Sam Bass

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

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

Big thanks to Ricardo Roberts of BIEN for the introduction!

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

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

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

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

Branden Collins

Branden Collins, founder of the design studio The Young Never Sleep, is a deep thinker. I had such a blast during our conversation about the complex and thought-provoking world of tech, creativity, and the endless possibilities they hold. As an interdisciplinary designer, Branden has worked at Cartoon Network and Snap, but he’s also been heads down in the Atlanta creative community as well, which he’s just returning to after a stint in Los Angeles.

We talked about the ever-evolving landscape of social media, including the rise of microblogging platforms (as a response to Twitter’s X-ification), the cautiousness in navigating the digital realm, and some potential ethical issues surrounding AI and VR. Branden also shared his philosophy of technoculture, and we explored world building, information science, issues sex workers face in online platforms, and the parallels between past technological shifts and the emergence of the metaverse.

This episode will definitely make you think twice about the tech we build, how we use it, and how it affects our world!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Branden Collins:

I am Branden Collins. I am an interdisciplinary queer designer, artist, inventor, archivist and performer from Atlanta, Georgia.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. How has 2023 been going for you?

Branden Collins:

It’s been pretty good. I moved back from Atlanta…to Atlanta from Los Angeles. It’ll be about two years ago now. So over the course of those couple of years, I’ve just been kind of adjusting to being back here, being around old friends and reconnecting with people and sort of trying to re-establish myself in my practice here, which has been a journey. But I’ve been able to kind of kickstart a lot of new projects that I’m really, really excited about. So it’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been overall positive and really nurturing, nourishing experience so far. The year has been pretty good.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. What’s been like the biggest thing you’ve had to adjust to?

Branden Collins:

Not being close to the ocean, I think that’s definitely the biggest thing for sure. Everything else comes with being in Atlanta versus L.A. Just typical stuff, but that’s definitely been the biggest adjustment.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, the traffic in Atlanta is pretty bad too, but the traffic in L.A. is on par, I feel.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, it’s a toss up. You’d be hard pressed to say which one is worse, to be honest. The infrastructure in Atlanta definitely isn’t built for as many cars as we have coming into the city. And even in L.A., I think a city that was built for that is still a challenge. So being here is definitely pretty hardcore.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, you talked about re-establishing yourself and working with some projects. Can you talk about what some of those are? Is there anything that you want to try to do before the year ends?

Branden Collins:

So yeah, a few things.

I am working with a longtime collaborator and friend, Ami Swecki, who runs a creative studio called Zoo as Zoo. Her and I are working to build a platform called YOO, which is essentially at this stage, like a mind-mapping tool to help people of all kinds, but specifically new media, artists and creative technologists, to help them just organize their digital life, so to speak, all in one place. And sort of, in that way, help them sort of make new connections and curate their ideas towards the development of new projects and new types of technology. So that’s one of the bigger things that I’m working on.

I’m opening a bar with a good friend of mine, longtime friend Omar Ferrer. It’s called El Malo, and it’s going to be a really beautiful place and definitely a practice in world building for him and I and the whole team, which I’m working on Zoo with that as well. Really excited about that; about having our own space to have fun and enjoy.

I’m working on XR radio with Amiko — Sharon Oh — who runs her own studio, Polyvisuals. We’re essentially just trying to craft a story, a narrative about mixed reality and about identity and kind of through the lens of all of these technologies that all of us are sort of keeping our finger on the pulse about artificial intelligence and AR and VR and simulation and all these different things. Kind of asking the question, like, “what does it look like to exist in a world where all these technologies are integrated with one another” and having to navigate that? Sort of the way that we’re approaching it, as with all of my work, is really from an anthropological perspective, and I think recognizing that the tools themselves — the channels are new, the devices are new — but the questions and the challenges aren’t really that new. When you think about how we all navigate the world with the identities that have been in large part bestowed upon us, we have to constantly encounter manipulation and questionable realities and alternative facts and all of these things. We’ve had to do that for a really long time. It’s interesting to try to kind of craft a story around that with those things in mind.

So those are some of the kind of the big ones that I’m working on and everything kind of like circles around all of the rest of my work, which we’ll talk about more.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. So, yeah, you’re doing just a few light projects, nothing major.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, exactly. (laughs)

Maurice Cherry:

I heard about El Malo. I think I heard about it…I want to say maybe on it was one of these blogs. It might have been Water or What’s New Atlanta…Tomorrow News Atlanta? Something like that. But I think it’s going to be in Reynoldstown, I think.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, it’s at the Dairies. Yeah, it’s right in that little — not little — in that complex next to the Eastern. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I definitely want to check it out because I heard it’s a rum bar and I love rum.

Branden Collins:

Nice. Okay. Yeah, we’d love to have you, man. I’ll give you a membership. We can just set it up.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, thank you! Yeah, I appreciate that. Let’s talk about your studio, The Young Never Sleep, which you founded back in 2010. I’m looking at the website and it’s described as “a platform for visual experimentation through collaboration and interdisciplinary design services,” which you kind of have spoken about already a little bit with some of the stuff you’re working on. Tell me more about the studio.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, so I started that in 2010. It was originally just the name of my blog on Tumblr. I think I just came up with that. I think rooted in this idea of, just like, the restlessness that comes with youth and with being just insatiable in curiosity, and that being kind of the driving force behind my work. So the name kind of stuck as a blog and then turned into the name I use for my creative practice. And, yeah, I’ve been using it as a platform, a network, so to speak, to collaborate with other creatives to expand our work, the possibilities of our work, kind of leaning on each other’s strengths and then using it as a way to work with clients, with brands large and small. And over time, it’s just continued to evolve and expand as a way to explore my own identity and just do cultural research and archiving. And it’s kind of ballooned into a much, much larger idea, which is exciting. Sometimes overwhelming, but it feels right, so I’m still doing it.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, what would you say kind of sets your studio apart from other studios?

Branden Collins:

I would kind of parallel it with what I appreciate a lot about Zoo. Zoo as Zoo — Ami’s studio — is, I think, we approach it slightly different ways sometimes, but I think we both understand, I think, the impact and significance of not just creativity, but creative thinking. And the way I approach it is, again, through the lens of, like, anthropology, science, nature, and this idea that creativity is something that’s inherent to nature. You know, start talking about technoculture. That’s essentially what that kind of practice and philosophy is about, is that these things are rooted in nature.

Like, when you look out at nature, animals express creativity. They do architecture. Animals have languages and dialects. Animals create technology. They make tools. They have tool use and do mathematics and experimentation. And it’s sort of like realigning ourselves with the fact that we are animals. We’re animals, too. And that’s like a thing to be an honor for us, that we’re a part of this grand story of technology that doesn’t just start with humankind. It actually just starts with the beginning of life itself, and that the creative endeavor is the same thing. It starts the story of creativity, and creative expression goes back as far as time itself. And that, to me, is a profound acknowledgment. It kind of drives the pursuit of the studio.

And I started using this banner — another world is possible — many years ago not knowing that it was an actual term in politics of alter-globalization which seeks to hold on to the positive aspects of globalization while sort of critiquing and, if necessary, discarding some of the negative aspects, which I found to be pretty perfect once I realized that that is what it actually was about. But it’s really rooted in a world building practice and this idea that when we look out at nature, nature has all of these incredibly innovative solutions to so many complex problems. Using that logic, it’s quite simple that the world that we live in, with all of its kind of multitudes of injustices, is just one world. It’s one possible outcome based on things that we all should know about. We know why we arrived to this destination, because our map was constructed in a certain way. So if we start to retell the story and start to change the map, then the histories and the futures that are available look totally different.

And that, to me, is exciting. And that’s sort of the power and potential of creativity.

Maurice Cherry:

As you’re talking about this, you’re reminding me of an interview I did several years ago with Billy Almon. Billy Almon, he’s an inventor also. He’s an astrobiofuturist.

Branden Collins:

Yes. I love that.

Maurice Cherry:

And a lot of the work he does is around biomimicry. Some of what he does kind of speaks to what you’re talking about in that looking to the natural world on ways that we as humans can kind of live in this world or solutions, things like that. His premise is that the natural world kind of has provided all the solutions that we need. If we just look for them or look to them, I should say 100%.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

And also, your studio is a collective. Like, you’re working with partners. You’re working with other collaborators too, right?

Branden Collins:

Yeah, absolutely. I’m always working with other people. As much as I’m doing independent work, I’m constantly working with other people. Most of the work that is shown on the website and on my Instagram is collaborative, and I try to stress that point that collaboration is really key in certain instances and necessary to actually expand my capabilities and the capabilities of the people that I work.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, and I’m looking at the site…I mean, you have a very impressive list of clients and collaborators. I’ll list off a few of them. Medium, HBO, Nickelodeon, Impossible Foods, and even some, you know I was saying before we recorded, I was like, “I’ve seen your work before. I knew that it was from you.” But like Bon Ton, which was this…I think it’s Bon Ton is still in Midtown. I was thinking of TOP FLR for some reason, but Bon Ton is below TOP FLR. TOP FLR is now something else.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

But also, you did a lot of work for Brittany Bosco.

Branden Collins:

Yep.

Maurice Cherry:

What are the best types of clients that you prefer to work with?

Branden Collins:

All of those clients listed. I don’t think I’ve listed any of my bad clients, now that I think about it. I wasn’t even intentional. I think I just did that. But all of those clients were great clients. I think that the best clients are the ones who see you for who you are and sort of are excited about just, like, applying your capability and letting you do your thing. For the most part, they essentially hire you to do what they hired you to do, right? They let you do what they hired you to do. They are collaborative, and those are the clients that I really appreciate. It doesn’t mean that the work is without criticism and critique. I think the best clients also give good feedback and give a good critique. So it’s a good balance of letting you do your thing and also making sure we achieve the goal together.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, what are some of your plans for The Young Never Sleep in the future? I mean, you mentioned YOO, and I’m looking and seeing that you’ve been working on something called YOO Gen. So I think this is all sort of combined together. What are kind of your plans that you want to achieve through the studio?

Branden Collins:

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It’s a tricky knot to try to untangle. I think that the way I’m going with things is I think I would love to keep the studio running in its current form as, like, a practice that provides design services and offers a space for creatives to collaborate and express themselves. And as an extension of that, I think I want to push further and further into this world building space, essentially taking all of these stories that The Young Never Sleep has developed over the years and starting to realize them in multimedia formats. So things like gaming, mixed reality gaming, immersive, interactive experiences, simulated environments, physical environments. Yeah, just like, expanding those narratives and making them kind of bigger and more impactive and interactive.

Maurice Cherry:

Now it feels like you’re doing this at a time when I mean, I’d say it’s just at a really good time because of everything that’s going around with AR/VR/mixed reality. There’s, of course, a lot of generative AI. I feel like AI has been put into everything, or it’s trying to be put into everything these days.

Branden Collins:

Right.

Maurice Cherry:

I recently had Carl Bogan on the show, who’s the guy behind Myster Giraffe who does these viral deepfake videos. And we had talked about cultivating media literacy. We talked about critical thinking to help people navigate what’s synthetic media and what’s real media…or authentic media, I should say. I’d love to kind of get more of just your thoughts around all of this — around what’s been occurring with AI, how this feeds into kind of this definition of technoculture that you’ve come up with. I’m giving you the floor to give your thoughts on all that.

Branden Collins:

Okay, cool. Yes.

So technoculture is a term that I started using, which was another one of those things that I later come to find out. It’s an actual term in academia where the idea is to study and understand the relationship between technology and human society and how it sort of evolves over time, how they co-evolve and co-exist together. I’ve taken that same kind of philosophy and practice and kind of expanded it further to just include all of nature and recognizing that nature is in many ways inherently technological.

When you look at evolutionary biology and the behavior of animal cultures, they have cultures, they have social organization, like I talked about before. They make tools, they make technologies and do science experiments of their own. And from that lens, understanding that, again, this technological outcome is just one, essentially, that can exist based on specific context. So the trajectories are really exponential when you look at, okay, what happens when this non-human animal is allowed to continue to evolve, for example, and their technological sort of paradigm starts to expand and evolve on its own. What would that look like, or even from a human perspective, if said indigenous culture was able to thrive instead of being extinguished? What would our technologies look like today? Would they still be gray metal laptops that we stare into all day? Or would it be something totally different? And that’s an exciting thing that is usually taken on by science fiction. But the world we live in is a sci-fi already. So it’s exciting to just think about it that way and also to start putting those things into practice and start actually making these technologies, which is something I’m excited about, this endeavor of technoculture, part examination, part archiving, part practice and research and development.

