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Randall Parrish

If your emotions have been up and down for the past few months, trust me…you’re not alone. But I’ve got something to help lift your spirits — this week’s interview with “human glitter bomb” Randall Parrish! We talked at an interesting point in his life too; he’s fresh off of a cross-country move from DC to California and recently started a new job as an art director at Sonos, all during this crazy and unpredictable pandemic.

Randall started off with how he’s holding up while getting used to the triple whammy of a new job, a new city, and working from home. From there, he spoke on his work with Sonos’ design system, and also talked about his previous agency work at Publicis Sapient and WDG. Randall is also big on giving back to the community, and we talked about his volunteer work with AIGA, as well as his work with some past Revision Path guests — Dian Holton and Chanel James!

Randall’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious, and I hope his story helps get your week off on the right foot!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Randall Parrish:
Hello there, I’m Randall Parrish, I’m an Art Director at Sonos. I work on the interactive experience team, which basically controls the mobile design application for all Sonos speaker systems.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Now for starters, I know you’re new there, you’ve been there what, a month, two months now?

Randall Parrish:
I’ve been here about five weeks.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, five weeks.

Randall Parrish:
I took a one way ticket on March 9th, moving 3,000 miles away from everything I’ve ever known. And I was in the office for about four days before the whole city shut down.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Well, first of all, congratulations on the new gig. I know this is probably a very unprecedented time to start a new job. So, how are you holding up?

Randall Parrish:
It’s been really interesting because when I thought about just moving to California, I remember visiting in January and Santa Barbara is just this amazing simulation of just perfection. It’s this beautiful beach town there’s flowers everywhere, there’s wineries and restaurants. And of course the second I get there, all I can do is just unpack really slowly and just take Zoom calls from my couch. So in one sense, it’s amazing because you still know there’s all this amazing potential out there. But the other end, you’re just like, “Oh, why me? Why now?” But still very optimistic [inaudible 00:04:04], I’m still connected with the coworkers, everyone’s been very friendly and everyone just understands that this is not what anyone imagined for themselves this month or this year at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Randall Parrish:
So [inaudible 00:04:17] just helped me throw myself into the unpacking and the work and just being acquainted and then I guess to make a bit of an itinerary for later. So now I feel a little less guilt about holding still on the weekends.

Maurice Cherry:
And you were only in the office for four days? Is that even a full work week?

Randall Parrish:
Not even a full week. Technically I was breaking in for another week, but I wasn’t supposed to because I didn’t have wifi at the time. Because all services are a little slower than they used to be, so there was a brief week where I had this just gigantic industrial thunder dome to myself where I was the only person in there, just playing with all the hardware really loudly. But the following week, everything was just straight up shut down. It was starting to become a bit of a risk between security, and delivery people, and regular employees. I was there for four real days before I was just completely shut out and just housebound.

Maurice Cherry:
So you mentioned that you work on the app experience of Sonos. So I know most people know Sonos as the actual physical speakers. You have the little Play:1s, you have the Play:3, which is a larger one, the Play:5 is the huge one. You’ve got, and I say this because I have them in my apartment, but you have the Playbase, and you have the sub, and you’ve got the soundbar, there’s a bunch of different hardware components that go on to it and they’re all tied together with this mobile app. So talk to me about what your day consists of, because it sounds like you would possibly have to interface with a lot of hardware, but unfortunately you can’t because you’re not at the office.

Randall Parrish:
So let me further numerate and what my title means in relation to the rest of the team. So as of right now, I believe we are about 61 designers or so, we’re quite a few. I’ve never worked in a place that was internal, first of all. And I’ve never quite seen just so many different people with different ownerships of different aspects of the product. So as Art Director, I’m in this role where my role is supposed to be about owning the design system symphony. So if you know design systems, that’s a little old hat, but it’s still like a thing that’s a bit new and a bit up and coming and still trying to be just regulated within the context of Santos.

Randall Parrish:
So the idea for my role is to be this very connective tissue between a lot of other teams. So we have a different team that handles setup, or a different team that handles different aspects or sub branches of the app. But people who are also handling some of those sub branches also work on purely hardware or other, maybe non software, angles of the app as well. So my job is to be this person who’s understanding what are the needs that, one, that the app needs to do, two, how are other teams using the core design system so we have consistency across that, three, I’m going to also ask, “What are you all missing? What do you all need me to ingest in the system and also maintain and spit back out? And how can we work together to also have a thing where we can cross between all these 60 designers?” As well as while we’re doing that, I’m also trying to be a connective tissue to marketing. So we’re asking broad questions, like, “How can we make the app feel a bit more like the .com? How can we make the .com feel more like the app? How can you basically find consistency inside a brand voice and tonality across these different sorts of channels?”

Randall Parrish:
Because this is sa new undertaking for Sonos. Right now we’re in this really amazing renaissance where we’ve just been on a great upward hiring tilt. And that’s mostly because I think we’re, a lot of organizations the last four to five years, I would say, really started to just really amp up just how seriously they’re taking design. I think design is starting to really get this seat at the table. People are starting to understand the value and the ROI on design. So we’re seeing all these different companies who you would have thought were very design centric, like Sonos, but hung it’s hat on being this almost like the Apple of speakers. But in terms of software, they were, I think I can easily say that maybe they weren’t kind of as competitive as they should have been at the time-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh no. The Sonos app used to be trash, it was really bad.

Randall Parrish:
It was super bad, but the hardware was amazing. So you forgave it, right? You know what I mean?

Randall Parrish:
That’s good that you were like, “I don’t care how bad this app is, it sounds so good.”

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true, that’s true.

Randall Parrish:
I remember, it was funny, I remember when I interviewed, I outright said, I said, “I didn’t think the Play:1 was a good bite until AirPlay was added,” and they gave me a fun stat, turns out significantly less people use AirPlay than you might think. I was very blown away by the metric.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see that. I can see that.

Randall Parrish:
[crosstalk 00:08:26] lee than I thought.

Maurice Cherry:
Right now, I have in the living room, I’ve got to Play:1s and a Playbase and so I have them just connected as a surround sound thing, which is mostly how I use it for gaming. So I can get the really good sound when I’m playing PlayStation or whatever, which is great, I love it for that. And maybe this is just me, I rarely actually play music on my Sonos speakers, but I think it’s because I have them hooked up to the television. Now, before I did that and I connected with the Playbase, I think I had one in the living room, no one in the living room and one in the bedroom, and I would use the app to play music to it. I wish, this was before, well, I think Chromecast was out around this time, but the ability to cast to a speaker or something like that, which Google kind of lets you do, Google Play kind of lets you cast to Sono speakers. I don’t know how that all works out. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. But it didn’t use to be such a great harmonious experience. So that’s interesting to hear that.

Randall Parrish:
I was just thinking about just all these fun little things I know about just relations or [inaudible 00:09:36], all these different things. Sonos right now exists in this Switzerland kind of state, so you’re like the Google doesn’t work that well, oh boy, we got [inaudible 00:09:44].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Randall Parrish:
Yeah, because a lot of what we do is, a lot of what we pride ourselves on is being this amazing connective tissue between hundreds of services. Now some of those are the large partners like Amazon and Google and Apple, but we also have all those like small-time partners. So it’s always interesting when [inaudible 00:10:02] moments where a big time partner has maybe an integration or something that isn’t always working quite the way you would expect. And there are all sorts of just wild hijinks and reasons for why something is, or isn’t a certain way, but it’s not always up to us.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, how did you first get started at Sonos?

Randall Parrish:
So first week or how’d I get discovered? I guess how I got discovered. So yeah, let me really wind it back a bit. So I want to say it was maybe August of last year I got a ping from a recruiter I had never actually had applied to them. So initially I got a call about a creative director of mobile apps job from them. And I remember when I got the email, they were just like, “Oh, how do you feel about relocation?” And I grew up in Northern Virginia, I’ve lived in the Arlington, DC, Metro area, my entire life. And I remember I was just like, “Well, you caught me out this very interesting apex moment in my life,” I was still very fresh off of a breakup.

Randall Parrish:
It was a very wild, just tumultuous time in my life because I thought I had this plan in my life for what I thought that my following years were going to be and I get this call and I’m just like, “Huh. You’re catching it every time in my life. This is suddenly something that suddenly seems on the table.” If I had gotten this call six months a year ago, I would’ve been like, “Oh, sorry, I can’t do it.” I would have let go straight to voicemail. But the timing was just impeccable for just making me really take it seriously. The other fun part was when I got in the call, I already had four Pla:1s in the house, so I didn’t necessarily need coaxing that the hardware was any good or was like actually worth selling or being engaged in.

Randall Parrish:
And the other part was I was also asking myself, “Okay, what do I really want to work on?” I come from an agency background, I’ve done that for about the last eight years straight. And an agency is, half of the fun was you get to reset your mind pretty often, you get to try a lot of different things, you get to reset pretty frequently. But I asked myself “If I,” you don’t always get to choose the topic and you’re not guaranteed to love whatever project you’re on next and, “What if I could actually choose the thing that I could actually fall in love with? And what if I could do this and this new shiny place just do, not quite a reset, but just like a natural continuation in this very, just amazing, brave, intricate way?”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Randall Parrish:
So yeah. So I got that call in August and just a little upward from there. I can tell you stuff like interview highlights and things like that, but yeah, that’s how the initial seed.

Maurice Cherry:
The fact that they sought you out is amazing, that’s great.

Randall Parrish:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Clearly you were doing something worth, that was worthy of them seeking you out in that way.

Randall Parrish:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), I do pride myself because back when I left DC, I was in the top 21 designers there, on the trending metrics I think I had more followers than the Capital One design team. I love you Capital One, I have your cards. So it was just funny because I think it was… Dribble is such a funny, interesting way to generate traffic and just be seen in a city that’s as, I don’t want to say small, but the size that DC is, out in LA, I feel like I would have never gotten half the opportunities because I think that the density is so much higher. But in DC, I think that’s just the right market for just a midsize targeting person, like me, to get picked up.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you mentioned Symphony, the design system at Sonos. Outside of that, are there other projects that you’re working on or is that the main thing?

Randall Parrish:
Right now that’s the main thing, mostly because there’s still some other things that I might target. There’s a few things have been shifted around, priorities are still being readjusted all the time, but owning Symphony is expected to be a very large, major undertaking, mostly because it touches so many aspects of what other teams are doing. So for example, it’s like we have a team that operates on set or we have other teams that own other areas of the app, anytime that they have a new feature that they want to do, it has to still be ingested somewhere, still has to work within the system, and we still have to make sure that we aren’t creating so much bloat within the system that we just have a million just different unique one off pieces everywhere.

Randall Parrish:
So a lot of that is just about, little bit’s about managing, but it’s also about trying to meet in the middle a little bit. So I see it as this great opportunity to a little bit of a negotiator between people, and another reason why I think I was chosen for the job or why I kind of stuck out was they really like how I don’t ome looking at design system from a pure product design background. A lot of my background is usually about like when I went, when I was at Sapient, what I did was I worked on we’ll call the digital innovation pod. So basically what we do would do is we were often doing either pitch work or much more pie in the sky type, idea generation for these big billion dollar brands.

