Chris Burnett

I think my conversation with this week’s guest — artist, musician, and designer Chris Burnett — is probably the most chill interview I’ve done this year. Don’t be fooled though — Chris is a creative dynamo, and someone you should definitely keep your eyes out for in the future.

We start off with a quick talk about the creative scene in Los Angeles, and from there he talks about being an artist at heart and how his current editorial design projects have been keeping him active. Chris also talked about growing up as a skate kid, attending Cal Arts, and scoring lucrative gigs including a stint with Nike, as well as designing for Odd Future. Chris calls himself a creative superhero, and if you trust your heart and spirit, so can you!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Chris Burnett:
Hi, my name is Chris Burnett. I’m an artist, designer, musician, pretty much all around creative soul. It’s hard to peg me down.

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

Chris Burnett:
This year and probably for most people, it’s been a very much transition year, buckling down on the things that I really want to be focusing on and being more selective with my time and my energy and my creative focus. So, it’s been good to narrow down the path of where I’m headed. It also coincides with me turning 30 in two weeks.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it’s the beginning of a new decade, a new chapter. So, things have been shifting, but in a good way.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. What would you say you’ve learned about yourself since last year?

Chris Burnett:
I’ve learned that I’m an artist at heart. That’s ultimately what I really want to do with my life and my creativity. I’ve been doing graphic design at this point for maybe eight years professionally. As much as I enjoy working with clients and collaborating on projects, there’s this burning desire in me to just be the artist that I want to be, have gallery shows, release albums, have more maybe design collaborations with companies and do things like that. So, yeah, things are in the works, things are in the works. It feels good to head towards the ultimate dream.

Maurice Cherry:
Is L.A. a good city for that kind of creative collaboration? I feel like it is.

Chris Burnett:
Well, yeah, I mean, L.A. is such an interesting creative scene, because you get people who come here from all over the world to pursue what they want to pursue. So, I’m constantly meeting people from all different walks of life, different types of creatives, whether that be musicians, other designers, other artists. So, it is pretty good for that. Although a lot of my work does come from people just reaching out to me by email and the collaboration happens more in a digital space, but I’m opening myself up more to relationships that I’m developing in the city. So, I have people that I can actually meet with in person and maybe visit their studios and see what they’re doing. So, yeah, if you wanted to find it in L.A., you could, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. We just had a fine artist on the show a few weeks ago in L.A. His name is Gabe Gault. I don’t know if that name sounds familiar.

Chris Burnett:
I haven’t heard of him.

Maurice Cherry:
He painted the world’s largest mural in Toledo, Ohio. I think it’s like an ongoing project, but he does a lot of fine art work. I don’t know if you’re familiar with football, but his dad is Willie Gault-

Chris Burnett:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… who played for the Rams. Don’t get me talking about sports. I don’t know that much, but I do know that. It’s funny because I interviewed him and he kept throwing out like, “Yeah, my dad does sports. He’s in NFL and won a few Super Bowls.” I was like, “Okay.” It didn’t click to me after the interview to be like, “Wait a minute, who is his dad? Oh, it makes sense, because they have the same last name.” Yeah, I can imagine that L.A. is a really great place for that creative collaboration. We’ve been seeing so much Black creativity come out of L.A., I think largely, due to Issa Rae and Kendrick Lamar and folks like that. We’ve seen a lot of what feels like specifically Black L.A. creativity.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I’m loving every bit of it. I was just watching Insecure yesterday. I think I caught up on the latest episode, but just to see that creativity coming out of the neighborhoods that I grew up in feels like finally we’re getting the recognition that is well-deserved.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, talk to me about Colibri Studios. That’s a studio that you began last year. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, I started Colibri Studios in the middle of last year. It was right when everything went into lockdown, actually, which seems like it would be the least opportune moment to do it, but there’s an interesting story to how I went about it. I was in New York. I was visiting a friend of mine, and I’ve been working on a necklace design. I found this charm that I really liked to go in the end of the necklace, and it had a hummingbird in it. It was the first time I was designing a chain and I was really excited about it.

Chris Burnett:
The hummingbird has special significance to me, because of the way that the animal moves throughout its life. It’s not really in your face. It’s secretive. But when you do see a hummingbird, it’s like this moment for you to be present with it and admire it. That’s how I feel about myself. I’m not really in the public eye per se. I’m not too show-offy. But when I do come around people, I make my presence felt. Honestly, I always see them, which is the weirdest thing. I’ll just be walking down the street and one will fly right in front of me. I’m like, “All right, there’s some weird connection here.” So yeah, I was designing this necklace.

Chris Burnett:
I get back from New York and the necklace is ready to be picked up. I get it and I’m so happy with the design that I thought, “That’s the logo. That’s the logo for the studio.” This was before I even really conceived of starting a studio. But once I had the necklace done, that was the moment where it was like, “Okay, this is a step in a new direction that you need to take.”

Chris Burnett:
It became more clear to me over time that I wanted to create a studio that really just was an umbrella for all of my creative endeavors, whether that be music, fine art, design. I found an office space in West Hollywood. I woke up one morning. It was on Craigslist, found the space. The first one I clicked on was the one that I’m actually in now. It all came together step by step. So, there wasn’t really a big plan that I was conscious of. It was more these little moments that led to the establishment of the studio. So, that’s what it is right now at this point.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you mentioned it being this umbrella. I went on your website. You’re doing art direction, you’re doing graphic design, you’re doing collage and mixed media work. Again, you mentioned music being part of that as well. What made you decide to do such a broad range of services, as opposed to just graphic design?

Chris Burnett:
Well, I’ve always had this desire to really just be into one thing, but that’s just not how my life works. There’s so many creative outlets, and I’ve never felt limited to stick to just one. So, anything that I pursue, I want to do it to the best of my ability. If I can provide those services for other people, whether that’s producing music for people or working on an ad campaign for someone or just creating my own artwork that will eventually show in a gallery, I just wanted it to feel like it was a part of one family. So, that’s why I wanted to include all these different artistic mediums in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about how you approach a new project. What does your process look like?

Chris Burnett:
Well, it really depends on the context of the project. So, if we can start with a typical design project, I’ll get an email from a random person. I’m always amazed by how people find me because I’m not on Instagram or social media. I’m hidden, right? So, I’ll just get an email out of the blue. Someone’s saying, “Hey, we think you might be great for this project we’re working on.” We move forward with a brief, which is them giving me a document of what they’re looking for and maybe the end deliverables and the goals that they want to hit. And then I get to work.

Chris Burnett:
The process of me actually getting to work is not really standardized in the sense that I don’t have a list of things that I do every time I start a project. It’s really based on feeling and it’s more intuitive, because it allows me to be a bit more spontaneous with the end product. If I had the same process every time, I feel like it might be too stale for me and I might come up with the same thing too much. So, I allow for space in between projects for me to just sit and think about new directions or think about things I want to explore and then try to align those new things with what a client might be asking. Typically, it works out.

Chris Burnett:
For the most part, a client will ask for what I’m already good at. They don’t really ask for things that are completely outside of my wheelhouse. That allows me to use the skills that I already have, but then push it in a little bit of a new direction. Sometimes that creates a back and forth where there’s notes and there’s feedback, of course. And then sometimes I hit it right on the head and people are happy with what I create first try. So, it really depends on the project that I’m being asked to work on.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I would also imagine, because like you said, you’re not on social media and folks have to go to your website and look through your work. By the time they’ve done that, hopefully, that’s a pretty good metric for you to see that this is someone that you would possibly want to work with. I’m pretty sure you have, but I don’t know. Have you ever gotten the client that has just been completely not a fit?

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, yeah, yes. It’s funny, because me and one of my designer buddies, we always have this joke that what we show on our website is typically the type of work that we want to receive, which is why we put it there. But there definitely will be times where someone will hit me up and just be like, “Hey, I need you to design just a simple logo.” It’s not that I can’t design a logo, but that’s not really where my skillset lies and my strengths are.

Chris Burnett:
So, I can do it, but then the process becomes a little muddied when it’s not something that I’m too passionate about. They’re maybe expecting the crazy, colorful collage type stuff, but it’s a logo. So, I can’t really do that for a logo. Yeah, there have been moments where it doesn’t work, but I’m learning which projects to say yes and no to now that I’ve been doing this for so long.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What are some of the projects that you’re working on now?

Chris Burnett:
So, a lot of the things that I’ve been doing now is a lot of editorial illustration, which I’ve found that that really suits my strengths really well. It’s mostly image making, which is my favorite thing in the world to do is just create a compelling image to look at. So, when you pair that with an article for, say, The New York Times or the Guardian, that’s where I get to really flex my abilities. Over the past year, I’d probably gotten the most editorial illustration work than I ever have.

Chris Burnett:
There’s also a lot of merch design, merchandise design for artists in the music industry. That’s always ongoing. There’s always artists who need things to sell on the road or sell on their website. I help with a lot of that stuff. Some of its like under wraps because people don’t want to release info about music projects that they might be doing. But yeah, most stuff in the music industry and editorial illustration, I’d say, are my two big ones.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there a specific type of client that you prefer to work with?

Chris Burnett:
I’m always open to new types of clients, people that I haven’t worked with before just to be able to stretch myself and see, “What industries can I adapt my creativity towards?” But I think I do love working in the music industry. It’s fun to work with artists that you admire. It’s fun to work with artists that you’re playing their music in your car when you’re driving around and you get to work on something that’s for their project. It’s fun to be a part of things like that. I love editorial. I don’t know what it is about it. It’s just the pairing of an image with an article is like a dream project. It’s like they’re little, tiny dream projects, because they’re really quick and the turnaround time is super-fast, usually within a week or a couple days.

Chris Burnett:
It’s typically within those industries like editorial that there’s a little more room for creative freedom, because they’re trying to see how you would interpret the article and how that article maybe is reflected in your style and your own sensibility. So, that’s why I like it a lot, because there’s not too many notes. There’s not too much canceling of ideas. It’s very open ended, which I love.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I don’t know why for some reason, I would imagine working with musicians might be temperamental, but I guess like you said, if it’s an artist that you really like, it probably makes it a bit of an easier match.

Chris Burnett:
Well, that’s a good point. I mean, they’re definitely artists I’ve worked with in the past who are artists. An artist comes in mind a lot. There’s a certain temperament like you said that goes along with it. But I think the reason that I enjoy it and the reason I think I’m able to do it is because I am also an artist, so I understand that sensibility. It allows me to be as flexible as I need to be when working with them. It also informs my own practice of how I go about my music or my art as well. So, it’s fun. It’s a double-edged sword for sure, but I do like it.

Maurice Cherry:
I just want to say to the audience, I don’t know if Chris is being a little humble now, but his music is really good. It’s really good.

Chris Burnett:
Thank you, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
With your permission, I’d like to link to your SoundCloud because I was doing research for the interview and I just put the music on. I was like, “This is good. This is good.” I was like, “I can hear this on Insecure. I can hear this on Insecure. It’s pretty good.”

Chris Burnett:
Oh, man. I would love for that to happen, but this is their final season. I’m so sad. Yeah, but thank you. I really appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I guess to that end, talking about Black art and things like that, we started to see over the past few years that with this influx in Black television shows and movies and stuff, we’re really starting to see a much wider range of artists, not just musical artists, but visual artists and stuff portrayed through these works. We had Gabe Gault who I mentioned before on the show, and he’s mentioned that his work has been in a television show. We had Dawn Okoro, who’s an artist in Austin. Her work has been on a BT show.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m wondering, because we hear so much about this Black creative renaissance and you hear about it through these visual artists, does that exposure help you in any way? I don’t know. Has your work been out there in that way where you feel like you’ve got an exposure because it’s been amplified through, say, a musical artist or something like that?

Chris Burnett:
Not necessarily. I guess this is a little hard to explain and this is the whole point of the studio, which is funny, is that because I think the hummingbird is such a secretive animal and it’s very hidden, because it’s so small and it moves really fast, I’ve settled into the idea that my work doesn’t necessarily exist in a public space as much as it could and I’m okay with that. I think when the time comes, some more visibility might help. But in the meantime, I still get to work with the people I love working with. Whether I’m publicly associated with them or not is not really what I’m focusing on. It’s just, “How do we make the best possible thing for this person? Or if it’s for me, how do I make the best possible thing for myself and share it?”

