for me was to expand what I think Black identity is, to expand what identity is in general. And to do that, I make a whole bunch of paintings that refer to my identity on the one hand, but also does so in a more abstract way. I make a whole bunch of paintings that are abstract, but they’re real, and I’m trying to say identity is abstract and also real.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first get into art and painting?

Kamar Thomas:
Ah, so that is a really good question. In Jamaica, we have, when we leave school, they’re called Caribbean examination council exams. Everything is exam-based. And I took art in these exams, and I got just a little bit below the best, so I was into art in high school.
As a profession, absolutely not. That’s not in the tables. That’s not a thing. It was at my university I met my painting professor; her name was Tula Telfair. She was born Capon. She had long hair. She wore Prada dresses. I don’t know if it was Prada dresses, I just know these dresses were expensive. And she got oil paint on them and it didn’t bother her. And she drove an Audi, a blue one that sounded like a hair dryer. And she could paint quite a bit.
And I was thinking to myself, I understand being a professor pays, but you’re not buying an Audi from professor money. And I actually asked her, I got up courage, “Hey man, how you sell these paintings? How does this work?” And she’s like, “Well, you have to get very, very good and go take the classes you need. And we can talk about it when you get into the class.” And I did. I took the classes that was needed. And while I was painting with her, she just treated me and all the other students as if we were already professionals.
Now, to many people, she was mean, but it’s a very specific thing where she wants you to be ready. As soon as you step out, she wants you to be already ready. And so she would come into this studio and say if she were a curator and she gave me a show, she’d take it back immediately. I need to be painting way more than this, and then just leave me to contemplate what she just said. She would come in and just really treat me like an equal, to be honest, treat me like, “Look, when you graduate, nobody going to know what this is. This is not fun and games. You really need to be making the work consistently and professionally.” And somewhere along the line, it just happened that I felt like I was a professional. It was very gradual, but a few well placed curse words got it into my head that one should be a professional, treat it you would like any other job. It was really in college.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s get back more into you, into your background. Was your family really supportive of you getting into art?

Kamar Thomas:
That is such an interesting question. Supportive is a strong, strong word. My father is an EMT, and before that he was a fireman. He’s out here saving lives. My mom was the secretary to the dean of a college in Jamaica. This serious working people. And they send their son to America definitely not to paint, definitely not.
I’m there. Initially, I was doing physics, and it went okay, but I decided, okay, if I attack the painting with the same consistency I was doing physics, I might be able to make it work. And I, behind their back, just major in art. Don’t tell nobody. Get down to business. And it’s time to graduate now. And I call them up and I go, “Hey, the graduation is nice, but it’s me and 700 people. Nobody cares. Why don’t you come to this thing I’m having called an exhibition?” And they came and I made some sales, but I told the people, “Could you wait and give me the money in the exhibition so that my parents could see that I’m out here making it?” And they did. And they’ve been supportive ever since.
They’ve been supportive of me as a person, but because I hid it initially from them, as an artist, after I graduated, they were on board. And they have the ordinary fears. All parents are afraid that their children will perpetually depend on them until they’re 60. Parents live like, “When are you going to grow up?” And once I demonstrated that I got this, I’m fine, then they were very happy. Then it was like, all right, relax, mom. You don’t have to tell this lady that’s doing your nails. Then it’s a matter of holding them back right.
But before that, if you’re an artist listening, your parents are afraid you are going to be broke. Avoid it at all costs and you will be supported. And then you’ll have the problem of having them… Telling them to relax on the support a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
What made you decide to go to Wesleyan for school?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, so I got into medical school in Jamaica. Got into the University of the West Indies. I’m 17 years old applying to things, my dad’s an EMT I saw those medical books. And my dad has been going on, ambulances, picking people up, so I was barely familiar with what medicine actually means. And I thought to myself at 17 years old, nah, can’t do that.
And I was in this program for… I don’t want to say gifted. It was the Association of Quietly Excellent Scholars and Thinkers, AQUEST was the name of it. Just a group of people who met. And they said, “Apply to some colleges in the US. They give scholarships.” And I applied to a few and a few said yes. And I picked Wesleyan because it gave the most.
I went blindly with not very much information. These are the days of, of course, paper applications and paying for internet at internet cafes for half an hour at a time. The kinds of research that people do today, not possible. The virtual tours and the flying in and doing it, that’s not a thing. It’s you see a name, all right, it’s in Connecticut. How much of a flight is that? Okay. All right, apply, see what happens. And what happened was they called me and said, “Hey, you’ve been accepted.” And I go, “Great. What does that mean?” “It means you’re going to get a visa and come and you live here before.” “Oh, all right.” It was more of I need to get an education, and medicine at 17, at 18 is rough. That choice was too difficult, so let me go to a liberal arts school and figure out another path.

Maurice Cherry:
And what was that path? Of course, it was art, but tell me about that.

Kamar Thomas:
Initially, it was physics. In general, I really like excellence of any kind, but I really was into all of the great physicists, Faraday and Einstein and Niels Bohr. I read these people’s biography. I loved the mathematician, Riemann’s hypothesis. I was reading that. I was just in the library reading up about people, with their mind, with their head, they were doing things. And that kind of a thing was impressive to me because I’m nearsighted so physical feats, they were impressive, but they were hard. I wasn’t going to catch anybody. Got glasses and sorted that out. But what really wowed me was sitting into the library and reading. Wait a minute, this guy, Newton, came up with the theory of gravity and figure out white light is made up of all the other colors and invented calculus, and then he turned 26. Whatever he’s doing, I need to have some of this. These people were what were impressive people to me.
And then I went to college and I found out what professional physics was, which is you write some code and you run a model and then you refine the code and then you run the model. If you are a professor and you’re at the end, if you can manage a tenure position, you have a grad student write parts of the code and run the model. It’s not this romantic notion of sitting down and solving the kinds of universal questions I was hoping for. It was more of can you learn to code? And can you learn the math? And can you learn the math to tell it to code?
And so I figured that out around my second year when it was time to decide a major. And I was doing some drawing and I said, “If I actually flipped a coin, flipped it, heads, I stay with physics, tails, I go with arts.” It was tails. I then went, “This can’t be real,” so I went online and I took a random question answer generator, and it ended up with art as well. I said, “All right, I’ll go with art.”

Maurice Cherry:
What?

Kamar Thomas:
That’s what it was. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You just left it up to chance, huh?

Kamar Thomas:
Left it up. Because again, I figured… Let me put it in perspective.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Kamar Thomas:
There was a guy in my classroom, his name is Zin Lin. He was from Burma. He skipped both levels of calculus, and multi-variable calculus, and was the TA of the physics class while he was taking it. And there was fives Zin Lins in my class of 20 people. And there are people who they’ve been doing physics so long, they are as good at physics as Mozart is as good at music. These people are good, good. You’re not going to catch them in your lifetime.
And I was working an extreme amount just to… I would get 92%, and that would be a B because somebody got 108% and the A was moved up to 108%. It’s this kind of environment where the effort I’m putting in, I’m thinking if I apply this work ethic to basket weaving, I’m going to have some amazing baskets.
And again, I was already doing… It’s not a random pick, it was something that I was already doing. I was taking languages, and I’m doing art at the same time, art and art history all at the same time. And I figure if I threw myself at this art the way I’m doing at physics, I’m going to be all right, I’m going to be cool. And that’s why I was comfortable leading up to chance. For those listening, that’s not wise. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. If you already have an arena of proven work ethic, go for it. But if not, then put some more thought.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re attending Wesleyan, you’re majoring in art, and you graduated. After you graduated, you ended up going back to Jamaica for a while, and then you ended up coming back to the States. Tell me about that time.

Kamar Thomas:
I graduated, and I just couldn’t come up with the money to move to New York so I stayed near that the school and worked at a little supermarket, sold paintings and again realized… really figured out that I don’t have a gallery, I don’t have a curator backing me. I have no critics looking at my work. I’m just a guy out here, but I need to eat. And so I would, for jobs that I was applying to that were arts related, I would send them what I was working on and just let them know that I painted as well and let them know what it was about very quickly. And many of them would respond, and I wouldn’t get the job, but they’d buy a painting or they’d refer me to somebody else, and they would buy a painting. I figured out pretty early, if you tell people, they will buy.
Then, of course, my visa expired and I had return to Jamaica where I was hired as an art teacher at my old high school. Taught 8, 9, 10th, and 11th grade. And then after that, while I’m in art school, I’m doing the same thing I did, just whenever I had to email somebody or whenever I met someone and I took their number, I just told them that I painted. And it worked the same way in the US, it worked in Jamaica. Somebody was like, “You paint. I never met an artist before.” Said, “Well, now you have. Would you send them what I’ve done?” And I sold paintings. And people would pay me in installments, so they’d pay a little this week and then another bit next week in Jamaica, and that allowed me to save up the money to apply to graduate school. Came to graduate school, did pretty much the same thing. And I’ve been doing it since.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it seems like you always had your eye on the prize when it comes to that, which is good. Even though you were doing other things like teaching and stuff, you still were telling yourself and other people, “I am an artist.”

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. I think around half of the battle is just showing up and making the work and committing to telling people. Around half, which seems like an exceptionally large percent but the thing is, if you continually tell people, you are going to need to show them something that you’ve told them about, which is going to make you want to continue to paint. And the more you paint, the more you want to tell people, and it starts this virtuous cycle of making something, talking about it. And the more you talk about it, the more you make, the more you make, the more you talk about it.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s also just keeping that dream in the forefront. It’s not about having whatever the weight of reality or the weight of the world kill that idea for you. You still had it in the front of your mind, I am an artist, I am an artist. You’re telling people, you’re doing it. I think that’s just a powerful thing for people to keep in mind as they go through whatever it is they’re going through as part of their creative journey; keep the dream at the forefront and keep striving towards that.