Underneath that is this vast body of research into the science of information, which has kind of connections to so many different things that helps kind of lay the foundation for that practice. Information science touches everything from quantum physics to the invention and evolution of language to how we organize information in our lives, how information is organized in nature and in art. It’s super interdisciplinary. So I think that’s why I kind of latched onto it. And when we start kind of connecting those things and you start talking about something like artificial intelligence and putting it into context I don’t actually like the term artificial intelligence. I think artificial kind of implies that it’s not natural, which I don’t completely agree with. And intelligence implies that it’s intelligent, which intelligence is always a moving target, just like consciousness. Our idea of it continues to evolve as we learn more. And I think when you start asking questions about what is artificial intelligence? And you put it into the context of anthropology, sociology or evolutionary biology, you start sort of looking a bit deeper and looking at things like capitalism, for example, which I could place under the umbrella of artificial intelligence or white supremacy, which I could put under the umbrella of artificial intelligence or patriarchy, these autonomous systems that operate on agents. You’d be hard pressed to say, like, who has the hand on the wheel in that scenario? Is it the system itself or is it the individual people? And the reality is it’s both. It’s like a mixture of both. So in that context, artificial intelligence more broadly is just about non-human intelligence, quote unquote. So you can look at animal culture and say, how do we define intelligence based on this? Here are obviously conscious beings who don’t have a language like ours, who don’t do things the way that we do, but they are intelligent in their own multifaceted ways. It starts to bring up questions about human intelligence and if certain people are deemed disabled or neurodivergent or so on and so forth, like, is that accurate or do we need to think differently about it in the context of our society? So it just opens up a vast amount of questions. And I’m kind of excited about pursuing the philosophical challenges of it as well as the technical challenges and the ethical challenges. I think they all need to kind of go hand in hand. And it really to me is a provocation to challenge some of the things that we have just accepted as fundamental to our society.

As much as we want to challenge artificial intelligence, we have to, I think, simultaneously continue to challenge our economic paradigm, which is itself a technology, our socioeconomic paradigms, our political paradigms, which are also technologies. So, yeah, it’s an exciting kind of territory, and to me, it’s all connected. So it’s worth questioning all of it and embracing the idea that we have the agency to change it or work with it in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, we absolutely do.

Branden Collins:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

I think what I like the most about even what you’ve just described now is you’re taking technology and expanding the definition out of, I guess, what we would consider as computers. I guess that’s kind of the best way to put it, because, I mean, technology really is applying knowledge to achieve a goal in a reproducible way. So, like, the wheel is technology, the printing press is technology, but then food, the telephone, the Internet, et cetera, all of that is technology. And I think certainly the modern definition of tech has been strictly constrained within computers, the Internet, the Web program, like, all that kind of stuff, 100%.

But it’s funny — my mom tells me this sometimes about computers, because I don’t want to say she’s a luddite. I don’t want to put it in such harsh terms, but she’s pretty anti-computer. It took a long time for her to get a cell phone, she doesn’t have a computer at home, and was pretty anti-computer for a while. And she would often tell me humans taught rocks how to think, and we put them in a box and then lost our minds, which is a really kind of an abstract way to think about it, but then you think about the chips and all that stuff is rocks. That’s true. But, yeah, this is all interconnected. Like, none of this stuff is happening within a vacuum.

I think we even see now, just even talking about AI and VR and things like that, these are being applied as layers onto our current reality in ways that kind of make sense and kind of don’t. I think there are still particularly with a lot of AI stuff, there’s infinite possibilities and zero guardrails. There’s no kind of real I don’t want to say legislation, but there’s no sort of guardrails or ethics behind some of this stuff. I think individual entities are putting ethics behind it, behind the work that they do. But now the technology exists and is commonplace enough for you to spoof someone’s entire digital identity 100%. And it’s like, well, what happens in those cases? When that happens, it’s one thing to have identity theft, but then someone has also taken your face and your voice and is able to reproduce things that you could say that sound like you, and it’s like, well, it sounds like Black Mirror. It sounds like science fiction, like you said. But it’s now this is all these are all things which can happen right as this podcast is playing right now.

Branden Collins:

Absolutely, yeah. And I think I mean, even as you described it, I’m working on a story called “Beloved”, which is based on Toni Morrison’s book. And I started thinking about this after watching an interview of hers where she describes the mother taking her infant’s life in order to prevent it from being enslaved. And that story primarily is about artificial intelligence and the ethics of AI from the vantage point of that narrative. Because even as we’re talking, what you just described, someone taking your identity and taking your face and using it to say things that you wouldn’t say or make a caricature of you, these are things that we already have experienced, especially as marginalized people, especially as Black folk. When you talk about enslavement chattel slavery, the identity destruction and reconstruction that had to happen through that process over generations, hundreds and hundreds of years, when you talk about minstrelsy and Blackface and things like cultural appropriation, the artificial intelligence, quote unquote, of white supremacy has already kind of rendered this sci-fi experience of being Black.

One of the great ways to think about AI ethics is to look at the already lived experience of people like indigenous folks and Black folks and queer LGBTQIA people. And really, it’s a mirror of the potential destructive outcomes of a technology like this that is already, as we know, very much embedded with these biases. And it’s also a mirror of some of the potential beauty that can come from that when we have the agency to affect those systems. Because it’s always an evolutionary process. There’s always going to be a tie that comes in and a tie that goes out. Technology is always going to be used in nefarious ways, for the most part. Like you said, the guardrails are off, the cat’s out of the bag, Pandora’s box is open. And, yeah, my mom says to do your best. I think that’s kind of like, the task at hand, is to try to do our best with the information that we have, but we got to do it for sure.

Maurice Cherry:

And now technoculture, the definition of technoculture that you have is the framework for something else that you’ve been constructing called Communion. Can you talk about that?

Branden Collins:

Yeah. So after I left Snap, after downloading all of the information from spending four years there and all of the stuff that I was doing on the side and my own research since, at least I think the seeds of Communion have already been there. But at least since 2015, I did a show in Oakland called “Another World Is Possible: Race and Gender in the Age of Transhumanism.” And that’s, I think, when I started the seed of this framework.

But certainly after I left Snap, I kind of went to a group of thought leaders who are also mutual friends, collaborators, with this idea for a platform that was essentially a new kind of like information Internet and manufacturing infrastructure. And after presenting that and sort of taking a step back and thinking about it more deeply, I realized I needed to do a bit more work on this idea. So I started breaking it out into different frameworks.

So at the base, so to speak, information science kind of sets the stage for technoculture, which is the space that we sort of explore and sort of facilitate the production of different technologies through this kind of philosophical shift and then through that process, Communion, I think of as frameworks.

So one of them, for example, is a legal ethical framework for alternate realities. So when we talk about things like AI, like deep fakes, like AR/VR…this framework specifically is geared around how do you deal with illegal ethical challenges in virtual reality. I’ve read stories about people getting assaulted, like assaulted by groups of people in VR and different types of violence in VR. I’ve read stories about augmented reality and sort of being able to manipulate people’s reality and their perceptions using things like deep fakes. And it’s a vast, uncharted, very complex territory that I don’t think a lot of our institutionalized government authorities really have a sense of how to navigate. To me, it is a very much a grassroots effort that needs to take place. So that’s one of them. I have several others.

One of them is about full systems health and wellness; a framework for that. So thinking about the different dimensions of a person’s individual, collective and sort of global experience of health and what would it look like to actually make a healthcare infrastructure that takes into account how we relate to technologies. How? You use the Internet, how you use social media, the food you eat, your cultural context, what your background is as Black people understanding how deeply systemic injustice is to our individual health and the health of the planet. Kind of connecting all these things together and going like, okay, every person lives essentially in their own reality. And based on that, every single person needs to have a different sort of approach to health that’s specific to them. But it also can be navigated as something that’s beneficial for the collective. So that’s another one. There are several others that kind of, like, are all about different subjects. So communion is just a series of frameworks that could then be applied to a person’s individual life or as a body of research for institutions and things like that. That’s kind of the long and short of that.

Maurice Cherry:

To me, all of this sounds utterly fascinating.

Right around this time last year, I was working at this startup, I was working at this French-based startup and they wanted to make a magazine dealing with product communities. We had already published, or we already had two issues that we had done. It was a quarterly magazine called Gravity. And for the third issue, we wanted to do something on Web3. They had the idea come out like, “yeah, we want to do something on Web3.” This came directly from the CEO because I think he wanted to try to pivot the company into Web3 stuff. And people at work were like, “no, if the issue is going to be about Web3, I don’t want to write about it. I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” And I’m the editor-in-chief of the magazine, so I was like, “okay, fine. We can find some people to write about it. This magazine doesn’t live or die if you don’t decide to do it; it’s totally okay.”

And so we brought in a Web3 ethicist to serve as our guest editor for the magazine. And we put together a slate of different topics and articles. And some of it was on the things that you just mentioned on what does digital identity theft look like, what does safety look like in the metaverse, that sort of thing. And this was like a year ago. Unfortunately, I got laid off along with our entire team, and so they completely not only killed the issue, but killed the magazine as well. So unfortunately, none of that stuff will ever see the light of day.

But I do find it all super fascinating because these are going to be the realities that we have to contend with in a few years. And I’ve been around on the web since the 90s, so I see also the parallels between stuff happening now and stuff that happened back when the Internet for sure started to become a thing. Like, the concept of real estate in the metaverse, for example, was very similar to what I remember the million dollar home page being like the Million Dollar Homepage was like this website where people bought ad space. Like they could buy like an 88×31 pixel web space and put whatever message or something on the very similar to, I guess, like r/place on Reddit. Like, something like that, but people paid for it. And then like, the concept of real estate in the metaverse where people are paying tens of thousands of dollars to have a plot of land — quote unquote, “land” — in a Metaverse that not only is not interoperable, but kind of doesn’t exist really. I literally was in a conference…not last year, this was 2021. It was a metaverse conference in the metaverse, and someone during one of the talks had bought like an acre of land for $10,000. And I’m like, “Why? What are you going to put there?” I don’t understand what that even means. You’re buying $10,000 worth of space in the metaverse. I guess you could put a digital house there and show off your NFTs. Remember when NFTs were a thing? All of this stuff is changing in such a rapid fashion, and then of course, culture is trying to catch up with how this is all happening. And so it just reminds me of the time back when the Internet was first becoming a thing and people were trying to stake their claim with websites. Companies were really skittish about if they should even put their business online. It’s all, I think, connected in that way. Like, I’m seeing those patterns re-emerge.

Branden Collins:

Absolutely. There’s this quote that “history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes,” which I like a lot. And, yeah, you’re absolutely right. There was stuff like GeoCities back in the day, which was very similar to that. The Sims in the 90s, which is obviously the metaverse. A lot of old games that even I used to play, like Age of Empires was a game that I used to play way back when on the computer, where you basically build your own civilization from scratch. There’s all of these things that, yeah, we had and that are kind of reemerging in this new environment. And, yeah, there’s so much of it, and it’s happening so fast that I certainly don’t think aging somewhat archaic government institutions can really navigate this territory. But I think that the people who have had experience in that space, the gamers and creative technologists and creative people, artists do, and I think it’s, again, an opportunity to challenge the institutions that we sort of just accept.

I think your sort of description of the digital real estate is a great example because, yeah, it’s technically not real, but it is real, and it starts to challenge our idea of what’s real or not, which has pros and cons. But when you think about a concept like Manifest Destiny — how the country was conquered and these false deeds that allow people to take land and property and kind of a fabricated legality behind it — it’s pretty fascinating. Because to me, in that context, it’s like, okay, there’s like, a subtle difference between somebody holding a piece of paper that, because of their authority, makes them the owner of a thing that they can just then take from you. And this other thing, which is digital, which is kind of two sides of the same coin, and the physicality of it is sort of sometimes just an inconvenient kind of truth about the way we experience the world. But, yeah, I mean, that’s what I get excited about information science about is when you get into, like, quantum physics and all of the really weird stuff about reality intangibility, but it’s all connected. And I think, yeah, it’s fascinating. I think people should be kind of cautiously enthusiastic about this whole space, this whole kind of new digital environment. And it’s always healthy, I think, to just look at history for examples of how things can go right and how things can go wrong.

Maurice Cherry:

Absolutely. I’m actually taking that approach now as it relates to social media.

So, like, we’re recording this now at a time when Twitter just became X, like, I don’t know, a couple of days ago or something like that, right? And people had already been having kind of, you know, reservations about the platform ever since the new owner took ownership and how things have changed. And so of course, since then, a number of different Twitter-like clones have sort of popped up or they’ve made themselves known, I’ll say I won’t say they just popped up, but like, there’s Spoutible, there’s spill, there’s posts, there’s mastodon has been around for a long time. There’s blue sky. Instagram came out of left field with threads. And people are trying to determine like, okay, well, where should I go next? Well, should I go over here to Threads? Well, Threads does this, okay, well let me go over to Blue Sky. Well, Blue Sky is like this, and can I get an invite? And it reminds me of 2006, 2007 all over again. One with the invites, that’s the first thing, right? But then two with also when Twitter was around, then there were a number of clones that had popped up that was trying to take its market space. Eventually there was Pounce, there was Plurk, there was Jaiku, there was Yammer, there might have been a couple of others. And within a year’s time, most of those didn’t exist anymore. They either got acquired by a company and shut down or they just couldn’t hack it, essentially, or they’ve pivoted to another market. Like, Plurk is huge in Taiwan. I don’t think anybody in the US really still uses anymore. So I’ve been cautiously looking at like, oh, well, do I even want to be on these other platforms? Because even with Twitter, I don’t share a bunch of shit on Twitter now anyway. And I don’t think me migrating my presence to another platform is going to necessarily change that. Like people will say, oh, I’m on Threads, and oh, this reminds me of how social media used to be. And I’m like, look, if Elon Musk is the problem, mark Zuckerberg is not the like, let’s step back here and put this into some context. But also just thinking of like, I remember the Internet when social media was not a thing and it was fun.