Chris Burnett:
I mean, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had moments where my work was recognized and especially recognized for the culture. There was an article in The New York Times Magazine, I think this was last year, I’m not too sure, but by Isabel Wilkerson. She just wrote a book called Caste that explores the idea of racism, but not through a racist ideology. It’s through a caste system, which is a whole another way of looking at it. I did these two collage pieces for the article in The Times. It was heavily centered around Black imagery and police brutality. That was the first time that I actually incorporated imagery into my work.

Chris Burnett:
It was a very enlightening moment, because I did the collages by hand. I was cutting out images of MLK hanging out with Mahatma Gandhi. I was cutting out images of African American men on the floor with police pointing guns at their heads. It was the first time that I started to have my work speak in a way that was relevant to what was actually happening. That was really eye-opening for me and that led me down a whole new trajectory with my art. But in those instances, I really enjoy when I can speak to what’s happening in the now and speak to the culture.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve just always been really curious about that, because I want to make sure… I mean, I’m saying this like I’m the singular person that can make this happen, but I want to see that Black artists, visual artists, graphic artists, particularly with their work being featured in entertainment get just as much shine as the show that the artists featured on or the actor that might be in front of the art and the piece. I don’t know. Something like that, it’s making me think of… Are you familiar with Brent Rollins? Does that name sound familiar?

Chris Burnett:
No. Who’s Brent Rollins?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God. So, Brent Rollins, so he was on episode 400, but Brent Rollins is like… I forget the moniker that I saw when I was researching, but it was like your favorite hip-hop artist’s favorite designer or something like. He designed the logo for Boys in the Hood when he was, I think, 19. He designed the logo for Poetic Justice when he was 20. He was rolling in that crew with Ice Cube and John Singleton back in the day. He did a bunch of work in the ’90s and 2000s Ego Trip. God, I can’t remember the name of the magazine. It’s escaping me but it’s episode 400 if people are listening. Go back and listen to it.

Chris Burnett:
Hell yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There were these shows on VH1. One was called Race-O-Rama. One was called… I think it was White rapper showcase or something or a reality show or something like that. He had his hand in all these really interesting things around hip hop culture, but it was through his design and eye. So, a lot of stuff that you see in Vibe Magazine and stuff for the ’90s and 2000s was heavily influenced by him and his work. He is such a cool ass, behind-the-scenes dude.

Maurice Cherry:
Him and I were talking. He was like, “Yeah, man, I did this and did this. I exhibited here and there.” I was like, “Do you understand, I grew up on your work, watching your stuff, looking at your stuff at Vibe magazine, be like I want to design like that?”, and was just being so humble about it. I knew who he was because I ended up doing the research on it, but I don’t think the average hip hop fan knows who Brent Rollins is. That’s not to say that diminishes Brent’s work in any way, but why is he not as recognized as artists from that time?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, well, I think there’s a couple of levels to it. I think, on a larger scale, typically, designers are in the background, because the work is what speaks to the public, right? So, if I’m designing a logo for a company, my face isn’t going to be the face of the company, but the logo will, right? So, there’s never really been a need for the designer to be in the public eye as much as maybe the person who runs the company, or say, if you’re working for an artist, the artist is the one who is getting all the focus. So, the designer falls to the background.

Chris Burnett:
I think we’re starting to see a shift in that, especially in Black culture, with people like Virgil Abloh, who became almost like designer of the year for every year for a long time at this point. But he came from Kanye’s group, and he started to create the idea that designer can be the public figure also and not just be the one that sits in the background. So, I think that tide is starting to shift and we’re starting to see it. It also happens in music too. Back then, producers were always just behind the boards and you never really knew who was producing the music, but now, the producers are just as big as some of the artists. So, we’re seeing that shift take place and I think that’s really cool. I don’t know if it’ll happen to me, but it’s all right. I don’t mind being in the shadows.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s true. I do hope to see that day where the designers and the visual artists get that same level of recognition or at least name recognition, where folks know. They look at something. You’re like, “Oh, that’s a Chris Burnett,” if they see a collage or something like that, that thing.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, I’m definitely developing a visual language and a style that feels really specific to me. So, there are certain recognizable aspects of my work. As I’ve ventured more into music, I’m definitely going to be presenting myself and my person out there. So, maybe the moment where the tide turns and this all becomes more public is right around the corner.

Maurice Cherry:
There you go.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So, tell me what it was like growing up in L.A.

Chris Burnett:
Growing up in L.A., yeah, I grew up in South Central, specifically Manchester and Vermont for anyone who knows that area. It wasn’t really the best neighborhood at the time. There was a lot of gang violence, a lot of drugs. Police relations with the community were not great. Growing up, there definitely had an impact on me, although my parents were very, very careful in what they allowed me and my older brother to do. We weren’t really allowed to go outside after certain time. I didn’t really have many friends in the neighborhood, because that was the way that I could get caught up in some of the wrong stuff.

Chris Burnett:
So, a lot of my time was spent creating indoors, whether that was drawing or painting or my parents would put me in art classes at a pretty young age just to keep me occupied and doing something that I enjoyed versus running around my neighborhood, getting into trouble, like a lot of the kids who were there probably did. It wasn’t until I went to high school that I was taking the bus to high school to public transport. That was the first time I got a little taste of freedom. I started skateboarding at the same time. So, I would take the bus to skate parks and start to explore a little bit. That was when I really started to understand the neighborhood a little bit better.

Chris Burnett:
It wasn’t as dangerous as it was when I was a little kid, but yeah, it definitely influenced my practice and my behavior in terms of I like the area I grew up in, because to me, it feels real. It feels very honest. Where I live now is actually a completely different environment. At this point, I’m not sure that I want to stay there as much, because every time I go home to visit my folks, it’s like, “Oh, I actually really liked this neighborhood.”

Chris Burnett:
Maybe I was scared of it when I was a kid, but now I’m an adult and I know how to move. Certain things become illuminated when you’re in different stages of your life. So, back then, it was a little intimidating, but now it’s more enticing, especially they just built the big stadium in Inglewood. That’s 10 minutes from where I grew up. So, there are things that are happening in that area that wouldn’t necessarily happen. Resources are coming back down there, which I think is great. So, I might move down. Who knows? We’ll see.

Maurice Cherry:
L.A. is so big.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, man.

Maurice Cherry:
I was there actually, for the first time last year. We were set to do a live tour throughout 2020 last year. We started off in L.A. and did our first live show out there.

Chris Burnett:
Nice.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I live in Atlanta, which is pretty spread out, but L.A. is gargantuan in terms of scale. I was in the Korea Town neighborhood initially and then we did the live show. We did that down in Leimert Park, but I didn’t really get to see L.A. I saw a couple of neighborhoods.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, yeah, there’s always the pockets that people go to, but there’s a lot of hidden treasures in this city. It takes time. It takes time of living here or just having the time to explore. You got to have a car. You got to drive everywhere. But yeah, it’s massive. It’s massive, massive, massive, massive.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you grew up studying art. You were taking art classes and everything. Eventually, you went to college. You went to CalArts. What was that experience like?

Chris Burnett:
CalArts, for me, was extremely transformative. At this point, I was coming out of high school. I took a graphic design course in high school. So, that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to study in college. So, I applied to a couple different art schools in California. I didn’t really want to leave the state. The minute I stepped on the CalArts Campus for a tour is the minute that I knew that was the place I needed to be. I didn’t really even do that much research, I’ll be honest, but the feeling I got when I arrived there, it felt like I definitely made the right decision.

Chris Burnett:
The thing that I loved about that school was that there were so many disciplines in one roof. There was acting, there was costume design, there was character animation, there’s graphic design, there’s fine arts, there was music, there was set design. There was all kinds of creative people who come from all over the world to study and perfect their craft. So, that period of time really opened my eyes to all the things that maybe I didn’t get to experience growing up, especially because my parents were really careful about what I was exposed to. Once I got to CalArts, it was like, “Oh, I’m an individual now. I’m going to do it or what. I can explore. I can see what life really has to offer.”

Chris Burnett:
It was in a bubble of CalArts, but still, within that bubble, there were so many different pockets to explore. A lot of the friends I have now are people from that school. A lot of the people that I try to keep in touch with creatively are people from that school. It was just a really transformative time. I think it really allowed me to grow up. I’ve always been the youngest one in my friend circles. I have funny stories.

Chris Burnett:
When I got to CalArts, I still maybe looked like a 13-year-old or 14-year-old. It was very strange. People would walk up to me and say, “Do you go here? Are you lost?” I’m like, “No, man, I’m headed to the movie class right now.” It was really interesting. It was that time for me to grow up and grow into myself. I wouldn’t trade those four years for the world. Even though I picked up some student debt from it, we all have a little bit of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that where you met Bijan?

Chris Burnett:
That’s where I met Bijan, yeah. So, Bijan was my classmate all four years. What happens at CalArts in the design program is that you share a studio. In the graphic design program, you share a studio with your entire year level. So, there were about 19 to maybe 21 of us in our first year, which was pretty large for an incoming class. Bijan was in that class with me. We actually met the day we had a portfolio review. We didn’t know each other. We were just both coming from our high schools and trying to show our work to get accepted. He was literally standing in line right in front of me. Lo and behold, we both got accepted and ended up in the same class.

Chris Burnett:
Bijan was and still is one of my best friends. He became this creative rival, but in the best way possible, where if he was doing something, I would see what he’s doing and be like, “Oh, that’s really good. Okay, now I got to do something that’s really good.” And then he would see what I was doing and it would level him up and then he would level me up. We ping pong off each other like that until we graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s good to have that creative tension in a way, I guess.

Chris Burnett:
For sure. I’m really competitive. So, whether it’s in sports or in making a cool poster, I feel that edge or that desire to want to be the best and bring the best out of myself and others. So, we really thrived on that with each other.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. For folks that are listening, who are like, “Who is Bijan?” Bijan Berahimi founded… Actually, YouTube co-founded FISK together. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
A studio called FISK, like the HBCU but not the HBCU.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, not the college. Everybody knows. So, this came about in our first year. It’s actually a collaboration between a bunch of our classmates. We wanted to create a website where we could showcase student work and just have a digital space for us to talk about design as students. A lot of us contributed to the website. We had a thing called Things We’ve Stolen, which was posters that we stole from the walls of CalArts. We would feature them on the website. There’s a large poster culture at that school. We would interview other designers who were working professionally and ask them questions about the transition from student life to professional life.

Chris Burnett:
We would have zines, where we asked students in the program to submit artwork, and then we would throw a party for the zine release. It was a myriad of things when we were in school. After we all graduated, we settled into our own pockets and practices. Bijan decided to resurrect FISK in Portland, and that’s when it became the studio. I wasn’t a part of inauguration of the studio per se, but the initial idea was a very collaborative thing. It still is to this day. He runs it out of Portland and has a couple employees and they’re doing great.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Speaking of Portland, after you graduated, you did eventually head to Portland, because you had an opportunity with Nike, which we’ll get to, but you had another opportunity that happened to you senior year where you got to work with a pretty well-known music group. Can you talk about that?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it’s actually a crazy story about how that happens. So, my third year of college, we had a project that was to design a magazine of a subculture, any subculture of our choice. I decided at that point, I wanted to focus on Odd Future because they had just started to gain a little traction. I think they were doing most of their stuff independently. It was something that I really resonated with, because of that DIY spirit and because they were from where I was from. It was just cool to see kids like me doing cool stuff. So, I decided to make my magazine about Odd Future.

Chris Burnett:
I designed the whole thing, printed the whole thing. I gave it to my brother, who was friends with Travis, who used to go by Taco, just so they could see it and be aware of me. I don’t know if Travis ever got the magazine. I have no idea where the magazine was. I would love to see it because it’s been so long. But I did that in hopes that that would be my connection point with them. So, they can know that I’m over here doing my thing. They’re over there doing their thing. Nothing really came of that. So, by the time fourth year came around, I was setting my sights on other jobs and other opportunities.

Chris Burnett:
Randomly, on a trip to Joshua Tree with Bijan, I get an email in the car from a guy who’s running an agency that’s handling all of Odd Future’s merchandising and branding and things like that. He goes, “Hey, Chris, I saw your work. Would you love to come work for Odd Future?” I was like, “What, a year later, what?” It was so random and I was not expecting it, but immediately, I said yes. So, that was midway through the end of my time at CalArts. I started interning there. So, I would have class. After class, I would get in my car and drive all the way back down to L.A. to work with them for a couple of hours, come back to school, do my schoolwork.

