What does the “middle” of a designer’s career look like? Does the “middle” exist outside of a corporate company’s career ladder? I examine these questions and more with this week’s guest, the one and only Chanel James. As a designer for EAB, Chanel works on production and design and for a number of different projects, all with the goal of making education smarter and our communities stronger.
Chanel talked about what attracted her to work for EAB, and also spoke on her work with AIGA DC on their board of directors. We also discussed the South and design, how she acquired a love for illustration from a popular kid’s television show, and yes, we went into the mid-career designer topic I mentioned earlier. Chanel lives by the motto “make it pretty”, and no matter her role or profession, she definitely brings the skills and experience to the table that make her motto a fact!
Maurice Cherry: All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.
Chanel James: Hi. My name is Chanel James. I’m an In House Designer at a company called EAB, which is like a best practices research, education firm. We essentially help schools, provide schools with research, and best practices to better the experience for students in higher ed, and otherwise.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. How long have you been at EAB?
Chanel James: I’m also at my two year mark, I’ll be at two years in February. It’s been a really awesome two years, I’ve learned and grown a lot while I’ve been here, I’ve touched a lot of different projects. It’s in house, but it can sometimes feel like an agency, which is exciting in that way. We get the same projects, but they change almost each year, so that’s exciting for me.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. What attracted you to working for them?
Chanel James: To say that I kind of got to back up a little bit, after graduating I went to go work for a consulting firm, which was not my vibe, not anything I enjoyed doing. Prior to that I was working in house for a nonprofit, still in the education realm and I loved that, it felt like a family, almost felt like school in the sense where I was learning as I was doing projects. But, the other place was not anywhere in the realm of what I wanted to continue doing.
Chanel James: I came across EAB, I met someone at an AIGA event in 2017 who worked here, and I looked up their work and I was like, “Oh, this is something I think I can get with.” I love the culture, like how the culture looks and stuff. I applied, and thankfully I got it, and the rest was history from there. Yeah, I was really attracted to, I’m a big one on workplace culture and balance, work/life balance because work takes up 85% of our lives essentially. And if you don’t enjoy it while you’re there, like if you don’t enjoy it, that’s like most of your life you’re not enjoying.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Chanel James: I try to focus on that.
Maurice Cherry: What is the culture like there?
Chanel James: Very supportive. People here understand that you have like, people know that you have families, and you have life outside of the walls of EAB. PTO is taken seriously, that’s really hard when it comes to being in anything with design, often times people like, “Oh, overnight. Oh, we need this tomorrow.” But here if you’re like, five o’clock comes they’re like, “Oh, we understand. I’ll get it from you sometime midday tomorrow,” type thing. It’s nice to have like, I mean there are times like right now it’s like busy season, so things are kind of like we’ve got to get it done, but there’s still boundaries. I love how there are boundaries with work/life, and home life. I think that’s my biggest thing, it’s like why I love this company so much.
Maurice Cherry: So far what’s kind of been the most challenging thing that you’ve encountered while working there? It can be whether it’s just the general work culture, or in the job specifically working with a client, anything like that.
Chanel James: When I first started here it was, it’s not the most diverse place just in terms of actual diversity. There are not many people of color. They’re working towards that, but I think that was my biggest struggle when I first started coming from my back … you know, I went to George Mason University, I graduated from there, which is all about diversity. You know, celebrating people’s differences, and so there were always different types of people. But when I started on my team, my manager is a black woman, but then that’s it. Everyone else is white, which is okay, but I found myself not feeling like I fit in quite well, or wanting to do things the way other people do things.
Chanel James: I’m a very, I consider myself a very colorful black woman. I like wearing scarves, I have natural hair, my hair is like a big piece of my identity. Coming into a space where I don’t see anybody else who looks like me, dresses like me, talks like me, it’s tough because you don’t feel validated. And so, you kind of have to break out of that. It’s a mind game almost, you’ve got to remember that you can celebrate who you are even though there aren’t other people who look like you in the room. But that still takes practice, and it’s tough. Often times people leave places because they’re like, “I don’t see anybody here who looks like me, I’m going to dip out.” But I’m really proud of myself that I saw it through while I’ve been here because it’s gotten a lot better for me, but it’s still tough. I think we all, all designer’s kind of feel the same thing.
Chanel James: You’re usually like the only designer in a space, but when you’re the only designer, and the only black person or person of color in general it’s tough, it’s hard.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I’ve been in situations like that certainly where you end up being the, I don’t want to say the token, that’s not really the best way to put it. But, you end up being the only one kind of by default, and so it takes really a strong sense of self to know that you’re supposed to be here, you’re here for a reason, because imposter syndrome can really set in fairly quickly.
