Reggie Black

Reggie Black is a true Renaissance man. He’s combined his talents as a multimedia artist, designer, speaker, and mental health advocate into an experimental playground he calls all things progressive. Whether it’s a hand-lettered design project for a client or a public art installation, Reggie is navigating through this time and letting his passions light the way.

Reggie and I really had more of a general conversation than an interview, and we touched on a number of issues: staying productive in the midst of uncertainty, the role of the Black designer during this current time, and making space for creativity to flow. It’s a little something different for our 8th anniversary, but I think you’ll enjoy it all the same.

Thank you all for keeping Revision Path alive and thriving!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Reggie Black:
My name is Reggie Black. I’m a multimedia artist and designer, Principal of All Things Progressive. I work primarily in hand type, which is this very distinctive style of hand, a hand type fonts that I’ve created and worked on through repetition for years to carve out as my distinctive language. And I use that to share and articulate thought provoking messaging through all mediums, whether it’s print, installation, all sorts of medias to just really raise questions and bring about thought to the public and our questions and just really highlighting the vulnerability and transparency of everyday life.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you been doing so far this year?

Reggie Black:
This year good. Man, I think we had an interesting ride in January. It feels like every Wednesday was like a different year, with being here based in D.C. and seeing what transpired on the Capitol and then the following week, getting a new president and then the following week. So this year not bad, but in general, Maurice, all things considered, I feel like with everything going on in the world, I feel like health is a luxury. And if you have that and family and employment, you can get up every day and just be grateful for that. I’ve been trying to focus more on that than the larger questions for now, if that makes any sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. As you sort of, I guess, approach this year, did you have any resolutions or goals that you wanted to accomplish?

Reggie Black:
I’ve been dancing around this question and I think it’s clearly a result of what we’ve experienced in the pandemic, just living life without really, I won’t say without really questioning things, but I’ve been thinking about what is enough and that’s not the resolution, but I think it is a gateway to patience and intention for me. And I don’t really know what resolutions they have become, but I know I’d definitely as 2020 has told us all how very temporary everything can be. And then also quite how very transparent the world can be. I’ve been really thinking about, what’s the intention behind my life and what I want to do and being very specific about the work I want to share with the world. And then also, who am I as a person? Because to be perfectly frank, I feel like during the pandemic a lot was lost, a lot of business slowed down.

Reggie Black:
And so I didn’t realize that a lot of my life was connected with the work. So I had to go on this path of relearning myself and being with myself and spending more time with myself because it was normally, I guess, pre-normal times it was travel, travel, travel. So you didn’t really get that much time to have a lot of introspection. Been dancing around with those few things.

Maurice Cherry:
What are your days look like now?

Reggie Black:
Still, early rising. I’m an early riser. I get that from my grandma. And for me, I’m up, there’s meditation, there’s journal writing, which is very essential to my day, gratitude writing. I bought a WaterRower last year during the pandemic, when I realized that I was probably going to stay out the gym. So I’m doing that. Still, in work every day, still working on design projects. What I am learning is that it doesn’t have to be as aggressive as I used to think it was. And so, there’s breakfast, these conversations with my wife, conversations with my son. Breakfast coffee, I’m starting to buy more coffee table books and design books just to have time and reference material around the house to browse at and look. And so I’m doing a more of that.

Reggie Black:
It’s more research, more deconstruction to reconstruct a lot of things, just tons of notebooks all around the house I’m just jotting random thoughts and really, trying to document this process to be able to look back on it and think about where my mind was during the times and in between watching comedy on Netflix and stuff like that. So yeah, just trying to stay human in it all, still working, but realizing that we don’t have to be the machines that we once thought we did in order to get things done.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I feel like this past year has been a very interesting sort of, I don’t want to call it an experiment, a tree of this, I guess, on how our relationship to work is because I think one thing it’s amazing how quickly we’ve seen the disappearance of the American office space because of the pandemic. There were so many things about being in one spot and collaborating in person. And now all of that is largely been replaced or at least supplanted by Zoom calls and Google Meet calls and just conference calls and things like that. And sort of re-examining what it means to work collaboratively, what it means to work asynchronously, what it means to work across great distances, is something that I think a lot of people have had to contend with.

Maurice Cherry:
And to your point now with us depending on where you live in the country, being in one place that now is not just your home, it’s your gym and your kids’ school and it’s date night and it’s like, all these things rolled into one. That will cause… I hope it causes people to think and re-evaluate about, what is important? But yeah, this past year has been something for real.

Reggie Black:
That’s very true. Did you have a studio that you traveled to throughout the day? Or you’re doing everything in home or… That’s a very interesting point. And I think it takes a lot of… I think screen fatigue is becoming more real than anything and this idea of what home is, is being redefined. So just curious, are you in and out of a few different spaces, separating work from home? Or…

Maurice Cherry:
Before the pandemic, sure. So I’ve been doing this remote work thing since 2009. So by the time, I hate to say it, but when the pandemic first happened, I was like, “Oh, I can do this standing on my head.” I was like, “I got this, this ain’t nothing.” But what’s different is how other people now have to acclimate and adapt to this time, which is what I didn’t necessarily consider when it all first started. I don’t have a space. I have a corner in my bedroom where I work and I’m able to mentally… Well, I’m now able to mentally separate work from home largely through… I think I mentioned this on the show before, but I have smart lights in my apartment, so I have different lighting modes that will signal to me. Okay. This is the work lighting mode where all the lights are on and I’m working, but then this is relaxation mode where the lights are dimmer.

Maurice Cherry:
And I know this is for watching TV or something like that. And so the lights will come on and off at certain times and stuff and that just lets me know like, Oh, I need to switch gears into doing something else or I need to switch to another mode.

Reggie Black:
I love that. Yeah. That’s perfect. I love that. Figure out where you got those smart lights from. I love that. That’s a beautiful way to transform the home, right. Because it has become all one thing and I love what the pandemic has done for creativity to get people to think about collaboration. And that was really spot on when you talked about the American office and what that will look like in the future, because although I do think that office is where a beautiful place for meeting and collaboration. I wonder if the office was also this cage, that suffocated people’s imagination, right? Because you can contribute to your company from home in a way that activated certain creative senses that you probably couldn’t do in the corporate headquarters because of the culture that was embedded in there.

Reggie Black:
So it’d be interesting to hear or see or study or something, what type of new results are being generated from people being at home versus going into an office every day. Is there a difference in the modality and the thinking behind problem solving at work? I would love to just see how that could transform the workplace and the office in company culture in general.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think we’ll start seeing profiles like that certainly like within a few months. Because I feel like that’s when companies at least last year started saying, “Okay, well now you’re going to be working from home for the foreseeable future.” And some companies they were just kicking the can down the road, they were like, “Oh, well we’ll be back in the office by the fall. Oh we’ll be back here by the winter.” And it’s like, no, you still will be at home. The last company that I worked for and it’s funny, we’re talking about the American workplace, they really prided themselves on having a great office space. I know about this because I wrote about how great their office space was, about how it had these different modes inside the office for working. And we’ve got this terrorist and we’ve got this.

Maurice Cherry:
And at the time that I was working there, we were about to expand up to a higher floor that was going to give us more space, more desks, a sunlit reading room and all that stuff. And then the pandemic happened and shut all of that shit down. They just halted construction and then I think it was about two months after that they laid off my entire department. I was like, Oh, well. Fast forward to now, and this is only [inaudible 00:14:09] I know just from people that still work there, they’ve actually sublet the office now, there’re no plans to go back anytime soon. It was something that the company really prided itself on, almost as much as the product itself, they prided themselves on having this really great workspace and now they don’t have that.

Reggie Black:
That’s true. Wow. That’s interesting. Yeah. We’ll see, a lot of things aren’t coming back, the reality of this all, and I wonder where the home office not the home office. I’m sorry. Yeah. I wonder where the home office lands and then I’ll also wonder where the corporate headquarters, where do they begin or what’s the new future for them? We’ll see, we will see. I think that the longer we’re in this situation, the harder it’s going to be to get people to return back to work. I do feel that way.

Maurice Cherry:
It will be. I know that from experience, it will definitely be hard to go back into an office because… So back when I had my studio in full swing, I would spend days sometimes inside of a company’s workspace or I’d work out of a Starbucks or something. I had the freedom to move between different spaces to work. But I did largely work at home and it wasn’t until I wound my studio down at the end of 2017 and got a job. And even that was a remote first job because the company was headquartered in New York and I’m in Atlanta. So it was still a remote first job.

Maurice Cherry:
But there would be times where we would have to go to the office, whether it was onboarding a new employee or we had our onsite for the year or something like that. And it was so stifling for all of us that were remote workers, it was just so stifling being in that building, list like going to meetings and stuff. It’s just the chairs aren’t like our chairs at home and the snacks aren’t the right snacks, it’s why’s it so cold in here? It’s all these different sorts of things. It was certainly difficult, but…

Reggie Black:
Which all play… That’s so interesting that you mentioned that because I feel like all of those small things that we overlook are what contribute to our productivity and where we can teleport ourselves to produce work. Right? Like if you don’t have the right chair or the right environment, a large percentage of the day is all about getting comfortable to be able to perform. And so it’s interesting. I think that it’s all interesting and we’ll really see new definitions of what commercial spaces and home offices, how they overlap and one supersedes the other.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And to answer your earlier question. So I don’t have a separate studio space.

Reggie Black:
Got it.

Maurice Cherry:
But I want one now.

Reggie Black:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Hands down, I want one now. So I’ve started already looking even just at places in my neighborhood. I don’t need a lot of space, I just want a separate discrete space for work that’s not my home.

Reggie Black:
I’ve transported and teleported into the guest bedroom. So my wife was like, “Listen, I don’t think we’re going to have any guests. So let me just go ahead and and take this over.” So it has to become the nook that I’m able to get a lot of things done and to your point to have something completely separate just to come in and make this the work studio and the office. And it’s cozy for me, it feels really good to be here. I’ve got accustomed to getting up every day and making breakfast and then coming to work. It’s weird, all these things that I have to mentally do to get prepared, like get up and get fully dressed. I can’t sit around the house in lounge wear and sweatpants. I’m up fully dressed every day as if I was going outside.

Reggie Black:
And even if nothing really, really happens that day, if I just get on the keyboard and peck away at a few emails, I feel like I’ve done enough to keep myself motivated for the next day because of what I have noticed is that for me, it’s all or nothing. I’m either super inspired or I’ve watched too much news and I’m just depressed for a week. You know what I mean? There is no [inaudible 00:18:38] in-between. So in my head, the thoughts are, well, how can I keep myself inspired to focus on the things that are in the pipeline and the things that I am working on? Instead of creating this home retreat, where I can bounce back and forth between the news and calling a friend.

Reggie Black:
I still have office time where I like do not disturb hours. And just to try to have some structure and regimen in place that allow support to constantly exercise mentally to make sure that I’m in a space to produce something. And if I show up that day and I end up with nothing, then that’s what it is. But at least I like to carve out that landscape to be able to do so. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s super important now, because you have to impose those structures when you’re working from home, because your home is the place where you really don’t have that structure. Home is where you’re supposed to after work, you let your guard down, you have a glass of wine, you relax, you chill. It’s hard to really shift between work mode and relaxation mode in the same place. So you have to put… I time shift a lot of my emails. I have a booking link, if somebody needs to reach me, it’s not like, “Oh, can I pick your brain?” No, you can pick an appointment and we can get to something maybe later on in the week or something. I have to really segment and regiment my time pretty strictly now during this pandemic that I really didn’t have to do before, but it is important to do that.

Reggie Black:
It is. And I think because we will find ourselves doing things, the busy stuff. It’s like, Oh, well, I can watch a movie and cook a nice lunch or do laundry or clean up or straighten up. But like you said, home is comfortable. And so the things that we do at home, aren’t typically figuring out a way to stay productive and work. And so the moment escape and slide off to even just go to the kitchen to get a glass of water or something, right. It’s like you think of something else that could be done while you’re at home, when really it’s supposed to be the working hours. And so I think you’re spot with having those regimens in place to keep supporting and listen, the reality is, because I don’t want to sound like I’m super buttoned up but there are some days I just don’t have it.

Reggie Black:
And it’s like, all right, I’m sitting right here and I’m going to binge watch a few things all day for the next couple. You know what I mean? And that’s just the ebb and flow of where we are right now. It’s okay to not be productive. It’s okay to not want to create, all of 220, a large percentage of it, I couldn’t muster up to produce work. I just couldn’t because the social tension, black brothers that look like you and I were being killed pretty much every day, it felt like in this country. And so the things that my creativity was fighting for, it didn’t feel important. It wasn’t important. It’s not important because it’s like, if we’re not doing anything to contribute to shifting the climate of racial tension in this country or whatever your cause is, climate change or food deserts in the country or economic disparity, whatever it is, if none of that is really happening and you’re not contributing to that, it’s like, all right, well, what I’m doing is invalid at the moment.

Reggie Black:
And so I don’t want it to appear to be like this time is a priority productivity training camp, when you have to be as productive as you can. No, if you gain a couple pounds, no out this thing, everything is okay because we’re all dealing with this differently. And it is something that none of us have experienced before. I spent a lot of time talking to my mom on Facebook not Facebook, FaceTime. And I’m starting to enjoy those conversations more because she’s like, “Listen, I’m 72. I have no idea how people are dealing with this. We’ve never seen anything like this before.” So it’s interesting to talk to an older person to hear what they think about where we are at the moment. And it’s like, this is the most mental exhausting time periods because life was open, it was everybody could be and do.

Reggie Black:
And so however people are dealing with this thing is perfectly fine. I just feel like for me, I’m trying my best because I spent a lot of years in depression, I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’m almost what, somewhere in between six and seven years sober. So I’ve struggled with anxiety, I struggle with mood disorders, all sorts of things. My ability to stay strong in this moment is really predicated on a lot of, I like to call them tricks that I have to impose on myself, to keep me moving and keeping me motivated.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m the same way with having those tricks. I’ve basically had to give myself a routine. I wake up every morning 7:00 a.m., from seven to 8:30 it’s me getting ready for work. I’ll water the plants, make some tea, all these stuff. And then for me, I’m completely in work mode from 8:30 to 4:30. I don’t answer any other emails or anything, everything is focused just on work. Because for me, I know that I’ve got stuff to do usually right after work. I end work at 4:30 and then I’ll start doing interviews at five o’clock, or I have other calls or something else that I have to do after work. So there’s my eight to 4:30 time, which is work. And then there’s my five to maybe 11:30 or midnight where I’m working on other stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
I try to put that split in there, so I know this is when I need to shut this off and then turn this on. Even like I was telling you about the lights, the lights help me, those are tricks too. 11:30 all the lights in my apartment are off and whatever I’m working on, it’s like, “Okay, I should probably go to bed now.”

Reggie Black:
Yep. That’s the thing too. And I love how you’ve underscored the home. Right? We don’t want it to become like, because it’s so comfortable, we can go throughout the day and not really identify the things that need to happen. And so you find yourself at being midnight and you’re still working. You’re like, “Wait, but I’m supposed to be in bed too.” So it’s tricky, the home can transform and become whatever you want it to be during this time period. If you engulf yourself in work, you’re going to feel so comfortable that you don’t realize that you’re working that much. Or if it’s become an oasis of relaxation, you’re going to find yourself struggling to find a spark that gets some things done. And that’s why I said just having some system or a few things to keep you in line of break that, like you said to have that break in the day. Because we’re not active as we used to be.

Reggie Black:
We’re not commuting, we’re not moving our bodies, which I try to do a lot. But I have several free friends who just do walking meetings only. They refuse to sit Zooms and they refuse to sit on Skypes. So they take all of their meetings on the phone. It’s straight, I’ll get your Zoom call in number or you can call me on my cell phone and they walk the neighborhood while they’re having a meeting and take notes on their phone. You know what I mean? To find balance, to stay active, because like you said, if we’re just sitting in front of screens every day, you got to think about what that’s doing to our physical health as well. So that’s something I’m going to try to incorporate this year as well too, just moving more and getting back to it because yes, I row at home, but I still think that there’s something about getting up and getting out and physically moving your body and walking. I don’t know if [inaudible 00:26:17] or YouTube workout.

Reggie Black:
So I have a Peloton subscription, I don’t have the bike. I have the classes that you can take online, but you’re still in front of a screen, following the trainer. And so it’s much different than walking to the local grocery store to get groceries and physically moving your body. Something that happens there that just we’re missing with being dormant for this period of time.

