Xalavier Nelson, Jr.

In the early 90s, there was this show on ABC called Phenom about a tennis prodigy. If Hollywood were to reboot that for the digital age, Xalavier Nelson Jr. would no doubt be the star of the show. His body of work rivals those of people in the gaming industry for decades!

We kicked off our conversation talking about his studio, Strange Scaffold, and he spoke about several of the games he’s either worked on or created, including An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs and the popular 90s Internet nostalgia title Hypnospace Outlaw. Xalavier also talked about his newest game, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, and he shared how his work as a pre-teen game journalist helped him become a narrative designer. Xalavier’s prudent vision for finding better, faster, cheaper and healthier ways to make video games is so important, and I think that if he’s making waves like this now, just imagine what he’ll do in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Hello. I’m Xalavier Nelson Jr., I’m a studio director at Strange Scaffold, a frequent writer, narrative designer, collaborator, working on dozens of things. I’ve worked on over 60 games in the past five years. And now my current mission is not just finding new and exciting ways to collaborate with people at my own studio and at the studios and projects of others, but also finding ways to advocate for making games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier than they are currently assumed to be made.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2021 been for you? Have you learned anything about yourself over the past year?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think one of the primary things I learned over the past year is just how much I cared about production. I do love telling stories. I do love of putting things into a video game. I love creative content production. Writing a killer page or scene is a thrilling experience, but when I look at the things that consistently get me out of bed in the morning, that make me passionate about waking up and getting to work and collaborating with other people, it’s getting into the nitty gritty of how something comes together.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The scope of a project, defining, reducing, and defining that vision of a project and how it’s accomplished in very calculated ways. The exercise of finding new and interesting formats and arrangements for artists coming together to build things together, that makes me feel alive. And so exploring those paths myself, sharing what I find along the way, and as much as I can, opening those doors for others is something that I’ve discovered I love. Now my mission is finding ways to do that again and again and again, as consistently and healthily as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you thought about what you want to accomplish for this year coming up for 2022?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the big thing I want to accomplish is, we’ve talked about this in a few forums thus far, but Strange Scaffold is moving into publishing and to have at least one of our published signed projects come out. And the exact thing that the developer wanted to bring into being hopefully substantially de-risked and shipped at a scope and form that made the project better while also making it something that they could accomplish without destroying themselves in the process. That’s something I’m really excited to do.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
If we establish ourselves by the end of 2022, as having a perspective that allows us to not just develop intriguing things in unexpectedly small or efficient packages, but provide those resources and that perspective to others on a consistent scale and timeline, I’ll be very happy. And it’s by all indications that were well on our way to already accomplishing those goals.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. Congratulations on that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk more about your studio, Strange Scaffold. First, I want to know how you came up with the name, but like, I just want to hear more about how you started it, how it’s going, things like that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I started Strange Scaffold primarily as an engine for exploring what happens when your explicit goal for a studio is not to build a dream project, but instead to bring as many things into the world as possible in a healthy, consistent and efficient manner. So exploring how, defining the structure of your game ahead of time and considering that to be set in stone and improvising within those lines and constraints that you’ve set, essentially putting a strange scaffold in place. And then making an interesting thing in between that foundation, that was the starting point.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And it pretty quickly evolved from bringing that perspective to the projects of my clients, to bringing that into projects that I originated and directed, and now sharing those resources that we built to make games in that very specific way with other developers who also want to make incredible things, but not ruin their lives in the process. Because we have so many examples of the desire or dream of what a thing could be running someone into the ground as they pursue a path towards it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I feel like game creators and really creative professionals of all forms deserve the right to pursue and contain the same joy in their working processes that they seek to deliver to their player, users and audiences on the other side of that creative process.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I’m looking here at the Strange Scaffold website. I see you’ve got three games that are showing here.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
[crosstalk 00:08:31] finished by the by.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. I see you’ve got El Paso Elsewhere, you have An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. I think I heard about that also on Kotaku. And then Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. Those are some pretty interesting names for titles. And I like that each one of them is very different. You’re definitely trying to, I guess, tell different stories with each of these games, it looks like.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah, the idea is, again, nothing that we bring in into the world will be perfect. We are flawed human beings doing the best we can to bring encapsulations of our souls into being, that process is going to get a little messy. So coming from the starting point of none of these things is going to be perfect, but how can they be interesting? How can they be built in a way that is itself joyful? And how can they deliver and experience you couldn’t get anywhere else, is something that we want to explore in as many ways as possible.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
So sometimes that takes the form of an inherently joyful universe, a first person open world comedy adventure game like An Airport For Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. Sometimes it’s a sci-fi body horror market tycoon like a Space Warlord, which at the time of this publication will have come out pretty recently on Xbox Game Pass and Steam. There’s a lot of ideas pinging around our heads and finding the shortest point from A to B to express those things and move on to the next project that allows us to deliver the next piece of our souls is my priority.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, the first time that I heard about your work was through a game that currently out. I played it on the Switch called Hypnospace Outlaw. And that is such a unique… I’ll put it like this, the Switch often has very unique games. That’s one reason why I really like the Switch over say PlayStation or Xbox. But Hypnospace Outlaw really for me, just hit that sweet spots for early internet nostalgia, like the late ’90s, early 2000s Web 1.0 aesthetic, just like, “Oh, I loved it. Love it so much.” How did you get involved with that game

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
As a teenager actually. I met Jay, as in Jay Thole, the creative director of the game when I was a teenager playing an early version of one of his previous games. Dropsy. Dropsy is a game about a misunderstood, horrific-looking clown who wants nothing more than to bring joy and love into the lives of the people he meets, no matter how much they despise and/or fear his initial appearance. And playing that game, delivering feedback that he took into consideration, and I saw coming to being in the next versions.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And coming to understand how myself and Jay Thole are both Christians. I’ve been raised around a lot of Christian media, which tends to have mixed results, and finding something that was such a perfect encapsulation of what is intended to be the spirit of the faith, sacrifice and deep unconditional transformative love. And how that could be conveyed in a game about something else entirely different, when all I’ve been raised around was for the most part art, where the only thing that justified its existence was that it had a Christian label or would uphold dogma.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
That changed my life, changed my perspective, had a huge impact on me. And we stayed in touch, continued to bounce off each other creatively. And when he revealed Hypnospace Outlaw and continued to go down the path of developing it, eventually he was kind enough to bring me aboard and I got to directly collaborate with him and the rest of the team as a narrative director to serve a double purpose. The first being, writing a whole lot of stuff and doing a lot of narrative design to convey the themes and stories that they wanted to tell in that world.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
But also how to structure those stories in the game flow and progression such that it delivered those themes and made a game of infinite scope. Because when you’re simulating the internet, you can just keep going forever, finding a way of taking existing material and material yet to be created in creating a flow that made it to where we could make all of these things within a human lifetime, in a way that was faster, cheaper, healthier, and more efficient than we originally considered in my it even be possible to do so. We ended up pulling it off.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It got rave reviews, it got nominated for a lot of awards. I’m still friends with the team and we still talk about potential collaborations in the future. So as much as you can judge a collaboration be successful, I certainly am happy with what happened coming out the other side of that.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you unpacked a bit about what narrative design is, because that’s what I was about to ask. But as you put it, it’s not just, “Oh, we’re writing the dialogue,” but you’re also looking at how that fits into the overall structure. So it’s like writing and almost producing and directing all wrapped up in the one, it sounds like.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It depends on the role, when you’re a narrative lead, it certainly gets more into the structure and vision of the overall project as well as potentially managing elements to accomplish that. But narrative design, being the practice of looking at all aspects of a games experience to tell a story. And then collaborating with people to bring that into being as opposed to a writer, which in many teams can also hold narrative design duties, but their primary job is to write dialogue, write things that will be depicted as text on the screen.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It’s a big part of the ambiguity here, because there is a lot of overlap, but there’s very distinct ways in which if you have a killer writer or a out of this world narrative designer, and you put them in a position to focus on their particular intersection, it can genuinely transform the way in which a game comes to life.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, the game that you’ve been working on that just came out recently, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. I love have to hear the inspiration behind that. Just from the title alone, it sounds a lot to digest at once perhaps. No pun intended.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The pun is very much appreciated though. The inspiration point, it’s twofold and there’s a lot of different rabbit holes that can be taken. But at its basis for warm, I was sitting in a doctor’s office, a man not wearing doctor’s clothes walked in, closed the door behind him and said, “Well, I’d like to see my insides.” And in that moment I had one of two decisions. The first was, do I run and get out of here and start screaming? Or two, do I keep going along these lines because whatever happens, I’m going to get an interesting story out of it?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I ended up going the story direction and I didn’t end up getting murdered. Turns out this was a nurse practitioner, someone who was in process of doing their rounds and I guess accomplishing their residency and they needed practice with ultrasound machine. So I got to watch my heartbeat, my lungs breathe in and out, my liver function, and being connected to the tangible reality of the invisible processes that made up my life. Every moment of every day was such a point of perspective, of being exposed to something bigger than yourself.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It sounds odd, but looking inward can be as perspective-broadening as looking outwards. So looking at this marvelous, complicated fleshy machine that we are and seeing it working had a big impact on my perspective. So, years later, that ends up culminating in a game about buying, selling, and trading the one thing everyone has and needs in a strange and evolving universe, organs. Because if there’s anything that is as large as space or the universal language of commerce, it is how much our equations of value or inherent value change as soon as you slap a dollar sign on something.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It can be a plush beanie baby, it can be a green piece of paper that says one on it, or it can be a human heart. But as soon as you assign and agree upon a shared belief and value, the world changes in some small and inexplicable way that is very hard to reverse once it happens. And exploring those implications has been a very fun and hopefully compelling… Has been a very fun process that I hope has resulted in the compelling result.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know why for some reason, when I first heard the name and then I saw it on Steam, and we’ll have a link to it down in the show notes so people can check it out. I saw that and the first thing I thought of was Spaceballs. Have you seen Spaceballs before?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I am familiar with Spaceballs, but I’ve never properly seen it.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That’s your homework, you have to see Spaceballs. I want to see what you think about it-

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Got it.

Maurice Cherry:
… after you watched it, but-

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Putting it on the list.

Maurice Cherry:
… I don’t know. I saw it and for some reason it got me to thinking about that movie for some reason, even though I’m sure the game is not… Spaceballs is clearly a parody of Star Wars, but your game is not a parody of anything, but for some reason my minds made that connection. I guess, because it’s space and it’s trading and all this sort of stuff. But what does your process look like when you’re creating a game? Because as you’re explaining both this game, as well as the games that are currently on the Strange Scaffold website.

Maurice Cherry:
It seems like you put a whole lot of thought into like the ethos and the soul of what the game is about and less about maybe the final product with graphics and all that sort of stuff.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Going into the process of how a game or any creative production comes into being is potentially very complicated, but I do try to think of any creative work, which I embark upon. I’ve worked in comics, I’ve worked in other mediums, sometimes in forms that I can’t talk about because of NDA. But I’ve worked in a lot of different mediums, communication styles, genres, and the thing that binds my approach to all of them together is a sense of what brings this to the finish line? And how does every piece of this experience reflect the perspective which birthed it?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
So the term I like to use for this idea is a prism. Ideally, at least when you’re working on tightly scoped projects, filtering every element of the game through a central prism or perspective. Following those logical conclusions, those leaps of perspective that are grounded because they remain in the same foundation. That drives everything in terms of how I at least approach the directing process. So in An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, the question emerged inside of the team at the beginning of the project, how do we handle currency?”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
How does the player get more money? How do they spend money? How is money and currency represented? And at that moment, I took a step back and I thought about it for a moment and I said, “There is no money in this game,” because the prism, the perspective of the game world is what does it look like for a truly utopian society run by stock photo dog? A universe that is inherently joyful and cares about you specifically. A game that’s playing with you as much as you’re playing with it. How does it communicate with its players?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
What are the elements of its world? What is the logic it runs upon? There’s a lot of interesting things you can do with currency or money in that world, but for me in that moment, the truest reflection of the world we wanted to create was one where dogs don’t care about money. A dog isn’t going to not give you a ticket to a FOBO just because you’re $1 short. If anything, they’re just going to give you the ticket or they’ll give you 50 tickets, just because you asked for it. Because they want to be helpful, because they want to see you happy.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Because your joyful existence is more important than exchange of goods and services. Following decision processes like that, of what is this world attempting to express and how is it communicated through every layer and element of the game has become an essential piece of any of my work whether I join as a director or as a contractor. So I really value at this point, the idea of cohesion and how much agency I’ve been allowed in my different assignments to bring that perspective to bear, because sometimes you don’t have that ability.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can run into a project or string of projects or a career of projects where not only are the products disjointed, but your ability to bring any unity to them is nearly absent. So there’s a mixture of skill and execution here, but I’m also just deeply thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity and specific scenarios in which my skill in this area has been allowed to shine.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting when you say that about the dogs not needing money, because I guess, yeah, that makes sense. But to have no currency, what about treats? I don’t know. I guess it’s your game, but I’m curious when you said that about the money, that does make sense now that you’ve pulled back and really explained it in that way. Because what are they going to spend it on? Is there also a supermarket run by dogs? How does that all work? So I get that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And the dogs would just give each other stuff at the supermarket if they have it [crosstalk 00:23:27]-

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
There’s different tree treatments you could do of this definitely. There is a world where there’s much harsher dogs. There are dogs who do demand things in the game. A lot of it is a straight up barter in the project as opposed to using an abstract concept like money. But all in all, yeah, at every single step we ask, “How would this work in a joyful universe? How would this work if dogs were deciding how this should function?” And in many cases, the solution was one that was more kind and more interesting than anything that existed in the real world.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And that caused a moment of reflection, at least for myself, whenever that occurred in the project for even how rarely we get the opportunity to imagine a better world. It can be very cathartic to create work that allows you the opportunities to explore that because Lord knows with the 24-hour news cycle, it can be difficult to bring yourself to that point when you’re scrolling through Instagram and it feels like the world is on fire.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that makes sense. So I want to switch it up here, but of course we’re hearing about you as a game developer, studio owner, narrative designer, but I want to know where this all originated from. So tell me more about like where you grew up.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I grew up all over the place. I was a military brat and that perspective in itself traveling so many different places seems so many different perspectives and cultures, has been in a massive contributor to me becoming who I am.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you talk about some of the places where you grew up?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah, I was in South Korea, I was in Italy, I was in Germany, I was all over the United States. And I’m now based in the Southwest, El Paso, Texas, so been a lot of places.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Now I guess while you’re of course traveling all about with your family because of being a military brat, did you get to experience just a lot of different design and tech and all that sort of stuff growing up?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. And to top it all off the fact that my dad was so interested in tech when I was growing up, had no doubt a massive impact. One of the earliest photos that exists of me is I am an extremely chubby baby sitting on my dad’s lap with a unplugged controller in my hand, wrapped attention towards a screen that isn’t in the frame while my dad is looking towards the exact same thing, because I thought in that moment that I was playing the game right with him. And in a sense I was, and now, I send him free video games. So, it all works out.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you know what game it was that your dad was playing?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
No, but I do remember certain games for my childhood in a lot of different contexts.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, like what are some of those games?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
One of the big ones was Morrowind.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
My dad played it on the original Xbox, the first console with a built-in memory. And he played hundreds of hours of that thing. And I would watch him be enthralled by this world and I, of course wanted to be like my dad. I was like, “Can I play? Can I play? Can I play?” He finally let me do it. And I was like, “Yes, I’m in the world of Morrow ind. I have read this manual from cover to cover dozens of times.”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I make a little bit of head way through the game, not really understanding it because it’s a more classic RPG and still having a good time with it, but not really understanding what I’m seeing. I save my game and I log off, a few hours later, I hear this on earthly moan. I walk into the front room and there’s my dad just staring at the screen, because I have overwritten his hundreds of RSAs with all the armor and all the weapons and [crosstalk 00:27:36]-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, no.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
… with almost half of his own everything with my misspelled main character in his underwear in the middle of the town square that you first get to. And he was like, “Did you do this?” And I was like, “I do what?” And he explained to me, “You deleted my save.” I was like, “Oh, oh no.” So he went back to it, and if anything, he went back to it harder than last time, it was like the Rocky training sequence, I was so proud of him. He put a blanket over his head, he put a blanket over the TV, he went for it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
He’d work, he’d come home, he’d get it in because he is a good dad. At some point he says, “Yes. Okay. You can play again.” And I start a new game and I get a little bit of weigh in, and I meet an elf who I really hate. He’s just a real son of a bitch. I close the game and I come back out, and it’s very rarely that I’ve seen my dad look defeated, just deflated as a human being nothing inside of the husk, that is his body. But he was sitting, he didn’t even, there was not even the sound or really a conversation, he says, “Was this gone?” And he just like Sisyphus was rolling the boulder up the hill again. And he-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, what, you saved over it again.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yes. I believe [crosstalk 00:29:03].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The third time he didn’t go for it as hard, I think he knew what was coming. Eventually, I asked him, “Hey, can I play the game?” And he is like, “Are you going to delete my save?” I was like, “No, I know how to do it this time. I’ve seen you save, I’ve been watching. I know how to do it.” I didn’t know how to do it. I deleted his save again. And when he stopped playing it in defeat, he’s never turned to that game ever since. I lost interest because it was cool because my dad was doing it. So lesson of the story here is, one, this is on him because he shouldn’t have kept letting me play it. And two, it’s even more on him because he never showed me how the save menu worked. You can tell a five-year-old how games saves work.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can explain the concept. I’ve thought through this for years now, there is a way five-year-old me could have been told about how save games worked. But that process was not undergone, and so consequences were followed and I do feel very bad about it. Every time I can’t log onto my Xbox because he is using the console profile in a different location to have access to my game pass. I’m doing my little bit to pay back the horrible price I incurred by destroying his dreams early on.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good son, that’s what a good son should do. That’s good to hear.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Although now I feel completely old now that you mentioned Morrowind. I was like, “Jesus.” I was in college when Morrow ind came out. I remember the game though, I probably didn’t get as far as you did though. When did I start playing? Not in 2002 certainly. Probably like in maybe ’05, I think I had an Xbox then. And I don’t know, I could never get out the first town. I kept getting killed by rats and I was like, “Eh, forget it.”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Because it had a D and D chance to hit. So you would hit it and you wouldn’t know, you’d have to look in the bottom left corner of the screen to be like, “You missed. You missed, it’s before.”

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. That’s not all my fault. So no, I.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
What we’re learning in this episode is that abdication and responsibility is good actually. It was my dad’s fault, it wasn’t your fault. It was Morrowind’s fault. We can always find someone to blame and that’s the real takeaway of today’s show.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And speaking of that, when it comes to games, you first got into, well, it sounds like you first got into the gaming industry as a games’ journalist as a 12-year-old. Is that right?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Pretended to be an adult.

Maurice Cherry:
You got to tell me how that happened.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
That’s the story in a nutshell, I was 12 years old. I found out that games journalists get games for free. I thought, “Oh wow, there it is. It’s the perfect job, free video games.” And I, as a very driven and precocious young man, pretended to be an adult and somehow I got away with it, and that started what has now been a… Oh, it’s been over a decade in the industry. And people I met back then I have since worked with, and I’m now colleagues with, and everyday I am thankful for not just that journey, but how clearly I can see the journey at every step in my life. I can see the impact that God has had in directing that path, whether it was good or bad, everything came together to produce the person I am now, and the perspective I have.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And so much of what I’m trying to do is without having to go through similar pain in part, any of the things that I’ve learned or discovered along the way to the people that I meet, if I manage to… I think it’s really important to put on your own air mask before you assist other passengers to use an airline reference or metaphor. But I also think none of this stuff really matters if it only goes to benefit me. If I just, even if I make hits, if these games come into the world and all they do is make money.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Money is important, it pays bills, it allows for agency and freedom and a quality of living that’s important and aspirational. But if I work with someone and they don’t come away having learned something, if I come away from working with someone and haven’t learned something, if I am not through my working processes, enabling the people around me to do their best work in the healthiest environment possible, it doesn’t matter what we’ve produced, because the purpose of making that thing has already been lost. What point is a perfect game, If you lose your soul along the way? Or if you never make another thing again.