Chanel James: And it set in really hard for me, and I think it was something I had to get over in college too because I came from, so I grew up in Richmond Virginia. Which, whoever is from Virginia in general knows that Richmond is a, it’s like a predominantly black city. I grew up in like an all black elementary school, all black middle school, all black high school. Because that’s the way counties are set up, and we know that gentrification, redlining, all of the histories behind that, why certain neighborhoods are more black than others.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chanel James: But, I got into my college which is in Northern Virginia, and that’s an entirely different space to be in. There are streetlights that are constantly on. I know that it’s a small detail, but it was something that … it was small, but it impacted me because I was like, “Wow, these people got streetlights, they got sidewalks, they’re encouraged to be outside, the houses look all nice and clean.” This is where I always pictured my … I’m not saying I grew up in the hood, but when you grow up in areas that are predominantly black, things are different.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chanel James: That’s just how it is, it’s just different.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chanel James: College for me was a little bit of a culture shock because it was beautiful, the campus was beautiful. Again, predominantly white, so I had to find my community while I was there. I was like, “Where do I belong?” Then I started meeting not just black, but African people so I was like, “Wow, then what am I?” Then my identity started like, I started having this identity crisis. I’m like, “Well, people are starting to say they’re from this country. Oh, I’m from Ghana, I’m from Nigeria, I’m from Germany,” people at Mason were very big about repping their countries. Then people would ask where I was from and I’m like, “America? Virginia?” I feel like I really had to find myself getting into college. That’s why I say my hair is my biggest part of my identity, because during that time, freshman year, I shaved my head. I cut all my hair off.
Maurice Cherry: Oh wow.
Chanel James: Went natural, and I decided, I was like, “This is going to be my thesis while I’m here. Let’s talk about the identity of black Americans,” and things like that. Now, did that end up being my actual thesis in senior year? No, but it was a big part of who I was. People knew me for my different hairstyles, my art was kind of centered around my hair, I always brought up some type … because again, I was the only black person in my classes, it was like one or two of us. That college was like the first time that I was the only person who looked like me in classrooms and things like that, and that took a lot of personality shifting on my part.
Chanel James: And I thought for some reason that when I graduated, things would change. I would go back into spaces where I’m like, “Oh, there’s the black boss, black CEO, or Spanish CEO,” you know? Different type of people, but I was wrong. I mean, so far everywhere I went, it’s been like … or everyplace I’ve worked at so far has been not too many people of color in general. I don’t really know why yet, I’m still trying to figure that out.
Maurice Cherry: When you look back at your past experiences, is that the main thing that stands out to you is the diversity of the teams that you’ve been on?
Chanel James: Yeah, I think so. Now, sometimes it can reflect the experience I have with working. When I first started at EAB I was not confident at all. I knew I was talented, people told me I’m talented, but I felt like I was doing everything wrong. We have a lot of processes here, and we’re very organized, we’re a very process driven team. When someone came to me and told me, “Oh, this is wrong.” Or, “This isn’t how we do things.” I would get discouraged because I’m like, “Ugh, I did it wrong again.” I would focus only on what I did wrong. On top of the fact that I was the only black person, so I was like-
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Chanel James: … “I’m being looked at differently because if I get it wrong, then that reflects not only on me, but everyone.” You know?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, and that’s such an unfair-
Chanel James: Burden’s a good word.
Maurice Cherry: … Yeah, it’s an unfair burden to even have on your mind. It’s like, “Oh, I’m not just messing up for me, I’m messing up for all black people.”
Chanel James: Right? [crosstalk 00:10:29].
Maurice Cherry: That’s, ugh, I hate that.
Chanel James: Yeah, and I started finding myself wanting to find spaces where there were other people who looked like me, or who thought like me.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chanel James: I was still pretty hesitant to be my full self around other than my boss whose black, I think it was just me and her going into like having our biweekly check ins. I kind of, like I was able to unfold a little bit. I’m like, “Girl, let me tell you about this week.” Or, [inaudible 00:11:01]. “Oh, did you see Black Panther? How did you like that?” Type thing.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Chanel James: But when I’m in this, I had to … it was a huge challenge for me to call out things. I’m like, “Guys, we shouldn’t be doing …” It’s still a challenge, because you don’t want to be that person.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chanel James: Like again, I’m black, but do I have to call out the things that might offend people of color?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Chanel James: Or, do I seem like I’m whining a little bit? It goes back to the point of validation. Sometimes you don’t feel validated when you’re in spaces when you’re the only one who looks like you.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, and I mean I think companies should realize that, that’s sort of like, or that should be seen as an advantage, or a cultural advantage in some way. You’re being able to see something that perhaps not everyone else is seeing because of the homogeneity of the team, you know?
Chanel James: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). One of the things that ended up happening for me to really feel like myself here was the fact that I found, we have employee resource groups, which I think most companies have. But, it’s groups that are for veterans, for parents, for just different groups of people to celebrate themselves, and things like that. We have the group called Mosaic, and I found, it was like two other black women on my team, some director level women, some entry level women, and men. And I was able to kind of find more of myself in them whenever I felt like I was running into an issue at work, or I wasn’t confident. I’d run up to one of their desks, I’m like, “Ugh, I can’t believe this,” type thing.
Chanel James: They would kind of help me feel a little bit better about whatever situation I was going through.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chanel James: Now, I notice that all of the black people come to my desk during the day. They’ll come by, “Hey Chanel, hey girl.” It’s kind of become like we have a network, a system. I hate to say it, I think everyone has some type of Slack group, or group chat.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, yeah.