Kamar Thomas:
I was raised as a rather religious person, and in the church, they have daily bread. They have daily readings, daily Bible texts. And as a young child, this is bothersome. This is a problem. You’re up every day? kind of a thing. And I applied that same concept to my artwork, which is the daily reminders and daily things and daily… not affirmations, but something entirely dedicated to reminding me that I can probably be better but also looking back at what I’ve already done to give myself the permission to just do a little bit more. All around my house, I have all kinds of… Well, I have paintings that I’ve made, so I see them every day.
But I also have whiteboards here and there. And I’ll write a quote that I want to keep repeating. And one of them, the most recent one I have written is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. I didn’t realize that that’s where that came from until you asked me that question, but it’s the idea that you have to do something every day to remind, to get yourself to do it so that inevitably when you don’t feel like doing it, you’ve had 47 days of reminding yourself of the importance and looking back at what you’ve done so much, for how much you’ve done so far. And you eventually will just keep making stuff just because you’re in the habit of reminding yourself.
The same with exercise. I haven’t really missed a workout in years. And when I have to miss one, I feel it because when I get up, I exercise. I don’t even think about it. I get up, I exercise, them’s the rules. The same, I get up, I exercise, and before I leave, I have to see this thing that I wrote down with my hand. I’m surrounded by paintings that I like, so it’s a constant reminder. I think that’s really key when you’re pursuing something that is a creative risk, to constantly and regularly remind yourself and encourage yourself because outside is not going to do it. There is no reassurance coming. You have to provide it for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s get more into your particular art style and your process. Based on what I can see from your website, I feel like after you came back to the States from Jamaica, this is when you really started to come into your own as an artist, not just in words, but in deeds as well by the actual paintings that you’ve created. Tell me about your process. What inspires you to make the art that you do in this fashion?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, so the main inspiration was the difference of being a Black man from Jamaica to the US and trying to work out what identity means and trying to make something that says it’s a little bit more complicated than you think. And what changed in graduate school was I more clearly could articulate what the art was supposed to do and I could use better metaphors. I could talk about it better is really what changed. And talking about it better is a function of thinking about it better and more clearly.
The change I want to make was I want someone to look at whatever identity they occupy as something that’s within their control. That sentence took two years of making artwork that I didn’t like to figure out. It took two years of trial and error and critiques in graduate school.
And once you have a clear direction, then I choose from the tools that are available to me. Oil paint I can paint really realistically or I can paint really abstractly or I can use technology to manipulate how an audience interacts with that artwork. And I make series of paintings that are somewhere between really abstract or close to realistic to walk people painting by painting through the idea that your identity can also be… Sure, it can be tangible, it can be reifined, it can be reaffirmed, but it’s also changeable by you. What changed in graduate school was I refined the message a lot more.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you have a connection with one of our other guests on the show, Bennie F. Johnson. He’s the executive director currently of AIGA. How did you two connect?

Kamar Thomas:
After I graduated but before I graduated, a parent of one of the students graduating was walking by the cafeteria, and they had some paintings of mine in there. And she Googled me and contacted me and said, “Hey, I’m in the art business. I’d like to have a conversation.” And we had that conversation. And she introduced me to Bennie. And we went down to DC and I painted Bennie and his wife and hung out with his kids. Wow, those kids must be grown by now that I’m thinking about it, probably. He was really little boy and really little girl, but now they must be big.
Yeah. I made two paintings of him and his wife. And I actually painted their face with face paint with the kids. But the kids are just rough with the face paint while stabbing daddy with the paint brush. I’m like, “You have to be gentle. Just paint a little bit at a time.” And just attacking his face. And same, his wife Akira, I believe is her name, [inaudible 00:46:26], painted her as well I painted them both. I painted a pair of paintings, and I delivered it. And I believe it’s still in their home to this day. It was a lovely experience, and I thanked them for trusting me to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
He texted me the photos. They’re really something. I know the photos don’t do justice to your work, but they’re really striking

Kamar Thomas:
Again, remember I’m from Jamaica, I’m from this hill in Jamaica.

Maurice Cherry:
Stone Hill.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, Stony Hill. Washington, DC may as well be Mars. It may as well be a different planet. This is a place where people work in the government and people talk about the Capitol. And people are like, the president’s going to be… White House down there, and this is an Anacostia. And this is professional. He’s driving around and telling me about all this, and my world is expanding. And I thank him quite a lot for that, just telling me about the history of the place and the residents that were there and the kinds of just work that people do.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, Bennie wanted me to ask you a question. When I talked with him, I told him I was interviewing you. He’s like, “Oh yeah,” and he texted me the photos. Bennie wanted me to ask you about how you use the Black figure and abstraction in your work.

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. When I came to college in 2008, around ’08, ’09-ish was when occupy Wall Street happened. And it was activisty, activist town, activist everything. I arrived in the United States in 2014. And if I remember correctly, that was when one of the first big public police shootings happened. It was just bam, I stepped out of the airport, and then the shooting happened. It was on TV. And it was very much in the air, the making of work that was overtly describing the Black experience as well as it is lived by many in the United States. And I said to myself, “They don’t need anymore negative portrayals of Black people.” I understand, I get it fully what’s happening, but I think… What’s his name? Do you know the book Between the World and Me?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yeah.

Kamar Thomas:
Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yeah. If I’m a writer, he got it. He nailed it. He got it. I don’t need to write another one like that. I think he has it. I said the same with my paintings. I think when I look through what’s being made right now, I think they got it. I don’t think if I say something, it will be nearly as impactful as if I really focus on this idea of agency, of mutability, of aspiration. And I think now more than ever is when it’s needed.
Never say never, but for the most part, I look at the Black figure… I want, when I’m an old man and my memory’s going in the art history books, they see images of representation that are complex, that are layered, that are nuanced, that are not only in relationship to whiteness, that are exploring the same way every other artist gets to explore. And so that’s how I use the Black figure. Complicated. Take its place, like everybody else.

Maurice Cherry:
Masks are a regular theme in a lot of your work. Tell me about that.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. Masks are a metaphor that I return to. And masks in the Caribbean… In Toronto, they recently had this big carnival called Caribana. It’s where one gets to put on a mask and put on a costume and go outside and essentially simulate sex through dancing, essentially, to a beat. And that’s only acceptable if you’re wearing this costume. You can’t just do this at your day job. You can’t pull up to accounts receivable and start doing this behavior.
And I use and I think about masks in that way. It allows you to occupy an identity that gives you privileges, that gives you the ability to act in a way that you ordinarily wouldn’t. And you don’t have to keep it forever. You can change it. And so masks, as a notion of identity is look, of course you are who you are, you’re born or you’re born, but if, when it comes to making art, if you view all of it as yours and like you’re supposed to be there, suddenly where you take influence from is much wider. If you view that the creative production is for you, then telling people about it is not that big a deal. If you think that you are supposed to be passing this class, that your identity is, yeah, pass classes. Then chances are, you’re going to work to pass that class.
Masks are this wonderful metaphor that I keep going back to, I keep finding nuances. Mask can conceal things. You can put it on, you can rob somebody, you can get away with it. Masks can review things. You can wear a mask for ritual purposes to act in ways to enter into states like trances, to enter into states, well, at carnival, et cetera. And masks, with the pandemic, went from being something to protect other people from getting infected with COVID to protecting yourself, to being a status symbol, to… The meaning of it changed over time, so I’ve been fascinated by this concept of masks.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you talked earlier about this exhibition that you had recently. How did it go? Tell me about it.

Kamar Thomas:
It went okay. What I did was I rented a gallery and just paid them the rent for a week and told as many people as I could about it. And people came and purchased the work. It was undertaking because when you pay for the gallery, you have to do everything. You have to show up and hang the work and sweep out the gallery and paint the wall and nail in the painting onto the wall and set up the lights. But from a introducing Toronto to my work perspective, it went swimmingly because one does it. I can show you better than I can tell you. It was a matter of inviting people. Many of them were new to Toronto. And I sell my art mostly to people who have never really bought art before, so it was a great success in that way. I got many, many people who didn’t even think of themselves as people who buy artwork to buy art and to think about it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s awesome, that’s awesome. I’m glad that it was really successful for you in that way.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you planning on doing another exhibition this year? Or surely in the future, you’re planning on doing something.

Kamar Thomas:
In the future, yes. My time for the next couple months is taken up with the book and with… I’m going to be the coordinator of the program I’m teaching at Centennial, so it’s a lot of emails and a lot of tours and a lot of interviews, et cetera is coming up.
But next year I’m planning to… I’ll be painting the whole time. Next year, I have anywhere from five to 10 exhibitions that I’m putting into the calendar. But I’m going to be producing the work to get that done now next year, 2023, by January, the book will be out. By March, I’ll have at least one exhibition. By June, I’ll have another. By July, I’ll have another. By August, I’ll have another. And if my papers are right, I might have one or two in Jamaica as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, you got a plan. That’s good.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, I have a plan, but saying man makes plans, God laughs, because COVID really.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, well, that’s true, that’s true.

Kamar Thomas:
Here there’s a whole monkeypox coming on the scene.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kamar Thomas:
We can’t get a break in this century.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that you ultimately want to convey with your work?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. Ultimately, I want people to see art as something that is for everybody. And I want them to see it as a decent job. Now, will you get rich doing it? Probably not. That being said, will you get rich doing anything? Probably not. It’s not more difficult than anything else.
I want people with looking at my work to understand and think through their identity as something that they get to pick. I want to overall increase agency in the world. Increase not just confidence, but the idea of possibility.
My largest challenge is getting students to not just believe that they can do what I’m asking, but that they’re supposed to do what I’m asking, and they’re supposed to do it well. If you look at identity, there is… I think Ben Akerlof, he’s an economist, and he says identity is one of the most significant economic decisions that someone can make. That means when you pick your identity, you pick what clothes you’re going to buy, you pick what shoes you wear, what colleges you can get into, what person you can marry, what neighborhood you’re going to live. And I want people, after having consumed my work, see the significance of those decisions and see that they have much more agency over them. They have way more power.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your younger self, let’s say your 16 year old self, when you look back at him, what advice would you give him?

Kamar Thomas:
Oh man, that’s such a really good question. At 16 years old, I was honestly not listening to nobody. You weren’t going to tell me I’m not going to be pretty good at physics. You weren’t going to tell me I’m not going to be pretty good at anything.
At 16 years old, well, I would actually say go to the dance, is what I would say. When I was in college, they had these things called winter dances. And I was a member of the ASA, African Student Association, and they had a dance. And every year they would ask me, “Just come practice for the dance and do it on the night.” And I would go, “No, I have to paint. I have this problem set to do.” And I never did the dance, never did the dances because, again, your undergraduate was so hard I never did them.
And it was in graduate school I realized how much I missed by not doing the dance, how much outside of class relationships I could have formed if I did the dance, if I just went through the thing and practiced and maybe gotten 98% instead of 100%. You still get an A. I realized at that time, because when I started selling paintings, I realized the need and the importance of human relationships. That’s most of life. Life is group work, is what life is.
I would tell my 16 year old self, A, just go to the dance. Sure, be focused, but you don’t have to be all that focused. Go to the dance. You will have a good time. You’ll form human connections. And when they need help, you’re going to be able to help them. And when you need help, they’re going to be able to help you. But go to the dance is what I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of where you’re at in your career as a painter, as an educator, now as an author, how do you define success?

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. I was talking to someone earlier about this concept. I woke up when I was 26 years old and I realized that I had all that I wanted. I wanted to be a painter, and that’s what I did most of the time, most of my days. I applied for a professor job, and I was working as a professor at 26.
Success for me was spending my time doing and utilizing God’s gifts as they have been bestowed to me. And I can learn pretty quickly and I can teach fairly well and I can paint, and I do all of these with most of my time. Success is doing or using the gifts that you have for most of your time. Doesn’t have to be all the time now. We all have to pay taxes and commute to work; most of the time. And for me, I have all I want.