Chris Burnett:
That was a balance that I struck at the end of my fourth year until I graduated and then I just started working for them full time. That was a crazy experience for me. It was one of those dream moments where these are artists that I really respect and admire. They’re doing really cool things musically, visually. Just the fact that I got to be a part of it for that span in my life was pretty amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dope story. I mean, when you think of Odd Future and of course, Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt and-

Chris Burnett:
Jasper Dolphin.

Maurice Cherry:
Jasper Dolphin.

Chris Burnett:
Hodgy Beats, Left Brain, yeah, all the OGs.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think of their whole persona, it’s so hard to pin down. I feel like you could just say, “Oh, Black Skater,” or whatever, but it’s so much more than that. I think particularly Tyler, I remember Tyler had this show on Vice a few years ago called Nuts and Bolts.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I love that show.

Maurice Cherry:
He was doing all these different design things. He’s like, “Oh, I’m designing apparel, I’m designing a shoe or something like that. I’m designing furniture.” He was doing all this interesting design stuff. This was going on, I think, right around the time there was also this reality show on YouTube that I’ve mentioned on the show before called Lace Up, which is basically, a sneaker design reality show contest thing. Because you know, there’s a PENSOLE Academy in Portland.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, yeah, definitely familiar.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, by the way, but he runs that school. He did this reality show on YouTube, where he was bringing in designers to design shoes and stuff. I remember, I would watch that and I would watch Nuts and Bolts and be like, “Why is nobody talking about these design shows?” I mean, their style is so hard for me to pinpoint. I think most people know Odd Future because of their donut logo. But what stuff were you doing? How did that creative process look like?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, that was definitely wild for sure. I mean, by the time I started helping with a lot of the merchandise and the clothing, there was definitely a visual aesthetic that was already established. That was primarily Tyler’s ideas and the group’s ideas. When I hopped on board, there was definitely a lane to work within. There was definitely visuals that I could reference, things that I knew they liked, things that I knew they didn’t like to stay away from. So, a lot of the times, what would happen is I’d be in the office with… There was me. There’s another designer named Aaron Martinez, shout out to Aaron.

Chris Burnett:
There’s another designer named Phil, who handled mostly the Golf Wang stuff, which was separate from the Odd Future stuff at the time. So, they were the two creative directors, for me, at least. They would pinpoint where I should take things and what directions I should go in. But a lot of the time, the guys, the group of artists and the music makers and the whole clique would just show up at the office. We would have these meetings where they would just pitch ideas to us. I remember Jasper one time saying, “I want a dolphin on the Empire State Building smoking a blunt.” I just graduated with a design degree. I was like, “How am I going to do this weird photo manipulated illustration and pull this off and then put it on a T-shirt? This is wild. It’s so weird.” But I ended up doing it.

Chris Burnett:
It actually became one of my favorite pieces, even those one of the strangest things in the world. Yeah, they would just come in. We would print everything out, have these just big jam sessions of getting everyone’s thoughts and ideas and opinions. If they liked what we did, they would rock with it. If not, they would exit immediately and say, “Do this differently,” or “Do a different thing over here and maybe change the color of this and tweak this a little bit.” So, it was a super, super collaborative process and really wild to just hang out with them, because this was really at the peak of their stardom as a group. Super interesting, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have an Odd Future name? Did they give you a name or something?

Chris Burnett:
No, this is another thing that contributes to me being in the shadows. I didn’t really try to infiltrate into the group like that. I knew that they were already so tight knit and close friends. I’ve never really been the type to try to eat off of someone else’s success. So, I purposefully was like, “It’s cool. I enjoy working with you guys. I enjoy creating these things for you, but I’m just going to take my place in the backseat and watch you guys do your thing.” It was so fun for me just to do that. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I can’t imagine how some of those design sessions might have went. Just the ideas and the crazy shit that they come up with I imagine is… I mean, I think for any really strong visual designer, that’s a dream to have a client or to have someone that has that creative capacity to just do whatever.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it was definitely really freeing, especially to come from CalArts, which was a similar environment in terms of the freedom of creativity that we had in school and to have that as my first full time gig, I couldn’t ask for anything better. It was great.

Maurice Cherry:
So, after working with them, you got an opportunity to work with Nike, which then eventually had you go to Portland. If you could sum up your time at Nike in one phrase, what would it be?

Chris Burnett:
Oh, man. One phrase, working at Nike, you put me on the spot. I would say high level hierarchy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Chris Burnett:
I mean, I might have to explain that a little bit. When I say high level, I guess I mean, the quality of work that was being produced and the scale of work, the amount of people that would see it, the amount of reach that it had, that’s what I mean by high level. When I say hierarchy, there’s such a system in play. It’s such a large corporate company like that, that sometimes creativity and new ideas are not necessarily accepted, because it doesn’t fall within the framework of what has been successful for them as a company. So, I’ve always understood that before I started working there, so I wasn’t going in thinking that it would be another Odd Future.

Chris Burnett:
I went in knowing that, okay, this is going to be a big place where there’s a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of things that I can’t control. There’s a lot of things that I don’t have any impact over. So, it was a humbling experience to be able to contribute my ideas to such a large and fast moving company, but then it also, for me, told me that that environment wasn’t necessarily the one that I wanted to be in for a long time in terms of work in the design world. But it was definitely a great learning experience to get my feet wet. Being a professional was cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we’ve had a few designers on the show before that have worked at Nike and I don’t know if they all liked it. In a way, it’s good, because it’s like, “Oh, this is Nike.” Like you said, there is this high level reach, but each person we’ve had on has said, it’s not a great place to work.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, there’s certain aspects of it that are really difficult to stomach if you’re not capable of grinding it out. I think one of the bigger things that I had to do when I was there was just work a lot. When we needed to get a project done, we were up very late working on it on campus until it was done. It really instilled a good work ethic for me, but as far as being a sane human being, it did not contribute to that at all. So, yeah, that was a really difficult part of it, especially coming in as a young designer, who had new ideas and maybe I wanted to bring new innovations to the way they were thinking about design. It’s not that they didn’t want to listen. It’s that they already understood what works for them.

Chris Burnett:
So, for a group of young designers to come in and just shake everything up and try all these new things, it’s not really something they were looking for at the time. Now that Virgil cracked open the door with his initial The Ten collaboration, the shoes, where he was messing with the swoosh and change the game, putting it in different locations where they would never do that, it’s really opened the door for them to expand their creativity to a whole new level, which we’ve been seeing lately. But when I was there, it was still very much you play by the book, because this is the recipe that has worked for them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, if they know that it’s going to work all these different times, we’re not really looking for any variations on that. They just need you to do the same thing.

Chris Burnett:
Right. At the end of the day, if we’re being honest, they’re a company, they’re a business, and they need to make money. So, if they’re experimenting too much and it messes with their stock price or some of the shareholders get upset, it’s going to trickle down. That’s what I mean by hierarchy is that there’s so many layers to it, that it’s really impossible as one designer to go in there and really have your voice heard, but to each their own.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But I mean, like you say, because of the crucible that that design environment is, like you say, it’s strengthened your work ethic and I’m sure probably has helped you out in some way now as a designer, just having that experience working there.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, for sure. So, there were two stints that I did at Nike. The first one was in brand design for sportswear and that was my first experience there. Honestly, all of my co-workers were amazing people. I had a great time working with them. It was, like I said, grinding out a lot, just working hard on campaigns. We were doing the overarching branding system that would then be sent out to all the different categories around the world. They would apply what we designed to whatever product was being released. So, that was really cool to see that.

Chris Burnett:
And then the second stint was for the Olympics, for Rio ’16. That was wow. If I thought the first stint was crazy, the second one was… I don’t even know how I lasted, but it definitely helped put a work ethic into my brain. So, if I need to work on something, I will get it done. There’s no excuses. They always said at Nike, there’s no finish line. That’s one of the taglines. The reason I say that is work just keeps on going and innovation keeps on happening. Things don’t really stop. Even though we’re running, we’re putting our all in, things just keep moving and keep going and keep evolving. It’s a tough environment to be in if you’re not used to that type of pace of work. But if you’re down for it, it can really instill a good work ethic in you.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s how I was when I worked at AT&T. AT&T was one of these places, you walk in and they have this huge banner over their big marble reception desk that says, “Shaping human capital,” or something. You’d go and there would be this never-ending firehose of work. I think when we go in, we were always six months behind on something. Salespeople just kept selling and the work just kept coming in. So, you’re never caught up. We had, I think, roughly about 36 designers that were working there in teams of 12. They had this floor to ceiling LED board. So, everything that you design had a point value to it.

Chris Burnett:
No way.

Maurice Cherry:
As a designer, I think when I started, you have to hit 36 points at the end of the week and then eventually up to the 40. But everything you design had a point value. So, if you design a banner, that’s point nine points. If you design a three-page website, that’s five points. If you design a 10-pager, that’s nine points. So, you could hit your total pretty easily if you just design four websites in a week or something like that. I mean, this was 2006. You would pull the order from the system.

Maurice Cherry:
They have this system called Ice Blue. I don’t work there anymore. So, even if all this stuff is proprietary, I don’t care, but they have this thing called Ice Blue and you pull your rec. So, you have to go to a file cabinet, fish out the envelopes, this is my paper, fish out the envelopes that had all the assets in it. It was usually printed out Word files, scraps that the salespeople got from the company of their logo drawn on a napkin or something. You have to go to the scanner. I’m dating myself, you have to go to the scanner. There was one computer with the scanner for 36 designers.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, my God.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you had to go to the scanner, scan your stuff in, mail it to yourself, because we didn’t have Dropbox because it didn’t exist then. You mail it to yourself, you get back to your station, and then you have to trace it out. We were using Dreamweaver because it’s 2006. You basically had to build a website, retype all the information and everything. Eventually, you got faster because it’s one thing to do the actual coding and the design work and Photoshop and Illustrator, whatever, but then you’ve got all this other operational stuff you have to do like pull the rec and scan and do this and return the folder and walk it over to QA, physically walk it over to QA and all this stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Eventually, you get better just in terms of speed. So, I could knock out four or five websites in a week. If I got the packet in the morning, I could finish it by lunch. And then I could pick up on that lunch and then finish it by the time I was ready to go home. Again, this was 2006. So, this was right around the time when table-based layout was being phased out and CSS layouts were being phased in. I mean, we fired some people because they couldn’t get it. They did not know how to convert the tables to CSS, so they weren’t getting it. We fired people.

Maurice Cherry:
God, this was a long, long time ago. But eventually, I like made a little CSS work template or something that I could easily just plop in and change the value so I could get quicker with it. I still use that to this day, principles from that. But it’s one of those things where if I wasn’t in that type of design environment, would I even know to do something like that? You know what I mean?

Chris Burnett:
Exactly, exactly. So, do you think that having the point system actually helped people stay on track in terms of what they needed to get done? Because I mean, that’s almost public accountability for the work that you have to do.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, yes and no. For some people, it really freaked them out. Because if you didn’t hit your number, because you could see how everyone on the team was doing at any given point in time. So, you could see what your number was and who was above you and who was below you. So, it was one thing for you to know the number but now everyone else knows your number. So, you’ll be sitting at lunch and someone will come and be like, “You got to get the numbers up.” Keep in mind, we only could take a 15-minute lunch. So, you have to wolf down your sandwich or whatever that you brought from home.

Maurice Cherry:
And there would just be random people, random supervisors that don’t even work on your team will just come by you. Points look a little low this week. I don’t need that kind of pressure. I’m trying to try to get the work done. I don’t know if it helped. I mean, certainly, it’s one of those things where you either cut it or you don’t, but you definitely knew at any given point in time where you stood. Eventually, it got to the point where they upped the amount of points you have to get and then they lowered the point value of the items. So, you have to crank out more work to get to a higher target. It was a mess. I left there and said, “I have to do my own thing.” I didn’t want to work for another place after that. I think similarly, when you left Nike, you started freelancing too. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Yes. So, between those two stints that I just mentioned, after the first one was when I decided to leave. I just had a nine-month contract, so I never actually took full time at Nike. I was what was called ETW, it’s like a temporary worker. My contract was up after nine months. I decided that I wanted to try my hand at freelancing, which is something I had never done before. The funny thing is even coming off of the new work ethic that I just developed, all the skills and connections that I had made, freelancing did not really work for me. I think it was because I lacked motivation to do so just because I was coming off of nine months of very, very grueling work. Having this time to set hours for myself, it made me not really want to do that much work and almost like take a vacation.