Maurice Cherry:
I was curious to know, as you started out so early in this industry writing about it, reviewing games and such, did any of your colleagues know that you were that young?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
From what I understand, most didn’t and I don’t know what that says about either my skills for disguise or about my industry in terms of maturity level, but yeah, I somehow skated by.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think that your work as a journalist really helped you out as a narrative designer?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the work I did as a journalist helped me as a narrative designer in a few ways. The first is, I did all of my professional bad writing very early. I got all the bad words out, hopefully, so now I can write good stuff. But the second major thing that I think about in terms of journalism is, when I got older and really leaned into attempting to understand artistic intents and artistic processes and how and why things came to be, or when the creator intended something, why that didn’t emerge onto the screen. And the things that led to that course of events, that gave me an inherent empathy for the people I would come to work with as well as an ability to examine, what was something trying to communicate?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Like reverse engineering, what was something trying to communicate and how, and what pieces of an experience didn’t contribute to that process, led to me now attempting to bring those things to life myself in as cohesive a manner as possible. And I certainly won’t claim to get it right 100% at the time, but I can see how my history as a journalist coming to treasure these things and learning how to form these opinions and thoughts in such a way that I could share them with others and have them be disagreed with or agreed with or spark interesting discussion. It was an incredible training ground, and I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to come up through that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you ultimately want to accomplish as a game developer? It certainly sounds like, one, your faith factors a lot into your work, just in terms of how you approach the games and it sounds like even the mechanics and the whole ethos behind it, but then also you’ve mentioned earlier about wanting to provide just a more holistic game development experience. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, I’m using a bunch of different metaphors here, but what do you want to accomplish as a game developer? Is there like a bigger goal or message at play here?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The average game developer career lasts about three years. If there’s anything I accomplish in my lifetime as a commercial artist, as a creative professional, I want to see the average career length for someone working in games to be 20 years, 30 years just like Martin Scorsese, says he can be 70, 80 years old, still making interesting films. I want to see games professionals have the same ability to discover what their next story is going to be, what the stories they could deliver if their careers just lasted a little bit longer.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
If they had that ability to hit that next rung in the ladder, if they had that ability to fashion their craft that much more. The fact that we get the games of creative potency that we have now, given the relative lack of seniority, we have the ability to crew in, in the industry because our mentors, our elders are few and far between. I treasure and look forward to a future where we find out what breathtaking things can come into being when people have been making these for 30 years instead of three.

Maurice Cherry:
So overall, what are you excited about at the moment? Of course, you got a new game that just came out. Of course, congratulations to you on that, but what are you really the most excited about right now?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the thing is I’m most excited about are honestly the projects. This sounds corny, but it’s the projects made by my friends and colleagues and peers in the industry right now. Games is legitimately a more vibrant, diverse, creatively executed and broad communicator of artistic intent than it’s ever been. The golden age of games is happening right now. And it’s because of the people I often find myself having the ability to work with, no major end point to that other than, “Dang I’m thankful.” And wow, I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like 10, 20 years from now, especially if we can create working conditions to where the folks who are doing this amazing stuff now can continue to evolve their craft and be making things that far into the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Now for people that are listening to this that want to also get into developing games, what would you recommend to them? Any resources or any kind of course of action that they should take?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The most important thing I would recommend is make games or make anything really with the resources you have right now. If you don’t have money, find out what kind of game you can make with no money. It’s possible. That’s to where I started. If you are a fantastic artist, look at how a game can uniquely leverage your art. If you’re a musician, look at how within the resources you have, you can express things that no one else would think to do.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Or frankly could if only because they have more resources, we tend to forget how sometimes having more resources can be a limitation in itself because it forces the solutions you are finding to take pretty similar forms to things that are successful right now, or that have been done in the past, depending on the environment and which you’re working. So yeah, wherever you are, whatever you have, look for how you can be making something right now, because not only will that advance your portfolio, but whenever you bring something into the world, finish and release it, you learn something about yourself, you learn and what to do, you learn what to not to do, you learn something about who you are. I say you deserve to learn as fully as possible who you are, wouldn’t you?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, sure. Why not? What do you think you would’ve done if you hadn’t gone into game development? It sounds like you had such an early start. Was there anything else that you had in mind even?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
My very, very first job was doing landscaping for a cult. Do not recommend it.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, landscaping for a cult?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
We’re going to move on from that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
But after that, what I got into and what I loved was librarianship. Library science, the practice of serving customers in a community through libraries. I found opportunities with the resources I had and the place that I had in the communities that I was in to end up being a children’s librarian, not just one time, but multiple times. And I loved it. I love what libraries represents. I practically grew up in libraries. The role libraries have in society, the continuing relevance they have, as well as the impact you have on patrons in that environment.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Sorry, I’m getting a little bit emotional in this end, but I loved every single one of those kids who walked in through the door. I loved every single person who came in and didn’t know what they were looking for and came out with a book that ended up changing their lives. I loved every single one of those ridiculous ass romance novels that ended up being, this is a fun fact. Romance novels are the most checked out thing in a library, at least in my experience. Romance readers read voraciously, they’re constantly cycling through those books, same books going in and out, in and out. They’re the secret lifeblood of any library circulation.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And yeah, every single one of those books and the joy that they brought the people who read them. I loved those books and I loved every single one of those people, and I loved everything about that profession. If it didn’t require that master’s in library science to become a quote unquote proper librarian, I might have still even having started my career in games so early, I might have still done librarianship anyway, because if it’s not creative production, if it’s not making games or comics or something in linear media, like film or television. I’ll tell you what feels like home to me, it’s the walls of a library.

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Aside from in a library?

Maurice Cherry:
Sure. Why not? I’m sure there’re more games out down the horizon. I’m sure.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. In five years I see Strange Scaffold as a vibrant constellation of projects and people that are sustainable, healthy, and unexpectedly ambitious and well positioned to remain so for the foreseeable future. If I could do exactly what I’m doing now for the next five years and the rest of my life, I would be very happy indeed.

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can find my ridiculous Twitter at twitter.com/WritNelson. When I’m not posting puns, I am talking about our projects and how and why we bring them into the world. We have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangescaffold where you can get early access to our work, as well as do things like get pictures of your dog, into the games that we’re bringing out now and get custom content into some of the projects we’re still developing, such as Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And lastly, I work on a lot of games. So if you look on a PlayStation or an Xbox or a Nintendo platform or on Steam, running into something that I’m working on is, or have worked on, there’s a better chance than not that you’ll find it pretty quickly. So Strange Scaffold is the name for a lot of my collaborations, but for a step outside of that, like Skate Bird or Hypnospace Outlaw, if you like one thing we’re doing, there’s a vibrant thread of work to be followed.

Maurice Cherry:
Xalavier Nelson Jr, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, thank you for sharing your really unique look into game development and your very, I think honestly inspiring story about how you even just got involved into games. I love that you really are thinking about not just the stories that you want to tell throughout games, but also how you can make the industry better as a whole. I think that’s something that probably, I don’t know if many other game developers are doing that, but it seems like that’s something that you really tapped into and are trying to put forth. And the games that you’re creating are fun and unique, and I just want to see more of what you’re going to accomplish in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The kind of words mean an immense amount. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Alanna Flowers

2021 has been quite a year for us all, including this week’s guest Alanna Flowers. This year, she became a full-time creative and launched her own business, AGF Design Studio, and I had the chance to talk to her in the midst of her very busy holiday schedule.

Alanna gave me the rundown behind why she started her studio, how she plans to expand her services next year, and also gave some insight into her creative process. She also talked about growing up in NYC, the pros of art licensing, and how she builds her brand through social media.

Thank you all for listening to Revision Path this year — onward to 2022!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Alanna Flowers:
Hi, my name’s Alanna Flowers. I’m a lettering artist and illustrator, based in Brooklyn, New York.

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

Alanna Flowers:
Wow. This year has been unlike any other that I’ve had. Professionally and creatively it’s been really refreshing and really a big learning experience, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
In what ways?

Alanna Flowers:
Well, I’m a new freelancer. I started freelancing January 1st of this year, so-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Alanna Flowers:
I just jumped in feet first and, yeah. I’ve had so many rewarding experiences and I think, because I’m still so new, I’ve learned a lot along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, congratulations on striking out on your own like that.

Alanna Flowers:
Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
If you don’t mind me asking, what was the catalyst behind you deciding to do that?

Alanna Flowers:
I mean, everyone knows how things have been for the state of the world. So, the pandemic hits last year, and at that time I was a full-time in-house graphic designer/graphic design manager. I was reporting to work every day, working in downtown Manhattan. New York City’s a hotbed, but I reported to work. So, that was a challenge for me definitely. Then I guess as the whole year went on, I was really evaluating. I’m like, how can I start doing what I’m actually really passionate about? Because at that point I had already thought about maybe I want to strike out, even do something different, even if it wasn’t necessarily freelancing on my own. I knew that I just wanted something different. So, the pandemic was a humongous catalyst for reevaluating on all levels. So, yeah. I decided, I think midway through 2020, I’m just like, all right. I’m going to start saving this money that I’m making, and try to figure out something on my own.

Maurice Cherry:
And you did, and you struck out on your own.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Since this is coming up at the end of the year, do you have any early plans or resolutions for 2022?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Geez. I’ve been thinking really hard about next year actually, because now I have something to base things on, because everything was very, well, we’ll see how this goes. So, now I actually have quantifiable metrics to base things off of. So, I have big goals for next year. I want to expand my services definitely, and just continue working with great brands and clients.

Maurice Cherry:
So, let’s talk more about your studio, which is called AGF Design Studio. You started at the beginning of this year, how has business been, just establishing yourself?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s been really great. I’ve been very fortunate honestly, to have worked with all of the brands and people that I’ve gotten to work with this year. I’ve gotten to work with Adobe. My first client was American Greetings.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Alanna Flowers:
It’s like, how does that happen? I’ve had a very fortunate year and experience going out on my own. I think if we can keep that momentum, and it seems that we are so far, going into next year, I think that would be great.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Those are two big names just right off the bat for your first year.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So, what is the process like when you’re… Say you have a new project come in, or there’s a new design that you’re working on or something like, what does your creative process look like when you’re starting something new?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a really great question. It really definitely depends on what the client’s needs are, and they give you a creative brief and you review it, and I start thinking about what exactly is it that they’re asking me to letter? Because as a lettering artist, I’m usually illustrating some sort of quote or phrase, so I start thinking about stylistic treatments. Sometimes the origin of the quote is historical, so maybe it’s from an actual figure, so I do a little bit of research on that person. From there, I just follow the steps of my process, which are basically establishing some kind of hierarchy for the piece, so that it communicates in the best way possible to the intended audience.

Maurice Cherry:
It seems pretty straightforward then.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s not too complicated. I think where things start getting complicated is maybe how long the phrase is, and the composition, creating for social media. I’m usually given some sort of dimensions and constraints, so my compositional approach for something that’s supposed to be a square will be completely different than something that’s supposed to be a poster, for example. So, it just depends from project to project, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you currently working on any projects that you can talk about right now?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a good question. I can vaguely describe it, I guess. Yeah. I actually just started a project that I’m really excited about, and it’s actually going to allow me to incorporate lettering and a little bit of animation actually. It’s a marriage of my interest in filming and video and editing, with lettering and animation. I’m pretty excited about this one.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds pretty cool. Wow. So, you mentioned Adobe, you mentioned American Greetings. These are both very visually strong companies. American greetings with greeting cards, Adobe of course, with everything they do with the Adobe Suite and stuff. Are there specific types of clients that you’ve found that you work best with?

Alanna Flowers:
I’ve been fortunate to work with Adobe for a few projects this year, each one was so different. I think what I’ve seen from the clients that I’ve gotten to work with is, it’s always best when the vision is as clear as possible, I guess. And when we can just establish that we’re on the same page as much as possible. Things pretty much sail smoothly from there, as long as you can have a nice, clear line of communication with the client, I find that those project go over the smoothest and the best, from beginning to end.

Maurice Cherry:
So, even with those types of clients, I’ve got to imagine you’ve probably had a bunch of different people just try to hit you up. And with it being your first year, I’m probably guessing there’s been some clients that you’re like, “You know what? I don’t know if this is the best one,” because sometimes in your first year of business, you want to take on everything, or you try to take on as much as you can because it’s your first year and you want to try to do all the things. But have you found the flip side to that?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I’ve definitely had some interesting things come my way, and it would just meet me right in the middle of me working on something. And I’m just like, I could say yes and rush through this and it not be that great. Or I could just politely decline at the moment. It’s great they found me, they have my contact information and I have that contact from them, so those doors could more easily be reopened. Just like, “Hey. I was busy then, but my schedule’s open now.” But, yes. There’s definitely been a lot of temptation to say yes to everything, but thankfully, so far so good, and timing seems to have been on my side for most of the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to say, it sounds like it’s more of a timing thing than the actual work itself. I guess that’s pretty good. It’s good to know.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here because I really want to learn more about you and how you really came into all of this. Tell me about where you grew up.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I grew up in White Plains, New York, suburban kid all the way. Even though I’ve been Brooklyn now and I’ve been here for a few years, I definitely was not a city dweller all my life. So, yeah. I grew up in White Plains and that’s the only place I’ve known.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you exposed to a lot of design and art and stuff like that growing up?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I would definitely say, that as a kid, I was always very enthusiastic about the opportunities during class to color and do arts and crafts, and art class and stuff like that. And then, just from, I guess, a personal side, I always enjoyed musical theater, and my family would be able to go to Broadway shows every now and again for the holidays or something. So, just being exposed to even different forms of art, even if it’s not visual or digital art, just being exposed to all different kinds of artistic expressions was definitely a thread throughout my upbringing.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you went to the New York Institute of Technology, in Old Westbury. Can you tell me what your time was like there?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. My time there was so great. It was so interesting because I went there and I applied there even, on the recommendation of my old high school art teacher, Dr. A. So, he was an alumni of there, so he’s like, “Oh, apply there,” because that’s where he went. The art program there was very small because NYIT is actually more of an engineering school. So, the art program felt very intimate. Everyone who had some sort of art major, whether you were graphic design or motion design, or what have you, everyone knew each other. So, it felt like a very close knit little family and community, and I really enjoyed my time there.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like they really helped prepare you to go out there in the world and work as a designer?

Alanna Flowers:
In some respects, yes. Where you’re thinking about working for a company, or an agency, or working in-house. Yes, thinking about, okay. I could have a job after this in a creative field, but not necessarily in the thread of a, this is how it looks if you want to work for yourself idea. So, definitely preparation was there, but definitely in the traditional sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I haven’t found that there have been a lot of schools, maybe some of the art institutes, only because I know that they do take a lot of input in from people in the community, basically just about what they should be teaching. But, yeah. There’s not a lot of design focused schools I’ve seen that give you the tools for entrepreneurship. It is about pushing you into that… I don’t want to say pipeline, but pushing you into that realm of, are you going work for an agency? Or you could work for a design focused tech company, or something like that. It’s not really about, how can I take these tools and strike out on my own because a lot of that is… I mean, yes. It’s your technical skill, but there’s also just so much business stuff that you need to know to run your own business and deal with contracts, and all that sort of stuff.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Absolutely. Any kind of inkling of what it was like to be a freelancer came from the one off, maybe you have a semester with an adjunct professor who happens to also be a freelancer on the side, or something like that. I mean, they might show us some of their client work as examples and stuff like that. But definitely not completely focused, like you said, where it’s dedicated to teaching you the ins and outs of the business aspect that goes into freelancing.

Maurice Cherry:
Why do you think that is?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a great question. I feel like there’s more attention on the creator economy, and maybe it’s because now I’m in it directly, but I don’t recall it being talked about as much, even amongst me and my peers. The power that social media could have in transforming someone’s creative career in that trajectory, and being able to go off on your own. So, there might have just been an unknowing of the potential of these platforms. When I was going to school, Instagram was king, but now there’s so many competitors and so many different avenues that you can take. I don’t know. I think, as more people do it, the more shine it’ll get, and more people will talk about it.

Maurice Cherry:
What were those early years like after you graduated?

Alanna Flowers:
It’s pretty interesting actually. When I first graduated, I was very bright-eyed and was super excited to just jump into my field, but I actually had an opportunity fall through, that I wanted to take to be a designer. I was down on my luck a little bit, and I told my friend, I was like, “I just need income please,” anything. I ended up actually taking a job as a receptionist for a year right out of college, before I was able to secure my first graphic design job.

Maurice Cherry:
A receptionist, huh?

Alanna Flowers:
Mm-hmm (affirmative) I gave myself one year because I was just like… And I was a great receptionist.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Alanna Flowers:
I was very efficient and they’re just like, “Yeah. You’re great.” And I’m just like, and with all this stuff comes complacency and comfort, and you know this was just a very temporary thing so you need to move on. So, I had my exit strategy, and after that experience, I was able to get an associate design job in-house.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s something good to know, that you had a plan to get out of it, because sometimes you fall into those gigs where you’re doing the work as you have to do it, it keeps a roof over your head, it keeps food on the table, but it’s not fulfilling. It’s not what you really want to do. So, at least you had a plan to get out of that, and eventually start somewhere and really work on your design career.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s very interesting thinking about it now, but it’s just like, well, it’s part of my story. It is what it is. It’s not always red roses, but I’m grateful for the way things happened anyhow.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I noticed that you’ve been doing a lot with social media. You can go to your website and really tell that you’re very active on these other platforms like YouTube and Instagram and Pinterest. How has, I guess, exhibiting your work through those channels helped you out as an artist and an entrepreneur?

Alanna Flowers:
I think it has really challenged me to think about one, I guess how much one person is capable of. So, you’ll see a lot of people who do content creation full time, and you’re just scratching your head and just like, how are they doing all of this content? And just like, well, there’s a strategy behind everything, and a lot of content is actually strategically recycled and scheduled and all this stuff. So, once I was able to break that formula down in my head, I was able to be like, okay. I’m just going to put my work in multiple places, because you never know how someone will find you or come across you, and shooting as many shots as you can is always, I think, good. Especially if you’re entrepreneurial like me, or just trying to increase your chances of someone coming across your work. I think it’s always best to be in as many places as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
And also, by doing that work and showing off what it is that you’re doing, you’re attracting other people, which for your first year in business, I mean, that’s the best marketing that you can do, is to really show the work that you’re doing so other people can find out about it.

Alanna Flowers:
No, definitely. It’s definitely a whole process of show and tell. Your social media quickly becomes your portfolio, or your YouTube becomes a reel of the things that you can do. I’ve had so many people tell me, it’s like, “Oh, I watched some of your YouTube videos,” and that exhibited that you can speak about this topic, and you know about video editing. It’s interesting also the way that people will break down, “Oh, I’ve seen your content in this place, this place and this place,” and from that I can deduce relatively the kind of skills that you have, and the interests that you have. I think it’s just a great way to showcase everything that you can do.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that different social networks are better, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I would say so. I think it depends, because a lot of people have been saying, especially this year, that video content has really taken over platforms that were previously photo based, like Instagram. Where TikTok and Snapchat have… Well, mostly TikTok, but I guess Snapchat really did it first, where people are creating video content, and using that as a way of exhibiting a tutorial. It could be for anything. I use a lot of my platforms to use as tutorial based posting, so I think that’s a great way to engage with my community. It’s not always about, oh, this is the finished piece that I did. I like to share educational content, so I’ve found that anything that really has videos on it, which is everything, can really be used in that way, which I’ve tried to leverage a lot this year and has been pretty successful.