Maurice Cherry:
Given that, and you’ve sort of, I guess, already teased this out a little bit, but where do you see yourself in the next five years? What work do you want to be doing? Any bigger projects or anything like that?

Kamar Thomas:
Whenever I run into any new medium, I try and figure it out and do a project in that medium. Now I’m looking into AR, so Instagram filters and Snapchat filters, provided Snapchat still alive as a company. Those are the kinds of AR that everyone would be familiar with. Augmented reality is what AR stands for. And I’m thinking that this can be a really strong addition to my work. And I’m thinking if I can figure this out, if I can learn that small bit of code… I’m taking a class here and there. In four or five years, I will have two, three projects tying technology and the art that I’m doing.
When I moved in Quebec, all of my friends were concept artists, and they worked in the entertainment industry designing monsters and trying to tell stories. And a part of my job now as a professor is I found myself helping people become illustrators and helping them learn to design those monsters. And as such, I’m looking at them watching much more stories, so there might be some short films in the mix. There might be some form of narrative in the mix.

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

Kamar Thomas:
You can find me at kamarthomas.com, or you can find me on Instagram at O-H-K-A-M-A-R. As mentioned earlier, I was a flowery languaged young man, and I got the sentence, “Oh, Kamar,” quite a bit so I made that my Instagram handle. And you can find me at those two places primarily, or if you type my name, Kamar Thomas, into Google, I am proud to say you will find me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Kamar Thomas, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, I think just like your energy, you really just come across as very self-assured and cool as well as artistic. But I think also just telling your story of coming from Jamaica and always putting your artwork and the work that you’re doing and who you are as an artist at the forefront as you’ve went through life I think, one, it’s granted you the success that you have now, but I think it’s just a really great example to set for others out there that can hopefully do the same thing. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kamar Thomas:
Perfect. Thank you. Thank you so much. It was a privilege and an honor.

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Dr. Perry Sweeper

Avid listeners of the podcast know that whenever I have a Black design educator on the show, eventually I’m going to bring up my alma mater, Morehouse College. And while I’ve had a few Morehouse alums on the show in the past, I’m really excited to have an actual Morehouse faculty member — Dr. Perry Sweeper — as a guest this week. Has Morehouse leveled up since I was a student there *cough cough* years ago?

After a quick summer check-in, we talked about Morehouse’s software engineering major, and about how it feels teaching at a school with such a historic reputation. From there, Dr. Sweeper told the story about growing up in Baltimore, attending Morgan State University, and how his post-grad career led him into education. With great minds like Dr. Sweeper teaching the next generation, I think we’re going to be in good hands for the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Hi. My name is Dr. Perry Sweeper. I’m a Professor of Practice at Morehouse College. I’m a designer, an educator, and a researcher.

Maurice Cherry:
What is a Professor of Practice? What does that mean?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So there are different levels at universities. There are Adjunct Professors, who maybe teach one or two classes. There are also people who are on the tenure track, who might be in the Assistant Professor ranks. A Professor of Practice, by my definition, is someone who comes in from industry to teach a particular class or classes for a university.
And one of the benefits of having someone in a Professor of Practice role, is they’re someone who’s both working in industry and academia at the same time, so they can give you a right now experience, from the perspective of a person working in the field, for the students.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That makes sense. So it’s not like someone that’s a career academic essentially?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Correct.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. I got you. I was thinking, I know that there’s some trade schools I know that do that. I think the art institutes do that as well. They’ll have people who are actually working professionals, but then they also will teach courses and stuff.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So how’s the summer going for you so far?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
It is busy. It’s really busy. It’s good. I’m going to try to take some time to rest before classes start in a couple of weeks, but it’s going well.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you ready for the upcoming school year?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. I am. I’m ready to talk to students again, interact with students again. I have some things that I want to do as far as the syllabus is concerned or the curriculum, some tweaks I want to make, but other than that, I’m fully prepared and ready to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Speaking of school, you teach at Morehouse College, and listeners of this show know I am an alumnus of Morehouse College. You started in the 2021 school year. I’m just curious, how has it been teaching during the pandemic?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
It has been extremely interesting because you have to be agile and flexible, and in your work role, in the way that you assign, you also have to be transparent as well and you have to be empathetic to what’s going on with the students. So during that time, I tried to make sure that I was thinking about what was going on and also trying to get a cadence of where the students were physically, mentally, and emotionally because some of them were stuck at home and not able to come to campus, or they came to campus and they had to leave. There were so many different things going on personally with the students, so it was a really, really interesting time. I think it is actually a time where it felt like we were really, really far apart, but I think it brought the campus community closer together in a way.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you haven’t been to the campus yet though, have you?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
No, I haven’t.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, you got to come down to Atlanta and come to the campus. I don’t live that far from Morehouse actually.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Oh, awesome. Yeah, I actually visited the Morehouse campus years ago, probably 10 or 15 years ago, but I haven’t been there since.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Morehouse is a college that has a distinct history, so I’ve heard a lot about it, read a lot about it. It’s actually an honor to be able to teach at the school.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s changed a lot since I graduated certainly, which is, my God, knocking on 20 years ago. Oh, my God, I just thought about that. I just did the math. I mean, the campus has changed a lot in terms of they’ve expanded in some ways. There’s a performing arts center now. They’ve got campus apartments and things like that. I think even the building where… You’re in the Computer Science Department I think pretty much, right?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Correct, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
So even the building where that is used to be… When I was there, the computer lab and all that stuff used to be in Wheeler, but you haven’t to campus, so you don’t know this. There used to be a Wheeler Hall, which is right near the entrance of Morehouse, and then they built the Technology Tower, which is where they moved it, which is kind of near Sale Hall and near Graves Hall, which is kind of near the big lawn on Morehouse’s campus, the great lawn on Morehouse’s campus. It’s nice if you get a chance to check it out. Actually, I don’t know if this is true, but you’ll have to tell me, does Mrs. Banks still work there?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Mrs. Banks?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
What’s the first name?

Maurice Cherry:
Martha. She’s the Administrative Assistant for the Computer Science Department.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I almost remember her retiring.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, man.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Don’t know if it’s the right person, but I’m not a good person to ask when it comes to… I know interacting with the department, I haven’t had a chance to interact with her.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
She was like my mom on campus. I was a math major, so most of my stuff was in Dansby I believe. I’m trying to remember the names of the dorm now that I’m thinking about it, or the names of the buildings. I think most of my stuff was in Dansby, but I was doing work study stuff, so I would always be in the computer lab. I would always be in Mrs. Bank’s office at the desk and everything. I don’t know if she still works there. I mean, I would imagine 20 years from now, probably not, because I think she had been there probably since the ’80s when I started, so I don’t know.
If she is still there, shout out to Mrs. Banks, who has been helping a generation of Black male technologists pass through that school. She is an unsung hero of Morehouse College.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Wow. While we’re shouting out Ms. Banks, who I’m going to look up by the way, we have to shout out all of the Administrative Assistants who were like moms and aunts at HBCUs.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
There’s always one. When you’re talking about Ms. Banks, I’m thinking of Ms. Brown. I’m thinking of countless others, and Ms. Ash in my experiences at HBCUs, so that’s really interesting to hear you talk about her.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about some of the courses that you’re teaching. What are you teaching at Morehouse?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Right now I’m teaching Human-Computer Interaction. Last summer, I also wrote a Data Visualization course as well, and so I’m looking to teach that very soon.

Maurice Cherry:
So you were telling me before we started recording that what you’re doing is kind of… Or at least the program in which you’re teaching is not really a department. It’s like an interdisciplinary studies program. Is that right?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. It’s experiential learning and interdisciplinary studies, and so there are various subjects in the department. I think that it’s a really innovative way to look at education. Morehouse is doing something very interesting as well because they’ve had some shifts in the way that they have designed their program, and even as I’m talking, very recently they’ve changed the structure, the departments, so departments, divisions, chairs, it’s really going to be more of a STEM-oriented environment, more so.
This will be the first semester that we’re under that structure, so I’m looking forward to that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you major in Design at Morehouse? I would imagine with this experiential learning and interdisciplinary studies, you can kind of mix and match kind of different fields of study. When I went there, and I’ve told this story countless times in presentations and stuff, I started at Morehouse in 1999, right around the early days of the web, and I remember telling my Computer Science professor there, Dr. Jones.
I started in a dual degree program doing Computer Science/Computer Engineering, and I remember going to him one day and telling him that I wanted to do Web design. I was interested in Web design. I had been doing view source on websites and stuff, and I told him about it. I remember him telling me that the Internet was a fad, and that if I wanted to study that, I would need to change my major because that’s not what we study here. He’s like, “We do hardcore computer science. We’re learning assembly. We’re teaching you how to be a programmer.”
I wanted to be a programmer, but just not, I guess, a computer programmer. I wanted to do Web design, and so I did end up changing my major, but I’m wondering now, since Morehouse went through all these shifts in curriculum and programs as you mentioned, is it possible now to major in design there?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
No, it’s not. There is an Art Program, and then there’s a Computer Science Program. So a lot of the students that I actually teach in Human-Computer Interaction are Software Engineering majors.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
And so you won’t get the design part, but my background is design, so I teach Human-Computer Interaction from a design standpoint or a UX-design standpoint because the fields are so closely knit. When you look at industry, typically when you look at the waterfall method of software design, you get an idea, you make it, and you give it to the users, and that’s it. Then you have agile and other methodologies where you’re constantly iterating on the design and speaking to users as you go along, so that what you actually produce is something that the users will actually want and need for what they’re doing.
So it’s really interesting to interact with computer science students and engineers because I take pride in bringing this perspective to them and teaching them about psychology and teaching them about doing interviews with your users and finding out about them and learning about the environment that those users are working in, whether they’re going to be looking at a computer screen for a very long time and they might need dark mode, or just a lot of different things. So it’s almost like looking at anthropology or ethnography and really getting to know the users.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really interesting that Morehouse has kind of branched out in that way. I mean, I knew that they had the art major, and I don’t know if they have any more art professors because the one professor they had I remember, Dr. Anderson, I believe he passed away. I’m pretty sure they might have another art professor now if they still have the major, but I often get asked from people when I tell them I went to Morehouse and because I’ve been a working designer for so long, they’re like, “Oh, did you major in design?” I was like, “No, I majored in math,” and they’re like, “What? How’re you a designer and you didn’t go to design school?”
That’s interesting. I would like to see Morehouse still have some kind of a design discipline of some sort because I feel like it’s something that the school is really greatly missing. I mean, they’ve got music. They’ve got so many other things. I just feel like one day, and I’m saying this probably partially out of vanity because I would like to come back and speak at Morehouse one day, but I can’t really speak to the Math Department because I don’t do math and I can’t speak to the Computer Science Department because I don’t do computer science, so yeah.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
We can make that happen now. We can make it happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s talk about that offline then. We’ll confer about that.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. It’s actually a desire of mine to one day see a design program at Morehouse as well, and so we’ll see how far we get that in the next five years.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been teaching at such a well known institution? Do you feel any kind of pressure or anything?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, Morehouse is looked at… As far as males and Black colleges and excellence and all of the alumni and graduates who are doing great things out there, it’s a lot of pressure as a professor because I’m not a Morehouse Man, but I take pride in having a hand in the education of a Morehouse Man. So being able to understand the history and the distinction behind it is, I think, integral in being a part of the campus in a way, and when I say the campus, I mean just the academic cadre of folks that are there.
I haven’t gotten to interact with certain professors there, like Dr. Muhsinah Morris, who’s doing Morehouse in the Metaverse, or the Metaversity. I’m teaching on Zoom, but in the next year or two, I want to transition to VR headsets and looking at a hybrid way to kind of teach on that campus, and she has been just integral in making sure that that happened during the pandemic. It’s just amazing to see that grow at the university as well.
We had the COVID and all of that. It’s terrible some of the things that happened during that time, but it’s just a great opportunity for innovation in academia.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know last year’s commencement took place in the metaverse. I got an email about that. I was like, “Oh, isn’t that something?”