Maurice Cherry:
The walking meetings, that’s a good idea. I’ve watched something on the news recently that I think scientists were saying that the biggest byproducts of the pandemic is going to be just how much people’s mental health is being affected, whether it’s like you said, depression, anxiety, et cetera. I was out of work for half of 2020, and during that whole job search and everything, it was a lot to deal with. Especially when you’re also seeing with other things happening in the world at the time, like you said, the social unrest, the former administration and how they’re handling all of this, it’s just like, there would be days I would just get high and just play video games all day. And that’s the day, that’s all I’m doing.

Reggie Black:
I think what I’m trying to say is that all of those days are just as important as having super productive work. Because I don’t think we’re in this space to judge what day is superior than others, because I feel like now more than ever, we’re seeing the value of life and just how important it is. And so whatever you do with that day, it’s a success, because you could not be here. You know what I mean? You just couldn’t be here. And so to have that, we got to somehow undo this badge of honor that America has imposed on us, this busy badge of honor. And I’m on that same quest too, there has to be a balance of being a human fucking being, and also being able to produce and do work. You shouldn’t be consumed by work all the time.

Reggie Black:
And the walking meetings is actually from a good friend of mine, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. She’s a good friend of mine, we met during Ted years and we’ve just become really cool and some of the best closest homeys ever. And when I heard her tell me that I was like, “Wait, you don’t do what?” And she’s like, “Nah, I got to move my body.” And so I’m constantly grabbing things from people that inspire me and makes sure that I can keep finding new ways to just to stay in this fight. You’re right. It’s a mental fight that we’re more in term with than anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about work. Tell me about the studio. When did you decide to start All Things Progressive?

Reggie Black:
Man, All Things Progressive. It’s a love child of mine that I’ve had in my head for a few years. And I’ll tell you why a few things contributed to the thought, working as a solo artist, I feel like when there’s not a studio or some formal structure, business structure is what I’m talking about now. When there’s not some business structure formed, what happens oftentimes I feel like when you’re pitching for larger work or larger clients, it’s weird. And this is a trick that I’ve kind of… Not even a trick. It’s like a professional hack that I believe is really stupid, but also very important. It’s a legitimacy thing. Most large companies won’t choose to work with you if you’re just a solo artist. And so it’s like, Oh, well either they don’t take you serious or they don’t think you’ll have your terms and conditions in place.

Reggie Black:
Or a lot of times they want you to be the artist when you’re saying no, I have a multitude of services that I could provide. And so, yes, there’s Reggie Black that’s the hand type artist. That’s the multimedia designer that can do a lot of the beautiful things with my hand and with type and with abstracts and all the things, but then there’s also a part of me that can do the very beautifully graphic design products or package design or identity systems, right? I have two sides of my brain that allows me to do both. And so what I realized was that in order for me to be able to empty the tool bag and access all of the things that I’ve been able to accumulate throughout the years, through beautiful mentorships and just countless hours of trying to figure this thing out, I said, well, what if I put a business structure in place that allows me to separate, if someone wants to hire Reggie Black for the bold and visceral hand type that he produces, that’s one thing.

Reggie Black:
But if there’s a graphic design job or book cover job or anything that separates it and takes me away from Reggie Black, it’s almost like a personality. And then it evolved into just having a few collaborators that I could work with and I can hire them for various projects and almost became like a think tank. And so 2018 is when I officially formed it. I had the name for a while, I didn’t really know what to do with the name, but really it’s just about trying to create value and spark things that move forward and work with clients that want to have a bowl perspective on where they’re going and what they would like to do. And so with All Things Progressive, it’s really just an experimental playground for companies and businesses and clients that want to figure out how to redefine their perspectives in where they’re going and what they want to do.

Reggie Black:
And we assess each project as such and I like to look at everything that’s going on in the market place, within that particular genre of industry that I’m being hired for and go the complete opposite, because I think that there’s a clutter that’s happening in every industry where people are just copying and regurgitating what is successful in the industry. And then when that trend ends up dying, you see all the businesses that have led themselves down that path die with it. So I’m always about how can we go the opposite direction? And that’s what All Things Progressive that every project we can assess, it’s like, all right, well, if there’s a book cover design, the author speaking on self-help well, let’s look at every self-help book cover and go the complete opposite direction.

Reggie Black:
Because it’s very easy to follow the herd and end up in the clutter. But I think it’s brave to say, well, sure, yes, I am a smoothie company that I’m thinking rebranding [inaudible 00:32:41] like, well, do we have to use green? Do we have to use the colors of vegetables? I’m always about how can we push something in the opposite direction of where people think it should be? What if we do the impossible? What if we do the unimaginable in every case and see where that experimental plate side of our human instincts take us.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you been finding that clients have been more experimental during these times?

Reggie Black:
Yes. Because what I think, Maurice is happening is that everybody is realizing that everything… And I think you and I talked about this previously, everything needs to be redesigned. And right now, while the world is figuring out or trying to figure out where to go, I think this is a beautiful time for everybody to shake things up. I don’t know if we were living in like no one’s under scrutiny right now. Right? You can do something that’s completely left field and it’s completely okay because we’re all trying to figure out a way to move our businesses forward. Because what we thought worked, we saw something as large as COVID come and hit us and realize that, Oh, I might need to figure out how to not be so comfortable. And so experiment and play as becoming a part of almost the culture of companies now, because what they’re realizing is that one, you have to fight for attention now because everybody’s home.

Reggie Black:
Everybody has four to five screens at home, whether it’s the TV, the iMac, the iPad, the phone. So attention is at an all time high and everybody’s willing to consume information. And so what are you going to do to separate yourself to at least just to garnish a little bit of that attention, or take a little bit of that in the marketing department or a product that you’re building or campaign that you’re about to launch? What’s going to make your messaging stand out a bit more just to hold the attention of somebody that’s scrolling on Instagram for 10 more seconds, that it would, if you were doing things differently? And so I was just talking to one of my design friends. We talking about how you see a lot of the large, I guess old guard companies doing identity system re-brands, GM just did it, Kia just did.

Reggie Black:
There is another one that I thought was important as well. Even the CIA just rebranded. Right? And so you’re watching so many old guards realizing that if we don’t do something differently, there’s a possibility that we’ll become Blockbuster. You know what I mean? When they was completely avoiding what Netflix was trying to say or Blackberry, when they had the largest market share in mobile devices and they thought that we were all going to love Qwerty keyboards forever, then we got the iPhone. And so no one is at liberty to rest and relax in this moment of uncertainty. I think if things are in certain, let’s push on certain ideas. If things are unorthodox, let’s push unorthodox ideas. And that’s what I’m really excited about. What’s going to land when the smoke clears from where we are? And if it does land, will you be able to tell a story that was innovative and different in the midst of all of the smoke that’s happening?

Maurice Cherry:
That it’s good that companies, I think now are starting to be open to this, they almost have to. I think at this point they have to.

Reggie Black:
I think they realize that either two things happen, the brand story expires, or they realize that they aren’t the only players in the industry that they thought they were. And so they have to and they have to innovate in a way that respects the customer and respects their consumer base, but also figuring out a way to tap into new consumer basis too. Right? That’s what we’re seeing happening and everybody’s scrambling and trying to figure it out. And to add another layer on it, everybody also now realizes something they should have realized or been able to… Excuse me, identify years ago is that they had to have a social responsibility. And now we’re seeing a scramble where everybody’s trying to figure that out on the fly.

Reggie Black:
And it’s like, Nope. If that was built into the culture beforehand, you wouldn’t have to hit the panic button, when you see something like George Floyd happen. When you see something like our sister Breonna Taylor happen, when you see something like the former administration wants to put the wall and immigration and family division on the borders. If there was one company that I sincerely love is Patagonia because they’ve been that way for a while, that the CEO and the ethos of that company has clearly stated that, this is what we’re going to speak on and we’re going to speak on it regardless of what the social times are. And I think that the commercial structure has existed in a space of reactionary approaches. And I think now we have to figure out a way how to be more proactive, like Ben & Jerry’s is doing a good job, but Patagonia has clearly put their foot down in so many instances saying like, this is where we are and we’re not going to waiver about it.

Reggie Black:
And then what ultimately happens is that you see something transpire socially and they’re the first ones to respond. Nike has always done a good job, Wieden and Kennedy and their marketing teams over there, everything about their campaigns are beautiful because they’re always thinking about how can we make sure that we’re on top of what’s happening socially? Because our product typically lives in urban cities where black people and people of color are affected. And so we have to make sure that if we are speaking to the Colin Kaepernick situation, if we’re speaking to social or racial injustice in this country, we have to make sure that we’re ready to be able to articulate that at any moment.

Maurice Cherry:
No. I was just thinking, I think it was right around the time this year started. I’m like, I wonder how companies are going to react to not just Black History Month this year, but also Juneteenth. Because I think a lot of folks will say non-black folks, I think a lot of folks just discovered what Juneteenth was last year. And for many people, this is going to be a free paid holiday for them. I’m like, how are people going to jump out the window, trying to show how woke they are this year? I wonder. We’re recording this at the start a Black History Month, so that remains to be seen. But yeah.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. I agree with you. I think and that goes back to the point that I was just trying to make, in addition to support what you just said, I feel like they weren’t considering it to begin with. And so they are in panic mode because what today’s we’re recording this on February 1st, as you just said. And so they got four, five months to rally up to figuring out how to structure things. And then you’re seeing companies in Black History Month trying to rollout these large beautiful campaigns that they probably thought about two weeks ago or yesterday. So I don’t know, man. I think what it really boils down to is equality and diversity in the workplace and in the companies, when you look at a lot of the companies, VC funded companies, tech companies, everywhere across the board, people that look like you and I aren’t represented at large numbers.

Reggie Black:
And so you have a specific voice that’s speaking for the entire company, that’s offering a product to the world that it’s as diverse as America is, which we know that that doesn’t land well. And as a result of that, you end up seeing messaging that’s off and messaging that’s tone deaf. And that’s why they always have to hit the panic button because they’ve overlooked that women need to speak and be in positions of power. Black men need to speak and being in positions of power. So that there’s a diverse language and it’s not just coming from a white millennial, who started a company with X amount of dollars in C funding and they’re just doing it to be cool. We have to figure out a way ensure that people have a social impact model built in before they even get started.

Reggie Black:
Sure, we want beautiful products. Listen, I’m a student of Japanese culture and beautifully designed through and through and Herman Miller and Scandinavian design. I love all the things, I love all of that, but what I love most importantly is being able to… I love Nina Simone’s quote, “Art must reflect the times.” And I think that now companies have to identify that and figure out a way to catch up to speed, but then also realize that it’s not black people’s responsibility to solve the overlooking of what white people have dragged along in this country. It’s not our job to fix that. That’s the work they have to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, that’s very true. Very, very true. So I know we’ve just spoken at length about a number of things. I want to jump into some of the projects that you’ve done. You just recently… in this conversation, you mentioned being in Southeast Asia for a while. Let’s start there. What brought you to Southeast Asia?

Reggie Black:
The entire family and it’s a trio of us. There’s the wife Shante who I love dearly, we’ve been together for forever and there’s my son, [inaudible 00:41:59], we were looking for a life change. And 2014, there was an opportunity for my wife to take a job in [inaudible 00:42:07] with their company. And we wanted our son to go to international school and then to be quite frank, I think I was hitting a wall here in America. At that time… We talked off the record a little bit, at that time that’s when Sticky Inspiration was deplaning and there wasn’t a lot of momentum happening there anymore. And we’ll talk about Sticky Inspiration later to draw back and connect the dots. But I was just out of a lot of opportunities and things weren’t really looking as promising as I thought they would.

Reggie Black:
And I felt like let’s just go away and start over, at least for me, my wife’s career was successful. My son was entering high school. So everybody was engulfed in this new chapter and we left, 2014 we moved and moved to Bangkok. And what I did know is that it was an opportunity for me to set myself apart, but it was also an opportunity for me to go and to discover something. At that time, what it was, I had no idea. I had no idea that Asia and Southeast Asia in general would birth largely the design sensibility and the style and the projects that would give me the platform to be able to come back to America. So when we got there, it was like, Hey, well, this is the new terrain that you have to summit if you will.

Reggie Black:
And so I didn’t have any relationships there, I didn’t know anybody there, but I knew I wanted to start to get my work out internationally. So it was just a matter of me just doing the groundwork and meeting people. And clearly, for the record, I didn’t speak Thai. I didn’t speak Japanese. And a lot of the places that we went and a lot of the pitches that I was submitting for, there was a lot of rejection. Recently as of last year, I just got an artist manager, which is my friend, Alison Beshai. Who’s now my artist manager, but for my entire career, I think the last 15 years it’s just been my wife and not just managing this thing and figuring it out. So everything that we were submitting for and trying to make happen, we weren’t getting any responses.

Reggie Black:
And so you and I had a conversation about starting where you are. And so I was the only thing that I knew was that one, I love coffee. And so there was a community there that was creative. And then also there was the coffee culture there in Bangkok that I loved. And I just started going to the same coffee shops every day, every day, that was my routine. I would go there. I would do a couple of hours in illustrator. I would write a little bit, I would read a little bit because this was this new path that I was trying to figure out. And funny enough, what happened is that I realized that one of the coffee shops also had this multimedia function where it served as an art gallery. And so I literally, after so many months and just going to the coffee shop every day, I was like, Oh, I would love to have an exhibition here one day.

Reggie Black:
And the owner [inaudible 00:44:59] at Ink & Lion, shout out to them because they were really gracious here you are, you have a black man coming to Bangkok in a Thai owned coffee shop and multimedia space, they took a chance and was like, well, let’s do it. And this was 2015, so we got there in 2014, it took me about a year to really go outside. As vibrant as the world sees Bangkok, to be quite honest, I was somewhat afraid of it, Because there’s 20 million people there at capacity when the city swells up on a midday Tuesday afternoon from the commuters. And it’s a huge city, we’re talking New York City, maybe times two, there’s 20 million people that swell up in that city every day.

Reggie Black:
So I just think the hustle and bustle of it and the foreigner mentality that we had to experience being black, which is whole another podcast we could record for, all of those elements frightened me a bit. And so I took this route of familiarity and I guess, did the things that I knew. And when that one opportunity for an exhibition started, there was some local press that picked it up, the numbers are few BK Magazine who did a really good job with doing a story on me there. And we’re all talking Thai publications. There is no English and documenting English culture or foreigners that come there. I started to land placement and notoriety in the Thai creative community. And so one thing led to another, one exhibition happened at a coffee shop and another exhibition happened during Bangkok Design Week.

Reggie Black:
And then another exhibition happened at another space and it all just kind of snowball. So it ended up being three exhibitions in Bangkok, one in Tokyo, which was a combination of our… When we were there, we were traveling a lot. So we would just go to different places for family vacations. And I was like, Oh, I want to show here. I want to show there. And it was just tons of groundwork, tons of rejection, the ecstasy of a gallery that I showed out in Japan, Diginner Gallery, they took a chance on me as well. So I think there was a lot of people along that way and along that journey, that was gracious enough to see the potential of my work. Because it wasn’t always like what it is now. There was a lot of discovery of me trying to find a voice.

Reggie Black:
So the work that I showed in 2015 looks completely different than the work that I produce now. And so going on that journey and having that rejection and being this kind of an ambassador for myself, it was basically like, alright, you’re here by yourself. You have to figure out a way to believe in your art and the things that you’re making because no one else will. And so three exhibitions in Bangkok, one in Tokyo, and then it landed to meeting some really cool guys Marble Print & Clay in Hong Kong. And so within that four years, it was a matter of what five exhibitions internationally, which started to garner a lot of attention back in the U.S. because I was sharing everything on social when people were seeing the momentum happen, but it wasn’t the case before I left.

Reggie Black:
So I was like, well, maybe it’s time to go back. And then the family now we decided to come back four years later, here’s where we are to the modern day. Yeah. It was a journey. It was a real journey. And I’m grateful for all of it because I think that it was something that I personally needed to go through to really just trust myself, that thing for a long time. I didn’t want to call myself an artist nor did I ever really want to own the role as an artist, because I always thought it was like, you have to have all paintings and a cool studio and large canvases to work, but I’ve always worked in language and I’ve always used messaging as the art form. And I didn’t know anybody that ever did that before. I didn’t learn about the Barbara Kruger’s and Jenny Holzer’s, and Hank Willis Thomas and the beautiful art that they produce on a public scale.

Reggie Black:
I just knew that there was street art. And then there was art that you experienced in the galleries. I didn’t know that there was a hybrid of the two, Paula Scher who works a lot in graphic design. So it was just also of discovery that I knew I had to like go on to carve out the space. If it didn’t exist, it was a testament of being able to trust myself enough to create it.