Alanna Flowers:
And then, other platforms like Twitter, I found are just great for building community and just getting out there, and just talking with people who are really like-minded, and in your same creative sphere. Maybe they don’t do lettering, but maybe they do type design and other kinds of illustrations. So, it’s really interesting to hit that follow button on someone and see them follow back, and be surprised maybe the people who are just willing to talk to you about the stuff that you guys already know that you’re interested in from your bio or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
So, even with all that, you’re on these different social networks, you’re doing these things. I see that you have a section on your site about art licensing. Talk to me about that, because that’s something that I haven’t really seen on a lot of really designers or illustrator sites, is about licensing.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. That’s definitely one of the areas that I knew that even if, quote unquote, I was maybe slow out the gate to get some clients, I could definitely build a licensing portfolio. I’m personally, I think I’ve collected probably almost every greeting card or holiday card, birthday card I’ve gotten since I was, I don’t know, 10 or something. I’ve just always loved the illustrations, and just the look of greeting cards. I’m just like, that’s art licensing. I could totally do that. I was able to actually get an art licensing course that I purchased at the top of the year, and it was really helpful for me getting some licensing clients. That’s just a little bit of recurring income that I get, which is nice, and it’s completely passive. Once I’ve done the designs, they just generate that little bit of income for me every month. So, it’s really nice.

Maurice Cherry:
So, have companies already reached out to you to license some of your work?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I actually did a little bit of… I think I’ve actually done probably all of the outreach maybe, I think, for all of the companies that I’m licensing with right now. The first one I did was a mobile app called Felt, and they actually do digital greeting cards. So, you have the app on your phone, you can design the greeting card, you can write it on your phone and they’ll mail the card out to whoever is in your address book. So, they have a hybrid approach, where it’s like you do the process digitally, but they’ll still mail the card. So, that was interesting. I don’t… Honestly, I think I just Google searched like crazy, just art licensing, seeing other companies that fellow lettering artists have licensing deals through, and just collecting contacts and doing the research, and just sending out cold email. Got a few good responses this year.

Maurice Cherry:
And is that… I mean, I would imagine that’s probably pretty steady income too, with licensing, because you’re doing along certain time terms, maybe monthly or annual or something like that?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Exactly. It just depends on whatever your contract agreement is, the terms of your royalty payments. But it’s cool because I can expand my portfolio, if I want to add 10 new cards to a collection, I can, and just have those go in circulation and see how they perform. And then you just get your little monthly commission reports, so you can see how your designs are performing, and maybe where you want to make some improvements, maybe add to different categories or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of your inspirations, either as an artist or as a business person? Who inspires you?

Alanna Flowers:
Oh, geez. Well, I definitely was inspired from the very beginning by Jessica Hische, because she was probably the first name that I heard attached to lettering. I think that happened when I was in a typography class that I took in college. My professor had shown her daily drop cap project as an example of lettering, and I was just like, “Lettering?” And then, from there I just fell down the rabbit hole, so to speak. I was pretty much hooked from there. Other than her, Martina Flor definitely, has all also been a huge inspiration. I actually took her freelancing course when I was first getting started this year, learning the ropes of freelance from one, a seasoned lettering artist, but also someone who’s been running their own lettering business for 10 plus years. It was a huge inspiration for me.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to someone out there that’s listening to this, and they want to follow in your footsteps? They want to maybe learn lettering design, or they’re looking to strike out on their own as an entrepreneur. I know those are two separate things, but what advice would you give to someone that’s listening, and they want to go in either or both of those routes?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Well, when I was first thinking about it, I think I was first listing all of the talents that I had, I guess, like these are all the ways that I could monetize the skills that I already have. I’m a trained graphic designer, I can do that. I taught workshops before, I can do that. Just listing out those skills and talents was, I think, the first thing, because I’m just like, okay. These could be my services hypothetically for freelancing. And then, I think it just from there went to following this passion that I’ve had for a long time. I think that first exposure to Jessica Hische’s work was probably 2013, 2014 or something like that. So, from there I just had lettering as a hobby and a creative outlet while I was sitting at my receptionist desk. I think being a graphic designer full-time made it harder for me to nurture that creative hunger, I think, for lettering.

Alanna Flowers:
I knew that what I wanted to buy myself was more time. So, from there I saved money. I’m just like, I’m completely new to freelancing. I never truly envisioned myself freelancing in my career. So, I was just like, I know one thing that I need is a little bit of a cushion financially. I definitely took a risk quitting my job, but I didn’t just do it without any logistical understanding of my expenses and stuff. And then, I think from there, it’s just really go with your gut. I did have the financial cushion, but I did not have a client history. I didn’t have referrals from other people that I could take with me in my little email address book or something.

Alanna Flowers:
I took a risk definitely in that aspect. But because I’ve been nurturing this skill and this hobby for so long, with the hopes of somehow making this my profession, I think a lot of the things that I’ve encountered were that whole luck, where it’s opportunity meets the preparation. So, yeah. If you want to do something, make sure that you’re already doing it in some capacity, even if it’s just on the side to begin with. As long as you’re feeding into that, whatever that thing is that you really want to be doing, that’s definitely positive as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like for you at this point in your career?

Alanna Flowers:
Wow. Right now, success looks like being able to sustain and continue from places of passion and genuine excitement and interest, and not from the place of, I’ve got to take this client on because I need to pay my rent this month. I think just continuing with that feeling of excitement and passion, I think, because even when you’re doing things that you’re really interested in, after a while you might get a little burned out. I’m hoping to not, to not reach that burnout point, and be able to be responsible with my time and with my emotional wellbeing. I just want to keep doing this and maintaining,

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project you’d love to do one day?

Alanna Flowers:
Oh, geez. I have many, and it’s great because some of them even happened this year. But I am definitely setting my sites out for large scale projects, like murals. I am definitely looking to get my lettering painted outside somewhere in New York City. I think that would be the coolest thing, and have people take pictures with my work outdoors. I think that’d be really awesome.

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

Alanna Flowers:
I appreciate the privilege that comes with being able to take a risk, like the one that I took, and in some ways I’m still taking. I really appreciate that. And I appreciate the luxury of time. I’ve bought myself a little bit of time with a little bit of the planning that I did before, I ended going freelance, but I’m abundantly grateful for those things.

Maurice Cherry:
So, given where you are now, where do you see yourself in the next five years? Is there certain work that you’d want to be doing at that point or anything like that?

Alanna Flowers:
This year has been a lot of seed planting. It’s like I have to start working from somewhere. So, I started my YouTube channel this year, started with zero subscribers just like everyone who starts anything. In five years it would just be nice to see these communities that I’ve started, investing and grow. I really love lettering and I love working with clients. It’s such a rewarding feeling, being able to help them. But it’s also really rewarding to help other people who are interested in lettering. So, that’s why I definitely knew that as a part of my freelancing that I wanted there to be some sort of educational aspect, with workshops or tutorials and stuff like that, like I do on YouTube. So, yeah. Just expanding my reach and having that allow me to reach back as well to others.

Maurice Cherry:
Reaching forward and reaching back, I like that. So, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you? Where can they see your work and everything online?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. You can find my work at agfdesignstudio.com, but you can find me on YouTube at AGF Design Studio. That’s my channel name, that’s also my name on Instagram. And then, also on Instagram and Twitter. I’m Alanna_ Flowers.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Alanna Flowers, I definitely want to thank you so much for coming on the show and really one, I think telling your story, but then two also, giving us a little bit of a peak behind the curtain of what it’s like to a new freelancer. There’s been all this talk this year specifically about the great resignation, and people leaving jobs and striking out on their own. It seems like you’ve really… I mean, well, one, you have struck out a lot on your own. But two, it seems like you’ve really hit a stride and you’re making great work. You’re promoting yourself out there on social media. I wish, when I started my studio, that I was half as prepared and put together as you are with how you’re doing everything. I think you’re doing a great job, and I’d love to see where your work goes in the future. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Alanna Flowers:
Thank you so much, Maurice, for having me.

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

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

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Janessa Robinson

Summer is over, y’all. As we head into a new season, it’s a perfect time to pause and reflect, gain some clarity, and reassure yourself about your purpose. That’s exactly what this week’s guest Janessa Robinson is doing, particularly now that she’s at the beginning of a new adventure — moving to Los Angeles!

Our conversation began with Janessa talking about the recent move, and she spoke a bit about her day job as a content creator. We also dived into the backstory behind her company Artistry Land, and Janessa discussed how she works as a creative with Asperger’s, and how she cleverly uses design thinking as a way to manifest success in her life. Big thanks to Steven Wakabayashi of QTBIPOC Design for the introduction!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Janessa Robinson:
I am Janessa Robinson and I’m an artist and an entertainer.

Maurice Cherry:
So how are things going for you right now? What’s on your mind?

Janessa Robinson:
Oh, well, things are going great. I just moved to Los Angeles a month ago, actually drove down here from San Francisco.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Janessa Robinson:
It was an interesting experience. That’s the first road trip that I’ve taken by myself before. It was amazing because as I pulled into Los Angeles, it really hit me that I live here, that I’m moving here as a resident. Each other time that I came to LA, it was to visit. I stayed with a cousin once who lived in east LA, she’s a screenwriter. Every time before that, it was like I came through LAX Airport on my way somewhere else. So I just wanted to stay. I’m very happy that I’m here. It’s a very significant change for me because I spent three years living in San Francisco. And ever since I was a small child, I’ve always wanted to live here, and not just live here, but be a leader in the community here to contribute something. I just saw that my life is here. So it’s an amazing experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It sounds like you’ve had a pretty transformative year then, especially with this move.

Janessa Robinson:
I would say COVID is interesting. There’s a lot of change for everyone. For me, I went from, oh gosh, spending four hours in traffic, just commuting between San Francisco and Santa Clara to staying at home. And me being like, okay, great. Well, now I can spend all the time I want on my art because we were essentially confined to our homes in the beginning. I decided that I would start dancing every day. I was recording myself and posting these videos on Instagram. I actually made a very intentional decision that I would turn my Instagram page into like a television channel. It’s like a show. It’s like an entertainment show. I called it Variety Nessa. [inaudible 00:06:08] dancing and rapping and singing and just shooting really interesting content in ways that would engage people since we were at home. I was like, “Hey, check this out.”

Janessa Robinson:
That led me into doing music actually. I was producing, writing, singing, taking singing and song arrangement lessons, piano lessons, mixing and mastering my own music. I used an algorithm actually to master my music. Yeah, it was really interesting. And sharing it on Bandcamp. My first project, I actually worked with a producing partner where he did the mixes and masters. So I just spent the last year growing tremendously, artistically, getting in FTs and graphic design, just blossoming, just honestly blossoming. It’s an amazing, amazing year.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re also breaking a bin into Hollywood too, right?

Janessa Robinson:
Yes. Yeah. I actually literally live in Hollywood. That’s my community.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Janessa Robinson:
That’s where my home is located, which is really cool. Yeah, I am training at two Hollywood acting studios right now. One is Shari Shaw Studio, which is physically located in Hollywood, although I haven’t gone there yet because of COVID. And then the other is Leslie Kahn & Co. Both of these studios are very special to me. The instructors there, my classmates, the energy and the way that we all invest into each other, it’s just very special to me. Then I’m very happy because for me, Hollywood, physically, and more metaphorically, the Hollywood community, which is spread out across the world. There’s Hollywood the location, and then there’s Hollywood the industry, which is just, it’s a bunch of us who are very, very fond of entertaining and see a lot of value in it.

Janessa Robinson:
For me, something that over the last year I was really reminded of is my family history in Hollywood. I have a great, great grandmother named Eva Wheatley Jones who danced with Josephine Baker. She’s one of the first “tan girls.” Meaning that she’s light-skin, brown, but not dark-skin brown, but at that time it was considered progress, I suppose.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I guess they all just call it colored back then, right?

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. Yeah, I guess so. I think that didn’t even come on mind. Yeah. She’s one of the first tan girls to dance with Josephine Baker. She is married to a comedian and he was a part of a comedy dance duo, same as Butter Beans. Then I have a great uncle, Arthur, who played in a jazz band for Al Capone at the Copacabana in Chicago. There’s just a lot of people in my family that have really contributed to make the Hollywood entertainment industry what it is today. The inclinations that I have for all of these different forms of art, I just love art, I just love design. For me, it’s about the process and the experience. Whatever the tools are, I’ll just use them to just make something magnificent. I don’t really care what the tools are. I want to do cool stuff.

Janessa Robinson:
It occurred to me when my mom was sharing all this information with me, that was shared with me in my childhood, but this is now, I’m in my adulthood, and now it resonates more to understand, oh, I see. These are the giftings that my family, that my ancestors, recent and much further back, that they’ve bestowed on me. So I feel very, very blessed and very grateful and appreciative to be in the position, to know that, to see that, and to activate on what it is that they have deposited into me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. It sounds like it’s literally in your blood to be an entertainer. You come from that lineage. That’s great.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. It is. It’s in my blood. That’s what my mom says. She goes, “This is who you are. This is in your DNA. These are your genes.” That’s what she tells me.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s talk about one of the things that you’re currently doing. You’re a content creator for a company called News Break. Talk to me about that.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. It’s interesting. So, News Break is a news publication that is available as a website, newsbreak.com, and as a downloadable mobile application. So people can go visit their App Stores or Google Play Store and download News Break. It is interesting because it solves a problem. It solves the problem of gathering local news over, gosh, I don’t know, the last, you could say 20, 30, 40 years. It depends on how far you want to go back. But we know that for some time, there’s been a trend of investment into local news dwindling. News Break prioritizes local news on the app and the website based on the geolocation of the user. It also pulls in national news. But the thing is that national news, it’s pretty repetitive. [crosstalk 00:11:37] the news wires. So it’s the same story over and over. It just has a slightly different, it depends if. It’s a news wire, it’s just going to be the exact same thing.

Janessa Robinson:
But in most cases, it might be a slightly different tone based on the writer’s style or it just has a different mass head that it’s under. But national news, now that we have Twitter and YouTube and all these things that help us communicate one story to billions of people instantaneously, it’s just pretty repetitive. So local news is pretty cool because it’s specific to what’s happening in your community, in your neighborhood. Like what’s going on. I first started writing for News Break just as I was leaving San Francisco. I was writing stories there, and then as I moved here, I switched to writing local stories about Los Angeles. Honestly, I like to report on really interesting people, local businesses. I love reporting on food. I’m a pescatarian and I’m allergic to dairy. So I like to go out and see, well, where are the best seafood tacos? Because I love seafood food tacos. Where can I get a really good salmon sandwich? Just write about that. Also, I like to eat those things.

Janessa Robinson:
I like to be in that moment and just allow my palette to be dazzled and then take all of that energy in and write about that so that I can recommend to people where to go. I’ll say that LA is LA. There’s no place like Los Angeles. Reporting here has been very interesting. I just did a story on a luxury experience service company called the [inaudible 00:13:27]. I hope that people do not, the French people do not criticize French accent, but I do speak a bit of French. I’m sure it’s mostly accurate, but yeah, I got to report on this luxury experience company and meet the owner who’s a very private person. So I’ll respect his privacy.

Janessa Robinson:
But it’s the fact that I’m talking about luxury experience company that we will, if I say, Hey, I wanna fly to Monaco for a private shopping trip tomorrow, they’ll put that together right now. They’ll have a driver come pick me up. They’ll have a private jet waiting for me. There’ll be food, snacks that are on the way, all these things. It’s just this amazing company that in comparison to my time in San Francisco, it’s not to say that that doesn’t exist there, it’s just maybe not as ingrained into the culture like in San Francisco. It’s more like, where’s the best vegan place to eat or what’s a really good mountain to climb, is what draws people there more so than LA, which is how fabulous can I live?

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds very LA, something like that.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, I think so.

Maurice Cherry:
LA was the last city that I visited before all this pandemic stuff. We did a live show there back in Jan… Well, it was January or February. It was February. Yeah, it was February of 2020. We did a live show down in Leimert Park. That was pretty good. I didn’t get to see a ton of LA. I just remember LA being so big. I stayed in Koreatown and the event that we did was in Leimert Park. Then I was in another part of town, not too far from Koreatown. Because I was also there for a work conference. People that were there were like, “Oh, you should go to the beach.” And they’re like, “Oh, but it’s going to take about an hour to get there.” I’m like, “Well, that doesn’t really sound like something I want to do if it’s going to take that long to get there.” It’s still in the city, I guess I didn’t realize the enormity of Los Angeles until I actually got there and was like, this place is huge, really spread out.

Janessa Robinson:
It is, it is very large, honestly. First of all, I hope that you come, that you return to LA and do another live show so that I can be on it. What I was going to say is that before I moved here, the last time I visited was just before the pandemic. I don’t know if it was around the same time that you were here, but it was just before the pandemic, where the Los Angeles Clippers flew me out here for an interview. I was interviewing for a job there and they flew me down from San Francisco. And oh my gosh, when I got to LAX, I had about, I think like maybe 45 minutes or an hour between landing and the time of my interview. I was like, oh, that’s plenty of time [inaudible 00:16:27]. I was like, oh my God, am I going to make it? What is going on?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Janessa Robinson:
It was just so stressful and I almost missed my flight on the way back. Because I was in those interviews all day and then I was like, I don’t think they know what time my flight [inaudible 00:16:47]. No one’s paying attention. So apparently I have to tell them, “Hey, I have to go catch this flight.” I almost missed it. When I was in the process of traveling back to San Francisco, I was like, wow. Yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a city that’s really large. I’m from Chicago. I lived in New York for a bit. Then I started to wonder, I was like, a city with eight million people? LA, do I want to do that? I don’t know. But then I do. I was like, I don’t care. I’ll deal with it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

Janessa Robinson:
So now it’s like, sure, it’ll take an hour to get to Santa Monica. That’s fine. I’ll just listen to some good music and chill in the car. It’s no big deal.

Maurice Cherry:
I was surprised by how much traffic there was. I live in Atlanta, which is notorious for traffic, but Los Angeles has Atlanta beat it hands down. The traffic that I would see, or that actually was stuck in on the one on one was hellish. It was ridiculous.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, it’s tough. I’ll say, I don’t have my only comparison points for being in traffic or me being a passenger because this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever driven regularly. This is the first car that I’ve ever owned. [inaudible 00:18:03]. I don’t know. When I was growing up, everyone drove me around for the most part. Even when I got a license, that was still the case. And then when I graduated high school, I went to undergrad. I studied at St. John’s University in New York, where very few people drove regularly around there.

Janessa Robinson:
Then by the time, I transferred and graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans, so by the time I did that, Uber was a thing. It was not yet an app, it’s text-based, but you could just text this number and a black car would pull up. I thought it was sketchy at first. I was like, [inaudible 00:18:47] kidnap me. Who’s in the car? But yeah, so then I just Ubered around for almost eight years. Now I own a car and I’m like, oh, traffic, this is what it’s like to drive in traffic. So yeah, it’s interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
I missed those early days of Uber when they just had the black cars. But for what I remember, I would take them in different cities, but the one thing that I remember is how much the drivers hated it. Because for them, they’re used to, I guess if you’re a black car driver, like a Lincolnton car or something like that, there’s a certain, I think, clientele that you’re used to in terms of decorum and all that stuff. Now they’re picking up drunk kids at the bar and driving them three blocks and then having to clean up vomit from the back seat.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember talking to, I did it for an article, this was back in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Jesus, maybe 10 years ago, I think. God, wow, [inaudible 00:19:48] services have been around that long. But I remember talking to some drivers and them being like, “Yeah, I hate it. I don’t know what this Uber thing is, but it’s some extra money. But I don’t like the fact that we have to pick up these folks and they give us attitude. And it’s just a different thing.” Now of course, ride sharing is a pretty, I think, common thing because now folks can even use their own cars. But I remember in the beginning though, just taking those black cars and it just felt so official. Like, oh, this is nice. I felt wealthy.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, it is. I would agree. I’m sure they’re used to a very specific persona for clientele. I remember when I was in D.C., I was out with some friends and we ordered, this is when Uber was an app, but I think we got Uber black, because it was so many of us and we’re like, “Let’s get a SUV or whatever.” I had this friend who was giving the Uber driver directions, which is already like, I don’t know why you’re doing this, he has a map, what are you doing? He tells the driver, he was like, “Yeah, bang a right right here.” And the driver drove straight through the intersection.