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. It is. Actually it’s a direction we want to go in. We are partnering with different EdTech companies and trying to make sure that we are looking at education in a different way and making it available to more students.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, if you’re looking for some Black folks that are doing stuff in the metaverse, I can certainly introduce you to a few we’ve had on the show before.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Absolutely. Yeah, definitely. I would love to get those recommendations, and I will comb through it myself and look at it because your podcast is basically a place to go for research at this point. So I’ll definitely do that homework, and I’ll look at those recommendations.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the rest of the department like? Have you had a chance to work with any other professors? Or talk with any other professors?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. So the Division Chair, Dr. Kinnis Gosha, he’s been just integral in my development. He’s the one who posted the job, and so getting an opportunity to speak to him. He’s at the university. He’s an Endowed Professor, so he is been at the university for a while, and he runs the Culturally Relevant Computing Lab there, and so they’re doing some really interesting projects around Black male initiatives and technology. So being able to speak to him and Dr. Morris as well has been great.

Maurice Cherry:
Well man, you got to come down to the campus. I think you’ve got to come and spend at least a week on campus. Go to Crown Forum, see the King statue, definitely got to eat at Chivers. Got to eat at Chivers.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
You got to go through the Technology Tower. You got to go see the view of the grass. Don’t walk on the grass, that’s the one thing. There’s a big great lawn in front of Graves Hall, which is the main… When you see the Morehouse logo, that building, that’s Graves Hall. It’s a dormitory. Don’t walk on the lawn, it’s supposed to be bad luck. Especially if you didn’t go to Morehouse, it’s supposed to be bad luck. People play soccer on that lawn sometimes, but that was 20 years ago. I don’t know what it is like now. But you got to go and experience really not just Morehouse, but experience the AUC.
You said that you’ve been to Morehouse before though, right? Didn’t you say came here several years ago?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. So I came to Atlanta. I saw the campus. I saw some of the campus. I saw a lot of Dr. King monuments and different artifacts. So I’ve been down there, but it’s been a while. During the pandemic, I planned it once, and then, “Oh, COVID is high,” and it’s all these different things. So it’s been up and down, but I feel it. How can I teach at the university and not actually step on campus? I just feel I have to make it happen. I have to do that. Even if you do it virtually and you walk around campus with some Oculus VR headsets on, I got to go and look at some of these things that you’re referring to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, man. I’m telling you the AUC in the spring is lit. I mean, the Strip, which is this promenade. It’s mostly Clark Atlanta, but it connects Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, and Spelman. It kind of connects us together. I mean, in the springtime, I might be looking at this through filtered 20-year-old rose-colored glasses, but man, I’m telling you, springtime on the Strip is like none other. It’s paradise, just a cavalcade of positive Blackness as far as the eye can see.
People talk about a different world, and Hillman, which of course is based off of Morehouse and Spelman, it’s very much like that. Especially when Spelman opens up, and they have Market Fridays and you get to see Lower Manley and the steps and everything. Oh, it’s such an experience. I have pictures from that time because I was a photographer. Back then, I called myself a photographer, I had a digital camera. I just look back at that time like, “Oh, man. We were so young, just so crazy.”
It was such a wild time, and it’s funny because some of us now have went on to do great things in the world. The current Mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, we were in the same graduating class, in the same class.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
[inaudible 00:21:47].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So it’s really interesting. I don’t know. It’s funny because like I said, I don’t live that far from Morehouse. I don’t really go there because I don’t have a need to as an adult 20 years out of college, but it is right there in the neighborhood. It’s just good to know that it’s there and it’s still kind of doing great things in the community. So what do you learn from your students? What do they teach you?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Well, I had this project during COVID, and it was my attempt… So let’s go to Black Panther for a second. I’m super excited. November is coming, so we’re going to get… But there is this scene in Black Panther where they’re there and they go back, and they want to give this new technology to the United States, I perceive it as, that they’ve never seen before. You have the little kids, and they’re like looking at what looks like to them a spaceship or crazy looking car and this new technology, and their idea was to bring this innovative technology into this urban environment and see how it could improve.
So I thought about that in one of the projects that I gave. So the way that the course works, you learn the principles of the human-computer interaction during the first half of the semester, and as you learn those principles, you get small projects, but the students gain an understanding of what human-computer interaction is.
Then during the second part of the semester, they start putting those things into practice. So the project was to come up with a piece of technology that would be needed in a community like that, and I framed it based on that part of Black Panther. Just some of the projects that came out of that, so what did I learn from them? I learned where their minds are, where their focused at. I was just so, not surprised because I know they’re all bright students there, they teach me that all semester, but to see just a small example of the contribution that some of these students can make and will make in society, it’s amazing.
Some of the projects they came up with, for instance, was this one-line encyclopedia or anthology. So in 2020 and 2021, there are all kinds of things going on in the news and so forth and so on, so if you had to have a conversation or talk to someone about what was going on, a lot of people didn’t want to talk about it. Others wanted to talk about it, but they didn’t know how.
And so one of the students came up with this version of an online encyclopedia or resource, where it had all of these resources on things that were going on racially in the community, how to talk about it, different resources, and so he put his time into it. It’s a human-computer interaction class, so you don’t have to code it, but he went the extra mile and actually coded the site and put it up and running. Their projects, they always just blow me away, some of the things that they come up with.
So in the AUC, as you know, there’s Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, and Spelman, so I’ve had an opportunity to interact with Clark Atlanta students and Spelman students as well. I had a very large group of Spelman students in my class last semester, and it was just excellence. All of the projects, they were always on point. No matter what was going on, they were active in class, asking questions, so forth and so on.
They really, really teach me the greatness of this generation. In society we can go and look and say, “Oh, these kids don’t know anything about music and they’re doing this or doing that,” like generations before, but to see just excellence from the students is extremely encouraging.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I have a feeling that Spelman students are probably pretty good. I mean, probably better than Morehouse students, and I say that not out of rank comparison, but I keep bringing this back to my time there because that’s such a easy reference for me to pull from. But I mean, I went through a summer program before I started my freshman year, and I mean, the women at Spelman were just leaps and bounds above the guys at Morehouse. We were in a similar program. It was a NASA-funded program. I mean, just leaps and bounds. It was amazing, so I can only imagine.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. They’re exceptional.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s kind of switch gears here and learn more about you. Let’s learn more about your origin story. Tell me where you grew up.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So I grew up in Baltimore City, and I grew up not too far from Morgan State University where I later went to school. So as a kid growing up in Baltimore City, all the schools I went to were less than five miles apart. We call it Smalltimore here because it seems like you know someone who knows someone else, and you end up being related to folks that you didn’t know you were related to, or people know your parents and different things like that. So I grew up in Baltimore, Smalltimore. I didn’t know about design growing up, but I loved art, and so I grew up getting Disney Adventures magazines.
When I got older, I used to take my allowance and buy Vibes and XXL and Black Enterprise and all of those magazines, and I would really spend a lot of time in the house, dissecting those magazines, finding out who those people were. It got to a point where I was dissecting them. I was looking at them so in depth that I found out who was designing it and what their job titles were. So going from being an artist per se and drawing all the time, I learned about graphic design. I learned about design.
Fast forward to high school, I went to Baltimore City College High School in Baltimore. There was an opportunity at the school to do independent study when you’re in 12th grade, and so I took two semesters of independent study, drawing, doing artwork, producing a portfolio at that point. That’s how my career started from that point, learning about graphic design.
As I’m matriculating at Morgan State University, I got more into my program and started to get more interested in graphic design, I volunteered to work on the yearbook at the university. They were somehow behind in years, so it might have been the year 2003, and they were behind. They hadn’t given the graduating seniors from the 2001 or 2002 graduating year their yearbooks, so what they did was they contracted us students who had graphic design skills to actually design the yearbook, do all the layout, and make it look like it wasn’t a yearbook, make it look more like a magazine.
That was our objective, to make this interesting. They’ve been waiting a really, really long time, let’s make this good. So for about two or three years, I worked in that office. It was right across the hall from the newspaper office as well, and so before the offices became integrated and it became Student Publications, I worked separately, giving some extra effort to help out with the newspaper and also help out with the yearbook. So while I was learning, I was looking at other opportunities to gain experience while I was on that campus.
It’s like all of these things just kind of snowballed together because I gained an understanding of publication design and that particular office, the Office of Student Publications, was run by Ms. Denise Brown, who was one of those people that felt like your mother. And if she didn’t feel like your mother, she at least felt like your aunt, and she ran those offices and we produced those publications. We caught up, and she gave us other opportunities as well. One of the professionals who was helping out with that newspaper actually worked at the Washington Post, so we talked, and he said, “Keep in touch,” and I kept in touch with him.
So I graduated and after graduation, I got an email from him saying, “Hey, we got an opportunity for a person to come and be a Production Assistant at the Washington Post.” The Washington Post had a Washington Post magazine, and so at the Washington Post, I got to work on that Washington Post magazine, helping to layout those stories that go in it.
I worked in Student Publications, but everybody knows the Washington Post in the States, so it was huge for me to get that opportunity to work there and sit in that room and see news as it happens. Even though I was working on the magazine, I still was in the newsroom or near the newsroom, so I got to see all of that going on. So that is how my story kind of evolved to publication design and graphic design, and I call that my origin story.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s back up because you just took me through 20 years, so let’s back it up. I get the sense that definitely design was something that you were always into. Clearly you went into that with going into school. I want to hear about what the program was like at Morgan State because you were studying design. I guess this was right around maybe 2001, 2002-ish, something like that when you started?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I started in 2001, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
What was the design program like? Because I didn’t even know that… Again, I’m basing this off my experience with Morehouse, I didn’t know that any HBCUs even had design programs back then, so tell me what that program was like.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. Entering into that program, my first couple of years at Morgan I was taking general education classes, so I didn’t even get to the department until the end of my sophomore year or junior year. I didn’t really know what was going on, but when I got there, it was in bad shape. They had just let the building actually, and it was leaking and everyone was frustrated and the program didn’t have much money. It didn’t have a whole lot of support, and there weren’t enough professors teaching in it, so I walked into a department that was in chaos.
I think in 2003, they were moved to a brand new building. It’s called the Murphy Fine Arts Building. So, this was a state-of-the-art building, and it had a performance hall. Morgan is known for its choir. The choir is huge. They tour all over the world. People have successful careers as singers and musicians coming from the Morgan program, and so a lot of that building was built for that department. There were other two other departments there, the Theater Department and it was us, the Art Department.
And so our program was really focused. When you first enter in, they taught you the foundation. Even if you’re a graphic design major, you’re taking painting. You’re taking printmaking. You’re taking drawing. You’re taking a couple years of basic design. They want to really make sure that you get an understanding of how this was done before computers really took off, so that was the foundation there. So all of this stuff going on, they didn’t have money, and then they transitioned to this new building and it felt like a hallway in this huge building.
So although they weren’t in the position that they were in before, they were in a better position, they still weren’t where they needed to be. What the department did is they said, “We need to get a professor in here who knows about graphic design, who can come in here and build this department,” and so they hired a person named Joseph Ford. He worked on the campus previously in the Public Relations Department, so he had a hand in making sure that all of the publications that needed to go out, graduation, commencement, the Morgan Magazine, he was working on a lot of that. Any branding or logos that needed to be done, he was working on that.
But before he worked at Morgan, he had a successful career in advertising, and he also worked for TV stations doing graphic design for them, so he had an understanding of the campus, and he also had an understanding of the industry. He came to the department and really built the program, so those last couple years he was there, he was teaching basically almost all of the graphic design courses.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. One professor, and he is really just amazing, what he did with that program. You come to him with a problem, and everybody’s there and they’re like, “Oh, we only got this hallway. We got this, that, and the other,” and he is hearing it, but he’s focused on making sure that this program and the students get what they need. So what he did was he had some friends in the industry, and he somehow connected them all, and he made a way where famous Black artists got together and they produced a poster for the department. The proceeds from selling this piece of original artwork, and they had print made of it, went to scholarships for students there. Then it went to bringing these particular artists to the university to speak to the students.
And so he was bringing these particular Black artists to the department, raising money. Really, he took the money out of his own pocket, but it’s the crazy things that professors do to make sure that students have what they need. He supplied everyone that was there with a scholarship to an AIGA membership, and so he gave that to them. He promoted all of the events that they were having at AIGA in Baltimore and the AIGA Nationals, and he really introduced us to the AIGA.
We had no idea what it was as students, and we would go to the particular programs. We got to know the president of the AIGA, he would come to the campus and support what we were doing there. He also had made a connection where the AIGA brought a conference to Morgan State University. I think it was like a portfolio review, and so we got our portfolios reviewed by people in industry. I remember Ellen Lupton was there, a bunch of other professional designers, and so he came up with all these innovative ways. He bootstrapped basically the Graphic Design Program while I was there and graduated.
When we look back on it, a lot of the students there have had successful careers in graphic design. I mean, some of the students have graduated. They work for the NBA. They work for Major League Baseball, doing design. They work for IBM, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun. [Ogilby 00:38:38] was included in that, but having their own businesses and doing a lot of things, so we really were a program that started from the bottom, but made something of it. Really didn’t have much, but made something out of the program/.
And I think I have to give my hat off to him and all the work that he did. I still speak to him a whole lot now, but I have to give him credit for it. The other professors there absolutely, but as far as graphic design is concerned, he was definitely instrumental in making sure that happened.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So after you graduated, you talked a little bit about the Washington Post. You also talked a little bit about going back and working at Morgan State. Now also after school, you kind of ended up going back to school. You went to MICA for a while, and then you went to the University of Baltimore, which is eventually where you got your doctorate at. Kind of tell me about that time. What sparked that decision for you to decide to go back to school?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
There were two points that I want to make. One was when I was early on in my career at Morgan, I remember one of the professors telling me that you could get a Doctorate in Design. I had no idea. So I think that sparked something in me as well because I was like, “Well, how far can you go in this career as far as education is concerned?”
The other piece is that the graphic design world, the design world, changed so much. Even throughout college and starting out, it was all about publications. I had a love for publications. And then publications started to fold, and the industry started to go digital. It was convergence, where news reporters were now writing the story, taking the photographs, and almost designing the stories at the same time. Multimedia journalists were coming about, and so I really said to myself, “I have to learn more.”
I never really grasped coding a website, and I wanted to learn more about that, so I had a Bachelor of Arts in graphic design and illustration, double major in both of them, and I wanted to learn more about the integration of design. So that’s why I looked at the University of Baltimore and their program.