Maurice Cherry:
Before we were recording, I asked you, was there a point that you feel like your work pushed you to that next level of awareness? And it sounds like this is when it happened, this time when you were in Southeast Asia.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. I think you’re right, Maurice like 300%. And at the moment I didn’t realize it because it was just so much groundwork and we never… As creative as we never come up for air to assess the things. But what did start to happen there throughout our travels, we would go to Japan. I would pick up Sumi brushes and Sumi ink. And it was almost like the art started to be influenced by the cultural tones that we started to experience. So if you’re in Korea, and you see this beautiful art being produced in a certain way. All the tools that I use are pretty much Asian inspired. And I’m pretty sure that I use all of them wrong. I’m sure that I don’t use the Sumi brush properly. I know I don’t use a lot of the Sumi inks the way that they’re supposed to be properly used in traditional Japanese and Chinese calligraphy.

Reggie Black:
I don’t use them properly. And what I did lean into was that, I knew that my family and I, we were very fortunate to be a black family and have the opportunity to experience and travel throughout Asia. And pretty much all of that side of the world. We we went to Australia, we went to New Zealand, we traveled a lot. And to my wife’s credit, she was like, well, if we’re here, we might as well make it happen because this is a long trip. And we need to experience and see this. And so the travel started to really inform the work that I was making. And all of what you see now is a testament to having that. I like to call that an artist residency to go away and figure out because most people don’t get that time.

Reggie Black:
And so I’m very fortunate, you get into college and then as an adult, it’s like, all right, go out into the world and pay your dues to society, be an adult and pay your bills and go to work. And so what I realized is that my ability to have that four years to incubate and produce and create at that point, I had to figure out a way to make sure that, that time spent there would be able to produce a lifetime of projects and opportunities that I could make it feel like it was all worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So I’m curious, there’s a lot of things I want to ask you about now that you’ve really been going deep into a lot of this stuff. I was looking at your latest installation called No Records. Can you talk a little bit about where the idea came from for that?

Reggie Black:
No Records. Man. I think so many things happened last year, but I think that, that’s Alison and I that’s our highlight of the year, our pride and joy that we were really excited about. And Alison has been a great friend of mine for over 10 years. And it transpired from a good friend of mine, Amanda always like to do names when [inaudible 00:52:18] opportunities happen. So it’s like you’re giving people the credit and shouting people out along the way, because there’s this weird thing where people feel like artists are just making it alone and it’s bullshit. Nobody is making it alone. Somebody always reaches out to you, giving you a nudge or an opportunity comes from the great vine, which is essentially a person, being like there’s no, Oh, I’m just out here doing it by myself.

Reggie Black:
And so a good friend of mine, Amanda, that I also had met from the TED Residency! during that time, she reached out and said, Oh, the Dyckman Farmhouse in New York, saw your work and they’re looking to highlight this story of slaves living in New York. Because a lot of times when we think about slavery, we only equate it to the South. And we don’t think about the amount of slavery that transpired in New York City. And so when they presented that opportunity, Alison and I, we looked at the project and said, if we can’t say anything bold, we don’t want to be a part of it. And when the Dyckman house, they sent us over a lot of their archival documentation, a lot of the things that they had kept on record, but to be perfectly honest Maurice, there wasn’t any records. There wasn’t anything on file. They tried to have a lot of information that they thought was valuable to document the lives of the six slaves that lived in upper Manhattan and they didn’t have it.

Reggie Black:
And so hence the title, No Records. Because we said, listen, we can’t pretend to tell a story that is false, if the institution has pretty much given us the goal and letting us know that they didn’t even have any records. And so slaves lived here, what we were learning is that people were living in Inwood community, which is where the Dyckman house is like 207 and forgot the cross street Broadway actually. And people live there in that community every day. And they just thought that Dyckman house was like a farmhouse as an artifact or something. It’s like, no, this is where slaves lived. And we wanted to highlight that and really put that on display. And so that’s why I said, the language and the messaging has to be clear to allow people to really get what has happened here.

Reggie Black:
We don’t have to sugar coat it. We don’t need to dress it up. We don’t need to make it appear to be anything than what it is is that slaves lived here. And Alison and I we talked about it a lot and we were really thinking about the messaging. And then when we learned that there’s also a very Spanish speaking population in Inwood community, she said, well, let’s do it in Spanish too, because I feel like we have to start making art accessible and to translate the communication so everybody can be a part of the conversation and at which was my first time doing that. And I thought that it was probably my favorite part of the deliverable of the project because it invited everybody into the conversation. So at the installation, the night of the installation, there were beautiful conversation with people from all walks of life because the art was accessible and people walked by whether they saw it in English or Spanish, they was able to get it immediately and have a conversation about it.

Reggie Black:
Not being able to really know that this was something that had happened and they lived in the community. They didn’t even know that this existed. And so for me, it was about accessibility and being able to make a clean statement that this is what happens and let’s not overlook this. And throughout learning that I learned a lot of the names and places in New York City are named after slaves owners, because that’s what it was. So I lived in [inaudible 00:55:58], but I didn’t know [inaudible 00:55:59] and was a notorious slave owner. I just loved it because I lived there and the culture’s there. You know what I mean? Home of Biggie Smalls and home of Jay Z. And I lived in Brooklyn for three years and it’s another huge part of the story that gave me the skin that I needed to keep pushing forward.

Reggie Black:
And, but I didn’t know that [inaudible 00:56:20] was in the history was rooted in slave trade. And so we overlook a lot of the things by default, I think, because we tend to focus on what we deem is cool, but we don’t really utilize the resources that we have to outline a whole story. And so for that project, for me, it was like, listen, I want to make sure that I don’t leave anything uncovered here. So let’s talk about it. But most importantly, let’s make sure that it’s extremely plain, so everybody can understand it.

Maurice Cherry:
And you did that right near the tail end of 2020, is that right?

Reggie Black:
Yep. Yep. That was the end of December, December 7th, I think was the installation night. We were going to postpone it. We were going away to 2021. There was a lot of back and forth with the logistics. And I said, I think that this is an important conversation that needs to happen now. And mind you, where right off the tails of such a devastating year for black men, women, black trans, everything was transpiring in this country where police brutality and just the unjustice in this country. And I said, if we’re not going to do this now, what better time? Because I think for some odd reason, let’s just say, non-black folks feel like that this is a temperamental temporary issue. When the reality is this isn’t going away. There is no special time to talk about these things.

Reggie Black:
And it’s something that you and I have to experience every day. There is no vacation for being black. You don’t get to wake up and turn it on and off when you want to, this is the life that we live. And so if this is the life that we live, let me make sure that I’m doing what I can to highlight the things that we go through. And was it always this way Maurice? Possibly, possibly not. I don’t feel like I did my due diligence to make sure that I was highlighting the things of importance. And so when I was looking at a lot of the projects that we had on the table last year, and it was assessing things, I noticed the change in me too. I was like, you turn on the news and you see this thing happening nine minutes and 17 seconds or whatever that the exact time was when the gentlemen stood on George Floyd’s neck for, Breonna Taylor was shot in her sleep.

Reggie Black:
You look, and you see these things. And then I will have to show up to the iMac the next morning and try to design something that was beautiful to sell a product. I started to feel disconnected. Yeah, I’m a black man, but am I really using my voice to highlight the things that define the black plight in this country? And the answer was I wasn’t doing my best. And so now I’m trying to make sure that I need to make a conscious effort. My messaging sends a symbolism and it’s inspiring and it’s thought provoking. And I do a lot of work in mental health in Outland articulating that messaging and outlining that conversation. Right. But that’s a very colorless thing.

Reggie Black:
We can all experience that because human emotion is colorless, but when it comes to specific black issues, am I doing enough? My wife has, which is why she’s my wife. She’s like, listen, we all have more work to do. And when she said that to me, that was like another pivotal moment in my life. All right, you got to do more to make sure that your voice and your platform is being used and executed in the right way.

Maurice Cherry:
So something I definitely get from really from this conversation and really just from how you talk about your work is that you’re a very deep thinker. It’s not just about doing the work, but you’re really set on finding the intent and the drive behind it. How do you see the role of the black designer in this current climate? And I’m asking this for two reasons. One, I think certainly now with this increased awareness that people have about black creatives. And I would say just the struggles of black people in general, I hate that we had to get to this point this far along in human history. But one there’s this increased awareness, but two, just here on the show, one question I asked every guest last year was how are you using your skills to create a more equitable future? So I’m posing this question to you, and I’d love to get your answer to it. How do you see the role of the black designer in this current time right now?

Reggie Black:
There’s two folds to that. I think that forever, I feel like we’ve been overlooked. Like you just say, right. And I think we’ve been overlooked, but then also we’ve been undervalued. And I think we’re only called upon when it’s time to clean up something or when it’s time to make something look cool. Like when you look at the makeup of the black community and the black culture, we run the world, we run shit, we validate what’s cool. We make it cool. And then the world grabs it, right? Hip hop is the fastest growing genre in the world. And it’s only like 35, almost 40 years old. It’s a very young genre, but it’s [inaudible 01:01:19] the world. Right. And so we look at our ability to have cool, but then we look at like, we don’t own things and we’re not in positions of power.

Reggie Black:
And so for the black designer right now, I think what’s important is for us to say, okay, here’s my place in the world. Here’s my position, here’s a corporation at wants me to work or collaborate with “them”. Right. And if that’s the case, we have to make sure that we’re saying the things that are important to amplify, the topics and issues that are affecting our communities. And I think that’s the role. It’s okay. Because that’s another thing that it’s a lot is that we feel like artists aren’t supposed to be compensated properly. We need to be properly compensated for the things that we contribute and the value that we contribute to messaging. And then also we need to be able to say the things that feel good and speak to our people.

Reggie Black:
And I think that we can’t be used as pawns in the system to tell a story that isn’t accurate to how we believe. We have to reflect the times, which what I was just talking about my work, I was realizing that I was speaking to one thing when in fact the world was on fire and I’m a black man and in any given moment, I could have been shot as well. And I’m not saying that you have to abandon your bread and butter and what you’re known for. Both things can exist, but I feel like somehow they want us to exclude a specific messaging for a specific messaging. And I’m saying no, that they both need to exist right now. So it’s our obligation as the black designer to make sure that when we speak on these things, we’re making sure that we amplify a point that needs to be said that can’t be said by a non-black person.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you make space for these days?

Reggie Black:
I’m trying to get better at self care. I know it’s a hot button topic and everybody’s trying to explore it and define it for themselves. But for me I’ve always been a very inquisitive child. I’ve always been like you said, and thank you for that compliment, man. I’ve always been a deep thinker. I get it from my mom who isn’t as I guess won’t say talkative, but she’s a woman of few words, but the few words that she says are super impactful. And so I picked that up as a child from my mom who was just very intentional about what she says and why she says it. And so as a result of that, I’m trying to be intentional about how I treat myself and how I care for myself.

Reggie Black:
And I’m spending a lot of time and introspection asking larger questions as I get “older” what do I want this life to really look like for myself? And how can I give myself enough love that’s detached from the results? And just really thinking about where I want to go and how I want to impact the world. But before I get there, how do I impact and change myself? Because I think we go out with the Superman cape on every day to stand up and design and raise questions and fight for causes, which are all beautiful. But I think sometimes we go out half empty. We’re not completely together ourselves.

Reggie Black:
And as I’m going on this journey, I don’t believe that you could be of complete service to a cause, a company, a client, if you’re not really at whole yourself or have a beautiful sensibility to be able to compartmentalize that, to show up and do that work and then go home and figure out a way, how to sort your own personal stuff up. So I’m really just trying to figure out one, who am I outside of work? And then how can I bring that guy to the work to be able to impact it more?

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would have been if you’d never became an artist and a designer?

Reggie Black:
Funny enough, man, I’ve always wanted to be a business banker.

Maurice Cherry:
A business banker.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. A business banker venture capitalist. Like one of those guys Goldman Sachs with the suit on. And don’t… I won’t say don’t ask me why, ask me why. Yes. But then there’s two points to it. I wanted to be it because growing up, I felt like that was the only way, which I do feel like it’s still important, but economics is the way to freedom. And so growing up, I was like, well, let me pursue a career money, one, because that’s what a lot of my teachers told me. And that’s what was like, Oh, you need to go… And growing up without it. It’s like, well, that’s what I want. And then two, I feel like there’s not a lot of space for creative venture capitalists.

Reggie Black:
I know that the full premise of it is to fund companies to have a return, to build more companies. But I think we’re doing a huge disservice to excluding the currency of creative intellect. And somehow one thing that drives everything, but it’s the last thing to be compensated for. So it’s like we can bill big companies to connect us as fast as we need to be and share our most valuable moments. But we overlooked the importance of the everyday creative that’s trying to get an idea off the ground. And so I would love to in a perfect world start a creative venture capitalist fund where there’re these micro grants that small entrepreneurs and innovators and thinkers can apply for and receive. And I know it exists in the world.

Reggie Black:
There’re so many beautiful people doing that work Backstage Capital, who I love, she’s doing an amazing job, Arlan Hamilton. There’s so many companies that are doing that work, man. But yeah, I think that’s what I would have been, man. It’s the impossible for a lot of us. And I’m always looking to explore the edges and go on to extremes or a DJ.

Maurice Cherry:
Or a DJ.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. Or a DJ. Because I love music. And I’m still got to execute fun in your life. So on a business side, super serious side venture capitalist. But outside of that, I think that a DJ of some sort.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s interesting that certainly other countries do a lot to sponsor artists or to fund the arts. And I feel like we used to have that here prior to the last administration. Hopefully that will come back. Or we start to at least see some more investment from, I think the government towards artists. But yeah, I would think even celebrities or other businesses or things like that, you probably see this too. There’s so many big names that expect free creative work.

Reggie Black:
Sure. And that’s the part that has to be dismantled because art and creativity is the one thing that communicates every element of our lives, but it’s still one thing that’s always negotiated. Right? Everything we interact with is designed by somebody, the homes we live in, the cars we drive, the clothing we wear, there’s a designer, there’s some creative intellect that’s going on behind that. But for whatever reason, like you said, we’re always the ones that are like, Oh, well just do this for exposure. One of the person that I do have to highlight and give the credit for, somebody that I would like to, if in a big sky dream Pharrell Williams, I think that he does a beautiful job and he just launched the new, Black Ambition incubator to do this very thing.

Reggie Black:
And that’s give the black and Latino X, co-founders an opportunity to launch businesses and stuff. He’s clearly doing something that I would love to do, but in a large wish upon the sky, he’s the one person that I would love to meet and work with to some capacity. Just because his ability to see, listen, I’m a kid from Virginia Beach, Virginia. And I connect with that story. I’m a kid from Northwest, D.C. growing up in 80s pre-gentrified D.C. when it was very rough to like and see yourself to transcend this place outside of what society deemed for you to be. And so there’s a connection there as well.

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

Reggie Black:
That’s a loaded one, man. I don’t know; no one knows. Right? But I think because I don’t want to perceive to have all the answers. I don’t know what I will be doing, but what I would hope is that my work will land in places that could inspire people to use their voice. If All Things Progressive could work with clients that could inspire a new generation of business, I feel like that’s what I will be doing. So maybe it’s in the aspiring business and that’s not a business, but maybe I just need to be in a position to ignite new ideas and birth new generations of ideas, maybe it’s this venture capital thing. I know Reggie Black the artist will always be able to produce beautiful, innovative things that I love and believe in.

Reggie Black:
But I think in the next five years, somehow focusing on impact and that could be with the black artists fund that Alison and I were working on to carve out and creating a platform. I think me personally will probably I won’t say, take a back seat, but I’ll be thinking about more how I could use my platform to amplify the voices of others. To some regard I don’t know what it looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here. Where can our audience find out more about you and all the work that you’re doing, where can they find that online?

Reggie Black:
iamreggieblack on Instagram. iamreggieblack on Twitter. And my website is, Iamreggieblack.com. So out of those few places you can find me. It’s where I’ll be man. And then before we get off, I just want to thank you for the work that you continue to do with your platform Maurice because it’s super important. And I want to thank Ashley for recommending me to be here because I think that iron sharpens iron, and I think that the work that you do connect so many people to give them the hope to see. And that’s a point that I want to make as well before we go off, the ability to see what you’re doing is a huge void that I missed in my life because I didn’t meet my first black designer until I was 25.

