Sam Bass

If you’ve been thinking about striking out on our own as a new year’s resolution, then this week’s episode might be a good one to check out as I speak with freelance animator and art director Sam Bass. Sam is a creative problem solver at heart, and for the past ten years, he’s worked on illustrative images and animating unique graphics with silky smooth results.

Sam talked about his work and delved deep into his creative process, including some of the unique challenges of sustaining a freelance career. He also spoke about growing up in the DMV area, his time at ICF before moving to Atlanta, and gave a sneak peek into his latest project — a short film called “The Exchange.”

Big thanks to Ricardo Roberts of BIEN for the introduction!

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

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

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

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

Jonathan Robinson

photo by Terrell Neasley

December is a good time to reflect and take stock of the year, and that’s the basis of my conversation with this week’s guest Jonathan Robinson. Jonathan is a creative powerhouse — a writer, a filmmaker, and a director, just to start — who’s currently on a personal journey of self-discovery.

We started off doing a bit of a recap of the past year, and Jonathan shed some light on what creative and experiential producers do and how he came into those titles through his work in the advertising industry. He also talked about working with AI and VR, and spoke about how his time spent at Facebook and Twitter helped shape him into his current calling as a storyteller.

For Jonathan, chasing his passions and connecting with other people are what drives him. When you look back at this year, what’s been your driving force?

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Jonathan Robinson:

My name is Jonathan Robinson, and I am a creative producer, director, and writer, supporting all kinds of interactive experiences, products, and bringing stories to life.

Maurice Cherry:

When you look back at this year, at 2023, how would you describe it? Like, how’s it been for you?

Jonathan Robinson:

It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster, I think. I kind of liken it to making a loop around a racetrack. Things feel very familiar. But also, the urgency of how I’m trying to sort of move up in the race is starting to set in. I started the year still very much in a sort of personal sabbatical, working on a few writing projects and a VR concept which was really fulfilling, but also because these projects were very personal and tied to my personal experiences, my family history. I was doing a lot of digging up sort of latent emotional baggage and opening up wounds that I didn’t know were there. Add to that sort of the reality of living in capitalism and needing to pay your bills, trying to balance how to leverage the skills and the experience that I’ve had over the last close to 15 years working as a producer to generate some income without necessarily going back to the kind of soul crushing work that it felt like I left quite intentionally. I’ve done a little bit of contract work to pay the bills, but in doing so have been reminded why I left in the first place.

I think if anything, I feel like I went on a sort of condensed loop of what the past four or five years of my journey has been just in this one year. I think that’s given me a renewed clarity and motivation to continue in this sort of uncomfortable, unfamiliar path towards what I think I know I want.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s a very diplomatic answer.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s me. I’m a producer by trade and also a little bit by personality. So always trying to find the middle ground that moves us closer to an objective.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. How are you making time for joy these days?

Jonathan Robinson:

One of those things is really starting to take some of these more administrative skills that I’ve used in my professional life and trying to apply them to the emotional maturity, work and growth that I’ve experienced over the last couple of years. I had a moment of I mean, as most of us did during the pandemic of real clarity and understanding that I was not investing nearly enough time and energy into my relationships as I was into my career. And so, from there I started to just try to apply some of that structure that existed in my career that created that focus and apply that to relationships. It sounds, like, very academic or clinical, but I have a standing call with my best friend every Friday or excuse me, every other Friday when we talk for about two or three hours on the phone. I have standing dates with a couple of other friends either on a weekly or monthly basis just to make sure that we have a touch point. And it’s not like we’re only ever talking during these times. But I’ve found that when you have that consistency, it makes it so much easier to seek out these connections in between. And I think for myself, I’m kind of a self-isolating personality when I don’t have the sort of structure and pressure to show up if someone is not directly in my vicinity.

Living here in Oakland, I actually don’t have most of my closest friends in the area. They’re either in New York or in Southern California or in Europe. And so, it does take a little bit more effort on my part to make sure that those relationships are solid and are being fed. But I’ve really enjoyed seeing that growth and the ways in which it’s made me less in my head about reaching out and connecting with people. Even if it’s just something as silly as sending a meme or a photo of something ridiculous that I just saw while I was crossing the street. Yeah, I mean, add to like trying to make sure that I get out of the house and have in-person community. I’ve been attending this writing group here in Oakland, at Wolfpack Studios, a little studio in downtown Oakland. And it’s just maybe about anywhere between six to twelve of us once a month.

And we get together for about two hours, two to three hours, to go through a couple of prompts. We start with haikus and some short story prompts. Folks are reading their poetry and rapping or they’re not writers at all and they just wanted to show up and have a good time. But I’ve found some really cool people who just being able to express yourself in a room of other people who are willing to express themselves and open up in that way, I think, has been really refreshing and really rewarding for my own personal work. So that’s kind of the variety.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s really good to still try to keep those lines of communication open. I know when the pandemic first started, that was kind of a thing a lot of people tried to do, at least through Zoom or through other types of telecommunications type software. Just like check in, see how things are going, et cetera. But now I don’t want to say we’re a few years out from the Pandemic, but certainly the world has gotten back to its normal state. Well, I don’t want to say normal. You know what I mean. We’ve started.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yes, I do.

Maurice Cherry:

We’ve pushed past that restrictive period, and I think some people have moved past it, some people haven’t. I still feel like it’s a very sort of OD and touchy time in terms of communication. So, I like that you’re making those efforts to actually keep in touch and keep those lines of communication open because it can be so easy, especially if they don’t live in the same city as you. It’s so easy for those to just die on the vine.

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

2024 is right around the corner. Have you thought about what you want to accomplish next year?

Jonathan Robinson:

I have, and as I said before, it is uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but I’m excited. I am going to be taking a renewed focus on these creative projects that I started about a year and a half ago. I’m working on a sci-fi script and a couple of short stories that I want to shoot and preparing for a push to either potentially go to a film school later in the year and figure out how to kick start a filmmaking career. So that’s like one track. But on the other end of the spectrum is exploring what I describe as more experiential work, things that involve newer technologies like artificial intelligence and VR. There are a couple of artists that are really interesting in this space, one of which is a good friend who I used to work with in New York. Their name is Sougwen Chung, and they do essentially a lot of collaborative performances where they are generating art along with their artificial intelligence and robotics companions that they have built and programmed over the last, I think, twelve years now. And so, I’m very excited to find ways to replicate that same kind of work, as well as find ways to collaborate with folks in that space, including Sougwen themselves.

But in terms of what all of that looks know, I can’t really tell, really. I grew up in the church, so it’s really easy for this phrase to come to mind, but I am literally walking by faith and not by sight. I am just putting 1ft in front of the other and juggling the variables and catching the consequences, which I mean, I guess is what it means to be a producer. So, I’ve had a lot of practice in that space dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. But it’s a lot easier to do that when you have conviction, which I think has been the theme that is coalescing towards the end of this year in terms of how I want to approach 2024. It’s with conviction. I don’t need to know everything. I don’t need to have everything absolutely planned out; I don’t need to know how everything is going to work out.

But I do have to walk with a sort of full body yes and a confidence that is grounded in purpose. And that really is what conviction is. So that’s what my 2024 looks like. Walking into the unknown, sure footed.

Maurice Cherry:

I like that. I like that a lot. That’s funny that you also kind of tied that back into the work in a way about like, this is what it means to be a producer, which I want to unpack a little bit later now when I do my research and everything to try to find out more about the guest. And you alluded to this a bit earlier, kind of being on this personal journey. What brought that on?

Jonathan Robinson:

I think when I look back at it, and in hindsight, it started at the end of 2017-ish, basically when I started at Facebook. Up until this point, I had been working in New York in the advertising field. I’d bounced around between a couple of different agencies, but at that point I was around three years into my second stint at a production company called The Mill, and essentially being like one of two senior producers in their experiential and interactive division, which they had just started to build back up. I got this opportunity to work at Facebook, and the job was in London. So, I’d be leaving the country to live outside of the country for the first time since I was like three years old when I was in Costa Rica. And so, I was really excited about that opportunity. This is also 2017, so if we think back to where the world was sort of socio-politically, an opportunity to work at a place like Facebook is a sort of double-edged sword. High impact, massive reach, and you’re working on a product that touches almost half of the people on the planet in one way or another.

But at the time, we were also starting to discover, more concretely anyway, that some of the ways in which that impact was landing in people’s lives was actually quite harmful, and that maybe something actually could have been done about that, but simply wasn’t. So, I threw myself into that opportunity with optimism and a lot of youthful vigor. But I think the combination of one understanding the relative impact of one or even a couple hundred individuals in a corporation that has 70,000 employees and a global reach, it makes for a quite Sisyphean task, I think, is the word. Pushing that boulder up the hill every day, and also living in London, moving there without any friends and family. And all of these things sort of coincided and combined with the point in my life that I was at, and I fell into a pretty deep depression. And then I learned the first rule of working in tech, and that is that every six to eight months there’ll be a reorg. And I was reorged out of my role and needed to find a new one. And I had one of two options: stay in London and find a team within the Facebook ecosystem that could use my skills so that I could stay in London or move to the bay area for this particular team that had headcount.

And they were like, we’ll take you on, we want to have you, but it means you got to move back to the states. And with option two, came back to the states, and just in time for about a year’s worth of soaking up the benefits of this northern California climate and nature and all of the amazing culture of Oakland right before the pandemic, and sort of back in isolation. That isolation again just sort of brought to the forefront the struggle I was having between the kind of impact I wanted to have in a company like Facebook and the kind of impact that I was actually having and whether or not that was commiserate or whether or not I could square that with the negative impact that the company was having, at least from my perspective. And so you’re sitting in a studio by yourself all day for months on end, as a lot of us know, and it leads to a lot of introspection. I was spending a lot of time in therapy, actually. I had just started therapy right before the pandemic started, which was amazing timing, but was also spending a lot of time actually talking to my mother about her own sort of personal journey and the spiritual journey that she was on at the time. We started talking about different belief systems. And she really surprised me by bringing up IFA and this sort of African indigenous spiritual frameworks of West Africa, specifically the Yoruba.

And I started to dig into some of these things and do a little bit of research on my own. And she invited me to a weekly class, weekly zoom with someone who was going to sort of run through a curriculum to explain the basics of the framework. And without getting into the details of the spiritual beliefs themselves, I think what was most impactful about that was this underlying system that was about understanding your place within this particular life, this place and time that we exist. And how it connects to our ancestors, the people who came before us, the people around us, and the unseen forces that are at play, whether that be natural forces, societal forces, technological forces. And it really started to give me almost like a narrative framework to be able to investigate my life and see what was working and what wasn’t, what did I want to change. And that’s kind of how I got to this place of I don’t think working in tech is the thing for me. I’m not knocking it for anybody who does want to. I do think the work is incredibly important for all of the reasons that I left.

But it became very clear that my path, my purpose is in storytelling and finding ways to weave narratives that can help us investigate the relationship between what we see in front of us and what we feel like we experience as reality and those unseen forces, the parts of reality that are just outside of our perception and how to sort of marry the two, make them compatible and then create a better reality. Because I do think that that is what we are here for, to leave the world a better place than we found it. And we can’t really do that if we’re not honest about who we are and the world that we live in and what kind of world that we want. So, yeah, long winded answer to say, that’s how I got here.

Maurice Cherry:

I was going to say some of those things that you mentioned. I mean, 100% mirror, I think, what a lot of people might be feeling about working in tech, I think just in general, a couple of months ago, we had Maya Gold Robinson on the show. And I’ve known Maya for a long time. I knew her since she was a product designer in Chicago, and since then she has…actually she’s also worked at Facebook. She also worked at Twitter. She created…

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah, I love Maya. She’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:

You did? Okay, cool. Yeah. But she was talking about how right now she’s also sort of taking this break and being like, I’m kind of done with tech right now. I’m going to take a year; I’m going to spend it with my family and just sort of figure out what these next steps are. I think what we’re seeing with tech, and I want to talk a little bit more about this kind of creative journey because I feel like part of this personal journey you went, underwent deals also with you as a creative because you said you emerged talking about storytelling. But I feel like we’re starting to see that tech is not all it’s cracked up to mean. Well, yeah, surprise, right? But I think the way and I mentioned this in the interview with Maya, I was like it kind of felt like in some way we were kind of sold like a false bill of goods about tech, about how it is going to offer you this economic prosperity and these opportunities to be on these projects that can change the world. Especially for large tech companies. But then you get in there and you’re subject to so many other isms and like you said, professional reorgs and things like that.

And it can be easy to feel like a cog in the machine and that your work doesn’t really have the impact that maybe you were told it does.

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely. And it’s not necessarily that any of those things were completely untrue. You absolutely can work on these projects that have massive impact and change the world and be financially lucrative, even for yourself as an individual, as much as it is often understood that most of that financial impact is going to go to somebody else sitting in a bigger office. But that doesn’t actually always balance out with all of those other things you mentioned. The reorgs, the isms, the sort of cog in the machine feeling that you get when you work on something diligently and over long extended hours with a massive team and you spent two to six months on something and then all of a sudden somebody decides that no one will ever see it, period. Yeah, that gets old actually rather quickly.

Maurice Cherry:

Very quickly. Absolutely very quickly. I’m thinking of my own journey. The last place that I worked at was this tech startup based out of San Francisco, and I came on under the title Creative Strategist. Creative Strategist was like a title. It’s funny you mentioned the Pandemic, because during the Pandemic, I was also thinking of, like well, what do I really call myself? Because prior to getting I don’t want to say prior to getting into tech, but prior to working for the startup that I worked at at the time, I had my own business, still have the business, but back then I had a staff of nine people. They were designers, developers. I was kind of doing creative work with Mailchimp and WordPress and all this kind of stuff.

But then you get into a startup in these companies and the startup I was at at the time, I changed titles maybe about six different times as the company grew. And so, each time that title changed, I don’t know if it really reflected what it is that I really do. It sort of just puts you in a bit of a box in a way. Like I went from being a content marketer to a design communications lead, to marketing lead, to head of media. And I think the last title I had was like senior Creative strategist because it felt right. It was like, yes, I know the creative part, but I also know the business part and I can sort of bring these two things together in a way.

Jonathan Robinson:

Right?

Maurice Cherry:

But what I basically was doing, and this kind of alludes, I think, a bit to your story is like, I basically was taking creative projects that the company wanted to do and making them happen, which is a producer type of thing, which back then, I didn’t really think that that’s what I did. Or at least that I didn’t associate that with what I did. But the last place I worked; we made a print magazine. We made a print and an online magazine. And I mean, I threw everything into it because I’ve always wanted to do a magazine. I grew up on magazines and we got two issues out the door, really. We only got one issue out the door.

The second one came after they laid off the entire team. But it was a quarterly magazine. I put so much into it, the structure. I’d sent out this weekly hot sheet to let people know when assignments were due. And these are the artists that are working on certain visuals and all this sort of stuff and had a plan for at least a six-issue run. And these are the themes that we’re going to talk about. And these are the writers that I want to bring in. And we did the first one with great success, and we were leading up to the second one.

The second issue was at the printer. Like it was set to go out a week from then. And then they laid us all off because they invited us to like a slack group called Goodbye and we’re like, Wait a minute, what? Wow. Invited us to a slack group called #goodbye. And I think I started my workday at eight and by noon I was unemployed. It was just like that, and I was so pissed off because it didn’t give me enough time to really pull together all my stuff. But it’s like, yeah, you spend so much time putting something together, and then it never sees the light of day. We were going to do this issue on Web3, and I found a Black Web3 ethicist.

Jonathan Robinson:

Wow.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay? Brought them on as, like, a guest editor-in-chief, and we curated the entire magazine for the point of view we wanted to have. It will never see the light of day.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s crazy. This is unsustainable. Absolutely unsustainable. Yeah. I think we can only get, like, one or two of those experiences before we’re like, what are we doing this for?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’ve had three of them since the pandemic started. I had one in 2020. in 2021, and one last year. And yeah, it wears on you in such an insidious way where you know that you can do great work because you know that what you’re capable of, but then it’s like, does it have value in this, I don’t know, tech system that I’m a part of? It’s so weird.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah. I really appreciate that particular phrasing. Does it have value in this ecosystem that I exist in? I think that was the turning point in at least my therapy practice that helped me decide, okay, I need to leave. Or at the very least, I need to change how I approach this space and show up in this space, because I don’t have the same value system as these people do. I’m being evaluated on a completely different criteria than I evaluate myself. I’m disappointed and feeling upset because I keep trying to make their value system mesh with mine. They don’t need to. They don’t need to.

I step into this space. I understand that these are the criteria, these are the objectives, these are the responsibilities that I have. So, I’ll do those things. But I think I may be misremembering this secondhand quote, but I believe it was Toni Morrison talking about her first job and how her father told her, listen, you work over there. Those people are not your family. You go there, you get your money, and then you come home. And that is how she approached every job that wasn’t her personal projects. And that’s kind of the mindset I had to switch into that helped me get to the place of actually, I don’t think I want to keep showing up here at all.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s tough, because with these tech companies, we might as well just keep talking about it, but we’re talking about these tech companies, and the first thing that they really try to sell you on is like, we’re like a family. This is like a family thing. And even that can be super loaded, especially if you don’t come from a great family environment that could turn you off if they’re like, Wait a minute. I actually don’t fuck my family like that. So, I don’t know. This is like a thing that I want, but it sort of builds this in this sort of period of introspection, you start to wonder if the work you do is even valued by this industry. So maybe what I do is better suited for media than for tech or maybe it’s better suited for nonprofits than for tech. Like something where that’s right, the abilities that I have can be used towards a greater good that’s not about KPIs and personal performance plans and stuff like that.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s exactly right. I think that language that they sort of I mean, it’s not just language, it’s a whole sideshow experience that they sort of bombard you with as you step into these environments where they tell you, yes, we’re all family. This company is yours; no problem is someone else’s problem. You can have all the impact that you can possibly dream of if you just put together an idea and work hard to make it happen. All of those things. And they talk about the values that they have of showing up as your authentic self, whatever that means, and radical honesty and being collaborative and caring about the humans that we serve, our customers, our users, or whatever a new term they decide to use to clean up the fact that actually they’re talking about the people they make money off of. All of that sort of sets this context where you can very quickly forget that you’re in a corporation. Like you’re working at a place that is an equivalent size and scale of an ExxonMobil.

And maybe if you were working at AT&T, you wouldn’t necessarily think too much about the coffee and the cereal and the food courts and all of the amenities and how it does actually feel very comfortable and like a family. And so, it’s easier to remember that you work for a corporation. I think because of the way that some of these tech companies decorate their culture, the aesthetics of their culture obscure that reality. That it is very much a corporate culture where capital and profit reign supreme. And as much as they might say that they want to prioritize the betterment of humanity, they will always make sure that they run that language by legal so that they can always prioritize their dollars in that final hour. Yeah. And just sort of unpacking all of that takes some time and it takes some introspection. You really do have to ask yourself, is this company mine? Do my values actually align with the stated values of the company? And then are those values being practiced in the day to day see those values in the impact that we mean? I think that’s difficult enough to ask of yourself, but it is a necessary first step so that you can ask it of the companies that you work for.

Maurice Cherry:

Right at this point I’m like Marshawn Lynch. I’m just showing. Up so I don’t get fined.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s it. That’s it. That is it. I’m just here so I don’t get fined. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:

I worked for AT&T. I worked for AT&T for almost two and a half years. This was back in two thousand…from 2006 to 2008, I worked there. And at the time their internal sort of slogan was “Shaping Human Capital,” which is like, okay, like, you walk into the building, and you have this big, huge banner – shaping human capital. And I mean, the two and a half years I worked there were grueling not so much in an emotional way, but it’s like it wore on me in such a way that it was affecting me physically and I had to leave.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

And that’s when I left and started my own business. And I feel like that’s really when I started to find myself and my career and my purpose is when I left. And the only reason I sort of got back in, nine years later, honestly, was because the market had changed and the kind of work that I was doing with my studio just wasn’t as profitable as it was before. And I wanted more stability because working for yourself is great, but working for yourself can be a real roller coaster, especially because we started in the middle of a recession and it’s not very easy to try to make the money that you need to pay your bills and just sort of exist in this capitalist society.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

And I think things are different now, but not necessarily better because what’s happened is a lot of these tech startups are picking the worst parts of corporate America and wrapping them in this sort of aesthetic, as you mentioned, to make it seem like, oh, it’s going to be fun and foosball tables and beer on Fridays and stuff like that. Kristy Tillman, who I’ve had on the show before, she’s a friend of mine and I know she once talked about filters. No, what’d she say? Perks as filters. So, like, a lot of companies will list all these different perks, and the perks are fairly similar among companies of a certain size that have reached a certain level of funding. It’s like unlimited PTO. And this sounds great if you’re coming from a place where you had to fight and claw for every day off that you had to get – unlimited PTO sounds great.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

But then that can also be a filter for the fact that the internal culture will overwork you so much that you will feel guilty for utilizing those days and often get penalized for using those days even if they’re not in an egregious manner. I mean, this especially happened during the pandemic with remote stuff. Like it’s remote, you can work from anywhere. And some people took advantage of that. Actually, at the last place that I worked, I’m not going to name where, but people can search and find there were some people that basically traveled every month, and it was remote and so they could work from anywhere. And they’re like, oh, well, if I can work from anywhere, I’m just going to backpack through Europe. That sounds nice, but then what happens is that builds enmity with the people that don’t backpack through Europe or can’t just pick up and leave and go workplaces. And so even though the company had that as a perk of working there, they ended up penalizing this person for it.

And they were just sort of like, “I don’t understand. I’m still getting my work done. I’m going between times, nothing is happening, and I’m getting penalized for what I do outside of work in this way.”

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Divesting from all of this is, I feel, like the smartest move to try to make, especially with what we’ve seen in the past couple of years with tech layoffs, unionization efforts and really the rise of AI and these new technology things. I mean, we’re talking now just fresh off of the writers…not the writer’s strike, the actor’s strike, just ended. But what we’ve seen this year, if we look back through the whole year, we’ve seen three major unions have strikes and win: the writers, the auto workers, and now the actors. And so, what does that mean now for the future of work in this country? Especially now that we see that these efforts can work? We can lobby together and have better, more holistic workplaces and things like that. I don’t know. I worked at a place where we unionized in 2020 and they laid us off three months later. So, I don’t know if this means now there’s more power that exists.

I feel like I’m rambling a little bit, but no, a lot of things are changing in a lot of different ways right now. And I think if you’re a creative person, it can be tough to kind of find your anchor amidst all this.