Randall Parrish:
And what that gave me the ability to do in addition with my time at Davey DG was getting really good at just trying to figure out where do I let go of the break, where to really push something in a kind of visual design type way, well also still being held to like the same rules as something that was still had gone through rigorous UX. So I would still be working on teams to make sure that, “Oh, a financial analyst… [inaudible 00:15:00] agree that this is all sensible. This makes sense. And also like my associate creative director on UX also agreed, okay, this makes sense. This is like a good use case or a good scenario that we would present it if we were trying to ship. But also while doing this instead of a tight bubble about just making it as unique and different as possible as well to be unlike the rest of the other big billion dollar players in the market. So a lot of what I’ve been trying to do is I’m trying to figure out how to basically take marketing design type sensibilities and add them to a very product focused company and kind of meet in the middle to figure out where we can kind find that happy center ground between the two.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), and before Sonos, you were an art director at Publicis Sapient. So you already had this experience of working with these big million, dollar multimillion dollar brands. But talk to me about what your agency experience was like.

Randall Parrish:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), I initially got started at this, a very small shop in old town Alexandria now Arlington WTG. So I was there for five years. It was my first real adult job out of college while I interned at it became designer, but it was like they just couldn’t.

Randall Parrish:
Out of college while I interned and became a designer it was like I… They just couldn’t shake me off. And I feel like I got there at this very fortuitous time. When I got there, it was just like they were very young, very kind of startup-y. There was less than 20 people. It was like a wear your pajamas to work type place. And I think I got in there at a time where they were still very young and still finding themselves. And year over year, we all found ourselves in this more mature way, year over year. So we were just doing very, very small scale marketing sites. And every single year we had a great way of just having new challenges approach.

Randall Parrish:
So, bigger fish would call. So people like Red Cross were calling or people like the Folger Shakespeare Library were calling or people like the American Enterprise Institute. Just bigger, just names that you might actually see or catch on TV, or are just very notable in the DC area were creeping up. These kind of like AAA for the region type projects came in. And as I started to go from just being in a sort of assistive role to being someone who could kind of take ownership and really run something from conception to deployment.

Randall Parrish:
That’s what I think was the best part about my time at WDG was, I don’t think that I could have done anything that I’m doing today if I hadn’t done my time there. But I think that’s because… I think if you go somewhere small… I was one of three designers, by the way. That’s what I mean when I say small, in terms of this sense, it was a very, very small, tight design team. It was just me, my career director, [Dario Tatish 00:17:22] and my counterpart, [Christina Lakeway 00:01:23].

Randall Parrish:
And it basically meant that just about anything that came through would eventually filter through me. So that meant I had to have a feeling or an answer to so many more just problems in my day to day than I think I would have had if I had gone to a very large established product company or a much bigger agency where I would have done a bit more, just like production type work. After five years or so I think that was kind of what made me decide to open up to the Sapient. They had called me first and that was the first time that I felt like I had gotten a call from a place that was so much more bigger and so much more established.

Randall Parrish:
I had gotten calls from other small agencies or people that were about our size, but it was my first time seeing a place where they had people like Audi and Marriott and like [inaudible 00:02:05], very large, incredibly established brands were just at the front face of their portfolio. And I also knew that if I stayed at WDG I would never be able to make all these other types of tactile deliverables I wanted to do. I really wanted to be able to ship an app. I really wanted to make much larger, more complex systems. I wanted it to be able to… I also just wanted to try just seeing what it was like to be on a bigger, different kind of team. I loved my team at WDG.

Randall Parrish:
I always credit a lot of my worldly success to just my old boss Dario’s ability just to help me just, one develop my taste, but also help me just figure out what questions to ask when I’m trying to solve for a solution. What I love most about him and just his mentorship was he really taught me how to think for myself. He was never prescriptive whenever he was trying to help you along the way to solve a solution. He would give you just enough of a riddle that you were like, “Okay, I’ll figure this out on my own.” And you could feel proud and feel like it wasn’t given to you, it was still something earned.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice.

Randall Parrish:
Yeah. I get the call for Sapient and they’re a big established brand and I’m just like, “Okay, I’ll make the plunge. I’ll take this risk.” And luckily for me, [inaudible 00:19:09] one Metro stop away. So didn’t have to change my commute much. As far as the transition over, I would say a lot of it was kind of exactly what I hoped I would be able to do. I did some work for Barclays, I did some work for just all these very kind of, incredibly different types of engagements that I just never would have been able to do at WDG. Mostly because like, part of the scale, but also because there’s just a big, large mega consultancy. Right. And I also got to work with just all these other people who are just very different kinds of experts.

Randall Parrish:
So I could meet people who were masters of just finance, but also I guess it might pertain to a mobile app and just all these different types of strategists who would specialize in certain kinds of areas and topics. One of my favorite parts about Sapient was just how it was able to be such a large company, but also just had so many smart people that could just jam into a room. I really love just any kind of moment where we were pitching something or we were on this more sort of discovery type angle for a project, and we were basically just… Essentially kind of this amazing sort of design SWAT team of all these different skillsets, just really coming together in a real tight timeframe.

Maurice Cherry:
Was it a big shift then, going from the agency world at Publicis to working for Sonos, which is like this private company?

Randall Parrish:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. It’s still something that I’m very much adjusting to. I haven’t worked in house, in house since ARP, when I was an intern that was like 2012. That was a full eight years ago. It’s funny because I remember thinking there was a big dramatic shift between agency to agency based on scale because WDG was about 25 or so people when I left and Publicis was about 30,000 or so. They’re in 39 countries, about like 30 States they’re everywhere.

Randall Parrish:
Coming to Sonos was very different because as you might imagine, since we’re all in house, we all worked together because the hardware, the services that is the product. That is how we make money. So what’s interesting is just, there’s a lot more just dependencies between departments, between people and a lot of what I’ve been doing for a lot of my initial onboarding, it was just meeting people, just putting names to faces and understanding what their team does and also what their team’s impact is on other projects.

Randall Parrish:
So a lot of what I’m ramping up is just trying to understand this Game of Thrones type character chart between who is in charge, what do they own and how does what they own affect other parts of different kinds of hardware and software experiences. And that’s the part that’s been most fascinating because there is so much different kind of push and pull when you’re at not just a software company, but also a company that also ships hardware. So there’s so many more moving pieces that can affect one another.

Randall Parrish:
And I guess another fun part is just the total volume of designers, because I’m so used to being this almost sole practitioner type design person on any project I’m on. I’ve almost always been the only visual design hand on most projects I’ve ever done. There’s maybe been like two or three total where I’ve ever had any kind of additional assistance. That’s another thing it’s kind of interesting to see just how other people can keep the thing going. I think I got used to this almost lone wolf aspect and every point in my career, I told myself I was trying to kind of let go of that. And I think this is a place where I finally can actually commit to that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So let’s switch gears here a little bit because we went through a lot. [inaudible 00:22:14] so far.

Randall Parrish:
I can’t answer things simply.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I want to do is kind of take it back. Because I want to see where this drive and this enthusiasm comes from. So you earlier mentioned growing up in Northern Virginia. Tell me what that was like. Were you exposed to a lot of art and design growing up?

Randall Parrish:
I’ve always thought about just the reason why I got into design, I’ve had all sorts of different answers for myself. I would say I was like an upper average student, I wouldn’t call myself an amazing smart bad-ass or whatever. I got like, decent honor roll when I was trying, but I remember I was always a music themed kid. I liked doing band and orchestra. I liked kind of these creative type things. And I remember I was terrible at math. I could not stand doing math or anything where an answer was very black and white. What I did love was English. I did advanced English basically from like, I don’t know, third grade until 12th. As long as I could I’d always do whatever it was like the absolute most insane version of English.

Randall Parrish:
What I love most about English was I think it was, I love the idea of just doing anything where just answers weren’t ever binary. It was always when you write a paper or an essay, you’re as good as your argument. And I think that was kind of one of the [inaudible 00:23:20] that kind of got me really interested in graphic design later. I saw myself as a kid, as an artist light, like I couldn’t draw at all, but I knew that I loved creativity. I knew I liked music. I knew I liked to engage with art, but I didn’t have the means to express in a way that was good enough to be like, “Oh yeah, I would share this or I think this is actually worth doing.”

Randall Parrish:
So I was very lucky because in high school we had graphic design courses and that kind of got my first taste for a design blood. Because after two years I got to design the course catalog for the school. I think every designer has a moment where they build something and they see it made real. And that’s kind of like this turning point, right? To see something that just came from nothing. It was just some [inaudible 00:23:58] from your brain and suddenly it’s here, it’s everywhere. It’s in everyone’s homes and you’re just, I made that happen.

Randall Parrish:
And that was just such a just amazing, just indescribable moment just to see something, just to know that it was everywhere. Even though other people wouldn’t think of it as this like, they’re like “Oh, it’s just a catalog, whatever it;s going to collect dust, go in the bin.” But to me it was my big gig at the time for 11th grade. Right. That was kind of like the big turning point.

Randall Parrish:
After that, I just went to school for graphic design and the rest is history. As far as other things about growing up. I always like to mention my aunt. She was a fashion designer. She was always a very big, just advocate for creativity. I wouldn’t say anyone in my family ever was not supportive of creativity or a creative pursuit or anything. I think there probably was maybe small moments of hesitation. But my mother has always been my greatest supporter. If I told her I had plans to go to the moon, she’d be the first to give me a helmet so I can always count on her support for everything.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Now you’ve mentioned going to school for graphic design. You went to George Mason University. What was the experience like? Do you feel like it really prepared you once you went out there in the working world as a designer?

Randall Parrish:
The state of design school is fascinating. I think I also went to school at this sort of turning point in the whole planet. Because I remember when I was in school, a lot of programs focus a lot on print and very physical media type things. But, so I went to school from between 09 and 13. And I remember around the tail end there was all this talk about like, “Oh, well, if you want to make any money, you have to be a web designer, you have to learn to [inaudible 00:25:27], you have to learn how to code.”

Randall Parrish:
And I was like, “I will make any decisions in my life to not have to close the div.” And I have stood by that for the last nine years. If you’re like, “[inaudible 00:25:38] this path involves code.” I’ll be, “Next!” I will take door number two every single time. But what’s funny is around the tail end of my time, I think that was when the internet was really changing. I didn’t have to learn flash because around 2012, 2013, [inaudible 00:25:51] was really starting to really kind of kick into full gear. I think the iPhone had been like, it was starting to mature to the point where we weren’t getting mobile dot, whatever with reduced [inaudible 00:26:00] website.

Randall Parrish:
We were starting to get to this point where people are taking smartphones as a very serious platform for growth and money and all sorts of different kinds of business structures. My first internship was at ARP and this kind of coincides with that a little bit because I remember I had this kind of print background, but I knew I still wanted to do more digital. Because I remember print was cool and all, but going to the print shop, going [inaudible 00:10:21], having everything break or not being able to fix things. It was just very frustrating.

Randall Parrish:
And when I was at AARP, it was kind of around when they were really getting into digital magazines. So using things like digital publishing to basically make like an iPad edition of a magazine issue. So when I was an intern, I was kind of the initial explorer. So basically they would have a draft of the magazine and I would try to convert or try to figure out, “Okay, if we want to add some interactive pieces or do a little, some custom treatments for the iPad or make this a bit more specialized, how might we do that? What might that look like? How might that manifest? And also how can we also bring that knowledge to the rest of the team?”