Reggie Black:
I didn’t know that this was a real thing. I didn’t meet anybody that could work Photoshop or Illustrator till I was 25. So your sessions and your interviews that you consistently put out to the world is hope for somebody that’s listening to this, like the little Reggie that could have been listening to this 10, 15 years ago to see that this is possible. I think that the translation and the gaps that happen here, are all exposure, people don’t think that design of some black kids, or people of color. They don’t think that this is possible because we don’t see anybody that could do this. So thank you brother. I really appreciate you, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, thank you. And thank you for coming on the show, for not just sharing your story, but also really going deep into the thought that you put into the work and also the messages that you want to put out there in the world. I really feel like we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Reggie Black in the future. I think certainly just based off what you’ve been doing so far, I can’t wait to see what you come up with next. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Reggie Black:
Thank you, man. As long as I’ve been doing this, I feel like I’m just getting started. So thank you so much for acknowledging that. And I’m looking forward to just staying a student and stay open. And if there’s any way I can support further banger, you know where to reach me, man.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & WitBrevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.
We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.
If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.
Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.
Kristy Tillman

I’m closing out this unprecedented year by talking with the one and only Kristy Tillman. Longtime listeners of the show may remember her first appearance back in 2015, but since then, Kristy has become one of the leading design voices in our community. As for what’s next for Kristy? Well, let’s just say that tomorrow looks bright.

Kristy shared how her year has went so far, including departing from Slack, becoming an investor through indie.vc and The Designer Fund, and creating the Made in the Future Fellowship, a program for helping underrepresented emerging design professionals. Kristy also spoke on what success looks like for her now at this stage in her career, talked about making time for joy, and dove into the hard-won lessons she’s learned this year. If there’s one thing to take from Kristy’s journey and her career, it’s the knowledge that there are many opportunities available to grow your design career if you stay patient and chart your course.

Quite a fitting way to end off 2020, right?

Tim Allen

Design can be a powerful way to bring people together, and Tim Allen embodies that as the VP of design at Airbnb. He oversees several teams at the popular online housing marketplace, including their newest offering Airbnb Experiences, and we spent the first part of our interview talking about how Tim got started at Airbnb, as well as the company’s open culture.

Tim also shared how growing up and living around the world as a military kid helped inspire his early design work, talked about attending NCSU and working his first design jobs at Interactive Magic and IBM, and spoke on the importance of design leadership and designers as business leaders. Tim truly wants to be a beacon for more Black designers to enter the industry, and he’s leading by example!

(NOTE: This interview was recorded before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Check out the Airbnb Newsroom to learn about how Airbnb is helping relief efforts, including providing housing for 100,000 COVID-19 responders around the world.)

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Tim Allen:
Hi Maurice. I’m Tim Allen, VP of design at Airbnb, and I look after design functions globally across design, research, UX, writing and creative.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s a lot to look over.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, it’s quite a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a regular day like for you at Airbnb? Does that exist?

Tim Allen:
I don’t know if it does exist in terms of a regular day. It’s a lot of context switching, I can tell you that. Sometimes I’ll have a day where I try to avoid these, but it’s just back-to-back meetings with wildly different contexts for each meeting.

Tim Allen:
But typically there’s some combination of our creative culture. How do we feel that? How do we calibrate it? What does quality look like? Which leads into product. How are we impacting customers’ lives through our product and maintaining quality? Again, that’s a pretty constant theme.

Tim Allen:
And then creatively, how are we creating resonance with our brand? So in some variation, sometimes all three, sometimes just focusing on one, like people. I’ll have one day where I’m focusing just mainly on one-on-ones and connecting with folks, making sure folks are being enabled to do the best work.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get started at Airbnb?

Tim Allen:
I got started through a conversation. Much like many other positions I’ve had. I had a conversation with Alex Schleifer who is our chief design officer and we just hit it off immediately. Our sons are about the same age, so he was actually on his way to pick up his son the first time we chatted. And we started talking about our design ethos and what we believe in. And that pretty much rhymed and that was a great way to start a relationship.

Maurice Cherry:
So just had the conversation and then before you knew it, you’re working at Airbnb.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s pretty good.

Tim Allen:
It was a snowball effect.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the best thing about your job?

Tim Allen:
I guess the best thing about my job, I think it’s just being creative. Just thinking orthogonally about business challenges, customer and community challenges, and then applying my own sense of tuition and background to those challenges is pretty exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the team. You mentioned you are doing a lot of context switching. Talk about the teams that you oversee.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. You have experience design, which is a pretty broad function. We have generalists here, so a good range of folks that either index on visual design or interaction design. Or mostly a combination thereof, but with varying levels of capability on either side of that. You have research and insights, survey science, data science and UX writing, information architecture. There’s quite a bit of variance there.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting that there’s all those positions at a company that is… I don’t know, would you call Airbnb a tech company since they’re mostly deals, I would say with… I don’t want to call it hospitality, but with lodging in a way?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah. Accommodations is one big part of our brand. We’ve recently expanded into just Airbnb experiences where you don’t have to own a home or have a home in order to be a host basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me more about that.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. So Airbnb experiences is all about the best in class experiences. So when you arrive at a location you can feel like you’re at home and you feel like a local as opposed to feeling like a tourist. We have different categories such as animals just launched recently to a lot of a fanfare. We have a couple of categories that are getting ready to launch soon as well. Cooking is another category that’s very popular.

Tim Allen:
We also have adapted experiences too. So just in terms of inclusivity and accessibility, a lot of times people with mobility impairments or people that are disabled, have a tough time when they’re traveling, being integrated into experiences. And so we have a whole host of adaptive experiences that are specifically catered towards disabled and the combinations that are required.

Maurice Cherry:
So, it’s not even so much… It almost sounds like a built in almost a package in a way. Of course with Airbnb you’re renting out someone else’s space, but it sounds like with this it also lumps in different activities you could do, like maybe going out to eat or I don’t know, seeing a play or something like that. Is that a good way of describing it?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I mean mostly my job is about innovating around the entire consumer journey across digital and offline experiences. From the moment you think you want to go somewhere, as an inception moment through planning, through booking. Obviously through hosting is a big experience in terms of your commendation and the experiences you have while you’re traveling. And so it’s like how do you create the best trip possible and make it as magical as possible?

Maurice Cherry:
I never thought about it, I guess in an end-to-end sort of way like that. It’s not just that you’re providing lodging, you’re also providing entertainment. You’re providing… It’s almost tourism, I guess, in a way.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah. A big part of our brand is around tourism. We have ecotourism category of experiences as well. So yeah, that’s a good way to think about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Let’s see. So one thing that I’ve heard a lot about with Airbnb, we actually have had someone from Airbnb on the show. This was years ago. I don’t even know if he still works there anymore, but he talked a lot. His name is Ariem Anthony. I think he was in the production design department, but he talked a lot about Airbnb and it’s very open culture. Is that something that you’ve experienced since you’ve been there?

Tim Allen:
Yes, one of the biggest things that drew me to Airbnb was my perception from the outside of the community. And then now that I’m a part of Airbnb, it’s definitely rung true. That open theme is definitely there. I think it’s because of the company mission is resonates so deeply with so many people. It’s usually the number one reason people join or want to be a part of the company.

Tim Allen:
And company missions can be fluff sometimes. Right. But I think the actual intent of delivering on the mission of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere, so intentionally going after that and then also having the means to deliver against that. I think those two factors create this culture that it’s like a baseline understanding that people have. This shared purpose that allows people to be open in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that’s something that and really I think in a lot of big tech companies, having an open culture is something that’s really important because diversity and inclusion is important. They want to make sure that people can bring the notion of bringing your whole self to work. Is that something, I would imagine in your position being a VP, that’s a really big deal.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. I mean, if you think about the long game, the way I think about belonging is almost synonymous with creativity. I think when you overlay the factors that add up to belonging with the factors that enable creativity, they’re very similar. To a sense of safety with this fearlessness of not creating errors and the openness of communication, feeling like you can contribute. All of these things that when you feel like you belong, it’s very much a way of cultivating creativity too, which is basically my job.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you help to enable that throughout your teams that you oversee?

Tim Allen:
Well, one thing I start with is just this foundational representation. I think homogenous teams usually make homogenous products based on homogenous strategies. And that’s definitely not what we’re aiming to do. Again, we want anyone to belong anywhere.

Tim Allen:
And when you say anyone, how can your team stretch as much as possible across the breadth of human diversity in terms of gender, race or gender identity, orientation, background, ability, disability and so forth? We’ve got a good range of folks. So you start to get that diverse perspective built in. We don’t have it solved. I think we still have a ways to go as many organizations do but that is definitely our intent at our foundation.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So let’s switch gears here a little bit. Of course, people know you from that not just your work that you’ve done while you’ve been an Airbnb, but also a lot of your other design leadership positions, which we’ll get into later. But let’s take it all the way back. Tell me about where you grew up.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, so my father was in the military, so we moved quite a bit. I actually spent a lot of time growing up in Japan, several years in Okinawa and several years in Iwakuni. And then we moved to California, South Carolina, D.C., Northern Virginia area. And I ended up going to high school and settling in North Carolina. And yeah, went from high school to college and design school in North Carolina as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I saw as I was doing my research, you got your undergrad and you got your graduate degree from NCSU, which we’ve featured on the site before. We’ve talked a lot about how great the program is. We’ve had a few NCSU alums on the show too. What was it like there for you? Paint a picture. What time period is this when you’re at NCSU?

Tim Allen:
Oh man. So this was a while back, at NCSU. It was called the School of Design rather than the College of Design. It was… I want to say it was one of the top 10 design schools or so. So coming into it, for me, was a very big deal. I was so excited to get in. When I first got there, I did feel like a fish out of water though. I was like these are real designers around me. My background is airbrushing so I had my little airbrush compressor and airbrush all ready to do some design work and-

Maurice Cherry:
Wait wait, hold up hold up, back up. Airbrushing? Like how people airbrushed T-shirts or something like that?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah that’s actually… So how I got into I guess design or I would say art back then was in high school. Yeah, I had my own airbrush company.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, T-shirts. In sophomore year in high school, my dad got me a airbrush set as a gift because I just drew all the time. I was a big drawer and I just drew cartoons and stuff all the time. And then he was like “You should try this.” And before he knew it I was making T-shirts for the basketball team and football team and all my friends. And then that blew up into cars and boats and then I started doing businesses in the area and stuff. And by the time I was a senior had just a whole portfolio of business. Which I use that as a portfolio, which I didn’t even know what a portfolio was, to get into design school.

Maurice Cherry:
So you were airbrushing T-shirts in the South? I’m imagining this is probably mid ’90’s probably.

Tim Allen:
Yeah you’re talking about mid ’90’s.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You were cleaning up, you were cleaning up because airbrushed T-shirts were pretty big back then.

Tim Allen:
Huge, man. I had a pretty nice business man as a little high school student. It was good. I just loved doing it. I’d just stay up. Literally I’d start, I don’t know, after dinner ish and just airbrush all the different, I guess clients I had until 2:00 AM or so. Get some sleep and then go to school and handout all the merch.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So it sounds like your parents were pretty supportive of you using your talent in this way.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I mean even just introducing the airbrush. It was just really, really supportive of art in general. I know that’s not always the case but yeah. Yeah, that definitely was the case with my family.

Maurice Cherry:
Did they introduce you to art and design at an early age or was it something you just picked up?

Tim Allen:
Well, it’s interesting because both my… Well, my mother used to teach art and then my father was just a doodler. And I just would see him doodle and he’s actually a really good artist and he taught me how to draw when I was super young and then I just kept doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And then that of course inspired you to end up going to North Carolina State. So tell me about the program. Do you feel like it really helped you once you got out there in the world as a working designer?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah, I mean I’d say there was a couple of very fortuitous events that happened and some mentors that sprinkled in there that just fueled the passion I already had around art into design. And not only helping me understand what design is but also how it relates to art. I think I was very fortunate to be in a curriculum that was labeled art and design. So it was this intermix of subjective emotion and then objective problem solving and how those things relate. Still to this day is foundational in the way I approach design. But yeah, the opportunities I had really were straight coming in. One of the professors saw my airbrushing and airbrushing is very volumetric. And that was one of the things that drew me to it. It’s so easy to shade and so forth.

Tim Allen:
And so he’s like “You know what, 3D design and CGI is probably something you would gravitate towards because you just have this natural instinct towards objects.” And I was like okay cool. And so eventually, that relationship blossomed and he got a grant from NSF to create character animation and pedagogy for what they used to call multimedia back in the day. So this is basically like CD-ROMs and stuff. And so he just paid me for a summer to learn CGI. It was these silicone graphics machines that were down in a basement and no one that knew how to use them. They were built on Unix and he was like “Crack the code on these and learn how to create 3D avatars and animate them and there you go.” And so I literally again, it was sort of deja vu with the airbrush. Because the same thing I did was for the next three months I just holed away in that basement learning 3D. And then yeah, that started… That was my path of how does art relate to design?

Maurice Cherry:
Self taught.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So once you graduated from North Carolina State, what was the first design job that you had?

Tim Allen:
First design job was at this game company called Interactive Magic.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tim Allen:
And they were known for this flight simulation game called Apache and it was just… Apaches are these huge helicopters in the military. I think it’s like… Well, I don’t know, one of the most feared or destructive helicopters in the arsenal or whatever. So we played that up in the game and basically you got the experience of flying an Apache helicopter but we also did first person shooters and a couple other things as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And now as I was looking through your extensive LinkedIn resume, I saw that you were a product design lead at IBM for five years and this was back during a time when product design certainly wasn’t as widespread as it is now in the industry. I’m curious to know, what did you take away from that experience?

Tim Allen:
Oh man, that was foundational as well. I was fortunate enough to have Chris Paul as a manager coming out of the Interactive Magic. He recruited me into the team within a year I was already managing folks just because he just believed in my capability. So not only was I learning product design at a very early time but then also learning how to manage people and so forth early in my career. Yeah, it was a pretty cool time. I was working on WebSphere, which is like a enterprise web development IDE. Yeah and a couple other projects there.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that I saw recently, I was reading through, I think it was FastCompany. I was reading through and they were talking about this study. I don’t know, you probably might’ve read this, the study from McKinsey about CEOs and design leadership. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Tim Allen:
Yes…yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So you probably know where I’m going with this. So you’ve held down a lot of design leadership positions at a number of different companies and agencies. I mean we’ve mentioned IBM, of course you’re now at Airbnb but I mean, Adobe, Amazon, Microsoft, RGA. That’s a huge swath of experience there. And to sort of refer back to this study, the study basically was saying that CEOs don’t understand design leadership at all. When you look back at your career, have you found that to be the case?

Tim Allen:
I think there’s been a progression. I wouldn’t say where we’ve reached the Nirvana yet but there has been a progression. And I could describe my early career as trying to get a seat at the table as a designer. And then as a team lead trying to get your team to have a seat at the table. You’re the voice of your team, at the seat of the table. And then human centered design and design thinking. Being the voice of the customer and having the customer have a seat at the table. Table being like executive forums, decision making forums and so forth. And then I think now, if you’re fortunate enough to be in a successful company, most likely there’s some notion of design as a strategic asset in there.

Tim Allen:
I think the extent to which that’s true probably varies. But yeah, I think we’ve grown. At the same time, I think designers as leaders are very rare. And I think at the point of my career that I’m in now, what spoke to me quite a bit, getting back to Airbnb a bit is the fact that the founder, two of the three founders are university grads and Brian and I have a good rapport. Brian Chesky is like a designer’s designer if anything. He leads the whole company as CEO. And the way to approach problems that we learned very early on as designers is just thematic in how Airbnb just runs in general. And I find that fascinating.

Maurice Cherry:
So you just dropped a little something there I want to go back to. You said that designers as leaders are rare. Can you unpack that a little bit? What do you mean by that?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, designers as business leaders.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tim Allen:
Are rare. Yeah. I think there are very few CEOs with design backgrounds. Typically even at the executive levels, design reports into engineering. Typically there’s very little design organizations that end at CEO level or report into sort of a C level position. Again, that’s just representation, that’s sort of quote unquote, seat at the table. So I just find that interesting. I think that at a certain level, we plateau a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think would need to happen to change that?

Tim Allen:
I think that design… Approaching design with a business lens without sacrificing the ability to be creative is one way to do that. I think there’s a balance to be had there. But understanding and even building this into design curriculums at a early phase in people’s development is key. Like how did decisions get made in business? And how can design play a part not only in what’s delivered but how it’s delivered and why it’s delivered? In relation to the business and the reason why the company even exists.