Jonathan Robinson:

Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And you touched on a lot of different ways in which the currents of society, or at least the trends that society is experiencing, all of the different ways that they sort of knock us around as creatives trying to find our footing. But I do think at the same time, those currents, those trends, those forces, they can help us understand some of the different forces at play on the inside of us so that we can find what movements to attach ourselves to or to move in parallel with that can help us figure out what’s going to be right for ourselves as much as all of this promise of tech was a great way for a lot of us to move up the sort of economic ladder in ways that other folks in our families or previous generations were unable to or barred from. At the same time, we also see that just because you get higher up the ladder doesn’t mean the guy at the top of the pyramid isn’t going to kick this ladder off in order to save a couple of dollars. You can make all of the cool stuff in the world, but if this company needs to ensure that its profit margins look a certain way so that their shareholders are going to be happy, then you’ll find out exactly how they feel about family, so to speak, and you’ll be gone.

And these technologies that we created together out of an enthusiasm in a more optimistic sense for the possibilities and all of the different solutions that we could find within these technologies. They are at the same time because they are owned by people at the top who don’t necessarily have our best interest in mind and are specifically incentivized to care more about how much money shareholders are making than how well our lives are impacted. We see those technologies being turned against us and at the same time to the point of these different unions recently being victorious over some of those forces. We can see that when we look to each other’s humanity and find the common cause and stand in solidarity with the prioritization of the human aspect of our work that we are not capital, we are humans and stand firm in those convictions. We can quite literally face giants and move mountains. But it is still difficult for every actor’s union or writers’ union or the auto workers union. We have, to your point, examples of unionizing and immediately finding yourself out of work or all of the different ways that unions have been combated in the tech industry or in the visual effects industry and the advertising industry, all of which I’ve had some experience working in. And I see how much the struggles of these writers, these actors, mirror exactly what so many of us have experienced both in tech, in advertising, in visual effects and production.

We just haven’t been able to make some of those en masse movements last long enough to make that impact. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying.

Maurice Cherry:

No, we definitely should keep trying and I think because we’re seeing how it’s worked on, again, this very large level like in the entertainment industry or in the auto industry, I think it’s given people more visibility into it and honestly, it’s giving people more knowledge. It’s amazing when we were back, when we were trying to unionize at Glitch, it was amazing how many people had no experience about unions and what they were except like negative talking points. And it’s like you do realize that some of the perks that you have are the direct results of unionization in the past. Like the eight-hour workday.

Jonathan Robinson:

These things.

Maurice Cherry:

Came because people unionized in the past. So, you wouldn’t have to work 12,13, 14 hours a day or whatever. But yeah, we’re starting to see, I think the tide shifted a little bit. I’m curious though, for you where did this, and if I can call it this, this love for creating and producing and storytelling. Where did this come from? Did this come from you growing up, or…tell me about that.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah. I’ve always been fascinated with stories from a sort of consumption perspective. My mom was trained as a teacher and sort of raised me with a strong emphasis on traditional education. So, I was always reading something. I mean, I had to do book reports over summer break. When I would finish my homework too fast, she would create more curriculum for me to do. I was getting in trouble for talking too much in class, and the teacher said, well, he finishes his work, and then he starts talking to the other students, and that’s disruptive. So, she made an agreement with the teacher to create an entire curriculum that she would grade that would be included as part of my grade.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. Mama didn’t play!

Jonathan Robinson:

No, not at all. So, I was constantly reading and consuming stories, and I’ve always been a deeply curious individual. I don’t want to just know what happened or even how it happened. I also want to understand why it happened. And I think all of that extra emphasis on critical thinking, on reading analysis, and on doing your own research and citing your sources sort of built this almost like programming in my brain to understand stories, both from a surface level as an entertainment experience, but also on a deeper level as a tool for communicating information and actually being able to sort of transcribe experiences from one person to another without having to directly live through them. The thing that was included in the story. So, I’ve always sort of had that perspective on storytelling to a certain point. I graduated high school and was like, I want to be a comic book artist.

The dream was to work at Marvel, maybe work on an X-Men or Spider-Man comic. And after some experience in an art school, the now defunct Art Institute of Las Vegas very quickly understood that I wasn’t going to get the kind of education that I needed from that particular place and moved to New. York, just because I felt like that was my Mecca, the place that had been calling to me, where I was going to figure it all out, and quite literally stumbled into a career in advertising as a producer. I was on my girlfriend’s couch trying to figure out how I was going to pay rent the next month, found a Craigslist ad for a project manager intern, and my only question in the interview was, what’s a project manager? And how can you be a manager and an intern at the same time? That experience really opened up an entire world of possibilities. I didn’t realize that there were so many creative individuals with stable, well-paying jobs. Even if you are working 12 hours a day, and maybe more than that, sometimes you could make websites and flash banners and mobile apps, and one job leads to another. And I think the place that really blew the doors open on the possibilities was The Mill. Working there was quite a privilege in both stints that I was there.

The first time they were starting what they called their Mill digital team. And the whole idea was around. The mill is traditionally a VFX studio. They do all of the…their whole little tagline is like, “if you watch the Super Bowl, at least two out of every three commercials that you saw, The Mill touched in one way or another.” But they were trying to move into this more digital, out of home experiential field that was starting to pop up at the time. And I got to work with a really incredible dream team of creative and technically excellent individuals who sort of took me under their wing as this young 22-year-old little idiot who didn’t know anything but would follow instructions and ask as many questions as came to mind. And they exposed me to the possibilities of what you can do with a serviceable, knowledge of available technology and a strong creative vision. Add to that the third leg of the stool, some business sense and tact to be able to convince folks to pay for those things, and you got yourself a pretty promising path for making some cool things and getting paid to do that.

But working there meant being able to, on the one hand, work with animators who typically did 3D animation for visual effects in like a Gillette commercial and trying to explain to them how you’re going to turn a couple of data sets into a particle visualization that replicates the visuals of the sort of mackerels and tuna form of something like a school. Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:

Fish or something like that. Yeah, that’s it.

Jonathan Robinson:

Trying to convince these folks to do things with their expertise and their most familiar tools that they had never been asked to do. And then also trying to tell stories with these data points, because, again, we’re in the advertising and marketing field, so everybody’s got a narrative. And so that experience really helped to shape the possibilities of how I could connect my love of stories and the depths of what stories mean. Not just the what or the how, but the why with these new emerging technologies and the deep institutional knowledge of more traditional media that could influence the way that you combine these new technologies to create experiences that really allow us to experience stories in ways that we hadn’t been able to before. Yeah, it really does feel like a serendipitous journey where I sort of stumbled into all of the places and things that I needed in order to be the person that I am today to do the things that I want to do. But I like to believe that that’s how life is supposed to work. You put one foot in front of the other, and then you end up where…

Maurice Cherry:

…you’re supposed to be stepping out on faith, right?

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

You mentioned your mom, you mentioned this girlfriend you had at the time who were some of the other people that really helped support you during this journey.

Jonathan Robinson:

I think I’m going to name off some of the folks that really stood me up at The Mill that first time. My first mentor, Kay Gowda, was the senior producer for that Mill digital team. And when I say he stepped in as a big brother and really looked out for me both from and in the office process perspective, but also from outside life, like, what are you trying to do in this space? And here are some of the possibilities. He really set me up with a lot of the tools that I still use to this day to help navigate ambiguity and figure out what it is that I want. He just sort of built in these habits of constantly seeking new information on a daily basis. I used to start my day by combing through like a folder of ten to twelve websites and blogs that would post about new marketing and technology experiences and news, and then I sort of put that together into an email to send out once a week for the team. I was already a curious individual, but being able to focus that curiosity in a way that tied to whatever productive endeavor that I was trying to achieve at the time, I think was a really formative bit of knowledge. You also helped me just sort of find the calm in the storm of being a producer in a high paced environment with lots of conflicting objectives and demands, just really being able to settle in and say, like, I’m not going to solve everything, but if I can solve one thing, what is that? And let me do that first.

It really sort of grounded me and allowed me to gracefully navigate some of the more tumultuous projects and moments in my career. So, Kay Gowda is a huge influence. The executive producer of that team, Bridget Shields, really looked out for me both in sort of setting me up for success in some of the smaller pitch projects that came in the door during that year that I worked there the first time. I mean, I did my first pitch to Nike and landed the job under her guidance. And she trusted me to do this, having not seen any real evidence that I could. She just trusted me and gave me the support to make decisions and was always available to talk through any questions that I had. But more than that, she looked out for me. When we all got fired, I was on that team for about eight months before, similar to your Slack, your #goodbye Slack channel, we were all individually called downstairs into the conference room one after another, and every time somebody came back up.

They came back up silent, closed their laptop, grabbed their things and walked out of the room. Yeah. Eventually I understood what was happening, started saving some files, but yeah, we were all sort of let go unceremoniously without notice. On a Friday and the following Monday morning, Bridget had an email in my inbox of three different places that she had already called to let them know that I was available for work.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Jonathan Robinson:

She told me exactly what salary to say that I was being paid, which was not the salary that I was being paid, but it was definitely going to be a healthy increase. She told me exactly what projects to reference and how to represent my impact and what title I need to speak to. Interactive producer or creative producer. And that’s sort of where that naming convention was first introduced. For me, those connections, those calls that she made really paved the way for every job I’ve had since then. I really appreciate the way that she looks out for her team because I got to admit that wasn’t even something that was super special for me. She does that for everyone she works with. So, I really appreciate those individuals.

I think more recently, I got to give credit to that second Mill crew, the second stint, particularly on our Executive Briefing Center experiential multiyear project. These folks really helped me sort of figure out that I was more than just a good producer, that I could be a good creative leader as well. Kinda. Akash is top of the list. She’s my partner now. I met her there at The Mill. Our creative collaboration really expanded the ways that I felt comfortable showing up in executive meetings and representing creative work, not, you know, the X’s and O’s of a schedule or a budget. Collaborators like Will Arnold, whose endless curiosity really inspired me to continue to explore the visual concepts that I wanted to introduce into some of the work that I was exploring at the time.

And he actually came through and provided a lot of the projection visuals in the music video that I ended up directing a couple of years ago. Eric Chang, who’s a creative strategist and writer, and his wild imagination and reserved intellect…just a really grounding force that helps me cut the noise out and really focus on what matters while also finding joy in really small things. Yeah, I mean, I could probably go on and on and on. There’s so many people who have made it possible for me to be where I am today, and if I keep going, I’m going to go forever.

Maurice Cherry:

What advice would you give to somebody that they’re listening to this episode, they’re hearing your story and everything and they want to sort of, I don’t know, maybe just try to figure out where they are right now. Like, maybe this has been a tough year for them and they’re feeling a bit unmoored and trying to kind of find their way in this current space. What advice would you give them?

Jonathan Robinson:

I think first I’d say slow down and listen. Look around, see, take note of where you are and how you feel. I think ultimately one of the things that has been most emphasized over the last couple of years for me has been that you’re always exactly where you’re supposed to be. Where you go next is entirely up to you. We can only actually live in the present, but when we are able to be our most present, we actually get to expand the idea of what present is in order to reshape the past and what it means for us and to be able to sort of look further into the future as to where we want to go and what our next step should be for us anyway. Because ultimately, the only person who can tell you what to do next and where to go is you. Because you’re the only one who knows what you want and why you want it. There’s plenty of noise in the world that can sort of interrupt, obscure or even manipulate that knowledge.

I mean, we’ve talked about it over the course of this conversation. The technology, the corporations, the capitalism, the politics, all of it. All of that noise makes it really hard to hear your own voice. But when you seek that voice through stillness, through rest, through reflection, it becomes a lot easier to know that your next step is the right one because it’s your step and that is really all that matters.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Jonathan Robinson:

Well, first I want to be on set of major Sci-Fi production, hopefully making my story come to life. Even if that is an optimistic projection. I want to be involved in the conversation around how these new forms of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, don’t have to be at odds with the most precious aspects of our human experience, our genuine humanity. In fact, if we take the time to understand ourselves and the technologies in full context of how either came to be, then we can find parallels that can between those sort of evolutionary journeys and use the relationship between the human interface and the technological interface to better ourselves from a truly human perspective. I don’t mean, like, escaping into fantasy worlds and ignoring deteriorating physical reality that we all live in in this planet or even sort of like replacing aspects of our humanity with technology to make things easier or more convenient. I do mean truly improving the human experience, deepening our connection with each other and with the natural world through experiences that teach us about those relationships as we interact with these technologies that are so complex and so immersive. Those are the kinds of projects that I want to bring to life. From an experiential standpoint, five years from now, I want to be having the conversation of how these experiences that I’ve created for both installation and virtual reality have really tried to hammer home that point and bring that conversation to a larger audience.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Jonathan Robinson:

Well, you guys can follow me on Instagram for my musings and ramblings. That’s at U-A-T-J-O-N-C or keep up with me via my website. Jonrobinson.me. That’s J-O-N-R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N me. Honestly, those are the two best places to keep up with what I’m doing. And a lot of what I’m doing on Instagram is shouting about our current realities. So, brace yourself and bring your thinking cap. I love a discussion.

Always happy to hear from anybody on any of these topics. Don’t be a stranger, so to speak.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, Jon Robinson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, I sort of had an idea how I thought this conversation might go and then once you started talking, I feel like it just sort of went in a completely kind of free form direction, which I think is good. I mean, I think we touched on a lot of different topics that are, I think, on the minds of a lot of creatives right now. Particularly, I think, a lot of creatives that work in the tech industry and such. I really feel like you’re at a place where you’re trying to figure it out, you’re trying to figure out what your next move is. And I think you gave such great advice about just slowing down and listening and letting that be what guides you next. And I’m really excited to see what’s going to guide you next once you come sort of at the end of this personal journey. So thank you so much for coming on the show.

I appreciate it.

Jonathan Robinson:

Thanks for having me, Maurice. I enjoyed this conversation. Yeah, I look forward to the new individuals you have on. This has been an amazing platform, and I really appreciated the opportunity.

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Vasheena Brisbane

Vasheena Brisbane’s star is on the rise! New Yorkers are no doubt familiar with her work as the associate director of visual design and communications at one of the city’s most prominent places of worship — Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. And now, Vasheena’s just been honored with a coveted spot on GDUSA Magazine‘s “People to Watch” list for 2023. I had to reach out and have her on the podcast so I could learn more about her story!

Our conversation began with a glimpse into the intricacies of Vasheena’s work, and she spoke about the fulfillment she’s gained because of the variety of designs she gets to touch. We also talked about the obstacles of gaining legitimacy for doing faith-based work while also shining a light on the importance of visibility and representation as Black designers.

Vasheena’s story is both inspiring and thought-provoking, reminding us all of the power of design to connect communities and create meaningful impact!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Vasheena Brisbane:

My name is Vasheena Brisbane. I am currently the associate director of visual design and communications at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. That means I do all things visual and design for the church. People usually ask me, “well, how much could there be for a church?” And typically, a typical church, there’s not as much, I think, as there is for this specific church. Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is like the cathedral church of Presbyterianism. So like, St. Patrick’s is for Catholicism. So it’s a big historical church in midtown Manhattan, and we do church like everyone else — Sunday services. But we also have a large outreach ministry and we do a lot of work within the community.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And so, yeah, the church basically runs in seasons, right? So this is our off season. Summer is the off season and fall is homecoming. That’s when our senior pastor returns and we start a sermon series and there’s a magazine and there’s the season of Advent, which is from just after Thanksgiving until just after Christmas. And then there’s sort of a quiet season and then there’s Lent up until Easter, and then there’s a season of Pentecost. So we run in like a season, so it’s like a loop every year.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, nice. I think for people that are, you know, for folks that are listening that even have some experience with Christianity — or just, I would say, Judeo-Christian religions, there is that kind of cyclical nature to the year that sort of revolves around that, right?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Those specific events, sure. And we advertise for every single one of them. And so we advertise…I mean, advertise feels crass for religion, I think, but we do get the word out there, right? And so we do for the fall season, it’s a sermon series and it’s just like the topic that the preacher is preaching on for the season. And he’ll pick a subject and we’ll provide visuals for it. And so we do banners. We do a spread in the magazine that comes up for the fall, which has the fall events. Any happenings. We have a robust music program that has five or six concerts throughout the year — some free, some paid — so that needs advertising and visuals. We do banners on the facade of the church on Fifth Avenue. We do posters to talk about any programming that we have going on throughout the year. And to advertise the season, we also do brochures. And then there’s just all the regular stuff. Like every Sunday, we print a bulletin. That’s some of the more day to day stuff.

Maurice Cherry:

So there’s a lot, I mean, there’s a lot that goes into, I think especially of a church of that size. It’s not just regular Sunday service. There’s a lot of media, there’s prints. I mean, there’s a lot.

Vasheena Brisbane:

There’s a lot. And we have an arts in our faith group. They do gallery exhibits — big ones — probably twice a year, maybe three times a year. We sometimes partner with artists and sometimes it’s something that the committee comes up with. The committee is made up of congregation members and they come up with it. And sometimes, it’s a collaboration. Sometimes I’m brought in to sort of make the vision that they’re thinking of come to life. And sometimes we collaborate on a vision. So it really just depends on the season and what people are thinking and what ideas they have. And sometimes they don’t have any ideas! And so we know we have a little small gallery that we do our exhibits in. Sometimes they have to do with the sermon; like this past season, we did…our senior pastor did a series called Tattoo, and so it was about the words of Christianity that are tattooed on your heart. And so we did an exhibit based on that where I made some temporary tattoos, tattooed them on the staff on various body parts, and photographed them, and we made that into an exhibit. And so it really just depends. So when people say, what is there to do? And I’m like…you have no idea. There’s a lot of things you can do in a church, especially a church of this size, I think.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think it’s fascinating that…it sounds like there’s probably, even with the regular cyclical nature, like you said, of different holidays and different things in the church, there’s just so much to do. And I would imagine you’re kind of, in a way, working, I guess, against stereotype, I think, because you want the messaging, of course, to appeal to the congregation. But you also want it to appeal to other members or even nonmembers. But there’s probably a way that you have to do it so it doesn’t seem so…I don’t know what’s a good way to sort of describe this. I want to say cheesy, for lack of a better word. I feel like sometimes Christian marketing can be really wholesome, like, very white bread and 1% milk, kind of. Like, you know what I mean?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Right. You do struggle with that a lot as a designer. I struggle with that because you want to be seen as, like, a legitimate designer, right? I went to school for this. I didn’t stumble into it, right? I might have stumbled into this specific job, but I didn’t stumble into the career of design. So I’ve attended conferences, like I’m sure you have. We could be having an amazing design conversation. And then when they’re like, “oh, so where do you work?” And then I’m like, “oh, I work at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.” And then the conversation sort of just dies. Like, “ohhh…okay.” It’s not seen as valid to maybe designers that are working in a design firm or maybe in-house, a big in- house shop. So that’s something that I’ve struggled with, I think. And I think what I’ve learned is that I can’t focus on what you think about what I’m doing. I have to focus on why I do what I do and then just let my work speak for itself. That’s all I can do. And so when those things happen, I don’t take it personal so much. I just move on to the next.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I can see that. I mean, we talked about this a little bit before I started recording, but when I first started out as a designer, and I think probably as others have as well, you’re trying to find clients. And sometimes some of those first clients that you end up finding are churches because they don’t necessarily have design talent in-house or something. But someone’s got to design the regular Sunday service programs or they need to design funeral announcements or things like that. And often what I’ve heard, and even have experienced to some degree, is that they’ve largely kind of been negative experiences because the church doesn’t want to pay. And then when the church doesn’t want to pay, they try to make it seem like you should just be doing it out of the good of your heart for God. And it’s like, “well, I can’t pay my bills with that.” There’s this sort of negative stigma around it.

Vasheena Brisbane:

It’s like a stigma. Yeah. So I have not had that experience at this church, but I have heard that from other designers. And so for smaller churches, there is no budget for design, which I get. Everyone doesn’t have a budget for design. And so if you’re going to do those jobs, I think what you’re doing it for is the love of the work and the practice of it, right? Because these are not easy pieces to design. Like a Sunday bulletin is like a master class in hierarchy. So if you’re going to do this, you have to come to it, especially if you’re going to do it and be underpaid or not paid at all, you have to come to it thinking that you’re going to get something else in pay, right? So your pay is your practice. Your pay is the refinement of your type skills. Because if you want to learn type skills, do a Sunday bulletin every week and make it readable and make it pleasant and make it great, right? And so one of the things that was my first project, really to do with the church, I was hired freelance, and I was just looking for a bridge job, sort of between…I had finished up an internship at a design firm, and then I was like, “well, what am I going to do?” And I was like, “okay, well, I’ll go on this interview as a church,” and I was just like everyone else. Like, it’s a church. It’ll just be something until I get a real job. And so I found this church and they came in. It was a good positive vibe. And they were like, “okay, you’re going to do Sunday bulletins.” I was like, “all right, fine, I’ll do that.” And so that’s how my work with them started. It started on a freelance basis. I was only doing bulletins. Then the person that hired me ended up leaving, and they hired a new director of communications, and he asked me to do something else. He was like, “oh, can you do this brochure?” And I said, “sure.” And then that worked out. And so it sort of just grew into something. It was not something that I had intended on. I didn’t intend on staying, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:

And now you’ve been there now for almost a little over 13 years now.

Vasheena Brisbane:

I feel like…yeah, I think I started in 2012, to be honest. I have to check the dates, but it’s been a long time and it’s been a progression, right? So I started off freelance, project-based, 1099. Then I worked really well with the director of communications. Actually, he just retired. And so we worked really well together. And as each project came up, we just worked well together and the projects kept getting better and they were more interesting. And so I was like, “okay, well, I’ll do this project.” And then it was like, “we do this newsletter.” It was a newsletter — like an eight page, eight and a half by eleven [inches] newsletter. That wasn’t my favorite thing to do. But then we decided, “okay, let’s own it. We’re going to change it.” We turned it into a magazine. We turned it into a small eight and a half by five and a half [inches] pocket sort of magazine. Sort of like JET size. I mean, I think JET might be a little bit bigger, like that’s JET’s size, I think. Yeah. If any of your listeners know JET Magazine….

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, they know. They know what JET is.

Vasheena Brisbane:

JET is dating me a little bit! Yeah. And so we sort of just evolved the communications of the church to the point where people call and ask us, like, “where do you get your Sunday bulletin done?” And I’m like, “well, it’s in-house. We do it all in-house.” So I think all the way back to the beginning of the question, which is, have I had that experience? The answer is yes. But if you come to the table from a place of, “I’m going to get this experience and I’m going to better my craft through it,” then you don’t lose. Yes. You have to find other things to pay the bills. But if you can perfect something while also getting some experience, even if the experience doesn’t come with pay, I think you still win.