Maurice Cherry:
Whoa.

Janessa Robinson:
He doesn’t know what bang a right means. He was like, “I don’t know what that is.” He was like, “Bang a right, what is this?” And just kept going straight. I think also, he maybe didn’t like that this guy was leaning over the seat, giving him directions. But yeah, there was some clear maybe mismatch of energy there. So, those funny.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to talk to you about this term, content creator, because it’s certainly one that I think has popped up, I don’t know, maybe with over the past two years or so. We’ve been seeing this generalization of people that maybe before have done specialized stuff, like they’ve been writers or illustrators or whatever. Now it’s just this generic term, content creator. When I hear it, I feel like it’s mostly associated with video. But I’m curious, when you hear that phrase, content creator, what does that mean to you?

Janessa Robinson:
Honestly, I don’t know what… I don’t know. It could be in a lot of things. I have Asperger’s. One of the characteristics of that is a person might see a word or a phrase and their mind starts to run through the multiple meanings or ways that it could be used, the etymology, at least for me because I’m a linguist. Honestly for me, it’s like a placeholder, just some words, just some letters, some syllables that go there to describe the way that someone moves through the world. It’s used in a lot of ways, I agree. Like sometimes it’s used for writers, sometimes it’s used for people who run podcasts, sometimes it’s for video people. I think in the context of News Break, it’s [inaudible 00:22:45]. I think it’s because they use content creator because in a lot of cases, they’re looking for someone who’s more than a writer.

Janessa Robinson:
Being a writer is great. It’s an excellent skill. But in the digital space, when you’re developing articles, unless you have a full editorial staff where you have photographers and art directors and video producers that are their own individual team, then the writer, the journalist becomes the person who wears all those hats. So I’m that person. I do interview people. I develop sources and relationships, I interview them. I shoot photography, I edit photography, I shoot video, I edit video and I polish it all up and I drop there. So for me, I guess that’s what I associate with now, is if I’m a content creator, I’m someone who I create any kind of content.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s like the same thing where I’m like, yeah, I can make my own music from end to end. Whatever the content is, it’s something I can create. It’s [inaudible 00:23:48] the way that I see it, but I don’t know. I think it can be one, is that now going to be the expectation. Our specialties no longer going to be as prized being a really excellent writer. I think for some people that might be maybe all they want or maybe they only want to do photography. I don’t know. I feel good about it because I can do all those things and I like doing all those things, but what about someone who doesn’t want to do all those things? But if they have a very strong interest in one area, I hope there’s still space for those people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It sounds like it’s a new way of looking at Jack of all trades. That’s how, I guess, it used to be called, where you did a lot of different things. You just brought a lot of different skills to the table. I had a friend that, actually, he really explained it to me in a way that made sense. It’s like, he says, “Content these days is water and whatever the medium is or the platform is the container that content can fill.” So for example, let’s say, oh, so there’s this guy, he’s a chef. His name is chef John Kung. He was mostly doing stuff on TikTok, I think. But the concept is him cooking, which can be extrapolated to any number of different platforms because he’s using video.

Maurice Cherry:
So in that video format, yes, it could go on TikTok, but it could also go on Instagram. It could also go on YouTube, but you could see how these different platforms would have different audiences, different levels of engagement, et cetera. But someone could also take that and take the video out, and now you just have the audio and that could be a podcast. Or someone could transcribe that audio, and now that’s an article. Or someone can take that article and make images of it, and now it’s an infographic.

Maurice Cherry:
So content ends up being this, it’s the idea and then whatever that medium or platform is, is how it can trickle down and filter down. But yeah, that’s if you want to do all of that stuff. For example, I consider myself a podcaster, but I have had people call me a content creator because I can do video dah, dah, dah, dah. I mostly just do podcasting because that’s what form this particular idea is in. But yeah, Revision Path could be video and articles and all this stuff. I choose for it not to be, but it could be. I hear that term, content creator, and it’s like, I was bristle at it a little bit because I’m like, be specific. But then maybe that’s just me being older thinking it has to be in one of these finite categories or whatever.

Janessa Robinson:
That’s interesting. I think I like it because it is flexible and broad. For me, today I might want to write articles, tomorrow I might want to shoot a film. I don’t like figuring out the way to label myself in regards to the way that I contribute artistically. I don’t know. I end up with a lot of words. If you go to my website right on Janessarobinson.com or artistryland.space, there’s an area in both places to read my bio. And it says Janessa Robinson is a publish journalist, a writer, an actor, a photographer, a this, a that. There’s so many, what would I call this? I was like, I don’t know what to… I like when there’s something that’s flexible or broad enough. The word artist, I love it because you could be a performance artist, you could be a singer, you could be a poet.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s flexible enough in a way where someone who creates art at this point is not just a singer or not just a poet. If you’re an artist, it means that you have a particular artistic vision, artistic gaze and artistic process and you apply that to whatever medium. The medium at that point isn’t as relevant as it is to maybe whatever the message is that you want to communicate. The question that becomes, is this the best medium or is this the proper medium or the best way to reach people? What’s the goal? So with content creator, I like it because otherwise, it’s like, well, am I a writer, video producer or this? And it’s like, it becomes this long list. In Hollywood when someone is multi talented that way, we used to call it a triple threat. Like Jamie Foxx, he’ll sing, he’ll act, he’ll produce like comedy, whatever. You call this person a triple threat. Today, we call it a multi hyphenate because triple is not true.

Janessa Robinson:
At that point, it’s less about the specific activities, like what it is that someone’s doing and more about who they are and what they bring to whatever they touch. That’s how I identify. It’s like if you give me a camera, I’m going to start shooting things. If you give me a microphone, I’m going to start singing. It’s more this artistic energy. So with content creation, I feel very similar. Whereas my content creation might be NFTs and graphic design today. It might be videos and editing, cutting together audio the next day. I like that.

Janessa Robinson:
When I formed my company, Artistry Land, you have to fill out this business paperwork and articulate, well, what are the products of the services? One of the things that I put is digital and physical content. Then I put some examples. I said, including but not limited to, because it’s Artistry Land, it’s a land of art. It’s just going to be whatever I need it to be. I don’t know, I’m figuring that out every day. I love that exploration. I think that’s amazing. I get to learn a lot and connect with people in ways that are relevant and timely to the present.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about Artistry Land. This is a company that you started a few years ago. Tell me more about it. What are some of the projects and things that you’ve done through Artistry Land?

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. I was already operating as an entrepreneur since maybe 2014. I began freelance writing and I was gaining all of these opportunities to be published in really great sources and publications like Huffington Post and Salon and Ebony and WAC, [inaudible 00:30:21], The Crisis Magazine and The Guardian. I just thought that was a cool thing to do on the side. And then maybe two years ago, I think, it was occurring to me that I could formalize this business. I could formalize this business into something that grows beyond just freelance writing. My father is an entrepreneur. He’s been an entrepreneur for a long, long time. He actually is a former professional basketball player. He was drafted to the Utah Jazz and then he went to play in Europe for about eight years.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. Then when he came back, he did some sales stuff while he still had entrepreneurial things going on, and then I just grew up with watching him build businesses. So I thought to myself, well, you know what I really like about my dad’s entrepreneurship, that it allows him to live, to be fully human, to not be tied to someone else’s schedule, to make his own decisions about where he needs to be, and when particularly as it relates to him living his purpose. So with Artistry Land, I did these brainstorm exercises and I was like, well, what is my business? What does it do? Who does it serve? Before I came to a name, by the time I went through my research, I was like, okay, well, who’s Janessa? Janessa does love to write, but Janessa is so much more than that. Here I was dancing on Instagram and I was like, yeah.

Janessa Robinson:
At this point I had also had a short film. It’s a 30 second film featured in Time Magazine and Ava DuVernay’s Optimist issue, [inaudible 00:32:10] Optimist issue video project. I was like, I do love film. I studied cinema and I grew up in theater and I did do some acting classes in college. I was like, here I am, I want to do music. I was like, well, what is this company? So I just formalized it into Artistry Land as I developed my own artistry. I operate a blog at artistryland.space, where I do produce content. It’s mostly written, something I started doing. But this year, I think in the summer, was just highlighting artists because Artistry Land is really focused on the intersection of art and wellness. I see these things as so intrinsically tied together. I don’t know a single artist whose mental health or physical or otherwise holistic health isn’t impacted by their art or their ability to produce their art or the reception of it.

Janessa Robinson:
Every artist I know has some health related experience to practicing their art. And for many of us, I’ll speak for myself, art is healing. I love the idea of artists who are doing well and living well. And that’s exploring what that means, what it means to do well for yourself and to do good in the world and to live well. What are the practices that you do that cultivate that experience? I’ve begun interviewing artists who do good in the world and they live well. I ask them questions about what artistic projects are most meaningful to them, what art they practice?

Janessa Robinson:
I interviewed a friend of mine who’s an opera singer. She lives Japan. She’s a black woman. She’s an opera singer. It’s the year 2021 and she lives in Japan. She’s a rarity by definition. She talks about her time studying Buddhism, particularly while living in Japan. For just discussing how important it is for her to be a black woman, opera singer in this very old, traditional art form, I get to learn a lot. I think it’s really important that artists continue to learn from each other. There’s a lot of folks who talk about the need for artists to support each other, which I agree 100%. I just find that it is maybe more motivating if it’s clear in terms of what we’re learning from each other. If I’m learning something, I’m going to show up. If you just go, “Hey man, you should support me.” I’m going to be like, “I would like to, but this is like you’re asking me to hug a porcupine right now. You’re not being super endearing about this.” So if you go, Hey, this is what we’re learning together, then I’m very motivated to show up.

Janessa Robinson:
That’s my approach with Artistry Land, is to say, well, I want to learn from you. I hope that people, by reading your interview and being introduced to your art, by following you on Instagram or Twitter, or checking out your website, that they learn from you as well. I think that’s what’s really important. Something else that I’ve done with Artistry Land is I’m developing relationships with clients. I do design work under Artistry Land. Graphic design, brand strategy, brand design work. So I have some business to business clients. One of them is called, Where is My Meeting, which is a digital video production company. I think most recently they ran a press conference for Muriel Bowser in D.C. about COVID and vaccinations. But they also did, I partner with them on this, it’s like a virtual talent show in February, which feels like a really long time ago. I was like, is that last year? It was definitely [inaudible 00:36:07]. It is called Celebrate Black Voices Talent Show. Where is My Meeting did the video production for, and we gathered all of these black artists to spotlight. So there’s poetry and there’s rap.

Janessa Robinson:
I shot and edited my own music video and aired it in that talent show, which is really cool. Then I also, I’ve just been searching for organizations to partner with and invest in. One of them is, oh, you probably know this, it’s the Queer BiPAP Design.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. [inaudible 00:36:47].

Janessa Robinson:
Exactly. I saw what they’re doing in terms of promoting design, thinking, empowering queer BiPAP people with resources to be designers professionally. And I said, “Oh, I would love to contribute.” So I decided to donate after our call that I had with Steve to just learn more about who they’re serving, how they’re serving people, what the offerings are. And then another organization that I decided to donate to is one that I used to, it’s a theater that I used to train at when I was in Chicago, it was called the Chicago Beverly Arts Center.

Janessa Robinson:
When I was in high school at Morgan Park High School, I participated in an off-campus drama program at the Sphere. Because every Thursday, I was done with classes, maybe like, I think halfway through the day. Then I would go to the theater and we’d be in class all afternoon to the evening. It was me and a small group of students. The staff at the Beverly Arts Center trained us one theater. They took us into the theater onto the stage, which is not the first time I’d been on stage because I did do stage plays in elementary school. But they go, “This is downstage. This is upstage. This is what happens behind the curtains.” And then we went and we started to replays and then they had us write our own play, produce it. Do costume design, then we get to act in it.

Janessa Robinson:
It was the most amazing experience ever. I called the Beverly Arts Center a few weeks ago and I said, “Hey, do you still have this partnership with Morgan Park High School?” The artistic director at the time said, “Yeah, I actually need to write a grant for scholarships.” I said, “Okay.” So I donated some money for that purpose so that students there would have a scholarship to help cover their classes at the Beverly Arts Center, because it now dawns on me that someone did that for me at some point. I didn’t know. I just was there having fun, but I didn’t know that someone paid for it. Now something that I’m exploring with the Beverly Arts Center is as someone who has Asperger’s and has learned in my adult life in the last maybe year and a half, two years about it.

Janessa Robinson:
When I look back, I see how much growing up in theater camp and drama class really helped me understand social settings, social norms and expectations and experiences. Because when you’re reading a play, whether it’s a table reading or you’re performing, you could be off book, whatever, you have this concept of setting and characters and relationship and subtexts under the dialogue and action. It just broke down things to me that were somewhat confusing. So I thought, Hey, maybe I can talk to the Beverly Arts Center and see if they’re interested in doing something that focuses on empowering people on the autism spectrum through this particular medium, through theater and acting.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s something we’re having a conversation about. It’s something we’re exploring. I hope that we’re able to come up with something because I just know the impact of that on my life. People have all these conceptions about, if they’re aware of autism or Asperger’s to begin with, then they might have conceptions about the way that it presents itself or what the person looks like. Generally speaking, people seem to think that I don’t “look like someone with Asperger’s,” which is like, whatever. [crosstalk 00:40:32]

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, what does that mean?

Janessa Robinson:
I don’t know. I cringe, but then I’m like, I just listen. Thanks for sharing that. Thanks for being open and honest, but I agree. There’s not a look. And then the second thing they’ll say is, well, also I can’t tell. You don’t seem awkward or whatever. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s interesting. Because, one, I studied communication. I work in that field. So I was like, this is a very intentional set of choices of media. And two, I’ve spent my life in acting and theater and speech class and all these things that I guess at this point, people, they have no idea. But when I was a child, I remember being sent home a lot because I would go play with friends and then something would happen.

Janessa Robinson:
I don’t really know what it is, but they would send me home and be like, “I don’t know, sometimes she’s not getting along with the children. She won’t apologize.” And I’m like, “What would I be apologizing for?” I just didn’t understand. They’re like, “Are you sorry?” I’m like, “No.” And they’re like, “You’re supposed to say you’re sorry.” I was like, “Why would I say something I don’t mean?” It’s not that I don’t have a problem with remorse or regret. I’m a human. It’s just that whatever the social norm or expectation that I broke, I didn’t understand the concept of it. I was like, what is it that you’re expecting? Because you haven’t stated it directly to me. And if you haven’t expressed it verbally to me or in writing, that’s preferable. If you put it in writing, then I don’t know what’s going on. I was like, I just don’t…

Janessa Robinson:
Simple things like… A friend was mentioning to me the other day, he knew a child on the spectrum and he sat down as a child on the sofa and started talking to him and the kid was just locked gazed on the television and wouldn’t look my friend in the eye. And I was like, even that, I don’t get that. If you came over to sit down next to me and I’m watching television, you’re now disrupting me. I was like, [inaudible 00:42:38]. I don’t understand. So anyway, I like Artistry Land because it gets to explore these different aspects of art in the way that it shows up in people’s lives. It’s typically connected to someone’s early childhood experience or some transformative life change that they’ve made in their adulthood, but people that I talk to feel drawn to it.

Janessa Robinson:
I see Artistry Land as a publication by an artists for artists and also this house, this art house of content that I am developing as I grow my business. At some point I want to hire people. I’m just trying to figure out how to go about that. The whole thing about being a business owner with employees, that seems intimidating, but it’s really important because I want to employ artists. So I’m figuring it out along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I think LA certainly is going to be a great city for that. To me, I always see it as this destination location for people that are trying to strike out on their own. I think that’s just part of the, how am I going to say part of the American story of moving out west, manifest destiny, going into parts unknown and that sort of thing? But LA in particular, when it comes to creativity, it’s one of the few cities people really look to make a name for themselves. They’ll do that in LA or they’ll do it in New York. It’s one of those two places.

Janessa Robinson:
I agree, 100% agree. So funny you say that because what led me out here at this point in my life is a series of very mystical metaphysical experiences that drew me to say, I was working in policy in Washington, D.C. at the time, which is if you work in DC, you pretty much work in policy. What else are you going to do there? Yeah, I enjoyed the work in that it’s so impactful. I worked with an environmentalist organization, human rights organization. I met community leaders and organizers from Guatemala, from Brazil. People were literally fighting for their land rights, for their homes, for their access to food and water. Yet as an artist, I was not being fed. I don’t know what the bounds are of this podcast, but I’ll just mention that I did [shrooms 00:44:59].

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Janessa Robinson:
Okay. It was a very, very interesting experience that led me to being reconnected with these aspects of myself that weren’t being fed. So art and being an artist is one of those things. I had all of these moments in meditation, where I saw myself living in Los Angeles as an artist and doing so in a way that’s incredibly meaningful. Because I had built up all of this awareness about politics and the intersection of race, gender class. And these are all things that I was writing about. Yet we were looking at Hollywood at that time like, why is it not getting what’s going on in the world? Why does Hollywood not understand that some of these pictures are not going to do well or that some of these narratives are no longer acceptable?

Janessa Robinson:
Basically, it just came to me that I’m going to be moving here and I’ll be someone to contribute something of significance in the area of progress. It all happened very quickly. I found myself quitting my job. I was in a relationship, breaking up with my boyfriend, breaking my lease and just all in two weeks, everything changed. I actually traveled around the country for a bit at that time. I visited LA, where I stayed with my cousin in east LA and I spent time walking around. I visited Vegas and Arizona and I went to concerts and then I spent all my money and I had to go back to Chicago.

Janessa Robinson:
I had to go back to Chicago. I actually went to take care of my grandfather because he was in his late age at the time. And then I worked at my father’s basketball program called In the Paint Basketball. I had to go back to Chicago, not just because I ran out of money, because I had $70,000 in student loan debt at the time. So I needed a lot of money, and that’s where I rebuilt myself. I spent about eight hours in meditation per day just getting to understand what most fulfills me and allowing my subconscious to open itself up to my super conscious mind so that it became very clear to me about what to do and how to do it. So I went through the process of job seeking. I did some temp work for a little bit and I was interviewing.

Janessa Robinson:
Then I landed a job at Greater Good Studio in Logan Square on the north side of Chicago. It was a really amazing experience because when I got there, I was introduced to design thinking. I had been curious about it, heard about it, but when I got there and I learned about design thinking, I learned that there are some elements of it that I had already been using, which helped me find that job, like this idea of developing product features. So sometimes designers will write whatever product is or what it’s meant to do at the top of a page or they’ll use a board and use post-its or whatever. And then they’ll write down its features. Like what does the product do? How it does it feel like physically? What color is it? If it makes sounds, what are the sounds it makes, what do those sounds indicate? Where’s the product use?