Chanel James: Like a black … I mean you don’t name it that, but you kind of treat it like a black Slack, just going, “Hey-”
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Chanel James: … “Did y’all see this in the news, pop culture?” Things that you can talk about freely without feeling judged in a sense. Finding that community here was really important for me, but that took a while. Prior to that I started going to Meetups. AIGA’s been a really big part of my identity too, so I in 2018 applied to sit on the board of the DC, AIGA DC chapter, and I ended up getting it. I started off as a Program Coordinator, and now I’m Woman Lead. And that-
Maurice Cherry: Nice.
Chanel James: … Yeah, thank you. That’s been a really big part of my identity as well, because I am able to create spaces, find other young designers, even like non designers who are just looking for a community, and help build that sense of community for them. Just to help them push through the end of the work week. We create programs that I think build people up, and I think that’s why-
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Chanel James: … I’m such a big fan.
Maurice Cherry: Let’s switch gears here a little bit because I’m curious to know, you mentioned growing up sort of in the DMV area earlier, was design, and art, and tech, were those a big part of your upbringing? Were you exposed to them early?
Chanel James: Yes, yes, and no, I’m just going to say yes.
Maurice Cherry: Okay.
Chanel James: Not design specifically because I think we get that … a lot of people growing up would be like, “Oh, design, computer.” I’m like, “I’m not a computer whiz.” But, let’s see. I had a speech impediment growing up, like when I was really young. I took speech classes in elementary school, it was so bad that my parents sometimes didn’t even understand what I was saying, it was like only my big … I have two older sisters.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chanel James: One of my sisters who I roomed with would have to translate for me. I watched Blue’s Clue’s a lot, and that taught me how to take basic shapes and build these complex forms, right? I would illustrate sometimes to communicate, and then I started becoming more inspired by, you know how you go into black homes, you go on family reunions and things like that, and you realize everyone has the same piece of art?
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chanel James: I think I was also pretty taken back about that, so my mom introduced me … not introduced me, but showed me some pieces by Jacob Lawrence who was, anything in the Harlem Renaissance I was a huge nerd for. I hate to bring him up, but Bill Cosby, Little Bill, that cartoon.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chanel James: Those pieces of works really inspired me growing up. Then, I got into middle school, I was introduced to animating. But not using any Adobe programs, I think we just used like iMovie and the Paint app. I can’t tell you what exactly we used, but it was frame by frame. My art teacher Mr. [Epps 00:16:24], really saw something in me, and so he encouraged me to keep doing these digital illustrations. Which again, I didn’t connect that to design because no one was using that terminology around me back then. I was really inspired by doing that, art has always been a really big part of my life, to the point where I applied to the Center for the Arts High School in my area but I didn’t get in. Which crushed me, but I had a pep talk by my mom. She’s like, “No, you can do it, la, la, la. Just keep going to the regular high school, make things happen for yourself.”
Chanel James: I think my parents both encouraged me in art, but my mom told me I had to pair it with something. She’s like, “If you’re going to be an artist, you have to make it profitable, so go work for a company …” again, she’s describing graphic design, but she’s not using the terms graphic design. She’s just kind of like, “You can work for a company and make maybe advertising, and things like that.” I’m like, “Okay yeah, I can do that.”
Chanel James: I ended up senior year applying to VCU Arts, which again, I didn’t get into. My world was crushed again, my validation was crushed again and I was like, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” Found George Mason, applied there, and got in. That’s when, I think it was in one of my entry level design classes, someone … they started teaching us about design, and Bauhaus, and all the histories. That is when I started, like I was introduced to the programs, and I just kept practicing.
Chanel James: I think the biggest turning point for me was meeting my professor Reese Quinones, who walked in the room, and it was the first time I saw a black professor walk into a room up to that point. I think this was my sophomore year, and I was shook. I was just kind of like, “Oh my gosh, I have a black professor.” And she was so talented. She spoke with … Now, she’s Puerto Rican but just looking at her you’re like, “Oh, she’s black.” You know? It’s black, it’s Puerto Rican, we’re all the same thing.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chanel James: But, she spoke with such passion about what she did. She would build things, and it was almost like watching a movie. She’s like, “Here, we can just take this shape here, add some transparency here, align here, and boom.” I’m like, “How did you do that? I want to be just like you.” She inspired me so much that I would sit and practice on weekends, just copying things that were in the media and things like that, going to museums, and just trying to understand …
Chanel James: Going to museums and just trying to understand why I liked what I liked, and stuff like that. So I think, yeah, that was my biggest introduction to design. But growing up I’ve always been a little Chanel artist. That never changed to me.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. When did you sort of get the sense that this was something that you could do for a career? Because it sounds like George Mason was a time that really was formative in shaping the fact that you kind of could do this-
Chanel James: Full time.
Maurice Cherry: Just as a scale. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Chanel James: Yeah. Let’s see. I was able to sign up as like different school groups that we… I was in fashion society and I’m not a fashionista but they wanted me to make some of their flyers and social media ads and things like that-
Maurice Cherry: You were just saying you, you have the colorful scarves and everything [crosstalk 00:19:55] not a fashionista.