Chris Burnett:
So, in that period of time, I was focusing a lot on my music and a lot of my artwork, but I wasn’t really successful at the freelance thing. So, by the time the Rio Olympics had come around, the guy who wanted me to work with him on his team, Ibrahim Hassan, shout out to Ibrahim, he became my mentor in that moment. He wanted me to come back and work on the Olympics. So, that’s when I went back. That was even more grueling than the first time, but I learned so much more by working with him and working with our team that it was very much worth it for me to do it.

Chris Burnett:
But after that, I knew that that was it, that I couldn’t keep doing it. That’s when I went freelance. The second time around it, it clicked for me. I’m not necessarily sure what I changed. I think I was just more hungry to make it work, because it didn’t work the first time.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I mean, I think, with freelancing, for me, when I first started out, I left in late 2008, I just quit my job. I was like, “I can’t do this anymore,” and started my studio. I’d say maybe those first three or four months were rough, because even though I was like, “I got all the skills, I know people XYZ,” finding the work ended up being difficult. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t do it. It was just finding the right clients.

Maurice Cherry:
And then eventually, I did end up working for a client. It was a political client. And then working on that campaign kickstarted my studio and kept me going. If I wouldn’t have gotten into that, I don’t know if I would have continued freelancing. I don’t want to say I have to link up with someone. But once you got the right client and it clicked, then you’re like, “Okay, I can keep doing this.” It makes sense. You had worked with an agency called Ceremony of Roses when you were freelancing, right?

Chris Burnett:
Right. So, after I left Nike the second time, I think there was a stint in between where I went overseas, just to travel around for a little bit. That was maybe three months in Southeast Asia, which was really fun. By the time I came back, I did another short contract at Jordan, which was still on Nike campus, so in that world, but just for the Jordan Brand instead. And then after that, it was like, “All right, I think I’m going to move home to L.A.” At the time, that agency, Ceremony of Roses had reached out to me and was like, “We have a position open at our agency down in L.A.” It was literally perfect timing because I was already moving back home.

Chris Burnett:
That’s when I decided that I was going to take that job down in L.A. when I got back. They were heavily focused on music, so a completely different world than sports and branding. They had a lot of clients in the music industry. Their main bread and butter was merchandising and creating the brand that surrounded the artists, whether that’s from tour announcements and flyers and posters to actual merchandising to websites to things for them to post on social media. So, in a similar way to the agency that I worked with for Odd Future, who was just handling a lot of the creativity, that’s what Ceremony of Roses was, but in a updated and more efficient way, I’d like to say. I stayed there for about two years.

Chris Burnett:
My timelines are always a little foggy, but I stayed there for around two years in L.A., just doing a lot of work with artists in the music industry. Janelle Monáe had released her album, Dirty Computer. That was one of the bigger projects that I got to work on. Her and her team were fantastic just because they really trusted me and they gave me a lot of creative freedom to create pieces that worked with her album and with the whole concept of what she was doing. That was one of the highlights of that job for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wonderland Studios has a great team.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, yeah, fantastic people to work with. So, I made a lot of good connections from that, from working with that agency. Yeah, we still work together today.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, cool. I know George 2.0. We went to Morehouse together.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, nice. Yeah, 2.0.

Maurice Cherry:
We went to Morehouse together. Now, this was back before she was doing the whole Android thing. She had the CD called The Audition, I think. I remember buying it off The Strip one day in the late 2000s, not late 2000s, way earlier than that. This was early 2000s. I’m not that young. But I remember getting her CD and being like, “Oh, this is really good.” Of course, they have the Atlanta connection, because she’s lived and worked here before and stuff. But their whole crew, their whole studio is doing great work.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I’ve always admired them because they operate in a way that’s different to a lot of artists. I think just their tight knit community of people that they work with, it was a real family vibe when I would connect with their team and we would talk and discuss work. It just felt really good to be around them, great people.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that have really helped you out as mentors throughout the years?

Chris Burnett:
I wouldn’t say that I’ve had specific mentors, where their role was to mentor me through the stage of life that I was in, but I think a lot of the times, the supervisors that I had at the companies I worked with took on that role in maybe a subconscious way. The first being a guy named Michael Spoljaric, who was the… I think, he was brand director or creative director. There’s so many titles at Nike that I forget what he was doing, but he was the head of sportswear brand design when I was there.

Chris Burnett:
So, when I got hired to work with them, he was the introduction into that world of professional corporate design. So, really, in terms of design and creativity, he really helped me to understand good typography, good layouts, how to design a book properly, what images to choose for a campaign, stuff like that.

Chris Burnett:
The next when I was working on the Rio Olympics, I already mentioned Ibrahim. He really became that mentor figure for me. He already saw that I had potential, but he fine-tuned it. That’s what I really appreciated about him was that he really got down to the nitty gritty and the specifics of things, the details of things, because every little detail counts if you’re trying to make something that is impactful. If you leave one little thing out, then it might ruin the whole trajectory of the story. So, he was really a figure like that for me.

Chris Burnett:
When I came to Ceremony of Roses, the two people who really stuck out to me was Brad Scoffern, who’s the owner of the company. He’s the one who brought me on board. I met him when I was working at Odd Future. He always remembered me. So, by the time he started his own agency, he immediately reached out to me and wanted to work with me. And then another guy at that company named Jared Hankey, who became my pseudo mentor at that time when I was working there, too. So, I haven’t really had specific people outside of work environments that have done that for me, but it’s always been supervisors or bosses or those who are in higher positions than me who can show me the ropes and keep me on track.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you call yourself a creative superhero. What does that mean to you?

Chris Burnett:
It means that I have a lot of superpowers. It’s always been really difficult for me specifically to classify what I am or who I am in terms of my creativity, because I can say one day that I’m an artist and then another day, I can say I’m a musician. One day, I can say I’m a designer. I can wear all these hats, and I try to wear them really well. I was always thinking of, “What’s just a cool umbrella term that I could use that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but does speak to the idea that I can do all of these different things?” I came up with that when I was designing the website for Colibri and it just stuck. So, that’s the moniker that I like to use if it’ll be on business cards or any little bios, but yeah, that’s what that means.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, I’ve read where you talked about your ultimate dream project, which was back when you were working with Odd Future. It was this collaboration with their brand, with Golf Wang and Hello Kitty. That was years and years ago. Is that still your ultimate dream project or do you have another dream project you want to do one day?

Chris Burnett:
I think I have a bunch of dream projects. That one specifically came about, my older brother, who’s also a designer, artist, musician, just like me, his name is Jordan. He was really into A Bathing Ape. This was before I was really knowledgeable about these brands at this time. He had this one shirt, which featured a character named Baby Milo, which was a very cute drawing of a little monkey. It was really simple and it had really thick lines. I was just obsessed with that illustration style for the longest time. I remember when I was working for Odd Future, Tyler had created a character called Shark Cat. He was really into cats. We used them a lot, a lot of the merchandise. I decided that I wanted to create a Shark Cat version of almost a Baby Milo-like character.

Chris Burnett:
So, I took this cat head that Tyler had come up with, and I placed it onto a very simplified body with the bold strokes and just really a cute little character. I wanted to use it for something but I didn’t really know what we would use it for. And then my boss at the time told me that Sanrio, which is the company that owns Hello Kitty, they were looking to do a collaboration with Odd Future. That was the moment that I was like, “Okay, Hello kitty is definitely in the same style of Baby Milo, and this is the moment where I can combine those two worlds. So, I can take this little Shark Cat character and I can take the Hello Kitty character. I can put them in one.” I must have created an entire capsule collection for them.

Chris Burnett:
And then I don’t really know what happened. I was told that the executives at Sanrio saw some of our futures videos and were like, “Maybe not, it’s not really in line with our brand aesthetic.” So, it never went through, but that was definitely just a dream project because I really was into the aesthetic of Hello Kitty and Baby Milo and wish that I could have combined those two worlds, but that never really came to fruition.

Chris Burnett:
But fast forward to now, my biggest dream project is more self-focused. I want to have a gallery show with… I’m working on a new body of work right now, some of the biggest canvases I’ve ever worked on. I want to have a gallery show where all of that new work is there. I want to create a couple of sculptures to go in there. I also want to perform my music at the gallery show. So, then it can be a full representation of my artistic abilities. That’s really what I’ve been spending a lot of my time in the past couple of months. So, that’s where my brain goes when you ask, “What would a dream project be?”

Chris Burnett:
If I could work with a client, it might be Tame Impala. He’s my favorite band. Kevin Parker, the guy who writes and records all the music, is the reason that I started making music. That happened at the end of CalArts, but we can get into that a little later. So, if I could work on some album packaging for him or do some tour visuals or just anything, even if I could just meet them and have a conversation, I’d be happy. But yeah, he’s a big influence on me.

Chris Burnett:
And then I also love the brand Fucking Awesome. It’s a skate brand. Here out of Hollywood, they have a store here. Jason Dill is the creative genius behind that brand. The reason I love it is because his artwork as an artist, as an individual artist, is the aesthetic of the brand. So, I don’t know if it’s still like this, but at a certain point, he was designing all the graphics. He was making all the skateboards that people would ride. That’s always just been a huge dream of mine is to either work with him or create a brand that follows in his footsteps, because I love skateboarding, too. I’ve been skateboarding for 15 years at this point. So, combining those worlds would be amazing to me.

Maurice Cherry:
I could really see that gallery show. I could even see a gallery show that combines all of this. You’ve got that, you’ve got the music. I don’t know. Maybe you have a small halfpipe in there doing some skateboard or something. I could see all of this taking place. It’s interesting now even looking at exhibitions and stuff like that, because we’ve had a few Black artists on the show, exhibitions now are so much more than just a painting on a wall. They’re really these immersive 360 creative experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
I mentioned Dawn Okoro before, and she did a show that had a punk band in it. So, she’s doing her art and has her art on the wall, but then also has a punk man performing. Wow. So, it’s like a whole environment that’s being created with exhibitions. Especially in L.A., I could see all of that really coming together.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, that would definitely be a dream of mine to have this multi-hyphenate experience for people to enjoy. A big thing for me is the more that I look at art, the more that I want it to not exist in just a white walled space.

Chris Burnett:
I understand that that allows the art to speak volumes when there’s nothing else to look at except the piece that’s on the wall, but I’ve also had this dream of having a gallery that’s outside and maybe an old, abandoned warehouse and seeing how the art that’s on the wall in the warehouse communicates with the actual aesthetic of a rusted-out building. I think that could create an interesting tension too, but a lot of these things that I feel like I’ll pursue once I established my footing in the art world and then I can maybe expand on some of these ideas. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, are you still pursuing your music?

Chris Burnett:
So, music for me has been really interesting in terms of my dedication to it. Honestly, this happens with a lot of the facets of my creativity. There are moments where I’m really into making music, and I’ll write a new song every day. And then there are moments where I just want to collage and I don’t even pick up the guitar or play the piano at all. Right now, I’m in a down on the music and I’m really focused on the artwork. So, it tends to fluctuate and I like that. Because if I was too obsessed over one thing all the time, then I think all my other things would suffer. I just can’t let anything go.

Chris Burnett:
So, I can’t ever stop collaging. I can’t ever stop making music, but they ebb and flow in ways that support each other, whether I know it or not. That’s how I feel about it. So, I am planning to release a project next year, but there’s not much in my mind that’s happening with it yet. But I know that it’s going to be released early next year. I’m sitting on a lot of music that no one’s heard. So, it was definitely enough to create a project and give it to the world.

Maurice Cherry:
All in due time.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like you’re living your life’s purpose or do you think you’re still figuring it out?

Chris Burnett:
Wow. It’s funny that you asked that, because I would say that I learned what that was this year, specifically. It’s been a long journey to get to this point. I’ve always known that I wanted to do art. I’ve always known that I wanted to be creative. I’ve always known that I wanted to do music. But for some reason, recently within the past couple months, the specific focus has been on I’m an artist and telling myself that and believing it and moving towards it. As I moved towards it, the more it feels natural to me, which also tells me that hey, this is probably what you’re supposed to be doing. Because for a long time, I was in the design world. I was a graphic designer, and I would call myself that.