Maurice Cherry:

Right, I get that.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah. I don’t think you have to stay there forever. But if you prove yourself and you’ve perfected it and they still don’t want to pay you, then you can politely decline.

Maurice Cherry:

Makes sense. Yeah. And look, being somewhere for as long as you have, like I said, a little over 13 years, that is impressive for any designer to be somewhere, especially in this modern age of design. If you’re somewhere for, like, five years, that’s great. But 13 years, that is amazing. Which to me is no surprise because you were named one of GDUSA’s 2023 People to Watch.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Thank you. That was surprising to me, so I’m still shocked that it happened. So to be honest, I’ve kind of just been, like, putting my head down, feet to the pavement, moving from project to project, trying to do my best work. In, I think, 2016, 2017, we got this magazine, and my boss, my old boss, he said he was pointing out all these different winners in the GDUSA magazine. And he was like…he said “you should enter this.” He said “you could win these.” And I was like, “yeah.” I was like, “okay.” And so he was like, “let’s just do it.” And so we entered some pieces, and I ended up, the first year I think it was 2017, I ended up winning three awards. And so I was like, oh, I think that after about five years of you sort of just head down doing good work, in my opinion, not getting it judged anywhere, but I’m proud of what I’ve done here. And so it’s just like, it’s been like, five years of that. And then to see someone say, “hey, this is exceptional,” that was really heartening. And I feel like that’s when I said, “okay, this is like a career.” I don’t think in the beginning of people’s career, at least not for me, you don’t feel like, “oh, this is it. This is my career.” Some people are polished right out of college. That was not me. And so I didn’t feel as if I had a career. I feel like until that happened, I knew I was working. I knew that I could get a job somewhere. I knew I could design, but I didn’t feel like I had a career, I don’t think, until that happened. And I don’t think it was the acknowledgment. I just think not that was the wrong thing to say. I don’t think it was the fact that I won something, but it was the fact that people agreed that I was doing good work.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, that kind of validation is incredibly important. I mean, honestly, it’s one of the core tenets behind why I do Revision Path is to validate the fact that there are Black designers out there doing great work and that people actually want to talk with them about it and about their career. And it’s not in the context of a job interview. It’s like, no, we see you. We see the work that you’re doing, and we think that other people should see it too. Just getting that kind of validation is — and this is going to sound corny — but I learned that from Oprah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

I don’t think anything Oprah says is corny!

Maurice Cherry:

But like, as I asked you before the interview — and people who have been on the show know this too — like, I always ask something that I call my “Oprah question,” and I got that from her, because she has said before, the thing that has made people want to sort of come to her show and come to the mic and everything is the fact that she validates wherever they’re at right now. Oprah doesn’t really do…well maybe now, since she doesn’t have the show…but Oprah’s not really doing shock journalism, you know what mean? Like, she’s not bringing people on to necessarily expose them. She’s like, just giving you the mic and giving you a platform to it. That’s it, you know?

Vasheena Brisbane:

And just be you. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

But that kind of validation in your professional career is super important, especially when, you know, you’ve put in the work to know that other people see that too, and they see you, and they see the fact that you’re putting out this kind of great work? I think that’s what we all want, especially as creative people.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah. And I don’t think I even knew how important it was until it happened. Yeah, and sometimes you don’t, because sometimes you’ve just got your head down. You’re just working, right? You’re just getting up every day, going to work, working, going home. It becomes a real practice. And sometimes in that practice, you can get real, just…yeah, you do. Because once you do something, it’s so repetitive. I mean, the work changes, but the process is still the same, right? You get up, you do it, you do your best, you go to bed, and so you can become numb. And so when you step outside that and then for me, especially to be like…it’s hard for me to say, “hey, I think this is great work to people.” You know what I mean? It’s hard for me to pat myself on my back. For some people, it comes easy. Like for my daughter, it comes easy for her. She thinks she’s great at everything, and I love that about her. We just don’t come from the same…we’re not cut from the same cloth. To even do that felt weird. And so I would encourage people to one, enter a contest just so that you can get a little bit of validation, because you don’t have to win to get validation. But I just think the simple process of editing your work and figuring out what you love and telling people, I did this and I love it, is a great practice for people.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, what’s been the reception for you since the list came out and people have seen you on that?

Vasheena Brisbane:

The reception has been good. Like, the congregation? They congratulate me. They’re some of my biggest supporters, which I really appreciate. I’ve gotten, you know, friends and family. I thanked GDUSA online and on their social via social media. And so I’ve gotten a lot of follows, mainly, I think, on LinkedIn for that, and that’s about it. I don’t think anything major has come about because of it, but you never know. Your email came from it! I never would have thought that here I am listening to great designers on Revision Path, and Maurice Cherry is emailing me. Like, I never would have thought that that would happen. That was…it was so wild when it happened. I couldn’t even believe it. I was just like, “what? This has got to be a joke.” I could not believe it. It was shocking. I even sent it to my boss. I was like, “is this real?” He was like, “I think it is.” I said, “are you sure?” I was like, “are you sure?” I could not believe it. So the biggest thing to happen to me since then is you. You’re at the top of the list.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh! Well, I’m pretty sure that there are going to be bigger and better things after that. I think, one, winning awards, but then two, also being on lists like this, it just puts you in the view of other people to see the work that you’ve done.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Right. And, you know, it’s important to be in the view. But how do you get there? I feel like we go to school to learn our craft and to do our thing, but we don’t learn how to navigate a career. And that’s different. That’s different than just doing good work. You have to really know, like you said, who to get in front of and how do you get there. And I think that a lot of, like you were saying, what Revision Path does is put you in front of the people that need to see, I think. And I think that’s what’s amazing about this platform is that you can get some visibility and whereas you might not be able to be on the other design podcasts. Yeah, because usually it’s like real rock stars. Not that people on here are not rock stars. Please don’t think that. But there is a specific lane that is hard to get in as a Black designer.

Maurice Cherry:

Look, I can tell you from ten years of doing this show…. One, I’ve had a lot of people on who they’ve said, “yeah, this is the first time anyone has ever talked to me about my work outside of maybe like a job interview.” Their family doesn’t even ask them about what they do and how they get inspired. So I’m glad to be able to have the platform for that. And this is not to put down any other show in particular, but even when I was starting out doing the show and trying to network in the sort of, I guess you could say, “design podcast community” — I don’t know if it really existed like ten years ago — but there were other design podcasts out there. And even with me networking with them to let them know about the show and maybe give some ideas for guests, I was met either with complete silence or absolute hatred.

There was only one platform, one podcast that really was like, at that time that was like, “oh, we like what you’re doing. We’d love to have you on our show.” And that was this show called On The Grid. That was with this podcast network called 5by5. And there were three guys that did the show — it was Dan Auer, Matt McInerney, and Andy Mangold. And I was on their show twice. It was like a panel kind of interview thing. And that ended up sort of getting me into the view of other people because they were like, “oh, we didn’t know that Black people did design, let alone talked about it.” Like we haven’t already been in this industry for decades doing this work. But even just that one sort of opportunity to do that put me in the vein where I could be seen by all these other people. But even now, honestly, ten years out, and there’s of course other podcasts out there, and there’s even other Black design podcasts out there, it’s still kind of rare even from some of the larger shows to really hear or see from Black creative voices. And I’m saying this for design media, but Black media does that too. Black media is not really big on showcasing design outside of fashion. I would say, like, you may hear about a fine artist every now and then, but it often has to be in conjunction with something larger. Like, for example, Luna Iris Viktor. I think I’m getting her name right. I think it’s either Luna Iris Viktor or Luna Viktor Iris. But she did a lot of great work in conjunction with Marvel for the first Black Panther movie. But she had been an artist of her own acclaim well before then. It didn’t really start to get out into the community, the Black community, at least until that movie happened. So it’s something where, even now, Black media doesn’t necessarily look at us and the work that we do and sort of give any sort of celebration in that respect. So I think Revision Path kind of occupies an interesting sort of Venn diagram intersection between design media and Black media in that way to at least showcase, like, hey, this is work that we’re doing. Here are our stories in our own words. Here you go. This is what we have to go through. This is what we deal with. And I try to get a good cross section from like across the world.

Vasheena Brisbane:

You’ve done a great job doing that.

Maurice Cherry:

Thank you.

Vasheena Brisbane:

It’s amazing the amount of artists I feel like, like you said, are people looking? You have to look, and you have to talk to people. And it’s like when your head’s down and your pounding on the ground and you’re getting your work done, it’s like you look up and you’re like, “where are all my people?” It’s like, well, I don’t even know where to start.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And you’ve given us an amazing, valid place to start. So if you’re looking, look no further. Or look no further and then look further. Right? Because then at least you can tap into it.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, I like that.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah. You can tap into it. Because even attending…because I’m constantly trying and failing to expand my network, because, one, I’m not a good networker. I don’t have the gift of gab. My husband has that, though. He definitely has the gift of gab, can make friends anywhere. And I am more reserved in that I’m not a wallflower because I can engage in any event, right? But also, I’m a little bit of an extroverted introvert, I think is what they call me. Okay. It’s like I am extroverted when called upon, but I do need that introverted time to recharge and become an extrovert. And so it’s been challenging to expand my network, especially going to conferences. And in the conferences, it’s often a sea of white — which is fine — but I also want to connect with other people, and it’s often hard to find. Or when you find them — I don’t know how to say this diplomatically; I’m going to try to say this as diplomatically as possible — but usually people are concerned with their status in that circle, and that status is often tokenism.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Which is not…I get it. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. I just am resolved not to subscribe. And so, you know, a lot of times, people feel like we can’t talk because you might become the one, but they don’t know that. I don’t even want to be the one.

Maurice Cherry:

Right?

Vasheena Brisbane:

I just want to talk to you and learn. Yeah. That’s where I come from. I am a lover of knowledge and a sharer of knowledge. Ask me anything you want. I will tell you exactly what my experience is. That’s all I can give. This is my experience, and this is where I come from.

Maurice Cherry:

Look, in the early days of doing this show, when I tell you it was like pulling teeth to get guests, because when we first started, it was just an online magazine. I would interview people. I wasn’t recording anything. And I started recording in June of 2013 when Raquel Rodriguez, who was episode one, when she was visiting from Chicago and was like, “yeah, I want to be on the show.” And I was like, “what show? It’s just a magazine.” She’s like, “oh, no, we could record it.” And I didn’t have any recording equipment. All I had was my phone, which is what we recorded it on. And it wasn’t until, like, almost a full year later in March of 2014, when I then sort of took the few recorded interviews I had done and said, “oh, let me just make this a podcast,” because it was just easier to sort of get out week by week. But there were a lot of people in those early days that were like “absolutely not. I don’t want to be on this. Why do you want to talk to me? This is like BET,” which kind of felt a bit like a slap in the face. Like, I understood what they were saying, but it was in such a derogatory way where it’s like, well, I’m not denigrating anyone by having you come on and talk. Why do you think it’s a bad thing that me as a Black media outlet wants to talk to you as a Black person? I think part of that might also just be behind some other Black media outlets that don’t make us look great. I’m not naming any names in particular.

Vasheena Brisbane:

But some of them kind of peddle in…

Maurice Cherry:

They pedal in some, you know…mess, and that unfortunately, gets unfairly sort of branded for the rest of us that aren’t doing that kind of stuff. And yeah, in those early days, it was like a lot of people have said no, which have then come back later and been like, “oh, can I come on the show?” And I’m like, “absolutely not. No.”

Vasheena Brisbane:

No, really? Did you not let them wanna…

Maurice Cherry:

No, I reserve the right to not have you on the show. If you felt like for some reason this was negative against you, then, yeah, we’re not going to do it. There’s one…I’m not going to name this person. But there was one designer in particular. Let’s just say that when I reached out to them, this was a mixed race designer. When I reached out to them, they very much were like, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t really consider myself, like, culturally Black. I don’t want to do it.” And I was like, “okay, fine.”

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Fast forward to, I want to say, like, the summer of 2020.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:

When, you know…murder of George Floyd, protests around this stuff…this same designer was very much like pro-Black Lives Matter. And I’m like…look, I’m not saying that events can’t happen in people’s lives that change them. I get that. I just thought it was really weird that this particular designer was very much like, “yeah, I’m not really Black.” And I’m like, you have a very Black name, and you present phenotypically as a Black person. But now that this sort of thing has happened, that sort of, I guess, shifted you into your own sense of Blackness.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Right. It was very odd.

Maurice Cherry:

And then they asked to come on the show, and I said no. I was like, “no, I don’t think that’s going to be a good look for me at this point. It’s not you, I don’t think, for the show, this is going to work.”

Vasheena Brisbane:

Our props to them.

Maurice Cherry:

But it was very weird.

Vasheena Brisbane:

I would think it would feel less than genuine.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, yeah, it absolutely did.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah, I get it. I agree. And I get that stigma. Right? It’s like, okay, is this a Black thing? Am I only going to be able to do Black things? The people that say that are not realizing that, okay, that may happen. I doubt it. It may happen. But also, are you not pigeonholing yourself into something else that is not genuine?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And if you are going to be stereotyped, shouldn’t it be as Black? I just feel like it’s a hard road we walk sometimes with trying to balance being legit with being culturally legit.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s complicated. I will 100%.

Vasheena Brisbane:

It’s complicated. And so sometimes when people feel complicated, they just go to what’s easiest. Let me just go with the flow. Right?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

We are not afforded sometimes a lot of times, the opportunity to just go with the flow.

Maurice Cherry:

No, that’s true. That’s very true. I want to bring it back to your work at the church because there’s just some things that I’m really interested in. So you mentioned that a lot of the work is pretty much all the work done that you do with the church in house, or do you work with an agency or with freelance? Because you said you started out freelance.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah, no, it’s all in-house. It’s all in-house. It’s just me and my direct report, which is the director of communications. He does the writing and editing and sort of like this tells the story and I’m involved with the visuals.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Vasheena Brisbane:

So I’m producing everything, I’m sending everything to print. I’m sort of crafting the visual of everything. And so that’s sort of how we work. We are the communications department and we’re a two person team, and I handle all design and production and he handles all story editing, press and stuff like that. And we come together when it’s time to like, okay, we have this story we need to tell and we need visuals for it, we need materials for it, we need digital stuff for it, digital assets. And so we do work with web developers that we contract with, but that’s really the extent of our outside work and print houses. But there’s no I am the designer, it’s just me. It’s a one woman show and we try to make it work.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I mean, you’re definitely making it work again, you’ve been there for as long as you have, and just the breadth of work that you described earlier I think definitely speaks to your prowess as a designer to be able to navigate between the different types of design that you have to kind of work on.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah, and so a lot of our work is for the senior pastor and he’s shaping the vision of the church. And so a lot of the stuff we do is specifically from him. And sometimes he comes with like, okay, I saw this. One of my favorite projects is he saw this illuminated manuscript letter and was like, “yeah, I’m thinking of the sermon series and I saw this.” It’s like an O. It was like a golden O with like a lot of flowery elements around it. And he was like, “what can you do with it?” That turned into a brochure and banners and posters and we actually won an award for that. And so sometimes he comes with something little, sometimes it’s nothing. Like, this is the theme. We come back, workshop it, and then come back to him and present him with a draft. And it’s a yay or nay. Usually it’s a nay. I mean, usually it’s a yay! Once in a blue, it’s a nay. That’s sort of how we work. We are the team. It’s just us too.

Some of the projects are self-driven. We’ve done history exhibits because we have a pretty robust archive from the church. And so we’ve done a history exhibit where we’ve done a timeline of the church from 1808 up until the present. And so that was more something that I drove because I was interested in it. We have an archivist, and so it seemed ashamed that this stuff wasn’t accessible or visible to the church. I was like, we should do a history exhibit. So we did one, and currently we’re working on doing transforming a larger space in the church into sort of a permanent historical exhibit. So we’re visiting other churches that have archives as well and seeing what they’re doing to exhibit their historical stuff and if they’re doing anything. So I’m not sure if that answered your question.

Maurice Cherry:

No, you did. And we’ll link to your website in the show notes because I really want people to see the breadth of the work that you’ve done and the references, even, that you’re bringing into it. Like, I’m looking at this one campaign not a campaign, but it’s for a sermon series called This Is War, and you’re like, you’re pulling details from, like, Picasso to put all this together so it’s not just put a cross here, put a dove there, and it’s done. It’s real design work going into it.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah. And so our pastor, he loves fine art, and so a lot of times he comes to us with pieces and he’s like,”oh, I just love this piece.” And he just gives him me a JPEG and he’s like, “okay, well, I love this piece.” And I’m like, “okay, well, how can we make this interesting? How can we make this a thing?” All he really wanted was a postcard. And I was like, “no, we need to do”…it’s such a beautiful piece, and it’s very long. And I was like, “I can’t pick one section of this to do one little postcard.” I was like, “we have to do three postcards with different parts of the image on each,” and so that’s what we did. And each postcard had a different part of the image with a different color, with the words This is War. I guess you’re looking at it right now. And on the back, I think the messages were slightly different.

I feel like working in a church is — and working specifically in this environment — is like there are a lot of restrictions, right? You have budgetary restrictions. We don’t have a lot of money to spend on this because this is not a firm, right? We’re not spending all the money on design, right? So we have to make whatever we do impactful. But it also has to be cheap because we’re spending our money outreaching to the community. That’s what we’re doing. We’re spending our money furthering the word of the church and of Presbyterianism and of God. So, yes, the design has to be good, right? But it also has to make sense to the congregation. You can’t come in with this shiny new thing that costs so much money, so many dollars, because people are donating this money. This is money that people have said we’re going to give to you to further the Kingdom of God, right? Not to make shiny things.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And so doing it in that way when we did this sermon, because this sermon series, I think it was only three weeks, if I’m not mistaken. And so it’s like he wanted something to be impactful, but also, how do we do it on a budget? And also we have our Lent season coming up right after this, where we do spend a little bit more money. And so those usually are the more fun project, the smaller projects. Like, how can we make this small thing impactful and exciting and interesting and make people that are walking on the streets because it’s a tourist church, too. Like, people are in the city visiting. Across the street is The Peninsula and The St. Regis. You know, major hotels. And so if people are here on a Sunday, you want to make it impactful for them to maybe want to come to service, maybe they want to stop in. So those are the things I think that they’re most exciting to do. Yeah, the small little one off things in addition to the regularly scheduled seasonal stuff.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I would imagine, even with what you just mentioned around financial considerations, because people are donating to the church to keep it as a community institution, right? But I’m sure there’s other considerations that you have to keep in mind, like, of course, theological and cultural sensitivity, inclusivity, tone and voice. There are a lot of things that you have to put into the design that a designer, say, maybe for a software company or an advertising agency, don’t have to consider.

Vasheena Brisbane:

That’s true. And I’m always thinking, like, “how can I make this a Pepsi thing but keep it church?” Right? I’m always trying to figure out, like, okay, yes, this is church, but how can we make it exciting? So that, one, it’s interesting for me to do. Like, I want to make my work exciting. And two, it gives people pause. Like, oh, I might walk in there because I see this that’s a cool this, or that’s a cool that. My goal is always to generate interest in church by making church things not so churchy, so that it appeals to the audience that we have, but also people that might be walking by that are not necessarily religious or not looking to attend on Sunday, but because maybe because they saw this poster or these banners, maybe they will. Maybe because they saw this magazine, they will.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it draws you in. And I think with designers being problem solvers, this is such a really unique problem to try to solve. Like, with every design that you have to do, it has to appeal to the congregation. But then also, how do you make it, quote unquote, design, right?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yes. Because you can’t just appeal to the congregation. Also it won’t grow right. You have to appeal to people outside to bring them inside. Sometimes that’s a hard sort of walk, a hard tightrope to walk because you don’t want to go too far where you get to where it’s not respectful of the institution. But also you want to make it so bland that no one is interested. So you have to sort of walk that tightrope. But I like to err on the side of go wild and then let them rein me back in.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And so we can sort of pick and choose elements that are exciting and figure out how to strike the right balance.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Now, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about your work, and I want to kind of pivot this conversation to learn more about you as a person. You’re originally from New York. You grew up in New York City. Tell me about, like, were you exposed to a lot of art and design growing up?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Not particularly. I’m from Staten Island, New York. I grew up in the neighborhood of Mariners Harbor on Staten Island. And my mom, she worked for the department. — she works, still works, for the Department of Transportation — and she was a single mom. And we went to school. We came home. I didn’t have any emphasis on the arts. I just was always interested in it. I was always interested in architecture and fashion as well. And when I had planned to be an architect, to be honest.

So I started my time at the City University of New York, CUNY I started my time in the architecture program. And that year was transformative for me because I figured out that when I had to take a photography class as part of you have to take electives. And so I said, all right, I’m doing all this technical work. Let me do something that’s less technical. And so I’ll take a photography class as one of my electives. And I took it, and I just fell in love with it. I was just like, I need to be doing design. And so I switched my major. My mom was not happy I did it. And honestly, I was failing physics anyway. I was not a good physics student. And so I switched to design, and I never looked back. That’s it. I was born in San Diego. My mom was in the Navy, and so was my dad. And so they were in San Diego when I was born. And then eventually they split, and then my mom came back to New York because she’s from originally Staten Island as well. So, yeah, I’ve been here my whole life.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, while you were at City College in New York, you had started something there called the Electronic Design and Media Club.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Electronic Design and Multimedia Club.

Maurice Cherry:

Multimedia Club. Did that come about, sort of after you switched over from architecture?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah, so after I switched from architecture, I believe it was Ina Saltz or Annette Winetraub, which I’m not sure if you know those names or not, but they’re pretty big in design. They asked me to start the club, and I did. And we ran it while I was there. And it was just, you know, we’d meet, we talk about, you know, critique our work. And it was just a way for us to network. Because when you go to a…because CUNY is like a commuter school, no one lives there. So it’s hard to generate community because you’re not sort of forced in a space together all the time. You sort of come, you do your classes, and then you go home. And so it was a way for us to foster community there, and I enjoyed it.