Chanel James: [crosstalk 00:19:56] to be colorful and do your own thing. But I don’t think I’m an influencer, [crosstalk 00:20:05] more stylish than I am but I would do things for them. And eventually some people from there would be like, “oh actually,” some girls would be like, “hey, I need a logo for this. Do you think you can do it?” I’m like, “yeah I can.” In my head I’m like, no I can’t. I don’t know how to do anything. And I would just kind of go for it. Open up Illustrator, which was at that time was like my best friend and put some texts and things together. Now, looking back on it, some of those things I did was, I mean I was just starting out so it wasn’t the best stuff, but that’s when I started doing things for profit and then if one person heard from another person that, oh yeah Chanel’s the graphic designer. In Black Mason, people would know me as the graphic designer.
Chanel James: So because our community was so small, you had maybe three designers who you’d be like, or three artists in a sense who would kind of do things for the black programming and things like that. And I also ended up getting a job on campus working with our housing department as a graphic designer, which was I think a pretty, that helped me figure out how to work on a team. It was kind of set up in house where we would be doing things for just housing and things like that. We’d create illustrative posters for our campus residence fairs and things for, what’s it called, freshmen move in was a really big campaign that we would have to create marketing materials, signage, flyers and all of these sorts of collateral pieces was when I started building that skillset of time management, sending things to print and things like that.
Chanel James: So that molded me a lot. By the time I finished that role there, I think I was able to intern with my mentor who was Risa [Kanyonez 00:22:15], the professor who I was drooling over [inaudible 00:22:21] I interned at her company and then ended up contracting for a little while and I’m going down the line of my timeline, but that’s essentially how I started, realized how to make a profit. People just kept referring me by word of mouth.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Now you graduated in 2017. You’ve been working here in the industry for a few years and we spoke about this a little bit before we started recording about the notion of kind of being a mid level slash mid career designer, I suppose. Where do you see yourself, like right now we’re recording this 2019, where do you see yourself in the design industry at this level?
Chanel James: I see myself, I don’t know, I’m in the middle of it. I don’t see myself as a expert by any means. Right. And I said this before, but I also don’t see myself as… I see myself as a [inaudible 00:23:18] I don’t, it’s so hard because I’m still trying to figure that out essentially. And I think a lot of us mid level designers are just still trying to figure that out. I am a part of a lot of things, mainly because of my job, AIGA, I do freelance and I use all of these different avenues and tools and people and volunteering and things like that so that I can say, yeah, like I’ve worked on, I know how to put a team together. I know how to run a program, I know how to ask for donations and things like that. But I haven’t been doing it as long as other people, so I get nervous to say, yes refer me for this or see me as an expert. You don’t have to use the word expert, if you’re not using the word expert, what else do you use?
Maurice Cherry: Right. It’s something where it feels like the, it’s the mid part that is kind of I think a little bit trippy because certainly when you see entry level positions, I see entry level positions that require as much as five years experience. That is not entry level if you’ve got five years of experience under your belt. But in the same vein, what is the middle of a designer’s career at this stage in the game because the tech is changing. The roles are changing. I mean 10 years ago there weren’t product designers. Everyone was a web designer or a graphic designer, so the roles are changing, the structures are changing within companies. What if you are a really strong individual contributor but you don’t want to go into managing a team or managing people? Where do you go from there? It’s a lot of sort of nebulous nebulousness in the middle of the design kind of career because I think even the ones that are the experts, I feel like they, I don’t know, it’s tough to say.
Chanel James: It’s a-
Maurice Cherry: I certainly. No sorry go ahead.
Chanel James: I was going to say you’re really just looking at the time of how long I’ve been doing this or if I’ve been doing this too long, have I refreshed up my skills? How long has it been since I’ve learned the latest, newest thing about this topic. And I also think with being mid level, you’re trying to move away from the negative notion that comes with being new or being labeled as new, labeled as entry because a lot of people who I’ve… Even this summer I was able to mentor two amazing individuals for our marketing department, but they both expressed to me how weird they felt, how much negativity came with the word intern, came with the word new, came with the word college grad or college student. Because people kind of brush you off into thinking that you’re not, oh, she’s not skilled or she doesn’t have, but because I mean they both were Black women. I think that sometimes young White people can get away with being new, but also being something that people gravitate towards as experts or go to’s in that sense. I mean look at-
Maurice Cherry: They’re a fresh new voice-
Chanel James: A fresh new voice. Look at, what’s his name? Facebook dude. What’s his name, the CEO.
Maurice Cherry: Mark Zuckerberg.