Randall Parrish:
So that’s around 2011, 12 or so. And so this is kind of this turning point, because at this point in my college career, we’ve been very told that, “Okay, you have to make print stuff. You have to make all sorts of kinds of liberals. You have to learn how to make shirts, book covers and posters.” Just all sorts of stuff. Not necessarily unfocused, but just stuff that like, it was fine. But I remember I was in junior and just felt like I was just making something new all the time and not necessarily making a straight line that was going to build my skillset. Every single class just felt like, “Okay, you’re going to make something different, but it’s not going to build off of the prior skill you’ve learned.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Randall Parrish:
AARP kind of gave me just this first taste for building for screens and making a result that was only for a screen. What you saw was what you got in this really just amazing way. There was no more print shops. There was no more lines. There was no more, “Make sure it’s done by 9:00 AM so you can line up at USP to go to Kinko’s.” It was such a different just… I love the immediacy. I love the feeling in my hands of just scrolling through something. Very basic interaction just felt amazing because it was something that I had done. The iPad one and two were so amazing when they were new and to do something on that around that age just felt so different.

Randall Parrish:
I just love the feeling of it and just, I really want to just do more of that. I think part of that was what inspired me to go to my next internship. It was ISL. They were this very cool, full service, digital marketing agency type company in DC. They were known for doing all sorts of just really kind of, very off the wall, intricate work. They would make machines that responded to [inaudible 00:28:30] check-ins, all sorts of other things that were just cool integrations with machinery and hardware and software and apps. I loved the vibe there, but what’s funny is everyone always assumes that ARP would have been like a slower, more boring, whatever job. But I loved AARP. I think it was the best set up I could have had for framing my success for later.

Randall Parrish:
I say it mostly because I felt like.., I don’t mean this as a diss to ISL who no longer exists, but I think it was just… I think they had a better plan there for just what to do with an intern, how to nurture an intern and build their skill set and give them the tools to move to the next thing. Whereas I felt like I was maybe just not quite understood, not having my time being prioritized, or there was no growth path for me at my second internship. And I think that’s a tricky thing.

Randall Parrish:
That’s the thing I always try to remind students is just, sometimes all the super cool sexy companies that look great from the outside looking in are always like, it’s different once you’re in there, right? It still sounds cool, cool stuff is going on. But there’s not always a guarantee that it’s going to help you spread your wings or help you get any smarter or stronger. So don’t discount the things that you think you might not like. Because that might be where you have the greatest opportunity to grow.

Maurice Cherry:
And now also, while you were at AARP, you got to work with the one and only Dian Holton…

Randall Parrish:
I did.

Maurice Cherry:
…who’s a friend to the show here. She’s also been a guest on the show. Did you work really closely with her as an intern?

Randall Parrish:
I did. So there is basically… ARP has two magazines. They have the [inaudible 00:29:55]. I don’t know how it is nowadays, I don’t get a subscription I’m under 50. But at the time… I’m pretty sure they still have this. They had the magazine and the bulletin, they were two sub categories of magazine. The magazine’s the big one, the bulletin is this more I don’t know, almost reader’s digest situation.

Randall Parrish:
And so, but Diana was kind of great because, she would check in regularly, she was asking “Okay, what are you up to? Here’s what we should do this week.” And she would provide feedback week to week. And she’d also give me side products and just check in often. And that’s kind of what I mean, just going back to quality of internship is because I felt like I was actually being, one, cared for but also like I was… That she was trying to actually set me up to succeed for when I was not at ARP. That’s why I always look back at my time at ARP really fondly because I think she cared to see that growth in me over time. And now here we are eight years later and it’s just so funny just how things kind of turn out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So it seemed like you were pretty comfortable, well supported in the DMV area. I mean, you were at AARP, then after that WTG after that Publicis Sapient. I know you also did a little bit of work with AIGA, the DC chapter there as well. This Sonos experience must have really been something that made you stop and re-examine things it sounds like. Because that’s a big jump at the stage you’re at in your career to be comfortable, established in a place that you know, with people that you know. And then this other opportunity comes, it’s across the country and it’s almost like a pie in the sky kind of thing.

Randall Parrish:
Yeah. I will say there’s definitely a bit of idealism that kind of had a feel of the whole thing. There is this perfect brew of just weirdness. I think it was just, one they called me right when I was kind of at this low point mentally. I was still trying to refind myself, trying to figure out what do I care about? What matters to me now? What do I want to do as this person who is suddenly this solo creature here and this agency life was still cool, but I was asking myself, I was like, “What do I really want to work on?” I was on a particular project for about eight months around when I was leaving Sapient. And I’ll say that it was nothing that exactly made me want to get up and go to work every day or feel-

Randall Parrish:
It was not a thing that exactly made me want to get up and go to work every day or feel a great drive or a great energy in my voice. [inaudible 00:32:07] where I was just like, sure. Every client deserves good design, but it’s also hard to truly give that 120% for a thing that you are only doing because you’re in it for the money. And so the [inaudible 00:32:21] cause it was like, I suddenly had this chance on the table to do something that was just as much for me as it was for them. And I think that’s so incredibly hard to pull off in design, to have a topic or a product or just anything you’re working on where you feel just as much drive as whoever the founders might be.

Randall Parrish:
Music is a very near and dear topic to me. I grew up on music. I feel like there’s so many turning points in my life where just access to music or just discovery of different types of artists has just changed my world. It just made me a better, more worldly, more rounded, more interesting person. And I really would just want to just support that kind of mission. I have this feeling that just no matter what kind of amazing design I ever make, I’ll never be able to make something that’s as good as a great song. I’ll never be able to make a design system that makes you cry. But what I can do is help people bridge that gap so they can access things that can give them that feeling of emotion in their heart.

Randall Parrish:
So I feel like it’s my way of being the bassist in the band, just being support and just driving that mission. A lot of that call was just about what do I really want to do? What do I want people to feel? What do I want for me, how do I want to feel about the work that I’m doing? I came from this background where all I wanted to do is just make something that looked cool and just make another thing that looked cool and just keep it moving. But you get to a point now, if you look at my Dribbble, I’ve done over 60 different clients. I’ve worked on a lot of different things and it gets to a point now where it’s cool, it’s fun, but you start to wonder, what do I really care about?

Randall Parrish:
What’s actually emotionally resonant with me? What can I talk about where if no one sees the visual, they still know I care? And that kind of felt like I had this big opportunity for me, cause I was just like, God, I love the idea, just being in a place where a sound experience coming but what I want is just for everyone just to be just a happier person. And this just felt like a job where basically I feel like a lot of what I’m supposed to do is just almost create happiness, which sounds a little dorky. But when you think about just the ability for you to just access your sound, access your music, access your podcast. What I’m trying to do is just give people an objectively better day, whatever it is that they want to engage with. The mission just feels so pure, but also just, it’s so close to the heart, it’s hard to not love.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Designers and music tend to have a very special kind of relationship, anyway, whether it’s us listening to the music for inspiration or for productivity, or even just, I think, the opportunities that it allows us to have, whether that’s designing a flyer or a CD cover or an album cover or a poster or something like that, there’s a lot to be inspired by with music. I’ve always been interested in that connection between music and design, because I feel like it’s a really, really powerful one. I cut my teeth learning design and Photoshop by designing CD covers. This is back in the day. I don’t even know if kids still do this anymore, they probably don’t. But back in the day, there used to be two types of, I guess you can call them contests. One of them was called Layer Tennis.

Randall Parrish:
Oh, I know about Layer Tennis.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you start with one thing and then one designer does, then they pass to the other one and they add onto it and it goes back and forth until it gets to a certain point. And so then that kind of tests your ability to think quickly to work with something that’s unknown to you in a way, but then also somewhat familiar because you did do some work on it. So how do you work around and add to a design without stripping things away? And then the second thing, they were called blends. They’re essentially just fan art, essentially. You would make blends of say, an actress and you wanted to make a computer wallpaper. So you would get three pictures of this actress from, I don’t know, Getty Images or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And then you would cut the actress out or you would arrange them in a very artful way to make a wallpaper or something. And so then that teaches you about proportion and scale and opacity and color and a number of different things. And you’d enter these contests and you’d see who would get the best contest. Cause they’d see, okay, these are the source pictures and this is what you ended up turning it into. So it’s almost like a recipe, in a way. It’s like Chopped, but for design. You have these raw, basic ingredients that you have to come up with something that’s greater than the sum of the parts. Right?

Randall Parrish:
Yeah. Yeah. That’s funny. Chopped is actually how one of my old bosses, he described design. Cause we would get like a funny collide or just a weird thing, he would just be like, “All right, our job here is to take squid and marshmallow and make this into a nice dish. Good luck.” [crosstalk 00:36:48] It feels like you’re just taking these amazing disparate parts. You’re trying to take a thing that sounds so unglamorous, you’re just like, I’m going to find the jazz. And that was what was so fun about just working at a marketing type place.

Maurice Cherry:
So now you’re in Santa Barbara. I know you haven’t been out much because no one has been out right now. Have you, in any kind of way been able to link up with a design community there or other designers outside of work?

Randall Parrish:
Not just yet. What I want to do is I know that UCSB is nearby and I feel like they probably have an art program or I know we do sometimes send our people to talk there. I’ve always been a really huge proponent of student causes and talking to students and just letting them visit either my office or me coming to them. So that’s something that I really want to be able to, I feel like once I have enough that I feel like I can really go all in on. I would love to be able to start doing that. I care a lot about student causes, cause what I remember, all the misinformation about when I was younger and just having to filter through that and find it on my own.

Randall Parrish:
But too, I think it just helps to have someone come by and just cut through all the noise and tell you straight up as a person who is doing the thing right now, here’s actually what got me here. Every time I tell students that I don’t know how to code, I’ve made websites for years, or I don’t know how to do XYZ, or I did this instead and that helped me get to XYZ, they’re always just like what? They get their minds just routinely blown. So I love to just let them know, the way that you might think that it is or the way your teachers might have told you, there is another way. And I like to just disparage the myths or pull back the curtain anytime that I can.

Maurice Cherry:
Now I have a question here. This is from Chanel James, who has also been on the show. She was episode 325 back in December. She asked this question, you’ve adjusted to big changes a couple of times over the last few years, which it definitely sounds like you have. When taking on new roles and challenges, how do you prepare for the next step? What advice do you have to someone who is looking for the next new thing?

Randall Parrish:
That’s an interesting layer to wind, but my first thought is first I’m going to be a little dorky with you. So you ever seen Spider-Verse?

Maurice Cherry:
Uh-huh (affirmative). Into the Spider-Verse? Yeah.

Randall Parrish:
Yep. So for those who don’t know, there’s a great quote in there where he asks, “How will I know I’m ready?” And he says, “You never really know. It’s a leap of faith. That’s all it is.” There is so much truth to that statement because anytime you get an offer for an amazing new job far away or even anything that’s even in your own city, you never feel like you’re going to be adequately prepared for it. I remember thinking, oh, you mean me? You’re talking to me? This email’s for me? [inaudible 00:39:28] turn off the imposter syndrome or assume that, am I even good enough for this kind of thing? So part of it’s also just, first you’ve got to acknowledge, you got the call, you got the response, they’re interested.