Maurice Cherry:

So it sounds like even with just that little — I mean, not that little — but even starting that club, that kind of was your budding interest in sort of design and how that could possibly be something more than just like a hobby.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah, for sure. When I started doing it, I was just like the first year, I loved the idea of design, but I had no idea I wasn’t one of these kids who went to school for I didn’t apply to be a designer, right? Or I didn’t submit a portfolio or anything like that. And so I sort of transferred over into it. So I had to learn the basics in college, whereas some of these kids knew they wanted to do it from the beginning.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And so that was hard for me because I’d never been like, an average student. I’d always been an above average student. So for me, it was struggling with not having a formula to be good. So I just had to really learn the ropes and just be like, okay, I’m just going to have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Maurice Cherry:

Got you.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And it was…it was uncomfortable for a while. And then I began to…I don’t want to say I got good because I don’t think I was good when I was in college, but I did some internships. I interned with InStyle Magazine, which was huge for me. I interned at Smart Money magazine when that was a thing. It was years ago. That was a big deal. And it also helped me decide how I wanted to work in design, because once I worked at InStyle Magazine, I was like, “I don’t want to do magazines.” Because the experience was just so micro. Everyone has their small little part to play in the magazine. It felt like in order to have any creative sort of agency, you would have to rise so far and be so far in your career. I just couldn’t understand how you could be happy until you got to be the design director and you could do the main spreads of the layout. Interesting, because that’s the only person that was doing those.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

That helped me understand, like, okay, magazine is probably not going to be your way. Then. I worked at Smart Money magazine, and it was a lot smaller, and they let me dig into their files, redo some of their layouts. It was just a different experience. So those two opposite experiences helped me decide to go small. I never wanted to go big after that because I was like, big is too restricting.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And you don’t get a lot of freedom once things are established. And I think that’s what’s exciting about doing nonprofit work in general and church work, is that you’re sort of writing the rules as you go. Like, yes, there are some guidelines. Obviously, you have to work within some things, but whatever it turns out to be is up to you. And so I didn’t know that then. Looking back now, I can say that, but I knew I didn’t want to go big when I was younger. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I knew it couldn’t be big or else I wouldn’t be satisfied.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, one of your early career experiences, after you graduated, you worked for the Anthology of Recorded Music. Tell me about that.

Vasheena Brisbane:

New World Records. It’s a non-profit record company. Oh, my gosh, so many years ago. Yeah. And so I got that job, I think, right out of college. And what I did was, if I’m remembering correctly, I scanned album covers, helped make little press releases for their work, and there was newer records where they would showcase sort of electronic and I’m having a hard time describing the music because it’s not your typical recordings. But they also had a nonprofit branch that they distributed this music to music schools, music programs across the country, like at colleges.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And that was called DRAM. And…please don’t ask me what DRAM stands for now, because I can’t remember, but I sort of made the look and feel for that website and for their website and just, like, getting all their content up and online. And so that was like, my first job outside of college. It was very production heavy. There was not a ton of design there’s. A little bit, a little bit of design, but mostly production. And so that’s what I did there.

And so that…I think I don’t remember when I left that, but after I left there, I freelanced for a while, and then I did an internship with a design firm. I don’t remember the name of the firm. Now that I think about it, that was my early career. It was my first job, and I learned how to work in an office in that job, which they don’t teach you that in school, you know how to design. But how do you design in an office when you have all this other stuff to do all day and so that was my first experience of designing for work and learning that you’re not going to be doing design all day long. You have many other things that you have to do in addition to your design, especially when you’re the only one. And I feel like in every single job that I’ve had, it’s been just me, right? The lone sort of designer or production artist or I think my title was officially production artist at that job. And so it was eye opening and it was nonprofit and it was small. And I enjoyed parts of it, the parts that had to do with design and sort of production and figuring out the back end of websites, because websites were not new, but they weren’t as advanced as they are now. Right. But there was still a lot to learn, especially right out of school. So I enjoyed that. I enjoyed that process.

Maurice Cherry:

So you were working for this nonprofit, then later you ended up working for the church. I’m curious prior to that, and I think we might have touched on this a little bit earlier, but did you have any skepticism about doing work for a church?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yes. So this specific job came up on, believe it or not, monster.com. I had a resume on monster.com, which I don’t even know if that still exists — have no idea. But yeah, they just called me off…the current director of communications called me and was like, “hey, we’d like you to come in for an interview.” I went in with the idea like, “oh, this is great. I’ll have something to do. I’ll be able to make some money until I get a real job.” That was my exact words. And so I went in, the interview was fine. They said, “okay, well, we’re going to contract you on a freelance basis.” And I said, “great.” I was doing bulletins. My work was do the weekly bulletin, and that was it at first.

So I would go on site one day a week, I think maybe we’d sort the bulletin out, get it done, I’d send it in, and that’d be it. And then probably two or three months after I started, the director of communications left. So they had an interim and they needed help doing the magazine. So I said, well, magazine, they needed help doing the newsletter. It was an eight and a half by eleven, eight pager, I think, so two sheets. We started doing that. It looked awful, but I was just there to maintain until the new director of communications.

So they hired the new director of communications, Tim Palmer. He just recently retired. My favorite boss ever, I’ll say. And he asked me, “oh, the senior pastor wants to do this brochure. He said, ‘do a brochure for his fall sermon series.'” I said, “sure, I’ll try i”t. So we did that. He loved it. And then it was like, “okay, well, do you want to work on the newsletter?” I said, “all right, let’s do the newsletter.”

And so it sort of just snowballed from there. Went from just doing the bulletins to bulletins and brochures, then the newsletter. Then the newsletter turned into a magazine. The first one we did was a 32-pager written by him, designed by me. And then we moved from there and projects just sort of kept coming up. And so I was skeptical, like, “okay, I’m only going to be here for a little while.” But things just kept happening and the project was like, “oh, I’ll take that project. Oh, that sounds interesting.” And I just kept taking projects. And eventually, like three years later, I’m still here and I freelanced with them for three years and I was freelancing with other people.

Like during that time, I freelanced with a private equity firm called PrivCat, and they were doing sort of private equity reports. And so a designer had already designed the magazine and so I was tasked with producing that. But then they would do these sort of digital, I don’t know, two, four or five page reports. And so I designed those. And so during the church work, I was also doing private equity work, which was a little bit dry, but the designs were a little bit more exciting because they had to make the design exciting so that the content didn’t feel so dry. Yeah, I never intended for this to be a long term job. It was supposed to tie me over to my wonderful design firm job that was going to come along, I’d be working at an amazing design firm. But it just kept growing and the opportunities just kept coming.

And then eventually they asked me to come on full time. And I was like, “well, I don’t know.” I was still skeptical. Like, I don’t know if I want to work for a church full time. Maybe I’ll just come three quarter time so I’ll give you all a set, couple of days, we’ll do that. And so I did that for a year and then eventually the job just became so big we started doing banners and we’re doing exhibits. It just became so big they sort of made a position. There was no position in place for a designer. And so the position that they made was called a communications associate. And so that’s what I was when I finally came on full time. But technically I was a designer.

And so eventually we started doing more work and more exciting work, different things, starting to get a little bit more creative freedom. Because once you build sort of trust with people, I was able to do more. I was able to able to be more creative and suggest more. And when you get that trust, people trust you to take them further than maybe their mind can take them creatively. So that’s how it grew. And so, yeah, the answer to that is yes, I was very skeptical and no, I did not want to work for a church. I will just say that outright because it’s not something that has cachet when you say it in a space. Right. I work at a church, so that was hard for a while. For me, I don’t want to believe that it’s ego, but it probably was ego.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, it’s something that we’ve talked about on this show before as well. I’ve talked to designers maybe that don’t live in a big city, or that do work for an insurance company or something like that. The work that they do is not the flashy stuff that you’ll see in design media or that might win big awards or stuff like that. But when you think about the fact that everything that we interact with as humans has been through some lens of design, that means that you’re still designing for experiences that everyone needs. Everyone can’t work at a software company. Everyone can’t work at Apple or wherever and do kind of mind-blowing design work. Some people have to work at an insurance place or a healthcare brand or something like that. That may not be, quote unquote, sexy work, but the thing is that’s stuff that people still use all the time, and those need to be thoughtfully designed experiences as well.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Right? You have to design for the people. You have to design for someone other than yourself. And I think that makes you a better designer, because your focus can’t be just making it sexy, which is fun. Right. But it has to be like people have to be able to engage with whatever you make and be comfortable doing it. I wouldn’t want to say I guess it’s more of, like, legibility and readability, right? So they have to be able to read the content because it’s content. They need to consume something sexy. You can just enjoy it for the sexiness. Even if you don’t get it at all, you can just enjoy it. And those are fun projects to do, don’t get me wrong. But when you have to design with that sort of thoughtfulness, it brings a certain level of compassion to your work that I think you can miss when it’s just all about the sexy.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you’ve been, like I said, working at the church now for almost 14 years. When you look back over the span of your career from when you started to now, how would you say that you’ve evolved as a creative?

Vasheena Brisbane:

I feel like my evolution has been yes, technical. Because I think when you do anything for a long period of time, you should get better, right? I don’t want to say you obviously get better, because some people don’t, but you should get better. And I feel like I’ve gotten better, I’ve gotten faster, and I’ve become a much more, I feel like, compassionate designer, and not in the sort of sappy way, but just, like, understanding that people are coming here for a reason. And that reason is not always the reason you set out to design. Sometimes it’s just like they just need this content for whatever they need it for for their lives, right? Like, yes, you want to do your best work, but your best work can’t be the best work unless you have that person in mind from beginning to end. And I don’t think in the beginning, I didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t approach my work thinking about how a person would feel when they opened it. Like, on a more high level, like, yes, will they like it? Will they think it’s pretty fine, but is it thoughtfully done so that they don’t have to work harder to get what they need? I think that evolution for me has been the biggest and it has been the most rewarding thing to do. Like, how do I think about these projects through the lens of who’s going to consume it at the end and how they’re going to consume it?

That’s one thing about working with one community for such a long time is that you can really get to know the people and know what it is they’re looking for when they’re picking up a material, or when they’re picking up a magazine when they’re picking up. Because we also do the pledge campaign brochure, which is every year, the church has a pledge drive to fund the church. And so it’s an ask. It’s basically an ask for money to help us to continue to move forward the vision of the church. And so presenting those materials in a way that is sort of respectfully and thoughtfully done so that people feel connected to the institution, but also are able to get from the piece the value that they bring by giving their money, I think is hard to do. It’s a tricky ask. And when you’re designing materials for that, you really have to be careful about how you’re asking, why you’re asking. And that has a lot to do with the content and the words, but also what images we’re going to show. How are we going to connect the feeling of church to this ask for money? That’s a hard thing to do.

And so I think my favorite piece that we did was it was a few years back now, maybe 2018, 2019. I did some hand sketches of all the favorite things that people always mention about the church. And then some not so, some not so not favorite, but some sort of mundane things that people it’s like your money doesn’t just pay for, like this beautiful I did a sketch of the organ and of the rose window, which is part of the architecture of the church. It’s like, yes, we pay to maintain this, but also we pay for hymnals. We pay for palms on Sunday so that you can wave them for Palm Sunday. And so just connecting those sort of cherished things with the more nuts and bolts of the church is hard to do. And I think if you approach it through a lens of compassion, you can get it done. But I don’t think you can make those connections if you don’t know a community and approach that community and your work with them through compassion and really understand what it is that they love and how you can present it in a way that makes sense to them.

Maurice Cherry:

What are some pieces of advice that you’ve gotten throughout your career, throughout your life that you find yourself coming back to?

Vasheena Brisbane:

I don’t know that I’ve gotten advice on my career, but I feel like I’ve gotten advice on life, and it works for your career. And that is just like, go where they love you. And I don’t want that to come off, like, go where you don’t get any pushback or any flak or anything like that, but just, like, go where you are valued and they see your value and they believe in your value, and then you can, in turn, produce things that are valuable for that community. I think it’s a give and take. You can’t just go somewhere because of the money or because it looks good or for the cachet or because it looks good on your resume. I think that the most valuable advice I’ve been given is, like, go where you’re treated well and you can do work that’s meaningful and to you and hopefully to others.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s something that you kind of are still working on unlearning?

Vasheena Brisbane:

I feel like I’m working on unlearning this idea of a charted path. I feel like everyone wants the charted path. Like everyone wants that “I go to school, I get the beginner job, then I get this rock star job, and then I make a lot of money, and then I retire.” Right? I feel like that’s the path. Whatever. Your thing is fine. But what I’m still trying to unlearn I’m still trying to unlearn that. Right? I’m still trying to be okay with my career path, which is not a sexy career path, but has been really rewarding. And so I’m trying to unlearn thinking of my career in terms of what other people think is valid and trying to think of it more along the lines of what do I think is valid and what can I do to grow myself, regardless of where that may be, because I think you can grow anywhere. It’s just up to you. I don’t think the space determines if you grow or not. I think you and what you bring to it determine what you grow or not, and I’m still learning that.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years to that point? Where do you see yourself growing into?

Vasheena Brisbane:

I feel like nonprofit is just my calling, even though I didn’t ask for it. When I say nonprofit, it doesn’t have to be like a small nonprofit. I feel like maybe museum work or work where I’m helping to broaden the minds of people. I don’t see myself going in a commercial direction. And maybe that’s how I can speak about this better, is that I know where I don’t see myself. I don’t see myself, like, going to work for Pepsi at Coca-Cola or a big commercial brand. I don’t see that for myself. But I do see more of a sort of philanthropical or sort of path for me because I just feel like it’s been rewarding up until this point. And so at this point in the game, I’m looking for rewarding work. And I feel like that has been very rewarding for me and it’s also been very freeing. I don’t feel like you can get me, I can be wrong. I don’t feel like you can get as much freedom working for those big organizations as you can with small nonprofits or even a little bit larger of a nonprofit. I just feel like they’re more willing to take a chance on your creativity than global established brands are.

Maurice Cherry:

That is very much true. That’s very much true because oftentimes, especially with these larger companies, they don’t value. What I would consider what you’re doing is like you’re kind of a generalist. Like, yes, you work as a designer, but you’re not just doing one specific type of design. Like your work is spanning print and media and visual, et cetera. Whereas if you’re in a larger company, you’re kind of just slotted into doing one thing and you have to do that one thing. You can’t really branch out if you want to. Even if you have those skills. You’re not allowed to kind of do that within that one position.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Right there’s a designer who does this. They do this thing and that’s all they do. I would die slowly if I had to do that every day. And the exciting thing about working for a church is that I can go in one day, I’ll be working on banners the next day. Like right now we are working on that exhibit project that I mentioned earlier and we’re visiting other congregations and figuring out how they do stuff. And so we’re doing field trips and so every day is sort of different. And I didn’t know that I wanted that until I did it. And I was like, this is amazing. Every day is something different. Like, today we work on this, tomorrow we’ll be working on that. The summer is pretty busy for us. We’ll be working on a bunch of fall projects and it’s all different. And some people work in these amazing design firms and they’re doing one thing every day it’s the same. And I can’t. My soul won’t my soul won’t allow it. I would be restless and miserable, I think.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Vasheena Brisbane:

My website vasheena.com. I’m on LinkedIn. I am on social media at @sheenzfix on Instagram. I’m on Facebook for Vasheena Brisbane. But Instagram and Facebook, I’m not a big social media, so if you’re looking for me there, you’re not going to see much. But my website has some work that I’ve done.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, we had this big conversation for people that are listening. We had this big conversation earlier about kind of social media and being on which that’s a whole other thing, but I completely understand that. But Vasheena Brisbane, thank you so much for coming on the show. One just thank you for the breadth of work that you’re doing through the church. I think it is amazing and powerful and impactful to see someone doing this work, particularly a black woman, doing this work. It really means a lot. I mean, to me, it means a lot, but I think it means a lot, of course, to the community that you’re doing this type of work. And to be a creative problem solver and to do this kind of thing in a space that perhaps design is not necessarily looked at or considered or valued in a really impactful way, I think it really means a lot. And I’m super excited to see where you go from here. You’ve been doing great work. You’ve been recognized, you’ve been awarded. So clearly other people see that too. And my hope is that through this show, many others can kind of see the work that you’ve done thus far.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Vasheena Brisbane:

Thank you for having me. And thank you for doing what you’re doing here for the community and for our community specifically. It’s needed. And when I found the podcast, I was so excited that it even existed because I had been asking myself, like, where are all the black designers? And now I can connect with people and you can meet them and you can hear from them and hear their stories and to make for a more well rounded experience. And it’s invaluable. So please keep doing it.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Kristina Turner

Kristina Turner is really putting Montgomery on the map when it comes to design and creativity! With over a decade of experience working for in-house agencies around Alabama, her focus on rethinking legacy brands, overseeing digital experiences, and delivering award-winning visual storytelling means she’s definitely someone we need to keep an eye on.

We talked a lot about her work as senior director of marketing and storytelling at Jeremiah Program, as well as her involvement as regional director for district seven of the American Advertising Federation. Of course, we both had to share our experiences about growing up between Selma and Montgomery, volunteering for national professional organizations, and she spoke about what keeps her in Montgomery and what that affords her as a creative. Kristina is really representing for the South, and I’m excited to see what else she’ll do in the future!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Kristina Turner:

I am Kristina Turner. I like to say I’m a creative, but at the heart, at the root of it, I really am a graphic designer. That’s where I started. But I’ve kind of found my way into more than just graphic design. So I’ve been dabbling in marketing, event planning, all of the above. So yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing. That’s me.

Maurice Cherry:

Any plans for the summer? Like, how’s this year been kind of treating you so far?

Kristina Turner:

This year has been good. I’m already ready for a break. It’s been six months now. I’m like, is it break time? It’s coming. I’m actually going to San Diego Comic Con next month. So I need to square away all of my plans for that. Actually, on the spur of the moment, yesterday or Sunday, I was like, should I do it? I was like, I bought New York Comic Con tickets, so we’ll see if I actually go. And that’s in October.

Maurice Cherry:

OK, you should do it. I’ve not been to one of those big cons like that like New York or San Francisco. But comic conventions in general are just a lot of fun.

Kristina Turner:

It is. And once you started going to just small ones, like locally, and I was like, oh, that’s fun. And then I was like, venturing out. And I think New York was my first big one. And I was like, oh my. Like, this is a real like, see the celebrities. You sit on the panels. You get to watch sometimes episodes of a TV show before it. Yeah, it’s everything that I could ever want.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish by the end of the year?

Kristina Turner:

I have a blog and I’ve kind of let it lay dormant for a while. But I want to pick it back up and kind of get it more into my regular routine and updating and writing more because I do enjoy the writing. And I’ve also been dabbling around going, should I start a YouTube channel? Because I feel like that’s what everyone says these days. And I was like, maybe I should start a YouTube channel. So one of these things, if I don’t get to the YouTube, I definitely want to just be consistent with my blog.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’ve been hearing a lot about sort of branching out and doing some kind of video content. Whether it’s YouTube or TikTok, I don’t know. As an old head, I’m not quite there yet. I realize the utility of it. Like people are just watching more stuff. They’re consuming more video, long or short form. But I’m not there yet. I’m almost there, but I’m not there yet.

Kristina Turner:

I don’t blame you. I don’t TikTok. Like, I have a TikTok and I’ve posted a few because at one point I was like, well, I’m going to make a reel or two and then just repost it on TikTok. It’s too much effort.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s a lot one thing to kind of learn the tool itself because everything is right there in the app. But then also you’re subject to the whims of the algorithm. And I think it’s that way with all of social media, but particularly for video stuff, you’re really subject to algorithms on whether or not anybody even sees it.

Kristina Turner:

Exactly. I think the thing is, it starts out as really fun. Like, you do it, and then, like you said, you start thinking about the algorithm, like, who’s seeing it, you get addicted to those likes, and then it becomes not fun anymore because you’re like, who am I making this for anymore?

Maurice Cherry:

Right. I have friends of mine that are creators, and they definitely will. They’ll create something, they’ll put it out there, but then they’ll follow it up with saying, like, “please go and like it so the algorithm can blah, blah, blah.” And it’s like, are you doing it for your followers, or are you doing it for this algorithm, this faceless program that may or may not push your stuff out to a bigger audience?

Kristina Turner:

Yeah, honestly, on one of my Instagrams for my blog, I haven’t posted on the grid since December because I just literally got I was over it. I was like, Why am I posting this? I’m just now starting to get back to a point where it’s like, you know what? I need to just start posting for myself, not for other people. If other people like it, that’s cool, but I just need to start posting for myself. So that’s where I’m getting back there.

Maurice Cherry:

I hear you.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk about your work. You are the Senior Director of Marketing and Storytelling at Jeremiah Program. Tell me about the organization and what you do.

Kristina Turner:

Yeah, so Jeremiah Program, we’re actually in our 25th year this year. What they do is it started in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And what they did was they recognized a need for single mothers who need some help, who want to finish their college degree. And so what the program does is provides a personalized coach to you to help you coach your way through college to help you finish that degree. If you have a child, we have pre K programs that they can go into as well. So it’s a two generational model. Like, we want to be helping mom and child at the same time because there’s just this cycle of poverty that we’re trying to disrupt, basically. Right. And so I know a lot of people go like, oh, you don’t need college degrees anymore, which in some cases, it actually is very true. But what we found is that all the research done, college degree is still the lever that needs to be pulled to get up in the ranks to start making more money. It hasn’t been disproved as the way yet. Some people get lucky and there’s influencers and all that stuff, but it’s still the thing that is consistently, it still works.

And so we encourage people who want to finish that degree. If you just need that help to just finish that degree, if you just need some of the campuses. We have non campuses across the country and so some campuses have child development centers, so that’s pre K programs that they go to. Some of them even provide housing. If housing is like a barrier, like, I can’t get my housing and my childcare together, then like, cool, we got you. And so you focus on getting this because we don’t want you to trade your dreams for something else, right? So, yeah, that’s what JP does.

And so in my role, I started working there a little over a year. It’s been a year and a couple of months. I actually started by working through a friend who was contract with them, doing some design work, and he was like, I could use some help. And I was like, sure, I can do some extra freelance work. And so I started doing freelance work for about six months and then I found out at the end of the year that they were looking to build their own in house team and I was like, oh, good, cool. That sounds like a cool opportunity. I like the mission. And so I didn’t know that it was you build the team and do the work. And I was like, oh, okay, and literally like, kind of building from scratch. So me and another person, we started she’s more of a content writer editor. So we started together and we’ve built this team now to five people. And so we basically handle all the marketing, like social channels and website and that kind of stuff, like the main national stuff. We handle that and then we also assist campuses in anything that they need. And so we’re also like our main charge at this point is getting people brand aligned because the brand has kind of been all over the place for many years and so now it’s like, we need people to understand that JP is one organization, no matter where they are.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’m looking at the website now. First of all, the website looks great. I mean, I don’t know how much of that you might have had a hand in or not, but it really looks good. And I love that it’s an organization that’s really about helping people. It’s about helping families, helping mothers, helping single mothers. I’m reading through The Commitment to Social Justice where it says “JP supports 100% women, 100% single moms experiencing poverty, and 100% parents in pursuit of a college degree with 80% of those parents identifying as black, Latinx and indigenous.” Oh, I love that. That is so super important.