Chanel James: Mark, yeah. He was this college level, new, wet behind the ears guy and then like, hey, I want this app. Him and his other dudes are like… I’m sorry I’m using such basic terminology, but [inaudible 00:27:08] But when new people come up with an idea, sometimes it’s like, oh, they’re so ski… Yeah, let’s give them a chance. But I feel like as a person of color, if you’re coming in as new, young and of color, it can be really hard for people to take you seriously. It can be so hard for people to take, you unless you have a bunch of awards behind your name. You, oh, I interned at Google, I interned at Facebook. I got into the center for the arts at my high school. I went to VCUarts and because I didn’t have those names, I didn’t start having many titles behind my name until a year or two ago, it made me feel like I didn’t have much of a space in the industry to give advice or to really just kind of be seen as a person in the industry. I was still like a student of the industry, if that makes sense.
Maurice Cherry: That makes sense. I’ll tell you a secret, even, and this is just not only from people who I’ve had on the show, but also speaking from personal experience, even when you get to that level of having the awards and the accolades and all that stuff, guess what? People still don’t take you seriously. It doesn’t really get, I don’t want to say it doesn’t get that much better. You sort of have a little bit of an advantage depending on the communities that you’re speaking to. But I run into some of the same issues of credibility at this stage in my career as I did 10 years.
Chanel James: Why do you think that is? What issues of credibility come up? Like who would-
Maurice Cherry: I mean, how real can we get? I mean…
Chanel James: For me, I started listening to this podcast when I started this job, actually before I started this. Every day when I was at the job that wasn’t for me, to be very frank, I was very unhappy. I would listen to this podcast Revision Path every day, I would go back and I would listen to all… Though, this is maybe like summer of 2017 because I felt so inspired by all of the individuals who looked like me who came from places like me, who, they almost seemed like, I was like, okay, they have these accolades and they have these medals, these badges, they are taken seriously in these spaces. Even when people spoke about their struggles of getting to where they were, they still got to where they were.
Chanel James: So that pushed me and knowing that you’re the voice behind it, and knowing all… Of course we can list a bunch of things about Maurice Cherry and all the things that he’s done for the community in the task, I know you were on the task force many years ago, things like that [crosstalk 00:30:00] I met Jacinda. Jacinda was a really big part of pushing me back in like 2017 or 2016 so that community, right? I’m like, oh you guys made it, you are it. But to hear you say like, “ah no, we’re still trying.” It’s interesting.
Maurice Cherry: I might be telling some secrets here, but I feel like some of us, and I’m not speaking for everyone, some of us try to do a good job of obscuring that. I think from those that are coming up because we don’t want you to have that baggage. We don’t want you to come into it knowing like, oh, you can even still get this far and still run into issues because the hope is that the work that we’re doing clears the path, makes it easier for the next generation. I wouldn’t even say next generation. I mean it’s not like we’re that far apart, but I mean it makes the road easier by walking it. So that’s the hope, is to just not talk about all the negative stuff that happens and just try to focus on the more positive things to be that inspiration because it can be, there are still a lot of isms out there and I’m not just talking about the isms that have cropped up, I’d say even more vibrantly because of our current political system. But I mean racism is still very much a thing. Sexism is still very much a thing. Other isms-
Chanel James: Ageism yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Homophobia, et cetera. Ageism, yes. Even location. I mean, I’m in Atlanta and I get so many sort of small microaggressions about being from the South. Or being in the South and doing tech and design-
Chanel James: I understand.
Maurice Cherry: Like if I’m not in New York or if I’m not in an LA, these capitals?
Chanel James: Where are you? What are you doing?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, yeah. It’s like, oh, Atlanta. Okay.
Chanel James: But at least in Atlanta, I mean, sorry to change the subject a little bit, but Tyler Perry, the studio, I feel like, I don’t know, Atlanta is on the come up with a lot of things.
Maurice Cherry: It is on the come up of a lot of things. I think particularly as it relates to entertainment. I would even say as it relates to tech, but it certainly doesn’t get the same level of, I think-
Chanel James: Respect.
Maurice Cherry: Oh absolutely not. It doesn’t get the same level of respect at all as like what’s happening in California or what’s happening in New York, Georgia still, because you know what ends up happening, I mean Atlanta is still very much a blue dot in a red state if we’re talking politically. So there are political issues which crop up that will overshadow a lot of other good things that are happening here. Like for example, the abortion heartbeat bill from earlier this year, that came up and then people from Hollywood wanted to boycott Georgia, boycott Atlanta really. And Atlanta is, because we’re that like blue dot in the red state, we get the brunt of that. It’s very much a different world once you leave Atlanta in terms of being in Georgia. So to that effect there are a lot of things that happen here that oftentimes will just get overlooked because it doesn’t come in the, I guess in the right package. I don’t know. It’s an odd thing-
Chanel James: I mean and that sucks too because I’m still pretty young. I mean, it doesn’t even matter about age, but essentially I have time to go anywhere. I have time to explore everything. But when I think about, I’m like, okay, so where can I go? What’s next after this? DC is hot and happening. There’s always jobs, there’s always things going on. But do I want to live in DC forever? Probably not. Absolutely not. And I’m like, do I want to move back home to Richmond? Probably not. There’s no jobs. I don’t consider jobs there.