Maurice Cherry:
Given your design leadership positions, have you found that designers are starting to come more into that business sense as the years go on? Are they improving, I guess? That’s probably a better way to put it.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I think that design has just… It’s been democratized by technology a lot more. So I think when we bring folks in with varied backgrounds, so folks just out of undergrad while they were going to school or even not attending undergrad, that have had their own brand agencies or have been contracting and understand-

Tim Allen:
Agencies or have been contracting and understand business at a level of basically putting the food on the table. I think it enables them to have the same, a different level of rigor in terms of how they impact decisions at work as ICs or even managers.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I’m curious about that, because I feel like certainly as technology has made it so more and more people can enter into design at pretty much any level. In a way it sort of forced some people to be almost more entrepreneurial and more businesslike in their design, because they may not necessarily be doing it for a business, but they have X number of clients. Say if they do a bunch of design for a marketplace website or something like that, I don’t know. I’m thinking like 99designs or something to that effect where they didn’t have to kind of talk to a number of different clients and weigh the business cases and not just creates for the sake of creation I guess.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Even just bringing it back to my own story of having an airbrush business and understanding clients and briefs and however crazy they were either in high school or sort of like, “Hey, just hook me up with a T-shirt with the Wu-Tang Clan symbol on or whatever. But you still need to understand like, “Okay, what is this person’s sensibility and what are you’re trying to do with?” It’s basically what this person’s brand is. That enables a different level of … A different way of seeing the world when you hit the corporate or agency roadmap.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you’ve been now at Airbnb, we spoke about this before recording. You’ve been there for about seven or so months now. What lessons did you learn this past year? How has this new experience improved you or has it helped? How has it helped you grow?

Tim Allen:
It’s been for me just refreshing to be in a company where creativity and design is an extreme asset. I mean, I think I probably took that for granted earlier in my career working with Nike at RJ and just being in sort of an agency for so long of like, your purpose or what you believe in intersecting or overlapping with your talent or kind of capability as a designer. And so I didn’t understand how rare that was until after I left RJ and wasn’t working on Nike.

Tim Allen:
And I think now, I’ve worked with a lot of companies that have great missions, but being at Airbnb, it reminds me of early in my career where it’s just like a lot of people believing in something, a lot of people with extreme amounts of talent. And I think that belief mixed with the level of creativity and talent that’s cultivated here is just, it’s one the things that just it’s really refreshing and it’s a delight to be here.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. When you look back over your career at all the places you’ve worked at, what are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned?

Tim Allen:
The biggest lessons I’ve learned I think is that in some ways I think creativity in terms of design is an act of kindness. What draws me to design the most is when that’s quantified and calibrated against. What I’m saying is, I think that creativity by itself is an inservice of something. Creating a better world or impacting people’s lives in a positive way can start to feel a little self-indulgent. But I think a mission like empowering every person on the planet to achieve more. When you mix that with creativity, there’s kindness involved in that. I think a mission like anyone feeling like they belong anywhere, there’s a notion of kindness in that. And design in the right circumstances can impact people’s lives if people are committed to it.

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

Tim Allen:
For me it is just authentically committing to a purpose and kind of propagating that commitment among team members. So attracting people to that mission, fueling that mission, and then delivering on that mission, which is basically our products and our innovation. So I think success is all about understanding that purpose and just being a catalyst for belonging at this point.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I know just started at Airbnb not too long ago, but I’m curious, are you happy kind of with your current work-life balance? Is it good?

Tim Allen:
Work-life balance is interesting because I don’t know, I don’t know if I create a binary between the two.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I don’t know if I’d necessarily say it’s a binary, I guess think of it more like a see-saw. Like the balance is where you feel it’s the most balanced, so it’s not necessarily taking one from the other. And I’m curious, if it’s not balanced, what would that look like for you?

Tim Allen:
So I have a two-year-old now, which is a new thing that’s very inspiring as well, and a five-month-old.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, congratulations.

Tim Allen:
Thanks a lot. So I think I’m happier in my career, just in terms of where I am and the people I’m working with. I think so that makes me a better spouse, better father and so forth. I think in doing that, the balance is, I think when you’re passionate about something, you’re compelled to do it quite a bit and go above and beyond. So it’s like how do you calibrate against responsibilities as a new father while still stimulating yourself and improving yourself? And just along that, is it just being on a journey of an improvement as a person and then, how does your career fit into that as well? Let’s that being a new father, those are some new variables that I hadn’t had to deal with before.

Maurice Cherry:
What keeps you motivated and inspired these days? I mean, aside from your kids, I would imagine.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, kids definitely. I would say that’s probably number one. I mean, without being cliched, you see that everything is new in their eyes. You see everything that comes in comes out in some way. You see a reflection of yourself, both the best parts of yourself and sometimes the worst parts. So that’s definitely an area of inspiration. I read sci-fi, I’m a sci-fi fanatic. I love Octavia Butler. So I read her stuff a lot. I think mainly it’s a combination of fashion, sci-fi, and just being enamored with my kids is probably the biggest inspiration for me.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I heard you are quite the sneakerhead too. Somebody told me that. I mean, you let me know if I’m wrong there, but.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I have a big, large collection of shoes from my days working with Nike and I feel like I’m a reformed sneakerhead a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that possible?

Tim Allen:
I think I probably have way … I don’t know, but I don’t have as many as before. And so I have just a few, a smaller inventory than I did before. But I try to make them count.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like a nice warehouse set aside for them.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, [crosstalk 00:35:38].

Maurice Cherry:
Climate control. Do you feel like you’re living your life’s purpose right now or do you think you’re still searching for it?

Tim Allen:
Oh wow. That’s deep Maurice. Yeah, at times I do feel like that’s the case. I love what I’m doing right now in terms of purpose. I love how it’s being directed and delivered. I love the impact that I have on people’s lives, or the impact I want to have on people’s lives. And yeah, it’s cool to be a new father. And so there’s a lot of things that are in line right now. So yeah, I hadn’t really thought about it like that, but yeah, I’d say I’m starting to live my purpose.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you want to do? This can be career-wise. It can be life-wise, anything in particular?

Tim Allen:
I’d want to learn how to fly, fly planes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, for one of my recent birthdays, my wife got me flying lessons and it was pretty amazing. So I just started, but I haven’t been able to keep it going. But yeah, I’d love to just be I guess a novice pilot.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I feel like we’ve had someone on the show that was a pilot. Well I don’t know if they were a pilot. I think they were just into flying planes, like model planes. I’m thinking of Dantley Davis. I don’t remember if he told me he was into planes or if he did fly recreationally. I don’t remember which it was. But I would imagine that’s probably pretty well within your grasp right now?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. I mean it’s just amazing to be up there and how you feel when you’re actually in control of the plane, how complex it is. But in some ways it’s fairly simple as well. Just seems like extremely challenging but very peaceful at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
Will probably make your commute easier.

Tim Allen:
Oh indeed, yeah. Going from Seattle to San Francisco man, you wouldn’t talk about work-life balance. That’s one thing that’s off balance is like, how can I make that commute less painful? So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
How far is it? I mean, I’m assuming you’re flying, but it’s what, like a two hour flight?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, yeah. Sometimes a little less. And then yeah, I’m trying to make it a science to get in and out of the airport and to the office as quick as possible so I can get my day started at 10:00 AM starting from Seattle, which isn’t too bad.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. See Airbnb needs to work on the air part. They got the bnb part down.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
They get the air part down, get you a private jet or something back and forth. Make it happen.

Tim Allen:
There you go. I like the way you’re thinking Maurice. We should have a transportation division as well. I got to hit them up.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, so what is it like, I’m curious because Seattle is a pretty big tech city. I mean Microsoft is there, Amazon is there, and Nintendo is there, bunch of other probably smaller companies and stuff, but you’re working in Silicon Valley. Do you feel like that’s a big shift for you in any sort of way?

Tim Allen:
For me personally, no. I mean we have an office, Airbnb has an office in Seattle as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a office here and so I work out of the Seattle office as well as the San Francisco office. So we’re quite a community here in Seattle. And I think what’s interesting, really interesting in terms of the black design community here, woman by the name of Bekah Marcum has just recently just used LinkedIn to literally just knit together a community out of thin air over the last couple of years of black designers in Seattle. I just spoke at one of the events not too long ago, but being a part of the design community just at large in Seattle, it’s great. And like you said, there’s a ton of tech companies here. There’s a ton of agencies here as well. This is a nice creative climate.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me more about that local Seattle design scene. Black design scene I guess if we want to put a finer point on it. What is it like for you at this stage in your career?

Tim Allen:
I like to be closer probably to the black design community or design committee in general. So fairly busy. But yeah, just being able to meet with young early in career designers and folks who’ve been in the game for a while as well is just super interesting. I mean, iron sharpens iron and sometimes it’s just representation, like this being in a room of people that look like you, especially when that’s not often the case is cathartic in and of itself. And if all those people are also within your function and are passionate about what you’re passionate about as well, it’s like paradise.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s something that I found interesting when I started doing live shows with Revision Path is that oftentimes just the fellowship aspect alone of being in the same room, like for attendees, for me too really. Just being in the same room with a bunch of black designers, I don’t want to say that’s enough. It feels like a disservice to say that’s enough given sort of the dearth of spaces that are available in the design community that speak to us, that are for us, that cater to us, et cetera. But just being in the space, every time we do a live show, people are like, “When’s the next one?” I’m like, “Ah, I don’t know.” But they love that opportunity so much and they’re able to talk to people that look like them, that are in the same field as them. It’s such a rarity when it does happen.

Tim Allen:
Oh my God yeah. It’s so rare. I mean basically we couldn’t stop talking about it. After we finished up with the event, people were just constantly remarking about how rare this is and how good it feels. And yeah, I mean just like you said, it just speaks the dearth of opportunities, places, times when we are together. And so we’ve got a long way to go in our industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve been a design leader in this industry for a long time. You’ve seen designers come and go, you’ve seen trends come and go, et cetera. What is something that you’ve …

Maurice Cherry:
Seeing trends come and go, et cetera. What is something that you think most designers don’t worry about but they should? I have an answer. I don’t want to seed your answer but I want to listen to what you have to say.

Tim Allen:
I would say the why, I think the more senior you get, the more experienced you get, it gets better. But I’ve even seen more senior designers not really understand why they’re making decisions and be able to articulate the rationale behind it. And it goes back to just art versus design. We’re not artists necessarily. We should be artists, but our job isn’t art, as a designer at least. You are solving problems, so understanding how to articulate why you’ve made a decision, down to every design decision. Even some of the design decisions you’re probably making intuitively or instinctually, I’d love to see designers focus more on that.

Maurice Cherry:
That was actually pretty close to my answer. Yeah, I was going to say writing, but for the very same reasons of being able to articulate sort of why you made a certain design decision or why you decided to go a certain way. I mean look, I’m a designer that can sit out and vibe for hours over fonts and find what the right typeface is to get a vibe and all that. But being able to articulate the why behind it is so important because otherwise people just think you’re some woo woo hippie designer just pulling stuff out of nowhere. And it’s like where is … what’s the rationale behind it? What’s the thought process that goes into the decision? Because it feels like without that then yeah, you are an artist because artists don’t necessarily have to explain that. But as a designer you’re in service to the user, to the company, to the client, et cetera. So that rationale becomes paramount.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I couldn’t describe it better. I think … and then as you rise in seniority, you have this whole notion of accountability. So as you define that, you either create accountability because of those decisions or you’re given accountability because of those decisions. And if you don’t understand what you’re being held accountable for, you can’t measure it, you can’t tout it, you can’t … When calibration performance reviews come around, you’re sort of like, well I did this, but why did you do it? How does that track against the business impact? Can you make a … I think there’s several ways to use that as ammunition and one of them is through performance reviews. I also see that as an area where writing and everything we’re talking about comes in handy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What advice would you give to, let’s say I’m a mid career designer, I’m even loath to use that term because the middle of a designer’s career, it’s often a very weird nebulous period of time. You know what I mean? I mean certainly if you look at titles, you can be a junior or senior whatever, but mid career, is that three years, five years, 10 years? How long is a designer’s career, et cetera. But let’s say a mid career designer, say five years or so in the game, they’re listening to this interview, they’re looking at your work, they’re looking at your resume. What advice would you give them if they want to get to the level where you are?

Tim Allen:
Sometimes I’m a little old school, I don’t even know if this really still applies, I haven’t thought about it as much, but when I was coming up and it was again, my father’s influence, he had the whole adage of you got to be twice as good. He didn’t really necessarily add the whole expect half as much thing. He just … they definitely instilled that, understand where the bar is and then just double it. So I’d say craft and just excellence. If you can just be as scary talented as you can be, I think that starts to speak for itself. And also it reflects your passion, whether that is interaction or XD or communication design, visual design, graphic design, whatever it is. Even gathering insights, just that notion of excellence and understanding where the bar is and always trying to push it is a gift.

Maurice Cherry:
So one of the things that we have for this year, for 2020 is basically a more equitable future. I mean 2020 is sort of this year that’s been driven into pop culture as the future in many ways, whether it’s the new show or just the notion of a repeating year of some sort where this is the future. How are you helping to use your design skills or even just kind of your station at where you’re at in life, how are you helping to create a more equitable future?

Tim Allen:
One of the things we just started to do is to work with companies, like the Inneract Project, I’m sure you’re familiar with the other Maurice Mo and even beyond that how can you create more awareness of design as a viable path. Not only viable but extremely lucrative in some cases, path as well, to underrepresented marginalized groups. I think that’s key. I think for me, in terms of contributing to a more equitable industry and talent pool, it’s just like getting folks in and then understanding the barriers there. I mean it’s not just social economic but it’s also cultural. I think we talked about my background where my parents were very supportive of art just as a means to … as a way of living but that’s definitely not always the case. You see that all the time.

Tim Allen:
So overcoming those barriers, so awareness. I think access is another one. And then also just tilling the soil as it were, as a leader myself in propagating the understanding of representation, diversity and having a diverse population feel like they belong as well and how that puts jet fuel on creativity. There’s tons of research on it, I won’t go into all that, but it’s tangible what happens when you get a bunch of different voices singing the same song.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s 2025, it’s even further in the future, what is Tim Allen doing? What’s he working on?

Tim Allen:
Oh man. 2025 in the future, I’m probably a host of some sort. Either a super host, in terms of an experience or my home or both. I’m working on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Oh, an Airbnb host. Okay.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know why my mind went straight to game show when you said that, but okay.

Tim Allen:
I could be a game show host. That could be interesting too.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey, nothing wrong with that.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. No, I feel like I would want in five years to be … to have provided some pathway of access to increase our numbers as black designers in the field. Definitely within Airbnb. But not only us racially but numbers of other underrepresented populations as well. Just being a beacon of inclusion and belonging. Yeah, I think if in five years, somehow in the orbit of what it means to create a creative team or produce creative deliverables that are inclusive and that inspire people to want to be more inclusive and host and make people feel like they belong. That’s what I would want to do in five years.

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

Tim Allen:
You can definitely check me out on Twitter, Tim Allen Design. Hit me up on Instagram as well. I’m just Timothy Allen there. LinkedIn is always a good route too. I’ve got a couple of portfolios out there, but they’re super old. So take a look at those if you want to, but just to kind of see my path and some old work like-

Maurice Cherry:
Any of the airbrush shirts up there?

Tim Allen:
No, I need to put some of those up there though.

Maurice Cherry:
You should, I feel like that’s making a comeback now. Fashion design comes in 20 year cycles.

Tim Allen:
True, true, true. And we’re … that would be right for right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey look, think about it.

Tim Allen:
Okay [inaudible 00:08:44].

Maurice Cherry:
All right Tim Allen, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, one, giving us kind of a peek behind the curtain at Airbnb, what it’s like to kind of be at your position, but also just talking about your path, your journey as a designer, how you’ve come up and also really, I think it’s good to have that sort of introspection once you get to a … I don’t know, I think once you get to a certain level in your career to kind of see this is where I’ve been, this is where I’m going.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s always good, I feel like to have those sorts of insights and reflective moments because not only does it help you out and help you grow as a person, but also it helps out others as well because you’re able to kind of impart that knowledge on the next generation and certainly it looks like with the work you’re doing at Airbnb, through your teams as well as this work that you’re talking about with the black designer community in Seattle, et cetera, that you’re making that happen. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tim Allen:
Thanks for having me, Maurice. I appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure.


RECOGNIZE is open for essay submissions for Volume 2! The deadline is April 30 – enter today!

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Fonz Morris

You know, I’ve interviewed hundreds of Black creatives over the years, but none of them have had the enthusiasm that Fonz Morris possesses. He is the growth design lead at online learning platform Coursera, where he oversees a staff of talented designers from all over. We talked about hiring, diversity and inclusion, and he gave some great advice for up and coming designers looking to land their dream job.