Branden Collins:

It was, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

So even now, especially as I get older, I’m like, I don’t even want to really have a social media presence. Like as a publisher of Revision Path, I have to think, “oh, well, where do I want the show to be so people can find out about it?” So then I have to have those conversations with myself and my team about what even makes sense. But personally, I could give all of this up tomorrow and be fine.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, I feel that it’s kind of like a gold rush, like speculators, like running to whatever the hot town is at the time and trying to stake your claim. So, yeah, it’s definitely spot on and that would be a good archive, actually, is actually all of the platforms that have come and gone in relation to all this stuff. I think it would be like a humbling thing to see just how many of them have just come and gone and only a small few rise to the top because that’s just like the nature of the thing. So as we try to rush from one thing to the next, it’s just like it might be better to just take a minute to think about what it is we’re actually trying to do and get from these platforms. And is there a way to kind of re-claim that sovereignty and autonomy for ourselves? That’s something that I’m really interested in and trying to put into practice more regularly.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s like, what’s the connection? Because one thing that people have been talking about, and I promise we’ll pull this back into talking about Yoo, but one thing with people trying to go to these other platforms is then trying to recreate the social graph that they had on Twitter. So they’re like, oh well, if you’re going to be here, then I need to be here, and where are my people that are also on this? And it’s like, well, you can’t take your network with you in that way. There’s your offline real world network that always stays with you. And then there’s this sort of Ursat, cultivated network that’s been done through this social media platform that now you have to try to recreate and reconstruct on some other platform that may not even exist within a year’s time.

Branden Collins:

Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:

And also with the old platform X, Twitter, whatever it is, if you’ve had people muted or blocked or things of that nature, now that you’ve moved to this new platform, those restrictions no longer really apply. So they can try to harass you somewhere else. They can try to befriend you somewhere else and you’re like, “no, I don’t talk to you on Twitter; that means I don’t talk to you anywhere.” It’s so weird. It’s so, like, it’s very complex, which makes me want to just give it all up. I’m like, this is…y’all can have it.

Branden Collins:

It’s not that serious. Yeah, it gets overwhelming and it’s especially challenging, I think, for people who find a lot of value in kind of distributing their identity or having new identities online that they can’t have in quote unquote, real life, because that is something that’s very beneficial for a lot of people. I would include myself in a part of that. And especially, I think, like, younger generations and queer folks is, like, not generally, but a lot of people find a lot of value in being able to assume a different identity and being able to sort of go to a new town, so to speak, where nobody knows your name, and being able to recreate yourself. And there’s a lot of challenges behind that with all these new platforms, with legacy platforms that fade away.

One of the things that I’m really concerned about with Twitter, and just like these social platforms in general is something called link rot. Link rot. This idea that, I think, we forget that the Internet is very ephemeral and that if a server goes down, if people aren’t there to maintain it, that all of your tweets can just go away or all of the things you’ve saved in Google Drive or whatever other cloud service or all the things you posted on Facebook can just go away one day. There’s just this wealth of knowledge on a platform like Twitter that could be lost not only with the name change, but with the infrastructural changes that are there. And it’s the equivalent of burning down the Library of Alexandria with all of these connections and conversations and this sort of archive of this moment in time that we will never see again. It’s a little like concerning, not a little concerning. It’s pretty like it worries me a bit.

Maurice Cherry:

You know, I did a talk — oh my God, this is maybe two or three years ago — I did a talk called “Content is Subject to Change” about this very same thing; about how the Internet is not an archive. I know there is the Internet Archive, but that is a small nonprofit. It’s an institution, yeah, that one can’t archive the full web because there are certain restrictions around the type of content about the location of said content. It’s not even available in some countries. So you can’t archive the full web, but also just sort of talking about with the advent of user-generated content through social media, Web 2.0, et cetera. We are putting so much stuff on the Internet without thinking about how it is being stored, if it’s being stored, like news articles. Try to find a news article from ten years ago and see if all the images still work, or see if all the links, you know, link rot, like you mentioned, still works. And like, it makes it hard for history purposes, for archiving, et cetera. Yeah, the Internet is very ephemeral in that aspect.

Branden Collins:

Yeah. And that’s like one of the sort of ambitions of you. The platform that I’m working on with Ami is to at least kind of, in our own way, create these tools and allow people to create their own tools where they can create a living archive of at least themselves, of at least their digital self, and try to connect it to their physical self in a way that is ownable, that has sovereignty for them. And reclaiming all that data, reclaiming all of the information that we’ve dumped online and making sure that you are able to house it somewhere that you can access and not lose it. Because all of that stuff is hugely, hugely important. People’s digital stuff is…I don’t think we think about this consciously all the time. We kind of take it for granted. But it’s not until you lose it, it’s not until the house burns down with all your stuff in it that you’re like, “oh man, right. I probably should have saved that somewhere or made a copy of it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yep. Put it on a physical hard drive or something.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, right, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

Even as you mentioned that, that kind of reminded me about sort of one of the restrictions of Threads, like when people were sort of looking at different platforms to jump to and sort of the notion you mentioned about people being able to assume different identities on different platforms. Like there’s who you are, maybe in the real world, but then on the internet you can be a different person or a different identity or something like that. And I know there were people like adult industry professionals, sex workers, porn stars, et cetera, who said that they had joined Threads. And Threads, because it’s Instagram and Instagram is owned by Facebook, now links them, their stage name, to their real person identity. And that if you try to delete Threads, then now you delete Instagram. So now it’s like tying together these things. You didn’t ask to be tied together, but because you’ve opted into the platform and no one reads the long ass end user licensing agreements or the terms of service, but now that you’ve opted into it, it’s like this is what you signed on for.

Branden Collins:

Yeah. And you can’t go back and it’s super manipulative, I think, and nefarious and not by accident. And yeah, that’s in and of itself a huge conversation about sex work online and sort of platform and surveillance capitalism. And I have friends who are sex workers. I kind of consider myself to be in that territory, at least online anyway. I have an OnlyFans. It’s a huge issue. Not only the deplatforming, the silencing, all of that stuff, which I think is hugely messed up because in a lot of ways these platforms make a lot of money from the revenue that’s generated by these users, these citizens of their platforms, while at the same time silencing them, even sometimes encouraging violence and disrespect towards them. There aren’t a lot of really safe equitable spaces for sex workers and marginalized folks online and I’m excited about seeing more of that. I think the metaverse — not Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse — but the Metaverse more broadly and gaming and kind of world building environments is at least one space that I feel excited about the opportunity for those things to open up more and just people like making their own platforms. I think back to the era of blogging, like hosting your own platform yourself. I think that’s exciting and I think we’ll probably see people do more of that for sure because I think people are getting really fatigued with all of this stuff.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, no, absolutely. I feel like we could have a whole other podcast episode just about what we talked about with the advent of technology through porn and sex work. Like a lot of technological innovation, especially like when we talked about synthetic media and things like that. Unfortunately it’s come because of that, that innovation has spurred technological innovation. But we’ve spent a lot of time talking about this. I want to make sure that this interview is also about you. So let’s switch gears here, learn more about you. Now, you’re originally from Cleveland, is that right?

Branden Collins:

That’s right. Yeah. I was born and raised there.

I lived there until I was about 13, and then I moved around in the south quite a bit. I went to high school in Douglasville, Georgia, for about a year. I went to high school in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s actually where I graduated high school. And I ended up going to SCAD in Savannah for two years. I’m a college dropout.

I loved my time at SCAD, especially the people. And just like, that city, I think, is beautiful. Yeah. I was a 3D animation major and an illustration minor. I thought I wanted to work at Pixar at that time. That was my first kind of venture into the 3D space, at least using computers. And I think it kind of stuck with me even though I hadn’t revisited it until more recently. A lot of the ideas, understanding the potential of it definitely stuck with me. I’ve always been interested in science and technology. I would have just as soon went into robotics or something like when I was a kid. I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. I wanted to be a paleontologist. I had all these kind of aspirations. I think that’s true for a lot of creative people.

I think something that I realized about kind of the world we live in is the unfortunate sort of reality of this kind of reductionist approach to so many things, where you have to choose one thing to be when that’s not really how the world works. And that was definitely a big part of starting the studio, was that using it as a vehicle to do whatever I wanted to do. And I think people feel inspired to rally around that. So, yeah, that’s been the journey with that.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, after SCAD, I saw that you kind of worked for a while as a designer. You worked for Radio One for a while, but then you also started collaborating with other creatives. You started this collective called The Big Up. Tell me about that, because it sounds like that’s kind of been the basis for what you do now through The Young Never Sleep.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, 100%. At SCAD, I met a group of really dynamic people; Bittany Bosco being one of them. Alex Goose, Danny Swain, Lloyd Harold, a number of other amazing people. We all kind of went our separate ways, but stayed in touch. And then after going back to Montgomery for a little bit, I went back to Atlanta. And at that time, I was just doing just like, freelance graphic design, doing club flyers and making people’s album artwork. Fadia Kader was one of the people who —

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, yeah, I know Fadia.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, she’s awesome. She’s one of the people who kind of helped jumpstart my design career. And yeah, I started working with Brittany and Alex Goose and Danny really closely. I’ve done album artwork for Danny. I did some vocals on one of his albums. I’ve done album artwork for Brittany and her show, kind of posters and things like that.

So, yeah, we started the collective The Big Up, and it was essentially like part label, part creative agency where we just wanted to do everything in house. We made the music, we made the art for the music. We did the set design. We did everything. And that was definitely one of the things that I think transitioned me from being an artist to being more of a design thinker, and certainly like a systems design thinker. And then, yeah, I worked for Hot 107.9 for a little while. I actually lived there for a short period of time. I had an experience with houselessness for a brief period of time, and I actually lived at Hot 107.9 making designs for Birthday Bash. And I would just stay in the studio when everybody left and just sleep there. I’d always been interested in computers, like, I had a computer at home. It was really old, and I’d play games on it and do stuff I wasn’t supposed to be doing. But, yeah, at Hot 107.9, just being there for that time, I was like, obsessively going through blogs. This is the time of LimeWire and all of that stuff. And just torrents and downloading just twenty albums at a time and just listening to Japanese prog rock and just cosmic jazz and all this crazy stuff from everywhere. It was incredible. And I remember I saved all this music on a hard drive, and I ended up losing that hard drive. So I think maybe that might be like some trauma that made me want to archive. There might be some trauma there. I’m like, I never want to lose anything ever again.

Maurice Cherry:

Listen, I have a hard drive here now at the house that’s got a ton of music on it that I can’t access for some reason. And I’m like, one day I’m going to crack it and get all my music back that’s on there. So I feel you there.

Branden Collins:

The world needs that.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Branden Collins:

But yeah, The Big Up. Yeah, that was definitely one of the things that was kind of seeded The Young Never Sleep and what was possible through that. You know, it’s been a journey. I still am connected to Bosco. The last time we worked together was a project with Spectacles. It was one of my favorite projects I’ve worked on there, actually. And one of the things that kind of set the trajectory for where I’m headed now with my work. We did her single July 4th or 4th of July. We created this video, which was essentially a concept for a music video game in mixed reality. Yeah, it was a really cool project where we used the AR lenses from a lot of Lens Studio creators, and I made toys based on the characters in a video and made several AR experiences. A really great 360 project. It’s a really cool one.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Brittany was actually on our 2019 honoree list for 28 Days of the Web. Yeah. We have, like, a sister site where, for Black History Month for February, we profile 14 men, 14 women that are doing really interesting, great digital stuff online, whether that’s design, tech, et cetera. That’s something I’ve done for the past ten years.

I’ve been debating on stopping it. This is my first time saying this publicly, by the way, because I’ve done it for ten years. I’m like, ten is a good round number. I don’t know if I want to do it again for next year, mainly because — and I didn’t think this would be the case, but I don’t know, maybe it’s kind of tied into our conversation — some people just don’t want that presence online anymore. They’re contacting us and being like, “yeah, could you take down the profile that you did?” They thanked me when it was up, but then now that it’s up, they’re like, “yeah, can you get rid of that?”

Branden Collins:

Okay.

Maurice Cherry:

Because I’m like…yeah. So I don’t know.

Branden Collins:

All right.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m on the fence about doing it again for 2024, but we’ve done it since 2014, so it’s been ten years. So I don’t know. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. I don’t know.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, okay. I feel that it’s like that. Things change.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Now, when you look back, art, some of the big places you’ve worked, like, you mentioned, Snap, you were there for four years in L.A. You’ve also been at Cartoon Network for four years here in Atlanta. When you look back collectively at those experiences, what do you still carry with you from there?