Janessa Robinson:
You have to think about designing this. And it could be a physical product or it could be software, it could be artistic project. But I was stunned because I had already written down on a sheet of, excuse me. I had already written down on a sheet of paper, “Janessa’s ideal work environment and Janessa’s ideal job.” Then I wrote down all these characteristics, which as a writer, is the word that [inaudible 00:48:55]. Like these are the characteristics that make up this experience. As a designer, you go, these are the features. I wrote down that it has to have sunlight and people were really kind. I wanted something that had an industrial feel and it was open air and I needed it to be near places I could eat at. So when I showed up for my interview at Greater Good Studio, I was like, this open air office with exposed brick had these huge windows and across the street is this vegan place. I was like, “Oh my God, this is the place. This is so cool.”

Janessa Robinson:
I got to work with people that were very artistically and creatively inclined, as well as people that are very research driven. I worked on a project where our client was the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And the name of the project is called Raising Places. It’s basically a community design project where we went to communities across the United States, those six communities from the west coast to the east coast, and we taught them the process of design. So we had workshops and design sprints and research fronts. We just helped them map their community challenges. Some of the challenges that came up were street lighting and safety, safety for bikers on the streets, like people who are bicycling across the road and they want to feel that there’s enough space for them, food security.

Janessa Robinson:
I spent time on a native American reservation, it’s Crow Nation, reservation in Montana, and they have one grocery store on the reservation and it didn’t carry very many fresh foods and vegetables. And there are so many systemic reasons about what created those conditions. We could look at policy, we could look at legislation, we could look at the land grabs from native Americans, colonization overall. These were very, very heavy, serious conversations. Yet there was a lot of fun because the people are, they’re just families, they’re just people.

Janessa Robinson:
We got to get to know people and share a bit about ourselves and do as best as we can to empower them through that process. It was a very good experience. It was a lot of traveling, is what I’ll say. I did 18 trips in six months across the country. Some of those flights were from Jersey to LAX or [inaudible 00:51:35]. And it was like, when I got on the plane, I was eating dinner. When I got off the plane, I was like, should I eat breakfast? Because I don’t know if my food is digested. It was very confusing. It was just [inaudible 00:51:49], but it was an amazing experience. I hope that there is some lasting impact overall that really improves the conditions that people experience.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s a post that you had up on Artistry Land, where you wrote about using design thinking to help manifest. I’m curious, how has that practice helped you as a creative? Because I’m pretty sure our listeners might be able to learn about how they can do that themselves.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, it’s interesting. Some of that gets into the example I gave with Greater Good Studio, where I was as a writer, writing down characteristics. I was like, oh, Janessa really loves politics and photography and writing and she loves traveling. I was just writing down all of these lists of things about myself. I was doing that as a manifestation tool. So I meditate in a space that’s very open and honest and vulnerable. That might be physically, it could be anywhere. I just mostly sat on the bed or laid on my bed or sat on a yoga mat. But when I closed my eyes and began to breathe very intently, I did so with the intention of being vulnerable and being honest and being true to myself. Because previously living in Washington, D.C., I ended up there because I basically decided not to go to law school.

Janessa Robinson:
I’d spend all this time applying to law school again and got in to Loyola in Chicago, decided not to go and move to DC. Wasn’t really happy with my life there, and it’s because I wasn’t being honest with myself. I didn’t really want to go to law school either. I wasn’t being honest with myself. So I had to sit down and go, what do I want? And find this intersection of what do I want with what is very meaningful to contribute to the world? Because the thing about manifestation is sure, people can manifest objects or experiences. However, I believe that the point at least for me, is to do so in a way that is contributing to my purpose. So I’ve come here with a life assignment. So I would just visualize what is most meaningful to me. I have allowed these visions to pour into me.

Janessa Robinson:
Sometimes they’re very sharp and clear and sometimes it was like a little bit of light in a room full of darkness. And in any case, I’ll be come out of meditation and then go and write those things down on a sheet of paper. Then as I was job searching or apartment hunting or meeting strangers, I just found that the things that I have written down on a sheet of paper with a pen, it’s not like, no one can see this, just me, just me in the universe. Those things manifested before me. It just happened. So there’s a particular frequency that I was operating on that is beyond myself though. I think that’s really important to say that the intention for me was to move beyond my own ego. Because if it was just ego, it would have been like, I probably would have gone to law school because lawyers make a lot of money. [inaudible 00:55:01].

Maurice Cherry:
Pay up those student loans. Yeah.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, done. But that would have made me happy. I think the issue with that is that it not making me happy means that my contribution to the world wouldn’t have been from a place of love. So even as an attorney, I may have thought that I would have been helping people, but how much would I have been helping people if I wasn’t operating from a place of love and compassion because I wasn’t being loving and compassionate to myself? So finding some balance between, this makes Janessa happy and this is what Janessa contributes that also makes people happy and is compassionate. So it decreases their suffering. There has to be balance there. So yeah, the design studio, I became more trained in design and I’ve since worked in Silicon Valley and completed a product design bootcamp in addition to that. Now I use design thinking and manifestation. I don’t know, they’re the same thing to me at this point.

Janessa Robinson:
What I do is I’ll write at the top of a page the year, like 2021, and then I’ll sketch things that come to me. At one point I sketched a studio, and in the studio there’s a microphone and a camera and a whole desk set up. Then maybe nine months later, I realized that I was living in a place that I sketched on that book. And I didn’t even [inaudible 00:56:30]. I didn’t go out and say, oh, let me match this sketch. It was just, it happened. So I think that when it comes to design thinking, design thinking is about understanding a problem and you apply these phases of design thinking to the process. So there’s a point where you’re only focused on the problem. And for me, that was, well, I just blew my life up. I was like, I really need to understand what’s going on here.

Janessa Robinson:
So I spent months just focusing on that. It doesn’t have to be months, but you do have to focus on the problem so that you can be clear about what solutions you can develop. My solutions were, it’s pretty simple, what area of my life do I want to focus on? Personal life, family relationships, intimate relationships, career, home. I can find solutions in these three areas. And those solutions would be, well, what is that balance between Janessa’s happiness and increasing happiness in the world? Going to work in a design studio is one of those things. Because I knew I’d learn a lot of things that I could use in other aspects. Moving to Los Angeles, moving to California in general, it’s very sunny and there’s a lot of nature and I’m surrounded by people who also value those things.

Janessa Robinson:
Then also, it is important to me to have economic security and to develop wealth because in order to do the things that I see myself doing, where I see myself contributing, I have to have some resources. So for me to say, Hey, I want to donate to the Beverley Arts Center because that place helped make me who I am, I have to have money to do that. I can donate my time too, that’s a thing. But I was specifically wanted to donate money because that’s what got me the time to be there in the first place when I was in high school. Well, someone somewhere got a grant or developed a relationship with a funder, and that pulled me to the Beverly Arts Center. So for me, it is really important to look at the intention behind whatever is desired to manifest and to be very clear and honorable in that intention.

Janessa Robinson:
Once there’s clarity about that intention, I use design thinking as a way to align my physical reality with my metaphysical reality. I think sometimes with manifestation, I’ve learned that someone might be seeking to manifest something and they’ve created, say a vision board. Maybe they stop there. So they’ve gone to the metaphysical reality by using intention and finding things that represent these experiences or objects they desire. And in the physical world, they’ve gathered magazines or cut them out. But then they stopped. Where I think it’s important to look at is to say, well, how do you continue to align your present physical reality with the metaphysical? And metaphysically, all things exist simultaneously. But the way that we experience them in a physical reality is a bit different. We have this perception of time or limitation. Metaphysically, there are no limitations. Everything is infinite.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, sure. In infinity somewhere, there might be a version of you that has whatever you put on this vision board and this reality, what are you going to do? What steps are you going to take to actualize that? Now, design thinking can say, let’s research it. If you want to manifest a trip to Paris, well, let’s research that. What does it take to get to Paris? I would add, and this is my secret sauce in manifestation and design thinking, is who do I need to be? Who is that version of me that’s living in Paris? What am I doing there? Who am I meant to meet? Whose life am I meant to contribute to? What lessons do I bring back with me? Those are the things that make it very clear about what I meant to do. If I know that I’m living in Paris one day and I’m there as a filmmaker, and I’m telling the stories of people who otherwise might go unheard, then I know, okay, I need to be someone who is somewhere contributing to a community that needs me. Otherwise, I don’t become that person.

Janessa Robinson:
So, design thinking can say, okay, let’s research it and let’s ask questions about, well, if it could be very basic, what do you need to get to Paris? Passport, all these things. But what types of people visit Paris? What are the choices those people make? What are the problems they’re looking to solve or the solutions they bring if they’re business people? What person might be an expert there? How do I become that type of person? What version of myself is that? And it becomes very clear once you’re doing persona-based work, what the decisions are that someone’s making, but it’s important to be clear about the desired outcomes.

Janessa Robinson:
So is it just to live in Paris? Oh yeah, I would love to live in Paris. Is it to cultivate a sense of culture there so that I can translate? Because I do speak French and I want, personally, I’d like to increase my proficiency so that I could be a translator in a way that’s very diplomatic and I can particularly communicate amongst French-speaking countries and English-speaking countries across the world. I think it’s really important to think big and to be specific about what can I do for where I am right now? So if I want to be a translator, a diplomat who translates and deals with issues and builds alliances between French-speaking and English-speaking countries, well, where can I learn more about French-speaking countries? I can research that for my computer. It doesn’t stop me from doing that. That’s simple.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s something that I use in a way that at this point it’s very intertwined. I think I need to find my own name for this approach because design thinking is a very specific thing and manifestation can show up in a lot of different ways. There are folks who do have approaches and particular rituals and ceremonies that they use. A vision board is a great example. It’s just that it has a title and I don’t have a title for my process yet. So I’ll add that to my list of things to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I know you’re, it seems like throughout your creative career, you’ve been on this never ending Odyssey in a way. And now you’re here in Los Angeles, you’re about to start off with this new, really this new chapter of your life. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want to accomplish?

Janessa Robinson:
I see myself as continuing to lead innovation. I don’t just mean from a technical standpoint or innovation and business. Innovation and business, of course, innovation in the way that we experience our human lives. That would be leading in Hollywood in the area of diversity, inclusion, equity. I’m looking at things that would create system change and practices change, particularly when it comes to people on the autism spectrum. But also people generally, that identify to have disabilities, people of color, queer people and women. Because when I was in Silicon Valley, I got to lead, I got to advocate for and develop the existence of employee resource groups at a publicly traded company. And then I became the co-chair of a specific employee resource group or employee belonging group is what they call it there. So I want to apply those learnings to Hollywood and develop ways of working with people to grow our consciousness awareness and to shift our habits and behaviors to reflect our values.

Janessa Robinson:
Then simultaneously, I see myself continuing to build relationships more broadly across the business to make it more collaborative and to make it more reflective of a community oriented mindset. That may be the millennial in me, where for me what’s really important is to collaborate with people and yes, be inclusive. I think that competition is somewhat innate to us as humans, as human beings. There is some sense of an animalistic side where there’s competition. I don’t think that we need to over-rotate on that, particularly given the circumstances of climate change or a public health pandemic. I don’t think that we need to over-rotate on being competitive. I think it’s a time where it actually behooves us to be more collaborative. That’s something I see myself approaching through content development, through my choices in who I partner with business-wise, through working with different organizations to see how do we embed those values into the way that we practice our work, whatever that is?

Janessa Robinson:
I’m interested in seeing Hollywood be more dynamic in the stories that we tell and how we tell and what we do with those results. And when I say results, I mean monetary results in this sense. I would like to see that Hollywood is contributing to the communities of the stories that we’re telling and that we’re telling stories that are broad enough to represent all communities because people show up. Well, most of theaters are closed or limited, but people show up to the theater to watch stories. They’re watching those stories either in their own community or in a community that’s adjacent to them, but someone across the world or across the country might’ve produced that picture. I would like to see that all of the parties that are participating and contributing to that picture are compensated well. Additionally, that the communities, it’s not enough basically to have black folks in your movies. That’s what I’m saying.

Janessa Robinson:
I want to see that these communities who are having their stories told are, one, having those stories told in a way that’s justified and respectful. And two, that they get to benefit in some way economically from having their stories told. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but basically it’s to say it’s not enough to commodify someone’s story and be like, oh, but I told your story. It was like, okay, yeah, you walked away with all of the material benefits of that. I want to see that communities are being reinvested into, and that people have the chance to develop their own content and their own stories. And that the way that the system operates is in a way that’s more integrated and collaborative. That may be, I don’t know, I don’t know if that’s a new idea or a repackaged idea. I’m not sure.

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

Janessa Robinson:
The audience can find out more about me at janessarobinson.com. They can find out more about me also on social media. So on Instagram @JanessaE.Robinson, it’s here I’m often hanging out, is on Instagram. And then folks can also find out more about Artistry Land at www.artistryland.space.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Janessa Robinson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really, one, describing where you’re at right now in embarking on this new journey in your creative career, But also really diving deep into how the sum total of your other experiences, whether it’s been traveling or working in other industries and such have brought you to where you are right now. I hope that when people listen to this, they take away that they can have these divergent paths that can lead them towards what their goals are, Because it certainly seems like you’re doing that for yourself. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Janessa Robinson:
Thank you for having me, Maurice. Thank you. I love your show. I love the work that you’re doing and I’m very excited to be a part of it.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

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Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

Adobe MAX is the annual global creativity conference and it’s going online this year — October 26th through the 28th. This is sure to be a creative experience like no other. Plus, it’s all free. Yep – 100% free!

With over 25 hours of keynotes, luminary speakers, breakout sessions, workshops, musical performances and even a few celebrity appearances, it’s going to be one-stop shopping for your inspiration, goals and creative tune-ups.

Did I mention it’s free?

Explore over 300 sessions across 11 tracks, hear from amazing speakers and learn new creative skills…all totally free and online this October.

To register, head to max.adobe.com.

Sponsored by Black in Design 2021 Conference

Black in Design Logo

On the weekend of October 8-10th, join the Harvard Graduate School of Design virtually for the Black in Design 2021 Conference!

This year’s theme, Black Matter, is a celebration of Black space and creativity from the magical to the mundane. Our speakers, performers, and panelists will bring nuance to the trope of Black excellence and acknowledge the urgent political, spatial, and ecological crises facing Black communities across the diaspora. You don’t want to miss out on this weekend of learning, community, and connection!

Visit them online at blackmatter.tv to learn more and be a part of the event.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Lisa Cain

Striking out on your own can be tough, but I can tell you from personal experience that it can be one of the most rewarding things you do in life. And what better person to talk about this feeling than design strategist Lisa Cain. Lisa has worked in the visual design field for well over 20 years, so she knows a LOT about what it takes to get things done.

We started off talking about how she started her studio, and Lisa gave a peek in to her creative process on some of her projects. Lisa also spoke about her early career in visual merchandising, how that has helped her as a designer, and how her family has helped motivate her drive to succeed. (Also, did you know she was a backup singer?) It’s awesome to have designers like Lisa to show us how to thrive as a creative on your own terms!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Lisa Cain:
I’m Lisa Cain of Lisa Cain Design and I’m a design strategist that helps nonprofits. Some of those nonprofits are healthcare and medical organizations, advocacy organizations and educational institutions. I help their brands stand out and build awareness, raise funds and also build their membership.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, we’re in the second half of 2021. I’m kind of curious to know how has the year been for you so far?

Lisa Cain:
Oh the year has been really good to me. I’ve been very busy this year. This year’s busy. Actually, 2020 was actually pretty busy as well. It was a little bit interesting at first and it slowed down and had to kind of pivot and do business a little bit differently. But for the remainder of 2020 and throughout right now at ’21, it’s been very busy.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have any sort of plans or things that you want to do for your business for the rest of the year?

Lisa Cain:
Just continually working on great ad campaigns, finishing out some of those things, really exciting projects that I’m working on.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned your focus is on medical, education, advocacy, nonprofits. How did you come to specialize in those particular fields?

Lisa Cain:
Right out of art school, right out of college, I worked for… It was a nonprofit management company and basically they managed hundreds of nonprofits under their umbrella and it was a group of designers that they had to do all of the design work. So I had maybe 10 clients that I managed, design project management, things like that, and just learning how to work with nonprofits. They were called my clients and just doing projects from high tech, medical, healthcare, food manufacturing. I just began to love work for nonprofits. My niche, for me, became healthcare, medical and advocacy because I just really love helping people and making a difference in their lives.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that what sort of really gets you truly excited about your work?

Lisa Cain:
It is. It is. Really seeing that project come to life and then seeing the numbers. For instance, one of my clients is the Organization for Autism Research and we created a brochure years ago to send out to schools and the teachers would present it to the students and teach them about autism acceptance. And to date, this brochure has probably influenced, touched the lives of children, over 125 million children worldwide so –

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Lisa Cain:
To me, that’s really huge. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a huge. That’s a big… It’s always good when your work is able to make that kind of a big impact. I think oftentimes … I’ve worked with nonprofits too and I’ve worked one in particular here in Atlanta. It’s the Grady Health Foundation, this was years and years and years ago, but some of the work that I did, I’ve actually seen on billboards and that’s such a… It’s a good feeling. You’re driving along and you’re like, “Wait a minute, I did that.”

Lisa Cain:
It is. Yep, it’s awesome. So yeah, seeing your stuff plastered all over the place and then getting those numbers in that this many people have been touched by it, it’s a wonderful thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does your creative process look like when you’re starting on a new project? Walk me through that.

Lisa Cain:
Sure. My creative process, I usually like to kick off every project with a meeting, so meeting with the client, listening and gathering information to better understand what the client is working with, then we collaborate and strategize their goals and challenges and expectations. Then from there, I’ll create a scope of the project using a creative brief and a proposal just to make sure we’re on the same page about vision, deliverables, costs, timeframes, things like that, and then once that is agreed upon, we move forward. It could be a mood board or concept development. From that gathered information of the creative brief, find out about the clients, target audience and mission and work on different concepts and different design solutions. From there, present those design solutions and explain my thinking behind that and my recommendations. Usually, we’ll narrow down one direction to go in and there’s the revision, refine process. Usually within my proposals, I’ll include up to three rounds of revisions. Once we go through that, there’s delivery or production.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I hope for people that are listening, they got a sense of like that’s a pretty rock solid way when it comes down to starting the process. I mean, part of it is that creative and strategy work, but then, as you’re mentioning, you’re getting a proposal, you’re making sure that you and the client are really on the same page as you move forward is super important because nonprofits, they can sometimes change on a dime. They want something completely different midway in the project and you have to make sure that you have something that can hold them to what they promised would come from the project.

Lisa Cain:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, do you mostly do print design or do you do a mix of that with other mediums?

Lisa Cain:
I think it’s a mix, but more heavily print, yes. Usually, I’ll create a theme around something, say for… Nonprofits do a lot of event publication, event collateral, things like that and so I’ll create a theme around that and that is printed on everything. If it’s around an event, then it’s their lanyards, their brochures, their signage and then it can go digital where it’s social media, banner ads and even apps.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, aside from Lisa Cain Design, which you’ve done now for what? 20 plus years.

Lisa Cain:
20 plus years. Yep. Officially though, officially it’s 16 years. That’s when I truly got the business license and this is the name that I decided upon. But yeah, before I was freelancing and burning the candle at both ends, working a full-time job and freelancing on the side, kind of making my path to truly going into my own business.

Maurice Cherry:
I think once you make it past 15, you can round up to 20. I think that’s acceptable. But yeah, aside from Lisa Cain Design, you also have a company with your husband. Is that right?

Lisa Cain:
That’s right. It’s called Black Action Tees. Black Action Tees is a pop culture website that offers T-shirts and the T-shirts feature superheroes, music culture, sneaker culture and TV and movie pop culture.