Randall Parrish:
First, you have to believe in your heart that you are actually worth the trouble and worth pursuing and worth investing in. And that’s a hard thing to sometimes believe. Cause every time you do anything wrong, all you do is assume everyone else sees it. So one, you got to see yourself in the thing. As far as preparing for it and just mentally getting through it, it’s interesting cause I try and remember, cause every time I’ve transitioned to any of these major new jobs, it’s never a one to ones. I don’t just do what I did two weeks before, just somewhere else. There’s always going to be this amazing learning curve. I think it’s just about just be willing to ask questions, be willing to be wrong, be willing to leave your ego somewhere else for a while or a very long time preferably and just be willing to work with people and just ask questions and just be vulnerable to needing to ask for help or being able to say, oh, I’m not super sure, but I want to be better.

Randall Parrish:
I want to be useful. I want to be in service of something, but I don’t always know the best way to do it. I think my greatest philosophy on my whole career, honestly, is that I think I had a paralyzing fear of asking for help sometimes, probably when I needed it most. I think that I had this worry that if I asked for help, that I would be seen as this person who wasn’t an expert didn’t understand what was going on, maybe shouldn’t have been the person tasked for the thing. But what I found, especially at [inaudible 00:08:53], we had this amazing culture of just being willing to ask for help, being willing to admit that you’re wrong and presuming good intent from people who are asking questions or doing anything. Back when I was at agencies, I often felt that if I asked for help or asked a question that I was going to basically poke a hole in whatever kind of sense of rank or stature that I was trying to prop up for myself.

Randall Parrish:
And I feel like I’m trying to chip away at that, just every single year, every single interaction I’m trying just to be more willing to be wrong, be more willing to let people know that if I am wrong, I want you to let me know and I want us to be able to work on it together so that you don’t think I’m trying to be wrong and loud. I would rather be wrong than right together. So a lot of it’s about just all communication because if you get the call, you are already a good enough designer, but you also have to be a good enough person. That’s usually the thing that we don’t always focus in on.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Randall Parrish:
Oh boy. So many things. I love just all sorts of kinds of me. I’m a big movie nerd, I’m a big music nerd, I love curating my music, I love sneakers, I love games. I love so many just different types of just entertainment, art and media, and just loving to just see all these wild, different, weird aesthetics. One of the hardest parts about moving here is there’s no AMC out here. So it’s really hard to be a movie nerd out here. So hard. So what I love about all these different mediums, if you go outside, if you go to museums, you go to malls, you just look at a lot of stuff, you see so many different kinds of just styles and tastes and just ways that things get done and all these really strange ways that tends to leak its way back into your design sensibilities.

Randall Parrish:
I think that one of the things that’s made me versatile as a designer is just not minding looking at stuff or going places that I feel like I wouldn’t ordinarily choose to. So if someone’s like, oh, let’s go to the mall, let’s just window shop. You’ll see so many different typographic treatments at the mall. If you play games, there are so many ways to deconstruct a UI and think of it for a different application. If you like shoes, there are so many wild color schemes that should not be possible that totally work. Looking at you Yeezy Wave Runners. So a lot of what I’m thinking about is just, how can I just infuse just what I’m seeing daily or what I just like to do for myself and how can I repurpose that in the frame of, okay, if I were trying to work this back into a design, how might this change my approach for something, no matter how small or big this thing is?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What do you like to do in your non work time?

Randall Parrish:
I actually minored in computer game design so originally, I should have mentioned that. It’s always a little thing that just kind of tucks in, cause I never did much with it. So I minored in game design. So every time you ask a recommendation, it has to be a 90 minute conversation. I’m one of those. So I love gaming. I tried to start streaming. I would like to start a podcast mostly because, as you can probably tell, I’m a big talker, I could just go forever. So I tried to figure out how to merge that love of just chitter chatter into something. I got a friend or two who’s like, oh, maybe we’ll start some form of podcast, we’ll just do a little round table kind of thing.

Randall Parrish:
I try to be much more of an outdoorsy person out here, out east, in D.C., it’s not that fun to own a bike cause the only place you’re going to go to Target or is to get hit by a car. But here, it’s very different, cause out here it’s so amazingly picturesque and beautiful out here, you can get to the ocean in like five minutes, there’s flowers and lavender everywhere. Everything smells beautiful so it’s just amazing to hike and bike and just be present and outside. And I’m really looking forward to just being this different, more suntanned version of myself once things settle down.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to talk some more about this gaming because right now I feel like as we’re recording this it’s April 6th. We’re kind of in the middle of a-

Randall Parrish:
Big dry spell?

Maurice Cherry:
Well, no, actually I was going to say we’re kind of in the middle of a good bit of games right now. Well, I guess it depends on what systems you’re playing. What systems do you have?

Randall Parrish:
Everything.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, so you have a Switch?

Randall Parrish:
I have a Switch, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
PS4?

Randall Parrish:
Yep. PC.

Maurice Cherry:
Got a Xbox One? PC?

Randall Parrish:
You don’t even need the Xbox if you’ve got a PC.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Randall Parrish:
Real talk. It is what it is, Windows 10, you know, but I feel like we go with these like amazing, weird ebbs and flows with games. I can get real dorky about this, but…

Maurice Cherry:
But we’re kind of in a good time for games. I hate to say because of the pandemic, but people are at home and they want entertainment. Movies aren’t out because movie theaters are closed and production is shut down. There’s no new television shows unless you use Quibi, which I don’t know if by the time this episode comes out, people will still be using Quibi, but there’s not a lot of new stuff. And so a lot of people, I think right around the time Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out, everyone was like, yes, a distraction from the world.

Randall Parrish:
See, what’s funny is one of my favorite types of games are rhythm games. Once again, just infusing that love of music. I’m the type that generally plays games to be challenged and to almost just have a hard time. I love that feeling of achievement from overcoming. I like relaxing things also. But I think the ones that I look back with my most vivid memories of are usually things that were hard. I think a lot of that also tends to temper your brain too, to being like, if something doesn’t go right your way and you’re used to getting your ass kicked like 80 times in a row, you’re like, oh whatever. I got to make a hot take here, just say that I think Dark Souls has made me a nicer software designer.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Randall Parrish:
You heard it here first, folks. So for all the nerds on the podcast, give it a whirl.

Maurice Cherry:
I saw from looking at your Instagram that you beat Persona 5.

Randall Parrish:
Oh my God, it’s so long. It’s 106 hours. Honestly, real talk, I think Persona 5 has some of the most amazing graphic design ever put into a video game.

Maurice Cherry:
Agreed. I agree.

Randall Parrish:
It’s galaxy brain. Blew my mind. I cannot believe the things that they were able to pull off, the transitions they were able to do. Just the things that they would typography and scale and shape and color. It’s so hard to describe. I’m getting all lit up about this cause it’s just-

Maurice Cherry:
No they really stepped it up from Persona 4. Personas 3 and 4 kept a very similar sort of style, I would say. I think 4 was very, very much more colorful because it was just themed yellow and stuff. But they really stepped it up for 5. 5 is just so kinetic, there’s so much energy in the design.

Randall Parrish:
That’s also part of the reason why I feel like video games are a very underrated place to get UI and design inspiration.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh absolutely.

Randall Parrish:
A lot of people think of games as just Call of Duty or very mainstream ones that are commercial, right? But games, oftentimes have to solve very, really interesting kind of UI problems. And they also have to do it without a mouse. So they have to do all these different things to teach a player things, sometimes really extreme or advanced or multilayered concepts, but also that’s sometimes all these kinds of different items, like how’s the UI for a team look? How are you communicating things to the player? How are you showing data and information on something that’s also very busy on the rest of the screen? There are so many different kinds of UX and UI challenges that are happening in games that I feel like just get totally thrown under the radar. Cause people see it as this hobby, whatever, blah, blah, blah. They don’t understand the level of intricacy that goes with some of these things.

Randall Parrish:
… don’t understand how the level of intricacy that goes with some of these things, but a lot of times, if you were like, man, we need a team page. My first thing to look for inspiration, it wouldn’t just be look at other team pages on Dribbble. It would just be like, okay, how have games solve this? How have they handled different accounts for a certain amount of units that they need to show on screen? If you have a dashboard, like RTSs are strategy games, how are they showing just large chunks of information that needs to be readily viewable? How are… all these very different, just very real challenges that actually impact experience are being handled in games and have been handled for a long time. And as well, some of them are also done in a really, really visually amazing way ala Persona 5. So, I think it’s another part of just finding inspiration in the things that you love and just figuring out how to basically how to pick and choose where to pull them back into the things that you are doing as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you plan on playing Persona 5 Royal?

Randall Parrish:
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s 106 hours and whatever. I mean we’re in the time of Corona. Of course I’m going to. But first I got to be God, I need to beat Doom Eternal first that’s going to be a nice short one. Like what else is in my backlog Astral Chain. Typically I love narrative and very story during games, a lot of things I would like to learn from story during games, this is going to sound like a funny kind of like Agency tangent, but one of the most important things I learned from Agency World was how to tell a compelling story, and if you could play a lot of games with compelling stories that can actually get you to tear up or feel a certain way really quickly that’s what a good pitch deck is all about.

Randall Parrish:
Well, it sounds like a tangent, but roll with me here for a second. So it’s like, when you’re doing a big pitch, someone has got to have, let’s say $40 million to spend, how are you going to convince them, how are you going to make them feel in their hearts that they should feel a certain way and that you were the right choice?

Randall Parrish:
And usually you’re going to tell a very well crafted, but also a convincing story, right? It’s not about just laying out a bunch of facts. You can’t just shovel out a bunch of stats. You got to present them in a way, in an order, and a line where they believe it, but they also feel emotionally resonant with it, and I feel like when you think of kind of the story beats of certain games that are big deals for stories. So you Last of Us, your Shadow of the Colossus, your God of War 2018s, your really big, just ones with narratively strong, what are they doing right? What order are they doing that? And, how might you kind of think about the way those beats are handled, both majorly or softly until like also, how are you to change how you tell a compelling story?

Randall Parrish:
Because half of why I think I got the job at Sonos was I feel like when I interviewed, I told a very compelling story when I interviewed because a little bit about that, I’ll go back to this, but everyone I was interviewing I didn’t even show work for the first 25 minutes. Yeah, I know. Right. So that sounds weird, right? First third whatever of the interview, first I wanted to kind of introduce, I felt it was weird to be basically jump in and just be like, hello, thanks for meeting me. Here’s the work that you probably already saw online now. No, that seemed weird.

Randall Parrish:
So instead what I tried to do was, I was like, how am I going to kind of build this narrative upward? So it’s a little bit about me. Like what motivates me? What do I like? What am I to the company? What is the company’s mission to me? And how can I prove this in a way that makes you also know that I’m not just making it up. So I had a really great slide where in 2017, I bought my mother to Play Ones, and I showed the video of her pulling them open. And that was a muddy moment. That was a narrative moment where they were like, Oh, this guy. Like that was them thinking this guy isn’t just some dude who bought the speaker, just whatever, he’s actually a fan. He believes in the mission.

Randall Parrish:
Things that just kind of unite you to whatever is going on in that moment. Right? And, I could have just jumped in and been like, well, my work looks pretty good. I think don’t you think so? I know I could have just been impersonal about it or just basically just pasted in what I would’ve done for the next agency, but you know, if you tailor it right, storytelling is actually going to be your most powerful argument when you’re doing an interview.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Randall Parrish:
So play video games. Don’t worry about storytelling.

Maurice Cherry:
One question that I’m asking everyone this year, it’s kind of the theme of the year is about the future. You know, we’re in 2020, this is by all intents and purposes when you think about pop culture, when people talk about the future, it tends to be 2020 and above. I don’t know if that’s because of ABC’s news show or whatever, but people tend to think of 2020 as the future. How are you helping to use your design skills to build a more equitable future?