Chanel James: And so then I’m like, oh, I don’t want to move to New York. I don’t want to be that girl. I don’t want to be that person right now. Who knows what’s going to happen in like two or three years. But when I think about Midwest and things like that, South, what’s happening in the South, you’re right. I mean other than Atlanta, because I think about different companies and things like that’s there. I don’t see myself in many other places and then it just puts me back on like, well, let me see what’s happening here in DC, which is unfortunate because I feel like there’s so many amazing things that each city can bring in terms of design life and culture.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. You have to really kind of work hard to make and carve out whatever that space looks like. I remember when I was 29, 30, I was really trying to move out of Atlanta hardcore. I was like, this is not working. My career has hit a plateau. Well, at that point, let’s say I was 29, 30, I had started my studio. I had just finished up this political campaign that I was working on and so things were kind of on an uptick, but I still felt like I was hitting a wall and I was like, I am not going to get better in my career until I leave and go to New York.
Maurice Cherry: So I had a friend of mine in New York who was sending me all these apartment listings and everything and I mean, long story short, I didn’t move to New York, but I ended up finding a way to make it work here, which is not to say that I gave up, but certainly I just couldn’t, I personally couldn’t see myself in New York. I mean I’m a Southern boy through and through. I know that about me and I mean I’ve visited New York a ton of times. New York is just, I wouldn’t vibe with the city. Like that’s just not how my whole, my energy would not vibe with New York. So I was like, I can’t do New York. I can visit, but I can’t live there.
Chanel James: Same. And I’m from New Jersey originally. All my family’s in New Jersey. And before that, Alabama. So, I mean, I never lived in Alabama, but my family has. And so I also am the same way about like the North. I’m like, no, thank you. But I think that that’s also another thing with being a mid level designer. You mentioned how you saw yourself somewhere and you tried to go for… So when you’re in the middle of it, I’m going to call it in the middle of it, you’re essentially looking at multiple roads in front of you and you’re like, my actions right now can affect where I am by the time I’m 30 or by the time I’m 35 and things like that. I just turned 24 so I’m always cautious and thinking of what’s going to happen if I do jump job, do find another… Should I try to work abroad for a few years like some of the other people you’ve interviewed?
Chanel James: I listened to some people who are moving to China and going to Germany, I’m like, maybe I should try, is that something I should try to do before I’m X amount of years old? Or maybe I should, I don’t have a family. I have no ties to anything. So I’m like, I should do this, or maybe I should do this. I’m looking at all of these different paths that I can take and it can sometimes be really overwhelming. And I think that’s the other part about being in the middle of your career because you’re not quite sure what can happen and what can change. And that’s with life in general, obviously, but it’s a bigger thing when you’re looking at like all of your idols and the people you look up to. You’re like, okay, I see that they made this decision, but what’s going to be right for me type thing so.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. And I think, I mean that involves a lot of introspection. It involves really sitting down with yourself and saying, or answering the question, what does success look like for me? What is the space? And this is.
Maurice Cherry: What is the space, and this is something that we actually explored at Black in Design this past weekend, but there was one of the things about how do we carve out a space for wellness and for joy. Because I mean certainly in America, I mean we black folks in America, we know what the deal is in terms of how we’re perceived by society, treated by society and law enforcement, incarceration, a number of different things that are set up to go against us as just basic human beings. Does that change if we move overseas? Maybe. I think certainly from the folks I’ve talked to on the show, it’s a trade off.
Chanel James: Right.
Maurice Cherry: You certainly gain some things, but you lose other things. I remember I was talking to Douglas Turner, I think he was episode 107 or something like that. He lived in Iceland for a number of years and he was talking about how the Icelandic society is very tribal in that, everyone kind of knows each other and he’s the only black man in Iceland.[laughter]
Maurice Cherry: And saying how for him it didn’t feel like racism really existed there.
Chanel James: Right.
Maurice Cherry: Which I thought was interesting considering he’d be one of the few people of color there. And then coming back to the States and seeing how it was different. Another interview with Qa’id Jacobs, who’s a UX designer in Amsterdam. Originally from, I think he’s from Jersey, New York. He’s originally from the Northeast U.S. But him and his family are in Amsterdam and we actually had a two part episode. The first part was, Hey, you know, you’re out there in Amsterdam, what’s it like working out there, et cetera. And then we recorded the second episode right after Trump was elected and it was a pretty heavy episode. I think it’s episode 179, but I remember cause it came right at the end of 2016. We had this conversation like, well do you think you would come back?
Maurice Cherry: Now given the state of how things are, what would that look like? And I know, now I’ve been talking to several people who are really seriously considering moving abroad; moving to another country; going to Ghana or going to.
Maurice Cherry: Isaac Hayes, who I interviewed a couple of months ago, is in China right now with his family. A friend of mine right now is currently going through Thailand.
Chanel James: Wow.
Maurice Cherry: Just coworking. He says it’s like a black coworking space in Thailand in Chiang Mai.
Chanel James: What? Where? How?