Branden Collins:

My experience working at those places, for me was like, my school. I apply myself in these careers as me, like, learning by doing.

At Cartoon Network, I got a deep appreciation for how to apply artistic thinking to design. There’s a fine line between art and design, and sometimes it’s nonexistent. And I think at Cartoon Network, I got an appreciation for how art and design can be the same thing. I got an appreciation for systems thinking again. I tell people we essentially did everything except make the cartoons. So we were, you know, making interstitials, making commercials, print ads, web ads. We did immersive experiences for, you know, we built a booth. I helped make a gigantic inflatable obstacle course in the Bahamas. It was like, so much work that got done making premium clothes and all kinds of things. Working for Cartoon [Network] and Adult Swim, you get a real sense of all of the touch points that have to happen in order to make a project successful or a product launch successful.

So I got a real sense of that there, and I have to thank people like Jacob Escobedo, who got me the job, and for him believing in me not having a degree, just seeing my work. He literally just asked me to bring in a sketchbook. He’d look through my sketchbook and hire me based on that, which I really appreciate him for that. And then Candice House, I have to say, is someone who sharpened my eye for detail and quality. She, as an art director, you know, is exceptional, and is someone who I think just is exemplary of the Cartoon Network brand. So I got that there, and then I left after four years. I graduated, so to speak, and then I freelanced for a while with that knowledge, working on projects for Dolby and HBO and several other kind of higher profile brands, which it’s great for me, I think, to go back and forth to have this kind of independent, self-starting thing, but also to be within the institution. Because I think you just learn different things from those experiences.

And then after a while, I got the job at Snap by working with Larissa Haggio, who’s a fashion designer in L.A. Andrew McPhee, her partner, got me introduced to Snap and the Spectacles team. And at Spectacles, I was there for four years. Another kind of graduate situation. I think the big takeaway there was how hard it is to make tech. I got a much deeper appreciation for the things that I think a lot of us take for granted. When our laptop is on the fritz or the GPS doesn’t work perfectly, it’s easy for us to complain. But I got a real reverence for the complexity and challenge of trying to make a piece of hardware and a piece of software and also trying to get it out into the market in a way that people will embrace it. It’s a very, very hard, complex thing to do. And I was there through four launches, four product launches, doing a little bit of everything with the brand and even influencing the product as well. I got a lot of experience with working with product teams and trying to set the vision and design a product. So I think those two kind of big pillars, Cartoon Network and Snap Spectacles together, I think, alongside my independent work, really set the stage for where I’m headed in the future.

Maurice Cherry:

I love that you kind of referred to both of those experiences as, like, graduation, for sure, because jobs do when we’re working at these places. They do teach us things. It’s not just kind of a particular tenure of employment, like some of the work that you did just looking back, like with Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, when I said before that I’ve seen your work before, I’ve seen your work before I knew it was you. The Adult Swim singles covers and stuff, some of the best design I’ve seen. And I’m like, this is coming out of Atlanta, and I mean, during a time when honestly, and I would probably still maybe say this even now, people don’t look at Atlanta as a design city.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, 100%.

Maurice Cherry:

I think certainly they look at us for entertainment. They look at just the creativity that comes here out of, like, the music scene. But I can tell you, from doing a show for ten years, people do not look at Atlanta for design at all.

Branden Collins:

You’re right.

Maurice Cherry:

Tech, they’ve started to because of the startup scene, but, like, design? Please.

Branden Collins:

Right.

Maurice Cherry:

Do not get me started about some of the design arguments and conversations I’ve had locally trying to help put Atlanta on the map about stuff. It’s just like…man, I don’t know.

Branden Collins:

Yeah, it’s such a shame. It does such a disservice to the culture to not acknowledge that. A lot of us been doing it for a long time. And I appreciate that you continue to advocate. I think it’s true. I’m passionate and committed to Atlanta. I’m not like, an Atlanta loyalist. Having lived other places, other places are really amazing as well. But I think it definitely does a disservice to the city to not acknowledge the design and art and tech and entertainment and all of those things that are very much present here. What I really see is just like an opportunity, actually to continue to foster the kinds of platforms that need to be unique to this city. I think that’s one thing that we’re tasked with, or anyone who’s creative here, is like, if you’re a person who’s committed to this city and committed to seeing it continue to improve, the reference points don’t need to be anywhere else but this place and the people who live here. And that’s it. It has its own thing, and that’s all it kind of needs to be.

Maurice Cherry:

Absolutely.

Branden Collins:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you think it means to be a creative person today?

Branden Collins:

I think it’s like a common thread for me to see creativity as a way of self-affirmation on a really, really deep level. I think it’s a way to self reflect and to obviously connect with other people. I think from that place, when I think about something like a term that’s maybe on the verge of being overused now, this term “world building”, even before coming across the word, I think that our task of world building. As creative people, whether that is world building through writing a novel or doing photo shoots or making video games or creating a space where people can come and enjoy themselves or receive healing. I think world building as a practice is kind of our premier task.

The way that I sort of contextualize this for people is like me as a young black queer kid growing up, the world builders that I knew were my grandmother and my mother and my aunt who, when I stepped into their homes, I was confronted by all of this beauty. Black intellect. My grandmother had libraries about Black people, about Africa and Black dolls, and the walls were painted colorfully and bright, and my aunt’s home is just…you step into this world that’s, like, self-affirming, and it really just nourishes you. And it builds you back up to step out into the world, into a world that is not always so affirming. And to me, I think that’s the premier, I think, task is to continue to build that world and to do it together and bring it all together because we have the power to shape the trajectory of the world we live in and change the outcomes just by making it by making it real. And I’m excited about that. And I think the depth of that pursuit means challenging institutions continuously. Challenging how education is disseminated, challenging how social systems are disseminated, challenging authority kind of at all levels. Yeah. And just, like, affirming ourselves and even making something a little bit better is, I think, a win a victory.

Maurice Cherry:

In recent years, what would you say is one of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned about yourself?

Branden Collins:

I think it’s been humbling and exciting to put my own creative pursuit within the context of this sort of deep time. Being conscious of that. It’s opened a huge window for me as a part of my research. I recognize that, oh, wait…the sort of visual and sonic and conceptual themes that I am tapping into through my work all exist on a continuum and in a network of all these other minds and ideas and sort of questions. And once I step back and sort of look at that in that context, you start to get a different picture. Like, a different picture emerges of, like, okay, we’re all having this collective conversation. Like, touching on this idea of artificial intelligence again, is like this sort of collective consciousness that’s present through history, through this deep time of nature and all these things tracing that thread, it’s sort of simultaneously reduced who I am and also expanded it in ways that are just, like, reinvigorating. And it’s pretty profound to me, it’s felt profound.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, this might be a big question kind of given, I think, the general kind of trajectory of where your work is, but what kind of work do you want to be doing within the next five years? What’s the next chapter look like for you?

Branden Collins:

It’s a little tricky because there’s kind of a duality. I want to be more accepting of where I am, whatever that circumstance is, and in many ways just live small, live in a more small way on a personal level. But at the same time, I want to show people what’s really tangibly possible through the practice of world building and self kind of recreation. We’re living in this sci-fi world, and we watch really entertaining shows, you know, Black Mirror and Marvel movies or whatever, all these things that are really cool, like narratives. But I think I want to kind of take storytelling a little further. I really want to make tangible extensions of myself or of other people or worlds that people can really step into, make that collectively with other creatives.

I think the practice of world building…I take it really seriously because I know that a world has been built for me to live in. I always use Frank Ocean’s line — “living in an idea from another man’s mind.” I think that perfectly encapsulates our current circumstance. That somebody had an idea that one person of a color was less than another person, and now we live inside that idea. And a lot of the things that we now have to contend with as social institutions were just somebody’s idea that they wrote in a book, just proselytized to their group of friends. And then it became a global institution that has industries and infrastructure and military might to support it. And that to me is like fascinating that that can happen from just the seed of an idea.

So the creative pursuit, I think, is not to be underestimated that you as a person who has a concept or has an idea, you couldn’t begin to comprehend what that could look like in ten years, 100 years, 1000 years. And I kind of want to show people that that when we say another world is possible, that no, actually, yeah, the world like, for real, and that it is. And it’s not only possible, but it’s probable and practical as well. That’s what I want to do.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to kind of wrap things up here. And I know we’ve covered a lot, but just to wrap things up, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work? Where can they follow you online?

Branden Collins:

So you can go to @theyoungneversleep on Instagram or theyoungneversleep[.com] online. My Instagram has a Linktree with a bunch of other links as well that people can jump into. Those are the best places to find me.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Branden Collins. Wow. Wow. This conversation was so good. I think one it was just, I mean, first of all, thank you again for coming on the show. But the stuff that you’re covering are the things that I think as designers, as creatives, as technologists, we need to be thinking about because we’re probably best equipped to actually help to shape that future of what things can look like through 100% technology, through visuals, et cetera. And I just thank you for helping to put these ideas out there. Thank you for the work that you’re doing. Hopefully one day we’ll have rum together at El Malo for sure. But yeah, again, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Branden Collins:

Thank you very much. Have a good one.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

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

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

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

David Tann

If you live here in Atlanta, or you’re a fan of our hometown basketball team, then there’s a good chance you’ve already seen David Tann’s work. As the former VP, Creative Director for the Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena, he helped establish the team’s bold visual identity…one of the best in the NBA, if you ask me. Now, David heads up his own company, Tantrum Agency, where he uses his career experience with global brands to help companies find their own unique voice.

We started off talking about his recent accolade — Entrepreneur of the Year from Atlanta Business League — and he gave some behind the scenes information about running an agency and working with clients and new projects. He also talked about his time at Wake Forest University, his past brand work with companies including Kohl’s and Carter’s, and shared some insight on how he sees success at this stage in his career. David Tann is definitely the real deal, and I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of his work for years and years to come!

Interview Transcript

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

David Tann:
I’m David Tann, the founder and CEO of Tantrum Agency located in Atlanta, Georgia. We are a boutique brand and design consultancy. I call it creative consulting. I think, for us, it’s really more about the journey and the process of creating whatever it is, less so the actual physical output. I like the process of working with people and I think that’s what we do really, really well. That’s the part of my job that I love the most.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, before we really kind of start off with the interview, I just have to congratulate you on your recent honor.

David Tann:
Oh, man. I appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
Entrepreneur of the Year from Atlanta Business League.

David Tann:
Yeah. That’s a big one, man. I never in a million years would have thought that that one would come across the desk, but when it did, I definitely am super, super humbled. There’s a lot of titans in the history of Atlanta who have won that award, so I definitely am super humbled and honored to receive that one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, man. You should really be proud of that. Congratulations.

David Tann:
Appreciate it.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from that, how has 2023 been going so far?

David Tann:
Man, 2023 has been, I mean, we’re really blessed. It’s a record year as far as projects and revenue. I think we’re continuing to grow. The first quarter, first half of the year has been amazing. If the second half lives up to the first, it’ll be another record-breaking year for us.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, aside from the record-breaking parts that you mentioned, how are things different for you this year than last year?

David Tann:
I think it’s a lot different for us, less probably so from the outside looking in, but more … We just have more systems in place. It’s taken a while to get the right people on the team and have the right people in the right roles. 2023 feels different than 2022 or any of the years prior just because it’s like we actually have a solid team in place. There’s a lot of things that I used to have to do that I don’t have to do anymore. That’s a really, really good feeling. That means that we’re growing and we’re moving in the right direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Any plans for the summer?

David Tann:
Summer’s always my busy season, man. I think it comes from my background in retail where in the summer you’re really ramping up for holiday. My summers are always … In a weird way, everyone else is going on vacation. I’ll sneak a vacation, a couple of days in, here or there when I can, but usually I’m ramping up. We’re pushing pretty hard in the summertime.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Let’s talk about Tantrum, which turns five this year, right?

David Tann:
Yeah. We just turned five in February. We’re a little over five now heading into the sixth year. That’s a huge one because most businesses obviously don’t make it that far. We feel really fortunate and blessed and thankful to get to that point.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Tell me more about it. I mean, you’ve kind of made a little bit of mention about the team structure, but talk to me more about Tantrum.

David Tann:
I started 2018 in my basement just with this idea. It was something that I had always wanted to do, and the timing of it was never right. After years in the industry, it was just like, all right, family’s good. Kids are a little bit older. I have all this experience. I’m a firm believer in mental health and therapy. Talked to my therapist and she’s like, “What are you waiting for?” Talked to my wife about it and she was like, “You’ve let me be at home with the kids and be a stay at home mom for 10 years. Now go chase it.” That was the battery charge that I needed to go out and do it. I thought, worst case scenario, it’s a six-month sabbatical and then I just go back and get another job.

Here we are five and a half years later, still going strong. As far as the agency goes, we do all different types of work. I say we’re kind of industry agnostic. We’re everywhere from education to civil engineering to healthcare, sports entertainment. We cross a variety of industries, but I think the thing that is the common thread is we have clients that really believe in what they’re doing and are passionate about the work that they do, and they’re willing to go on that creative journey with us. We’ve got some really cool clients that cross a bunch of different industries and we’ve done a bunch of pretty cool projects. As an agency, I think, that’s kind of the thing that I’m the most proud of is the diversity and the type of work that we do.