Randall Parrish:
Oh, that’s a great question. I guess that you caught me at a really timely time, because if you had asked me that a year ago, I would’ve been probably not at all, but now I think part of the Sonos mission is our mission is to empower listeners everywhere. And it’s very broad, and that’s kind of on purpose because a lot of what we’re trying to do here is we’re trying to basically give people an amazing listening experience no matter where they might be, whether you’re in your bedroom and your living room, whether you’re on your patio or you on the go, we were trying to find a way to basically kind of be with you so that you can enjoy the content that you like, however you like, whenever you like, how you like, with whomever services that you like.

Randall Parrish:
So a lot of what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to empower users. We’re trying to give them choice. We’re trying to give them more freedom, but we’re also trying to provide access to things for them. So a lot about what I see as what the best parts about the job is just Sonos is in this rare position where we can actually really help kind of surface a lot of things to users that they might not have known that they wanted. I mean this in a very non advertising kind of way. Why I say this, because a lot of what, what a Sonos does is we are kind of this amazing hub for a lot of services, right?

Randall Parrish:
So you can use Amazon, Apple Music, and Spotify, and Deezer, and Pandora, and you can use so many different services on our platform. But what’s great about that is that lets you also surface things that maybe are adjacent to things that you didn’t know you had, for example, like if you love Fleetwood Mac, there is a potential future where if you search a podcast, maybe you’ll see the Song Exploder Episode about a Fleetwood Mac song. Maybe you’ll see a book about the artist, maybe you’ll be able to catch more content related.

Randall Parrish:
What I love is this idea of just being able to kind of enrich people’s experiences with the artists that they love, and with the content that they like, what I love is just this idea of how can we just kind of give people greater access to art, and entertainment, and just media, in these ways that are just going to make them want to do what it did for me to make them just more enriched, more well rounded, more engaged people with all sorts of different types of media.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s 2025. What kind of work do you want to be doing? What sort of projects do you want to be working on, that sort of stuff?

Randall Parrish:
You know, my five year plan for right now is, well, if I compare what I would have said a year ago, I’m just amazed at just how much these can change. So right now my plan is I really want to be in California for a good while. Mostly because moving cross country very much sucks, do not do it. Oh my God actually it’s worth it, do it. So, moving is a pain in the ass. I think I’m trying to stay in California for as long as I can, for as long as it’s reasonable. [crosstalk 00:55:00] retention is amazing in the company. I have met people who have been here for 11, 8, 16 years. Those are numbers that are unfathomable at an agency. Like can not be. It was a constant going away party there.

Randall Parrish:
And I’m very excited about just the path ahead at Sonos just in terms of just the roadmap features, products, everything that we want to do and kind of that core mission, but five years now, just career wise, I would love to figure out, just, what’s kind of that path towards creative director, or trying to be towards a bit more of this person who essentially empowers the team because right now, I come from this background where what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to be this kind of individual power user. I’m trying to be this amazing individual contributor. But what I love about my new boss, he is just so, what’s the word, he’s just so empathetic and so caring, and I just love that about him. He just has this amazing concern and care for people.

Randall Parrish:
I really want to be able to get some of that into myself as well, and just be able to just take that kind of energy and concern and care for people. And to use that to expand a team, and also while taking what I’ve learned from design over all the years to make them better designers, but also just make them just better, more impassioned people as well. So I’d love to figure out how to just get work my way up to that stage. Now, if at this house or somewhere else who knows.

Randall Parrish:
My rule to myself was if I was going to make any kind of large shifts, it had to be for something that I really, really, really gave a damn about. And I’m really glad that I landed at this one.

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

Randall Parrish:
Sure. You can catch me on Dribbble at Dribbble.com/rparrish. You can see just about everything reasonable I’ve ever done. Half of why I keep so much stuff up there is so you can just track my development and just see that, you’ve got to… It’s an uphill battle. If you are new and you don’t like what you did. You can see the stuff that I wasn’t great at too. It’s a process. So, go from bottom to top. It’s a little journey. I don’t do any writing, but I do tweet about design sometimes @randallallday, but it’s mostly goofy, goofy, gobbledy garbage so you’ve been warned. You’re welcome to follow me on Apple music. I listen to a lot of what Pitchfork likes, but except I weed out all the nonsense so, you can check what I’m listening to. So that’s probably the core of it. I should get into some writing, but maybe we’ll have a podcast soon, but that’s all for now.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Randall Parrish, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. You know, I mentioned this before we started recording that I had spoken with Diana. She gave me this really long description about the work that you’ve done. I think it actually was a post or something that you wrote. I want to say it was a post that you wrote about how you were just getting things together to go to Sonos. You were about to start out there, and one thing that I saw as I was doing all of my research was that you refer to yourself as a human glitter bomb.

Randall Parrish:
That’s correct.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say that, just based off of this conversation, it’s very clear like you have this enthusiasm inside and out, not just for the work that you do, but also being able to make a difference in people’s lives, so I can see how that would stick. Once this whole COVID-19, coronavirus, quarantine, self isolation lifts, I am really excited to see you get back to work and see what you can do with Sonos because I think this is just the beginning for you, and I’m really going to be excited to see what you do from here. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Randall Parrish:
Thank you so much for having me. I’ve had a total blast with you. Believe me, stay in touch and you know, Sonos discounts for everyone. Send me an email.

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What does the “middle” of a designer’s career look like? Does the “middle” exist outside of a corporate company’s career ladder? I examine these questions and more with this week’s guest, the one and only Chanel James. As a designer for EAB, Chanel works on production and design and for a number of different projects, all with the goal of making education smarter and our communities stronger.

Chanel talked about what attracted her to work for EAB, and also spoke on her work with AIGA DC on their board of directors. We also discussed the South and design, how she acquired a love for illustration from a popular kid’s television show, and yes, we went into the mid-career designer topic I mentioned earlier. Chanel lives by the motto “make it pretty”, and no matter her role or profession, she definitely brings the skills and experience to the table that make her motto a fact!

Full Transcript

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

Chanel James: Hi. My name is Chanel James. I’m an In House Designer at a company called EAB, which is like a best practices research, education firm. We essentially help schools, provide schools with research, and best practices to better the experience for students in higher ed, and otherwise.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. How long have you been at EAB?

Chanel James: I’m also at my two year mark, I’ll be at two years in February. It’s been a really awesome two years, I’ve learned and grown a lot while I’ve been here, I’ve touched a lot of different projects. It’s in house, but it can sometimes feel like an agency, which is exciting in that way. We get the same projects, but they change almost each year, so that’s exciting for me.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. What attracted you to working for them?

Chanel James: To say that I kind of got to back up a little bit, after graduating I went to go work for a consulting firm, which was not my vibe, not anything I enjoyed doing. Prior to that I was working in house for a nonprofit, still in the education realm and I loved that, it felt like a family, almost felt like school in the sense where I was learning as I was doing projects. But, the other place was not anywhere in the realm of what I wanted to continue doing.

Chanel James: I came across EAB, I met someone at an AIGA event in 2017 who worked here, and I looked up their work and I was like, “Oh, this is something I think I can get with.” I love the culture, like how the culture looks and stuff. I applied, and thankfully I got it, and the rest was history from there. Yeah, I was really attracted to, I’m a big one on workplace culture and balance, work/life balance because work takes up 85% of our lives essentially. And if you don’t enjoy it while you’re there, like if you don’t enjoy it, that’s like most of your life you’re not enjoying.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: I try to focus on that.

Maurice Cherry: What is the culture like there?

Chanel James: Very supportive. People here understand that you have like, people know that you have families, and you have life outside of the walls of EAB. PTO is taken seriously, that’s really hard when it comes to being in anything with design, often times people like, “Oh, overnight. Oh, we need this tomorrow.” But here if you’re like, five o’clock comes they’re like, “Oh, we understand. I’ll get it from you sometime midday tomorrow,” type thing. It’s nice to have like, I mean there are times like right now it’s like busy season, so things are kind of like we’ve got to get it done, but there’s still boundaries. I love how there are boundaries with work/life, and home life. I think that’s my biggest thing, it’s like why I love this company so much.

Maurice Cherry: So far what’s kind of been the most challenging thing that you’ve encountered while working there? It can be whether it’s just the general work culture, or in the job specifically working with a client, anything like that.

Chanel James: When I first started here it was, it’s not the most diverse place just in terms of actual diversity. There are not many people of color. They’re working towards that, but I think that was my biggest struggle when I first started coming from my back … you know, I went to George Mason University, I graduated from there, which is all about diversity. You know, celebrating people’s differences, and so there were always different types of people. But when I started on my team, my manager is a black woman, but then that’s it. Everyone else is white, which is okay, but I found myself not feeling like I fit in quite well, or wanting to do things the way other people do things.

Chanel James: I’m a very, I consider myself a very colorful black woman. I like wearing scarves, I have natural hair, my hair is like a big piece of my identity. Coming into a space where I don’t see anybody else who looks like me, dresses like me, talks like me, it’s tough because you don’t feel validated. And so, you kind of have to break out of that. It’s a mind game almost, you’ve got to remember that you can celebrate who you are even though there aren’t other people who look like you in the room. But that still takes practice, and it’s tough. Often times people leave places because they’re like, “I don’t see anybody here who looks like me, I’m going to dip out.” But I’m really proud of myself that I saw it through while I’ve been here because it’s gotten a lot better for me, but it’s still tough. I think we all, all designer’s kind of feel the same thing.

Chanel James: You’re usually like the only designer in a space, but when you’re the only designer, and the only black person or person of color in general it’s tough, it’s hard.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I’ve been in situations like that certainly where you end up being the, I don’t want to say the token, that’s not really the best way to put it. But, you end up being the only one kind of by default, and so it takes really a strong sense of self to know that you’re supposed to be here, you’re here for a reason, because imposter syndrome can really set in fairly quickly.

Chanel James: And it set in really hard for me, and I think it was something I had to get over in college too because I came from, so I grew up in Richmond Virginia. Which, whoever is from Virginia in general knows that Richmond is a, it’s like a predominantly black city. I grew up in like an all black elementary school, all black middle school, all black high school. Because that’s the way counties are set up, and we know that gentrification, redlining, all of the histories behind that, why certain neighborhoods are more black than others.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: But, I got into my college which is in Northern Virginia, and that’s an entirely different space to be in. There are streetlights that are constantly on. I know that it’s a small detail, but it was something that … it was small, but it impacted me because I was like, “Wow, these people got streetlights, they got sidewalks, they’re encouraged to be outside, the houses look all nice and clean.” This is where I always pictured my … I’m not saying I grew up in the hood, but when you grow up in areas that are predominantly black, things are different.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: That’s just how it is, it’s just different.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: College for me was a little bit of a culture shock because it was beautiful, the campus was beautiful. Again, predominantly white, so I had to find my community while I was there. I was like, “Where do I belong?” Then I started meeting not just black, but African people so I was like, “Wow, then what am I?” Then my identity started like, I started having this identity crisis. I’m like, “Well, people are starting to say they’re from this country. Oh, I’m from Ghana, I’m from Nigeria, I’m from Germany,” people at Mason were very big about repping their countries. Then people would ask where I was from and I’m like, “America? Virginia?” I feel like I really had to find myself getting into college. That’s why I say my hair is my biggest part of my identity, because during that time, freshman year, I shaved my head. I cut all my hair off.