Maurice Cherry:
And so as you were going through that program, I’m curious, was it much different from what you were learning at Morgan State? It’s kind of interesting you kind of started out at an HBCU and then went to a traditional art school with MICA, and then now to University of Baltimore. Was that a big shift, just education-wise?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
It definitely was. So when I went to MICA, I was taking continuing studies courses. I just always had a love for learning. So after I graduated from Morgan, I automatically wanted to learn more, get better at my craft, and the best way I knew how to do that was to go back to school. I was taking digital illustration courses at MICA. Then I saw the program at the University of Baltimore, and they were one of the only programs at the time where you could get a Doctorate in Design. During that time, I think early on, it used to be a Doctorate of Communication Design.
That just brought so much together, what I was interested in with publication design, this integration of various forms of media and producing it, and seeing that program really attracted me to the University of Baltimore and the level of skills. So one of the first classes that you have to take at the University of Baltimore is a class about writing, so you have to write. You have to design the stories at the same time, so that’s challenging because they want your writing to be just as good as your design.
That’s what you talk about in the class, and that’s what you work on. The class was on a Saturday, early in the morning until in the afternoon, so it was a really long class, challenging subject. When I first got there, I really struggled with those first couple of classes because it was a different level. Not to say that the level of education that I got at Morgan wasn’t high, it was just different at the University of Baltimore. It was pulling different muscles, working different muscles in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re kind of in a rare echelon of Black design professionals with PhDs. Are there any other peers of yours that you work with or you do research with or anything like that?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Most of the time in the environments that I’m in or freelancing, people find out I have a Doctorate in Information Design, and they almost ask the question, “Why?” You may get an MFA, and that’s a terminal degree, but most people, they don’t think there’s a need for it, so it’s hard to understand the value of it. I think looking at the way that the different forms of media come together, and then adding a research perspective and understanding design research and understanding more about the user and pulling in these different disciplines, like psychology and anthropology and computer science, I feel like it puts you in a different class with all of those. You have more in your toolbox to add to the environments that you’re in, and so the peers that I have, sometimes I come into an environment and they’re like, “What are you doing here?” It’s like intimidation, depending on who I’m around.
In other environments, it’s like, “Let’s go. Let’s do this. Bring everything that you have. I’ll bring my skillset, and we can work together.” So the cohort of graduates, there are a couple of people that I still talk to that graduated from the program. There are people in the program now that I speak to. There are people in the industry, some people that you’ve had on this show, that could relate to just that level of education or that thirst for that education, so it’s a small cohort that’s growing.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career now, look back at the span of everything that you’ve done, what advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I would really say, “Be fearless. Just be fearless, and do it. Don’t be afraid of your own greatness.” I say that because I think about my career and how I walked into some situations timidly that I could have taken more advantage of, that I could have went all in and probably benefited more from it. So I think I would say that, “Be fearless.”

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of that, if you knew that you couldn’t fail in your professional life, what would you try to do?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Wow. I would bring a whole bunch of different things together. I think I would just take all the energy that I have and put it into making sure that as many people who are interested in design in my city, in my sphere of influence, knew about it. They had opportunities. They had internships. They had mentors. They had apprenticeships. They had jobs. I think that’s what I would do. If I could just do anything, I would probably do what I’m doing, just at a higher level.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like for you now?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I think success, to me, looks like not just writing down the idea, but following through and putting action to it. If there’s success in it, great. If it’s successful, great. If it fails, I learn from it. So I think success is either it goes really, really well or I learn from it, and both of those are success for me.

Maurice Cherry:
What are some projects and things that you’re working on now?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So I’m really excited about a book. I talk a lot about the program that I grew out of at Morgan, and so I’m writing a book about that now, the Morgan story basically, and it’s called Design at a HBCU. It really tells my perspective of what went on there, and so I’m really, really excited about that. I just started my own studio, and so I’m at the beginning stages of building that. That’s called [LADS 00:48:00], and so I’m really excited about that, a studio practice.
Also, after I graduated from the University of Baltimore with my doctorate, one of the decisions I made was to start an endowment for Visual Arts students, and so far since graduation, we’ve raised about $10,000, and so I’m really excited about where we are now and I’m excited about growing that. So I think in the next five years, I’d love to see it reach $100,000. That would be awesome to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Overall, what’s the next step for you? What do you want the next chapter of your legacy to be?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I want it to be a growing a design studio and possibly entering academia full-time instead of part-time. I’m really thinking about that. So having a studio practice, interacting with academia on a regular basis, growing that scholarship fund, raising a family. I have two boys and a wife, so that’s important to me, making sure they get what they need and they grow, and just looking forward to the future.

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

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So I’m available on LinkedIn under Dr. Perry Sweeper. You can find me there. You can find a website at www.psweeper.com. Send me an email. I’d love to talk to you.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Dr. Perry Sweeper, I want to thank you so much for coming on this show, and I want to just thank you for sharing your story about how you really got into design. I could tell it’s something that you’re super passionate about, and the fact that you’re able to also help to teach the next generation of designers and technologists.
You’re teaching in that department at Morehouse, but you’re able to kind of teach the next generation and take your love for design and pass it on to them so they can know that they can make their own mark on the world, just like you’ve made your mark on the world. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. Thanks for having me.

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Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel

Our paths have crossed several times over the past couple of years, but I finally managed to sit down and chat with the one and only Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel. Along with being an author, design educator, and community builder, she is one of the editors behind The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression & Reflection, a compilation of essays from over 70 Black designers, artists, curators, educators, students, and researchers.

Our conversation began with some good news about a recent grand that she won, and from there we talked about her areas research and what she teaches. Dr. Noel spoke about growing up in Trinidad and Tobago and studying design in Brazil, including becoming a Fulbright Scholar and arriving at North Carolina State University. She also talked about motivation, ambition, and about the importance of finding your own community.