Kristina Turner:

Yeah, because I think a lot of people try to social justice is such like a word that people just either love it or they’re, oh, social justice, I don’t want anything. But I think the thing is what JP does is that they basically explain, like, you can’t divorce one from the like, it is directly like this poverty issue is directly related to all these social justice issues. That’s why they’re in this situation, and so we don’t run away from it, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m curious. You say you’re having to sort of build the team and everything like that. Has that been sort of the hardest part about what you do is making sure that you’ve got this kind of unified team under one brand?

Kristina Turner:

My team right now is killer. I love my team. Yeah. We have five people, including me. So I have a designer on staff. I have a digital marketing person, digital strategist, someone who does like writing. And then our coordinator kind of keeps us all together. And so our hopes in the next year or two is grow a little bit bigger because we started easing our way into it, but now we’re taking on more and more work. And so I’ve been lucky to come to a place that not everybody understands, like branding and marketing design. And I’m lucky that I have a CEO who cares about that and has invested the resources into getting it done. And so I’m so glad. That’s one of the things I never had to explain, like, why is this important to my boss? Because she gets it. And so, yeah, right now, everything is good for us.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, is it a remote team or is there an office that you’re reporting into?

Kristina Turner:

My team is fully remote, which is so strange to me. I’ve never been a fully remote person until last year, I think 2020. A lot of people went remote and then they went remote part time. But yeah, this is my first time being fully remote, and my team is fully remote. So we’re all on the national team, and so we all are remote. If you live near a campus, then that could be your home base. But yeah, none of my team are by campus, so they’re all remote.

Maurice Cherry:

How’s that been? Sort of building and managing that.

Kristina Turner:

I was a little worried about being remote because I have been an in person person for so long. But honestly, it’s been pretty good because I think the best part is I have a team that’s very committed to getting the work done and putting out good work. So that’s the first thing. Two, I used to be a person who hated daily meetings. Daily check in meetings or stand up meetings. We used to call them, and I started doing those. We do those almost every day. And if we don’t have anything to talk about, we won’t do it. But we do those every day. It’s just like, let’s start the day with each other just to level set the day and be like, okay, what do we got? Making sure we’re on top. Is there any questions? Whatever. And it kind of helps ground us all in the day or what’s happening, and then we go about our business the rest of the day. That has been the most helpful thing, I think, in managing a remote team.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, along with your work with Jeremiah Orogram, you’re the regional director for AAF, District Seven. AAF, standing for the American Advertising Federation. How did you first get involved with them?

Kristina Turner:

Oh, man, how anybody gets involved, they’re like, oh, the event planning. I want to do part. I’m still a part, but I was part of my local chapter in Montgomery. How I got involved was a coworker of mine was like, hey, they’re looking for committee members to be on the American Advertising Awards Committee. And I was like, oh, that big party they plan? I was like, oh, yeah, I want to do that. And I didn’t end up going to the meeting. And she went and she came back and she said, well, not only do they want me to join the committee, they want me to be the chair. And then I said, oh, okay, I can be on your committee. And then we let them know that I wanted to be on the committee. And then they were like, why don’t you just be co chairs? And somehow I found myself on the board. And so, yeah, we did that.

That first year, it was really cool. It was just interesting and seeing all the work regionally, like the stuff that people enter, having to find judges and having to play in this awards gala. I learned a lot through the club, through that, and then I think I did that for two years, and then I kind of just moved up and started doing other positions. I really loved being education chair, and that was me just, like, connecting with all the local colleges and finding out who has design and marketing programs and how do we involve students, how do we help students. And that was a really great year for that chair. And I moved up into a diversity chair at one point because I was like, no one’s doing this. There’s a diversity chair. It’s like, the chair, there one, skips it’s okay if we don’t have this one. And so that year I was like, I’ll do diversity, and I learned so much about what is AF doing on that ground.

And then eventually I became president, which I didn’t want, but it happened, and it was good. It was great. Honestly, I was president two years in a row. It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I made a lot of connections locally, but know, around the south also because our District Seven means Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, part of Louisiana, Mississippi. So if you have a club and whatever, you know, all like, you have this huge network in the south. I took a year, maybe like a year, year and a half, almost two years off because I was just a little burnt out. But they asked me on the district level like, hey, would you mind wanting to join the district level. And I was like, why not? And so in my job in regional, I’m just kind of like the liaison between the district and the local level. So I get assigned like maybe four or five clubs. I check in with them, just make sure they’re okay. If they have questions that they can’t figure out, I try to help them. And it’s just kind of like a go between and help kind of guiding some clubs.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, it sounds like you really have taken on a lot of leadership through them. Like you said, these different chair positions. Now you’re regional director. How does AAF help you as a working creative?

Kristina Turner:

I will say that when I started AAF, I was just a designer. Like at my job, my title was just designer. And I was doing a lot of the boring stuff, which letters and that kind of stuff in mail. And so it was a good creative outlet for me of like, oh, I get to do some other stuff like event planning and creating graphics for these events and playing around on social and going, what works? What’s getting people’s attention? I want them to come RSVP for an event and even like finding speakers and booking speakers, like ooh and me paying attention to who’s out there, what names are out there, who’s giving good advice. And so I was doing all of this stuff, and at the time, my boss was really supportive of me being involved in the club. I took a lot of work time sometimes to do it in middle of the day or would take off early to go do it. And one day he came to me and he was like, I see all this stuff that you’re doing with AF and how you’ve grown the club, and it’s great. Now I’m going to give you a promotion and you’re going to do all that same stuff here. And I was so like, it’s one of those things where it’s like, okay, it did pay off for me. At the end of the day, I was learning all this leadership skills and stuff off the job and then bringing it to the job.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think that’s a good thing that your job recognized that you were doing this. It didn’t try to step in or penalize. If anything, they were supportive of.

Kristina Turner:

Very, very supportive.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, in the last episode for folks that are listening, I was talking with Ashley Fletcher and we had a pretty rousing conversation, I think, about the role of professional design organizations and how they should kind of be more proactive on the voice of their members. We were specifically talking about AIGA, but we lumped in a couple of other orgs in there too. AAF is not a design organization. Like you said, it’s for advertising. But it sounds like there’s some overlap there with design and that you would have maybe like visual designers or art directors creative directors, stuff like that. I’m curious, is AAF like that? It sounds like it’s been a pretty instrumental force in your career as an organization. Do you feel like they’ve really spoken up on behalf of creative people, of their members?

Kristina Turner:

For sure, AAF. I would say you’re right. AAF is definitely all encompassing. Like, even though it says the word advertising, there’s many things that go into advertising, right? You got to have a designer, you got to have a copywriter. Do you have video? People like video. You got to have that. Every spectrum of being a creative is involved in this club. You don’t have to just be like the ad guy or whoever. The way it sounds like this isn’t Mad Men. And so it covers the gamut. And so I would say AF. They definitely do speak up for the industry. They have a whole arm, like their whole thing. They do a lot of things, but their main mission always is like the government relations part of it. Every two years, they do a Day on the Hill. They get you to go speak to your representatives and talk about how if you start everyone’s looking for money and if you start tax and advertising, this is what’s going to happen. Or they’re constantly reminding people, these are the things that we’re pushing for right now. I just went to the national conference a couple of weeks ago, and one of the big things they were talking about was the data privacy issue, right. And how some states are even talking about creating their own laws. But what does it look like on a national level? They really get involved and really go to literally go to Congress and go, please look out for like, that is their main part of what AAF does, is, like, the lobbying and what’s best for the industry, because you don’t want to kill the industry because it just employs so many different types of people. And so the minute you start taxing it, that’s when things start going downhill.

Maurice Cherry:

They go to Congress?

Kristina Turner:

Yes, I did Day on the Hill. It was probably about four years ago, and every year we sent someone else this past spring. But yeah, we go up there. They have a lawyers group who does the research and stuff. They fully prep you before going to talk to your representative. And if you don’t actually if you’re lucky, you get to actually talk to your representative. Most times it’s like their staff or person, but either way, you’re fully prepped. You go in, like, I get to talk about, here’s how much revenue advertising brings into the state of Alabama. This is what happens if you tax it. This is how many people employs, this is how much all the good it does. And so, yeah, we literally go into that, go to DC, into their office and talk about this.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Kristina Turner:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

I am flabbergasted to hear…I mean, in the best way.

Kristina Turner:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

And I mean, I’m saying I wish I’m not a member of AIGA. AIGA, I feel like, has kind of has been like a whipping post throughout this entire podcast that’s

Kristina Turner:

You’re on the board, right?

Maurice Cherry:

Oh nooooooo. No, no, no.

Kristina Turner:

Oh, I thought you were on the national board for some reason.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh no. So my involvement with AIGA…first of all, I was very skeptical about joining AIGA because — and this is prior to me doing the podcast, so we have to go back to 2013. And before, I had wanted to join, but had been told explicitly by [AIGA Atlanta] chapter members, chapter leadership, like, “oh, well, you didn’t go to design school, and you have to have a design degree to be a part of AIGA.” And so I didn’t go to any events or anything like that. I was just like, whatever, for real. Again, this was ten plus years ago. So the thing that changed my mind about joining AIGA was I had Antoinette Carroll on the show. She’s the founder of Creative Reaction Lab. And actually, when I talked with her, this was prior to her starting Creative Reaction Lab. She was a co-chair of AIGA’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. And, like, she was talking me into joining. Like, you know, if you have these thoughts about the industry, you should join, try to be part of the solution. And I was like, “you know what? You’ve convinced me. I’ll do it.” And so I was on the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force for four years. I think three or four years. I think it was like, from 2014…it was three years, 2014 to 2017, roughly about three to four years. I was on that whole time. And what I discovered was that — and I don’t know if it’s this way with AAF — but what I discovered was that the organization only takes diversity seriously if the person at the top, the executive director, if they take it seriously.

Kristina Turner:

Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:

And so when I joined, Rick Grefé was the, I think, longtime executive director. He was on his way out. And Julie Anixter was coming in as an executive director, and she was all about diversity and inclusion. She would come down here to Atlanta. We would have dinner. She would be really passionate about making sure that people of color, particularly Black designers in the organization, were getting recognized and being put in positions where they could make a difference.

The problem came when… how can I put this? I think Julie had great intentions. I love Julie, still talk to Julie to this day. But I think other people in the organization were very much anti diversity, but yet they were in positions influencing diversity. So, like, we had this person, she wasn’t the co chair. She was, like, the liaison between headquarters and the [Diversity and Inclusion] Task Force, this woman, and she was very racist. And it’s sort of like, why would you be racist and you’re over a diversity organization? I don’t know.

But what I also discovered is that each chapter kind of functions independently in terms of what headquarters does or what national does. So while National may be all about diversity and inclusion, the Atlanta chapter still won’t talk to me. Or like, the DC chapter is really cool, but then if I talk to a chapter in, I’m just throwing one out there, not saying I’ve talked to this chapter, but I talked to a chapter in, say, Minneapolis or something, and then they’re not cool. And so it’s like, you would think that stuff that happens at National would trickle down through the chapters, and that’s so not the case.

And what I would tell people, I have folks on the show and they’re like, “well, should I join AIGA?” I’m thinking about I’m like, you know, AIGA is only as strong as its weakest chapter. So if you’ve had a bad experience at your chapter and you feel like that’s precluding you from joining AIGA, I would completely understand that, because that was my experience even when I had joined. And this is sort of the part that sort of got me is know, prior to me being, quote unquote known, the local chapter didn’t want anything to do with me, wouldn’t talk to me, anything. Now that I’m on the national Diversity and Inclusion Task Force and people know about Revision Path and stuff, then they’re smiling in my face like, “oh, you should come and do this, you should want to do that.” And then we would try to do events together, and then they wouldn’t market the events. I don’t know. They would say one thing, do something else. At one point, I was trying to be the chapter’s VP of Diversity and Inclusion, and they were like, “well, we thought about it, but you don’t have a design degree.” And what does me not having a design degree have to do with anything? Clearly you see the advocacy work I’m doing in the community, the work that I’m doing talking to Black designers, the work I’m doing with National, but yet I didn’t go to art school, so therefore it’s just not valid. And it came to the point where I kind of really had to tell them, keep my name out your mouth. Don’t talk to me. Don’t put my name in conversation with anybody. As far as I’m concerned, you and I are persona non grata. Do not speak to me.

Kristina Turner:

Dang.

Maurice Cherry:

I haven’t been an AIGA member since 2017. I still talk with leadership; like they recently had their first Black executive director, Bennie F. Johnson. He and I are really close. So I was there throughout his tenure, just kind of talking with him, seeing how the organization changed, but he just left at the beginning of this year. So I don’t know what AIGA does. I don’t really care what they do. But I think about in terms know a lot of Black designers, particularly because I’m thinking about it through the focus of this show, really found community over the pandemic by joining other events or joining other sorts of groups that had sprung up, like the HUE Design Summit or Where Are The Black Designers? Or something like that. And now, like, a few years out, they’ve kind of died away. Not died away. That’s not the best way to put it. They’re not as active, I think, as they used to be. And so I still get some designers that are like, well, they want to find community. They’re trying to find it, and they look at AIGA. And they’re just like, is this, like, the only game in town? Because this is not it for us as designers, because there’s other issues with AIGA. Just in terms of there was a time when they didn’t recognize UX designers as designers. I still don’t think they’re a very proactive organization at all. Like, AIGA ain’t going to Congress. That ain’t happening. They are not doing that.

Kristina Turner:

I think AAF, I wouldn’t say they’re perfect by any means. I would say that it’s very similar in how each chapter kind of does its own thing, and you just hope that national stuff would trickle down into them. I think it’s always dependent on where that chapter is. Or also, do you have people on your board who’s going to hold them accountable to those things? Right. Like, I was diversity chair one year, and I was probably the only black person for a very long time on our board. And then as soon as I became president, I was like, where’s the black people? We bringing them. And so I would go and I would literally go out to places like, we have an HBCU here. And so I would approach them. I was like, do you all have design or any kind of program? And they were like, yeah, we do. And I got them to enter our awards. This is the first year they’d enter, and they won so many awards, and the joy on their face was so awesome, right? And so I was like, it depends on the people in the chapter, if they’re willing to go out and go do something about it. I don’t know. I guess the national can’t really hold everyone accountable. I think they try to, but I don’t see them going to every chapter and going, are you doing this? Are you doing, like, there’s certain things they have to do, but in terms of diversity and stuff, I think it’s really on who’s there.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I see that. And, I mean, it’s sort of the same way. Like, you know, if I didn’t see Antoinette doing what she was doing with the Task Force and getting me on board was sort of the message, I wouldn’t have joined. So seeing someone that looks like you, that’s kind of in that position, helping to influence stuff, really does help. But it also sounds like for you, AAF has been just a positive force. I mean, it’s helped you out throughout your career, you’ve worked in these different leadership positions. Would you say that AAF has really been instrumental in kind of getting you to where you are today?

Kristina Turner:

I would say yes, very much, 100%. I think a lot of things that it’s like a continuous learning thing. Like when I wasn’t going to a conference that work was paying for, I was going to these club conferences and learning all these different things. I couldn’t tell you anything about data privacy before I went to any of this stuff where things outside of a normal designer would know because the more that you know and have in your tool belt, the more valuable you are, right? And so it’s like I can speak on a lot of things that I never probably would have spoke on before joining AAF.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, I want to switch gears here a little bit. I don’t want to just talk about design organizations and stuff. As I told you before we started recording, it’s just rare to find another designer from the same area where I grew up in. So I really want to learn more about you, about growing up in Montgomery and everything. Tell me about that as a designer.

Kristina Turner:

I will say that growing up in Montgomery, it was fine, but I also was in the majority who was like, as soon as I get a chance, I’m out, I’m out, I’m going out. I don’t know where it is, but I’m out. And so I thought I was, like, trying know until the reality of how much college costs hit me in the face. I was like, oh, well, I guess I’m going to school at AUM, which is local, Auburn University of Montgomery. I was like, okay, I’ll go there. They have a design program. Went there. And then towards the end, when I was getting ready to graduate, I was really like, in this whole, I got to get an internship. Like, I got to get something to get a job because no job will hire you without some sort of experience, right? And so I ended up getting an internship at I think it was called Southern Progress Corporation at the time. But it was basically Time Inc. had owned Southern Living magazine and Coastal Living magazine and all these Southern magazines at the time, and it was in Birmingham.

So I moved to Birmingham up there for that. And I was like, I’m going to stay in Birmingham. Birmingham is like an hour and a half away from Montgomery and like, the nearest biggest city probably. And so I was like, okay, I’m going to Birmingham. We’ll see what happens. And then it was 2008, also known as the recession, and no jobs were to be had because as I don’t know if people know creative jobs were the first to go. And so there were no jobs. I was interviewing for jobs left and right. It was just like a kind of depressing time. And so at that time, I had to put it down. I had to just like, okay, I’m going to apply for the job wherever it is. And I ended up applying for a job in Montgomery. And I was like, I want to go back to Montgomery. And I went, I applied for the job. They said yes. I was like, I could save money, moved back home, save money. I took this job, and that’s how I ended up back in Montgomery. And so I think for a while, I took it as a temporary pit stop, but I never would have thought that I would still be here until I started until I started kind of realizing what does design. Not just I think a lot of people, when they get out, they kind of just go, I’m going to work at this huge agency, or whatever. And there’s no agencies in Montgomery. Like, for real. There’s like a couple. That means everyone’s competing for those same jobs. And so I worked at this place called Henig Furs, which is funny. It’s a fur store in the South. And yeah, I was like, this is okay.

Maurice Cherry:

It don’t get that cold down there for furs!

Kristina Turner:

You’ve got a good ten day window of cold that you can wear that fur. And they don’t do it. And they’re all in the Southeast. Like, there were stores all in the Southeast. And so they wanted an in-house designer. And I applied for the job, and I got it. And so I did that for a little over four and a half years. And so what I learned at that job was, like, I think we think of the glamorous part of being a designer when we’re out of school, oh, we’re just going to design all these cool things and stuff. And it’s like, no, you’re going to probably do some boring stuff for a while. And it was like retail design work. Like retail marketing. That’s what I was doing.

And so I’m learning all of this stuff that why didn’t I learn this in school? Like, the real stuff, right, is like, how back then, newspapers were still a thing. So then it was like, I was doing a lot of newspaper ad design. I was doing having to design mostly in black and white a lot of times was like, that was a learning curve for me for a while. And then we had at the time, they had a partnership with Belk, so sometimes they had like, little salons inside of Belk stores. So then it was partnering with Belk and making sure I’m adhering to Belk’s Design, right? And I’m also learning how to place radio ads. I’m writing scripts for ads on TV and radio. And how do you even place an ad on TV? All these little things that you need to know how to even run some sort of design marketing kind of startup. I’m learning from this job that’s like, in Montgomery, Alabama. Yeah, it’s just like all this we had to read it on a website, and it was like, how do you even go about that? I had no idea, and I figured it out, because at the time, I think we were saying I remember I kept pushing. I was like, hey, I think web is where we need to go. People aren’t shopping in stores anymore. And I want to say primarily, a lot of their businesses are online now.

And so, yeah, it’s like, I’m learning all these things that are outside of design because they don’t tell you you need to know more about stuff other than just design. And so I’m learning all these things. I stayed there a little over four and a half years, and then a job at Southern Poverty Law Center came up, and I had interviewed with them right out of college, and clearly I was rejected from that. But I interviewed again with them, and I got the job because of all this stuff that I had learned at this small shop. Yeah, they were like, oh, you know how to do this. And we’re also talking about redesign a website and blah, blah, blah. And I was like, yeah, I’ve been doing all this scrappy work. And so that’s what sold me to get this job at Southern Poverty Law Center. And that job, I love that job, and I did it for ten years. It was interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever been in an in house of that caliber before. I think Southern Living was kind of almost a little it gave you a little bit of in house feel. But I was on the advertising side when I was an intern, so it was like those ads in the back of the magazine that no one looks like. That’s the stuff I was doing. I wasn’t doing the pretty editorial work. And so at Southern Poverty Law Center, we had a full in house team. Nothing in the organization got done, and it had to come through us, the creative team. That was video work, that was any ads. Like, everything, if it was going to be public facing, it had to be touched by our team. And so we were a full shop. I always wanted to work in nonprofit because just being in the retail life is just, what is this for? You start questioning your life, you’re like, Why am I doing this? It was at a nonprofit, which was even better. And yeah, it was just a good experience. I did that for about ten years, and so that’s why I ended up staying, because I had this job that was paying me well. It was in Montgomery. It was, like, mission driven. I was like, oh, why do I need to leave? This is great.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I want to go back to…I mean, you’ve covered a lot of ground, but I want to go back to just like I guess well, I guess this is sort of full circle, now that I think about, know, growing up in Montgomery. Like, you said, you left, you came back, you stayed in Alabama, you stayed in Montgomery’s and built your career there. Why is it important for you to stay there? As opposed to say, like, oh, I’m going know, maybe move to Atlanta or to New York or somewhere where there might be bigger opportunities. Is there more about staying in Montgomery than just the job opportunity?

Kristina Turner:

Yeah, I would say definitely not a martyr for staying in Montgomery. I would say that my number one would be cost of living. Cost of living is just compared to other places I’m okay, then, you know, if I take cost of living and stuff out of it, I would say that especially when I was doing stuff with AAF and engaging with all these designers and stuff in college and just talking to them and, what do you want to do? And I would just always tell them, like, hey, design is everywhere that you can think of it could possibly be. I don’t think people even realize in house was, like, a thing. Right. And so I think for me, it’s almost proven, like, you can have a good career and still be in Montgomery.