Maurice Cherry: I have a passport. [laughter] We can go. We need to make this happen. If we need to start doing Black Design ex-pac trips, we can make that happen. I think about that a lot as just the industry is changing, the wages that the world is changing and what does that mean for like our safety and our sanctity. Not just as practitioners of this craft in this industry, but just as people in this world. It’s heavy stuff. It’s a lot of heavy stuff cause especially when I think about what is it that is stopping black designers from becoming leaders of design? Clearly we’re out there and we’ve had a couple of them on the show, but it’s very few and far in between. Even even.
Chanel James: Oh no, I’m sorry, go ahead. No, go, keep going.
Maurice Cherry: I was going to say even some of the projects that I’ve done, most recently, the literary anthology I did, Recognize, is about trying to set up what does the next generation look like because yeah, we have the big names now. And I’m not singling them out, but we have Debbie Millman, we have Stefan Seigmaster, Polisher. We have these big names, but they’re not going to live forever.
Chanel James: No that’s.
Maurice Cherry: What does the next generation of design criticism, design thought, design leadership look like for this industry? Cause a lot of people from around the world do take their cues from what’s happening in design in America. So if we’re putting forth this monolithic, monocultural view of what design is based on the people that are practicing it, then where does that leave us?
Chanel James: Right. And I think on that note, with who the next leaders are for me, my focus used to be so much on who’s already there. Right. I’m looking at, for me, some of my idols, Diane Holton, who I used to fangirl over all the time and now I work alongside her. We’re both on the same programming team for AIGA. When I was looking at these large names in my eyes, I’m like, well they’re already there. That’s when I switched my thought process a little bit to who’s alongside me. Who’s with me right now? Who’s doing amazing work? Who’s doing amazing things, who’s probably going to be the next big thing in terms of our industry. I don’t know if like you listen to this quote that Issa Ray, who I also stan. She said instead of networking up, network across.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Chanel James: We just had our DC design week a few weeks ago and I was able to create a program; an event around my friend Bria Taylor. She does these amazing, she started out as a designer.
Chanel James: She’s still a designer, but she designs these kick ass looking cakes. It’s called Killer Cakes and she is so talented to the point where I’m like you need to have your own show on TLC or something or wherever they’re doing the baking things nowadays. [laughter] I was using my leadership role at AIG. On our chapter board, I was able to create a program that sold out, oversold out actually around her speaking about her process, her story, what she does, and then selling had her make a little bit extra money by doing a pop up shop with brownies and cakes and things like that. And I was like, that’s what I feel like we mid level designers should be trying to do. Instead of step on each other.
Chanel James: Use each other to build each other up. Refer each other for projects that we can’t take instead of just letting the project fall through. Telling each other about, Hey Bria is having an event happening on Saturday, or Simone’s having an event tomorrow. Building a network within ourselves and then that eventually the eyes are going to start turning on us and it’s like, Oh these, this is what this person is doing in the industry. And then that’s when the shift happens. Some people still can have a competitive mindset of, Oh, I’m not going to tell you about this opportunity. Oh, I’m not going to tell you about this stuff. And then it can be even harder than what it already is. I had a friend recently tell me about the Add Color Conference.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. They’re like a conference and an award show.
Chanel James: Right. But there’s also an opportunity some type of fellowship opportunity. I don’t know, I’m going to say fellowship, but it’s a really cool opportunity for young people who are creatives to, or in the marketing. Some people worked at Facebook and things like that, who get mentored for a week gets to take these classes, gets to take back these it’s like workshopping and things like that. And then they get sponsored to go to the award show and meet some of the leaders in that industry and things like that. My friend could’ve kept it a secret and be like, Oh, I’m going to apply when that time comes. But she instead shared that information with me and was like, yeah, you should also do. I see you also in this space able to do that. And I think that type of mindset is important for where we are in our careers right now because it’s the only way that we’ll be seen.
Maurice Cherry: No, I agree. I think so there’s two examples when you talk about that networking across. One is this sort of, and sorry, I don’t know if anyone has written about this. This may be a free idea if there are any journalists that are listening, but over the past five years there’s been this emergence of are you familiar with the Brack Pack? Does that name sound familiar?
Chanel James: No, not at all.
Maurice Cherry: So the Brack Pack was a group of actors in the eighties and nineties that all ended up starring in the same similar types of movies as Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy, Patrick Dempsey, Rob Lowe, some folks like this. They all were friends, but then they also were in all these movies together and stuff like that. The name sort of comes from the Rat Pack, which were a group of musicians in the 50s and 60s. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Dean Martin, couple of other folks.
Maurice Cherry: But now I feel like there was this emergence of a black path in a way. Where it’s like Issa Ray, who you mentioned earlier. Melina Mitsui SKUs, Quinta Brunson. I’m thinking of people that have started on the web and have moved up into larger areas of media and they all work.
Chanel James: Together.
Maurice Cherry: With and across each other together in a really interesting way because you see them in each other’s projects and you’re like, okay, they’re working together. That sort of thing. I also see that honestly in the podcasting world too. Are you familiar with The Read?