Take Dr. Noel’s advice — the world of design is a lot bigger than you think!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
All right. So my name is Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel, and I’m an assistant professor of design at North Carolina State University. What I do is a hard question because I do a lot of things. I guess the main thing is that I teach design and I work as a design coach in a kind of consulting capacity. And then I do research because I’m at a research university. So I do research in education, public health, and community engagement. And then, I’m an author and an editor. And maybe I’m a convener. I like to bring people together to talk about design. Yes. So I’ll stop there.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I was going to say I’m glad you mentioned author and convener, because you did bring so many people together, myself included for The Black Experience in Design book that published earlier this year.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. So I’m one of six editors of that book. But I think you see my character and my outlook in the way that I brought people together, I suppose in the chapters that I worked on. Or when we were preparing the book, I brought people together to write together. Because I really believe in I guess the power of community. And I understand everybody’s journey with their own kind of imposter syndrome.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So in that book, one of my key roles was just that. To bring people together and kind of tell people, “Oh my goodness, your writing is amazing. All you need to do is change this little thing.” If you have that kind of approach, people can become so much more productive. So I think that that’s an outlook that I take into a lot of the things that I do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember those Saturday morning Zoom writing sessions. Those were really helpful.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. I’ve been doing those maybe for about two and a half years. Actually when I went to Tulane, so I’ve worked at about four different universities. So when I was at Tulane University, I was introduced a little bit more to this culture of writing together with other people. I joined some of their writing workshops that my colleagues had organized. But then I started either joining other people’s writing workshops, or running my own. I have to say that is really what has made me really productive writing wise in the last two years or so, because I write so often. So now it’s like I write every day, I suppose.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you also recently won a grant too, right? The Outreach and Engagement Incentive Grants.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. So I won a grant at NC State. It’s a small grant, but it was an exciting proposal to be funded. It’s called STEM Games Against Oppression. Right? And it was a kind of, I don’t want to say it was a crazy idea. Because the stakes are “low” because it’s a small grant and it’s an internal grant, I felt I could actually be very creative in the way that I put together the grant. So this grant combines a lot of things that I’m interested in. So Afrofuturism or speculative futures. Games. STEM, and teaching STEM in different ways. And of course design. So for this grant, we are going to work with a group. And then the other interest is teenage boys. That sounds weird to say it like that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
My son is 14, and I kind of jokingly say to some of my friends a lot of my research has always been focused at whatever age he’s at. Right? So with this one, I’ve been thinking about how can science be more engaging or more interesting for 14 year old boys? So that’s what this grant is about, this project is about. Where these boys are going to discuss society, and oppression, and all of these things. But they’re going to make these games. And while they’re making the games, we’re going to introduce them to a lot of design-based STEM kind of concepts making. And I don’t know what the content is actually yet. But I’m excited about doing this work, which I’m going to start late fall.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
It was just exciting that I could win that kind of creative grant, to really bring together a lot of the things I was interested in and just create this experimental workshop where we’re just going to make these fun games. But while we’re making these fun games, we’re talking about society. We are going to do some 3D printing and AR/VR kind of stuff. So it’s creative, and it was exciting for that kind of creative activity to be seen as research. So hopefully, it’s another line of work that I’m going to be able to continue in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like you’ve had a banner year so far. Not just this year, but last year also. I mean, before we started recording, I was just congratulating you on your honorary doctorate that you got from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Have you kind of had a chance to celebrate all these wins? I mean the doctorate, the book, the grant. Have you had a chance to celebrate?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
No. No, I haven’t. And it’s strange to say it, but I know that the pandemic caused a lot of disruption for a lot of people. For me too. But the pandemic also created access in a way that I might not have had access before. I’m parenting. So before the pandemic, I was always weighing things and trying to figure out, “Okay, what can I say yes to? What can I say no to?” And most things I would have to say no to, because I couldn’t go and participate in things because of my son’s school year or something like that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So what happened with me with the pandemic is that because of these virtual meetings that we do, I could actually say yes to everything, right? Which is not a strategy that I recommend for a lot of people. But that is I suppose what has led to this bumpy year that because we weren’t physically going to places, I could now suddenly be involved in a lot of projects that I couldn’t have been involved in 2019. But also because of the pandemic, I haven’t had time to celebrate. Now I want to go somewhere and celebrate, but I haven’t actually been able to.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah, it’s been an exciting year. It’s an exciting year or a couple of years that have been the result of a lot of collaboration. So people might see me, but it’s hardly ever only about me. I love working with other people. So it’s a lot of these kinds of collaborations with other people that have created a lot of the results and the visibility that exists now.

Maurice Cherry:
I know what you mean about taking everything as it happens. I swear that summer, really I’d say from the summer of 2020 on to the end of that year, I just had this influx of opportunities that came in. And I didn’t say no to any of them because I could just do them all from home. So I know exactly what you mean by that, not having to kind of weigh the pros and cons. You can do it all because you happen to be in a place where you can do it all.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. And actually, you reminded me of this other thing of course, which we have to talk about. As Black people, summer 2020 was I suppose a year of hyper visibility for Black designers. So there were a lot more opportunities that would’ve come … or certainly for me. Let me not speak for everybody. A lot more opportunities, many more opportunities came my way after summer 2020. And I didn’t have to worry about could I accept them or not. So that’s why I guess I’m visible now and I’m able to celebrate these things. The book, the honorary doctorate, all of these things. Because really the visibility for us professionally changed that summer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It really did. And it’s interesting because now just two years later now, really kind of looking back on it, I mean we’re recording this right around the time a lot of this stuff happened back in 2020. It’s almost two years to the day when a lot of this really happened. And it’s amazing to see how things have changed just in terms of not only visibility, but also that attention. I don’t know about you. But for me, I feel like the attention has pretty much just completely died down. Like companies that said they were going to do stuff haven’t done it yet. Or they made a pledge and they never actually went through with it. That sort of thing.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I’m an academic. Right? And I guess I’ve maybe been able to use visibility in a slightly different way to other designers. Right? So it’s like if then that hyper visibility of that year and a half or those two years has given me … I don’t want to say it like this, but I will say it like this. It’s like that has given me permission or validation to do other things. Because then, my name became known as a designer who talks about equity or a designer who talks about social justice. I’m kind of channeling that into the research that I want to do or the community engagement that I want to do.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So it’s not quite that I’m depending on the companies that said that they would be doing stuff to do this stuff because I’m in academia. But I am using the little bit of validation that I got during those 18 months then to underpin some of the work that I want to do. Right? Whether it’s this work about futures, and Afrofuturism, and how we combining that with design and world building, right? At least I could use the little bit of name recognition that I created in that time to now continue to do this other work.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of being an academic, you mentioned teaching at North Carolina State University. How has it been teaching and going through all this over the past few years?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So an interesting thing that I found out during the pandemic is that I love teaching online, which is strange. I enjoy teaching face-to-face or online. But what I really enjoyed about working online … and there were ups and downs, right? But I first taught online in I think 2018 or 2019. So just before the pandemic. When we went into that crisis in March 13th, I already had two different experiences to build on. One, I worked at the d.school at Stanford in 2018 to 2019, and I did teach some Zoom-based classes then. And then 2019 to 2020, I was at Tulane. And at Tulane, we had to have a crisis management plan where we had to practice teaching online before the pandemic. We didn’t know the pandemic was coming. It was just part of hurricane crisis management.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So from those experiences, I already had some experience in things like bringing music into the classroom while on the Zoom call or changing up my Zoom backgrounds. I’d already started using these kind of warmup activities to get people comfortable online. So certainly the early days of the pandemic, I actually really enjoyed teaching online. There’s some frustration. As a design teacher, one thing that is complicated or difficult to manage is that we don’t have the same relationship with materials when we’re working remotely. But then we can experiment with other things, like maybe drawing together on a virtual whiteboard. I did some activities where people had to take photographs and add them to the virtual whiteboard. So I really enjoyed that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I think that the last semester that was kind of hybrid was the worst point of the pandemic, because you can’t do both at the same time well. So I really wanted to be either online or in-person, but not both. Because there are these other issues that people hadn’t thought about. Like maybe we can’t hear properly when we’re in that kind of format with booths. Or our classroom suddenly became very accessible during the pandemic. And then when we went back to this kind of strange hybrid space, it became inaccessible again. I had one or two students who just couldn’t come to the classroom anymore because of accessibility issues like stairs and stuff like that. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But what else can I say about the experience? The accessibility issue, the pandemic broad accessibility. Or let me not say the pandemic, but teaching remotely made some classes and design classes accessible in ways that they might not have been before. Like throughout the pandemic, I taught hearing impaired people in many different settings, and I never had a lot of engagement with the deaf community before the pandemic. Right? So I that has always been something that has concerned me as we kind of go back to business as usual. What about all the accessibility that we created? Where is it going to go?