It doesn’t like, I think, everyone’s thoughts of what they think they should be doing. You can do it from think, but the problem is it’s not as out there. Right. You have to find the opportunities. They’re not just out there going here’s, all these great opportunities, right. You have to find the opportunities of Montgomery. And I think that’s the difference between going somewhere to a larger city or, like, Atlanta or something, right. You see opportunities galore, but you have to find them here. And I think Montgomery also has just been they’ve been having kind of almost like a little bit of a renaissance in the last ten years of just trying to build it up and trying to get people, encourage them to stay. Particularly this creative community that we have, a huge arts community that’s blown up in the last few years. I just think there are people here who now are like, it’s not just one or two. There’s a lot of people who are just advocating for people to see us, like, see Montgomery and just, hey, there’s stuff here. You just have to find it. It’s not going to come to you.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Wow. I grew up in Selma. Selma is 50 miles away from Montgomery, and just growing up, Montgomery was always the destination because Selma didn’t have the things Montgomery had. Like, Selma was almost like an extended suburb in a way, because we didn’t have a movie theater. So if you wanted to go to the movies, you had to drive up 80, go to Carmike Cinemas 8. If you wanted to go to a mall…Selma kind of had a mall, but it wasn’t the Montgomery Mall. It wasn’t that. If you wanted to see a play or something, maybe there might be something at Walton Theater, but it’s like, fifth graders or whatever. If you wanted to see, like, Shakespeare, there’s Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which I mean, when I first saw Alabama Shakespeare Festival as a kid, I was blown away. I think I mentioned this before we recorded. It was the first time I felt immersed in a fully designed space. I’m like, this is like a theater. And then, of course, I learned, like, it’s one of the, I think, ten Shakespeare festivals in the world. And I’m like, Why? Would there be one in Alabama?

Kristina Turner:

I don’t think I knew that.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s so beautiful with the water. And I remember going to see plays there. Like, we would have field trips there all the time. And even then, when I was in marching band; there’s no music shop in Alabama. We had to go to Art’s on East Boulevard. We had to go up there to get me mouthpieces and slide oil and stuff like so, like, Montgomery to me, was always, like, the destination in a way, because there was just art and culture and museums and shows, and we didn’t have a television station in Selma. Everything comes from Montgomery, WSFA, all that sort of stuff. So Hot 105, the radio station…all of that was just…Montgomery was the destination. And so it’s interesting for you to talk about how it’s coming up in this renaissance, because, of course, there’s, like, the civil rights museum. Not a civil rights museum. It’s a justice museum.

Kristina Turner:

There the EJI — Equal Justice Initiative.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, that museum is there. I know that there’s been a lot of activity around trying to build up that Selma to Montgomery corridor. Like, I know, especially in Lowndes County, like, they have an interpretive center. They’re trying to build all that stuff up and everything. Montgomery, to me, has just always been the destination. I bought my first video game in Montgomery. I went to my first big mall in Montgomery, saw my first, like, theater show, but also movie theater in I mean, to me, Montgomery was like, it I mean, Birmingham was, of course, the big, big city. Yeah, but in Selma, it was like…Montgomery is just like right there. You know?

Kristina Turner:

It’s interesting to hear that perspective as someone who has been from I’m from Montgomery, and so a lot of people here like, “oh, we’re too small. Nothing happens here.” But then to hear you from someone who’s from Selma going, everything was in Montgomery.

Maurice Cherry:

Everything was in–

Kristina Turner:

You probably need to give that talk to some other people that live here!

Maurice Cherry:

Listen, we didn’t have a bookstore, so when I was trying to learn…I mean, we had a library. So, I mean, a library is not a bookstore, but the only kind of books we bought was whatever might be in Walmart. And that’s like, what romance novels or something like that. Scholastic book fair. And the library. Like, there wasn’t a bookstore, whereas you go to Montgomery, there’s a Books-A-Million, and Waldenbooks was there. When I started learning how to code. This was like mid 90s or something like that. There were a couple of books out and stuff, and the library didn’t have anything. And I remember going on a field trip and going to I think it was a Walden Books. It was either a Waldenbooks or a Books-A-Million to get my first computer book.

Kristina Turner:

Yeah, we used to have a Barnes and Noble. It probably was that.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. I’m curious, what high school did you go to?

Kristina Turner:

Robert E. Lee.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. All right. I mean, Selma only had Selma High School. I mean, there’s Dallas County High School, but that’s different. That’s the county high school.

Kristina Turner:

We have a ton of high schools. We’ve got Robert E. Lee–

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, and mostly named after Confederate folks.

Kristina Turner:

Confederate people! exactly! Like, back then, I wasn’t too hard about it, and I was like, yeah, Lee, that’s where I go. And now it’s like, oh, yeah, there was Lee. It’S a lot. Like, they’re planning on renaming the schools, so that’s going to be interesting.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, we had Selma High School, and that was just in the so, like, we had city high schools and county high schools. They were rivals of some sort. So in the city, there was only selma High School was, like, the city high school. And then outside in the county, you had Keith High School, you had Southside, and you had Dallas County High School. But then you also had I guess you could call this, like the honestly, what we called it growing up was the White School, which was Morgan Academy. And it was a private I guess private-ish school. But then that was named after a Klansman that’s named after — John T. Morgan. So, like, we just didn’t fool with them. Never the ‘twain shall meet. Like, I think Selma’s main rival was Southside, because it was just know, city versus county, that kind of yeah, yeah. No, I remember. I’ve marched at the stadium in–

Kristina Turner:

Crampton Bowl.

Maurice Cherry:

Crampton Bowl. I’ve been there. I’ve been to the Turkey Day Classic. All of that. All of that.

Kristina Turner:

You’re bringing it all back!

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’ve been there. Absolutely. So it’s great to hear that Montgomery is kind of having this renaissance. Like, tell me more about the creative community there.

Kristina Turner:

So definitely not me, but it’s spearheaded by a few other groups that have really more of the fine arts community. I have been so impressed. It started with maybe, like, throwing a couple of murals up, and now we’ve got a ton of murals up in the city, and then they kind of have these kind of art groups who are just there’s one group, King’s Canvas, that I really love, love Kevin King. He created it. His group is mainly on the West Side and where people don’t that’s not a thing that people think about, but he’s been really advocating for creative place making, meaning community and culture can be created if you bring arts into it. And so he’s been really doing a lot for the city. There’s another group called 21 Dreams. They’ve also been doing a lot. And so it’s just been a really good time. If you’re like a fine artist, I would say design too, because a lot of designers are also they do fine art, but they also are mixed up in that as well. And so it’s a good time to be a creative in the city if you just get involved.

Maurice Cherry:

And like you said, there’s the schools that also have design programs. Like, you went to AUM, but then also Alabama State is in know, so you’ve got at least colleges that also have these programs too. Like, you were part of the AIGA student chapter at AUM, right?

Kristina Turner:

Yeah, we started a student chapter. I don’t pretty sure that didn’t last, but we had started a student chapter because there wasn’t one. And the nearest AIGA chapter to us was in Birmingham. And so, yeah, we started one know, we were like, we want to be a part of a design association. And at the time, I think when I had remember hearing about AF, but I was like, I’m a designer, I need to be a design thing. Design things is what I need to be. And so we did a little bit with it, but I really don’t remember a lot of the time, like, what we did. I don’t think we did very much other than start the chapter. And so, yeah, I think there’s opportunity wherever you can go. We even have two year colleges and stuff. We have one of those who has like a design program. It’s everywhere.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. When you sort of look back at the span of, your know, even like your time at AUM to Henig to Southern Poverty Law Center to now with Jeremiah Program, how would you say you’ve evolved as a creative over the years?

Kristina Turner:

I would say that definitely for me, I love doing like I still like doing it, but I think I’ve definitely fallen more into creative leadership. I just love kind of like that art direction kind of stuff. And so I’ve also kind of realized there are people who are better than me, and I’m okay with that, right. I’m okay with getting the best people who know how to do the job, but I still have that eye for direction of where we should go and stuff. And so I follow more into creative leadership over the years and managing designers and other creative people. I really have enjoyed that part of where my career has gotten to, and I would like to keep doing more of just, like, creative leadership. I don’t know, maybe far down the road teaching, maybe. But I just feel like because I just feel like at least when I remember in my college, feel like they’re just not teaching you what you need to know when you get out, you know, the basics. But it’s like, I need some real life application here.

Maurice Cherry:

And you don’t feel like that’s like.

Kristina Turner:

Being taught, at least when I was in school, it could have improved. I mean, the program has been around for a while now, and it could have improved. I just felt like when I was in school, I was having to do a lot of things on the side on my own to try to figure it out. And we had a teacher retire in the middle of my year also. And so we had a new professor came in who was just she just came from an agency. And so when she came in, I will say we saw more practical application type projects. We started doing that kind of stuff. And so, I don’t know, maybe I feel like I was slighted because she didn’t come in until toward the end of my year. So I’m sure she’s still there. And a great friend of mine, and I will say that she probably brought a lot to the students after me, for real. But when I was in, it was like still a lot of old school teaching. And so not to say there’s anything wrong with it, but it was like I needed it to evolve with where time was going.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, that’s something with, I think, a lot of design curriculums. Like, you can teach the basics, of course, you can teach theory and composition and all that sort of stuff. But so much of design now, I think is wrapped in tech in some way, whether that’s product or UX or some digital form. It’s hard to be, I think, just a visual designer, maybe, because the expectation is that something you do has to be tied to a tech part, something with technology. And I don’t think that’s what’s being really taught. They’ll teach you the basics and then you’re kind of on your own once you get out there.

Kristina Turner:

Yeah, I would have really appreciate now a class where they teach you Canva. Because I was like, everybody’s like, Canva is going to take your job. No, Canva’s not going to take my job. But Canva has a place in the world. And it’s like now I’m definitely one of those designers that’s like, turn my nose up at it, but I’m like, no, it has a place in the world, and we all need to adapt to it, unfortunately.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, outside of work, I see you love Disney and Marvel and all that kind, like comic geek culture stuff. Do you really ever have an opportunity to combine that with your everyday work?

Kristina Turner:

That’s funny. Anytime I give a presentation, I like to let people know that that’s what I’m into. If it’s a presentation on something slightly boring. I always intro with hey, and it’s usually like a picture of me at Avengers campus at Disneyland or it’s just like, hey, I just need you to know a couple of things about me off the top. Number one, I’m a blerd. If you don’t know what that is, that’s a Black nerd, right? So I kind of break the ice conversations and I try to introduce it that way. I also would say that part of me starting like a blog and stuff too, was me trying to incorporate my love of design and building websites and stuff like that into trying to marry the two and my love of talking about it. I try to pour a lot of that into that. If I don’t get to do it through work or they know that I’m good for them in something, even if it’s just like a quick zoom meeting, they know I’m good for them in something that’s going to be very nerd culture related. So I try to throw it in there as like a personality thing. But no, we’re not up there making Marvel movies at work.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I know with like what you said with the Jeremiah Project, like the work has to do with family. So I didn’t know if maybe you’re able to kind of introduce some more family-friendly Marvel or Disney. I mean, Disney is family-friendly, of course, but any sort of way to sort of incorporate those two. I was just curious about that.

Kristina Turner:

No, no. We keep it professional.

Maurice Cherry:

What advice would you give out there to someone? Like they’re hearing your story, they’re hearing about your career, and they want to follow in your footsteps. Like, what would you tell them?

Kristina Turner:

Oh, man. I would say that opportunities won’t come to you. You have to go find them, and you have to do the work to go find them. I can tell you I’ve spent many a time, even before out of college, leaving a little bit after, just finding opportunities and sometimes just even creating them, even when there’s not there, because sometimes you creating stuff on your own will get you noticed. I think you have to find the opportunities. You can’t just expect them to come to you. It’s work being a creative, right? It takes a minute to get you unless you’re just really good. It takes a minute for people to put that trust in you, to hire you as a creative person. Right? And so I also think being a creative is more than just your ability to make something look good on the screen. I think also too, that some of that leadership and communication style also is a big part of being a creative. Like if you can’t talk about your work, if you can’t defend your work, if you can’t also take critique and criticism that communication is very important and sometimes even that part, they’ll see that before they’ll see your actual. Work that you’re doing. So I just think that ultimately, you have to do the work.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you want the next chapter of your story to be? Like? I feel like you’ve accomplished a lot so far in your career, and especially now you’re at this new nonprofit. What do you want the next chapter of your story to be? Like, what kind of work do you want to do?

Kristina Turner:

I would say career wise, I can’t think of anything else that I would want to be doing other than teaching. At some point. I think I like connecting with students, and right when life hasn’t slapped them in the face yet, so all their ideas are fresh and new, and you’re like, yes, energize me with your energy. I would like to think I would like to eventually go that route. But personally, though, I think I just want to push myself a little bit more to learn things that I’m still not like, I, at one point was like, I should learn. UX. And then I quickly gave up on it. But I think I just want to explore. I’m getting more into video editing. I’ve done a little bit, and I’m getting a little bit more into that and just trying to add things to my tool belt to kind of keep me going. Because I think most people, if you’re a creative, you know, you can’t just stop at what you learn one time, right?

Maurice Cherry:

No, that’s very true. It’s very true. Just to kind of wrap things up here. I mean, we’ve talked about so much stuff, but where can people find out more information about you, about your work? Where can they find that online?

Kristina Turner:

You can find me on my website. It’s ohheyitsmekt.com. That’s also my Instagram and Twitter handle. Yeah, that’s where I’m at.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Well, Kristina Turner, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Like I said earlier, it’s just been so rare for me to find another designer that’s, like, right from around the area where I grew up. So I applaud you so much for being such a badass working creative in Montgomery. And, I mean, I don’t mean that just because of Montgomery being a smaller city, but the next generation, and I would say even the current generation of.

Maurice Cherry:

Designers, creatives and stuff, people need to see that.

Maurice Cherry:

They really need to see that. Because I think about myself growing up, I didn’t know anything about design. I mean, I liked to draw. I couldn’t really draw, but I did a lot of stuff with magazines, and I worked on my school newspaper and yearbook and stuff. And this was at a time when computers were just starting to become a thing. We’re talking, like, mid to late ninety s. I graduated high school in ’99, and so there were no sorts of examples for me to see of, like, oh, this is a working person doing creative stuff. I had to leave to find it, to see it somewhere else. And so I think it’s super important that what you’re doing, you’re kind of being the symbol in a way, maybe inadvertently, but you’re being the symbol for others to see that. Yeah, you can be here in Montgomery and live a fun, fulfilled creative life doing work that you love. And that is so inspirational to me. I know it’s got to be inspirational to other people. And again, I just want to thank you so much for coming on the show.

Maurice Cherry:

I appreciate it.

Kristina Turner:

No, thank you for geeking out about Montgomery with me.

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TTK

We all know there are several ways to achieve success as a creative, but sometimes it takes inspiration from others to set you on the right path. That’s definitely the case with the multitalented TTK. His work as an art director, painter, designer and illustrator have taken him far, and now he can add another title to his roster — filmmaker!

Our conversation began with a quick year-end check-in, and then TTK talked about “Just Like Me”, a short documentary he created with Havas to educate and inspire the next generation of Black creatives. TTK also shared more details of his life story, including growing up in Florida, serving in the Navy for 10 years after going to art school, and more. Hopefully TTK’s story and documentary can help inspire you to rise to greater heights!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

TTK:
My name is TTK. What I do, I’m an artist, I’m a designer. Currently, I work in advertising. I’m a director, I’m a painter. I wear a few hats.

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

TTK:
The year’s been good for me so far, man, the year’s been very, very good. How I measure if the year is doing good, I measure if I’m doing something this year that I didn’t do the previous year or if I accomplished something this year that I didn’t in the previous year, that determines for me whether it’s good or not. We’re going into the fourth quarter right now, so the accomplishments and what I’ve accomplished so far in this year, I’m really proud of myself. I took a few punches, but that’s life right there. I hop back up and take it on the chin and take it as a lesson learned. But all in all, this year’s good for me. It’s been going great.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you still want to try to do before the year ends?

TTK:
Paint more. A friend of mine jokes and it says once I learned how to do digital work, it made me lazy with painting. And I don’t want to admit it, but he is right because painting is a process. Well, everything is a process, but whenever you’re painting, you got to wait for the paint to dry, come back to it and work into it some more, then work into it some more. It takes much longer.

And you would think with me being traditionally trained before I even learn how to do anything in Photoshop or any software, I was doing this first years before I knew how to use any software. You would think I would be conditioned for it. But learning how to work in digital just made me just work faster and have less patience maybe because working in the industry, working the agency, working the companies, I’m on a timeline where I got to turn this stuff around fast. It can be very competitive, whereas with painting, this can take… Because I’m so meticulous with the details and everything when I’m painting, it can take anywhere from weeks to a month. Depends on how much time. Well, I try not to take breaks in between, but I wind up doing that. Anyway.

All that to say I just want to paint more, knock out more pieces. Because I got a solo show coming out in 2023, a solo art show. It’s the first solo show that I’ve done in, oh my god, probably 12 or 13 years with all original pieces, so I’m on the clock right now. It’s next year in the spring, but time catches up real quick so I got to start really cranking out pieces. Teah, all that to say I want to paint more.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I find when visual creators, particularly when they get further along in their career, they often want to go back to some sort of physical, tangible way of creating. Like you said, doing it digitally does make you faster, but there’s a craft in the visual art that gets lost I think sometimes when you’re relying too much on digital tools.

TTK:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. People will ask me, “Can I get this? Can I commission you for this piece?” And I’m like, “Truthfully, it’ll be probably easier for you on your budget to commission me to do something digitally.” Because paintings, it takes a while. Well, for me it takes a while because there’s a certain level of quality that I want to put out. And there’s no command Z to go back when I make a mistake or it doesn’t come out the way I want it to look. I got to wait for it to dry and then I got to go back and rework it, or I’m mixing these colors, and the tubes of paint ain’t cheap. You know what I’m saying? You can buy the cheap stuff, but you going to get cheap results. It really adds up. But all in all, this is always my first love right here. And I always go back to that.

I was just working on this piece that I’m currently working on. I’ve been working on it about two months now. I just think working in it, I forget about how I used to feel painting before I was doing anything digitally. How I would just put a album on, put a CD on, put a record on, just rock out for hours on. And I miss that feeling of seclusion and just painting.

I was watching something, one of those shows that come on Sunday, one of the Sunday weekly news shows or whatever, but they were talking about… This is a few months back. They were talking about George Bush, how he put out a book, maybe it was last year. It was a book about people across the nation or people in this community or something like that. But it was his paintings and these people. And it was like, we don’t really rock with George Bush. You know what I’m saying? We don’t rock with George Bush, but his paintings weren’t bad. You know what I’m saying? Man, this dude actually isn’t that bad. He was on his ranch just painting or whatever and everything. I was like, I never would’ve guessed that from this guy. But I’m like, man, I would love that life just to be in a loft somewhere just, I don’t know, in the middle of nowhere, just painting. I don’t know, man. One day, one day. I’m going to speak into existence.

Maurice Cherry:
I think you’ll get there. You’ll get there, absolutely. Let’s talk about your day job, what you do. You’re a senior art director at Havas, which is ad and PR company. Talk to me about that.

TTK:
Yeah, so I’ve been at Havas for about three years now. It’s been good, you know what I’m saying? A lot of opportunities have come from me being there. What I do, I work on clients. The main client that I’ve worked on since I’ve been there is Michelin and doing stuff for Michelin social. And I got a chance to kind of be… Not kind of be, I got a chance to be very creative with their brand. I worked on stuff for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, worked on a few other projects, but… My mind is blank right now, but Michelin is probably the main one that comes to mind because I’ve been on the brand pretty much 80% of the time I’ve been there.

One thing I can say about working on stuff for Michelin is that I’m blessed it. Everything I touch, I’ve been able to add my own personal touch or flare to it that they probably wouldn’t have done, whereas I push the limits where I can bring my personality and my style of creativity to a brand like that that has so much rich history and it’s been doing something a certain way for so long. But I’ve been able to bring my look and feel to it and explain to them why this works. And they’ve been open and they’ve been receptive to it. Sometimes we get pushback, of course, that’s just how it goes. But for the most part, I think with me working on the brand for so long, I know the do’s and don’ts and know where I can push it and where I can’t. But the areas where I can push it, I really try to flex and really do something where if someone’s scrolling, if they’re scrolling on their phone or whatever and they see this graphic like, “Oh, this is pretty dope right here,” it would make me as a consumer want to check out more about this product right here. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, you started there in October of 2019, which it feels like… With this pandemic, that feels like a lifetime ago. But how did the pandemic change up how you work?

TTK:
It’s funny you say that because I was doing… Right now I worked out of the Chicago office. And prior to me working out of the Chicago office, I was in New York, I was in Brooklyn. I was doing freelance work for them, and then they gave me a full-time… offered me a full-time role. And I was like, “Hey, I’m already doing freelance for you guys out here and I’m delivering what you’re asking me for. Can I just stay out here in New York?” It was like, “Yeah, we want to have you in the office.”

I move cross country, and then a couple months later everybody’s working from home. You know what I’m saying? My partner, Chevon, she was working remote as well at the time for a nonprofit, and she had been telling me, yo, everybody in her nonprofit is all over the country. You know what I’m saying? Working. You’re doing the same thing.

Working from home thing, it definitely… I always say as messed up as the pandemic has been and COVID and all of that, it was a big reset to show some of these jobs that we do the way we do them is outdated. And this is just my opinion. And going into office every day, five days a week, sometimes six, and sitting there for eight, 10 hours just to say that you’re here, we can do the work everywhere. You look at people on… What’s the site? Fiverr. You know what I’m saying? You don’t know where these people are at, but they’re still delivering stuff for you or whatever. And that’s what this pandemic showed. In my opinion, what it showed is thankfully the type of work that we do, the digital creative stuff, we can do it from anywhere. It definitely opened up my eyes and everything because I feel like I was… Like a lot of us, we were programmed to just come and to go into the office, just sit there and just look watching the clock waiting for 5:30, 6:30 to come, paying $15 for lunch every day, all of that right there.

I don’t mind working remotely at all, man. You know what I’m saying? I don’t mind it, truthfully. I know me personally, I can be extrovert, I can be reclusive as well. When I’m creating, sometimes I just like to be alone. We can collaborate, but I like to be alone. I’m able to execute the way I really want to execute and execute my best way sometimes when I’m alone. I don’t mind working remote. I actually love it.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a typical day look like for you?

TTK:
I juggle a few things, man. It depends on the workload sometimes, man. A lot of times, like when I was working heavy on Michelin, when we had a lot of deliverables for the brand, it would be coming up with all these different creative pillars of ways to how the brand incorporates into travel or how they incorporate with food, how they incorporate it in their heritage, coming up with creative ways to display this stuff right here, like getting things ready for a client meeting.

Basically, the day starts, we get briefed on what’s due, what everyone’s working on. And that’s pretty much it, thankfully for me. I’m in a space where I can just do what I need to do and no one really bothers me, I guess because maybe they know that’s how I operate best. That’s pretty much my work day.