Fonz also shared his story of growing up in Brooklyn and teaching himself architecture, going to college in Atlanta, starting his own music distribution platform and creative agency, and how those experiences led him to where he is today. Fonz is all about pursuing his dreams, and after you hear his words of wisdom, you’ll be inspired to go out and do the same!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Fonz Morris:
My name is Fonz Morris. I am the design lead on the growth team at Coursera.org which is an online Edtech company based out of Silicon Valley focusing on transforming lives through education.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get started there?

Fonz Morris:
Once my last startup that I helped get off the ground ended up not working out for me, I told my wife that if I was going to get a job back in corporate America or go back and lead the entrepreneurship space, I wanted it to be out in California. I just knew the community that was out here, I knew the weather, I wanted a change of environment. I’m a father I wanted to raise my daughter in a different environment than New York City or Philadelphia and I just started to pursue opportunities out West and I applied to different positions. Recruiters hit me up from different companies and ultimately I landed at Coursera in August of 2018.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. What kind of projects are you working on there as a growth design lead?

Fonz Morris:
So currently we just released our new homepage, which is doing fantastic. The numbers are up 4% across site wide which is really exciting for those of you who understand metrics. I have recently worked on redesigning our promo unit system framework, which is really important for us because we have a lot of different products that we need to promote to different learners at different times. So our old promo unit system was just ineffective and it wasn’t really producing traffic and it was really hard to develop the promo units, it wasn’t scalable. So we redid that, that was very successful. I also helped redo our degree white label framework. Degrees are a really important part of Coursera and for the future of Coursera and we have about 18 degrees now and each one is from a different university.

Fonz Morris:
So they need their own place to be able to house the necessary information. And another product that I worked on is our new UX search results page. We were having some issues with not getting users to the right content that they wanted so we completely revamped that. And then also being on the growth team I work on a lot of smaller experiments. We’re really experiment based where we’ll roll out two, three smaller iterations of something to get the data from that to be able to make a better educated decision on a design, which those are smaller tasks. So it’s split between big projects like the ones I said originally and then smaller ones that are more targeted towards growth specific and iterations.

Maurice Cherry:
I got you. So it’s a lot of, at least it sounds like it’s some user testing involved with it when you’re doing this sort of comparison.

Fonz Morris:
Yes sir. Lots of it. So once again, I’ll get technical real quick. Usually what we have is a control, which is what the actual live current site is. And then we’ll have a variant A, variant B, a variant C and then we’ll roll out each of those variants to a specific target group. And we’ll get the numbers back from those and then that way we can compare the effect that each design had on each target and be able to make a decision based off the metrics.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a regular day like for you there? It sounds like there’s a lot of meetings, a lot of maybe cross functional work, stuff like that.

Fonz Morris:
Lots of meetings. I don’t think I would’ve ever thought that as somebody with designer in their title that I would have so many meetings. So I would say it’s funny, it’s really interesting and I had to get used to that because as a designer I was a solo person. I was used to just sitting in front of my computer zoning out and cranking out designs where now I would say my time is split almost, maybe 60/40 sometimes even 70/30 meeting design. And then we use split in not necessarily formal meetings but one-on-one meetings with the other designer that’s on my team.

Fonz Morris:
Because I’m a design lead I support the other designers on the growth team as well. So when you add all of that up, you’d be surprised how much time I actually spent meeting but that’s because I’m helping come up with decisions and helping other designers come up with decisions with things like that. To where my job is no longer only focused on what I can physically produce, but also what I can emotionally and technically help other people with or grow with and things like that. So it’s funny how many meetings I do have nowadays though.

Maurice Cherry:
So how many designers are on the growth team?

Fonz Morris:
Well, right now we’re about nine. At our highest we were about 12 but that’s something else that’s tricky out here is the turnover at companies because a designer wants a better opportunity or they’re a contractor or it’s just not a good fit. So you see teams grow and shrink way more often than I thought, but right now we’re at about a strong nine.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would imagine out there in Silicon Valley because there’s so many tech companies out there, really so many design focused tech companies that if you’re a designer of a certain caliber you kind of can just bounce from place to place if you want to. You know?

Fonz Morris:
That’s what it feels like. You definitely get reached out to a lot of companies, but the hiring process at these companies are kind of tricky. So even if you are skilled you still got to go through their hiring process, which is definitely something that I wanted to talk about today. Because I don’t know how many people understand how much work it takes to get on at one of these companies and just how sometimes is also even just the luck of the draw. Because there’s so many phases of it, you never really know which phase could take you out or if you’re going to get through all of the phases as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Listen, let’s talk about it because I’m actually in the middle of hiring, well not hiring, I’m on the interview team so I’m doing a lot of phone screens and resume screens. Let’s talk about it because I actually have a lot to say about that. Talk to me I guess when it comes to what you are looking for out of designers. And it doesn’t necessarily I think have to be specific like skills. I’m sure you know skills are transferable, but what are you looking for when you’re hiring for someone at Coursera?

Fonz Morris:
I think the level of designer is important because that ties into what we’re going to ask them to produce. And by that I mean if we have a lot of production work, if there’s a lot of designs that need to be produced that maybe we’ve already did a lot of the work for and we don’t need to put a lot the full product design process into this, then we could say maybe we’re looking for someone who is not a senior level designer but they’re not really junior. And so because of that, now we’ll be looking for communication skills, we’ll be looking for the ability to do user research.

Fonz Morris:
We may not be expecting you to take a full project on that may go two or three quarters because you might not have had that kind of experience yet. But we’ll be expecting you to be able to lead some things to a certain extent without any handholding to a certain extent as well. And that you determined through asking questions, asking them what type of responsibilities they’ve had at their previous position. You’ll ask them what type of things they’re interested in and looking forward to working on if they get a new position. And then it’s your job as the interviewer to take all the information and see if the two situations align and feel like a good fit.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that there are certain skills or certain qualities that you’re looking for in particular?

Fonz Morris:
I think at the end of the day we want to work with really nice people, good people and that’s what I really value about Coursera is that I really like my coworkers. Everybody is friendly, everybody is smart, there’s not a lot of egos you feel you can trust each other and those are more on the personal side than they are the technical skills. So I would say and being transparent. When we asked you what your last job was about, we don’t want you to sound as if you were the best thing since sliced bread or you were the LeBron James of product design.

Fonz Morris:
Because we want some people to have humility, so we want you to be able to tell us how you worked with a problem and how you solved it. And if maybe you bumped heads with somebody on your team that doesn’t say anything about you, we are just really trying to figure out how you handle challenges. So we’re looking for those types of things as well of problem solving and being able to maybe compromise with some people to figure out how to get past a certain point if y’all both were bottlenecked on a idea. So all of these are not technical things, these are just soft skills.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s amazing to me how and this is something that I sort of knew this before, but certainly once I started interviewing and hiring designers and just creatives in general. Your personality and your behavior oftentimes are more important than what you have on your resume or your cover letter. I mean, certainly that will get you I think in the door or get you past the screen but like you said, you want to work with people that are going to fit within the culture. And I know culture fit can kind of be a negative term that is thrown about but like you say, you want to work with nice people. People that you can get along with and do work with, that’s really important.

Fonz Morris:
Cultural fit is important and I don’t understand why culture fit is a negative word. It’s important. Why is it important? Because as a black man, when you think of what does it mean for me to be a culture fit somewhere? What does that mean? If it’s not a black organization, then what culture am I trying to fit into? So I understand how it could be like a negative situation, but I also think it’s coming from the perspective of do you have an ego? Are you just a nice person? Are you friendly? Do you get along well with others on your team? Are you supportive? Do people want to come to work with you?

Fonz Morris:
And that’s just important because you’re with your coworkers more than you are with your family sometimes. So culture fit is important to me, but it does get tricky. And I know why people say that, but I definitely think culture once again goes into soft skills as well. And that’s just really important because if I’m not talking to you about designs or if you’re not literally doing the design, then you’re most likely using your soft skills. If that’s communicating or sharing or analyzing or critiquing so that’s why it ends up being really important for someone in the product space to be strong on both sides of the coin.

Maurice Cherry:
What other sort of advice would you give like for someone that’s not necessarily saying that they’re looking to work at Coursera, but if they’re looking to get into this industry. What advice would you give to an up and coming designer that wants to get a job in design?

Fonz Morris:
I love that question. That’s one of my favorite questions that I have actually spent days, hours, months trying to figure out what’s the best answer to that. And I recently spoke at AfroTech and I’m really happy to be able to have come up with the best answer to that question right before I did my talk. And my answer is I think you should take a second and think about all the different products that you interact with, and what’s your favorite, and then figure out would you want to work at that company. And if you want to work at that company then you should go to that company’s career page and you should look at all the positions that they have available.

Fonz Morris:
And if any of those positions jump out to you, you should go into it, you should read the job description and then you should read those requirements. And those requirements are pretty much your checklist of the skills and things you need to learn to be able to one day get that job. So I think that’s a no cost, really valuable step that a lot of people don’t do but could do and should do to really learn the details of what it would take to possibly land your dream job. Because why I say this also is think about it, somebody who has not developed any of their skills yet why just blindly develop skills or go after skills that you heard somebody else say?

Fonz Morris:
When you can think about where you want to be in your life, what company you think makes you happy. Or if you want to build your own product, think about a company that built something like that and then still go to their careers page because you still need that same information. You need a starting point and I think that’s something that I’ve learned from a lot of people that might be transitioning careers, or trying to reskill. They need a starting point and a job description is a really good starting point.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s some really good advice. I like the fact that you saying take that as the things that you have to do, the checklist to get that particular job. And I would even say especially if you still want to work for that company, even if that particular position may not be what you think it is, it can at least hopefully get your foot in the door there. There might be something else that you end up doing, the company might see what else you bring to the table they might make a position for you. I mean it’s a rarity sometimes, especially depending on how established the company is but especially in startups like tech startups? Absolutely. Like the job that you get, is not necessarily the job that you will keep if that makes any sense.

Fonz Morris:
Yes, that makes a ton of sense. But when you think of it, how many people visit a company’s career page? You don’t have to only visit that page when you’re looking for a job, they’re learning sources. They’re a knowledge base of this is what this company is asking somebody to do this position should know. And it’s literally like your syllabus almost, it’s like your career syllabus and that’s what I want my two cents to be to everybody. Is visit all of the job boards of all the companies you like and start taking notes and look and see if there’s any redundancy in some of the skills that they’re asking. Because then those are the ones you really know you should learn as opposed to just like I said, blindly trying to follow after somebody else and pull in skills that you think might be the hottest trends because those might not be the hottest translator.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative) that is very true. One weird thing that I’ve run into with interviewing and I don’t know if this is hubris or just like garden variety racism, but sometimes I will interview non black candidates and just the tone that they take with me, or the way that they will answer questions or not answer questions. Or ask if there’s someone else that they can speak to because they looked at my LinkedIn profile and they’re like we’ll. I’ll give you an example and this is not tied to my current employer if you happen to be listening, but I’ve certainly interviewed people before that have said, “Oh well I looked at your LinkedIn and like you’re not really a designer, so is there a designer that I can speak to?” This is back when I had my studio, which I thought was very interesting considering like I run the studio so if you’re talking to me like the buck stops here. Oh yeah.

Fonz Morris:
People want it to only be interviewed by designers?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and I guess, I mean I guess I’ll be transparent this has also happened at the place that I work. But it’s interesting how, I don’t know if this is like a new thing that happens in design, but like I don’t think people realize that just because you’re interviewing with one person that you’re also sort of suddenly being interviewed by an entire team. That person is trying to see if you fit not just in the company or in this role, this particular singular role, but do you fit with the team? Do we want to hand off work to you? Do we want to hand out projects to you? Do we like you at the end of the day? And if this is how you’re acting at the phone screen stage then you can forget it.

Fonz Morris:
Right, I understand what you’re saying. I don’t think that the… Okay, so I disagree with that. I think the first round should be anybody the company wants to be just getting a temperature check of where you are and who you are as a person. And being able to just what are you into? Why do you want to leave your job? Tell me about yourself. I don’t really think you need to be a specific profession to ask somebody those type of high level, let me get to know you type of questions. So I think the recruiter being the first person that you speak to makes sense because I need to vet as well as all the people coming through the door.

Fonz Morris:
I’ll let you speak to our designers and stuff like that in the second round where we’re going to get a little more technical, but for the first go, because it’s so introductory I don’t necessarily. I never felt as if the first person I spoke to needed to be a designer. I was just really honestly to be candid, I’m just always happy to even make it to the phone screen. So I’m not focusing on who I’m talking to, I’m more happy that I’m talking to somebody.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Okay. I can see it in that viewpoint. I still think though it just helps to not be a jerk essentially.

Fonz Morris:
Yeah. No, no always. I am always about respect and professionalism. I think that is so important I can’t even think of the… Enormously important. You should never be a jerk to anybody if you’re trying to get something from them, that’s just common sense. So if you’re trying to get a job and I’m your first access point to the company and you’re not being nice to me, I’m not sure how far you’re going to make it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true. And I’ve definitely run into that several times, but I guess in terms of-

Fonz Morris:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. In terms of other advice, I can’t stress enough the importance of having a really good portfolio. I looked at your website, I see you have your portfolio and I mean it’s great because it lists not only the things that you’ve done, but also the thought process behind it. I know that I’ve talked to designers, young designers they’re like just starting out or just coming out of school. And I’m like, it’s so important for you to actually talk about your design decisions and not just show a bunch of mock-ups or a bunch of pretty pictures like that. Anyone can generate that, you can buy a mock-up thing from I don’t know, mighty deals or somewhere for like 14 bucks.

Maurice Cherry:
Slap in a few logos all of a sudden look at all this work that I did that’s on billboards and folders I’m like no, it’s not. It doesn’t really exist in the real world. But like to talk about the why behind why you’re doing certain things. Those shots might look pretty, but the critical thinking I think is more important as a designer. I mean, that’s why I think if you’re a visual or if you’re something like product or UX. It’s just still important to be able to articulate that in some way.

Fonz Morris:
Right. So tell the story. That’s another piece of information that I would want to say is people want to hear a story. So when you only show the final design, you jumped to the last page of the story. So I don’t know what the story about, you just jumped to the end. You know what I mean? So it’s like, I don’t know what story you just told me and it doesn’t really show me how you got to that final design. And that’s why some feedback, I actually just did a mentor session yesterday at Adobe with a organization out of San Francisco.

Fonz Morris:
At Adobe with organization out of San Francisco named Kaskade SF. And it was fantastic because I got to actually interview about five junior designers and walk through their portfolio and give them feedback. And that was what I was focusing on the most was, “Are you telling me a story to get me from the top of the pace to the bottom of the page?” That’s what’s so important. And you do that through breaking it up with letting me know what the problem is and letting me know that you understand the industry that you’re in. And then walking me through how you think about this could possibly be solved and do you understand the user and understand what the user wants from this. And then that helps you figure out what your information and your content should be. And then it goes into information architecture. So it’s a whole flow that you can end up telling somebody that would really help them understand why you made the decisions you made. And that’s what people are really trying to get from your portfolio.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely.

Fonz Morris:
Yes, they’re trying to [crosstalk 00:25:06] about me page and read a little bit about you. But from your skill side, they’re trying to figure out how you handle this problem, what you did in the process and how you did it.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. So speaking of the story, we have you on here to talk about your story. So tell me about where you grew up.

Fonz Morris:
So I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I went to a public art high school. I’m a self taught designer, which I like to say that, not to brag, but more of as an inspiration for anyone to know that once again, like I said earlier, if you work hard at something I’m a true believer in you can achieve anything that you put your mind to. So I wanted to be architect when I was young and I taught myself architecture and went to a art high school. From art high school I went into computer science at Georgia State. Well, I started at Morehouse actually getting my degree in computer science. And then I transferred from Morehouse to Georgia State and that’s where I actually finished my degree in computer science.

Fonz Morris:
And I taught myself… In my senior year of college, Georgia State got a grant from the state of university from… Georgia State got a grant from the state to build a multimedia lab on campus and they completely furnished it with all new multimedia equipment, Mac equipment, PC, Adobe, Macromedia Pro Tools, Final Cut, new Canon equipment. They completely furnished it with all new things for us to use as students. And I pretty much just moved into the lab and I taught myself everything that I could possibly know there. And it was a great experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s step back a little bit. So self-taught designer also here, same way. Was your family supportive of you going into design or architecture? Did they see this as something that you could do for a living?