Maurice Cherry:
Now you mentioned North Carolina State University being a research university. Can you talk a bit about what research you’re working on?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. Well maybe, first I’m going to talk about one thing that I teach that might be tied to research. So I teach a class called contemporary issues in art and design. And it is a class about … well contemporary issues yes. But it’s equity and social justice. And that’s kind of one of the areas that underpins some of the engagement, because we do research and engagement. And the public engagement that I’m interested in is very equity and social justice focused.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So out of that class, I’ve been doing writing that’s related to the content of that class. So about race, gender, disability, all of these oppression issues. And I’m starting to bring that into the research that I have to say I want to do, because I’m a new assistant professor at NC State. So not all of it has started.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But there are three areas of research that I plan to continue working in. Right? So the first one is tied to education. And it is about using design, and design principles, and design pedagogy, the way that we teach and learn design. And using that to make STEM education more accessible.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I see this also as a justice issue. So that’s why I said it’s tied to that class that I teach. So when I was at Tulane, we started to do this tiny experiment where we turned a math class into a design class. And that’s a little bit of an example of where I see that research going. Where I worked with a professor, a math professor at Tulane called Marie Dahleh. And she taught me about something called ordinary differential equations, which I knew nothing about before. But when I did a little bit of research, I found it is about actually predicting the future. She might not describe it as that. And mathematicians might not describe it as that. But as someone who’s interested in futures, that’s the thing that I grabbed onto. This equation is to predict the future. And then we turned the math class into a design class about predicting the future and then using the equation to somehow support the prediction. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And I’m playing with making STEM curricular really exciting, engaging, future-focused, and critical at the same time. So maybe overlaying a lot of things, but it is a track that I’ve been following for a little while. In my PhD research, I worked with children who were in fourth grade. And at that time, they had to discuss society and the world around them and then take action through design. And I’m really just continuing that research and saying well okay, you’re going to discuss society. Yes. Take action through design, but we are going to make the STEM principles that are attached to the action that you’re taking a little bit more explicit. So that’s one area of research that I’m involved in.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Another area of research. And again, this is tied to another collaborator again at Tulane. This is Alessandra Bazzano. And in this area of research, we are looking at how can we use the way that designers think, talk, express themselves, the way designers use materials. How can we use all of these things to support patients or members of the public to talk about their public health experience more, or more clearly? So we did some workshops where for example, we gave people prototyping materials. And then we asked them to make something related to their pandemic experience, and then use that thing that they had made as a prompt to open up and talk about issues related to public health, right? Or could we get people to use photographs that they had taken as a prompt to get people to talk more about their public health experience in the pandemic? So that’s another area of research, which is related to patient-centered outcomes research, which is a whole area of research in public health. But it is using design methods and these design ways of thinking to support that patient centered outcomes research.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then the third area of research that I’m into is civic and social innovation, where we are building capacity within cities to get more people within the city or from the public to go through the design process together to address social issues. Right? So it’s civic or social engagement through design. So I mean, maybe I explain all three badly. But these are the three areas that I’m interested in. STEM education, public health, or patient-centered outcomes, and civic and social engagement. And all through design.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s really interesting that you are doing this as you mentioned, all through design. Even the first part that you mentioned about math really kind of struck me, because my degree is in math. So you start talking about differential equations. That took me right back to my 2002 differential equations class at Morehouse with my professor, Dr. Bozeman and him talking about how a lot of engineers and stuff, they use differential equations for futures predictions. For example, if you want to predict the spread of an oil spill, you would use differential equations to try to figure that out. You’re predicting it. You don’t know for sure. But with calculus being the rate of change across a certain period of time or across a certain distance, differential equations helps you to try to chart those paths and stuff. So you’re right on with that. Certainly. It’s really just interesting that you’re able to do all this and tie design into all of it.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. And it’s about access an agency, and creating access and agency through design. But I’ll just share like a little bit of feedback that the professor I was working with that she gave. After we did that math class, that was a design class. She said, “There were different students engaged in the class today. And that’s interesting.” Because there’s some students who just expect, they’re going to love everything about math. But she said, “When we turned the math class into the design class, there were different people who were involved,” because there were people who were involved because maybe they were acting as they presented the future scenario that they had predicted. So I think can we use design to get people engaged in different ways around STEM education, public health, and social innovation? These are the three little pockets I’m interested in.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I have to say, I think that’s important for designers now to really think about. So much I feel like design within the past maybe decade or so has really largely been product focused and UX focused. I think as certainly technology, and tech companies, and social media and stuff have started to really become these pervasive entities in our lives. There’s so many designers now that are just getting into product, or UX, or something, but not thinking about other areas of practice where they could use their design. Like the stuff that you’re talking about with social innovation, other non-product oriented design work, community engagement. Speculative futures, which is related to an article that you just published recently. I think it’s important to show that these options are options.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
These options are options. And then also, we create these options. There’s something that I say all the time. So someone’s going to listen to this interview and say, “Oh my God, she’s saying this again.” But when I was finishing up undergrad just before the end, our professor said something like, “You make yourselves relevant?” I did industrial design. And he says, “Nobody needs any industrial designers anywhere.” But you are the one who kind of make yourself relevant to the conversations that everyone is having. So it’s like we make these opportunities for ourselves. So we don’t only have to talk about product and tech. There is work for us as designers in education, in even project management. Because to be a good designer, you know how to manage things, and manage time, and manage people. So these skills kind of don’t have to stay within the design world. We can take these skills and move them to other sectors where the opportunity might be so obvious.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Absolutely. Well said. Also at North Carolina State University, you’re co-chair of the Pluriversal Design Special Interest Group, which is part of the Design Research Society. Talk to me about that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
All right. So that’s an exciting little research group. So the Design Research Society is supposed to be the largest professional organization for design research in the world actually. And they do an annual conference. There’s one that’s going to happen in June or would’ve happened by the time this is. So they do a conference every two years. And I’ve been a member of this association for about five years. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So when I used to go to the annual conference, I used to be very struck that nobody was discussing stuff that I wanted to talk about. Right? And when I say I wanted to talk about, I mean as a Black woman from Trinidad and Tobago. It doesn’t have to be about race, I suppose. But as somebody from the global south, I found there was no one talking about design in ways that I really wanted to talk to. But if in the conference I met someone from Brazil, from Nigeria, from any other place other than Europe or North America, I found that we started to have more overlap of issues.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we created this research group, myself and colleague Renata Marques Leitao, we had created this little research group to focus on issues in design from a non-European and non-North American perspective. Right? Also issues related to challenging the dominant narrative in design. Challenging that kind of white Euro American perspective in design. So this group became a group to talk about these types of issues within this Design Research Society. So it was like where could you find stories about practice from designers in South Africa and in India, for example. This became the group where we could have these kind of multicultural or cross cultural conversations in a way where … in design or very often, these kinds of conversations come with a little bit of a hierarchy where it’s kind of assumed that the person who is from America or from Europe has more authority or more knowledge than the person from wherever else. And this group challenges a lot of that kind of conversation.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we’ve been around since 2018. It’s a vibrant group where the most vibrant thing that we do is actually a book club where we focus on design. We focus on who designers should be reading, authors that designers should be reading that are not from Europe or North America. People from within the group suggest people, so one week we had worked by a Puerto Rican feminist, Aurora Levins Morales. Another week we had someone talking about, N. K. Jemisin who is American, but is not part of that dominant white male perspective.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we bring all of these authors that we think people need to hear from and talk about that, and talk about how their work affects design. And then we share stories about practice. We share research. And it is a group then that is focused on decolonizing design, but not only talking about decolonizing design. Because a lot of people talk about decolonizing design, but it remains as just talk. And in group, we’re asking people to share practice, and share stories. And kind of like, what are you doing that is not focusing on maybe more traditional ways of doing design? How are you shaking things up in your own design practice? And can you share this with us?

Maurice Cherry:
I know you mentioned that about decolonizing design, and it reminded me about well one, I know Dr. Dori Tunstall is doing a lot of work in driving conversations around that. I remember, I think this might have been maybe a couple of years ago, there was some pushback from another Black designer about even using that term decolonizing design. I believe it was … oh my goodness. I think it was Saki Mafundikwa from Zimbabwe. He had written this piece for AIGA’s Eye on Design kind of pushing back on that term. I think thinking of colonialism in the more imperialistic sense, particularly with him being African. Pushing back on that term like can you really say you’re decolonizing design as an American?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Right. So that’s a good point of view. Actually, we had a conversation … when I say our conversation, I mean our group, we led a discussion a few months ago where we actually said that you probably should be an existential crisis if you’re a designer to be. Because you might want to talk about something like decolonizing design, but actually design is modernist and colonial. So how do we decolonize this? And when we decolonize it, is it still going to be design? Even that’s going to be part of the future existential crisis. It might not be design when we reach whatever place we think decolonization is.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And it’s not actually a place, it’s a journey. And the work that I’ve been doing, I guess my step towards this whole decolonizing work is every issue that I look at, I keep asking myself, “Well, what is my perspective as person X?” Which to be really reductionist, this Black woman is from the Caribbean or Black mother from the Caribbean. So that informs a lot of the issues that I am focusing on. And I think that that’s my small step towards decolonizing given the space where I’m practicing as a designer and as a design researcher in my very authentic way. I don’t want to say an authentic way. It’s my way. And I encourage other people to do that. Bring your way into the process. And I see that us moving towards decolonizing the work, right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Because a few years ago, maybe five, six years ago, I really thought about how I would see students kind of struggling to fit in or kind of struggling to replicate what they thought good design was.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I travel a lot or I used to travel a lot, but I went to a design school in India. And at that point, at first I was like, “This is kind of interesting.” To see the similarity in the design world between Brazil, and Trinidad, and India. But actually on the other hand, I found it really disturbing that all of these students would’ve come into design school with their vibrant, vibrant identities, and maybe leave with this more homogenized outlook. And I think that my step towards decolonizing design is making sure that that doesn’t happen. Right? Getting people to really bring themselves back into the design process.