As far as doing side projects or painting… Well, the paintings more so of recent things. I take breaks in between that. But sometimes I might work on little side project here, do little brush strokes on the painting for maybe about, I don’t know, 15 minutes, come back to it a couple hours later. My day is basically just me being creative. I’m thankful to say that. I enjoy what I do, and I have fun doing what I do. And it’s how I envision my life. No stress. I’m not working in the cold. I’ve been there before. I’ve done a lot of things, man.

I’m thankful that right now every day when I wake up, no two days are the same, but every day when I wake up, man, I can honestly say I’m not stressed about what I’m doing. And I’m doing what I love to do. It may not be the exact project that I want to work on, but at least I can say that my day consists of me being creative. And I’m getting paid to be creative. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, that’s a good thing. I think especially agencies tend to get the reputation… I don’t know if they get the best reputation, I’ll put it that way, sometimes because you’re often working from client to client so you don’t have a lot of time to spend with maybe a particular brand to do something before you’re put on another project or put on another campaign or something like that. But it sounds like with what you’re doing, especially because you mentioned earlier you’ve been on the Michelin brand for so long, you’ve had time to grow into it in a way.

TTK:
It’s cool because I’ve had access to all of their assets and their personal login site where it’s so many assets, so much history. And that’s a cool thing about working on a brand like this right here that’s been around for over 100 years; there’s so much that you can pull from. A.And not to sound cliche, but a lot of times with working on this brand, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Everything is there already, you just got to figure out how to repurpose it. I’ve worked on… What’s the faucet brand MOEN. I worked on MOEN briefly. I worked on Yellowstone National Park.

I don’t know if I said it before, but Mike’s Hard Lemonade. That was cool working on that. This was pre-pandemic. We had a cool, very, very dope idea and campaign for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, but didn’t see the light of day because the pandemic happened at the time. The pandemic happened and everything shut down so we had to redirect the direction of where we wanted to go. And it was a much, much, much more scaled down version of… It wasn’t even scaled down, it was a whole new direction. Everything that we created, the hours that we spent, no one really will ever see this out into the world. But that’s the nature of the game, you take it how it comes, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you’ve worked before as a graphic designer, and we’ll talk about that a little later, and now you’re an art director at an agency. How would you describe the difference in those two?

TTK:
I don’t think there is any difference, man. Personally, I don’t. Maybe on paper where it says what the roles are, what the responsibilities are. On paper, it probably says certain things, but from my personal experience, I was doing the same thing coming up with ideas, coming up with ideas, coming up with ways to execute this thing, thinking of ways where we can… places where we can place these ideas so people can see it and engage with it.

It’s similar to what I’m doing now. I worked in music, working at Mass Appeal. I worked on the record label side of the house. And sometimes I would work on the agency side as well. But it is the same thing, just one’s more culturally hip hop based, the other one’s more very American and reaches a broader audience and selling products.

But selling music is like selling products as well, man, so it’s the same thing. The way I see it, I think the only thing probably change is the company that you’re getting to check from. I always joke and I say this to people, and not to sound like a Debbie Downer or nothing like that, but you pick your poison. What are you able to accept and what are you able to deal with and whatever role or company or agency that you’re with? But I don’t find it any different at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that the most challenging part about what you do? What you just mentioned?

TTK:
I think the most challenging part about this right here, that working in design and advertising, from my experience, it’s a revolving door. I don’t know too many people that’s been in one spot for over five years. I just don’t.

Early on, it was shocking. Not necessarily shocking to me, but it affected me emotionally. Damn, am I good enough? Or what could I have done differently? But then I understand it’s never personal, it’s business. And sometime business is up, sometime business is down. And when business is down, you might get cut. And that’s just the nature of the game.

And I think that’s where it just comes in. In trying to figure out too what do you love? You know, could work on one thing where the money is great, but you don’t really care about the work that you’re putting out. You’re not really in love with the brand or product or whatever that you’re working on. And then it could be something where you’re all about the mission that this one company or agency has, or you love what you’re working on but the pay isn’t the greatest. It’s all about trying, well, for me, trying to find that middle, that medium where, okay, I can get the best of both worlds.

But in all, back to what I was saying it’s a revolving door from, just from my experience, and a lot of my peers, not too many people I know stick around for a long time. And I don’t know whether it is because us being creative, you want to do your own thing eventually, or… I don’t know. I don’t want to make it a race thing or whatever, but it goes back to how do we see ourself? Well, for me personally, how do I see myself in a place where there aren’t many of people that look like me, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And cannot coexist and naturally be myself in these spaces, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you think it might just be burnout or something?

TTK:
Yeah. It’s a few things. I feel like with junior people, when they don’t have the support or support from senior leadership, you got somebody might be fresh out of college and they got all these dreams of, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this award-winning stuff.” Of course everybody’s got those thoughts in their heads or whatever. But I feel like you take someone junior and you put them in a position and you don’t give them the support that they need to grow, it can be discouraging. And people will, “Yo, this ain’t for me right here.” You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
Or resourcing or whoever, they may not know a person’s… What’s their skillset? What’s that person’s strength? And the only thing they see is the person’s name and a title. And then, “Okay, well let’s put this person on this right here.” They might not even be the person that’s equipped for that. It’s like playing basketball; you can’t have the center playing the point guard position. You know what I’m saying? It don’t work out like that. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

TTK:
Well, you could, but you’re not going to get the optimum results.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit and talk more about you, talk about your personal life. Tell me about where you grew up.

TTK:
I’m originally from Jacksonville, Florida. That’s where I’m originally from. That’s where my early years were based out of. I moved away years ago, years ago. But I went to high school down there. And I was thankful to be in an art program going to an art school, Douglas Henderson School of the Arts, which at the time when I was going there, it was prestigious art school and everything.

But my father, when he went there, my father went there back in the ’50s or the ’60s or something like that. And at the time when he was going to that school, I think it was a school for Black students. You know what I’m saying? This is when segregation and all that stuff was going on. He went to that school decades before me. I just think it’s ironic that I ended up going there, but it’s a whole little different school at the time when I went.

But yeah, I got introduced to the arts there. Well, what’s the old TV show from back in the day? Fame?

Maurice Cherry:
Fame. Yeah.

TTK:
It was like that, you know what I’m saying? Yeah, so it was a school like that and everything, man. Shortly after I graduated high school, a couple years went by, I tried to dabble in fashion for a little bit, but I couldn’t so I realized there wasn’t for me. I could design the stuff, but I couldn’t sew. And then going to college for… I went to Artist Studio Ft. Lauderdale only for one semester. I’m like, “Yeah, I can’t sew then.” But it was cool though, it was cool though. I’m like, it’s more than just drawing, illustrations and everything.

Some years went by in between me having a child. After graduating high school, I just joined a Navy. I joined a navy cold turkey one day. I went to a recruiter and I was like, “Yo, I need a job.” You know what I’m saying? I need a job I can’t get fired from, maybe because the jobs I had at the time, life put me on a path where I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do creatively, creatively, I was just working jobs. I’m like, “Damn, this ain’t it right here, this really ain’t it.” I’m 21, 22 trying to figure life out. I went to a recruiter one day and I was like, “Yo, let me just hear what you got to say.” I didn’t even think I was going to sign up, but they hustled me like a car salesman, like a used car salesman.

Maurice Cherry:
Of course.

TTK:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And at the time, they told me, “Yeah, you can get a sign on bonus for $7,000.” At the time when they told me that, $7,000, I had never seen $7,000 before. When they said $7,000, I’m seeing a million dollars in my head. You know what I’m saying? I was like, “Yo, yeah, let’s do it.” I joined the Navy in September 2001.

Yo, it’s crazy. I went to a recruiter station on a Friday. September 11th happened that Tuesday. Two weeks later, I was in bootcamp. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

TTK:
I was in bootcamp. Yeah. And I was in the Navy for 10 years. I’m a ex sub mariner. I was on submarines. There’s not many brothers on subs. At the time when I was on in the early 2000 and everything. And with me being in the Navy and being mostly in the north or whatever, the bulk of the time I was in the Navy, I started planting my roots in New York and in Brooklyn. A lot of people think I’m originally from Brooklyn, you know what I’m saying? That’s my second home. But I’m originally from Florida, from Jacksonville, man. I got roots down there as well. We’re all over the place right now. What else you want to know?

Maurice Cherry:
I’m just curious about this 10 years in the Navy. First of all, my dad’s a Navy man, so I understand what that’s about. But the whole time that you’re doing this, were you also still pursuing creative things during this time?

TTK:
Yes. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Or how did that happen?

TTK:
No. Mind you, at the time in my early 20s, man. I look back on it now, I was a kid doing adult shit, you know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
I was trying to figure it out, man. And I was a parent as well, you know what I’m saying? I was a parent trying to take care of a kid. I’m like, I don’t really know myself just yet. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
But I just know I need to provide some kind of way. And so the first couple of years of just me being in, it was just me just trying to figure out this thing, figure out this system, figure out what I got to do to not get in trouble and still keep some funds in my bank account and still perform and learn all the things that I need to learn, man.

Like I said, I was on submarines, and that’s… Aw man, that’s a whole nother world within itself and so much stuff that we have to know, from physics to… It’s so many things that I had to remember, being around top secret stuff, having a security clearance, working around nuclear weapons and things like that, man. It was a lot.

I was always doing drawing or whatever the whole time during those early years, drawing little tattoos for people and stuff like that. But it wasn’t until probably around 2004, the end of 2004, the sub that I was on, we left Norfolk, Virginia and we went up to Kittery, Maine. Kittery, Maine is on the border of New Hampshire, so Maine/New Hampshire. It wasn’t until I got up there that I wasn’t going out to sea, I’m just going to work for a couple of hours every day then going back to my barracks room. That gave me time to really do my art the way I really wanted to do it because I hadn’t done any art for so many years outside of high school. And by this time, I’m out of school for maybe seven years now, so I wasn’t really doing anything besides maybe sketching in my sketchbook. Seven years of not producing any work, it was really eating away at me. You know what I’m saying? I’m like, I know it’s more to life than this right here, there’s more to life right here. People tell you like, “Oh man, you do your 20 years, you’re going to get your retirement or whatever, and you still get out. You be young, you still be able to pursue other things.” But I knew deep down inside that that wasn’t me, that wasn’t for me.

But going back to, like I was saying, in 2004, a good friend of mine, he was from the Bronx. And around this time in early 2000, he was like, “Yo.” He knew that I like sneakers a lot. This is the early days before everybody… The sneaker app and all this other stuff like that. I was always one of those guys that had mad sneakers, you know what I’m saying? Before everybody knew me for my clothes and my sneakers and stuff, and he knew I could draw as well. A good friend of mine at the time, he was like… I guess he had went home for the weekend. He was from the Bronx. He went home for the weekend one time or something. He comes back, he was like, “I see these dudes customizing sneakers and everything. Why don’t you start doing that?” And I was like, “Yeah.” I’ve always thought about it, but I never really tried to pursue it.

And I started searching on lunch, trying to figure out what paints and stuff I need to get. And once I figured out the right paints and everything, I think that’s when it really, really took off, where it really began for me as being an artist and putting my work out into the world through sneakers. This is the early days too. This is around ’05, ’06, going a little forward, the MySpace days, me just putting my stuff upon MySpace at the time and people checking for it. And it was like I was running a business out of my barracks room up in Maine. Nobody knew who I was, you know what I’m saying? No one knew who I was, they just knew the name TTK. That was my tag that I went by. My real name is Michael Harris. It’s a very generic name. There’s always another Michael Harris everywhere I go, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
I was like, I got to do something that makes me stand down or whatever, so TTK. I was always into graffiti and stuff, man, so TTK was the initials that I like to tag. And I just like just it looks, the two T’s together and the K from a design point, I just like the way it looks.

Yeah, so everybody just knew, “Yo, this guy named TTK is customizing sneakers.” And this is the early days so there wasn’t a lot of people doing it how it is now almost 20 years later. That really opened my eyes. While I’m doing what I love to do and I’m getting paid to do what I want to do, this is what I want to do right here. I don’t know whether it’s going to be customizing sneakers or working for Nike or whoever one day, but I’m being creative and I’m getting paid to be creative. This Navy thing, this right here is going to be my way out.

Maurice Cherry:
I was just asking were you still doing design and stuff or interested in design this whole time while you were in the Navy? And it sounds like you turned it into a profitable side business almost.

TTK:
Yeah. That led to me doing a bunch of other things. I went to high school for visual arts, traditional means in the ’90s, man, like painting and things like that. I knew I wanted to paint, but I knew I couldn’t carry a big canvas with me everywhere. And I know not everybody has an appreciation for, I don’t know, fine art or the graphic design. Even though graphic design is isn’t everything that we see and interact with, most people don’t even realize that. But I was like, “Wow, how can I get my skillset, show what I want to bring out to the world and how people buy it?” Put them on sneakers. You know what I’m saying?

The first year of me customizing sneakers, I wind up being featured in a book, I can’t even think of the name of it right now, but it was a book about custom sneakers or sneaker art from the early 2000s. But I was featured in this book. I wind up winning some contest with Finish Line at the time. I wind up having my two solo art shows at the time, and I wind up doing some freelance work for Timberland, the brand. And this is within the first year of me doing this. And I was like, “Wow, you know what? I got something right here. I’m onto something.” You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And what I was doing then, it’s very… I don’t know, I call it maybe it’s… It wasn’t on the skill level that I’m at right now, but I saw, you know what? I got something right here. You know what I’m saying? I got something right here.

And then shortly after that, I wind up meeting a good friend of mine who’s like a brother to me, Justice Hall. He was a designer at Timberland at the time. Because Timberland’s headquarters is in New Hampshire. I forget the town that it’s in in New Hampshire. But Justice saw my work on display at this skateboard shop. He saw my custom sneakers. And when Justice saw my work, he reached out to me. And he didn’t know who I was, he just saw the name TTK and he saw the work that I was doing. And it was like, “Yo, this person’s dope. I need to find them.” And he found me and we connected.

And he calls me up. It’s funny, I tell this story all the time. But when Justice, he got my information from the guys at the skateboard shop in New Hampshire. And they didn’t tell him who I was or anything like that. He was like, “Yo, this is this guy, this is TTK. Call him up, man. He’s dope.” When Justice calls me up and I answer the phone, I said, “Hello,” the first thing he says is, “Oh shit, you’re Black.” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “What you thought I was?’ I was thinking the same thing too because when they said designer, I didn’t think it was going to be another brother, someone the same age as me. You know what I’m saying? That’s into the same things that I’m into. It was like we were shocked to meet each other. And it was crazy because up there in New Hampshire/Maine, there aren’t many brothers up there. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
At the time, whenever it was like you see another Black person up there, you were like, “Oh man, you’re from up here? Oh man, where you from?” Or whatever. “Man, we should hang out or whatever.” You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
Because I really didn’t see many of us up there or whatever, man. But anyway, so whenever me and Justice connected, it was like he put me onto so much. And I talk about it all the time. He showed me that everything that I wanted to be, I could be it. This guy’s the same age as me, similar interest and everything, come from similar backgrounds, and this guy is doing all the things that I wanted to do in life at that point. He just encouraged me.And at the time, I didn’t own computer, I didn’t own anything. The only thing I knew how to do was to paint and just hustle and just do art. And he told me, he was like, “Bro, you’re a brand and you don’t even realize it. You created a brand in a barracks room and people are buying your work from all over the world.” He’s like, “You’re special, man.” He was like, “Yo, you really need to get out the Navy, man.” He’s like, “Yo, I can get you a job right now.” I’m like, “Well, I’m under contract.” He’s like, “You can’t break it?” I’m like, “Nah, I can’t break this contract. I get out in…: At the time, I think I had five more years left because I had just reenlisted.

Yeah man, I owe a lot to Justice, man. He credits me for giving him a breath of fresh air and inspiring him as well, but I thank him all the time, man, because if I never met him, I think I would’ve got to where I needed to go eventually, but it would’ve probably taken a little bit longer. Like I said, at the time when I met Just, this is 2006. He’s showing me his portfolio. I didn’t even have a portfolio at the time, I just had some photos of my work that I took. And I took him to the pharmacy at the time to get the photos developed [inaudible 00:37:03] or whatever, man. Like I said, I didn’t know, I was very, very green. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t know. I knew I got a good product and I just know how to hustle. That’s the only thing I knew.

He’s showing me all his credentials and everything, he’s telling me about, “Yo, I work with Kanye.” This is during the Touch the Sky era and all of that, man. He’s showing me this. He’s showing the brands he’s worked on. I’m like, “I did this cool sneaker for my man right here.” You know what I’m saying? He was like, “Don’t even worry about the credentials. It’s going to come, man. You trust me. You got it.” Once I met him and I saw what I wanted to be, it was no turning back after that. I was like, “Yo, I’m getting out. I’m getting out. I’m going to figure it out one way or another.”

Fast forward, I don’t know, I can’t do the math right now, 15 so years later I’m here talking to you, bro. There’s a lot of stuff in between that I’m jumping over, but, yeah, I’m here, I’m here. And I think I’ve done a lot of great stuff. My name is in places where I only dreamed about, or I’ve worked on things where when I was a teenager only dreamed about working on or thought it would be cool if I got to work on this or connect with this person and work on this project. And I did it. I’m still doing it. Sorry for the long rant, yo.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, it’s all good. Let’s hop forward to 2011. That’s when you got out of the Navy. You had been in the Navy for roughly about a decade. And then right afterwards, you enrolled in City Tech, which is a university in New York city. Talk to me about that time.

TTK:
It was interesting, man, because I was so hyped to get out and just be a civilian again because… In fact, most people didn’t even know that I was in the Navy because I was doing so much my artwork, putting my work out there. By this time, I’m not really even doing sneakers anymore, I’m painting, and people know me for my paintings. It was an interesting time. But I knew just from my first time going to college in the late ’90s, I’m like, “All right, things are getting… It’s digital now.” I just can’t see myself going to school to pay to be a fine artist. Nothing against people who do. You know what I’m saying? But for me, like I said, I had bills. You know what I’m saying? I still had some kids to support. I’m like, “All right, how can I be creative and get paid to be creative?”I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew the process of applying for art colleges just from the past, but I’m like, damn, I don’t really have any work that represents what people are looking for in this current state of the world, 2011. And I was like, “Man, I know I got the skills, but I don’t necessarily have the work to show it.”

A good friend of mine, he told me, he was like, “Yo, why don’t you go to City Tech?” I’m like, “What’s City Tech?” He was like, “You can get the same education there at a fraction of a price.” He was like, “A lot of the teachers that teach there, they teach you the big name schools as well.” And he’s like, “Yo, dude, you don’t even got to do a portfolio, you just go and you show up. Just apply.”

I went to City Tech, I applied, I got in. And within maybe, I don’t know, two weeks of me getting out the Navy, it’s my first day of class. And the first year or so I’m trying to figure out, all right, what do I want to do? I didn’t feel like I was being challenged. And then maybe almost around the first year of me being there, I was in a class with this professor named Douglas Davis. Whether he knows it or not, he’s the person that really inspired me to stay at City Tech because I met him in the first day of his class. I saw he was speaking in a language that I understood. And I just liked the way he just came across in the room. You know what I’m saying?I’ll never forget this. This is over 10 years ago, but the first day of class, he comes in, he looks… He’s not much older than me so he looks young, he looks like he could possibly be a student at the time. He comes in and he says, “My name is Douglas Davis.” He’s like, “What I do, I get money.” He said, “You listen to me, you’ll get money too.” And he says something, I think he says, “I’m surprised. I remember it was yesterday.” He said, “My wife, she don’t got to work. I bring home enough money to support my family doing what I love.” He’s like, “You listen to me, I’m going to give you everything that I got. But when I ask for it back, you better give me 100%. I’m going to run this class like it’s an agency. If this ain’t going to be for you, I’m not going to judge you. I’ll help you get to where you need to be. But if you here for the ride, let’s work.”

And I was like, oh, man. I never heard no professor in the classroom talk like that. And I was like, wow. His whole presence. He’s saying what I want to hear. Yeah, man, and that really put me on the path of going the route of learning about advertising and the stuff that I’ve been seeing for my whole entire life and just wondering why, wow, I like the way this ad looks, but I can’t explain why I like it. Being around him and other professors as well, but that really… I guess I feel like it cemented me in at City Tech where it’s like, all right, I’m not going anywhere because I like studying under this guy right here, I like studying under this other professor right here. They’re talking in the language that I want to, you know what I’m saying? That I want to hear. And they’re telling me the things that I need to know to apply to what I do already. Yeah man, that’s how I ended up at City Tech.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, shout out to Douglas Davidson who we’ve had on the show twice now. That’s the first time I’ve heard his classroom style, though. But as you described it, I was like, “Yeah, that’s 100% him.”

TTK:
Yo man, I tell you, he’s a great guy. No joke, man, when I was in his class, I felt like I was on… What’s the one show? Making the Band or something like that, you know what I’m saying? Because I didn’t want to mess up, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t want to mess up.

The nights leading up to the days when we had to present, he was like, “Yo, when the door is shut, the door is shut. If you not in, you not in.” I would make sure I’m on the train early, that way I’m not late to class that day and everything. I have everything set up, staying up all night just trying to get it right and just going up there. Because he didn’t hold any punches or whatever like that, he really ran it, his classroom… He didn’t run it like a classroom, he ran it like it was an agency, like it was a business. He’s a great guy, man. You can tell he really cared about what the people that… The students that he was working with. And he was there. He’s a real special person, man, he’s a real special person. And he’s someone that I’m very happy that I was blessed to meet in my journey along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of that journey, you documented a lot of this in a recent project that you released called Just Like Me. You directed it, you put the whole thing together. Douglas was in it as well. Talk to me about the documentary. First of all, why did you decide to do a documentary?

TTK:
With the documentary, that came about… Well, actually it’s a idea I’ve had in my head for many, many years but I just never really talked about it. I didn’t really talk about it to anyone; maybe one person. But it’s just something that I had in the back of my head. I was like, if the opportunity presents itself, it’d be cool to make this thing. It’s just something like a passion project.

And the opportunity came sooner than what I thought it was going to come in life. But around the time… In 2020, summer 2020, everybody’s in the house, the pandemic, COVID, all that stuff, and then the incident with George Floyd, all these agencies and companies having, I don’t know, a coming of age moment. We didn’t know. You know what I’m saying? What can we do to support Black people? Or whatever like that, man.

That was a moment in time where someone said to me… A real good friend of mine, a mentor as well, he said to me, “This is a moment in time where you need to use this opportunity to make what you want to make and do what you want to do, because I know you can do it.” And when he said it to me, I’m just thinking from a point of having anxiety and just fear of what’s the worst thing that could happen? This could happen, this could happen. And I just brushed it off.