Fonz Morris:
I don’t think I spoke to them enough about it. I was always a academic type of student, so as long as I stayed in my books, my parents were supportive of anything that I was doing. I actually had a friend whose father was a black architect and then I tried to get an internship with another black architect and I took some courses at Parsons School of Design when I was in high school. And this energy showed my parents that I was really interested in architecture. So I did have support for them. But I will say, I don’t know if they knew to the extent or to the degree that I wanted to pursue design or pursue architecture at that moment. I tried to show them the best I could through the work I did at school and through my passion for looking at buildings and constantly reading architectural books and architecture magazines. So I would say that they supported me to the best that they knew how.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What drew you to architecture?

Fonz Morris:
I just feel I’m a… Because I like design at the end of the day. And growing up in New York City, you’re around a lot of skyscrapers and that’s where some of the most famous architects have planted their seeds and you’re walking up and down Fifth Avenue or when you’re walking in Soho or in Brooklyn and you see all these amazing art deco style buildings and these modern buildings from with all these different heights and windows. And then you see you got the Brooklyn Bridge and you got the Manhattan Bridge and you got the George Washington Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge. It’s so many different bridges that you’re seeing and these are all amazing examples of architecture. So I would think growing up in New York City is what exposed me to architecture. And being in the city is where they made me say, “I want to design one of these buildings one day.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now I also went to Morehouse, so I have to ask about it. What was it like when you got there? What was it like when you first got there?

Fonz Morris:
It was an amazing experience. Being a black man, wanting to connect with other black men in a higher education space. It was really self rewarding and I was very proud and accomplished. I also wanted to attend the HBCU as well. My sister went to North Carolina A&T, so it was almost as if I felt as if I had made it to a certain level, education-wise, because I had made it into Morehouse, which in my community was respected as a very prestigious school for black men. So I loved the experience. I ended up transferring though in all honesty because one, I paid for college out of my pocket and Morehouse being a private college…

Maurice Cherry:
Is very expensive.

Fonz Morris:
… The tuition is way higher than the State University as well as they don’t offer in state tuition. And then sadly, which this has a trickle down effect. The resources that I needed to be successful just wasn’t available at Morehouse while I was attending. But I don’t think that’s a shot at Morehouse. I think it’s an eye opener to understanding the value of getting funding and what you can do with the right money.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
Because Georgia State the other hand had all of the new equipment, all of the new computer labs, all of the things I needed to pursue my computer science degree successfully, Georgia State was able to give me. So that’s why I left Morehouse. From a cultural or from a personal feeling, I really loved going to Morehouse. It really made me proud going to campus every day and seeing so many other brothers trying to better their lives and their family lives to getting a higher education. But when it came to the resources, the State University just had an abundance of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And at Georgia State, geographically, you weren’t that far from Morehouse anyway.

Fonz Morris:
No, [crosstalk 00:07:07].

Maurice Cherry:
It’s you could take the 13 down to Fair Street and you’re right there on campus.

Fonz Morris:
Yeah. I can take Ralph David Abernathy right across would be there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
No doubt. So yes, yes. And Atlanta is still a very black focused city.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Fonz Morris:
So when I left to go to Georgia State, I didn’t have any regrets. I felt as if I was just doing what was the best for me at that moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
But I love Morehouse. I love Morehouse, I think it’s very important institution in our community.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so interesting you mentioned that about the resources. So you got there in ’97 I think you said? You got there in ’97 I got there in ’99. I also started out in computer science.

Fonz Morris:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
I started out, actually dual degree computer science, computer engineering because the scholarship that I had, we had to major in one of the STEM fields.

Fonz Morris:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
And I wanted to do computer science mainly because I wanted to do web design. I had been learning web design on my own, just reverse engineering webpages at my mom’s school’s computer lab and teaching myself HTML because… I’m from a small town, Selma, Alabama. We didn’t have a bookstore. The library had one computer that could get on the internet.

Fonz Morris:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
So we didn’t have a whole lot of resources around learning this stuff. At the college they had more resources, but I was teaching a lot of that stuff myself and so when I went to… And also I would say I wanted to major in computer science because I want to be Dwayne Wayne from A Different World.

Fonz Morris:
Nice. Listen, in all transparency. Part of the reason I wanted to go to a black college as well was because A Different World, like you just said, as well as TLC dropped the Baby Baby Baby video. It was like…

Maurice Cherry:
Man.

Fonz Morris:
… “Is that what college is like? Are you kidding me?” I’m not missing out on that.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if there’s a think piece or something out there on The Root or The Undefeated or something about how hip hop and the 90s and how they glorified college. You don’t see that now. There was…

Fonz Morris:
[crosstalk 00:33:13] wearing college sweatshirts.

Maurice Cherry:
My God.

Fonz Morris:
[crosstalk 00:33:15] college, let’s be smart. You know what I mean? You don’t have none of that anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
None of that. Man. But I got to Morehouse’s campus. I started out computer science, computer engineering. Switched to, I think I switched to computer science maybe after the first few weeks or so because I didn’t really want to do the engineering part. But I wanted to do web design and I remember, I was sitting, these names will take you back. I was sitting in Dr. Jones’ class and… Did you take a class with Dr. Jones?

Fonz Morris:
Which class is that?

Maurice Cherry:
I think I might’ve been computer programming one, I think? One of the intro classes.

Fonz Morris:
Man, listen, don’t make me show how old I am. I would have to go through my transcripts and look for any of my names and my professors.

Maurice Cherry:
But I remember, the thing that I didn’t like about Dr. Jones, and he’s passed on, rest in peace, but the thing about Dr. Jones was he wouldn’t teach. He would sit in class and tell all his anecdotes about his fishing buddies and growing up and all this sort of stuff. And we’re just sitting here, “When is the class going to start?” And I don’t know if this was a way to weed people out, but then when you are ready to go to the next class, then he would start teaching. It’s like, “I guess we got rid of all the stragglers now we can start learning something.”

Maurice Cherry:
But Dr. Jones was also my advisor and so I remember going to… You remember the secretary Mrs. Banks? Man. I don’t know if she’s still there or not, but man she was my best friend at Morehouse all four years I was there. Because I ended up switching my major to math largely because…

Fonz Morris:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I switched my major to math because I was… I met with Dr. Jones and I told him I wanted to go into doing web design and I showed them some design stuff I had did. I did the design for the Project Space Scholarship Program and I was like “Look at all this stuff I’ve done.” And he was like, “Look, the internet is a fad. All this WW web stuff, this stuff ain’t going to be around. That’s not what we teach you here. If that’s what you want to do, you need to change your major.” So I was like “Well, shit I guess…”

Fonz Morris:
See, that’s the problem is that computer science programs should have picked up web development years ago.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But this was 1999 though. I don’t know that many colleges that would have had a curriculum. So, which is not to say that he was wrong [crosstalk 00:35:37] don’t get me wrong, but they didn’t have anything.

Fonz Morris:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
He was really like “If this is what you want to do, you need to major in something else.” And I thought about it and looked at my transcript and my credits and stuff and so I switched over to math because I had enough credits from taking AP math courses in high school and say “Well if I switch over to math I can just graduate early.” For me I was thinking “How soon can I get out of here?”

Fonz Morris:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Because I was figuring like… And also my freshman year was rough. That’s a whole other story. But I was really thinking like “How soon can I get out of here and get my degree?”

Fonz Morris:
Right [crosstalk 00:36:14].

Maurice Cherry:
And I switched over to math and just stayed in math and I graduated in three and a half years. So I technically graduated in ’02 but I walked in ’03. But yeah, even then there was nothing. I remember the computer lab there being so… And not to rag on Morehouse because now it’s gotten better, now they have a whole technology tower. I think Dr. Chung was still teaching back then, but now he’s the chair. He’s the chair now.

Fonz Morris:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
But I remember they just had these old archaic Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics workstations.

Fonz Morris:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “What in the hell is this? How am I supposed to use this? I have to use Linux?”

Fonz Morris:
Its tough. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
It was rough. It was really rough back then and I was like, “Man, maybe it was a good thing I did change my major.” Although, to be clear…

Fonz Morris:
But that’s why HBCUs need to be able to get the funding from the government to be able to pay for these things. You know what I mean? A lot of the HBCUs pay for this stuff with their own money and that stuff’s expensive.

Maurice Cherry:
Although to be clear, when I switched over to math it wasn’t I was going into a technological workplace either. They had these… I almost felt as sometimes I was sitting in a one room school house, just really bad quality desks. Blackboard broken.

Fonz Morris:
HBCUs need funding.

Maurice Cherry:
Then again this is… Yeah but this is ’99 to 2000. And I would imagine it’s different now. Honestly part of me didn’t know any better because I’m like “I came from Alabama. So we use chalkboards and overhead projectors because that’s what we use in high school.” So when we’re doing that in college I was like “This is what you’re supposed to do.” And then I knew people that were going to Georgia State and Georgia Tech using these smart whiteboards and stuff. I was like “What? I’m out here sketching out comic solids with a piece of chalk and y’all are just keying in an equation and getting the graph? What?”

Fonz Morris:
Man.

Maurice Cherry:
My God. Yeah. Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
Very funny. I agree with you and I understand what you’re saying and they’ve made a lot of progress since those days, which is good to see. I was down there about two years ago and when I walked on campus I could see the growth. It felt good.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’ve definitely grown a lot. Now I would say they still… I don’t know. Morehouse has its, and not to rag on Morehouse, but Morehouse has other issues outside of funding and just curriculum and software and hardware and things like that. But it has grown a lot. I will give it that much. The performing arts center and all of new equipment…

Fonz Morris:
Yes, The Ray Charles Performing Art…

Maurice Cherry:
… And things, a revamped cafeteria and everything. Movies are shot on campus now. A good part of Hidden Figures was shot on Morehouse’s campus.

Fonz Morris:
Tyler Perry is changing Atlanta man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
He’s bringing that film, they’re heavy, which is good because there’s a lot of money in that space.

Maurice Cherry:
Yep.

Fonz Morris:
Atlanta. I miss Atlanta sometimes. I honestly do.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey it’s always here. Always here if you want to come back.

Fonz Morris:
The [crosstalk 00:39:15] not going anywhere.

Maurice Cherry:
Nowhere. So you transferred to Georgia State and you’re talking about how it was different from Morehouse. Once you graduated from there, what was your first design gig? What were you working on?

Fonz Morris:
I started doing flyers for people and doing business cards and doing logos for anybody that needed it, no industry specific. And then I started to get better at that and that’s when I got my first project ever was… Well my first ever paying gig was a website for a furniture company, a small indie furniture company. And I think they paid me, I think the whole deal that my partner worked out with ended up being I think either 35 or 5,500 for a full website. And I just could not believe it when he came back with a 50% deposit.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Fonz Morris:
And I said to myself, “Are you kidding me man? They actually gave you that money?” And that’s what led me know that there was a lane for me. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that where Third Eye Designs cam out of?

Fonz Morris:
Pretty much. I’ve always been a believer in having your third eye open and then designs and that just felt the best name of a company possible to me was Third Eye Designs. And so that furniture company was Third Eye Designs first paying client.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. How long were you freelancing like that?

Fonz Morris:
I still do it to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Fonz Morris:
They almost… Because it grew from freelancing into, now that I’m later in my career, it’s just consulting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Fonz Morris:
But I don’t call it Third Eye Designs anymore. But the process or the concept of doing freelance design work, I still do it to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Fonz Morris:
But I’ll always be able to do that. Which that’s the thing, which ,message, this is why you always want to learn a skill because they can never take that skill away from me. So because I’m a designer, they can never take that away from me. I can always make money doing design, whether it’s at a company or whether it’s freelance or whether it’s trying to build my own product. So that’s the value of having a relevant skill.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely. So how long was it until you moved back to New York City?

Fonz Morris:
After I was doing Third Eye Designs, I realized maybe I could get a job in the industry and that’s when I got my first art director position at a money transfer company that was a small, tiny version of a Western Union and I did that for almost two years. And that’s where I really got my first bearings and understanding what it’s like to work with engineers who are going to be building your stuff and this is what a web developer is versus a web designer and really understanding the programming languages like that. And then I actually had a tragedy in my family. A little brother actually ended up getting killed in New York.

Maurice Cherry:
Man.

Fonz Morris:
And that’s what I decided to just leave Atlanta. It was just a whole life changing experience for me and I just felt I needed to be back around my family. And so I left Atlanta to go back to New York. And when I got to New York is when I got my first agency job where I was working on a lot of different marketing style materials. Banners, flash banner web banners, landing pages for entertainment companies, movies. And New York is a good place for design. So it was an easy place for me to get a job once I left Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:
Now was this at My Artist’s DNA?

Fonz Morris:
No, this is not even… Portfolio, well not portfolios, but resumes are so hard to decide what to put and what not put. My Artist’s DNA was pretty much what Third Eye Designs… It was Third Eye Designs first product.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I gotcha.

Fonz Morris:
So I’ll keep going with this and it’ll start to make a lot more sense. So once I went back to New York and I started working in the agency space, I kept the Third Eye Designs idea going with the same partner and we started to do even bigger projects for even more people. We worked with Def Jam and we did Kanye West banners and we worked with Def Jam and we did Jagged Edge stuff and Rick Ross and we worked with Universal Music and we did movie releases. And we just realized, “Wow, we’re getting good at this. We’re actually getting real clients.” And then another partner of ours from Morehouse joined on board. He opened up his network and then we was doing work with real estate companies and all these other different new businesses. And what ended up happening is one of our clients that we had did a lot of work for, Aqua hired us. Actually the… It’s an amazing story.

Fonz Morris:
Our first angel investors were a family out of Pennsylvania, the Lomax family, the honorable Dr. Walter Lomax. He was actually Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s physician, his real physician. And that’s the craziest part, he’s a legend…

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Fonz Morris:
… That most black people don’t know. But his family were really focused on investing in a lot of black startups and black businesses all across the country and across the world actually. So they put up the money for me to build My Artist’s DNA. And that was my first product, which was supposed to be a way for indie artists to promote and monetize their brands. It came out around the time Myspace stopped and Facebook pages had just launched.

Maurice Cherry:
Man. So you go from attending Morehouse where Martin Luther King went to now getting supported by the family of his doctor?

Fonz Morris:
Greatest experience ever.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Fonz Morris:
Most people don’t even know of the Lomax family. They are amazing, amazing people. They have done so much. They’ve been behind the scenes for so many different things that people don’t know. And I just am very fortunate enough to have worked with them and they put up real angel money for us to build our first product. I will forever be thankful for them, forever appreciative. And it’s what really allowed me to get my product design career started. Because prior to this I was doing web design and graphic design, but once we started doing My Artist’s DNA, that was my first step into actual product design.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So you also worked for a gaming company, is that right? High 5 Games?

Fonz Morris:
Yes. So the startup, My Artist’s DNA, we did that for about five years, but then we ultimately ran out of funding and I was engaged and knew I needed to get a job again. And then I was in Philadelphia at that moment and I thought to myself, “Well, I’m going to do something fun. I want to do something I haven’t tried before.” And High 5 Games was a video game company that built casino games for Facebook as well as in house casinos. So I was the art director there and I worked on the marketing team, which allowed me to try to help promote our new games that were coming out and I our new campaigns and come and go. So it was actually my first attempt at working on a growth team because my whole job was to try to create these amazing visuals to keep people wanting to play our games.

Maurice Cherry:
And so you’re in New York, you’re working at High 5 Games as art director doing UX stuff. When did you decide to move to Philly? What brought that on?

Fonz Morris:
So my first move to Philly was when we got the angel investment, because the Lomax family was based out of Pennsylvania.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Fonz Morris:
So we needed to be in Philly to be able to get back and forth to the office because they were our investors and we needed to go into the office to be able to talk and help strategize and plan things out. So that was my first stay in Philly. Once that didn’t happen and I moved back to New York, was High 5 Games, and then I left High 5 Games and went to Philly a second time to work at Comcast, which is extended use cable.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha.

Fonz Morris:
That was my second stay in Philly.

Maurice Cherry:
What was it like working there?

Fonz Morris:
I like Philadelphia.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Philly’s a great city. I went for the first time in… What year was that? 2017 I think? No, not 2017, 2018 I think was the first time I went. Great city. Great city, great food scene. I love Philly. A lot of people was telling me when I went to Philly, “Philly’s rough.” I was like, “Philly?” I had a great time in Philly. I enjoy Philly.