Chris Burnett:
I think the artist’s part of me was really sad that I wasn’t allowing myself to embrace that. I think at heart, I’m an artist. I can do graphic design, but I think at heart, my purpose is to create art and share it with the world. So, yeah, I think I’m getting there. It’s baby steps for me in terms of establishing who I am as an artist and sharing that with the world and being a bit more open with what I’m doing creatively, because I tend to sequester myself a little bit, but that’s all starting to change. So, I’m pretty happy about it.

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

Chris Burnett:
Next five years, definitely doing more art shows. I think the ultimate goal for me is to have a bunch of solo shows and really focus in on creating work that challenges the way we think about life, that challenges the way that we interact with each other. Yeah, I see myself really settling into the art world and becoming the artists that I know I can be. It’s been so long, because when I graduated with a degree in graphic design, to me, that felt like, “This is who I am now, and this is what I have to do.” After working so long and reaching a certain amount of success that I am satisfied with, I realized that there was just something missing.

Chris Burnett:
So, this year really marks that transition that I mentioned earlier into me fully embracing me as an artist and maybe moving away from a lot of the client work and focusing in on the work that I want to be doing for myself. So, in five years, I’ll be 35. So, hopefully, by then, I’ll have a couple solo shows under my belt. I’m definitely getting better at playing guitar. That’s one of the things I’m focusing on too. I want to put a band together so that I can play shows in Los Angeles, eventually tour around the world if that’s a reality that presents itself. Yeah, but really focusing in on the artist’s aspects of me and myself. That’s where I see myself in five years.

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

Chris Burnett:
So, you can go to colibristudios.com to pretty much see everything that I’m doing. I’m not on social media, and I don’t really like Instagram. We could have a whole another conversation about social media. As much as I understand that it’s something that allows you to connect with people that may have never seen your work before, something about it just doesn’t feel right with me.

Chris Burnett:
Especially given the past couple years that we’ve all experienced in America, we’re starting to realize and understand the effects that these platforms can have on our mental health and our well-being as individuals and our relationships with other people. I’ve decided to remove myself from it. So, I can have a different type of perspective. I think it served me pretty well. So, I only have a website. That’s why I’m saying that. It’s colibristudios.com. That’s where all my music is, photography, artwork, design work, everything. That’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Chris Burnett, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, for just telling your story and really given some insight into the work that you’ve done, but I think also, it’s important when we hear your story and hear you talk about the passion behind your work to know that creativity is something that we all in some way can tap into.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s one of those things where as a kid, we have finger painting and all this stuff. But then as you get older, doing things in art design tend to be looked at as more of a hobby and less of a profession. It really seems like you were able to really lean into a lot of creative work, work with a lot of really interesting and creative companies and people. I’m excited to see what you’re going to do in the next five years, because I think it’s definitely going to be something worth talking about. So, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Chris Burnett:
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

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

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Michael Collett

“A better world is possible if we approach our work with a class- AND race-aware lens.” Michael Collett was dropping gems like this, and we hadn’t even started recording! I have followed Michael’s work since 2016, and I’m glad we finally finally got a chance to talk on Revision Path about his career and his overall philosophy to life.

We talked about his involvement with Greenworks and Design To Divest, and Michael shared some of his origin story growing up between The Middle East and the United States. He also spoke about class awareness and politics among the Black creative class, working in San Francisco, and the one piece of advice that has stuck with him over the years. We need deep thinkers like Michael in the Black design community to keep us all honest and accountable!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Michael Collett:
My name is Michael Collett, and I’m a multi-disciplinary designer based in San Francisco, California. I’m on the steering committee at Design To Divest which is an organization that seeks to center and uplift black creative talent wherever we find it. And I’m a partner at a company called Greenworks and our slogan is tender loving care for plants and people. Thank you so much for having me today, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no problem. Wow, it’s so formal. My goodness. This is a night live.

Michael Collett:
I hit my ribs real quick. [crosstalk 00:03:24].

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

Michael Collett:
It’s still 2020, right?

Maurice Cherry:
In some ways, yeah, it feels like it.

Michael Collett:
Yeah. I mean, not bad truthfully like still walking around, still freelancing and keeping as busy as one can. San Francisco conspires to be approximately 60 degrees while the rest of the country is boiling, so I suppose I should just be grateful.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s right. Just so folks know we’re recording this right now where there’s like this massive heat dome over the Northwest United States, like it’s crushing most other cities, but San Francisco seems to be like the ice cube in the middle of all this.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, they’re joking that even the heat can’t afford rent here, yes. Understandable.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What has San Francisco been like now that I guess the state and everything’s opened back up?

Michael Collett:
As a San Franciscan, I hold the right to criticize my city a lot, but I will say that the pandemic and broadly reopening has been handled halfway okay. People were generally pretty willing to put masks on, San Francisco is very, very dense, we all sort of live on top of one another and quite literally.

Michael Collett:
And the mask rate was really, really high, people have and myself included quibbles about particularly things like outdoor dining and the way that that’s come to pass. But we’ve mostly reopened the cases aren’t really spiking touch wood. I don’t think it owes much to our political class so much as just our citizenry though.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s been weird how like Atlanta and Georgia, for the most part, it’s largely been open since, I don’t know, like May of last year.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I have friends in Atlanta who say the pandemic never happened.

Maurice Cherry:
It really never felt like it happened. I mean, certainly there were companies that had closed down like movie theaters and such, and even the city itself went through this whole reopening phase. Right now we’re in phase four of five of the city fully reopening, but it never really felt like the city closed.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, traffic’s been the same going out and about is largely been the same. I think there might’ve been certainly a time in early April where it felt like, “Wow, this is going to really affect the way of life here.” And then everyone was like, “You know what? We’re good.” They just kept going.

Michael Collett:
We just kept going hard and fast here by American standards for sure and the city, and much has been made of the exit is from San Francisco that the numbers don’t really back up, but definitely a lot of boarded up shops that quickly got covered with graffiti. I don’t know, I liked my city with a little bit of an edge to it. San Francisco in the last five years particularly had gotten to be a bit of a Disneyland, so a little more bite to the town always, always suits me.

Maurice Cherry:
So you think it’s sort of changing that way now that there’s been that Exodus?

Michael Collett:
We’ll see. Like I said, the Exodus is I think a lot more hyped up than real, like maybe some of the folks who were pulling down six figures and never really cared to be here other than for the job itself are in the East Bay now or somewhere deeper into the valley, but there’s still just roughly the same 800,000 plus people here.

Michael Collett:
I think what has sort of been interesting to see is that we all, for the most part, looked around and went, “Okay, I’ll put this mask on and do what I’m supposed to do.” And it broadly sort of worked, I think of criticism that I’ve had of everybody throughout the pandemic, both presidential administrations to governors and mayors, and everybody.

Michael Collett:
As citizens, we’ve been left to our own devices to figure this out, and it was pretty cool to see San Francisco by and large sort of figure it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I finally got to see you speak at this year’s where are the black designers confident. For folks that don’t know, I knew Michael, when Michael… Is Michael Collett still-

Michael Collett:
Michael.

Maurice Cherry:
… working Michael?

Michael Collett:
I probably shouldn’t say that it’s still my email address, but yeah, it’s still my email address. It was a numb day brand or whatever you want to call it for a while. I’m mostly using my full initials as a professional mark these days, but I’m always working on something that was why the name existed to begin with is because what are you doing or I’m working.

Michael Collett:
Back in the day, it was a lot of black collar work service industry stuff and that kind of work as much as graphic design. So it was an homage to being on both sides of that fence, but these days it’s mostly just graphic design.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but seeing you at this year’s conference and getting to hear you speak on that panel, I was like, “Wow, this is dope.” I was the whole event for you.

Michael Collett:
Pretty seamless, I tuned in, I was out and about on Saturday on some personal business, but tuned in and watched a session before on Sunday. And much as Zoom we’ve grown to joke is and Design To Divest is pretty notorious for glitching out whenever I get too political. The technical part of it was seamless, and then I don’t know if you stuck around for the online little after party, but there was just a wonderful sort of sense of community in particularly like the slack rooms and the chats that were going on.

Michael Collett:
I’m always impressed that people manage to produce anything resembling a human connection when it’s just Zoom screens and chat windows, to organize a real event. And then I’m somebody who grew up on Okayplayer message boards, and the old BB boards days, and that kind of stuff.

Michael Collett:
So I know it’s possible, but the idea of like running a whole conference just digitally, still strikes me as really impressive. So I was just blown away by all of it. The branding I thought was really, really nice, just some lovely illustrations and all the way through to the Zoom backgrounds for presenters, really well thought through. You know how designers can be, God, we’re so nitpicky, but I felt really touched to be a part of it and to be asked to be there. So that was really great.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I gave the second day keynote for the conference, and that was something that I mentioned was now more than ever we have, of course, like these physical groups of people that got together, pre pandemic, we have Bay Area black designers, black designers of Seattle, and other kind of similar groups.

Maurice Cherry:
But then like the number of events that sprung up over the last year, because someone, like you said had a Zoom account, they’ve got a Slack room, boom, put it together. You’ve now got a conference venue where you can bring people in and they can give talks. And like the technology has progressed to the point that allows us to sort of spin this up pretty cheaply and pretty robustly which is great to see.

Michael Collett:
And credit to the organizers, I think particularly of this year is where the black designers, without naming names I’ve been to some other things that just felt like workdays, you’re just in Slack and on Zoom all day and I’m like this doesn’t… Whereas like designers this year did not have that feel, and I think that’s the real secret sauce, if you will, is being able to take these tools that let’s be clear have been built for business purposes and to use them for something that is deeper and beyond that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think that just like black folks though?

Michael Collett:
It sure is.

Maurice Cherry:
Making something out of nothing. But yeah, the amount of different events and things that have come on and I did some of those events last year and it has varied wildly, some of them have been super easy, super smooth, and then others have really felt like work.

Michael Collett:
The first versus, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right, right. Yeah. So like you mentioned, you’re a partner at Greenworks, talk to me like…

Michael Collett:
Greenworks.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, talk to me about that. What of work are you doing?

Michael Collett:
Tender loving care for plants and people. So Greenworks is a fun story, I was up in Sacramento in December looking after a family member who had some medical work done. And while I was just trying to calm my nerves, I started flipping through a shelf full of books and posting on my Instagram. And when I found cool typefaces, just mindless research type of thing you do when you’re twitchy about something.

Michael Collett:
And a buddy of mine, Mohammed Sillerman in New York saw one of them and it was this old ’70s plant care book called Greenworks. And it had that one of those classic ’70s wobbly font types, you can sort of picture it in your head. And the tagline was tender loving care for plants. And he joked and he said, “That would make a great T-shirt.”

Michael Collett:
And I said, “Oh yeah, tender loving care for plants and people, why don’t we do it?” And so we dove immediately into the print on demand T-shirt economy. And the more we kept trying to type set the words, tender loving care for plants and people on a Gildan T-shirt the more and more it felt like we were just really fucking up. It was just this fundamental disconnect between what we were saying and how we were doing it, because look like Gildans and the cotton T-shirt economy in general is not a fantastic one.

Michael Collett:
And we wanted to do more than just add another T-shirt to the world, right? Like in what way were we improving on not doing anything? And so we stepped back and my buddy Mo realized that he had a friend Anj in Seattle who had worked with all kinds of different manufacturing and was currently working in the legal cannabis industry there. And that we ought to reach out to her about how to take this T-shirt thing on.

Michael Collett:
And so there was a particular design detail that we wanted to do, and we were having a hard time conceptualizing it. And so we reached out to Anj, and Anj not only had already solved for that design detail but immediately picked up on the problems that we were having with the quick turnaround print on demand object universe. And said, “We’re at a point now where we cannot do this.” And we all said, “Yeah, why don’t we not do that?”

Michael Collett:
And so Greenworks now is a research company more than anything else. And what we’re trying to do is provide as holistically as possible solutions to problems that we encounter as designers. So with T-shirts, for instance, rather than running immediately to a 100% cotton blank that you don’t know how it’s produced, but you probably can guess, we’re searching out looking for and working with people who grow hemp and use recycled cotton, and who are looking at the water impact and waste diversion from what they do.

Michael Collett:
So rather than simply treating the T-shirt and the thing that goes on it as the design problem, we’re looking at as much as we can, the whole thing from stem to stern. So we’re in the process right now of developing a line of houseware solutions since we’ve all been inside this year and nobody needs really another T-shirt, but everybody could use a new pot for some plants or a blanket for their couch or an ashtray to burn some incense in, or a nice water bottle. And there are ways to produce those that are in keeping with our ethos.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. When I looked at it initially, and this I don’t know if this was an intentional comparison in general, but when I thought of it and looked at it, it sort of reminded me of what Seth Rogen is doing with houseplants with his brand.