And he came to me, he was like, “Yo, look man, make what you want to make.” I’m paraphrasing right now, but he said to me, “Your story is a very, very special story. How does someone go from working on nuclear submarines to knowing all the people that you know and working on the stuff that you worked on? You really have an interesting story.” And he said, “I’m not telling you what you should make or whatever, but you got something.” And I was like, all right. He was like, “I’ll help you get to a certain point with putting the pieces together, but after that, you running the show.” Because I’m like, “I’ve never directed a documentary. I’ve been around when documentaries are being made from my time working at Mass Appeal and I saw how much work goes into making a documentary. I know it’s a lot of work. He was like, “Don’t worry, you have what it takes.”

And I was like, “All right, I’ll put some days aside.” I wrote up three paragraphs, three, four paragraphs. I talk about basically the moment, this particular moment in time about how people were talking about the state of Black people in America with all the whole George Floyd’s things and the police incidents. It’s nothing new, it always happens, but the spotlight was on it in that moment in time.

Like I said, plus these companies are talking about, “Yo, we need to bring in more diversity,” and all this other things like that. I thought about why is it that there aren’t many Black people and there aren’t many brown people in these spaces of creativity?| And I’m like, “Why is that?” And I start thinking about my own personal experiences, about how we don’t really hear about them. And it’s like, I know a lot of Black creators, but the average person don’t know who these people are. But they’ve done a lot of great things and they’ve contributed to a lot of things that are historic now. And I’m sure you know, with you doing your podcast, you know we create a lot of great things that everyone knows and a lot of people benefit from, but a lot of times people don’t know who the wizard was behind the curtain that created this thing.

And I thought about too about why there aren’t many of us in these spaces. And I thought about a lot of us don’t know that this path exists until maybe much later in life when people got bills, they got families to support and they give up on being a creative. They give up on it because there’s always this narrative of being a starving artist. And that’s not true.

Going back to something Douglas David said to me once, and I always quote it, he says, “This thing called design is like the Matrix.” You know what I’m saying? “It affects all of us. We all work, operate in the Matrix and everything, but you’ll never know the Matrix exists until someone points it out to you.” And that’s like how design is. Everything is designed, everything, but most people don’t think about the whole process of that and how it interacts with us. And I thought about, wow, more of us, more Black people knew about this at an early age and were aware that you can make a living off of this, you’re not going to be a starving artist, I felt like you could see more of us in these spaces. And in order for me to try to educate more people on it, I wanted to show people who were influential to me. There are many people who are influential to me, but I wanted to show a few Black men and women who I’m blessed to cross paths with them in my journey and what they meant to me.

And not only just show who these people are, show their work because a lot of times I feel like when it comes to designers and things like that, or just anything… I’m losing my train of thought. But I feel like we will show a person and we’ll have the title, but a lot of times you don’t know the work that they’ve done.

I think about if I was 16 or 17 years old, I might not know what a creative director is. I might not even understand what a ad agency is, but I know this Nike shoe right here, I know this commercial right here, and now I can connect the dots like, oh man, this is the person to help put this thing together right here. You know what I’m saying? Show the work. That’s what I wanted to do with the project. I wanted to show some people who that were like me and the work that they’ve done and the work that have had impact on so many other people. And I pretty much wanted to make something that I would’ve loved to have seen when I was younger.

Sorry for the long spiel, but I wrote up a short paragraph explaining that, about how representation is very important, representation is very important. You need to see examples of a roadmap of people that have done things before you that can hopefully inspire you to want to go down that path.

And I also told a story in the pitch about when me and Justice met each other, when mt man Justice hall, when me and him met each other in the early 2000s, why were we surprised that we were both Black? We were surprised because we don’t see many of us so it’s a shock whenever we do find it, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
At that time. And I pitched it and I got the green light, you know what I’m saying? I got the green light. And I reached out to everyone from St. Adams to Douglas Davis to Julian Alexander, Aleesha Smalls Worthington, Dana Gibbons, John Petty III, and Justice, Justice Hall. I reached out to them, and they were all on board.

I connected with my man… He’s a creative director, he’s a director as well, my man, Ben Hype. And me and him came up with the whole creative look and vision, and we put it together. I just knew working on this right here, I knew that I wanted to make something visually appealing, visually, visually dope. The message is dope, but I want the visuals to be engaging as well where when someone’s watching it, they’re not going to want to look away because it’s just a beautiful piece. And I thought about what’s the series on Netflix? Abstract.

Maurice Cherry:
Abstract. Yeah.

TTK:
You know what I’m saying? Out of what two seasons, they may feature one Black woman or person of color.

Maurice Cherry:
They had Ralph Gilles in the first season, and then in the second season they had… Oh God, they had Ian Spalter, who’s head of Instagram in Japan, and they had Ruth E. Carter, the costumer. They had her.

TTK:
Right, right. This is just my opinion. I feel like that just an afterthought, like, “Oh, we got to check a box,” or whatever. You know what I’m saying? And Abstract is a great series, but if you go off of that, you would think Black designers don’t exist. You know what I’m saying? Don’t get me wrong, we’re rare, but it’s not as rare as how that series made it seem. You know what I’m saying? There’s a lot of us. But that’s what I wanted to show. Yo, we’re walking in plain sight every day, and we put a lot of things out into the world that you seen but you probably didn’t know that, hey, I’m the person behind this right here because…

And not even to sound the cliche or stereotypical, but whenever you… A lot of times when they think of basketball courts or sports, you think of a Black man. You know what I’m saying? When you think of entertainment or whatever, you think of Black people. But what about all these other roles and titles out there that we’ve contributed a part of, been a part? And I wanted to show this right here. But not show it in a preachy way or like I’m giving a lecture, I wanted to do it in a way that’s conversational.

And I credit my man, Brandon Coleman. He’s a designer. He’s another one of the first Black designers I ever met when I met Justice at the time. But he gave me the inspiration to go that route because like I said, I never done this before, I never directed anything before. I know what I wanted to see and I know that I want it to look good, I want it to be visually appealing. But he asked me a question early on. He said, “How do you want tell your message? Do you want to have a lecture or do you want it to be conversational?” And I was like, “I don’t know, a lecture?” He was like, “No, you want to have a conversation. Put yourself back into the 16, 17 year old version of you, TTK. Did you like when people were preaching to you? Or did you like when when people were having a conversation back and forth?” He said, “I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but think about that whenever you’re trying to put this story together.

And that helped me with the whole creative direction. Whenever Ben Hype was filming it, I told him, I was like, “Yo, I want you to show the people, show their hands, show them moving around, show closeups of them.” I want you to feel like you’re in the room with these people. I want you to feel like you know them. And even though if you may not know them or whatever, but you konw their work. But I want the people, when they view this, I want them to feel like it’s an intimate moment, like you’re close with these people, like you’re talking to a cousin or someone who’s a part of your family or a friend that you’ve known for years. And I think I was able to accomplish that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the documentary is really great. And we’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. We’ve had Julian on the show too. Julian is episode 250, I believe.

TTK:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But no, it’s a great documentary. I hope everybody will get a chance to check it out. When you had the idea and you put it all together, like what we talked about I think before we started recording about you never know how it’s going to be received. What has the reception been like since the documentary’s aired?

TTK:
It’s been good, it’s been very, very good. It’s slow, you know what I’m saying? It’s slow or whatever. But so far I haven’t had anyone say anything, “I wish you could have done it this way or whatever, this and that.” The response is always the same, “This is amazing. I never seen anything quite like this before. And it’s very real, and I feel inspired.” I did it. That’s what I wanted to do.
Like I said, when I initially pitched the idea, I said I wanted to make something that’s meant to educate and inspire. Whatever comes after that is just a extra benefit. I wanted to make something that lives beyond this particular moment in time where if you watch it a year from now, two years, five years, whatever, it’s the educational piece. And I want people to be inspired by… I want to hopefully inspire the next generation of Black creatives out there to show, hey, these are people that are alive right now and they’re doing it versus I’m hearing about somebody who did some great things back in 1970. I’m like, wow, I’m hearing about it from someone else’s perspective versus hearing it from the person when they’re alive right now.

I’m going off on a rant right now or whatever, but I think about how Cey adams that’s featured in a documentary, why isn’t he taught about in schools? You pay this money to go to school for design and everything, you learn about all these other designers, and they’re great people and they’ve done great things, man, I love the work, but Cey is on that level of, in my opinion, the Paula Schers and all those other people out there because he’s done so much stuff that people know. They know his work but unless you’re into this thing called design, you probably wouldn’t even know who Cey is. And I feel like he’s someone who should’ve probably been on the Abstract series. This man was around in the ’70s, New York, going from graffiti on trains to his work in the ’80s to the ’90s, to being in, what, the National African American Smithsonian Museum. Come on. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And I’m skipping over 40 years worth of work right here because it is too much to talk about that he’s accomplished in his lifetime. Why isn’t he taught about in school? And it goes back to what I was saying, when you think of design, they don’t think of us. And I was like, “Yo, I’m not making this to ask for a seat at the table, I want to make this to just educate us and show us, tell these stories from a real perspective versus someone years later to tell the narrative a certain way.” I’m like, “I want you to hear from the people while they’re alive, people who are heroes to me, people who, whether they know it or not…” I took a little bit from all of them to get to this point right here. I want other people to be inspired as well to accomplish things that I didn’t accomplish or we didn’t accomplish, but a lot sooner.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel you 100%. I can liken it to what I do with Revision Path, with having folks on here. I’ve been able to have people on here at different parts of their career journey. There’s folks who I’ve had on maybe in 2014 that now I can bring back seven or eight years later and be like, “Let’s talk about how things have changed,” or something. You know?

TTK:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I totally get that. Actually, I have a funny story. Well, I don’t know if it’s funny, but I have a story about Abstract. This was in 2019 I think was when the second season was about to come out. And I had watched the first season. Well, I’m not going to lie, I watched Ralph Gilles’ episode on Abstract for the first season and that’s it because I was like, I don’t want to hear about everybody else. I was like, I’m going to watch his.

And the place I was working at the startup at the time, and we were looking for design firms for a project that we were going to do, this lifestyle vertical. And so one of the agencies we reached out to was Godfrey Dadich, which is in San Francisco. The Abstract series came from Godfrey being Scott Dadich, who was the former co-founder of Wired. And I didn’t talk to him directly, but I talked to someone at the agency because I was like,” Yeah, my name is Maurice Cherry,” blah blah, blah, yada, yada, yada. And they were like, “Oh, we know who you are.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” I wasn’t coming to them in a personal capacity, it was a professional capacity. And not even for the show, it was for my employer at the time.

They were talking to me about the second season of Abstract. They’re like, “Oh yeah, the second season of Abstract is coming out.” And they were like, “I bet you’re really going to be excited about this because we got two Black designers for this season.” And I’m like, “Why would I be excited about that?” Yay, you found two, but I’ve found hundreds. I mean, I don’t know if they were saying it to be solidarity or something. I don’t know, I just thought that was weird that they brought it up in that way. We ended up not going with them, not for that reason. But I was like, “Okay, I’ll check it out when it airs on Netflix.” They’re like, “Yeah, we managed to find two great Black designers. I’m like-

TTK:
We managed to find.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we managed to find, which is funny that they said that, because I was like, one, I’ve known Ian. Actually, I did an event here in 2017 back when he was… Well, he still works for Meta and everything with Instagram. But I met him at a live event here in Atlanta for Revision Path. And then Ruth, I don’t know Ruth, but I’ve had Ruth’s goddaughter on the show, Courtney Pinter. She lives in Switzerland. I think at the time she was doing flavor design for this company called Givaudan. Now she works for Fifa. But I’ve also had Hannah Beachler to give the Black Panther connection. I had her on the show for episode 300.

Your overarching point around the importance of being able to have people give their own history in their own words is super important because when I started Revision Path, and this was almost 10 years ago, that’s not to say that these stories weren’t out there, but they were really hard to find. And one of the few places that I found them was at AIGA when I started volunteering there with the diversity and inclusion task force. Because they would do these design journeys things and they would talk about folks. But even the way that they… The imagery and everything almost memorialized them. And keep in mind, these people are not dead, but they memorialize them in this way like they’ve gone on to greater things. And I’m like, these folks are still alive. What are you talking about?

TTK:
And they’re active, too. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and active. Michelle Washington’s one of the first people that I had met through that. Her and I are working on the book together. Maurice Woods, who’s been on the show before, Maurice Woods of the Interact Project. I think he’s episode 12 or 13. Emery Douglas from the famous former Minister of Culture from the Black Panther Party, AIGA medalist, he’s been on the show. That was episode 15. But I didn’t find out about those folks until I volunteered and did that. And the way that even they just put it out there made it seem like these are not living people still doing work, it was almost like in memoriam. Nah.

TTK:
Yeah, that’s like when we was putting the pieces together for Lust Like Me, Douglas Davis, he connected me with Cheryl D. Miller. I don’t know if you know her.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

TTK:
Yeah, oh man.

Maurice Cherry:
She’s episode 248.

TTK:
I felt like I was sitting with royalty talking to her. You know what I’m saying? Me and Davis had some questions to ask her. Man, once she started talking, man, the questions just went out the window. She was just dropping so many jewels and so much history and stuff, man. And it’s like, wow, how come I didn’t know this woman’s story? I’m happy that I spoke to her while she’s alive saying, you know what I’m saying? Hear it straight from… It’s from the source.

And she said something. Well, I don’t know if you remember, but at the very end of the documentary, Just Like Me, there’s a quote from her at the very, very end before the credits. When we were talking, she said something, “It’s sad that your generation has to experience the same thing I experienced 50 something years ago around the time when Dr. King died.” She was like, “Yo, all these companies had an awakening moment for about a year or two, maybe less than that.” And she was like, “And this is what’s happening right now because of George Floyd. These companies are having an awakening moment, but it’s going to fizzle out,” unfortunately, man.

When you say we can have all the different programs, DEI, all this, whatever, if you want to change it, change it. And she said something too. She was like, “Yo, if they try to tell you that we didn’t exist, that’s a lie.” She’s like, “I’m fortunate that I got all of this stuff because I was alive and I archived it.”

Like a magician, she pulls out a issue of Communication Arts from 1970. And I ordered it because of her. She was like, “This is one of the first…” This is what from 50 years ago, she just pulls this magazine out. She was like, “This right here on page whatever, 90 something or whatever, you see the Black designers right here? This is 1970 right here, so if they try to tell you that the only person that was out doing things is Milton Glazer and all those guys like that,” she was like, “nah, he was just the only person that was getting the work. That’s why you knew about him. But these other people were out here as well. And here, this is their work right here on.” And she said, “I got it in the archives right here, so nobody can ever try to pull the wool over my eye.”

And when I got that issue, I was able to back order it online, and I saw Ms. Dorothy Hayes, she was a Black designer as well. And I used to see she was a professor at City Tech. And I never knew that this woman was one of the first Black designers ever published. You know what I’m saying? I had no clue. I never had any of her classes, but I would just see her in passing. And I’m like, wow, there’s so much history that we have. And that’s why I feel like we got to tell our stories before… Tell them in real time and tell them authentic and speak to the people who needs to hear it because you already know how it goes, man, years later, the narrative, it gets switched up and it gets watered down. That’s not how it really was. Yeah, man, salute to you for what you do, man. I’m honored to be a part of this right here.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you. And yeah, Cheryl is 100% right about that. When I ran across Cheryl, this was in 20… Now you got me here telling stories. This was 2014, and I had just started doing volunteer stuff with Revision… Not Revision Path, with AIGA, started doing volunteer stuff. And that’s when I learned about her thesis that she did in 1985 when she was at Pratt about Black designers and their viability in the industry and how that became this 1987 print article, and then there was this AIGA symposium.

And I’m doing all this research trying to find… Well, one, doing the research on what happened from that thesis, but then secondly, I wanted to put it into this presentation that I was putting together that I was going to present called Where Are the Black Designers? And I was like, is Cheryl still alive? And I remember asking folks at AIG, and they were like, “Well, we don’t know what happened to her.” I was like, “Let me find her.”And I found her. How did I find Cheryl? Oh, I know, I found her on Amazon. Wow. She had written a book about her mother. It wasn’t even about design, it was about her mother and the relationship she had with her mother and everything growing up. I just found her book, eventually did some more searching, found a website, reached out on a whim and was like, “I’m Maurice Cherry. I’m doing this research. I’m putting this stuff together. I’d love to talk to you about this kind of stuff.”

When I first encountered Cheryl, like I said back in 2014, she had put design behind her. She had had her design work and stuff. She had, I wouldn’t say retired, but she raised a family, became a theologian. She was living a totally different life. And then since then, of course, doing the presentation and then more people finding out about her work, now she’s Dr. Cheryl Miller and has given lectures across the country and doing all amazing stuff and is still here doing this stuff.

TTK:
That’s beautiful.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. And so with Provision Path, I’m certainly fortunate to be able to share that story and to bring more awareness to people in general about what Black folks are doing in design everywhere. I just had this year my first Black designer in South America, which is something I wanted to have for a long time. I was like, I’m going to hit every continent. Couldn’t hit Antarctica, but I done talked to a Black designer on every continent so far start with 2022 this year with someone in South America. Yeah, I just want to keep going and keep telling more stories and getting more folks on here to tell their stories so folks know that we did exist.

To that end about the whole black squares thing, in 2020, that summer, I was looking up a bunch of old Ebony and Jet magazines and stuff. I think Google has the full archive, the full digital archive of Ebony Magazine, and so I was looking at issues from when Dr. King was assassinated. And when I tell you it was the exact same thing about companies posting black squares, exact same thing people were doing back then when King died, sometimes even the same verbiage. I’m like, this is wild, this is wild.

TTK:
And that’s one thing Ms. Miller was saying, she was like, “Just change it. You want to make change? Do it.” These people that have positions to do it, they don’t want to do it. This right here is a moment in time. Like she said, I’ve seen it before. I’m not even thrilled by it. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
I’m not thrilled by it at all. Just from her telling me… Hearing stories that I’ve never heard before. One day, thankfully, you’re doing what you’re doing so people will have,… We’re able to control our own narrative more so now. It was great, but at the same time, it’s bittersweet as well, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

TTK:
Because wow, man, I’m experiencing the same thing my elders experienced. How come I don’t know about Cheryl Miller, the woman who created the original BET logo? You know what I’m saying? Something that’s a part of my childhood. Why more people don’t know about who this woman is right here?

I’m honored that I was able to speak with her and basically just sit and listen to her talk, you know what I’m saying? Just sit and listen to her talk. And to have a quote from her in the documentary, I was like, man, that was a great book end on it. It was a real book end to the project. Like I said, when you watch it, in the very beginning it says how it started, and at the end it says how it’s going. And you see her quote at the end, someone who’s been around that predates all of us. She predates even Cey, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
Who has 40 something years of work. She predates him. To have someone like a OG basically, a vet, to have her to be a part of the project, man, I’m thankful. I’m thankful for everybody that was a part of helping me put this project together, Just Like Me. Man, I’m thankful for everybody, man. But yeah, Cheryl Miller’s amazing.

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

TTK:
I want to be known as a painter more. I want to be known as that. I want to do gallery shows, more of them. Because in the past where I was just doing art shows myself, and I was just happy if I was able to fill the room with friends and stuff like that and create a memory. I want to sell my work on a high level. I want to work with more brands, but I want to be working with brands because they want to work with me, not because I need a job. I want to bring my personal creativity and my expertise to the table. “Yo, we want to collab with you. We love your story.”

And I want another opportunity to make a project, another project like Just Like Me but bigger. I know when you watch the documentary, it looks like it was… Yeah, it’s put together very, very well, but oh man, we were building the car while we were driving it, making this thing right here. We were really making something out of nothing, but it looks like it’s on a high level so I would really like to have a chance to make something maybe… I don’t know if it’s the same type of topic or something completely different. I wouldn’t mind directing another project.

All in all, I just want to continue to be creative, continue to make a living, and live comfortable using my imagination, man. I don’t know where it’s going to go in the next five years, but I’m speaking into existence right now what I want. And truthfully, I feel like I can’t even fathom what’s going to be for me because it’s going to be something that I’m not even expecting. You know what I’m saying? Just this documentary, just like…

We didn’t mention it, but working on a project for Nas, you know what I’m saying? Well, I worked on a few project for Nas but having my name and the credits next to Nas and Kanye, you know what I’m saying? Wow, you can’t erase my name from this project. You know what I’m saying? I’ve worked on this right here. You know what I’m saying? If you would’ve told me at the time 15 years ago that, “Hey, you’re going to work on this project. You’re going to be the person who designs and put this thing together,” I’m like, “How is that going to happen?” I couldn’t… I’d imagine it, but I was like, wow, it seemed like a fairytale. But the have, I did it, and it’s a thing of the past now, I’m onto something new, wow, that’s great.

And if you would’ve told me three years ago that I would direct a documentary, I’m like, “How would I do that?” And that’s going back to what I was initially saying, five years from now, I just want to be doing something great and making a living and just putting the best stuff out into the world, man.

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

TTK:
Multiple ways. You can check out my site artbyttk.com. That’s A-R-T-B-Y-T-T-K.com. You can check my IG as well. It’s instagram.com/gottkgo. You can pretty much find me anywhere online with that, Go TTK Go.

And if you want to watch the documentary, Just Like Me, it’s on my site as well, man, but it’s also you can go to the actual micro site. The site is justlikeme-havas, that’s H-A-V-A-S, .com. jsutlikeme-havas.com. And you can read a little bit about the project, a short description of it and the creation of it. And you can watch the documentary. The documentary’s only… It’s just in the 30 minutes, but it’s strong. It’s a very powerful piece that I’m really proud of. I always say that project is my magnum opus project at the moment. Yeah, that’s where you can find me at.

Maurice Cherry:
TTK, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, for sharing your story, which again, I hope people will check out the documentary so they can get a chance to see it for themselves, but also just your whole story about perseverance and pursuing your creative passion. I think that’s something that hopefully a lot of people can get inspired by. And I’m excited to see what you do next. If this documentary is any indication, I’m pretty sure what’s coming up next is going to be great. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

TTK:
No, brother, thank you for having me on here. Thank you. Also want to thank my partner, Chevon, because she was very vigilant about trying to get me on your show. Thank you to Chevon as well, man. And she’s @chevonmedia on IG and on Twitter. Yeah, thank you to Chevon. I’m honored to be a part of this. And maybe, I don’t know, five years from now, maybe you’ll reach out to me to revisit what’s going on in my life for whatever project I got going on, man.

Maurice Cherry:
There you go. All right.

TTK:
Yeah.

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