Fonz Morris:
Philly is rough. Philly is rough, I will be honest. But…

Fonz Morris:
Is rough [inaudible 00:48:01] but that’s if you go to the wrong place. I think [inaudible 00:48:07] is rough if you go to the wrong places. So what’s critical about Philly is its proximity to New York and its proximity to DC. It’s like a middle point between two major cities, so depending on if you’re in government in DC or if you’re in banking or real estate or finance in New York, you can even live in Philadelphia and commute to New York as often as you need. That’s what I was doing.

Maurice Cherry:
What was it like working at Comcast?

Fonz Morris:
It was interesting. It was interesting. Why do I say that is because I was a contractor and when you’re a contractor at these big companies, you get treated a little different. I mean you still go to work every day, but certain company meetings you don’t get to go to. They had a gym in the building that I couldn’t use because I was a contractor and you always have this kind of stigma over your head of you’re a second class citizen because you’re a contractor. When you can put that aside, which is not that easy, working there was cool because it was the hottest company in the city. I could walk to work. The building and the work environment was amazing. My coworkers were cool. I’ve actually worked on a lot of high profile stuff. I’ve got to work on the Netflix release, I’ve got to work on the Olympic stuff, I’ve got to work on that new X1 remote.

Fonz Morris:
I got to work on a lot of projects and different products and I learned a lot. I learned a lot about design systems and I learned a lot about the difference between art directors and creative directors and working with sales teams. It was a really important learning process for me and I learned a lot about things not only design related but just basic work environment related. That’s what made me realize I never wanted to be per se a contractor again at a company. That stability is not really there and I realized I needed to hone in on my skills and if I wasn’t going to do entrepreneurship, I needed to get a full time position somewhere because the contracting stuff just gets in the way sometimes. So that kind of clouded my experience at Xfinity a little bit in all transparency.

Maurice Cherry:
I worked at AT&T from 2006 to 2008 also as a contractor and yeah, I know what you mean about that second class citizen kind of status. Aside from the fact that they will just treat you in that way, there’s also the fact that … and I don’t know if it was like this at Comcast, but at AT&T they kept changing the goalposts when it came to what they measured you for success by. So the employees were I guess kind of set because they had a salary and so whatever happened happened, but contractors were held to this really super rigid, almost like a Glen Gary, Glen Ross, kind of standard of you have to make this many points a week and if you don’t make this many points a week, you’re fired. They would be quick to tell you that they will get someone else in to fill your spot like that. Like they don’t care.

Fonz Morris:
Also randomly, if you’re a contractor and you’re already feeling some kind of way, being the only black man on the design team doesn’t really help either, you know what I mean? There were certain times where I just had to really ask myself, “Is this the right place for me?” And did I really see myself having upward mobility in that company? Lucky enough, the same guys that I did my first company, myArtistDNA with, they raised another round of money and that’s when I left Comcast to join their team as head of design at my channel, which is a startup that was focusing on video telecommunications.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How long were you at my channel?

Fonz Morris:
For about two years. About two years. I started doing a little bit of part time work while I was still at Comcast and then we were making so much progress and the vibe and the energy was good. We were doing well. I just decided to leave and go full time at my channel. That was my second stent at entrepreneurship. Well my third one, honestly

Maurice Cherry:
So while you were at my channel, right after that was when you decided you wanted to move out West and pursue your career there.

Fonz Morris:
Yeah, there you go. So here we go. Full circle now and all this rambling I did makes sense. We’re right back to where it all makes sense of how I got here now. But you know what? What I want to honestly say is, and for anyone that’s listening to this, live your own path, you never know what’s going to work. Try different things out, make the best decisions you can. We’re all human. You’re going to learn so much from every step of the road. Don’t try to be too perfect because part of life is just figuring things out and I’m really happy with the path that I took in my life. I don’t regret any of it and I’m happy. It led me to where I am now and there was many points in my career that I didn’t see getting this far in design for whatever was going on at that moment, but also to tie back into some stuff I said earlier, that’s why you have to be patient with yourself and you have to have self confidence and you have to believe in yourself because you can achieve anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You mentioned speaking at AfroTech last year and AfroTech is a huge event. It’s all about diversity in the tech community. I would say it also ostensibly shifts over into diversity of the design community because design and tech tend to be pretty linked I would say with the tools that people use and things. How do we increase diversity in the design community?

Fonz Morris:
I think you have to find all the people that’s interested in it and you have to introduce it to people who may not have thought about it. Awareness is critical. That’s a really good first step. So let me say awareness, final answer.

Maurice Cherry:
And by awareness do you mean just awareness that we are here or just awareness that-

Fonz Morris:
That there’s a actual profession. That there’s a actual profession that you can go into that’s not necessarily just called design, but that there is a position title, UX designer, UI designer, writer, UX researcher, product manager, product designer. I don’t think a lot of people understand the granular levels of careers in tech. You just understand the overarching umbrella of tech and then you may go to the overarching umbrella of design.

Fonz Morris:
But when I speak of awareness, I want to let a population of people who may not be familiar with this understand all the different disciplines that you can pursue. By doing that you allow people to find what’s interesting to them as well as what they’re passionate about. Then by doing that, that’s how you help somebody make their first step into deciding, “I actually do want to get into design and I want to be X position.” But if you don’t know that there’s a such thing as a data scientist or as a product designer or as a UI or interaction designer, how are you really going to achieve to want to become one of them?

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, having that exposure is important too. To know that this is a potential thing. Sort of like what you said with the granularity. I mean when you and I started out, you were a web designer, you were a graphic designer, you were a webmaster. That’s pretty much it. And as technology and design have certainly evolved over the years, now you can get so, so specific with the type of design that you do.

Maurice Cherry:
I do think that makes it harder when you’re just coming into it, because there are these … and I don’t know if you see this too, but like I feel like if you want to get into the design industry, there certainly are paths that you can take that feel like they’re a little more … I don’t want to say reliable than others, but say someone will go to … they say, “You know what? I want to get into design.” So they hear about General Assembly, they go to General Assembly, they take the UX intensive course and I think it’s 10 or 12 weeks or something like that. They get out, they get placed at a place. Now their UX designer, they hate UX [crosstalk 00:56:37] but they went through it because they felt like that was a way to get in, you know?

Fonz Morris:
Right. See that’s where I’m saying they skip that first step of what I said almost 45 minutes ago of figuring out what part of this do you actually like? Don’t be so caught up in the UX part, be caught up more in … I liked the way Apple products look. I really like the brand style of that, so that’s not UX. So you go into UX, I don’t mean that’s what you’re going to do. Really take the time to focus on what you want to do.

Fonz Morris:
I think that’s where you’ll decide do you want to really go into a UX program from General Assembly? That might not be the best step for you, but if you don’t really know what you want to do, I think that’s where you end up starting to make the decisions that you think might work for you as opposed to what really would work for you. I do agree with you as well that the exposure could bring some layer of complexity, but I also think that it will ultimately lead to a layer of clarity.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I like that because oftentimes, just knowing that these positions exist is one thing. I think sometimes, to be honest with you, some folks get caught up in the salary. They’ll see that this place is paying this much and they’re like, “Oh, I got to get into tech. Oh I got to get into design.” And yeah, there is money if you go with the right company and the right position, but it’s got to be something that speaks to you, something that speaks to your unique skills and talents and what you like. It shouldn’t just be about chasing a salary. Because if anything, I think we both know … I wont say designers are a dime a dozen, but you can be replaced in some way. It’s not so much about just trying to make sure you get a paycheck at the end of the day.

Fonz Morris:
Right. I mean I agree with you. I agree with you on that. I mean money is definitely important for sure. But there’s a lot of people that make a lot of money that are not really happy. So if your happiness is important, then money can’t be the dominant deciding factor because that means you’ll take the money to work at a company for a position that you’re not really happy in. I think that ends up having a lot of negative consequences. I would tell anybody, male or female, to fight for the most money you can get, but also understand that there’s other things that matter when you’re looking for a career than just the money.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. What keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Fonz Morris:
I have a family to take care of and my family is really supportive and inspired by me and proud of me and I’m proud of myself. My growth over my career keeps me motivated. The love and support from my community. Shout out to you honestly, I just hit you up on Twitter and LinkedIn and asked you, ” how do I figure out how to participate in your show one day?” And you responded to my tweet in honestly less than an hour. You responded to my LinkedIn message in less than 30 minutes so that type of interaction, but that kind of interaction and support, that’s what keeps me motivated because that means people respect me and that respect goes a long way.

Fonz Morris:
That respect is what makes you feel good. That respect is what will also cheer you up maybe when you’re having a bad day. So the respect from my community I would say is what keeps me really motivated. When I say community, I’m using that as a broad term. I’m not just using that as the black community or my family. I’m using it as the design community, the tech community, the Bay area community, my community back in Brooklyn. So my community motivates me, honestly.

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

Fonz Morris:
Well, what I’ve been doing that’s been in my last couple of months on, and then I want to thank you as well is more public speaking. A lot of people have told me that they think I could possibly have a lane in speaking. They think I have a motivational style and an inspirational style and I can explain things that could possibly be complicated in a more laymans type of way. And there’s a lot of value in that.

Fonz Morris:
I also really liked supporting people and I think speaking allows you to do all that. I would like to do more speaking, shout out to AfroTech. They’re the ones that really gave me my first, first shot at speaking on such a big platform like that. I had been doing smaller events here and there, but the success of AfroTech is what led me know that I would like to continue doing speaking as well as, I think I want to start some kind of online school to help with training the community to gain the skills that they need to decrease this digital divide gap that I see every day, that I work and participate in design.

Maurice Cherry:
One of the themes that we have for this year, that I’m trying to carry this throughout 2020, is basically how are we as black designers and developers, technologists, et cetera, how are we using the skills that we have to build a more equitable future? Because I mean the future technically is now I think 2020 … shout out to ABC … 2020 has been a year that has been in the collective consciousness for over 20 years. [inaudible 01:02:18] show was on ABC, so people have always had a notion of 2020 being like the future. Now that we’re here and you look at your life, you look at your career, you look at the skills that you have, how are you helping to build a more equitable future?

Fonz Morris:
I think by supporting other people to become a designer and blazing trails and making sure that I’m a face of diversity in design. I think there’s a lot of unique trailblazers and I’m not saying I’m the only trailblazer, but you need trailblazers to be able to bring awareness to situations and that’s what I’m doing every day. That’s what I put 125% into doing that. I also understand and think the value in supporting my community, mentoring, talking to people, going to portfolio interviews. Having one on one calls with people who may reach out to me that have questions about UX and UI. They don’t know anybody in product design that they can show their portfolio to or just ask a question. I think being that resource for people is really how I can give back the most.

Fonz Morris:
Yes, I can give back through my designs and I make sure to try to bring diversity to my designs and I’m really proud of that and I love being at Coursera because I can do that and I’ve seen that. I’ve seen my power of being able to use people of color on the homepage of Coursera and that’s a big step for us. That’s something that I spoke about in my talk at AfroTech. I think those are the ways that I’m able to actually give back and help.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s funny you mentioned that, that reminds me of Diógenes Brito who we had on the show. This was years ago, but he was talking about how he changed the default slack hand to a brown hand and how even just that simple gesture was something that made shockwaves. Just the fact that you see the default hand is not a white hand, it’s a black hand or a brown hand. What does that mean? You know? It’s funny, even those little small, or what can seem like small gestures can have a really huge impact like that.

Fonz Morris:
Huge. They’re huge. I’ll tell one quick story. When we redid our promo unit platform that I spoke about working on, I was able to sit with some of the designers. They show the flexibility of the new system. One of the days that I logged on coursera.org I saw a brother in one of the new promo units that we just did. And I saw a sister in another promo unit that we did. Then when you looked at another place, there was another person of color on the site and it just really showed diversity and it was a good first step for Coursera and it was an amazing step for me. I don’t think you really should look at it as was it a big or small step, it’s a step that is necessary. Shout out to the brother who did the slack hand because that is amazing and shout out to everybody who is making a difference in whatever way that they can because we need everybody to do everything that they can.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s 2025, what is Fonz working on?

Fonz Morris:
I think I have become a household name in design as far as a representative from the black community. I think I will have at least my prototype first version of some type of training platform off the ground to be able to help mentor and teach and educate future designers or current designers or people who want to upskill or re-skill. I think I’ll always still be designing as well. I may have finally launched the app. I’m thinking about doing some kind of an app that just allows people to have a place to talk and maybe vent and get support. So you’ll see me probably doing something entrepreneurship wise as well as still being a powerhouse in the design industry somewhere, leading some kind of team to victory.

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

Fonz Morris:
I’m very active on Twitter. You can find me at Youngfonz, Y-O-U-N-G-F-O-N-Z. You can find me on Instagram at Fonzmoney, F-O-N-Z-M-O-N-E-Y. You can also find me on LinkedIn at Fonz Morris. I’m not the biggest social media user for gossip, but I am the biggest social media user for networking and print promotion. You can find me on all three of those social media platforms as well as if you just want to see some of the work that I do. You can go to my portfolio which is Fonz, F-O-N-Z.design and you can email me. However you want to try to find me, you can reach out, I’m online. Trust me, you type Fonz Morris in the Google search bar, you’ll see me. Hit me up.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Well Fonz Morris, I want to thank you so much, so much for coming on the show.

Fonz Morris:
Me too.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean your energy, I mean for people that don’t know that I’m recording this, I’m recording this after my work day, so after eight hours. Your energy has me pumped now.

Fonz Morris:
Thank you. I hear such positive feedback from people like that and last night when I was doing the mentoring with the junior designers, I got some same feedback like that. So Maurice, that’s what I was saying, I think I have a lane in public speaking because my passion for design and my passion for my community and my love for just humanity allows me to be able to share that and bring that energy to the table everyday.

Fonz Morris:
So thank you for sharing that with me because those are the type of pieces of feedback that’s really important to me. I’m no longer as focused on am I just a good visual designer? I’m focused on that. And am I a good guy? Am I interesting? Am I exciting? Am I still bringing a lot of energy to the table? So I’m glad that you were able to receive that from me because I wanted to bring that because I feel really honored and excited to be a part of your podcast. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you sir. I really appreciate it.


RECOGNIZE is open for essay submissions for Volume 2! The deadline is April 30 – enter today!

MODA and Revision Path present Creative Atlanta 2020, an interview series highlighting Black creatives in Atlanta ranging from an award-winning cellist to a Harvard GSD Loeb Fellow.

Tickets are free with regular admission to MODA and include access to our exhibition. Space is limited, so grab your ticket today!

Sponsors

Facebook Design is a proud sponsor of Revision Path. The Facebook Design community is designing for human needs at unprecedented scale. Across Facebook’s family of apps and new product platforms, multi-disciplinary teams come together to create, build and shape communication experiences in service of the essential, universal human need for connection. To learn more, please visit facebook.design.

This episode is brought to you by Abstract: design workflow management for modern design teams. Spend less time searching for design files and tracking down feedback, and spend more time focusing on innovation and collaboration. Like Glitch, but for designers, Abstract is your team’s version-controlled source of truth for design work. With Abstract, you can version design files, present work, request reviews, collect feedback, and give developers direct access to all specs—all from one place. Sign your team up for a free, 30-day trial today by heading over to www.abstract.com.

While the internet has helped loads of people get into design, it’s design educators like Jennifer White-Johnson who really help teach the next generation of our industry. As a multidisciplinary artist, designer, photographer, activist, and advocate, Jennifer brings all this to her work as an assistant professor of visual communications and digital media arts at Bowie State University.

Our conversation began with talking about HBCUs and the responsibility they bear, and we discussed Jennifer’s background in art and photography and how a small stint at MICA prepared her for her current teaching career. We also talked about KnoxRoks, an advocacy photo zine dedicated to her son which helps give visibility to children of color in the autism community. As we move into 2020, I’m glad for this conversation and I hope it helps you think about how you can use your design talent in the world!


Facebook Design is a proud sponsor of Revision Path. The Facebook Design community is designing for human needs at unprecedented scale. Across Facebook’s family of apps and new product platforms, multi-disciplinary teams come together to create, build and shape communication experiences in service of the essential, universal human need for connection. To learn more, please visit facebook.design.

This episode is brought to you by Abstract: design workflow management for modern design teams.

Spend less time searching for design files and tracking down feedback, and spend more time focusing on innovation and collaboration.

Like Glitch, but for designers, Abstract is your team’s version-controlled source of truth for design work. With Abstract, you can version design files, present work, request reviews, collect feedback, and give developers direct access to all specs—all from one place.

Sign your team up for a free, 30-day trial today by heading over to www.abstract.com.


Revision Path is a Glitch Media Network podcast, and is produced by Maurice Cherry and edited by Brittani Brown.