Chanel James: Yes, absolutely. Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: So The Read, there’s a number of shows that are in the same orbit of The Read, but they’re all friends. There’s The Friend Zone with Hey Fran, Hey and Dustin and Asante. There’s Getting Grown with Jane and Kia. There’s Jade and XD, and they all are friends, but they all have their own separate shows and platforms. But they all cross pollinate [chuckle] with each other. And I’m like, that is so dope. I would love to see what a black sort of design collective of some sort will look like if we were doing that. [inaudible 00:48:34] What could we accomplish and put out in the world with that sort of thing?
Chanel James: Right. I talk about that all the time with some of my friends. I have a friend in New York, Tavis Northam, who is a designer, director, photographer, and we are always collaborating on projects and then he came out with this indie short called Bakari about this runaway slave. And I created the poster for it. He’s always referring me all the time. I’m referring him. Same with, Oh man, it’s so funny. I can’t believe I’m printing your name, but some of my friends who actually went to Black and Design, I’m the same way with them and I think, that that emergence is already kind of happening. When you look on certain channels on Instagram, certain things popping up. People are creating a lot. There’s a lot of things like Well Read Black Girl. I don’t know if that
Maurice Cherry: Oh yeah, yeah, I’m familiar with that.
Chanel James: Things like that; platforms like that that are black creatives also on Instagram. Things that you can hashtag and tag. It’s a feed that you can kind of scroll through that is getting larger and larger by the month where you’re seeing people support each other. I gained a lot of my followers I think by my different hat. I always hashtag in on my art on Instagram and then I get people messaging me, deeming me, and all of a sudden I have a whole network of new friends who are enjoying the same things like type arts and things like that as I am. So yeah, I think that’s cool and it’s really important.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I would really like to see more of that; working together, collaborating on projects and things like that. I mean I even try to help out where I can. Certainly, for people who I’ve had on the show. If there is something they’re interested in, I try to make those connections. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.
Chanel James: To be honest I’m not afraid. For a long time I would write notes from the PI. The different episodes that really inspired me and I would message, I would go on in LinkedIn or wherever they said at the end of the show to talk to them. I would message and be like, Hey, my name is Chanel. You really inspired me with this thing that you said. Just wanted to let you know that effected me. One girl who you interviewed, I think she was from Boston. Her name started with a D and I’m blanking on exactly what it was, but maybe last year I reached out to her on Instagram and we actually ended up becoming like, I’m not going to say friend friends, but like IgE friends and I would comment on her work and stuff like that. But she was, I think she was also my age. So I was super excited to hear her story and hear her process and hear how what she was able to do after school.
Maurice Cherry: In Boston? I’m trying to think who that is.
Chanel James: Okay. Boston. Maybe Connecticut? She [inaudible] but I don’t think she went to [inaudible].
Maurice Cherry: Oh! Daniqua Rambert her name.
Chanel James: Deniqua. Yes.
Maurice Cherry: She goes by Willow now, but yeah.
Chanel James: Oh Okay. She definitely was a big inspiration to me and I think I caught her off guard when I messaged her. [laughter] I was like, hey girl. [laughter] I’m a fan! She was probably like, who is this girl? I mean, she seemed cool with it. I was cool with it. I know. [laughter].
Maurice Cherry: Nice. Well when you look at, I mean we’re coming up at not just the end of a year, but the end of a decade right now. What do you see yourself doing in the next five years? Like it’s 2025 what is Chanel James working on?
Chanel James: Wow. Okay. So I definitely wrote out my five year plan.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. [laughter].
Chanel James: This was actually on my five year plan. So Pat on the back for me for making a revision path. [laughter] I’d say I don’t ever say where I am because I don’t like jinxing it. I say how I feel and what I’m doing for other people. So I’m financially able to support myself and my family. Me and my parents. [chuckle] And I am continuing to create spaces for specifically black and brown youth to enter specifically the design realm; a creative space to encourage them to be creative and educating them on what design is and looks like. I think that’s my biggest hope for myself on these next couple of years. Especially entering the new decade is to introduce design as a possibility to more people; young people of color and older people of color. Because you can always switch careers and just create spaces where they able to be there, their fullest self.
Maurice Cherry: Well just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and everything online?
Chanel James: So I am on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn and not Facebook. LinkedIn. You can find me on Instagram at Chanel Niari, C H A N E L N Y R E and on Twitter at Chanel_Niari and there’s also my website, chaneljames.com.
Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well Chanel James, I want to thank you for coming on the show and not just sharing your story, but also really for first of all, really illuminating conversation. I love being able to really talk and go into these sorts of issues around identity, and the industry, and motivation, and all that sort of stuff and I hope that others that listen to it will get inspired too. I feel like there’s a lot of folks that are in the middle, but the thing is the middle is very vast as we sort of discussed. It can be a few years in to a decade or more. There’s a big gap there where a lot of us are in the middle of it, as you put it earlier and I’m just really glad to be able to talk about these things with you. Glad you’re able to mark this off your five year plan. But this was really, really great. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Chanel James: Yeah, no, thanks for having me. And I encourage anyone to, if you felt inspired by this, to reach out. I’m always excited to chat and network with people. Let’s make this, what did you call it? Black Pack. [laughter] Let’s make it happen. Let’s make it real. So thanks so much for Maurice, for having me on the show.
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