Maurice Cherry:
Now we’ve talked a lot about your work. But I really want to kind of dive more into your origin story, because you’ve sort of dropped some little breadcrumbs here and there about going to India, and Brazil, and stuff like that. I know you’re originally from Trinidad and Tobago. So let’s start there. Tell me about growing up there. What was your childhood like?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. I grew up, from Trinidad who might be listening to this, I’m from Diamond Vale Diego Martin. I had probably a really kind of ordinary, middle class kind of existence. And I was a middle child. So growing up in my sister’s shadow and then kind of the baby after me. But you probably want to know about okay, design in Trinidad. And people in Trinidad don’t see this, but Trinidad is a very designerly place. Right? Because we have carnival culture. So it means that you are talking and thinking about design every year. And it’s a very fashion-conscious place.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So there’s a design language in Trinidad that I think people use from [inaudible 00:37:48], and at different festivals. Maybe they’re talking about design with regard to the way bamboo structures are made for some of the festivals and things like that. You know? So there’s that designerly sensibility I think all the time.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
The first design that I remember is in the equivalent of sixth grade, which is like form one. I remember designing maybe my first carnival costume and doing some work with lettering, which I still had. I still have somewhere. I saw the image the other day. But I can’t say that I know when I made the real conscious choice that design would’ve been it, right? But I guess maybe somewhere between 10th grade and 11th grade, this was the path that I joined. I became a ‘designer’ from that age, became really interested in things like typography. I did a lot of book covers in school. I remember one design exam where I did a popup book with Christopher Columbus. So maybe this was me already challenging the world. Right? So Christopher Columbus was sailing across the ocean. And then when you pulled the little tab, he fell off the flat earth or something like that. But I always thought that design was exciting.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I went to high school where art and design were really considered respectable professions or respectable areas. My parents probably wondered if I would’ve been able to pay for myself, survive as a designer. But my parents were really very open-minded and maybe focused on making sure that their children felt empowered. So when I wanted to study in Brazil, nobody ever told me no.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So actually, maybe I have to go backtrack a little bit and say how I ended up in Brazil. But I couldn’t study design in the way that I wanted to in Trinidad. And again, my parents, because they spoke a language that was very open. They kind of said, “Well, you could study anywhere in the world, as long as we don’t have to pay for it.”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And that’s a good challenge to give 17 year old or 18 year old child. Right? Because I then started to just look for places around the world that I could study and my parents wouldn’t have to pay for it. Because what they were saying is that, “If we have to pay for it, we are going to tell you where you have to study. If you want to study anywhere, then you find the opportunity.”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So eventually, I ended up starting school in Bahia in Brazil. So I started graphic design in Bahia in Federal University of Bahia, but then eventually I moved to a town called Curitiba in the south of Brazil. And I did industrial design. And I spent a really long time in Brazil. But it was an amazing … I actually spent six years in Brazil. An amazing six years where I was just able to grow without family influence. I just really became very independent and very worldly. I lived in a community, a university community that was very politically conscious and politically active.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So my interest in equity and social justice really started then with my roommates who were in social sciences and psychology. Because we didn’t have those conversations in design. Those conversations were happening on other floors in the building that I studied in. But those fueled me and world view.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
From Brazil, I went back to Trinidad in the late ’90s. And then kind of almost immediately started working as a kind of design consultant with agencies that was somehow tied to export. So within Trinidad, I worked as a consultant with our trade and export agency for a few years. Then I worked with, there was a regional agency, Caribbean Export. I worked with them also as a consultant. Then I worked in East Africa in different places. Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya also as a consultant in trade and export. And, I was also adjunct faculty at the same time at the University of the West Indies in design.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But I suppose it’s a little bit of that work with the export agencies, because this is kind of like development, international development kind of work. That work encouraged me to ask questions that eventually led me to do a PhD. And there was pressure from the university as well, because I eventually moved from being an adjunct to full-time. And you probably know how this academic thing is, but you probably need a PhD if you’re going to stay in academia.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So it was both the internal pressure from the university as well as these questions I was asking about the work we were doing as designers working in the area of development that eventually led me to do a PhD. Because I just thought that we needed to be asking harder questions, different questions. Really about how do we engage communities? What’s our role as designers when we are doing this work with people and trying to tell them, “This is the kind of product you need to make to get more sales and export you.” I just thought that we needed to reflect more on the work that we were doing. And I took a step back, and I started to apply to PhD programs in the mid, I don’t even even know how to call that decade in 2015. With no name.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So how did I end up here in the states? I actually got a Fulbright award. NC State, and the Fulbright Association have a good relationship. So it was a school that was recommended to me. I knew about the work that NC State was doing in education and design education. And that’s kind of how I ended up with the Fulbright Award. And because of NC State’s reputation, I ended up applying here, and coming here, and really enjoying the program. I spent three years here. I did not actually pursue the questions that I was thinking about pursuing, where I was thinking about design and development, because I was interested in education as well. My PhD is more tied to design education and developing critical design curriculum. So design curricula where people are asking hard questions about society. That was what my PhD research was about.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But yeah, I spent three years here. Then I spent a year at Stanford and two years at Tulane. And now I’m back here at NC State. So I don’t know if that’s an origin story, but that’s a little bit of a story.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that’s quite a journey. I think what I kind of want to pull from that is what drove you to really make these big jumps not just geographically, but culturally? I mean, you’re going from Trinidad to Brazil, then from Brazil back to Trinidad, and then from Trinidad to the states. So there’s that. But then also it seems like you’re also leveling up educationally and vocationally I should say, in each situation. You’re going to undergraduate in Brazil. You’re pursuing your masters and working in Trinidad. Now you’re pursuing your PhD in the states. What was driving you during that time? What was really fueling that ambition?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Oh my goodness. I don’t even know. So what got me to Brazil … or maybe I’ll give a kind of umbrella statement. I’ve had people around me who have made me feel that I could do anything. So it was like the openness of that conversation with my parents. So that challenge that they gave me, that got me to go to Brazil. That got me to find Brazil as a place to go to. Right? Or little things that I would’ve heard from that professor in undergrad that made me just feel fearless.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
For most of my adult or professional life, I have felt that I could do anything. I have to say I’m grateful to the people around me who have made me feel like I can do anything. I guess the leveling up is just kind of what had to be done. That was part of the opportunity. I wouldn’t really have come to the states maybe without doing the PhD. But again, the people around me just made me think, “Well okay, of course you can go and get a PhD. Why wouldn’t you be able to get a PhD?” You know? Or, “Of course go to Brazil. Why wouldn’t you be able to go to Brazil?”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I’ve had that kind of empowering language around me all the time. And that has opened up my world. I really would say though, that I credit my parents for giving me the openness to think of going to Brazil. And I will say to any parent who might be listening to this, that changed my whole outlook on life. Because learning a new language, learning a new culture, that kind of removed all of the barriers on the world. Because I was able to do that, encourage other parents, “Push your children to kind of open up their worlds a little bit more.” That open world will just continue to take you to other places.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So of course Brazil, that experience of going back and forth between Trinidad and Brazil for six years made it seem like going between Trinidad and Tanzania for a few months, or Trinidad and Kenya, it was just another thing like that. All of this travel, and getting to know new cultures, and new people, and understanding that the world happens differently for other people. And that curiosity of wanting to know more about how other people experience the world. All that started because of that very open experience I had, I think in undergrad.

Maurice Cherry:
And what is it that sort of keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
There are a few things. I’m still very excited about conversations with other people in other parts of the world, and how they live, and think, and do. So the Pluriversal Design group is a little bit of that. How do we create a space where we can really listen to how other people, whoever other is, how people do things differently. So that’s one thing that continues to inspire me, just my curiosity about other people in the world. So that also affects the way that I do research, because that’s why I’m interested I suppose in anthropology, or anthropological methods, or ethnographic methods. Because I have that curiosity about the world and people.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
What continues to inspire me as well is that … well, this is where we get wishy washy, I suppose. Because I think my son, and my niece, and my nephew. What is the world that they’re going into? I suppose that’s why I’ve always had this one area of research that has focused on child centered methods or questions that I think are from a child’s point of view, or questions about making things better for other children so that other children don’t have to deal with some of the legacy systems that we have that don’t work. I’ve been very interested in redesigning or challenging things that we think just have to be the way they are. Right? So one example I’ll give is we have an exam in Trinidad called the Common Entrance Exam. And that is actually one of the things that started my PhD research when I changed direction. I was like, “But why do we even have to have that exam?” And that’s why I started to do that research.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So that’s something that continues to inspire me. How can we change the things that don’t work? And that’s also tied to my interest in futurism or Afrofuturism, because it’s how do we build new things, and new worlds, and new systems? How do we use design to do all of that? So I’m very interested in first having these critical conversations so that we could see clearly the things that don’t work, because sometimes we’ve been so brainwashed, that we don’t actually see the systems that don’t serve us. So everything that I do has to start off with that kind of conversation where we actually talk about what are the things that are wrong? But then we don’t just stay in that space of talking about the things that are wrong. We try to kind of move beyond that and take action through design. So I mean, that kind of social change also is something that motivates me as well. So I guess internally, it’s a curiosity. And then externally, it’s about changing systems, and fighting oppression, and social justice, and equity, and stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you want to tell any designers out there listening who might be feeling a bit lost right now as to what to do with their future? And I’m asking this because I’ve had several people right into the show, particularly over the past two years, that maybe they just got out of design school through the pandemic. They got a job, but it’s not what they wanted, because they’re working from home, which is not really an ideal place for them to work, because this is their first job. And in some cases, it’s their first department.

Maurice Cherry:
And then there’s also people that have been working at places … I mean, we’re recording this right now in mid-June. But there’s been a huge slate of design and layoffs in the tech community over the past couple of weeks now. And some people have just ridden into the show just wanting some advice like, “I don’t know what to do now with my future.” What advice would you tell them?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I’m not actually going to give people the job advice. I’m going to ask them about the non-job stuff. Right? Or my advice might be about the non-job. So one thing is about finding community or creating community. So because your job might be fantastic, but maybe you’re lonely in your job. But it’s like we need other people to go along this journey with us. Right? And they make the process more interesting, more exciting. They might validate us as we do the work. So like for me personally, when we created that Pluriversal Design group, that kind of changed again my outlook on the world. Because my group was also then feeding me and my work, you know? So for people who might be a little bit lost, I would definitely advise them to make sure that they’re not just doing this alone. Right? And find these groups, whether there’s a meetup group about the area of design that you’re interested in. Or groups probably exist or you can create the group, but you don’t find that community.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then the other bit of advice I would give people is figure out what your passion project is so that you aren’t only pouring your energy or your creative energy into the work that your employer is giving you. There must be a side creative project that is also feeding you. And maybe that’s the project that you’ll get known for later on. Right? Or maybe that’s going to be the thing that’s really going to eventually take over, and pay your bills, and whatnot. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But I think that for me professionally, those two things of making sure that they’ve always been communities of support, and then making sure that I’m doing work that is very, very fulfilling and satisfying. Even if that’s not the work that the employer’s giving me. I think that those two components of me, and my life, and my work have been really important. So that’s what I’d recommend to young designers. Find that stuff. And then the professional work hopefully will get better because of those two buckets.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then maybe a third bit of advice I would give to young designers is just about, well this is tied to the community thing. Networking sounds crass or crude, but make sure that you are yes, meeting people and telling them about their work so that you’re not invisible. I think that that’s also really important to be talking to new people often about the work that you do. And that’s going lead into other opportunities in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I like gardening. But actually, because I talk about design in a very abstract way now, because I teach about the design process and maybe helping people to see the design process. This means that I now see the design process as I’m gardening, or as I’m cooking, or as I’m dressing in the morning. And all of this, I do appreciate. I really do love choosing where I’m going to put that gladioli bulb in my garden, or choosing which salt I’m going to use as I cook dinner. I think there’s a real ordinariness in my life now that I’m happy for. I’m very appreciative for. Because I move a lot. I’ve had like a lot of chaos I suppose, or kind of been in constant flux. So what I really appreciate now is not being in flux like that, and just being able to relax and watch the plants grow.

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

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I really want to continue doing the civic and social innovation work that I’m doing. I do some of this work with a foundation. And I’d love to do more of it with other cities. So what I do is I work with a city for about nine months, and we address some issue that the city has been interested in. Right? And I really enjoy that work. I love working with design students at the College of Design. But I also love working with people who are using design for the first time.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So in five years’ time, I hope to be doing more either public engagement or research around Design for Social Innovation. And working with cities and close to, whether here in North Carolina or back in Trinidad or in the Caribbean. But I really like that kind of public design work that is done with community members and maybe local government representatives, and having people co-create solutions to the issues that they’re concerned about. So I hope to be doing that more of that in five years’ time.

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

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I’m on a lot of different platforms. But actually, LinkedIn is probably the best place for people to find me. They just have to look for my name, Lesley-Ann Noel. L-E-S-L-E-Y. That’s the thing. So if they want to know more about the general work that I’m doing, LinkedIn is the place. As an academic, I’ll repost some of the academic articles that I’ve written on ResearchGate. And then I’m also pretty active on Twitter actually. But if people Google me, they’ll find me on some platform that they can reach out to me. And I actually do respond to people generally. But LinkedIn is generally the easiest place to find me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well Lesley-Ann Noel, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. This has been a long time coming I think. I feel like you and I have intersected quite a few times over the past few years, so I’m really glad to finally have you on the show. Not just to of course share your story and your research, but I think to inspire. I mean, so much of what you’re doing is about pursuing your own curiosities and interests. And I think that’s something sometimes as designers, we tend to lose sight of. Especially if you’re like working in product, I hate to say that. But if you’re working in UX or product, it’s hard to kind of see the forest for the trees sometimes because what you’re doing is so laden into a specific thing, whereas it sounds like at least you’ve been able to indulge a lot of your creativity across many different passions throughout your career, which is just super inspiring to hear about. I’m sure of course, we’ll hear about you now for years and years to come. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Thank you so much for the invitation. And I hope that at least this conversation is able to help people see that they could kind of craft a bit of a path that works for them. Even when the path looks like it’s been clearly marked, they could kind of shake up the path a little bit and do a little bit of what they want hopefully. So thank you for the invitation.

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