Michael Collett:
There’s definitely I think some similarity there, I would admit that we are perhaps similarly aligned about various kinds of houseplants if you will. But what I will say is that rather than approaching things from a hype beast standpoint, we’re really interested in products as the result of design solutions rather than products as ends in and of themselves, if that makes sense, we were just having a conversation about this yesterday.

Michael Collett:
One of the things that we’re really interested in doing as we produce objects is being really transparent about processes because what we’re interested in is tender loving care for plants and people, and that extends to the people that are making the objects that we’re designing.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s a new, maybe not a new challenge for designers, because if you go back through industrial design history, there’s certainly that awareness of it. But when we think about the holy grail for us as graphic designers is passive income. You make T-shirts, skateboard deck, coffee mugs, that kind of stuff. And people buy it because they liked the design of it and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Michael Collett:
But that stuff isn’t without its own cost and it isn’t without its own ethical problems. And the challenge I think for us as designers now is to look at not just the object, but the process as the design challenge. So that’s what we’re doing.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like that’s an ethos that has started, I think, in some aspect to creep up now because the pandemic because one thing certainly that this period has done is that it’s really exposed supply chains and how fragile they are.

Michael Collett:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
And so when it comes down to people trying to create new sorts of products or things like this, hopefully they’re looking at more ethical ways to do it ways that won’t be a big tax on other resources and stuff like that.

Michael Collett:
And selfishly ways that won’t get stuck in the Suez Canal for a month, like there’s also just the fundamental functional problems of hyper globalized manufacturing in that, your stuff is literally on the other side of the planet until it’s not. And I don’t know, I’m a designer I’m picky, that seems like a really bad way to have as much control as possible over what I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s the designer way, isn’t it? To nitpick over the details and to really create something that is, I think more towards art, particularly with physical works. I’ve had so many designers over the years where yes, they may be digital designers by profession, but in their spare time they’re doing pottery or woodworking or something, they’re making something tangible and they’re doing it with the amount of care and precision and such that they probably would with a digital design.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah. Oh, well, I mean, I think once you look at the world that way, it’s hard not to do that in every part of your life. I bet you are very, very intent on how your onions get chopped, even if you’ve never worked in the kitchen before, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michael Collett:
And that’s I think partially how I was raised both my parents are landscape architects and I grew up around them and not only in their professional peers. And so I’ve long believed that every moment is an opportunity to bring a design sensibility to things which to paraphrase Minari, I think is just a planner with an aesthetic sense. So if you’ve got a plan and a sense of taste then you’re halfway to a design. And even if that’s just chopping onions.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny you mentioned that about onions. I remember reading something, this was years ago, about how an onion will actually taste differently depending on how you cut it.

Michael Collett:
That’s exactly the point. Yes, that’s exactly it, right? Like sometimes you want the long slice, sometimes you want the diced onion. Sometimes you want to put it in before the garlic, sometimes you want to put it in after, sometimes you don’t want to put them in together at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, good point. Yeah. You’re also on the committee for a collective that’s called Design To Divest. Talk to me about that.

Michael Collett:
Design To Divest. I am just so full of love for these folks. So Design To Divest started in the context of the pandemic and the summer protests last year by a designer creative based out of Brooklyn named Vanessa. And they reached out to their network and extended black creative networks, initially for people to essentially for graphic designers to lend their skills to existing social justice organizations who needed design help.

Michael Collett:
And we quickly became a little bit of a running crew, speaking of assembling community online and in virtual spaces, it’s definitely sort of how that came to be. And over the course of, I guess, now the last year and a half, we’ve gone from hosting regular weekly meetings for black designers and allies to pulling back a little bit from the regular grind of the digital ecosystem and trying to be really, really intentional in the work that we’re doing.

Michael Collett:
And so we’re about to release in collaboration with San Francisco print shop a butt whole press that’s beauty, W-H-O-L-E, for those listeners with sensitive years. Our first Dezeen, our first publication that’s going to grapple with critical race theory and Afrofuturism and all kinds of things that are imminently topical right now that we’re only just fringe ideas six months ago when we started talking about this.

Michael Collett:
And broadly we are immersed in the process of trying to create something that I mentioned during our panel discussion last weekend, like a walled garden for black creators. And this is something that is not only, I think, a priority for me with Design To Divest, but is also a priority with my work with Greenworks.

Michael Collett:
I fundamentally believe that keeping up with particularly the Instagram algorithm for creatives is an inherently toxic and losing game. And I think anything that we can do to literally just provide a space for black creatives and black creators to develop outside of that really consumptive and extractive digital space is something worth doing.

Maurice Cherry:
And with Design To Divest and you all sort of coming together and doing these things, I guess, where do you want to see this collective grow into? Are there larger things also that you’d like to accomplish?

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, we’d like to divest from white supremacy in design in general. Yeah, that’s the large goal and design as broadly as possible and divest as largely as possible. We are I think, I’m going to say today, disgruntled optimists, as much as anything else about the possibility.

Michael Collett:
It’s cliche for designers, like design can change the world, but the world is designed. So yeah, I mean, sort of, right? And that’s not to say that like any one poster is going to solve racism, but there is a level at which we can be looking to develop spaces, institutions, cultures that are not based on extraction from black people.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really curious about that notion that you said of divesting from white supremacy and design, because one thing that I’ve seen probably over the past two years now is just how much more political, I guess I would say black design initiatives have become, that they’ve been largely steeped in these concepts of decolonization, divesting from white supremacy, et cetera, because it makes sense like you have to sort of strip that away in order for us to really get back to what we hope is the root of what it is that we do, because it reminds me of an essay that the late Sylvia Harris had written for Stephen Heller’s at the education of a graphic designer, where she talks about how black designers have fallen into this pattern of imitation rather than innovation.

Maurice Cherry:
And that the work tends to mimic what they might’ve been taught in schools or whatever around like the Bauhaus or like Swiss Style or something like that, and it’s less about their own kind of cultural touchpoints. And that’s not to say necessarily that that cultural touchpoint is a direct line to Africa, like a tribe or a country or anything like that, but just like where you come from. I mean, as African-Americans have a very unique culture in this country that is ripe with inspiration for so many things…

Michael Collett:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
I had Brent Rollins on the show for episode 400 and I mean, just the shit that he has created out of his experience is so uniquely like African-American, but also is hip-hop and film. And I mean, the man made the logo for boys in the hood for poetic justice when he was like a teenager.

Michael Collett:
That’s very much I think the point. When Design To Divest first came together, I remember we had a conversation, somebody on the call had lamented the fact that there wasn’t a black graphic design tradition that they could call upon in school. And I was like, “What are we talking about? What are we talking about? Absolutely not.”

Michael Collett:
When it comes to the combination of text and image in terms of its resonance in our culture, black designers are without par, but we just don’t consider that graphic because it’s not Swiss School publications, poster, nominations. I mean, has the AIGA ever recognized Pen & Pencil Studios?

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t think so.

Michael Collett:
Then they are not talking about graphic arts in this country, because Pen & Pencil Studios is a Seminole, Pen & Pixels, Pen & Pixel Studios is this Seminole studio when it comes to not just the African-American, but the American graphic design tradition, if we’re really getting down to brass tacks, right?

Michael Collett:
Whatever kind of design you want to focus on, but as graphic designer, there’s a huge black graphic design tradition that we don’t even think about because it’s so denigrated. And so when we talk about decolonizing and divesting, that can get really heady. But what I mean is that like, we should be in the same way that so much of the Bauhaus and Swiss School is about, so the Swiss poster thing, that’s about wheat paste posters that the Swiss put up on the street for advertisements.

Michael Collett:
That’s what that’s about. That’s the root of the Swiss poster and all this other thing, it’s street advertisement. So if we’re in thrall to street advertisement, then let’s go find those iconic street ads for hip hop records, for clothing lines, for all of the representations of black American culture, which has been the primary driver of American culture since time immemorial.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Collett:
And so when we talk about like, what does that walled garden look like? What we’re trying to do is to coalesce and to ideally produce and publish this knowledge and make it available for people. It kills me to see it’s definitely a common refrain among folks, take us off the mood boards and put us in the creative directorships.

Michael Collett:
We are already as black people inherently creative because you have to be fly in the face of systemic oppression. And then our creativity is never what is compensated, while it is what drives all of the cultural engine. You can find discreet examples of that like the young woman who created the concept of on fleek, has the millions of dollars worth of advertising that have used that word in the last, I don’t know how many years, provided a dime to her.

Michael Collett:
But it’s so symptomatic of the extractive nature of our social media platforms, I think in particular where so much, especially now during the pandemic of our culture is not only consumed but creative.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s interesting. As you mentioned, kind of social media and the algorithm, like there are people now that I don’t want to say that they’ve come up, but what you’re finding now is like this new instantiation of a designer who is more curator than creator. It’s less about what they may themselves be making it more about what they can pull together from what others have made, because there’s so much noise for lack of a better term out there, that they’re the ones that can say, “Okay, here’s the good ship that you need to pay attention to.” And like, then that person ends up being like a tastemaker or something in their own right because of that.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah. Well, and the ability to manipulate the algorithm has now been passed off for creative direction.

Maurice Cherry:
True, true that.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s okay, sure, it is creative direction, but it’s creative direction in the service of what? And so for me, the at all opportunity is trying to turn away from the algorithm as a driving factor in the work that I’m creating, is a big point for me these days.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I’m curious to know about the Michael Collett origin story, where did you grow up initially?

Michael Collett:
I was born here in San Francisco, and like I mentioned before my parents are both landscape architects. And in the late ’80s the Bechtle company was hiring lots of landscape architects to work on a project in Kuwait.

Michael Collett:
And so my folks being relatively young and fresh out of school-ish, first couple of jobs said, “Hey, pay looks good, live abroad for a couple of years. We’ve got this kid, they’ll pay for his English school out there. Sounds great.”

Michael Collett:
And so I want to say mid-’88, we packed up here in San Francisco and flew off to Kuwait and planned on being there for, I think at least four or five years. Oh God, the timeline escapes me. But the summer of the first Gulf War, before it was the first Gulf War, we went on vacation to Cyprus to visit my godfather in Scotland and to visit some family in New York.

Michael Collett:
And when we got to New York and got settled in, in our hotel, and these were of course, the days before cell phones and people had to know where you were going and call ahead, there was a message from my aunt saying to turn on CNN and that she hoped we had packed winter clothes because Iraqi Republican Guard had not only entered Kuwait, but had set up its command center in our apartment building.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh shit, wow.

Michael Collett:
So what was the vacation very quickly turned into, I guess, we’re coming back to the states now. And we returned to San Francisco, but from there we bounced around a bit. I mostly grew up in Davis, California, which I will mostly hold my tongue about. There’s some very nice people there and some less so people there, I’ll put it that way.

Michael Collett:
But then I went to a few different schools, first University of California, Riverside. Then when my mother got a job at Penn State, I went to Penn State main campus, that was a bit of a culture shock. University of California at Riverside was the first minority, majority UC school. Penn State main campus was 85% white when I got there and it snowed in October.

Michael Collett:
And like I said, I’m from California and not built for that, but I met some wonderful people at Penn State in spite of it being occasionally a pleasant villi in the horror. And then came back to Sacramento, having not finished and then went moved to Philadelphia outside of which is Penn State Abington in order to finish my education there.

Michael Collett:
That was sort of a choose your own adventure degree, I had originally started studying political science and bounced around and did a bunch of stuff. As the child of designers, I definitely did not want to join the family business for a long time, or at least I thought I didn’t. The punchline to that story is I’m currently now enrolled in school for architecture. So obviously I did not want to do it that badly, but you know how kids are great? You know how to get [inaudible 00:34:30] against everything, I’ll go be a lawyer. And then I realized that was a horrible idea.

Michael Collett:
So by the time I got to Penn State Abington, I definitely needed to write some very persuasive essays to convince these folks why all these disparate classes from three different schools about to do a degree, but we did that. And then I ended up back in Sacramento twiddling my thumbs. I worked a traveling salesman job for a Mormon windows heating and air conditioning company just as the economy was cratering in 2007, which was weird, definitely got chased off of some Stockton front porches by the sound of cocking shotguns, et cetera, et cetera.