Maurice Cherry:
I think I told you this when we talked earlier, but I actually had ordered something from Black Action Tees way back in… I think it was like maybe 2010, 2011, something like that, I think so.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah, probably about 10 years. Yeah, 10 years ago. First started it, yeah. Yep. Yep. Yep. Well, I hope the experience was really good and you really enjoyed your tees.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you and your husband blend business like that a lot? I mean, you have your-

Lisa Cain:
[inaudible 00:10:46].

Maurice Cherry:
Well, you have that business with him with Black Action Tees, but does he end up doing anything with Lisa Cain Design or is that just a separate thing?

Lisa Cain:
You know what, he doesn’t do any of the design, but he’s an IT guy so he does IT as his professional. He’s a IT manager, but he’s my IT guy. That’s as far as it goes within my company.

Maurice Cherry:
I gotcha. Now, we’ve gotten to know a bit about your work and everything and we’ll probably dive more into the specific things later, but tell me about where you’re from. I know you’re located in Chicago. Is that where you’re originally from?

Lisa Cain:
I’m originally from South Side of Chicago. I grew up in South Side and then, yeah, moved to the south suburbs in the mid 70s.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What was it like growing up in Chicago back then?

Lisa Cain:
It was good. I think it was a really good experience. I mean, we had a neighborhood full of kids. I remember playing. You had to come in when the street lights came on, things like that, but it was a really good experience. Lots of great kids to play with. Families intact still in the 70s, I’m dating myself, yes. But it was a wonderful experience growing up in the city.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you get exposed to a lot of design and art growing up?

Lisa Cain:
The only real exposure that I had creatively was sitting at the kitchen table with my grandpa and he would teach me how to draw different things. Then I don’t know if you remember the TV guide, there was this ad on the back and it would say, “Draw this pirate and you can win a scholarship to art school.”

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. It would be like a pirate or like a turtle or something like that, yeah, I remember that.

Lisa Cain:
So I would draw that and I would send it. I was too young but I would draw it and send it in but I would never hear back from them. So that was pretty much the extent of being creative. I also had this set of books, it was kind of a sister set that came with an encyclopedia set, and there was this one particular book called Make and Do and so it was a book full of crafts and I would just do crafts endlessly in that book. So that was pretty much the extent of being creative at a young age.

Maurice Cherry:
Now was your family kind of supportive of you going into design?

Lisa Cain:
Absolutely not.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Lisa Cain:
They came from that generation of thinking that design, you would become a starving artist. I remember back in high school, I had finished all of my graduation requirements as far as credit so I was able to take a lot of electives so I chose to take nothing but art and photography classes and just be totally immersed in my last year and it was absolutely wonderful. I had wonderful art teachers and I think from that experience that’s where I knew and chose that I wanted to be a graphic designer. They had alumni come in and show their portfolios from art schools and it was just so inspiring and exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Eventually you started out studying in visual communications, even though your parents didn’t really unfortunately support you going into that.

Lisa Cain:
That’s correct. I remember I got a catalog for the Art Institute of Chicago and I was so excited and I showed my dad and he saw one look at the tuition cost and he was like, “Why don’t you take some secretarial classes at the local community college?” Yeah, we’d butt heads on hat. We’d butt heats. But again, he came from that generation where just they couldn’t see it. He meant well and I have to say that years later, when I did go to a different art school, he bought my first Mac. So he was supportive down the line.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you were at Prairie State College majoring in … Back then it was called visual communications.

Lisa Cain:
Yep. Visual communications. That’s right, and back then, nothing was computerized yet. So I was taking illustration classes and intro to graphic design, things like that. So we used, my supply list at the art store, you had this long list you had to go get all of these supplies for for your classes. It was things like hot press boards, Zipatone, technical pens and Prismacolors with Letraset type that you kind of rub down and using light boxes and making folding dummies for brochures. Everything was really hands-on. I remember walking with those gigantic portfolios and a little tackle box with all your things. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, a lot of the design back then was really … I mean of course it was tactile because the personal computer I think was not fully in homes at that point. I know it was available, but it was really expensive.

Lisa Cain:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
I remember seeing ads for RadioShack for the … I think it was the Tandy?

Lisa Cain:
Tandy.

Maurice Cherry:
The Tandy 1000 I believe? It was like $1,600.00, $1,700.00. It was expensive. I mean –

Lisa Cain:
Definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
For folks that are listening, that’s about the cost now of like maybe a souped-up MacBook Pro or something like that.

Lisa Cain:
Right. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean you’re talking something that had maybe, maybe 512 megabytes of RAM. Like there’s no way you’re really designing anything on something like that.

Lisa Cain:
Anything.

Maurice Cherry:
It was basically just a very expensive calculator at that point.

Lisa Cain:
Yep, and at Prairie State, they did have a computer lab and they had like a handful of … I think they were Apple [inaudible 00:16:39], the Macs.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh goodness.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah, so you know you couldn’t really do much on it at all. You’d draw a circle and put some color in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and even if you really drew a circle, it wasn’t like smooth. It was sort of like a jagged kind of … Yeah. I remember those times very fondly. I remember I was learning Basic and I’m dating myself by saying this but I was learning Basic in elementary school and they were … Like little graphic stuff, like you’d make a rocket or something like that. I mean it was very rudimentary stuff compared to certainly what you can do now, but it’s amazing to see how in such a fairly short amount of time, how much design on computers has really kind of taken over and changed and grown. It’s amazing.

Lisa Cain:
It is amazing, it is and you have to stop never learning and keep up with all of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So from Prairie State, you ended up going to the Art Institute. But you studied a different kind of sort of design. Can you talk about that?

Lisa Cain:
Sure. So I decided … I wasn’t sure about graphic design, I was trying to just kind of find my way in, discovered the Art Institute of Illinois which at the time was called Ray-Vogue College of Design, and I decided to go for fashion merchandising but minor in visual merchandising. At the time it was kind of interesting being middle class and it was kind of hard not being able to get a student loan for like your full four years. It’s like you ran of money and your parents needed to get a plus loan, you didn’t qualify for grants. It was kind of hard. That’s exactly what happened. I finished my first year and couldn’t get another loan, my dad couldn’t get another loan. I decided to go ahead and finish out my minor which was in fashion merchandising, finish that, and then I was able to get a job at a big department store in Downtown Chicago. I was already working there as a salesperson so making that move into that position was fairly easy. So it was exciting. I thought once I got that job I thought I had made it. I was a visual display designer down there and it was fun and again it was a lot of physical work. But a lot of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
So when you say it was physical work, like you were … Were you like designing storefronts and stuff like that?

Lisa Cain:
We designed all of the store windows. Then we did interior design and we set up for fashion shows, things like that. So it was like set design and prop building. I remember once we had to spray-paint hundreds of styrofoam trumpets and then glue them to eight foot panels. So we were making like sets and backdrops and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. It’s interesting, it sounds like the design got even more I guess … I don’t want to use the term analog, but it got a lot more physical I would say because you’re now really building the designs that you want to see.

Lisa Cain:
Right, right, and then on top of just the set design, you were dealing with these really heavy, expensive mannequins. Like a rite of passage for being a visual display designer is learning how to strike a mannequin and basically it’s posing, but what you did was you wrapped wire around the mannequin’s waste and then it would be under the clothes and then you would have to attach nails to the end and you would actually … So I’d be walking around with a hammer all day and you were hammering these nails in, striking the mannequin so they’re standing up and styling a wig was a rite of passage and getting burned with a glue gun on a regular basis because you had to do everything, you had to dress this mannequin from head to toe and that meant clothes, shoes, sometimes pantyhose, even the jewelry. It was fun, it was interesting and very physical.

Maurice Cherry:
How often were you kind of doing these displays?

Lisa Cain:
On a weekly basis. So there were –

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Lisa Cain:
Oh yeah. The downtown, that store was eight floors. So yeah, there was a whole team of us. That was interior, windows, everything and then there’s like these little light boxes. You did like the cosmetic displays, you had home furnishing. All the different departments.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds kind of thrilling actually to be able to kind of turn around and do that so quickly every week.

Lisa Cain:
It was. It was fun. It was again a lot of physical work, and at the same time the building that we were in, it’s a Chicago landmark. So a lot of times we would be goofing off and we would go and explore this building. This building was built in 1904, the architect Lou Sullivan did it and it was like this beautiful elaborate rotunda entrance and be exploring and we found like hidden staircases that were absolutely beautiful and beautiful tiled flowers. There was like sub, sub, sub, sub basements, so yeah, we were running around there and just having fun.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. I mean for people that want to look up or have not heard of Louis Sullivan, he was like the father of modern architecture. Like he was a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, a lot of what I think people see now in skyscrapers is really thanks to him.

Lisa Cain:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And the building was the Carson Pirie Scott Building.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Wow. That’s amazing, so you were doing that while you were at Art Institutes or was that after you left there?

Lisa Cain:
It was after, it was right after I left there. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Why did you decide to sort of make that shift from visual communications to merchandising like that?

Lisa Cain:
It just seemed more exciting to me at the time and again I’m young and I’m just trying to find myself. So just trying out something new, and that’s something that I do encourage up and coming designers. Don’t be afraid to just take chances and try out new things.

Maurice Cherry:
So aside from doing that kind of storefront set building kind of work, what other kind of career experiences did you have after you graduated from the art institute?

Lisa Cain:
After that, I decided actually … I did kind of a detour and believe it or not, I ended up getting secretary experience. I became an administrative assistant. I guess again trying to find myself and I ended up working for The NutraSweet Company. It was a big company at the time. This is in like the early 90s, mid 90s. They had a Mac there that no one knew how to use. So I volunteered and they decided to send me back to school, and so I ended up at the Illinois Academy of Design and Technology. So there, computers were for the design community and design studios and all of that. They were starting to make that transition from doing everything by hand to going digital and doing everything on the computer, I remember at the time it was a lot of animosity between new people coming in and people like old-school people that just refused. They would not learn, they would not get computer skills. So it was a good time, a good transition to kind of be on that cutting edge of learning. Up there I learned how to do Photoshop, I think it was Photoshop 2.0 and CorelDRAW and some 3-D animation applications. So by the time I finished that, I had three job offers before I graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice. So even then, you have kind of this burgeoning … I guess this burgeoning rise of design on computers and now that you’ve learned these tools or you’re learning these tools, it’s opening up these different opportunities.

Lisa Cain:
Right, right. Because when I graduated, it was a student portfolio but I think they could see the creativity there and the ideas that were sparked. But more importantly they knew how to work within these applications. So that was huge at the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Would you say that your work in fashion merchandising kind of helped with that though?

Lisa Cain:
Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I think just from doing fashion merchandising or visual merchandising, project management, bringing something together like on a set, we had to like plan things out on paper first and decide what was going to go where and then this color scheme, there was always a theme about something so that kind of translated to design, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean I would imagine also just being able to come up with those concepts. I mean that’s creative direction, that’s art direction. Those are things that if you look at a blank Photoshop canvas or something as your stage, like you can kind of bring those same visual elements in with perspective and sizing and all that sort of stuff.

Lisa Cain:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now you’ve said that you came through the back door to become a designer at age 30. Tell me what does that mean? Because it sounds like you were already doing a lot of design.

Lisa Cain:
Well you know what? For me I felt like I truly didn’t arrive until after I graduated from the Illinois Academy of Design and Technology and I was actually doing graphic design on the computer, and that was at age 30 and The NutraSweet Company sent me back to school and yeah, I felt like, “Okay, it’s official now, and I’ll officially have the title graphic designer.”

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I mean aside from I guess getting that title, did that … I’m curious, did your family at that point kind of see like, “Oh, this is something like serious.”

Lisa Cain:
Oh yeah, oh yeah. Even when I was in school, they finally came around. Like I said, my dad, he was the one while I was in school because it was rough. You had all these projects to do and they had a computer lab but you needed something at home to work on and so he bought me my first Mac and that was what, 1996? It wasn’t inexpensive at the time. We’re talking, you had to get the modem and everything else separately and yeah. And speaking of modems, my first job … So out of school was with USRobotics who actually built the modems. That was quite interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
So now you’ve made this shift. I’m looking, kind of trying to follow this. So you’ve made this shift now from visual merchandising to graphic design. How was the work different, I mean aside from obviously physical to digital but how was the work different that you were doing now?

Lisa Cain:
I think with graphic design, this opened up a whole new world. I think I personally felt like the possibilities were endless to be more creative. As a visual display designer, you’re working at this one particular place and you’re doing stuff at one location. But as a graphic designer, it’s like endless possibilities to creativity. There’s always different projects coming up and not only that but it could be different clients, different organizations or companies. So the creativity is endless.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that I really remember from those like early days of kind of digital graphic design. It really was like … You could do anything you wanted. It was like … I don’t want to say it was like the wild, wild west because that implies some level of lawlessness but like you really could get away with anything because the tools were so accessible. Like everyone can point and click, but not everyone’s going to do the same combination of filters or colors or even settings on certain things. So you end up coming up with just the wildest kind of designs just by playing around. I felt like there was a lot more play back then to get to kind of what the end result could be.

Lisa Cain:
It was, and then at the same time … I actually started creating websites with my husband at the time we were dating and we were doing webs, I created my first, my website, my portfolio website like in ’98 and I thought it was like the coolest thing because it was like this crocodile on the front. Remember it was like landing pages and it was like maybe a little bit of animation. I thought it was so cool because my crocodile’s eye was like winking at you.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, those early animated GIFs. I love those.

Lisa Cain:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Now as you kind of continued on in your career, you worked in-house as a designer for SmithBucklin and then you were an associate creative director at Urban Ministries Inc. When you look back at those particular experiences, what did they teach you?

Lisa Cain:
I think most importantly they taught me how to work with my clients, how to project manage everything, stay on timelines, stay within budgets and be creative at the same time. They were invaluable experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
Were they like different? Because I mean I’m imagining in Urban Ministries, that’s kind of more religious whereas SmithBucklin I guess you could say is secular. I don’t know. Was it a big difference in just like the type of work that you were doing?

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. SmithBucklin was very, very fast-paced and they had to account for every 15 minutes of our time so they could build a client and if you had to go to the bathroom, you had to figure out a way to pad that in there.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Lisa Cain:
It was rough but at the same time it was such a good learning experience and truly taught me everything about working with non-profits. Urban Ministries definitely. It’s a publications company and way more laid back. I designed the Vacation Bible School curriculum there, so they were much more laid back and actually even just the attitude, they were way more appreciative of your work. You felt valued there.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that where the seed was kind of planted for starting your own studio?

Lisa Cain:
It was. It was because at that time I decided to go part-time. They allowed me to work part-time and I started again burning the candle at both ends and I would work like till 3:00 a.m. on my freelance projects and then get up and go to work and yeah. But it was definitely the stepping stone to build Lisa Cain Design.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from it sort of being that stepping stone of seeing how your work impacted people, did you just kind of feel at this point like you were just ready to strike out on your own?

Lisa Cain:
Absolutely. Because at the time, I had small kids that I desperately wanted to be here for. My son at the time, we had found out, he was diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum and he was put in a special pre-K class and I really needed to be there for him. So I was driven to be here, be home, and run my own business.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting. What do you wish you would have been told about the design industry when you first started?

Lisa Cain:
I think the number one thing, and it’s something that I’m truly still working on to this day and that’s boundaries. Healthy boundaries. So what I mean by that is it’s okay to say no to some things. Being selective in the type of projects that you want to work on, the type of budgets you want to work on. That’s super important to determine and work within.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the mentors and people that have really kind of helped you out along the way as you sort of rose as a designer?

Lisa Cain:
Besides my high school teachers, there was one particular person that actually I grew up with. I’ve known him since first grade and I remember, he could draw really, really well in grammar school. So I was kind of drawn to him and we remained friends over the years. He is a graphic designer and at the time he was working for Frankel, it’s an ad agency in Chicago. But he was also freelancing for Burrell Communications. So I would go to his design studio and he’d let me just kind of hang out and work on some of the stuff he was working on here and there and kind of built my skills but then there was one particular project that stood out and it was a media kit for the Sprite Voltron ad campaign and it featured rap artists like Fat Joe, Goodie Mob, Common and Mack 10. So it was really cool to work on that project, and at that time, we made stock art. Stock art was really, really expensive at that time, so I remember they wanted like a sky created for like a Voltron thing and with stars, and instead of buying that stock art that was like $300.00, I like hand-placed each star in the background.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. It’s on my Instagram page if you want to take a look at it but yeah. I’m super proud of that project. That was in ’98 actually, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s where that visual merchandising muscle kicked in. You’re like, “I just got to go and do it.” That was a really … God, I remember that campaign too. That was dope. They had two of them, there was one that had male rappers with Voltron and then I remember there was one with women rappers that was more like … I think like kung-fu based?

Lisa Cain:
I don’t remember. I didn’t work on that one.

Maurice Cherry:
I think they both might have been kung … Okay, there was one I remember that had … Oh god, who was on it? I think it was Eve, Angie Martinez. I don’t remember who else was part of the fighting squad but the last person they fought against was Roxanne Shante. Like they unmasked the villain and it’s like, “Oh.” I remember those, those were really good.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there any advice about like design or about your career that’s really stuck with you over the years?

Lisa Cain:
I would say … You know what? My teacher back in art school, she said, “Don’t work for free to get a deposit.” You know what? It’s advice, don’t work for free, don’t give your work away. However at the same time, like currently, there is a project that I’m working on and it’s a newly created non-profit organization and it’s a school, they’re teaching kids with disabilities how to do automotive and carpentry and stuff like that. So I think it’s okay to do a pro bono project every once in a while for a good cause that means something to you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What is it that you’re obsessed with these days?

Lisa Cain:
Sleep. Sorry.

Maurice Cherry:
See, I thought you were going to say the dog. No, sleep … I mean look sleep I think is great, don’t get me wrong. I’m probably going to take a nap after this interview but sleep, I totally, totally understand that.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. Actually my dog, my dog, I’m not obsessed with him but he is my inspiration. There is this quote that says, “To grow creatively, you must give yourself time to play.” So my dog is my hobby. He’s my play. It’s humorous dog photography and it’s kind of my inspiration and kind of way to get away from things and have some fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Now speaking of having fun, there’s one thing that you had shared with me before we recorded. I have to bring it up because I think it’s just so dope. You were a house music backup singer once upon a time.

Lisa Cain:
In another lifetime.

Maurice Cherry:
In another lifetime. Please tell me about that because you sent a YouTube video and I can put it in the show notes if people want to check it out but like I noticed it was like, oh it was like Frankie Knuckles Productions? I have to know how did this happen.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Actually I was dating Jamie Principle at the time. I was right out of high school, so it [inaudible 00:37:57] era. Yeah. Yeah, and so he needed a backup singer and at the time he was making music actually out of his home and we went to the studio and I did my part and at that time there was no sampling. So that part that you hear? I’m saying over and over and I had to say it perfectly, all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. That time was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun. We performed in a lot of Chicago clubs and went to New York and performed. That was a whole nother lifetime.

Maurice Cherry:
Now were you just on this one record or id you do others?

Lisa Cain:
Just that one.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I mean that’s quite a claim to fame though. That’s really dope.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it was really cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you would like to do in your career that you haven’t done yet?

Lisa Cain:
Yes. Actually I want to do kind of a pivot. I guess this would be kind of a career/hobby thing but I would love to get into doing newborn photography. [inaudible 00:39:03] kind of my hobby and I absolutely love newborn photography, so I’m kind of working on really perfecting my craft in that and that’s something that I see myself doing somewhere down the road.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel creatively satisfied now?

Lisa Cain:
I do. I do. I actually absolutely love what I do. I absolutely love campaigns, the ad campaigns that I’m working on currently and doing some really exciting projects with a Chicago PR firm. Yes, I love what I do.