Maurice Cherry: Oh wow.

Chanel James: Went natural, and I decided, I was like, “This is going to be my thesis while I’m here. Let’s talk about the identity of black Americans,” and things like that. Now, did that end up being my actual thesis in senior year? No, but it was a big part of who I was. People knew me for my different hairstyles, my art was kind of centered around my hair, I always brought up some type … because again, I was the only black person in my classes, it was like one or two of us. That college was like the first time that I was the only person who looked like me in classrooms and things like that, and that took a lot of personality shifting on my part.

Chanel James: And I thought for some reason that when I graduated, things would change. I would go back into spaces where I’m like, “Oh, there’s the black boss, black CEO, or Spanish CEO,” you know? Different type of people, but I was wrong. I mean, so far everywhere I went, it’s been like … or everyplace I’ve worked at so far has been not too many people of color in general. I don’t really know why yet, I’m still trying to figure that out.

Maurice Cherry: When you look back at your past experiences, is that the main thing that stands out to you is the diversity of the teams that you’ve been on?

Chanel James: Yeah, I think so. Now, sometimes it can reflect the experience I have with working. When I first started at EAB I was not confident at all. I knew I was talented, people told me I’m talented, but I felt like I was doing everything wrong. We have a lot of processes here, and we’re very organized, we’re a very process driven team. When someone came to me and told me, “Oh, this is wrong.” Or, “This isn’t how we do things.” I would get discouraged because I’m like, “Ugh, I did it wrong again.” I would focus only on what I did wrong. On top of the fact that I was the only black person, so I was like-

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: … “I’m being looked at differently because if I get it wrong, then that reflects not only on me, but everyone.” You know?

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, and that’s such an unfair-

Chanel James: Burden’s a good word.

Maurice Cherry: … Yeah, it’s an unfair burden to even have on your mind. It’s like, “Oh, I’m not just messing up for me, I’m messing up for all black people.”

Chanel James: Right? [crosstalk 00:10:29].

Maurice Cherry: That’s, ugh, I hate that.

Chanel James: Yeah, and I started finding myself wanting to find spaces where there were other people who looked like me, or who thought like me.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: I was still pretty hesitant to be my full self around other than my boss whose black, I think it was just me and her going into like having our biweekly check ins. I kind of, like I was able to unfold a little bit. I’m like, “Girl, let me tell you about this week.” Or, [inaudible 00:11:01]. “Oh, did you see Black Panther? How did you like that?” Type thing.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: But when I’m in this, I had to … it was a huge challenge for me to call out things. I’m like, “Guys, we shouldn’t be doing …” It’s still a challenge, because you don’t want to be that person.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: Like again, I’m black, but do I have to call out the things that might offend people of color?

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: Or, do I seem like I’m whining a little bit? It goes back to the point of validation. Sometimes you don’t feel validated when you’re in spaces when you’re the only one who looks like you.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, and I mean I think companies should realize that, that’s sort of like, or that should be seen as an advantage, or a cultural advantage in some way. You’re being able to see something that perhaps not everyone else is seeing because of the homogeneity of the team, you know?

Chanel James: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). One of the things that ended up happening for me to really feel like myself here was the fact that I found, we have employee resource groups, which I think most companies have. But, it’s groups that are for veterans, for parents, for just different groups of people to celebrate themselves, and things like that. We have the group called Mosaic, and I found, it was like two other black women on my team, some director level women, some entry level women, and men. And I was able to kind of find more of myself in them whenever I felt like I was running into an issue at work, or I wasn’t confident. I’d run up to one of their desks, I’m like, “Ugh, I can’t believe this,” type thing.

Chanel James: They would kind of help me feel a little bit better about whatever situation I was going through.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: Now, I notice that all of the black people come to my desk during the day. They’ll come by, “Hey Chanel, hey girl.” It’s kind of become like we have a network, a system. I hate to say it, I think everyone has some type of Slack group, or group chat.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, yeah.

Chanel James: Like a black … I mean you don’t name it that, but you kind of treat it like a black Slack, just going, “Hey-”

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: … “Did y’all see this in the news, pop culture?” Things that you can talk about freely without feeling judged in a sense. Finding that community here was really important for me, but that took a while. Prior to that I started going to Meetups. AIGA’s been a really big part of my identity too, so I in 2018 applied to sit on the board of the DC, AIGA DC chapter, and I ended up getting it. I started off as a Program Coordinator, and now I’m Woman Lead. And that-

Maurice Cherry: Nice.

Chanel James: … Yeah, thank you. That’s been a really big part of my identity as well, because I am able to create spaces, find other young designers, even like non designers who are just looking for a community, and help build that sense of community for them. Just to help them push through the end of the work week. We create programs that I think build people up, and I think that’s why-

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: … I’m such a big fan.

Maurice Cherry: Let’s switch gears here a little bit because I’m curious to know, you mentioned growing up sort of in the DMV area earlier, was design, and art, and tech, were those a big part of your upbringing? Were you exposed to them early?

Chanel James: Yes, yes, and no, I’m just going to say yes.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Chanel James: Not design specifically because I think we get that … a lot of people growing up would be like, “Oh, design, computer.” I’m like, “I’m not a computer whiz.” But, let’s see. I had a speech impediment growing up, like when I was really young. I took speech classes in elementary school, it was so bad that my parents sometimes didn’t even understand what I was saying, it was like only my big … I have two older sisters.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: One of my sisters who I roomed with would have to translate for me. I watched Blue’s Clue’s a lot, and that taught me how to take basic shapes and build these complex forms, right? I would illustrate sometimes to communicate, and then I started becoming more inspired by, you know how you go into black homes, you go on family reunions and things like that, and you realize everyone has the same piece of art?

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: I think I was also pretty taken back about that, so my mom introduced me … not introduced me, but showed me some pieces by Jacob Lawrence who was, anything in the Harlem Renaissance I was a huge nerd for. I hate to bring him up, but Bill Cosby, Little Bill, that cartoon.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: Those pieces of works really inspired me growing up. Then, I got into middle school, I was introduced to animating. But not using any Adobe programs, I think we just used like iMovie and the Paint app. I can’t tell you what exactly we used, but it was frame by frame. My art teacher Mr. [Epps 00:16:24], really saw something in me, and so he encouraged me to keep doing these digital illustrations. Which again, I didn’t connect that to design because no one was using that terminology around me back then. I was really inspired by doing that, art has always been a really big part of my life, to the point where I applied to the Center for the Arts High School in my area but I didn’t get in. Which crushed me, but I had a pep talk by my mom. She’s like, “No, you can do it, la, la, la. Just keep going to the regular high school, make things happen for yourself.”

Chanel James: I think my parents both encouraged me in art, but my mom told me I had to pair it with something. She’s like, “If you’re going to be an artist, you have to make it profitable, so go work for a company …” again, she’s describing graphic design, but she’s not using the terms graphic design. She’s just kind of like, “You can work for a company and make maybe advertising, and things like that.” I’m like, “Okay yeah, I can do that.”

Chanel James: I ended up senior year applying to VCU Arts, which again, I didn’t get into. My world was crushed again, my validation was crushed again and I was like, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” Found George Mason, applied there, and got in. That’s when, I think it was in one of my entry level design classes, someone … they started teaching us about design, and Bauhaus, and all the histories. That is when I started, like I was introduced to the programs, and I just kept practicing.

Chanel James: I think the biggest turning point for me was meeting my professor Reese Quinones, who walked in the room, and it was the first time I saw a black professor walk into a room up to that point. I think this was my sophomore year, and I was shook. I was just kind of like, “Oh my gosh, I have a black professor.” And she was so talented. She spoke with … Now, she’s Puerto Rican but just looking at her you’re like, “Oh, she’s black.” You know? It’s black, it’s Puerto Rican, we’re all the same thing.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: But, she spoke with such passion about what she did. She would build things, and it was almost like watching a movie. She’s like, “Here, we can just take this shape here, add some transparency here, align here, and boom.” I’m like, “How did you do that? I want to be just like you.” She inspired me so much that I would sit and practice on weekends, just copying things that were in the media and things like that, going to museums, and just trying to understand …

Chanel James: Going to museums and just trying to understand why I liked what I liked, and stuff like that. So I think, yeah, that was my biggest introduction to design. But growing up I’ve always been a little Chanel artist. That never changed to me.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. When did you sort of get the sense that this was something that you could do for a career? Because it sounds like George Mason was a time that really was formative in shaping the fact that you kind of could do this-

Chanel James: Full time.

Maurice Cherry: Just as a scale. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chanel James: Yeah. Let’s see. I was able to sign up as like different school groups that we… I was in fashion society and I’m not a fashionista but they wanted me to make some of their flyers and social media ads and things like that-

Maurice Cherry: You were just saying you, you have the colorful scarves and everything [crosstalk 00:19:55] not a fashionista.

Chanel James: [crosstalk 00:19:56] to be colorful and do your own thing. But I don’t think I’m an influencer, [crosstalk 00:20:05] more stylish than I am but I would do things for them. And eventually some people from there would be like, “oh actually,” some girls would be like, “hey, I need a logo for this. Do you think you can do it?” I’m like, “yeah I can.” In my head I’m like, no I can’t. I don’t know how to do anything. And I would just kind of go for it. Open up Illustrator, which was at that time was like my best friend and put some texts and things together. Now, looking back on it, some of those things I did was, I mean I was just starting out so it wasn’t the best stuff, but that’s when I started doing things for profit and then if one person heard from another person that, oh yeah Chanel’s the graphic designer. In Black Mason, people would know me as the graphic designer.

Chanel James: So because our community was so small, you had maybe three designers who you’d be like, or three artists in a sense who would kind of do things for the black programming and things like that. And I also ended up getting a job on campus working with our housing department as a graphic designer, which was I think a pretty, that helped me figure out how to work on a team. It was kind of set up in house where we would be doing things for just housing and things like that. We’d create illustrative posters for our campus residence fairs and things for, what’s it called, freshmen move in was a really big campaign that we would have to create marketing materials, signage, flyers and all of these sorts of collateral pieces was when I started building that skillset of time management, sending things to print and things like that.

Chanel James: So that molded me a lot. By the time I finished that role there, I think I was able to intern with my mentor who was Risa [Kanyonez 00:22:15], the professor who I was drooling over [inaudible 00:22:21] I interned at her company and then ended up contracting for a little while and I’m going down the line of my timeline, but that’s essentially how I started, realized how to make a profit. People just kept referring me by word of mouth.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Now you graduated in 2017. You’ve been working here in the industry for a few years and we spoke about this a little bit before we started recording about the notion of kind of being a mid level slash mid career designer, I suppose. Where do you see yourself, like right now we’re recording this 2019, where do you see yourself in the design industry at this level?

Chanel James: I see myself, I don’t know, I’m in the middle of it. I don’t see myself as a expert by any means. Right. And I said this before, but I also don’t see myself as… I see myself as a [inaudible 00:23:18] I don’t, it’s so hard because I’m still trying to figure that out essentially. And I think a lot of us mid level designers are just still trying to figure that out. I am a part of a lot of things, mainly because of my job, AIGA, I do freelance and I use all of these different avenues and tools and people and volunteering and things like that so that I can say, yeah, like I’ve worked on, I know how to put a team together. I know how to run a program, I know how to ask for donations and things like that. But I haven’t been doing it as long as other people, so I get nervous to say, yes refer me for this or see me as an expert. You don’t have to use the word expert, if you’re not using the word expert, what else do you use?