Maurice Cherry:
What are some recent projects that you’ve worked on?

David Tann:
Yeah. One that I tell people that’s just easy for people to see because it’s just easy, is we rebranded The Atlanta Dream about three years ago. If you look at any of their marks and colors that came from our team three years ago due to the close ties and relationships that we have with the NBA, so that’s an easy one. One that’s really cool that we just did is we rebranded a organization formerly called Equity, it’s now called Beam. They’re in the cash assistance and government aid space. It’s a tech company that helps people get cash assistance quickly and equitably. We rebranded them, did their website, and then we just did a big trade show booth for them at the Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver. That was a big one that we’re really proud of just, because it’s very comprehensive and it got the show all the different skills and abilities that we offer. That’s a very different end of the spectrum.

Then as far, as you mentioned the Atlanta Business League, the day after I won the award for the Atlanta Business League, I was on the road going up to Charlotte to go speak to some high school kids. We actually have curriculum in Charlotte for digital marketing. We’re rolling out curriculum for sports marketing in the fall.

I think those shows such a diaspora of the types of stuff that we do, but those are three good ones that I think I’m really proud of. I think it’s really easy to get kind of caught up in some of the, I call, sexier projects, but the ones that I find the most challenging or the most rewarding are the ones that you don’t expect. We worked on a brand called Genesis Health, which is a healthcare insurance company a year ago. It’s like, how do you make healthcare and insurance sexy? We found a way to do it and it was cool. Those are the things that I like because I think that’s the challenge of what we do from a creative standpoint.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really glad you mentioned, I don’t know, the sexiness of projects because I think particularly when designers are either looking to strike out on their own or they’re, at the very least, trying to establish themselves as a brand, there’s so much social proof wrapped up in doing work for very well known brands because it sounds good. If you look at your resume and it says you’ve done Nike and Sony and all this kind of stuff, it’s great. As you’ve intimated, the true metal of a designer is how do you take the skills that you have and apply it to non-sexy type of things? How do you make insurance sexy? How do you make healthcare sexy? I mean sexy, of course, is a subjective kind of feeling, but how do you make it so it’s interesting to people and that it still sort of puts forth what the business wants in terms of goals for working with the agency.

David Tann:
Yeah. I don’t know. I think that that’s just fundamental to what we do. I tell people all the time, design is not art. If you’re a artist, you get to create from within and you get to create because something moves you as a person. If you’re a designer, I’m not doing anything till someone comes to me with their problem. Everything I do should be solving their problem.

To me, I think that’s sort of fundamental to what we do as professionals is, at the end of the day, all this other stuff is cool and it maybe gets a lot of attention and hits from a media standpoint, but when this small business or medium-sized business, or even to some degree large corporation comes through with a problem and they don’t know how to articulate themselves or they can’t reach their customer in the right way, then okay, cool, I got you. That gets to show off a whole other skillset. I think that that sort of separates … That’s when you sort of begin to level up and separate yourself from the pack and what others are doing. To me, that’s kind of what I’ve made my career on. I think that’s the part that I’m the most proud of.

Maurice Cherry:
Has business changed over the past few years, just given the state of the world? Have you found that there’s been a shift in the types of clients that you do or the types of work that you do?

David Tann:
I think it’s changed for us, but it has less to do with the state of the world and more to do with just we’re growing. Just being a young business, being a young entrepreneur, starting, being a couple of years into it and leveraging those personal relationships, you generally are starting off with a small project here just to kind of get your foot in the door and show what you can do. Then you do a good job on that and then someone’s telling someone else and then someone’s telling someone else. Our business has changed and our projects have evolved not so much because of what’s happening in the world, just because we’re older, more mature, more savvy, we know more what we’re doing, we’re more confident in who we are, and so we’re going after bigger projects to have larger scope, longer lead times, bigger budgets, et cetera.

To me, that’s just the natural progression of us being in business over time, less so kind of what’s happening with the world and the market. I mean, we’re aware of it and we obviously pay attention to it, but I’ve just learned, especially being an entrepreneur, there’s certain things that it’s like you can control and there’s certain things that you can’t control. The external forces of the market and the world, I’ll never be able to control that. We try to keep our head down and make sure we’re serving our clients to the best of our ability and let the chips fall where they may.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, as founder and CEO of the agency, are you still able to get hands on in working with clients?

David Tann:
Yes and no. I think the funnier part about it is redo creative reviews on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I was just telling my team the other day, I actually am really excited about the fact that I could be in a creative review and the team could show me something or be talking about a project and I have no idea, or they have to get me up to speed on what’s happening with that client and what that project is. I think part of being a leader is putting good people in place and learning to let go and let them deal with what you’ve hired them to do.

To me, I love that aspect of it, but at the same time, I’m always going to be involved. I’m always going to know, at a high level, what’s going on and make sure that the ship’s heading in the right direction. Even if I’m not necessarily always meeting directly with the client, they know that I’ve been involved in that process. To me, that’s very important where sometimes even if someone is emailing and it’s not me, we’ve had a conversation about it and they can say, “I talked to David. This is kind of what we’re doing. This is the thought process,” et cetera, even if I’m not in every call, on every meeting, et cetera.

Maurice Cherry:
Are there particular types of clients that you would say the agency is best to work with? I know you mentioned sort of larger brands like The Atlanta Dream, et cetera, but is there a specific category or type that you find sort of the agency gravitates towards, in terms of business?

David Tann:
I think it’s less about industry. To some degree, actually it’s size is less of a concern too. We do a lot of work with startups and we do a lot of work with small businesses. I think that it’s just part of what I consider to be goodwill is that we have a skill, we have a service, and for the most part, those young entrepreneurs or startups or whatever, they may not be able to afford our services. We carve out a couple of projects a year where we do them at discounted rates or some of them, depending on what it is, we might even do pro bono. We can’t obviously do a ton of them, because we’re a business and we have to keep the lights on. I do think it’s important to keep connected and make sure that some of those small businesses, because I’m a small business myself, that we don’t forget about them and leave those behind. We’re working on all different types and sizes of companies.

I think the thing that is sort of unique regardless of where they are is I like working with people who feel like they have something to prove. I like the underdog. I think everyone on our team has a chip on their shoulder. We’re a small agency. We’re trying to compete with the agencies that have been around for 40, 50 years. From a client standpoint, the best clients are the ones that aren’t afraid to take risks.

The best clients are the ones that, again, aren’t afraid to go on that creative journey and they’re not just asking me for an output. I want a logo. If you’re just focusing on that output or that end result, it’s probably not the best scenario for us because, generally speaking, we know where we need to head, but we’re going to push you and poke and prod so that when we get to that end result, we’re delivering the highest quality, telling the story in the best way, et cetera. For people who want to shortcut that process or cut those steps out of the process, those end up not being ideal clients for us. It’s less about the size and scale, and more just about the mentality and the approach to the project.

Maurice Cherry:
Say a new project comes into the agency, walk me through that. What’s the intake process look like? What does the creative process look like for working on the project? Tell me about that.

David Tann:
Yeah. In five years we’ve only had one client come off the street. Everything has been word of mouth.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

David Tann:
Generally there’s some sort of a referral or some sort of a connection to a project that’s coming into the agency. Once we kind of get beyond those initial interactions, connections, as far as establishing the relationship or how they were referred to us and we start talking about the project just at a high level. I mean if you want all the steps, it’s just starting about the project. We’ll initially do some sort of a touch base meeting to just sort of understand what are they trying to achieve and what their plan to scope it, the project. If they have all that stuff figured out, then they can send us the scope. If not, then we’ll go back, based off of our notes, and we’ll try to create some sort of a rough version of what we think the scope would be.

Then we’re doing a typical statement of work, agreeing to the terms of the contract. That can go back and forth for a little bit, just depending on who they are or what the specific needs are. Once all the contracts are signed and the paperwork is done, then we’ll have a formal kickoff because … Many of the times I’m already talking with the client, so I have an idea what they want, but my team hasn’t been involved in that process. I like to start from square one and pretend like I know nothing. My team knows nothing. We start walking through that process of who they are, what they’re trying to achieve, why they feel like they need to do this project, whatever it may be, et cetera. I step back and I let my team ask questions.

From there, we do our own discovery. We’ll do our own research regardless of whatever research the client has done. We are looking at the company as a whole, we’re looking at the market, we’re looking at competitors, we’re looking across industries. Sometimes clients think that their problems are unique, but it’s really not that unique if you look across a different industry or can find something or our client or a company in a similar situation. We’re doing all that research.

From a creative standpoint, we might put together some mood boards. We do a little exercise where we’re talking with the client trying to understand what they like or what they love and what they hate. I don’t really care about anything that’s in between, that’s sort of vanilla. I only care about the things that move them one way or another, because we’re trying to figure out how far we can push them, where the boundaries are. If we know that they hate orange, then it doesn’t make sense for us to show any concepts that have orange in it. You know what I mean? We can already cut that process … We can cut those mistakes out just by asking simple questions upfront.

Once we do that initial sort of creative touch back or touch base, like, “Hey, this is what you said, this is what we heard. This is our research. Here’s a couple rough ideas that we have. What are you interested in?” Then we’ll start the creative process. We try to nail it coming out the gate, but generally two rounds, three rounds tops. After that, I mean, we’re rocking and rolling. Once we get the approval, then we move into production mode and then just start knocking out all the assets.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, sounds like the process is pretty kind of straightforward.

David Tann:
I mean, the process, in and of itself, is straightforward. The thing that you kind of run into is the companies and who we’re dealing with and the approval process, that’s not straightforward. In some instances, we can rebrand a company in four months. In other instances, it’s taken us three years. It’s not that our process is changing, it’s just that the number of people involved, the approvals, sometimes we are peeling back layers to the onion, as far as the company goes. You peel back one layer, which makes you think about self endow differently. It just kind of goes on and on. Our process is pretty standard and pretty vague, but what we uncover throughout that process can lead us down a whole other direction.

Maurice Cherry:
I’d say it’s probably also just a testament to the team, as well, your team being able to work with the client through that process. I like that part you said about knowing the boundaries, knowing how far to push them, because sometimes the client will know what they want, in terms of the output or the end result, and sometimes it uncovers itself through those conversations and brand explorations and stuff like that. It can come out in a different way. Then it’s about knowing whether or not the client is okay with that, how far you can push things creatively. It’s a challenge.

David Tann:
Yeah. It definitely is a challenge, but I think that’s the part of my job that’s the fun. That’s the part that’s the most rewarding. To take something that maybe someone didn’t believe in or maybe something couldn’t see, and to walk them through that process. I think, at the end of the day, if we’re doing this job right, we’re educators too. Part of what we’re doing is we might know where we need to go, but we have to slowly but surely educate the client and build confidence within them to understand why this rebrand is important, or why we need to say it this way, or why we’re shifting the colors this way or whatever. We have to educate them. Sometimes that takes time. I think that that’s the fun part, because once the light bulb goes off and they get it, then it’s a game changer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on?

David Tann:
Oh, man. This is a super cliche answer, but I don’t have one. To me, it’s the next project is the favorite project, because I’m competitive, man. I’m a little bit different in the sense that I was a athlete as a kid, and so I just always have that competitive nature of me, as a creative. We had a client reference another project that we did for another client. We’re working with them, like, “Hey. I really love this website that you did for so-and-so.” Man, forget that website. We did it. We want to be better than that. We’re trying to raise the bar on ourselves. To me, whatever the next thing is my opportunity to prove that the thing before it wasn’t a fluke, and this is really what we do. To me, whatever products we did in the past, those were cool and I’m proud of them, you know what I mean, but the next one is the one where I’m like, all right, I’m going to show you. That’s just my mentality. That’s just the way it’s always been.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit since you talked a little bit about you as a kid. Tell me about where you grew up.

David Tann:
I’m from Kennesaw, Georgia. For those who are familiar with the Metro Atlanta area, Kennesaw’s about 45 minutes north of the city. Now it’s very much considered part of Metro Atlanta. When I was growing up, it was country. You know what I mean? My high school had cows. I drove past the farm every day on the way to high school. Now, it’s a skateboard park. When I was growing up, my exit was a Waffle House, a Texaco gas station, and Kennesaw College. It wasn’t even a university at the time. Those were the only two things or three things that were on my exit.

I think that that framed a lot of me growing up as a kid. I think the other piece of it too, and I talked about this a little bit in my Atlanta Business League acceptance speech, is because I grew up in the country and my parents worked I had a nanny growing up. She was an elderly lady. She was a former educator in Cobb County. Her name was Jessie May Taylor. She took care of me from the time that I was nine months old until she passed away when I was nine years old. She took in foster kids, so she would babysit us during the day, but she also would take in foster kids. I would see these kids come in and out of the system on a daily, weekly basis. These kids were my friends and I played with them, and they had really tough family environments.