Michael Collett:
Surprised I didn’t get turned into a hashtag, although I don’t know if they had those then. And from there, I realized that because I could passively photo edit in Photoshop and export to PDF that for boomers, I was essentially a computer Wiz and could pass myself off as a graphic designer to people who didn’t know any better. And then I quickly realized that I was in over my head and needed to go learn a bunch of stuff, which I spent the next 10 years doing, and here I am.

Maurice Cherry:
So one of your early design gigs was there in San Francisco. You were working for Mule Design Studio, which I think for people that are listening to this show that know about design and probably heard of Mule Design because of its proprietor, Mike Monteiro. How was that job? I’m just curious. How was it like working there?

Michael Collett:
Mule was a really, really interesting gig. Mule has since shuttered and I think both Mike and Erica are consulting and mostly doing speaking and writing gigs now. But Mule was a really educational experience for me as much in terms of design as it was in terms of how to deal with clients and I think particularly about the politics of design work.

Michael Collett:
And I say politics in a lowercase sense that I mentioned that I studied political science in school. And one of the things that early, 101 political science courses talk about is this idea that politics isn’t just party A, party B, big national election. Politics is the struggle for power in any group of people larger than one.

Michael Collett:
And when you look at it in that lens, particularly client work is a lot of political reading and handholding of the organization that you’re performing the work for. One of the things that we used to talk about at Mule that I find is such a great metric for things these days is that the main navigation bar of any organizational website will tell you so much about the politics of that organization, if you know how to look at it.

Michael Collett:
An organization that has a very succinct and easy to understand top menu bar, top level nav particularly, is one that… I mean, might have its internal problems still, but at least has a proper delegation of powers, like a hugely overcrowded main nav is a symptom of something organizational and much larger than just the design.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s as much, if anything, the key that I took away from Mule, is that design is a reflection of the organizational priorities and politics of whoever it is in question.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. Now, I’m thinking back at the last two places that I worked before my current gig and how design was… It was a reflection of internal politics, like the first company I remember starting at it, started out as… or at least when I started there, it was just sort of small, stable, fairly well-known software company. And their design was pretty basic, off stare, nothing that’s like winning awards, nothing mind-blowing, but they were also very well-funded and stable and all their employees loved it.

Maurice Cherry:
And then we switched to becoming the startup overnight and the branding was so… I use chaotic in a good way, but the design was like, oh my God, I’m really trying to accurately pinpoint how weird this was. There was like late ’90s, early 2000s like Murakami anime style, where it was certainly trying to like push a boundary.

Maurice Cherry:
And this is a tech company, like trying to push a boundary, but then it’s also like bordering on juvenile because I mean, honestly we were a young company, we had went from being this old company to a startup overnight. And that really reflected as the company went on, the people that attracted, the way that we sort of did business, unfortunately the internal politics as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And then the second place I worked at was this very stoic Eastern European tech startup, and the design very much reflected that it was just black. I started, they had a logo and they had black and two shades of gray, and that was the brand. And that very much reflects the monoculture of the company like, “Oh, okay. Yeah. Wow. That’s a really good perception there.”

Michael Collett:
Yeah, that I think was one of my big takeaways from Mule. The other one, and this was, I think, credit to Mike Monteiro where it’s due, was that it’s just websites. I think a lot of our industry, a lot of our profession is beset with a really inordinate amount of stress and anxiety and pressure.

Michael Collett:
Some of which are self-generated, some of which is client-generated, some of which is generated by the fact that we live under capitalism. But at the end of the day, like it’s just websites, like everybody needs to take a deep breath.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s something that I’m glad that I’ve been able to keep in perspective throughout my career because I started designing websites. God, this is date… I started designing websites in 1997.

Michael Collett:
Hey.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, this is basic SHTML geo cities, Athens Roads 1130. You know what I’m saying?

Michael Collett:
I thought those sites could still run, I bet [crosstalk 00:41:17] probably.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, they definitely could still run. Absolutely. I’m pretty sure if there’s a geo cities archive somewhere in my old website with my full address and phone number at the time.

Michael Collett:
Oh God.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s probably still on the web somewhere.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah, but the privacy fails, we all committed in those days.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. And I remember when my mom found out about it and I mean, she chewed me out, like, “Why are you putting that? Why are you putting that address on the internet?” I was like, “Nobody’s going to find it.”

Michael Collett:
Strangers on the internet.

Maurice Cherry:
“Nobody’s going to find it,” like come on. Like, yeah, there’s going to be some hacker in Stockton, California that’s like, “I can’t wait to get to sell my Alabama and find…” That’s not going to happen. But I say that to say, like having been on the web, building things on the web for such a long time, all of this shit is so ephemeral and like, it’s going to get redesigned and over it, which is why I never really sweat or stress web design in general. Like some people really like live this shit like Moses came down from the mountain with two tablets. And I understand-

Michael Collett:
[crosstalk 00:42:20] fake my eyes, I just don’t get it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, and I understand that, but it’s like, I’m like, “Dude, in 10 years, all of this is going to be like sitting on a hard drive somewhere. None of this is going to matter.”

Michael Collett:
Not only that like, I hate to break it to web designers, but your cookie acceptance banner takes up half the goddamn page to begin with, so I don’t know what you’re looking at to start with.

Maurice Cherry:
The speed at which that has taken over every website in the past two years.

Michael Collett:
GDPR killed mobile web design and I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you go to a website and there’s like three success of pop-ups, there’s a full-page modal to subscribe to their newsletter with some snarky dark pattern. No, I don’t want to save 20%, and then you’ve got the cookie banner and then something else pops up. I’m like, “I just wanted to read this news article. Oh, wait, it’s behind the paywall, damn.”

Michael Collett:
Oh, reader mode. There we go.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh man.

Michael Collett:
But I’ll just go find the tweet and read it on reader mode because you’re not getting my eyeballs for this, but I mean, this is where we’ve arrived. This is the world we’ve designed ourselves into, or that has been designed around us, because I mean, I’m not responsible for the GDPR modals, but it does, I think come back to again that pressure that we have, not pressure necessarily but the potential that exists for us as designers to unfuck some of this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Collett:
Hopefully, I mean, I don’t know what can be done about Shell oil or whomever, but at wherever we can there’s that potential to sort of rest things towards not sucking.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny. You mentioned that about Shell. We’re thinking, God, it might’ve been earlier this year where Exxon’s shareholders have to come to them and say, “Look, you all have to do something else besides oil.”

Michael Collett:
I mean, dissolve, like what else does Exxon do besides oil? I don’t know, I feel like that’s like walking up to the Fox and being like, you’ve got to eat something other than chicken I mean-

Maurice Cherry:
Diversify.

Michael Collett:
… not Wu-Tang Financial like it’s Exxon. And if anything they should be held liable for crimes against humanity and dissolved, but like, what are we talking about? Shareholders aren’t going to vote for that, but I’m sure they’ve got some crack in diversity initiatives going right now.

Michael Collett:
I’m sure there’s a bag for somebody waiting at BP to stand there and be the blackface of their diversity equity and inclusion extraction initiative.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. The higher, most likely. And I hate to say this, but it’s only because I’ve seen it as a pattern, but they’ll hire a black woman to do it.

Michael Collett:
Oh, I know. I know. And run her out like Google did to…

Maurice Cherry:
Tim Nutt?

Michael Collett:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Michael Collett:
Oh, I was just, I mean, it’s a shameful practice that particularly, I think a lot of the techies are very guilty of. We had brought up previously an article I had written a while ago, but there’s another one I had written this also a while ago now. But I think when I was at Mule, because we had a day in the office laughing about Google, having spent a quarter of a billion dollars trying to solve their diversity problem over the previous five years, and somehow not having solved it. And my immediate question was, “Well, have they tried hiring black people?”

Michael Collett:
And apparently seemed that nobody who took their $250 million suggested that to them, but then they do that and then they do how they do. So it’s sort of a damned if you do damned if you don’t, but…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s something I’ve always been wary of. And I’ve taken, I mean, in like speaking of where are the black designers, because we talked about that earlier. When I did that presentation initially in 2015 and I gave a very reluctant updates to that presentation in 2020.

Maurice Cherry:
And I say that because when I gave it, and I mentioned this in my keynote, but for people who didn’t hear the keynote, I got so much shit for that presentation after I gave it that it pretty much tanked my studio. I had to go out and get a job because like all my business stuff had dried up just because I said.

Maurice Cherry:
The answer to that question of where the black designers should not come from black designers, it has to be from a coalition of people from organizations and businesses and schools. And quite frankly, black designers create the problem, so stop asking us, and so…

Michael Collett:
That’s not an answer people want to hear.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but like I say, I reluctantly gave an update because I let it, I recorded it, I put it up on YouTube, and it’s been up there since like March of 2015 with like no comments or anything. It wasn’t until last year, like in the wake of people getting on the streets and protesting and companies saying, “Well, we want to uplift black voices and share black voices and such that people found the presentation were willing to give me money for,” and shout out to reparations.

Maurice Cherry:
And we’re talking about it now in this new light to this honestly now newly perceptive design community that was willing to hear it and was like, “Oh, this is actually good advice. Why didn’t anyone take this advice five years ago?” I mean, who knows? But I gave that reluctant update.

Michael Collett:
Obama had been president, what more do you want?

Maurice Cherry:
And listen. But I gave them a reluctant update to it because one, I was like, I really don’t have anything else to contribute to the conversation, first of all. And secondly, not much has changed. Now, I think some certain statistics around it have changed, like when I talked about the percentage of black students at schools, but I also spliced in economic data.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “Look, white households in this country have like 10X to 13X the net worth of black households.” And so if you’re looking to these high tuition schools to try to find black designers, it’s going to be hard to find when black families largely can’t afford them. But also saying that companies need to stop building pipelines, because when I hear a pipeline, I think of something that strips resources out of a place and transfers it to another place.

Maurice Cherry:
And there’s always a talk about all the pipeline, there’s a pipeline problem. It’s not a pipeline problem, there’s a relationship problem because what’s happening is these companies are looking at HBCUs and black design groups and such as like this fertile soil that they can keep harvesting from, but not planting seeds. And it’s like you keep…

Michael Collett:
Mentality is totally extractive, it’s totally extractive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s totally extractive. I’m like, if you’re not also helping buy, like for a school, for example, maybe offer to embed an employee there as a teacher or help to get their curriculum up to the point where harvesting has… I don’t want to say harvesting, Jesus Christ, but like pulling students from those schools makes more economic sense in terms of getting them up to speed with what’s in the market and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I said, “Look, I’m not giving another update to this presentation, like this is it. This is it.”

Michael Collett:
Well, and the truth is, is I don’t need another pipeline, there’s a gentleman on the steering committee with us at Design To Divest, Aziz Ali. And he has a great quote he says, “Black people are over mentored and under resourced.” And I really love that as… It’s one of our organizing principles at Design To Divest, we know what we’re doing, just get off the money. At a certain point, pipelines and internship… No, just stop.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Michael Collett:
Pay your taxes, pay your ties if you’re a credulous person, but just get up off the money, because that’s what it is. And whether it’s a pipeline, or some other kind of extractive relationship with black communities, it’s not the way forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve just come up off the money, write the check, or as a Tiffani Ashley Bell put it, I think she said, “Send the wire, make the hire,” or something like that.

Michael Collett:
Exactly. That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m probably butchering that quote, but it’s something to that effect, yeah.

Michael Collett:
Send the tracking number and we can get on the flight, shout out to Larry June speaking in San Francisco. At a certain point, like there’s black squares and, oh, look at, we were so sad about the way we treated all those folks in the past.

Michael Collett:
Well, have you paid them out? Are you paying us out now? Like what are we talking about? For stringently, capitalist and profit focused culture that we live in, all of a sudden everybody’s real touchy feely, talking about platitudes and emotions and shit, when all of a sudden it was the quarterly report and making sure those metrics worked.

Michael Collett:
I certainly don’t want to hear about emotions from tech companies whose whole thing is that we make data-driven decisions. Well, your bank account is data, drive it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Just go ahead and make that detour.

Michael Collett:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Seek that exit, yeah.