Maurice Cherry: Right. It’s something where it feels like the, it’s the mid part that is kind of I think a little bit trippy because certainly when you see entry level positions, I see entry level positions that require as much as five years experience. That is not entry level if you’ve got five years of experience under your belt. But in the same vein, what is the middle of a designer’s career at this stage in the game because the tech is changing. The roles are changing. I mean 10 years ago there weren’t product designers. Everyone was a web designer or a graphic designer, so the roles are changing, the structures are changing within companies. What if you are a really strong individual contributor but you don’t want to go into managing a team or managing people? Where do you go from there? It’s a lot of sort of nebulous nebulousness in the middle of the design kind of career because I think even the ones that are the experts, I feel like they, I don’t know, it’s tough to say.

Chanel James: It’s a-

Maurice Cherry: I certainly. No sorry go ahead.

Chanel James: I was going to say you’re really just looking at the time of how long I’ve been doing this or if I’ve been doing this too long, have I refreshed up my skills? How long has it been since I’ve learned the latest, newest thing about this topic. And I also think with being mid level, you’re trying to move away from the negative notion that comes with being new or being labeled as new, labeled as entry because a lot of people who I’ve… Even this summer I was able to mentor two amazing individuals for our marketing department, but they both expressed to me how weird they felt, how much negativity came with the word intern, came with the word new, came with the word college grad or college student. Because people kind of brush you off into thinking that you’re not, oh, she’s not skilled or she doesn’t have, but because I mean they both were Black women. I think that sometimes young White people can get away with being new, but also being something that people gravitate towards as experts or go to’s in that sense. I mean look at-

Maurice Cherry: They’re a fresh new voice-

Chanel James: A fresh new voice. Look at, what’s his name? Facebook dude. What’s his name, the CEO.

Maurice Cherry: Mark Zuckerberg.

Chanel James: Mark, yeah. He was this college level, new, wet behind the ears guy and then like, hey, I want this app. Him and his other dudes are like… I’m sorry I’m using such basic terminology, but [inaudible 00:27:08] But when new people come up with an idea, sometimes it’s like, oh, they’re so ski… Yeah, let’s give them a chance. But I feel like as a person of color, if you’re coming in as new, young and of color, it can be really hard for people to take you seriously. It can be so hard for people to take, you unless you have a bunch of awards behind your name. You, oh, I interned at Google, I interned at Facebook. I got into the center for the arts at my high school. I went to VCUarts and because I didn’t have those names, I didn’t start having many titles behind my name until a year or two ago, it made me feel like I didn’t have much of a space in the industry to give advice or to really just kind of be seen as a person in the industry. I was still like a student of the industry, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry: That makes sense. I’ll tell you a secret, even, and this is just not only from people who I’ve had on the show, but also speaking from personal experience, even when you get to that level of having the awards and the accolades and all that stuff, guess what? People still don’t take you seriously. It doesn’t really get, I don’t want to say it doesn’t get that much better. You sort of have a little bit of an advantage depending on the communities that you’re speaking to. But I run into some of the same issues of credibility at this stage in my career as I did 10 years.

Chanel James: Why do you think that is? What issues of credibility come up? Like who would-

Maurice Cherry: I mean, how real can we get? I mean…

Chanel James: For me, I started listening to this podcast when I started this job, actually before I started this. Every day when I was at the job that wasn’t for me, to be very frank, I was very unhappy. I would listen to this podcast Revision Path every day, I would go back and I would listen to all… Though, this is maybe like summer of 2017 because I felt so inspired by all of the individuals who looked like me who came from places like me, who, they almost seemed like, I was like, okay, they have these accolades and they have these medals, these badges, they are taken seriously in these spaces. Even when people spoke about their struggles of getting to where they were, they still got to where they were.

Chanel James: So that pushed me and knowing that you’re the voice behind it, and knowing all… Of course we can list a bunch of things about Maurice Cherry and all the things that he’s done for the community in the task, I know you were on the task force many years ago, things like that [crosstalk 00:30:00] I met Jacinda. Jacinda was a really big part of pushing me back in like 2017 or 2016 so that community, right? I’m like, oh you guys made it, you are it. But to hear you say like, “ah no, we’re still trying.” It’s interesting.

Maurice Cherry: I might be telling some secrets here, but I feel like some of us, and I’m not speaking for everyone, some of us try to do a good job of obscuring that. I think from those that are coming up because we don’t want you to have that baggage. We don’t want you to come into it knowing like, oh, you can even still get this far and still run into issues because the hope is that the work that we’re doing clears the path, makes it easier for the next generation. I wouldn’t even say next generation. I mean it’s not like we’re that far apart, but I mean it makes the road easier by walking it. So that’s the hope, is to just not talk about all the negative stuff that happens and just try to focus on the more positive things to be that inspiration because it can be, there are still a lot of isms out there and I’m not just talking about the isms that have cropped up, I’d say even more vibrantly because of our current political system. But I mean racism is still very much a thing. Sexism is still very much a thing. Other isms-

Chanel James: Ageism yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Homophobia, et cetera. Ageism, yes. Even location. I mean, I’m in Atlanta and I get so many sort of small microaggressions about being from the South. Or being in the South and doing tech and design-

Chanel James: I understand.

Maurice Cherry: Like if I’m not in New York or if I’m not in an LA, these capitals?

Chanel James: Where are you? What are you doing?

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, yeah. It’s like, oh, Atlanta. Okay.

Chanel James: But at least in Atlanta, I mean, sorry to change the subject a little bit, but Tyler Perry, the studio, I feel like, I don’t know, Atlanta is on the come up with a lot of things.

Maurice Cherry: It is on the come up of a lot of things. I think particularly as it relates to entertainment. I would even say as it relates to tech, but it certainly doesn’t get the same level of, I think-

Chanel James: Respect.

Maurice Cherry: Oh absolutely not. It doesn’t get the same level of respect at all as like what’s happening in California or what’s happening in New York, Georgia still, because you know what ends up happening, I mean Atlanta is still very much a blue dot in a red state if we’re talking politically. So there are political issues which crop up that will overshadow a lot of other good things that are happening here. Like for example, the abortion heartbeat bill from earlier this year, that came up and then people from Hollywood wanted to boycott Georgia, boycott Atlanta really. And Atlanta is, because we’re that like blue dot in the red state, we get the brunt of that. It’s very much a different world once you leave Atlanta in terms of being in Georgia. So to that effect there are a lot of things that happen here that oftentimes will just get overlooked because it doesn’t come in the, I guess in the right package. I don’t know. It’s an odd thing-

Chanel James: I mean and that sucks too because I’m still pretty young. I mean, it doesn’t even matter about age, but essentially I have time to go anywhere. I have time to explore everything. But when I think about, I’m like, okay, so where can I go? What’s next after this? DC is hot and happening. There’s always jobs, there’s always things going on. But do I want to live in DC forever? Probably not. Absolutely not. And I’m like, do I want to move back home to Richmond? Probably not. There’s no jobs. I don’t consider jobs there.

Chanel James: And so then I’m like, oh, I don’t want to move to New York. I don’t want to be that girl. I don’t want to be that person right now. Who knows what’s going to happen in like two or three years. But when I think about Midwest and things like that, South, what’s happening in the South, you’re right. I mean other than Atlanta, because I think about different companies and things like that’s there. I don’t see myself in many other places and then it just puts me back on like, well, let me see what’s happening here in DC, which is unfortunate because I feel like there’s so many amazing things that each city can bring in terms of design life and culture.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. You have to really kind of work hard to make and carve out whatever that space looks like. I remember when I was 29, 30, I was really trying to move out of Atlanta hardcore. I was like, this is not working. My career has hit a plateau. Well, at that point, let’s say I was 29, 30, I had started my studio. I had just finished up this political campaign that I was working on and so things were kind of on an uptick, but I still felt like I was hitting a wall and I was like, I am not going to get better in my career until I leave and go to New York.

Maurice Cherry: So I had a friend of mine in New York who was sending me all these apartment listings and everything and I mean, long story short, I didn’t move to New York, but I ended up finding a way to make it work here, which is not to say that I gave up, but certainly I just couldn’t, I personally couldn’t see myself in New York. I mean I’m a Southern boy through and through. I know that about me and I mean I’ve visited New York a ton of times. New York is just, I wouldn’t vibe with the city. Like that’s just not how my whole, my energy would not vibe with New York. So I was like, I can’t do New York. I can visit, but I can’t live there.

Chanel James: Same. And I’m from New Jersey originally. All my family’s in New Jersey. And before that, Alabama. So, I mean, I never lived in Alabama, but my family has. And so I also am the same way about like the North. I’m like, no, thank you. But I think that that’s also another thing with being a mid level designer. You mentioned how you saw yourself somewhere and you tried to go for… So when you’re in the middle of it, I’m going to call it in the middle of it, you’re essentially looking at multiple roads in front of you and you’re like, my actions right now can affect where I am by the time I’m 30 or by the time I’m 35 and things like that. I just turned 24 so I’m always cautious and thinking of what’s going to happen if I do jump job, do find another… Should I try to work abroad for a few years like some of the other people you’ve interviewed?

Chanel James: I listened to some people who are moving to China and going to Germany, I’m like, maybe I should try, is that something I should try to do before I’m X amount of years old? Or maybe I should, I don’t have a family. I have no ties to anything. So I’m like, I should do this, or maybe I should do this. I’m looking at all of these different paths that I can take and it can sometimes be really overwhelming. And I think that’s the other part about being in the middle of your career because you’re not quite sure what can happen and what can change. And that’s with life in general, obviously, but it’s a bigger thing when you’re looking at like all of your idols and the people you look up to. You’re like, okay, I see that they made this decision, but what’s going to be right for me type thing so.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. And I think, I mean that involves a lot of introspection. It involves really sitting down with yourself and saying, or answering the question, what does success look like for me? What is the space? And this is.

Maurice Cherry: What is the space, and this is something that we actually explored at Black in Design this past weekend, but there was one of the things about how do we carve out a space for wellness and for joy. Because I mean certainly in America, I mean we black folks in America, we know what the deal is in terms of how we’re perceived by society, treated by society and law enforcement, incarceration, a number of different things that are set up to go against us as just basic human beings. Does that change if we move overseas? Maybe. I think certainly from the folks I’ve talked to on the show, it’s a trade off.

Chanel James: Right.

Maurice Cherry: You certainly gain some things, but you lose other things. I remember I was talking to Douglas Turner, I think he was episode 107 or something like that. He lived in Iceland for a number of years and he was talking about how the Icelandic society is very tribal in that, everyone kind of knows each other and he’s the only black man in Iceland.[laughter]

Maurice Cherry: And saying how for him it didn’t feel like racism really existed there.

Chanel James: Right.

Maurice Cherry: Which I thought was interesting considering he’d be one of the few people of color there. And then coming back to the States and seeing how it was different. Another interview with Qa’id Jacobs, who’s a UX designer in Amsterdam. Originally from, I think he’s from Jersey, New York. He’s originally from the Northeast U.S. But him and his family are in Amsterdam and we actually had a two part episode. The first part was, Hey, you know, you’re out there in Amsterdam, what’s it like working out there, et cetera. And then we recorded the second episode right after Trump was elected and it was a pretty heavy episode. I think it’s episode 179, but I remember cause it came right at the end of 2016. We had this conversation like, well do you think you would come back?