I think it very much molded our view of this is why we give back, this is why we feel the need to go talk to kids in Charlotte. This is why we feel the need to do the stuff that we do for minority owned, women owned businesses, et cetera, because we have a bigger purpose, outside of the creative. The business needs to be a community asset. I think that frames a lot.

As far as me, personally, I grew up playing sports; football, baseball, basketball. I was decent as a kid. I wrote a lot. I think that’s how I expressed my creativity, but I can’t draw, to this day. Stick figures, circles, lines, squares, triangles, that’s how I sketch my ideas. I was the kid that I was always rearranging my room. You’d come in one day, the bed is on this wall, blah, blah, blah. The next this moved here, the next this is there. I would say that’s how I expressed my creativity was writing, through pen, and that. At that time, late nineties, people weren’t really talking about design like that. I didn’t really know that this could be a career. I just kind of stumbled upon this in grad school.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s talk about college. You ended up going to Wake Forest University. You majored in communication. Tell me about what your time was like there.

David Tann:
Yeah. Wake was pivotal, man. I think prior to getting to Wake, I had a high school teacher who did a public speaking class. I loved that class, because she allowed us to be fun and free. That dictated what I majored in when I went to Wake. Because I had so much fun in that high school class, I was like, all right, I’ll major in communication, because I kind of have an idea of what that’s about. I majored in communication. Again, I was a decent writer, so that helped sort of craft that experience of being able to express ideas through written word, but also communicating with people, whether it’s public speaking, small groups, et cetera. I think that helped a lot, professionally.

I think the environment at Wake, with it being such a small school, and I ended up pledging Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. I was the guy that would make our flyers for events. In hindsight, they were horrible because this is, again, late nineties. Photoshop wasn’t a household thing. I’m making flyers in Microsoft Publisher with Clip Art and these horrible default fonts. I think that they’re dope, but I go back and look at them now, I was like, “What was I doing?” I think that that was sort of the beginning of me working in the graphic arts was just beginning to get that taste of it. I would say the two biggest things is just that communication degree and then also the fraternity events’ flyers, et cetera.

Once I graduated from Wake, I remember going to a career fair prior to graduation and seeing all the businesses that were in there. I was like, I don’t want to do any of this. None of this feels right for me. In the corner tucked away was a small table for this school called the Portfolio Center, which is now the Miami Ad School at Portfolio Center. It was called the Portfolio Center at the time. They were just like, “We’re a creative school. Come here for two years and be creative.” I remember telling my mom about it. Once I came home on a summer break, or I can’t remember exactly what it was, I took her over to the school and walked in the door with her. She knew right away. She was like, “Yeah. This is where you need to be.” I enrolled.

Because, again, I didn’t know what design was, I enrolled as a writer. I grew up, like I said, as an athlete. To this day, I’ll tell anyone, we can debate it to the end, but that period, nineties, early two thousands, nobody was producing better commercials better than Nike was. My thought was like, somebody’s got to be writing that Nike commercial. I never thought that there was a creative director, an art director, a designer, a photographer, a set designer. I didn’t know all the roles behind what I was seeing. I just thought that someone had to be writing that.

I entered school as a writer. When I got there and saw all the stuff around the building, I’m like, oh, how do you get to make that chair? Or, “Hey. This Olympic project, who’s doing this?” Every time I’d ask a question … These posters, how did they get here? The answer was design. I was like, “Man. Put me in the design program.” I entered as a writer. Let’s say I graduated in May. School started in June. In that kind of two weeks in between switched from the writing program to the design program and just sort of never looked back.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s a couple of interesting points there that you mentioned that I really want to dive into. It’s so interesting that you sort of had this gateway into design via writing, which I think is sometimes different. I mean, we have all types of folks on the show, but I think you might be the first person I’ve had on the show that has said that their kind of gateway into this was through writing. I sort of latched onto that, personally, because I wrote a lot in high school. I wrote a lot in college. Actually, when I went to college, I wanted to major in English. My mom was like, “Nope. You have to major in something that is going to make some money. You’re not going to make any money being an English major.” I still wrote and everything, even though I didn’t major in English.

Something that we’ve done through Revision Path in the past few years is really try to champion design writing. We had a whole literary anthology called Recognize. We wanted to try to help cultivate that next generation of design writing or design writers, at least, because it’s one thing, of course, to be a visual designer or a UX designer or something like that, but can you articulate your ideas in words, in some way? Whether that’s on a portfolio or case study, or an article, or a book or whatever, because I really wanted to try to help change the face of who we see as a design writer. I just find it super interesting that writing has kind of been your gateway into this.

David Tann:
Yeah, I mean, I think that, at the end of the day, one, that’s not actually surprising for me because I think … It’s not surprising for me to hear your story and understand that because to me, whether or not it’s actual written word, that’s what Revision Path is. We are storytellers. The podcast just happens to be the medium for this particular story that you’re telling. If this was a hundred years ago, these would be books or these would be parables or these would be whatever. One, it’s not surprising for me to hear that from you, but I think for me … I actually fundamentally think that the communication degree is what ultimately helped me to become successful in the design industry, in general. Because when I started at the Portfolio Center, I was in class with kids that had had advertising backgrounds, had design degrees, had marketing backgrounds, had all these sort of creative elements. I was super far behind from a technical, execution standpoint.

What I began to learn over time is let’s say my technical expertise, I eventually begin to catch up. Okay, great. In a design environment, the technical expertise can actually hide a lot of flaws. I can make something look pretty and people will like it because it looks pretty, but at the end of the day, did that answer the clients … Did that solve the client’s problem? When you’re in a design environment, sometimes in the beginning you can get by more because of your technical expertise, because you can make something look good, how to lay something out on a page, et cetera, et cetera. You’re not asking yourself, is this solving their problem? Am I doing what’s right for the client, or am I just doing what I think looks good?

Once I began to put the technical expertise with that approach, which really comes from just the pure communication, how do I reach the people? How do I reach the client? How do I talk to this audience? How do I touch them in a way? What do I want them to remember when they walk away? Same kind of question that you asked me in the beginning, before we started the podcast. When people leave this, see this, interact with this, what do you want them to feel? What do you want them to say? How do you want them to engage? What do you want them to tell people about what they saw? Most designers aren’t asking that question, and I was because that was my background. That, I think, helped me sort of begin to separate myself once I got the technical expertise.

Then on the flip side, now you can put me in a meeting, and even though I’m a junior level employee, my boss knows that I can communicate this idea effectively. When I write an email to someone, they know that it’s going to come off a certain way. I got more leeway, they expose me more, from a leadership standpoint, as I began to progress in my career because of my ability to communicate with the people around me, not so much … I mean, obviously the work that I was doing had to be good, but the ability for me to talk with the team, the ability for me to rally the troops, the ability for me to talk to a manager, I feel like that is fundamentally what made me different. I think that that was sort of a big linchpin to the success, particularly in those early years.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s talk about kind of those early years. You graduated from Wake Forest. Did you go to the Portfolio Center right after you graduated?

David Tann:
Directly.

Maurice Cherry:
Directly after?

David Tann:
A month after graduation, I was in school again.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. You didn’t waste any time.

David Tann:
No time. I was super focused.

Maurice Cherry:
What was the Portfolio Center like?

David Tann:
I tell people it was like medical school for design. I think that that was an important analogy for me, because I don’t think people understood the rigor of it and how much time I was putting into it. I moved back into my parents’ basement to go to design school. I felt like I was failing because I had gone away to college, and then I moved back home. I’m in the basement. I’m starting from square one in design. I know nothing. I’m driving from Kennesaw to Atlanta every day to take classes. When I’m at school, I’m sleeping on the couch. I never left that building. It was super, super tough and rigorous. I think med school to me was like, it’s med school for design. My line brother was in medical school at the time. That same amount of time that you’re putting in into that, I’m putting into this. Our output is just different.

That was my mentality with it. Again, because I felt like I was behind. I really felt like I had to catch up with everybody. I really felt like I had something to prove. I took it seriously, man. I didn’t do any partying or any of that stuff when I was in grad school. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. I went after it really, really hardcore. I was super focused. That doesn’t mean that I was the best designer when I was in school because, again, I had a lot to learn.

From a technical standpoint, especially those early years, I would say that first three to four quarters, I couldn’t get my ideas out. I have an idea, but I couldn’t get it out on the page the way that I wanted it to. That took time. To be able to execute an idea that’s the craft. I had to put the hours in to get the muscle memory to be able to execute the things the way that I was seeing them in my mind. By the end of it, I felt like I had gotten in a pretty good place. I also did a thing where I did a lot of work that was really kind of feminine in the beginning. I had a couple pieces that … One piece that was in the How International Design Annual. Those pieces were the pieces that got me the job at Hallmark. I specifically did stuff because I thought that if I walk into … Well, part of it was because of my experience in undergrad at Wake.

I was on full scholarship at Wake, academic scholarship. Wake’s a small liberal arts school in the South. I remember this very vividly, but people would assume that I had to be an athlete to be at Wake and to be on scholarship, because there was no way that, as an African American male, I could have the academic acumen to be at a university like Wake Forest without being on scholarship or without playing on some team.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

David Tann:
I remember that these people probably think X of me, so I need to make sure that whatever I do, from a creative standpoint, is so far beyond what their expectation of what they think that I can do, that it shakes them in a different way. I did some work that was really soft and feminine because it was like I knew that as a man of my stature and my size and the way that I look, if I walk in a room, you expect me to do X. Well, if you see this piece and you find out that it came from me, you look at me differently.

That’s what happened. I was at a portfolio review in New York for the Art Directors Club. Two ladies walked up and they saw these couple pieces that I had done. They were like, “Wait, you did this?” I was like, “Yes. Yes, ma’am.” They’re like, “Would you ever consider coming to Kansas City?” They were like, “We work at Hallmark. This work is really emotional, and we sell emotion, that’s what a greeting card is. Would you ever move out?” I said, yeah, and never looked back. That was really the start of my career.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. That part about doing … I really try not to draw these parallels between my own design journey, but even the feminine part that you mentioned there, that’s something that I did when I first started working AT&T. They gave you this design test. With the design test, they’re like, “There’s two things that we want you to design a website for.” This was during the interview process. One was a motocross event, and the other was a bridal shop. I chose the bridal shop because I was like, “Oh, I could do that. That’s not a problem.”

I mean, I got the job, but I remember my manager at the time saying that you’re the only man that has chosen to do a bridal shop. Why didn’t you choose the motocross? I was like, “Well, I felt like I could do better on the other design.” It wasn’t really a gendered thing in my mind, but I liked that sort of … I don’t know. I guess it was sort of disarming in a way, where the expectation is that you would do something like this, but instead you did something completely different and that impressed us.

David Tann:
Well, I think there’s all kinds of lessons that you can learn in that though, Maurice, because the reality is, if you think about it, the job is for AT&T. You choosing to pick the doula Bridal shop means that you’re willing to design something or work on something that may not even be of your own personal interest, which is valuable, and still deliver something at a very high level. Most people are going to pick the thing that they’re interested in. It’s like, okay, that’s great, but does that mean that I can only give you these types of projects where you’re going to give your best effort? Yeah. That’s the way that I study culture. To me, it’s like, of course that’s why you got the job. That makes perfect sense, because you’re showing that it’s not about you. You’re willing to design the thing for the brand. You’re willing to design the thing for the client, even if that’s not your personal interest. I’ve just made a whole career doing that.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about kind of that early work at Hallmark. This was your first real, legit design gig. What was it like?

David Tann:
I think every place I picked up something different. Again, this is early 2000. Hallmark at the time was still … This is pre-social media or at the very beginning of social media. People are still sending greeting cards like crazy. I had mad people be like, “I’ve always dreamed of working at Hallmark.” It was cool. It taught me a lot about systems and a lot about process. They had things and systems and process in place that were way ahead of it’s time. I think that’s the thing that I got the most out of it.

It was a very corporate environment. It was a place that nobody ever left. On the flip side, now as a parent with kids, I can understand the appeal of it because of the security, because it was a family company, et cetera. As a young kid come out of school with something to prove, I didn’t like the idea that I could be there for eight years and still be a baby, because someone is having a 25th, 30th, 40th, 50th anniversary. You’ve just got to pay your dues, but your dues could be 10, 12 years before anyone actually really pays attention to you.

I was hungry, man. I spent about a year and a half at Hallmark. It was a great experience from that first job, because they are very nurturing and do a lot to help develop their young talent, which is what I needed. From a career standpoint, me wanting to chase things and me wanting to do stuff that was bigger and take more risks and be given more opportunities, that was never going to happen one year out of school at Hallmark, just because of the nature of the way the company was. That was about a year and a half at Hallmark, and then I went to Abercrombie. That’s when the floodgates opened, because Abercrombie was going to let me do whatever I wanted as long as I could prove it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, you’ve worked since then with a lot of super well-known retail brands, you mentioned Hallmark, Abercrombie & Fitch, but also Bath and Body Works, Kohl’s, Carter’s. When you look back at that time, collectively, which it looks like it was roughly about a 10-year period, that’s a good chunk of a career. What do you remember the most? What stands out about that time?