Michael Collett:
I mean, it’s not even a detour, because like speaking of San Francisco and particularly the way that companies behave extractively, we’re not just when we talk about the algorithm on Twitter on Instagram, and we’re not just talking about that in terms of extraction, but these are companies that have fermented and precipitated huge amounts of displacement in San Francisco who have gotten sweetheart deals from local politicians going back multiple administrations now who have never paid their fair tax share who in the state of California for companies like DoorDash and Uber, have been instrumental in demolishing worker protections in labor law just to pad their own bottom line.

Michael Collett:
So when we talk about extractive stuff and especially where design is concerned, that really covers the whole industry in a lot of ways.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that you mentioned, wanting to talk about, and I think it’s probably tangential to what we’re discussing now is about class awareness and politics among the black creative class. So I want to open up the floor so we can talk about that, and so you can go more in depth with that topic.

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, I think a lot of it ties into some of what we were talking about on the panel discussion. When we talk about particularly like, are black people capable of appropriating from other black people? Are black people capable of being gentrifiers? Are black people capable of behaving in these extractive ways?

Michael Collett:
And the example that we brought up on the panel was the Michael B. Jordan now untitled again Rum brand that had run a foul of people who are deeply invested in the history and traditions of carnival. But there’s any number of examples with that, I know for black southerners and for people who are invested in the south.

Michael Collett:
The attention that Tulsa has been getting, for instance, there’s been a lot of discussion around who’s right it is to tell this story who benefits from the telling of it. And these are questions that involve the black creative class. If we’re in the business of telling stories like that’s who we’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Listen, listen. I’m from Selma, Alabama. So let me tell you about how black people can gentrify other black people.

Michael Collett:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay? When Selma, the movie happened-

Michael Collett:
I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
… Selma, the city did not have a movie theater. I didn’t grow up with a movie theater. My first movie theater I went to I was 17, 18 when I first moved to Atlanta. But I say this to say like Selma… And I’ll let you get back to what you were saying, but when you said that, that’s really stuck out to me like, I just remember during that time and my mom telling me about how so many celebrities are coming through the city.

Maurice Cherry:
To me I’m thinking, “Okay, well what’s going to happen when they leave? Are they putting resources and things back into the city?” Because I know when I go home, downtown is boarded up. Selma is still like one of the most violent cities in Alabama, probably the number one most violent city in the state. There’s parts surrounding Atlanta. I’m not Atlanta, oh shit.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s parts surrounding Selma that the World Health Organization has classified as bad as third world countries, like you want to talk about how black people can gentrify and take from other black people. Why is Selma always a political stop? Obama and them come through and march across the bridge and then what?

Michael Collett:
And drive right out.

Maurice Cherry:
Right out.

Michael Collett:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Sorry. Sorry.

Michael Collett:
No, no, no. That’s exactly my point, right? Is that as designers, as people who deal in symbols, we need to be critical about how symbols are used. And that’s something I think that is often missing from, and the class awareness of that, because like not only is Selma this major political stop, but it remains a bastion of entrenched generational poverty there.

Michael Collett:
And the way that the black political class, the black celebrity and entertainment class, but also the black intelligentsia and the academic class and those of us, myself included, in the creative class treat not just Selma but other places and parts and people in our culture as symbols to be pointed at, as opposed to people to interact with.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s something that is often that I find, I’ll try to be as sort of politic as possible, but that I find is often missing in some of these larger conversations. And when we talk about extractive, we were joking about the diversity and equity and inclusion at Exxon, but I don’t know how much of a difference I draw between Exxon and Uber in that regard.

Michael Collett:
I don’t know how much of a difference I draw between Exxon and Facebook in that regard. And it’s one thing to go get a bag and I’m not trying to call anybody out for that, but I do think that in getting a bag, we have to make sure that we’re not continuing to enable things that are detrimental, not only to communities that were part of the larger ones.

Maurice Cherry:
So back in 2014 you wrote this piece called “Now is the time for a Black graphic design”, and there’s a line at the end, I’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. But there’s a line at the end where you say, “A black data processing associates have organized to support one another.” Why can’t we? Or maybe the better question is who’s going to stop us? Do you still feel that way?

Michael Collett:
I mean, honestly, yes, now more than ever, I want all working people to organize whether we are white collar workers, blue collar workers, black collar and service workers. As working people, we have much more in common with one another than we do with our bosses. As black creative workers, I think it is incredibly important on us and imperative for us to organize in some way or another. I am blown away, speaking of black creative talent by the TikTok strike.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Michael Collett:
Just got out the TikTok strike because I am too old to have it on my phone, but I see it come through my social feeds. And I know that they got those white dance thieves heartened right now, because they are not putting it together for it. And I think that is maybe it’s for jokes, but I think it’s really serious. And that is very much what I’m talking about by when I say, resisting the algorithm, the commodification and the extraction of our culture, because TikTok has turned some of these offbeat as white kids into millionaires.

Michael Collett:
When the people whose dances they’re stealing are still working with cracked phones. And it’s like, I think now the hidden upside, if you will, of our digital era is that so much of what’s already been going on for generations is now not only visible but hyper compressed.

Michael Collett:
It took 20 years for Elvis to get famous from stealing from black artists. But now these kids are doing it so fast that you can still see the people they’re stealing from, and I think there’s something to that. So yeah, I absolutely believe that black creative workers of all kinds need to organize and need to unite because we are, and continue to be the driving cultural force in this country and massively, massively under compensated for it.

Michael Collett:
And that’s whether you’re talking about music and dance, entertainment, production, but also graphic design and the way that design influences popular culture.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Michael Collett:
I mean, a lot of things. The thing that I’ve been getting really into at the moment is, is something that we’ve been working on for Greenworks which is 3D printing with ceramic.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I’m fascinated by a lot of the potential for new materials production and new ways of doing micro industrial production, and thinking about how to rest the utility of a lot of the new manufacturing and production methods back towards more artisanal or like small run kind of production things. But I mean, I’m obsessed with lots of stuff, man, how much time we got?

Maurice Cherry:
We got time.

Michael Collett:
The other thing that I’m endlessly passionate about is the history of the city of San Francisco. It’s partially just being a unrepentant homer, but in a lot of ways I’ve always felt that San Francisco can be a bit of a bellwether for the nation, particularly both politically and economically.

Michael Collett:
This has always been a bit of a neoliberal hellscape from the gold rush onward, of course. And if you learn to read the history of it, as much as I suppose the history of any place, it becomes very clear why what’s happening now is what’s happening. And I think especially as a designer, as somebody who’s admittedly very online knowing the… And it’s also, like I said, it’s my hometown. So knowing the nooks and crannies and the how we got here is very important to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel satisfied creatively at this stage in your career?

Michael Collett:
No, never.

Maurice Cherry:
Why is that?

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, there’s projects that I haven’t even finished coming up with the ideas for yet. I may have mentioned it offhandedly, but I’m also currently beginning to go back to school now for a license for architecture. The built environment, of course, having landscape architects for parents has always fascinated me. And the license to change the built environment, which is what an architectural license is, feels like a real sort of Mario Star for designers, right? Like oh, you can make a website, you can make a chair, but this is the thing that sets off the theme music and lets you do literally whatever.

Michael Collett:
So no, I’m nowhere near creatively satisfied because I feel like there’s just all kinds of things I could be sinking my teeth into. At 35, I finally feel like I’ve got my feet under me. A decade in the industry has shown me a lot and shown me as much of what I don’t want to do as what I do, but the things that are possible.

Michael Collett:
And I think especially now like what the possibilities between… The one thing about Greenworks that bears mentioning is that we’re all on separate coasts basically, Anj it is in Seattle, Mohammed’s in New York and I’m in San Francisco, and we’ve created a company and got up and running without ever all being in the room at the same time.

Michael Collett:
Which I guess in the context of the pandemic is a little less remarkable, but to me that’s still kind of wild that you can do something like that. And I’m really excited to explore the potentials that as much as I was poo-pooing global supply chains, the potentials of global networks of communication and idea exchange to me are just incredibly exciting when it comes to creative work.

Michael Collett:
And then potentially the idea of like I was talking about with 3D printing, being able to empower people to create things for themselves to take part in what had previously been seen as sort of enormous isolated industrial processes at a real personal level.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think back over your career and where you’ve worked, the type of work that you’ve done, et cetera, people you’ve met, what advice has really stuck with you over the years?

Michael Collett:
Oddly enough, I would probably have to give another shout out to Mule here, particularly Erica Hall, who is one of the partners there. And Erica was the one who was broadly engaged in a lot of the really naughty kind of personal one to one facilitation that enabled the graphic design work to run as smoothly as it did.

Michael Collett:
And she would occasionally come back from a tough session and flopped down on the couch in the office and let out a sigh and say, “Humans are fascinating.” I think that phrase and just that sense of not necessarily like emotionless detachment, but a professional detachment from our work that as engrossing and as occasionally anxiety inducing as it can be that it’s just websites, and people are fascinating.

Michael Collett:
And we’re very, very lucky to be able to do the work that we do in a lot of ways. And if we can keep that in mind, even in the roughest moments, there’s still something to be gained out of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you see yourself doing? You’ll be 40 at that point?

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I suppose I will.

Maurice Cherry:
What kind of work do you…

Michael Collett:
Thanks for reminding me that.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey, look, I just turned 40 this year, so I’m well aware of the change.

Michael Collett:
Right. [crosstalk 01:06:16].

Maurice Cherry:
What do you see yourself? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Michael Collett:
Having undertaken now via, and now set it on a podcast. So I’m really fucking responsible for it. The effort to return to school for an architecture license, I would love to be working in the field in five years in some capacity or another I’m not really… I mean, between my politics and everything else, not super interested in going to work for the big firms.

Michael Collett:
I think again, the attraction is being able to alter the built environment in small and measurable ways myself. I’ve got some dear friends that go way back with who are in the construction business. And so pie in the sky, just a small little design build firm to take on particularly affordable housing, adaptive reuse. Like I said, both the city of San Francisco and the idea of being able to work on the built environment are both very important for me.

Michael Collett:
And so I think there’s ways to alter that and to encourage that change that ideally are possible.

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

Michael Collett:
The best place to start is probably the Instagram account at greenworks.earth, because all of the stuff that I’ve been talking about throughout this podcast will be slowly starting to dribble out there over the next few months.

Michael Collett:
I’m on Twitter at either __mclc or mclc__, I can never remember which. And hell, I guess I said my email at the beginning of people do want to get in touch on workingmichael@gmail.com. I don’t keep much of a web presence as is in keeping with a lot of the things that I’ve spoken with you about here today. But I do maintain a small portfolio of some work at HTTP://whatifitoldyouihadnoweb.site.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I’ve been there and it’s like a little, it’s a presentation, it’s pretty dope actually.

Michael Collett:
Thank you. Thank you. It is, as the presentation that is linked there says, now is not the time for portfolio sites. Now is the time for a black graphic design as it was in 2014, it’s still the time for black graphic design. And that’s I think what I’m focused on as much as anything else.

Michael Collett:
And also find Design To Divest @designtodivest on Instagram, which is probably the easiest place to get on our website. We’re also on a wonderful platform and I’d like to shout them out, the folks at Are.na. A-R-E dot N-A. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve heard of them.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I’m on Are.na, just regular old MCLC, that’s probably the easiest place to find out what’s going on in my brain these days because it’s where I collect a lot of my shots.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Michael Collett, man, this conversation I feel like has been a long time coming, but I just want to thank you so much for coming on the show, so much for sharing your wisdom, your perspective. I mean, I knew when I first encountered you years and years ago, I was like, I feel like you’ve got something to say, and I don’t know if there was maybe a reluctance to talk about it, but just to see how much you have been doing over the past few years and even, like I said, hearing you’re at the most recent where the black designers conference like I want to hear so much more from you, just like your work and your words and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
And so I hope that this interview in some way can be a catalyst for that. But yeah, thank you for coming on the show.

Michael Collett:
Maurice, thank you. Absolutely. I really, really appreciate it. I think what I will say is that, I probably was trying to, I mean, this may be easy to exchange opinions over a Skype call, but in the same way that where the black designers may have thrown you for a loop, I haven’t won a lot of friends with a lot of my takes when it comes to design and politics in my career.

Michael Collett:
And so I think maybe all those years ago, I was probably still trying to play it safe, but at this point they haven’t killed me yet. So I might as well just keep going.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s a morbid way to put it, but I totally agree with what you’re saying. If there’s ever a time now to get it out, this is it.

Michael Collett:
Yeah. No, this is the time to be living as authentically as we can.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Again, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Michael Collett:
Thank you, Maurice.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

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

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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.


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