Maurice Cherry: Now given the state of how things are, what would that look like? And I know, now I’ve been talking to several people who are really seriously considering moving abroad; moving to another country; going to Ghana or going to.

Maurice Cherry: Isaac Hayes, who I interviewed a couple of months ago, is in China right now with his family. A friend of mine right now is currently going through Thailand.

Chanel James: Wow.

Maurice Cherry: Just coworking. He says it’s like a black coworking space in Thailand in Chiang Mai.

Chanel James: What? Where? How?

Maurice Cherry: I have a passport. [laughter] We can go. We need to make this happen. If we need to start doing Black Design ex-pac trips, we can make that happen. I think about that a lot as just the industry is changing, the wages that the world is changing and what does that mean for like our safety and our sanctity. Not just as practitioners of this craft in this industry, but just as people in this world. It’s heavy stuff. It’s a lot of heavy stuff cause especially when I think about what is it that is stopping black designers from becoming leaders of design? Clearly we’re out there and we’ve had a couple of them on the show, but it’s very few and far in between. Even even.

Chanel James: Oh no, I’m sorry, go ahead. No, go, keep going.

Maurice Cherry: I was going to say even some of the projects that I’ve done, most recently, the literary anthology I did, Recognize, is about trying to set up what does the next generation look like because yeah, we have the big names now. And I’m not singling them out, but we have Debbie Millman, we have Stefan Seigmaster, Polisher. We have these big names, but they’re not going to live forever.

Chanel James: No that’s.

Maurice Cherry: What does the next generation of design criticism, design thought, design leadership look like for this industry? Cause a lot of people from around the world do take their cues from what’s happening in design in America. So if we’re putting forth this monolithic, monocultural view of what design is based on the people that are practicing it, then where does that leave us?

Chanel James: Right. And I think on that note, with who the next leaders are for me, my focus used to be so much on who’s already there. Right. I’m looking at, for me, some of my idols, Diane Holton, who I used to fangirl over all the time and now I work alongside her. We’re both on the same programming team for AIGA. When I was looking at these large names in my eyes, I’m like, well they’re already there. That’s when I switched my thought process a little bit to who’s alongside me. Who’s with me right now? Who’s doing amazing work? Who’s doing amazing things, who’s probably going to be the next big thing in terms of our industry. I don’t know if like you listen to this quote that Issa Ray, who I also stan. She said instead of networking up, network across.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Chanel James: We just had our DC design week a few weeks ago and I was able to create a program; an event around my friend Bria Taylor. She does these amazing, she started out as a designer.

Chanel James: She’s still a designer, but she designs these kick ass looking cakes. It’s called Killer Cakes and she is so talented to the point where I’m like you need to have your own show on TLC or something or wherever they’re doing the baking things nowadays. [laughter] I was using my leadership role at AIG. On our chapter board, I was able to create a program that sold out, oversold out actually around her speaking about her process, her story, what she does, and then selling had her make a little bit extra money by doing a pop up shop with brownies and cakes and things like that. And I was like, that’s what I feel like we mid level designers should be trying to do. Instead of step on each other.

Chanel James: Use each other to build each other up. Refer each other for projects that we can’t take instead of just letting the project fall through. Telling each other about, Hey Bria is having an event happening on Saturday, or Simone’s having an event tomorrow. Building a network within ourselves and then that eventually the eyes are going to start turning on us and it’s like, Oh these, this is what this person is doing in the industry. And then that’s when the shift happens. Some people still can have a competitive mindset of, Oh, I’m not going to tell you about this opportunity. Oh, I’m not going to tell you about this stuff. And then it can be even harder than what it already is. I had a friend recently tell me about the Add Color Conference.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. They’re like a conference and an award show.

Chanel James: Right. But there’s also an opportunity some type of fellowship opportunity. I don’t know, I’m going to say fellowship, but it’s a really cool opportunity for young people who are creatives to, or in the marketing. Some people worked at Facebook and things like that, who get mentored for a week gets to take these classes, gets to take back these it’s like workshopping and things like that. And then they get sponsored to go to the award show and meet some of the leaders in that industry and things like that. My friend could’ve kept it a secret and be like, Oh, I’m going to apply when that time comes. But she instead shared that information with me and was like, yeah, you should also do. I see you also in this space able to do that. And I think that type of mindset is important for where we are in our careers right now because it’s the only way that we’ll be seen.

Maurice Cherry: No, I agree. I think so there’s two examples when you talk about that networking across. One is this sort of, and sorry, I don’t know if anyone has written about this. This may be a free idea if there are any journalists that are listening, but over the past five years there’s been this emergence of are you familiar with the Brack Pack? Does that name sound familiar?

Chanel James: No, not at all.

Maurice Cherry: So the Brack Pack was a group of actors in the eighties and nineties that all ended up starring in the same similar types of movies as Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy, Patrick Dempsey, Rob Lowe, some folks like this. They all were friends, but then they also were in all these movies together and stuff like that. The name sort of comes from the Rat Pack, which were a group of musicians in the 50s and 60s. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Dean Martin, couple of other folks.

Maurice Cherry: But now I feel like there was this emergence of a black path in a way. Where it’s like Issa Ray, who you mentioned earlier. Melina Mitsui SKUs, Quinta Brunson. I’m thinking of people that have started on the web and have moved up into larger areas of media and they all work.

Chanel James: Together.

Maurice Cherry: With and across each other together in a really interesting way because you see them in each other’s projects and you’re like, okay, they’re working together. That sort of thing. I also see that honestly in the podcasting world too. Are you familiar with The Read?

Chanel James: Yes, absolutely. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: So The Read, there’s a number of shows that are in the same orbit of The Read, but they’re all friends. There’s The Friend Zone with Hey Fran, Hey and Dustin and Asante. There’s Getting Grown with Jane and Kia. There’s Jade and XD, and they all are friends, but they all have their own separate shows and platforms. But they all cross pollinate [chuckle] with each other. And I’m like, that is so dope. I would love to see what a black sort of design collective of some sort will look like if we were doing that. [inaudible 00:48:34] What could we accomplish and put out in the world with that sort of thing?

Chanel James: Right. I talk about that all the time with some of my friends. I have a friend in New York, Tavis Northam, who is a designer, director, photographer, and we are always collaborating on projects and then he came out with this indie short called Bakari about this runaway slave. And I created the poster for it. He’s always referring me all the time. I’m referring him. Same with, Oh man, it’s so funny. I can’t believe I’m printing your name, but some of my friends who actually went to Black and Design, I’m the same way with them and I think, that that emergence is already kind of happening. When you look on certain channels on Instagram, certain things popping up. People are creating a lot. There’s a lot of things like Well Read Black Girl. I don’t know if that

Maurice Cherry: Oh yeah, yeah, I’m familiar with that.

Chanel James: Things like that; platforms like that that are black creatives also on Instagram. Things that you can hashtag and tag. It’s a feed that you can kind of scroll through that is getting larger and larger by the month where you’re seeing people support each other. I gained a lot of my followers I think by my different hat. I always hashtag in on my art on Instagram and then I get people messaging me, deeming me, and all of a sudden I have a whole network of new friends who are enjoying the same things like type arts and things like that as I am. So yeah, I think that’s cool and it’s really important.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I would really like to see more of that; working together, collaborating on projects and things like that. I mean I even try to help out where I can. Certainly, for people who I’ve had on the show. If there is something they’re interested in, I try to make those connections. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.

Chanel James: To be honest I’m not afraid. For a long time I would write notes from the PI. The different episodes that really inspired me and I would message, I would go on in LinkedIn or wherever they said at the end of the show to talk to them. I would message and be like, Hey, my name is Chanel. You really inspired me with this thing that you said. Just wanted to let you know that effected me. One girl who you interviewed, I think she was from Boston. Her name started with a D and I’m blanking on exactly what it was, but maybe last year I reached out to her on Instagram and we actually ended up becoming like, I’m not going to say friend friends, but like IgE friends and I would comment on her work and stuff like that. But she was, I think she was also my age. So I was super excited to hear her story and hear her process and hear how what she was able to do after school.

Maurice Cherry: In Boston? I’m trying to think who that is.

Chanel James: Okay. Boston. Maybe Connecticut? She [inaudible] but I don’t think she went to [inaudible].

Maurice Cherry: Oh! Daniqua Rambert her name.

Chanel James: Deniqua. Yes.

Maurice Cherry: She goes by Willow now, but yeah.

Chanel James: Oh Okay. She definitely was a big inspiration to me and I think I caught her off guard when I messaged her. [laughter] I was like, hey girl. [laughter] I’m a fan! She was probably like, who is this girl? I mean, she seemed cool with it. I was cool with it. I know. [laughter].

Maurice Cherry: Nice. Well when you look at, I mean we’re coming up at not just the end of a year, but the end of a decade right now. What do you see yourself doing in the next five years? Like it’s 2025 what is Chanel James working on?

Chanel James: Wow. Okay. So I definitely wrote out my five year plan.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. [laughter].

Chanel James: This was actually on my five year plan. So Pat on the back for me for making a revision path. [laughter] I’d say I don’t ever say where I am because I don’t like jinxing it. I say how I feel and what I’m doing for other people. So I’m financially able to support myself and my family. Me and my parents. [chuckle] And I am continuing to create spaces for specifically black and brown youth to enter specifically the design realm; a creative space to encourage them to be creative and educating them on what design is and looks like. I think that’s my biggest hope for myself on these next couple of years. Especially entering the new decade is to introduce design as a possibility to more people; young people of color and older people of color. Because you can always switch careers and just create spaces where they able to be there, their fullest self.

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

Chanel James: So I am on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn and not Facebook. LinkedIn. You can find me on Instagram at Chanel Niari, C H A N E L N Y R E and on Twitter at Chanel_Niari and there’s also my website, chaneljames.com.

Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well Chanel James, I want to thank you for coming on the show and not just sharing your story, but also really for first of all, really illuminating conversation. I love being able to really talk and go into these sorts of issues around identity, and the industry, and motivation, and all that sort of stuff and I hope that others that listen to it will get inspired too. I feel like there’s a lot of folks that are in the middle, but the thing is the middle is very vast as we sort of discussed. It can be a few years in to a decade or more. There’s a big gap there where a lot of us are in the middle of it, as you put it earlier and I’m just really glad to be able to talk about these things with you. Glad you’re able to mark this off your five year plan. But this was really, really great. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Chanel James: Yeah, no, thanks for having me. And I encourage anyone to, if you felt inspired by this, to reach out. I’m always excited to chat and network with people. Let’s make this, what did you call it? Black Pack. [laughter] Let’s make it happen. Let’s make it real. So thanks so much for Maurice, for having me on the show.

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

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

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

It’s been a minute since we’ve had someone at Google on the show, so I was really excited to have the chance to interview Melissa Smith, a user experience researcher at Google working primarily on the YouTube mobile and desktop products.

We talked about how user experience research factors into her work, why it’s an important part of the design process, and talk about how she shifted from studying engineering towards her current work. There’s even a conversation about self-driving cars! It’s great knowing women like Melissa are at the forefront of helping make better experiences for all of us online!

(Thanks to one of our patrons, Nate Koechley, for the introduction!)


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