Maurice Cherry:
Now after … I mean I know you’ve had a storied history as a designer, both with your studio as well as this kind of physical design work with visual merchandising, but when you look back over all of that, especially with being in the game as long as you have, what’s next? Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Lisa Cain:
I think I want to focus more on … I guess I love the ad campaigns. I’m not sure if I’ll get away from non-profits. Right now I’m working on some things like the Chicago Department of Public Health and we’re also creating like a food bank app. So I want to do more things like that. It’s advocacy but not so much non-profit. Like you said earlier, just seeing stuff come to life and seeing it kind of plastered all over the place is really exciting. I want to get more into that.

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

Lisa Cain:
My website is Lisa Cain Design, that’s L-I-S-A C-A-I-N Design, or on Instagram at Lisa Cain Design.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well Lisa Cain, I want to thank you so much, so, so much for coming on the show. When I reached out to you initially, I really wanted to have you on to talk about just the fact that you’ve had your studio for 20 years and the work that you’ve done. Because I think that’s something that’s so rare that we really hear about from black women. I don’t know if I mentioned this when I initially reached out to you but I had saw you in I think it was a Graphic Design USA like people to watch for one year.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I was like … I had put your name down on my outreach list, like I’m going to get around back, I’m going to come back to Lisa one day, and I’m glad now to have been able to do so and to talk with you and learn more about you and of course share your story of how you have come up in the design industry throughout the years. I think it’s really inspiring and hopefully for people that are listening, they get something out of this too to know that they can do … They can sort of accomplish their dreams and design like you have. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Lisa Cain:
Thank you for having me.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

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Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

Adobe MAX is the annual global creativity conference and it’s going online this year — October 26th through the 28th. This is sure to be a creative experience like no other. Plus, it’s all free. Yep – 100% free!

With over 25 hours of keynotes, luminary speakers, breakout sessions, workshops, musical performances and even a few celebrity appearances, it’s going to be one-stop shopping for your inspiration, goals and creative tune-ups.

Did I mention it’s free?

Explore over 300 sessions across 11 tracks, hear from amazing speakers and learn new creative skills… all totally free and online this October.

To register, head to max.adobe.com.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Keisha Okafor

We’re halfway through the year! Summer’s here, and I thought it would be a great time to feature an extraordinary young designer whose work I recently discovered — Keisha Okafor. Her work is brimming with energy and vibrancy and joy — feelings we all could use a bit more of these days.

We start off talking about freelance design, and Keisha told a bit about how she helped make one of the features Google Doodles for Black History Month 2021. Keisha also spoke on her signature design style, talked about one of her dream projects, and gave some great advice on being an illustrator. Keep an eye out for Keisha — I think we’ll definitely see more of her work in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Keisha Okafor:
My name is Keisha Okafor. I’m a freelance illustrator. And I would say that my work I’ve been using depicts joy and celebrates people. I really like to use bright colors and bold patterns.

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

Keisha Okafor:
It’s been going pretty great. I actually just went freelance full time. So that’s the thing. But before that, I’ve been working full time in design as a production designer, actually for print and also doing project management. Ironically, I was managing all the print projects I was doing. So kind of like a one-woman show. So all of that was very technical and like sending client emails. And then out of work, I was doing illustrations and drawing and working with my freelance clients. So it’s nice to have more time this time, but honestly, it’s been going pretty well. I mean, I know the whole pandemic is still happening. In my mind, it’s not even close to being over, but as a very, very heavy introvert, my day-to-day isn’t really that different, I be inside. So I’m still watching Anime, still playing video games. Yeah. Outside of work is pretty normal to me because I wouldn’t be outside anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow. So yeah, you just went freelance. That’s a kind of scary thing to do to make that leap of faith. I mean, did you feel like you were prepared for it when you did it?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I definitely did, which is surprising because years ago, would have been terrified, but I did a lot of planning, I watched so many seminars and workshops about going freelance, like what do you need to have in place before you do that? And I also saw enough clients coming in and projects coming in to where I believed like this is going to keep happening. I’m not just a Juneteenth, Martin Luther King Day illustrator. I can do this 365. So once I saw that and all the other planning I’ve been doing for the past several months, I wasn’t as scared as I expected to be.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. That’s good. I mean, oftentimes, we’ll have the designers that are here on the show that either are freelancing or they’re thinking about going freelance, and making that leap can often be really scary. I mean, you said that you had some preparations in place, which is good. I mean, to know that you can step out there and have at least some sort of a foundation, so you’re not necessarily going at it alone, but you have, it sounds like you had some major things already planned out before you made the jump, like clients.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I also had savings. That was like my main thing. I didn’t want to jump with like $25 in my account. So with all the freelance money I’ve been getting, luckily because I had the full-time job, I was able to save all of that pretty much by pretending that I didn’t have it. I was tricking my mind, like, don’t spend this, this is for your future. Like, don’t wild out and buy stuff, but I’m also not naturally a big spender. My biggest splurge last year was getting Netflix, the two accounts. Yeah. I mean, I bought video games, but I would’ve done that anyway, but yeah, I got Netflix. So that’s like an idea of something I think about, a purchase that I would think about for a while before doing so. Was able to save all that money to have bought a year’s worth just in case nothing happened, which I don’t believe that was going to happen, but just in case, I had enough money to live off of that.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a very smart move.

Keisha Okafor:
Thanks. I take risks, but it’s very calculated because I get very scared, just the idea of going freelance is so scary. So I just wanted to make sure I have things set in place, I thought it through that I’ll be good.

Maurice Cherry:
What made you decide to go freelance? You said you were working as part-time gig, did something happen or did you just feel like it was just time to go?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, just in general, the jobs I’ve had, it was a full-time job too. Boy, was I tired anyway. It was just like, no matter what job I had, it ended up being rinky-dink. And by rinky-dink, I mean, no matter how confident I am, no matter how competent I am at the job, no matter how much work I do, how fast I go, I’m still getting treated like I’m entry-level or like the level of a recent graduate in my pay, in how I’m talked to when I ask questions. And I’m just getting tired of that. And because I saw that doing freelance wasn’t as intimidating as I thought, I was just like, let me better myself and make sure that I’m handling that side for myself, that I get to advocate for myself and also determine what I’m worth.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a big reason why I ended up going freelance back in 2008, the company that I was working for was treating me in that same way, like I felt like I was being undermined or belittled or patronized too, even though I’ve got the skills to be there and I’m cranking out top quality work, you still feel like you’re almost treated like a child.

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. Oh my gosh. Yeah. This past job, the work I was doing, it took four people to do before I got there.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And they’re not a startup company. They’ve been around for many years over a decade. And even taking on that work, they still saw me as a rookie. And I’m like, “Really after all of this?” So I could see that that wasn’t really going to change anytime soon. They would give me compliments, but I’m like, “But my pay isn’t changing.” And when I say things and give suggestions, it’s just going over the head and out the window. So I’m just like, “All right, I see where this is going. I’m out.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does a typical day look like for you right now? I know you just started freelancing, but have you started getting into a good rhythm?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. Generally, I have a Trello account, where I have all my freelance projects that I’m working on right now and just different to-do lists, broken down to all the small steps, just so I can see overall what I need to work on. So if there are any priorities or upcoming deadlines, I’ll then write a list, a to-do list of like at least three things I want to get done during the day, like I want to finish this sketch or I want to finish this piece, send this email to the client, things like that. I usually start my day at around 10 o’clock. I am not a morning person at all. Also, I have a cat who only wants to be pet in the middle of the night. So from like 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM, she’s crawling on my chest, like, “Pet me, pet me.” And I’m like, “Let me sleep.” That’s why I start at 10:00 to get back some of that sleep I lost.

Keisha Okafor:
But yeah, I usually start eating cereal, see if I have any emails. I don’t really get too many emails, but I’m also someone who like, I get through them. So I usually only have like three tops. And then I just start the work I’m doing. And if, and then I just keep reviewing that Trello list with my deadlines and checking things off. And if I’m like at the right pace, because I’m trying to pace myself doing a little each day to make sure I hit the deadlines early, instead of like binge doing it all in one day. So once I hit that pace for the day, if I’m done, then I’ll take a break and rest for the day. Yeah. That’s generally how it’s been going so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The best thing about freelancing is really setting your own schedule and then no one can tell you to change it. It’s completely up to you. So if you want to stay in till 10:00 AM, till noon, you can do that. No problem.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. It still feels like, I feel like a kid beginning summer break, but then I’m like, “Keisha, you’re an adult.” Make sure you get stuff done, which I always do. But waking up at 10 o’clock and being like, “Well, time to get this started.” That still feels wild to me. I’m like, “I get to do this. I planned for this and it’s happening.”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, I first heard about you this year from your work you did for YouTube’s Black History Month campaign. I think they did four different illustrators and artists for each of the four weeks in February. Can you talk about that? How did you become a part of that project?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah, that still blows my mind. This was like maybe a week before Christmas. I randomly get this email saying, “Hey, Keisha, I work with YouTube. Want to work on this project about Black Creativity for Black History Month?” I immediately thought it was a scam. And then I googled everyone that he mentioned just to make sure kind of just like, who are you? What the heck? His email didn’t say @youtube.com. So I was just like, “Oh, I don’t know about this. Let me just double check.” But I googled everyone and then their LinkedIn pages were like, they’re designer at Google, engineer at Google. I’m like, “Oh, okay. So he was serious.” So I immediately said, “Yeah, I am available to do this. Are you kidding me?”

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And then probably a week or so later, I met with like a small design team at the YouTube. And they were just telling me about the initiative that they had and they want to work for artists celebrating History Month and wanted to have all the artists make art around black creativity. And that was it. They were like, “You can make that whatever you want it to be, but it just needs to be around black creativity.” And they gave some keywords, like forward-thinking, hopeful, bright, like that. Literally, those were the keywords they gave. So I pretty much just took that and ran with it. But also in the back of my mind, I’m like, “Okay. Okay, Keisha, this is YouTube. You got to show up, you got to show out. So like, do it, do the thing.”

Keisha Okafor:
So initially, I was planning on doing portraits of women who in math and science from the past just to celebrate them. But then they wanted something, when they said forward-thinking, that’s why they gave me the idea of having children in there, like giving like a hopeful idea instead of looking to the past, wanting people to look to the future as well. And I was the one who chose math and science, just because normally when you think of creativity, I usually think of a paintbrush, like dancing and music.

Keisha Okafor:
And they also mentioned that they didn’t want to hit the normal black stereotypes. So like a boombox and people doing break dance. They want it to steer away from that. So I personally like math. I still, even at my big age, I watch PBS Kids shows about math and science. So I figured that would be a fun thing to do, a fun thing to go around. And that’s in that forward thinking idea, it was me having like women in STEM, showing young girls the magic in front of it. So that’s where the idea came based on their feedback. That’s how that idea came to pass.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And once they approved it, I was just going with it. The main critique was at first, I made everyone dark skin and almost the same tone. And they were like, “Oh, can you give it some variety?” I go, “Oh yeah, no problem.” And then they wanted me to use like, I was being very literal at first. So like the sky is blue, rockets are gray. And they were like, “Can you use like some of the colors that you use? Like the ones that you use.” And I was just like, “Oh, okay. So you actually want me to put my spin on it.” I was putting all these rules, adding all these rules to myself. This has to be very literal. If I’m drawing math, it needs to look like math. But once they said that, then that’s when I went crazy with the colors, like, “This guy could be pink and yellow and purple.” So yeah. Then I added my own spin to that. And that’s pretty much how it turned out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I have to say it looks amazing. And for people that haven’t seen it, we’ll make sure to put a link to it in the show notes so you can definitely check it out. I mean, I get that kind of forward feeling, that forward-thinking notion from that. It’s interesting enough, I had discovered an organization, I think they either left a comment or I saw it somewhere else on the web, but because your piece was centered around STEM, I had discovered this group called Black Girl MATHgic, like Black Girl Magic, but MATHgic. And I mean, I love math too. My degree is in mathematics. So I saw that, I was like, “That is so cute.” That was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like it’s a program, but then they also sell some merch for fundraising and stuff. I was like, “This is really dope teaching young black girls math fundamentals and stuff.” It’s pretty cool.

Keisha Okafor:
Oh, that is so amazing. I just love that so much. And the lack Girl MATHgic, Oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like you working with YouTube on this was like a really kind of collaborative process. Are those sort of the best types of clients for you to work with?

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. I would say that working with YouTube was definitely like ideal client. They were very responsive, followed the schedule, they communicated so well. And they were also really nice, like we’re working with big clients, I just assumed like they were going to be very strict and we need to have it look a certain way. They want to work with people, but they want it to look a certain way, it’s what I expected. But working with them, I really saw that they wanted me to show myself in there and to put my own spin. When they said, put your own spin on a theme of black creativity, they actually meant it. That’s why I mentioned the thing with the colors. That was like very refreshing for me, something I really enjoy, like the great communication, being responsive, when things were delayed, they adjusted the schedule to match the delay. I was like, “You’re amazing.” Yeah. I really enjoyed them as a client. And those are things that seeing that it’s possible, those are things that I start to look for when I’m working with people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s go back to freelancing just a little bit more. When you have a new client or you’re approaching, let’s say, a new project, what does your creative process look like?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So usually, I try to get as much information from the client at the beginning as possible because a lot of people say, “Oh, just do whatever.” But they actually have something in mind. So I try to ask a lot of initial questions, just to get an idea, like, do you have an idea or do you actually want me to give you my ideas? I just want that to be clear from the very beginning before I start doing research. And then I also asked like a lot of technical questions, how much do you want the resolution to be? What size? What’s your timeline? Because if it’s a small timeline, then I won’t try to do this super complex thing. I’ll make it simpler.

Keisha Okafor:
But in terms of like the creative making the thing once that’s settled, I usually do a lot of research on stock websites. I like iStockphoto, just to get an idea of like composition, and if it’s something I’m not familiar with, I can’t just think of 35 math formulas off the top of my head. I just got f of x imprinted in my mind, but I need more. So I like to look at stock websites just to see what kinds of things are default, their body poses, body expressions, what do real people look like? Because I don’t want every person I draw to have the same face, but different bodies and different hairstyles. That feels weird to me, but I like when other people do it.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So I like to go on stock websites just to see if anything is giving me ideas, is it inspirational? Is it good for reference? And once I get that, I’ll start sketching out different ideas, trying out different compositions, just to see like, does anything look good? Can I draw this thing? What are the hands going to look like? And then usually, that’s when I start going back and forth with the client, seeing what they think of my ideas.

Keisha Okafor:
But if anything’s going in the right way, usually, that’s also the time I’ll ask, “Do you have any other ideas once you see this, a better idea of what you’re looking for kind of thing?” And then once that happens, I’ll either revise it or start going with color, again, make more ideas, send that to them. And then it’s usually just a back and forth, giving them the art and then getting their feedback. But as I’ve been working and seeing like how easily that can turn into a 100 revisions, I put limits like, okay, we’re going to have two rounds of revisions. And if you want more, this is going to cost. So yeah, I say back and forth, but it’s back and forth like twice just to protect my time essentially.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, even with all of this, are you also thinking a lot about, let’s say, colors, like a color story or anything to go along with a new project? Or does that come naturally?

Keisha Okafor:
Sometimes it comes naturally, but I also have a Pinterest board just full of different pictures that are like, it’s either a fashion outfits, stationary, graphic design branding, things like that. But if I don’t have any ideas, I’ll just pick from that, like, oh, let me try this, or since I’m on social media a lot and have a lot of artists I follow, there are just some artists I like the way they use color. There’s an artist, her name is Olivia Fields. And one thing she likes to do is have a very monochromatic color scheme, but she uses value so well it’s still very interesting to look at. So if I’m thinking about that lately, I’ll like, let me try to use a monochromatic scheme just to see what it look like if I do it kind of thing. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just trash it. But yeah, it can either come from other artists, that Pinterest board or I’ll just start off with, I want the main color to be yellow and then I’ll just randomly pick colors and adjust it based on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So I want to switch gears here a little bit based on what we were talking about prior to recording. You mentioned you’re from North Carolina, that’s where you grew up. Tell me what it was like growing up as a creative kid in North Carolina.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I will say my grew up story isn’t similar to like the ones I hear on interviews. People will be like, “I drew all the time, I love drawing.” I drew some of the time and I was mostly watching cartoons, animated movies, just a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I even decided like, oh, I want to do something art related. It was from seeing the Incredibles. I saw the behind the scenes animation thing. And I was like, “I want to be an animator.” But then once I got closer to picking a college and saw what animation was, very quickly, it was like, no, I don’t want to do that.

Keisha Okafor:
I want to draw because I used to draw like a little bit, when I say every once in a while, I mean like a handful of drawings per year. I wasn’t really, I liked to draw, but I wasn’t sitting around drawing all the time because I was just overthinking it so much, I would draw, one time, I drew the Powerpuff Girls, like just very stiff Powerpuff Girls poses and look like them. But then I took it to school for the next few days and showed everyone. I was like, “Praise me. I’m a good artist. Look at me.” And then didn’t draw for like the next few months.

Keisha Okafor:
That was me as a kid artist, but still very much enjoyed it. I took art classes in middle school and high school. And I would say that’s where my artistic skills and sense and interests started to grow. I wasn’t doing anything like extracurricular. I was just taking it as an elective. So by the time I got to college, I was like, “I don’t have any other interests. I want to be an artist. And I’m hoping college will unlock the key to figure out how people actually get paid to make art.”

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, you went to North Carolina State University, which we’ve had several alums just here on the show that have went there. While you were there, do you feel like they really prepared you to become a working designer out in the world?

Keisha Okafor:
Now, when I look back at it now, I’m like, “Oh yeah, they actually did.” But at the time, I didn’t think so at all, because it just felt very vague, because I also, I majored in art and design at NC State and I thought that meant I’m going to paint, like be an artist. They attach design to it. But they really mean art, right?

Maurice Cherry:
No.

Keisha Okafor:
It was like the first week they were like, “Hey, I know you guys like to draw and paint, but we’re not teaching you to be artists, we’re teaching you to be designers.” And in my mind, I was just like, “No, what is design? Oh, no.” Looking back on it now, I see they were teaching us how to think like designers and how to problem solve. And that’s something that’s been so helpful. And also, with drawing, making sure you understand the foundations of drawing, that’s something that I’ve been using a lot as well, but really that problem solving thing and also how to think like a designer, I would say that’s been the most helpful in my design career. But in terms of like how to get a job, how to make a good portfolio for a job, nope. I’m just like, “I wish I did something about it.” But now that I am working and have had jobs, those design fundamentals have actually been very helpful.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, after college, you ended up for a while moving out to LA, what prompted that?

Keisha Okafor:
It was actually like one of those moments of close family member passed away. So it was just very much like life is short kind of moment, let me try things that I would never do, just you never know you get this chance again. And growing up, watching a lot of TV, California always looked cool. And that was one of my bucket list thing, like I want to see what it’s like to live in California. So once that chance came up, I just went for it, oh, man. So scared. I was sweating on that plane just, Ooh, oh my gosh. I was so scared. But yeah, that’s how I ended up getting there.

Keisha Okafor:
And really, my goal was just to see, like, can I go there and survive? Can I do enough to make sure I don’t have a flight back in three months? And I ended up staying for four and a half years, going on five years. I came back to North Carolina at the end of 2019, months before, I mean, months before COVID happened. So I am so, oh, I don’t have family in California. So that’s why I’m like, I am so glad I moved just in time so I could be near my family and at least know they’re safe in person versus a phone call from like 3000 miles away.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, while you were out there, did you get a chance to really experience the LA design scene?