David Tann:
Man, it’s a blur. I think it’s less about the time, it’s more just like … Again, I’m a storyteller, so I’m going to give you an analogy. My grandfather was a carpenter. He couldn’t read, but he could build a house, or he had a eighth grade reading level, but he could build a house from scratch. To me, all those places along the way were me mastering a different tool in my carpentry belt. Hallmark was great for process, Abercrombie was great from branding. I got to work directly with the CEO. At the time, Abercrombie was the biggest brand in the world. That experience of working directly with him and working on those teams and doing what we were doing, that was an amazing experience. Marketing, Bath and Body Works, Limited Brands, that time period, nobody was doing it better.

I left Bath and Body Works, and Kohl’s specifically took a job just doing packaging. I managed packaging for 16 brands at Kohl’s. Then Carter’s, came back to Atlanta to actually relaunch the OshKosh B’Gosh brand. That was a brand that I wore and grew up with in the eighties, having a mom that was in retail. Then I made my way over to the Hawks. The Hawks was where I got to put it all together. It was like I had done all these things and you’re amassing all these different tools. Then the Hawks is like, “Okay, cool. I can build a house now.” Then the agency was like, “Okay, cool. I know how to build a house for them, but can I build my own house?” That’s, to me, what the agency really was.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the Hawks. I mean, you were the VP creative director there for a good while. Was it a big difference working in sports over retail?

David Tann:
Yes and no. I think there were some things that were different just because the NBA schedule is different. When you’re in season, that was one of the things that was really hard to get used to. I had always worked crazy hours because of retail, and I was used to that. I told you before, the summer is always my busy time. It was a point when I was at Bath and Body Works where my wife and kids would go away for a month, because I knew I wasn’t going to be coming home from work. It’s like, “Don’t worry about me coming home late. You go hang out with your mom, kids can play with their grandparents, et cetera. I’m working.” I was already always used to the long hours.

The NBA season, when you’re in season, is brutal. You’re getting up, you’re working your 9:00 to 17:00, and then your 9:00 to 17:00 is done. You hang out at the office for two hours, then you walk over to the arena and the game starts at 19:00, or the game starts at 20:00. Then you’re working a whole other shift, but you’re making sure everything’s taken care of with the fans and it’s just a different type of environment. Then if you make the playoffs, then you’re flipping graphics just based off of, okay, all these if-wins scenarios. If the team wins on Monday, then we play again on Wednesday. If the team loses on … If the opponent wins … There’s just all these scenarios that the NBA lays out based off of what your team is doing and based off what the other team is doing. You have to be ready in all those different scenarios.

It just requires you to be on your game at the highest level. It’s super, super intense, but it is insanely rewarding and really fun. It’s my hometown team, so to work as a creative director for my hometown team, that’s like the dream of all dreams. I had a great experience. It was fun. It was really hard. It was really challenging, but it also allowed me to see what I could do, which more than anything, I would say, with the Hawks, I always felt … Or prior to the Hawks, I had always worked in these corporate environments. I felt like in some way I was always sort of compromising some aspect of what I could do or who I was, in those corporate environments. When I got to the Hawks, it was like I could be free.

They’re not going to judge me based off of what my hair looks like. They’re not going to … If I want to wear this outfit to work, it’s cool. It was just free. They allowed me, or they gave me the freedom to push the creativity as far as I could take it. I think, in some instances, some of the stuff that we did might have even surprised myself. I was like, “Oh snap. This is what this looks like.: Okay, cool. Yeah. It was super rewarding, but very, very intense.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, we’ve had a couple of folks here on the show who have done, or they do sports design or something like that. We’ve had Brit Davis on the show. I know we’ve had a couple of others, but she mainly comes to mind, because I think she might have been the first one I’ve had. Yeah. I feel like that whole world is … Well, first of all, I know that that whole world is really fast-paced. I did a short stint at the Georgia World Congress Center. This is back when the Georgia Dome was still an actual building. I did a short stint from 2005 to 2006 doing some marketing work with the Falcons. I know what you mean about that kind of turnaround and having to get stuff out. Yeah. You have your 9:00 to 17:00, but then if it’s a game that night, then it’s sort of extends over into the evening. That’s a rough schedule though.

Even when I think back during that time, it is a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun. I mean, it’s a lot of work, obviously, but just that whole feeling because of the comradery of the team, not just the team you work with, but the sports team as well. It’s a great thing to get swept up in.

David Tann:
Yeah. It’s awesome. I think some of the things that are actually really cool about it is, let’s say the team has a [inaudible 00:49:27] playoff run, and we make a really cool shirt that we give out as a giveaway, the next day after the game, you walk around and it’s like everyone in the city is wearing your shirt. You’re like, “Oh, this is cool.” I got a sense of that when I was at Abercrombie, where it’s like I could go to any city and see someone wearing a graphic that I had made for Hollister or whatever, but it’s just different when it’s like, this is your city, you’re the representation of the city. They’re wearing your graphics and they don’t even know it came from you. To me, that was a cool thing.

Shout out to Britt Davis. She’s a beast. Yeah. She’s one of the people I’ve never had the opportunity to work with her directly, but when you’re in the industry, you know who’s who and you know who’s really good at what they’re doing. She’s just one of those people that I’ve always had my eye on and just have a high, high respect for what she does and what she’s able to bring to the table. She’s a monster.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you run your own agency. You were doing what you’re doing at the Hawks and now you’re doing your own thing.

David Tann:
Yeah. I think that’s been the part that’s been kind of cool and unexpected. Yes. It’s been a wild ride.

Maurice Cherry:
Kind of a through line I think we’ve had on the show probably for the past, roughly two years now. Folks know this. I’ve been always kind of asking folks about their thoughts with Web 3.0 And the metaverse and AI and all this sort of stuff. We talked about this a little bit before recording. Within the past roughly nine months or so, it feels like there’s been this huge explosion of AI, not only coming to the mainstream, in terms of being included in certain software products, but also a lot of talk about the ethics behind using it, whether that’s for images, videos, text, et cetera. What is your opinion on the use of AI and machine learning as it relates to the work that you do?

David Tann:
I’m aware of it. I think that it’s interesting to me just watching the reaction of people to it, but I’m not necessarily intimidated by it or necessarily afraid of it. We don’t actively use it. I don’t personally actively use it, but it doesn’t strike fear in me. I’m not afraid of it. I understand it. I think it’s just sort of the natural evolution. I’m also a little bit older in the game. I remember there was a moment when every photographer was freaking out because they couldn’t use film anymore. People think that that’s crazy now, but when I was shooting my portfolio, everything was on actual film, and then everyone had to make that switch to a digital camera. There was this, “Well, I don’t know. The image quality’s not going to be great, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Over time everything catches up.

I think a lot of the ChatGPT and all this sort of stuff that kind of is going on right now, I kind of look at it as a fad diet kind of thing. Everybody wants to get rich quick. Everybody wants to find something that’s going to make things easier, faster, quicker, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and get the same great results as the person that put in all this work. That’s what makes this so appealing is like, wait, I don’t have to spend all this time writing this novel anymore. I can do it in five minutes. Okay. Cool. But you lose all the nuance of that process. To me it’s like, I understand it, I get it, but I’m not really super caught up in it.

For the record, it’s been here for way longer than we actually are giving it credit for. It’s like when you say, “Hey, Siri,” what do you think that is? Siri’s been learning how you talk and how you annunciate and how you pronounce and hear … To me, it’s been around longer. It’s just that someone’s done a really good job of packaging it up and making it digestible.

I think that there’s a whole group of people where it’s just like, “Oh, cool, I can do this faster.” It’s like, “Okay, cool.” What I do, yeah, we can make some steps quicker, but I’m not taking any of the steps out. I’m not short-circuiting, because the product’s not going to be as good.

Then the other thing that I think is actually really interesting is I saw a meme the other day, which I thought was brilliant in the sense that it was just like, ChatGPT is only as good as what you put into it. They were like, if you own a design firm, you have nothing to worry about, because we all know clients aren’t the best at giving direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Very true. Very true.

David Tann:
If you’re worried that your client is going to replace you, it’s like you should eliminate that fear because if left to their own devices, what they put into it, that’s not what they really want. That’s so much what we do is we’re asking the same question five different ways to get to the heart of what do you actually really want? What are you actually really trying to say? Until that happens, then I think that we’re good. I’m not really stressing that much.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say your creative style has evolved over the years?

David Tann:
I don’t know. I think it’s funny, because if you would’ve asked me that question a couple of years ago, I would’ve been very much … Again, I’ve told you before, design’s not art. I think where it gets dicey is even though ultimately what we do is for the client, we now are beginning to make a name for ourselves and what we do. Now people are coming to us for the thing that we do. You’re like, “Ooh, this is different.” I think from a style standpoint, I don’t really like to get caught up in that. I love that we could do something for a podcasting, women-owned company, and it looks very different than something that we do for a civil engineering firm. I think just the approach is everything that we do has a little bit of an edge to it. I think we’re a lot more confident now than we were four or five years ago when I started the company.

I think that we try to have a little bit more clarity. Everything that I do, I think, leans on my experience from Abercrombie and Bath and Body works in the sense that I’m trying to make the most impactful visual with the clearest message, in the fewest words possible. I’m thinking about everything like a window display, even though window displays aren’t really the thing that they used to be. I’m a kid that grew up in retail. My mom was a store manager. How do I have the most impact with the least words and the most powerful visual possible? How that actually looks, stylistically, that can change quite a bit, but the approach, I think, is what’s consistent.

Maurice Cherry:
What keeps you motivated and inspired to continue this work? I get the feeling that throughout your career, especially going from retail to sports and working at the high level that you have, and now running your agency, there’s probably been some periods in there of burnout and low motivation, et cetera. What keeps you going?

David Tann:
Yes, there’s been quite a few of those moments. At this point, I mean, I’m not supposed to be here, man. I’m a kid from the country who’s a creative director and owns a design agency, but can’t draw. You know what I mean? To me, I think just every opportunity, the fact that someone is going to pay me to be … They’re going to pay me for ideas, that’s crazy to me. I feel super fortunate to be able to do it. I don’t take that for granted. Then I also know I do a lot of work talking to kids and trying to expose them to this. It’s like every kid that I talk to, once they find out what we do and see what we do, every one of those kids, they want my job.

There’s people who will be listening to this podcast who are like, you’re always dreaming of what the next thing is. Hopefully there’s someone who’s listening to this right now. I’m like, “Hey, I want to be where Tann is at. I want to have my own agency one day. I want to work with these kind of clients one day.” That’s not lost on me at all. To me, and I think it’s part of that competitive nature, it’s like I don’t ever want to rest on my laurels. I’m fortunate to be where I’m at, but I know the next generation’s coming. We’ve always got to be on our A game and not take it for granted. I think that’s just the approach that we have for everything.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to somebody, like you said, they’re listening to your story, they’re hearing where you’ve came from to where you are now, they want to follow in your footsteps. What advice would you give to them if they want to start their own agency or anything like that?

David Tann:
Yeah, man. The path isn’t linear. That’s my big thing. The path isn’t linear. I wanted to have an agency. It took me almost 20 years to do it. I think when you’re in this sort of social media age, when you’re looking at people’s Instagram or whatever, you’re only seeing the highlights. You’re not seeing the journey, you’re not seeing the process. No one’s putting the low moments on there. No one’s putting all the times that someone said no to them, the rejection. Blah, blah, blah. There’s a ton of brands that told me no when I was interviewing or looking for jobs. There’s a ton of clients that passed on us, or didn’t give us opportunities. For me, it’s just the path isn’t linear. I give an analogy of if I say, “Maurice, we’re trying to get from Atlanta to LA,” and I’m like, “All right, here’s the goal we’re going to get from Atlanta to LA. Maurice, how you getting to LA?”

Maurice Cherry:
Oh. You’re asking me how would I …

David Tann:
I’m asking you. Yeah. How you going to get to LA from Atlanta?

Maurice Cherry:
From Atlanta? I’d take a flight, direct.

David Tann:
That flight direct is going to take you about how much time?

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, probably four to five hours, I think.

David Tann:
All right. Four to five hours. I never gave you a time limit. I never said we had to be in LA in four hours or five hours or six hours or a day or whatever. I just said, “We’re just trying to get from Atlanta to LA.” You might take that direct flight. Well, for me, I road tripped it. You know what I mean? I’m like, oh, spring break. Let’s drive down to Florida. Oh, taste of Chicago. Ooh. Never seen the Grand Canyon before. Ooh, Christmas in New York. That’s dope. Let me go see what those lights are about. Just that journey of, oh, let’s drive up to Seattle and drive down the coast to LA. We’ll both end up getting there, but who’s going to have better stories?