Keisha Okafor:
I don’t think so. When people say that, I’m just like, “So where’s the scene at? And how do I get there?” My only experience was through the jobs I had. And comparing it to North Carolina, the main difference I noticed was that things were way more fast-paced. Yeah, that was like the biggest difference I noticed. And also like, but this is with anything. Once you see the process behind things, it takes that bale away. Things aren’t as glamorous as I initially thought, like I had a job at a media buying agency, where I was editing album covers for social media posts or resizing banner ads that will be put on YouTube, like watching the YouTube video and seeing of like, oh, this looks so like, well, one it’s annoying, but also seeing like a big artist with an ad, I’m like, “Ooh, fancy.” But hearing the media buyers trying to get the space and make it and asking me to resize things and how crazy that process can be, I’m just like, “Okay. These are just regular people trying to just do their jobs.”

Keisha Okafor:
And I would say a big thing that just in general in the workforce, I’m just like, “Man, people procrastinate so much.” I thought that was like one of those warnings I got in college, like, you’ll never be able to procrastinate when [inaudible 00:27:40], but adults do that all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
All the time.

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. Oh my gosh. And it happens so much. When I was working on those album covers, I was just like, “Come on guys. Just please send me the picture so I can resize it.” But it did help me build up efficiency because there were such fast turnarounds. I was used to working at a fast pace. So coming back to North Carolina, that’s how I ended up, when I mentioned earlier doing the work of four people, because I was used to working so fast. Like when things are slower here, it wasn’t that big of a deal. It felt normal. It helped me in that sense. But yeah, you asked about the design scene. I would also love to know what the scene was like, where was the all people? Where were the people at? What do design people do? I didn’t really get that question answered.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it’s interesting because like, you mentioned earlier like, well, where is the design scene? I think designers carve out their own scene based on who they’re working with or working for, who they have met or inspired by. I’ve been to LA only once, I went in the beginning of 2020 in February. And I found that it was just like real, it was just so spread out. I mean, Atlanta is spread out, but LA is way more spread out. I’m like, it takes forever to get anywhere. Like if you’re going to go somewhere, you better hope it’s on your side of town, you don’t have to cross over and go down. It’s so big. I was there for two weeks and I know I only saw maybe like a 10th of LA. It’s so big. So big. I mean, I guess when I asked about like how the design scene was, I’m curious if it was different from maybe the design scene that you knew back home in North Carolina, like you mentioned, it was more fast-paced, but were there other differences?

Keisha Okafor:
That’s a good question. I will say, like you mentioned, because everything was so separated, it was kind of like, if you weren’t in that neighborhood, we’re not going to meet or we’re not going to meet often. So it ends up being like pockets of communities that I would notice. So I had a lot of animation friends because they lived in Glendale and Burbank and they were interested in working at Cartoon Network or Disney TV.

Keisha Okafor:
So I would meet those people in Burbank and Glendale, but then the people who were interested in more of graphic design or stationary, I talked to those people down near the beach because that’s where a lot of the agencies were. It was like, I could find pockets of people in different areas, but it was so rare for them all to come together just because how long it took to go places like, like literally, Google Maps will say something is maybe 10 miles away and you think, oh, I’ll get there no time. That’s an hour trip one way. I’m just like, “This doesn’t add up.” But then you take the trip and I’m just like, “That took an hour. Oh my gosh.” So it’s just like people aren’t going to make that. Even people who were natives, they weren’t really going to make that trip on a regular basis. So it was just like pockets of communities that I would have in the different places I was at depending on where I lived and worked. That’s how I ended up seeing the people.

Keisha Okafor:
But I feel like in North Carolina, everyone is in Raleigh, you’re in Raleigh, I can get to the edge of Raleigh, the top, it will take like 20 minutes. So to me, compared to being in LA, I’m like, “That’s not a big trip at all.” So I feel like people are taking more initiative to meet up, and I’m sure that’s because of COVID as well, have like a lot of meetups and groups and workshops and stuff. Whereas it would be like a once in a lifetime thing to do, I’ll take this trip one time an hour for this workshop, but don’t count on me to come every week.

Maurice Cherry:
And the web is going to change things too. I mean, there’s events and workshops and things. A lot of stuff has come online just over the past year that before either didn’t exist or it was just inaccessible because of location or something like that.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. Adobe MAX, the first time I attended it was last year because it was virtual. I lived in LA and it happened there every year, but I just was not about to sit there and pay for it not only, but just go there and talk designer talk. Sometimes I feel like there could be a prestige that some people might have, like, hello, I’m art designer. I integrate things together. They use all the design words and I’m not very good at that. I’m just like, “Yeah, make pictures.” So being in that environment isn’t something I would want to pay to do. So it was nice to be able to attend the virtual version because I never would have went otherwise. Yes, there were so many conferences and things I’ve never heard about that I got to hear about because it was virtual and people I got to meet because of that, which is nice to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. As I was going through your work, I saw your illustration work and your portrait work, which is beautiful, but your patterns, the patterns on your website are absolutely gorgeous. I love that you have in your bio, on your website, you mentioned that you’re an artist and designer depicting joy. What does it mean for you to depict joy in your work?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So in terms of people, you’ll probably see that I draw a lot of black people. And one thing that makes me happy about black culture and just black people in general is just seeing us love the things that we love, however we love it. It just makes me really happy to see all the different facets and ways that black people just are. I get so excited. And I feel like when I draw that, that’s where I’m trying to convey just how excited I am to see black people as they are, doing whatever they like, looking as cool or as goofy or as happy as they are. I feel like that comes through with the people.

Keisha Okafor:
And in terms of the patterns, I really like music. But when I hear music, I tend to see a lot of different shapes and colors just moving together. That’s how I see the song. Like me drawing those abstract patterns, it’s usually me listening to music and drawing whatever comes to mind. So just kind of like the happiness that comes from listening to music, that energy is something I’m trying to capture in the patterns. And I like for it to fit together kind of like different sounds fit together in a song, that’s how it shows up in the patterns.

Maurice Cherry:
And when you’re even doing these patterns, it also seems like you’re drawing from nature some too. I don’t know maybe if that was just the particular collection that you were doing, but I saw a lot of kind of tropical themes and leaves and stuff like that. It’s just very, very stunning work.

Keisha Okafor:
Thank you. Yeah, the tropical thing is I just love the way tropical scenery looks. I also think it’s nice, like all the different leaves and like patterns that you see within leaves, I think that’s nice as well, but also sometimes, if I draw too many triangles and circles, I’m like, “Let me draw something that people can recognize.” So it ends up just being leaves and flowers for some reason. I’m not even a big flower person, it just ends up coming out, or I’ll just look up pictures of flowers. But yeah, I really love tropical weather and themes and stuff. So I just end up drawing it a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
I have not met a Nigerian that didn’t like bright colors. So you’re definitely onto something there.

Keisha Okafor:
[inaudible 00:35:22]. I love that. You’re right. You’re right.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you get your creativity back if you are feeling uninspired, like say you hit a block in a project somewhere you’re working on something, what do you do to get that spark back?

Keisha Okafor:
So when I am inspired, I have a bunch of hidden Pinterest boards. And then I also have a notebook where when I’m inspired, I just write down ideas of things that I think will be cool to make. So when I am feeling blocked or uninspired, I’ll look through that Pinterest board. One is just called Black, and it’s just black people, just random black people that I can find on Pinterest. It used to be really hard, but I saved so many pictures and looked at it that Pinterest has realized this girl likes to look here black people. So now my homepage has that.

Keisha Okafor:
So I’ll either look at that Pinterest board, just kind of seeing people do stuff or I also have some with just colors or textures or shapes. I’ll just look through the Pinterest board or I’ll look through that list of ideas that I have. I’ll either do that or I’ll just take a break. Turn the thing off, turn the computer off, turn the iPad off, watch TV, play a video game, take a nap and then come back. Yeah. And then if there’s like a time crunch, I’m just like, “Well, honestly, think about the money.” I’m like, “Girl, do you want to get paid?” I’m like, “Yeah.” So I just do it no matter what I’m like, okay. Just loosen up. Then I’ll take a five minute break, loosen up, get some water or something and then come back and just do it.

Keisha Okafor:
Or another thing I’ll do, sometimes I’m not a good singer, but I love to sing. So I’ll just turn on Spotify and then just force myself to sing along out loud as bad as it’s going to come out, just so to get my mind not overthinking it. And then things usually come out better. If I have, like my mind is focused on me singing, even though like, what notes? What notes am I hitting? So that helps me have a bit of more energy and looseness to the art that I’m making.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that I would do when I was working on projects is I’d always build in at least a week into the sort of like project plan, because I mean, I think the expectation, certainly, I think from clients, but oftentimes, for us as freelances, as designers, the expectation is we’ll get the work and we’ll just be able to knock it out, like we’ll sit down and we’ll know what we do because the client has brought us on for our expertise. So we have to be the expert.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, depending on how, if you set up a project rate or hourly rate or a day rate or whatever, sometimes clients will try to nickel and dime you to try to know like, well, how long did it take you to work on X, Y, Z, and blah, blah, blah? And I certainly early on in my freelance career, that was a mistake that I made. And then eventually, I switched things over either to like a project rate or I do like a day rate or something like that. I’d build in like a week of time because there’s no telling.

Maurice Cherry:
And for me, it’s almost like creative insurance, like I may need it in the future if something happens, like what if I get sick? Or what if I just am not feeling it? And I can take that time out of the bank sort of because I’ve built it into the project and then I can, like if I take a day off and then decide to come back later and do it, then that way I’m not impacting the project because I built that time in there. It gives me permission to not have to be a machine when it comes to like creativity because sometimes the ideas flow and sometimes they just don’t.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’ve certainly been at that place where you’re at, where you’re like, you just have to think about the money, like think about what this is going to do. And then you soldier on or you push through it. But yeah, that’s one thing that I would do is I just build in the time because the good thing is if you never use it, then you come out early and the client is happy. And then if you do use it, the client is still happy because you came out on time.

Keisha Okafor:
Right. That’s great. Because I learned in the design world as well, especially when I was at that media buying agency, it was an open office and there were only like eight of us. So sometimes I’ll work on stuff, they just be standing over my shoulder, “How long do you think it’ll take?” I’m like, “Please. Oh, I think it’ll take me a few hours rolling.” It wouldn’t. It would take me shorter than that, but I like to add in that buffer, just like you said, like if something happens, I can still turn it in when I said I could, but also giving myself that insurance, like you said, to make it.

Keisha Okafor:
But in terms of the illustration projects now, those few hours turns into a couple of extra days or maybe an extra week, like you said. Yeah. Especially when people say they have a tight turnaround, things never are as tight as people want it to be, especially with getting revisions and just getting feedback, especially if there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. So it is way better to add in more time for that kind of stuff in the beginning, like you said.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now when you were in school, when you were back at North Carolina State, let’s say, I think that was maybe probably around 10 years ago at this point, right?

Keisha Okafor:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Where did you see yourself career-wise by this age where you’re at now?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, by the time I graduated, I was just like, “Am I cut out for this?” Honestly, because I thought, again, like when I was 18 entering college, I thought, okay, college is going to give me the roadmap. And by the time I am a senior, I’m going to know exactly what I want to do, how to get there and I’ll be able to get there. But that didn’t happen when I was a senior. I felt kind of similar to how I was as a freshman, like, what? Like, what am I doing? I need to find a job.

Keisha Okafor:
So I mainly, the main goal I had, I was like, Keisha, please have a job, please have a job and an apartment that you can pay for with your job. I had very, very basic goals for myself, have a job that’s something related to design. Yeah, that was pretty much my only goal. I wanted, the idea of freelance sounded good, but then at that time, I had no idea how to do it. So it wasn’t even, it was more like a fantasy more than like me seeing myself there.

Maurice Cherry:
I didn’t go to design school, but it is something that I’ve thought about in terms of like, do I need this in order to have this legitimacy for myself as a designer? Because I’ve been self-taught and I did a little bit of work at companies, like I worked for the State of Georgia for a while, I worked at AT&T for a while. And then like, I really had just felt like, you know what? I got this, I could start my own studio and do this and really do it myself. And I’ve learned so much really just in the time that I had my studio doing things by myself, but they never really teach you entrepreneurship. I mean, again, I didn’t go to design school, but even with the work that I was doing, by the time I started my studio, I had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and still didn’t know anything about freelancing. I was really either making it up as I went along or I was asking other freelances. I was really gaining this education while I was also trying to run my business.

Keisha Okafor:
Absolutely. Because in design school, in my senior year, we had this class that the description was literally, we’re going to prepare you to get a job. But when we actually took the class, they were like, “You need a website. Do you know what a website is? You can make websites on Squarespace.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? This is my senior year and you’re teaching us that we need a website. Of course, we do. What are you talking about? How do you get a job? Please tell me what to put on my resume and how to get the people to actually hire me.”

Keisha Okafor:
Even then, like being in design school didn’t make that difference. It’s almost like they’re out of touch with what was happening in the world. Like they got the art skills, but getting a job or even being an entrepreneur, that wasn’t even close to being thought about in any of my classes. I would have had to talk to alumni who are already doing it. And kind of like you said, they were figuring it out on their own or like having outside resources to figure that out. So I definitely don’t think going to design school will or not going to design school, you won’t really be missing out honestly.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, by the time I really started figuring it out, I think I was about, I don’t know, I think maybe I was about two or three years into my studio and from just talking with other freelancers and picking up, because sometimes you just have to get, unfortunately, you just have to get burned a few times in business before you learn that lesson or whatever that particular lesson is. But I think by the time I was like, by the time I hit my fifth year, I had it down pat at that point, I knew about contracts and proposals and getting things done and everything just ran smoothly, but it took some time to get there.

Maurice Cherry:
So yeah. I think now, because freelancing is an option for so many people, whether they do it either independently, like you’re doing, or if they do something like working via like a design marketplace, such as ThemeForest or Envato Elements or Envato Market, whatever the thing is that Envato has with all of the different websites and stuff, Fiverr, even those kinds of things, Upwork, there’s ways that you can use those tools to manage your business better, but it’s still, at the end of the day, it comes down to really knowing what those fundamentals are and knowing what works best for you. I think certainly, when I was doing business, there’s not an all-purpose solution for like being an entrepreneur. I wish there was. But once you learn what works for you in terms of cashflow and payments and client communication and everything, then you’ve cracked it, you’ve cracked the code pretty much.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. A lot of the stuff I’ve learned even about graphic design because NC State does have a graphic design major, but I majored in art and design, a lot of the stuff I learned about graphic design was just learning by doing. It ended up being like the jobs I had, more doing stuff for family and friends was really the stuff that prepared me for the different jobs. And I’m learning that that’s the same thing that’s happening with freelance as well, like the classes that I take, the people, the Instagram artists that I’ll DM or Instagram friends I have, I’ll DM, those things have been really helpful. And also, like you said, being burnt, having bad clients, that helps me set better boundaries for future clients, like knowing what to do. So yeah, that’s definitely something I’m in the process of right now. I’m definitely looking forward to the part where everything runs itself.

Maurice Cherry:
It’ll get there probably I think sooner than you expect. Before you know it, it’ll just flow. It’s sort of like a… I mean, you watch anime, it’s like the Avatar State. Eventually, you’ll be able to just invoke it and you’ll be good.

Keisha Okafor:
Awesome. Avatar is one of my favorite shows. So I love that you said the Avatar State.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with at the moment?

Keisha Okafor:
Speaking of anime, so I’m watching this anime called Fruits Basket. It’s a silly premise. When it’s like, if you hug someone of the opposite gender, they will turn into Zodiac animal, so like the Year of the Horse, or a cat, rat, like things like that. But you end up finding out everyone has these crazy backstories and there’s this whole curse and things like that. So I’ve just been binge-watching that show basically, because I’m so curious to see what’s happening. Other than that, I’ve been playing a video game called Mario & Sonic at The Olympic Games for 2020. I’ve just been going through the story mode. There was one, it’s the triple jump and I keep getting disqualified. So I got mad and turned it off, but I still think about it because I’m like, “I’m going to win.” Yeah. I would say those two things.

Keisha Okafor:
Also, I have a cat. I’ve never had a pet before, but I got one a few months ago, honestly, off the strength of seeing other black people on social media have cats and they seem to enjoy it. And I always wanted a cat. So I ended up getting one. So I spend a lot of time peeking over the couch, seeing what she’s doing or looking for her around the house and just smiling really big. She gets annoyed, but I think she’s used to it. I would say I’m pretty obsessed with her.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Do you have like a dream project that you would love to do one day?

Keisha Okafor:
That’s a great question. I would say the only dream project I had, I got to do it last year. So I got to illustrate a deck of playing cards and I pretty much did the art direction for the whole thing. So you mentioned the tropical idea, there was a running idea I had for a long time of joining black people in the tropical space, kind of like an oasis, a place where they could freely celebrate themselves without all the isms in the world that black people carry. So I pretty much made the deck around that and got the job black people being happy or silly in that tropical environment. And that was something I really enjoy doing. If I think of like a future project, it would be a similar thing, but in a different format. I haven’t figured that out yet, but definitely enjoyed doing that deck of cards, but I’m not sure if that’s like a book or like a coffee book or like a storybook, but that’s kind of like something that I’m juggling in my head right now.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best advice that you’ve ever been given regarding what you do as an illustrator?

Keisha Okafor:
Interestingly enough, I would say the best advice I have is more of like a you as a person. So like, not finding your identity in the work that you do, you’re more than the work that you do. You are enough as you are. Like those kinds of things I’ve seen have made the biggest difference for me. Yeah, a lot of times the artsy-fartsy, mumbo-jumbo, it just slides off of me. I’m just like, this sounds, but when I draw, what does that mean? So hearing things like, I’m more than the art that I make is very freeing for me to be able to just have fun with it and do stuff that I like. And I don’t have to judge myself based on how well I drew today.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I can see how that, I mean, well, one, I see that is good advice just in general, like, make sure that you don’t get too caught up in the work, but also realize that you put your own identity into everything that you do as well.

Keisha Okafor:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next like five years? Like this whole pandemic craziness is over with, it’s 20, what? 2026. What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, I haven’t thought that far ahead. I was like, “Will the world still be turning at that time?” I think it would be.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope so.

Keisha Okafor:
You’re right. Me too. Honestly, I hope I’ll be doing bigger projects, projects I’m really excited about. I’m enjoying the projects that I’m doing right now. So more, just like an extension of the kinds of things I’m doing right now getting to illustrate different people, doing things, really hoping to get into the Children’s Book World, be able to illustrate them to children’s books. That’s something I’m looking forward to. And also, I want to get my patterns onto products. So one thing I’m hoping to do also in five years is to have my products on things. Yeah. More of like, just like all the different ways I can get my work out there, either on products or online in different formats. That’s something I’m hoping will happen, just as I grow and do things and get better at art, have it just spread onto different formats as well.

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

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So you can find my work on my website, which is keishaokafor.com, O-K-A-F-O-R. You can also find me on social media on Twitter and Instagram, mostly Instagram @keishaoak, oak as in oak tree, O-A-K. The reason why it’s like that is just so you know how to pronounce Okafor. But yeah, that’s pretty much where I’m at, Instagram, Twitter and my website.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Keisha Okafor, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I have to say, I just love how joyful and colorful and vibrant your work is. Like I mentioned, when I discovered you from the work that you did at YouTube, I was just looking at your website, like, this is so fun. And I have to say that it’s rare to see a designer put that sort of joy into their work, but I am really excited to see what sort of work you’ll be doing after this interview, after people get a chance to really see your work, because I feel like this sort of vibrancy and joy in life is what we need right now. We need to be seeing more of this everywhere. And so I’m excited for people to really learn more about you and learn more about your work. And yeah, just thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keisha Okafor:
Thank you for having me. I am hope, really excited for people to see my work too. And I really appreciate all your kind words. Yeah, I definitely, I’m just like, if I’m going to draw, I’m going to have fun with it and I want everyone else to have fun with it too. So definitely excited to see where it all goes.

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

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