I think that to me is, fundamentally, I think that’s sort of the approach to everything is we’re so caught up in the destination that we don’t appreciate the journey of actually getting there. To me, for any of these younger generation, it’s like, yeah, it’s great to know where you want to be, but be open to getting there a different way than what you expected. When you’re open to doing that, then all kinds of opportunities present themselves that may put you in positions that you never even imagined or put you in rooms that you never even imagined. When you get there, you’ll appreciate it a whole lot more.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of your career, do you have a dream project or something that you’d love to do?

David Tann:
No, I don’t. I think, to me, the dream project is whatever the next project is. From a personal standpoint, if I never design again, if I never produce another piece of whatever, my career has far surpassed what I wanted to be when I was that kid out of school starting off in this industry 20 years ago, so I’m good. To me, it’s less about the work and more about doing things like this that I inspire the next generation, talk to kids, bring the next group along. That’s the thing that I think is the most important. The work will be the work. Whatever comes our way, we’ll take it and we’ll do the best job possible.

Also, I think part of me too, in just getting older and having kids is just appreciate the things that you have and not the things that you don’t have. I’m appreciative of the clients that we’ve had and the people that have taken the risks on us. I’m not really worried about the ones that haven’t come yet, because if we do what we’re supposed to do and we do it in the right way and we keep our head down and whatever, those people will come. My mind doesn’t process it in that way.

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

David Tann:
To me, the whole part of this with the agency is, one, I just thought when I started off, or when I had the dream of I want to have my own agency, I never imagined how many people that would be. I never imagined what that looked like from a revenue standpoint or how many years it would be in business or any of that stuff. That, to me, is less of … Again, my mind doesn’t process things in that way, because that’s kind of what people are asking typically when they ask that. Not to say that you are, but I think the thing that I actually think about, more than anything, is if you think about it, the time when I was coming up, there were certain cities that everyone wanted to move to, where everyone had to work in, or everyone thought that their favorite firm came out of and Atlanta was never on that list. I would talk to a bunch of people, and no one ever mentioned all the firms that were in Atlanta. No one ever talked about creative coming out of Atlanta. No one ever mentioned things in that way.

To me, I think what my goal would be over the course of whatever time that we’re doing this is that when you start talking about the best branding firms in the business, you’re checking for us the same way that you’re checking for the other firms in the other cities. I think that if we do our job and we get to that point, then, to me, that’s when the mission will be accomplished because it’s just crazy to me with all the music, all the entertainment, all the culture, all the creative that comes out of this city, it’s just not as recognized or at least when I started, it wasn’t as recognized as to me as it should have been. We just want to be one of those top agencies and top firms that are in the city, that really begin to put this place on the map from a branding, design, creative standpoint.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think that perception is changing?

David Tann:
I think that perception is evolving, for sure, just because of the growth of the city. I think the city has its own allure. I think from a creative standpoint … Again, I don’t know, because obviously I’m older in my career now, but I want the younger people to be looking at the firms here. I want us to be on that list. Hopefully, it’s changing. If we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, then I’d love for that to be changing.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, David, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about the agency? Where can they find that online?

David Tann:
Yeah. Our agency website is tantrumagency.com. You can check us out on Instagram, tantrumagency. If you want to follow me, personally, on the journey of building the agency, it’s tantrum_ATL. Yeah. I think Instagram, LinkedIn are the best places to keep up to date with what we have going on. We’re in the process of updating our website now, so keep your eye out for the new unveil for that over the next couple of months.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. David Tann, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I didn’t mention this when we started because I wanted to say it before the end, but when I was first putting Revision Path together a decade ago, I had a wishlist of people that I wanted to have on the show. You were on that list. I didn’t reach out then because I was like, “I’m just starting this off.” I had my own studio at the time too, and I think I started Revision Path right at my five-year mark of doing my studio. I had an idea of people I wanted to reach out to, but it was, I think to your point about what it was like in Atlanta in terms of people knowing it about design, I would mention the show to folks here and it would just get these strange looks and stuff like that.

I say all of that to say, one, I’m glad to have you on the show now. Two, also just to hear your story and to realize just how much we sort of have in common. I, too, am from the country and did a lot of writing, and that was my pathway to design. I hope that people get a sense of just how much … I guess, skin in the game is probably not the best term, but you’ve put in the work. You have more than put in the work over the past 20 years of your career. You deserve to reap all of the success that you’re getting now. Again, congratulations on your Entrepreneur of the Year Award. I’m really excited to see what you do next. I’m really glad that there are black creatives like you that are helping to put Atlanta on that design map. Thank you for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

David Tann:
Yeah. Thank you for having me. Before we wrap though, let me also just be clear. You have been doing this for so long and at such a high level, and I think that it’s actually ironic that you didn’t reach out to me, because I’ve been watching you for years. It’s like, “Man, what am I not doing right? Maurice hasn’t called.” I’m telling you this more because I think that it’s important for people to understand and know that sometimes your perception and this notion of reality is skewed, just based off of where you are. The grass is always greener. It’s like I’m seeing all these amazing people or hearing about all these amazing people, or having friends who’ve been on the show. I’m also like, “Man, what am I not doing?”

When you actually reached out to me, I was like, oh, man … There’s like a sense of I made it. You know what I mean? Even with all that I’ve done in my career, to me, being on here with you and talking with you and having this time is a really, really, really big deal. I don’t think that you should take what you’re doing lightly. You should know that your work is super appreciated. You’re making a huge impact in the industry. I think the feeling is a hundred percent mutual. As much as you may have been watching my career, I’ve been definitely keeping track of you. I’m truly, truly, truly honored to be here and very appreciative that you reached out.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Thank you. I don’t know what to say. Thank you. I really appreciate that, man. Thank you.

David Tann:
Absolutely, man.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Reggie Perry Jr.

While the current creative industry tends to favor specialists, multidisciplinary creators like Reggie Perry Jr. know that being a generalist is what truly helps you stand out. He does it all — graphic design, photography, video and audio production, motion graphics and 3D, and a whole lot more!

Reggie told me about his work as a media experience designer at The Home Depot, and from there we talked about showcasing his skills through his own agency (Phox and Phoe) along with NYC-based creative and design studio The Future In Black. We also discussed some of his early career work for agencies, and he shared his tips on balancing creative work with family, as well as how he handles burnout and stays motivated to create so many self-initiated projects.

According to Reggie, with a plan and hard work, you can accomplish your creative goals. Now that’s some great advice!

Interview Transcript

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

Reggie Perry Jr.:
My name is Reggie Perry. My day job is Media Experience Designer at The Home Depot, and I also have a design agency that I do a lot of my freelance work through. That work includes a lot of motion graphics and animation work, video editing, photography, things of that nature. Pretty much across the board, creativity, even sometimes music production as well. Just a lot of different things that I do and have my hands in and kind of keeps it interesting for me.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s 2023 been treating you so far?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
2023 has been pretty good. A lot of good opportunities coming my way, which I’m grateful for and been working towards for several years now. So far so good and looking forward to seeing what the rest of the year brings.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have any plans for the upcoming Summer?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I do have some projects that are going to be released later in the Summer that I worked on earlier in the year. The people that I worked on those four, those should be coming out mid-Summer. I’m really excited to see where those go and what they do. Other than that, my day-to-day work and creating my own projects as well.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Let’s talk about your work at The Home Depot as a media experience designer. I’m not sure I’ve heard that title, but then again I feel like there’s a lot of titles these days that are, I guess they just represent different facets of design. When I came up, it was like you were a graphic designer, web designer, web developer, et cetera. Tell me, what is a media experience designer? What do you do at The Home Depot?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
In my role, I’m within the learning department, which is under the HR umbrella. Pretty much anytime someone joins the company, whether it’s in the store, whether it’s on the corporate side, supply chain, pretty much across the board, they have their training. It might be the orientations, it might be how to drive a forklift, it might be how to ring up a customer. Our responsibility is to work with the SMEs and the instructional designers to create the visual aspects of that. That’s photography, that can be shooting interviews, that can be motion graphics and animation, that could be creating job aids and just graphic design work. It pretty much touches on a lot of different aspects of design and just to basically support those associates across the organization.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. We just had someone on the show a few episodes ago, I don’t know if you might be familiar with them, but I think he also worked in education, Brandon Campbell-Kearns. Does that name sound familiar?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, the name sounds familiar for sure, but I’m not completely familiar.

Maurice Cherry:
Not that I expect all black designers at The Home Depot to know each other. I was like, “Well, he’s in Atlanta. He’s kind of worked in education.” But no, that sounds really, really interesting. So you’re kind of part of this overall education that’s responsible for, I guess, getting people onboarded and just learning about different parts and facets of working at Home Depot, it sounds like.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, that as well as just ongoing learning. Whether it’s compliance training or if it’s a new best practice that rolls out, whether it’s surveys, it could be pretty much anything. We just work with all these different aspects of the business to create the visual aspects for them.

Maurice Cherry:
What does the team look like? You mentioned there’s some subject matter experts, some content people. What does that team usually look like?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I’m a part of the media team, so basically there is four of us and we’re all responsible for creating those visual assets. Then, an instructional designer or SME will come to us and say, “Hey, we have this project, we want to have these deliverables. What do you think would be best? What can it look like? What’s possible?” Then we kind of work with them to figure that out. Then we’ll schedule the shoots, or if I’m doing a motion graphic, it’s like, okay, they’ll send me the script, we’ll go over the scripts, figure out what assets we need, and then I build out that motion graphic. It pretty much just depends on the ask that we get. Then once they ask us, we kind of interface with these different people to create the final deliverable.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like you probably have a steady stream of work that’s coming in because you’re doing it across the organization for a number of different initiatives or reasons or things like that,

Reggie Perry Jr.:
It also ebbs and flows. For instance, this time of the year when people start going on vacation and stuff around Christmas time, it’s a little slow, and then sometimes it’ll be just nonstop back to back projects. It does ebb and flow, but there’s always consistent work. It’s cool because we actually get to see the work that we do out in the field. If we go into a store and somebody’s like, “Oh, I just did this training, you did that? That’s pretty cool.” Or something like that. If we should an interview in a supply chain facility, and then that’s on the internal TV channel that’s on in up in all the facilities, that’s also cool as well. There’s a lot of different ways that our work gets out there and a lot of different aspects that we touch.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve been there for what, almost eight years now it looks like. How did you get started?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
2015. When I was working for this company called Digital Sherpa, they actually got bought out, I forget the name of the company. Yes, they’re actually in Atlanta, but oh, it’s CoStar. They got bought out by CoStar, so they closed down this whole section of the business. I was just looking for my next opportunity, and I had actually got into photography that Spring, so I was just shooting and shooting and shooting. Then actually my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, her coworkers uncle was at Home Depot and they were looking for a content creator. I applied and she kind of did the introduction and then the rest is history. That’s kind of how I got on board. And that was within Crown Bolt, which is a subsidiary of Home Depot. They do door hinges and handles and shelf brackets and things like that. That’s where I started. Then after two and a half years I transitioned over to the learning team.

Maurice Cherry:
As a content creator, were you doing pretty similar things to what you do now?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Basically, around that time was when there was a huge push for Home Depot to get all of their skews to have lifestyle photos and to have alternative angles for the images and to have videos on how to install these things. A lot of my work at that time was say if there was shelf brackets, here’s all the shelf brackets. We actually had a wall that was built with the drywall and everything, and we’d set everything up and then I would take pictures of it and then we’d change out the brackets and take pictures of that, and those will all be up on the website under the skew so you can see different angles and closeups and how to install it and things like that. That was more of the work I was doing at that time.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a lot of, I guess now is this instructional work, because you mentioned this is on the website, so it’s under different products as well. Right?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Especially if you go to any e-commerce site and you look and they have seven or eight different images. One might be a video, one might be some of the directions, and then two or three may be different angles or different color options. I was creating those images basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Okay. I think it’s good to sort of hear that this is a position that people actually do. I think when you look at different big box retail type sites, say maybe a Target or a Walmart, you might not think that all of those different photos and things like that are done in house. I think it’s good that people know that this is a type of position that you can do that’s still kind of in the realm of design at least.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
And even with Home Depot, there’s like a facility that’s south of Atlanta and pretty much most of the products that are sold in Home Depot, say it’s a Samsung refrigerator, they may send one of those refrigerators down there and they have this whole studio with cameras that’s going to capture images from 360 degrees. And then it’s like, have you ever seen those images of where the drawers would come out or the doors were open and you can kind of rotate it? They do that kind of stuff there as well. Even with that of building out a studio and shooting these products and then make turning them into 3D models and all that kind of stuff, there’s a lot of different positions and jobs around basically e-commerce and the imagery around it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Product imagery in general, I think in tech design, retail, et cetera, a lot of that is super important. And I think it’s good to know that one, it’s an in-house type of thing that you do, but it also sounds like it can be never ending because there’s probably always new products or like you said, the work you do now filters out into education within the organization, so there’s no shortage it sounds like, of work to do, which is a good thing, especially in this age of job security right now with layoffs and stuff. It sounds like you’re pretty set.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, it is never ending for sure. I remember in 2015-16, and I’m sure all the designers who are familiar with Photoshop will understand this, but it was like at that time I had to shoot every piece of plumbing hardware. If you go into Home Depot and there’s an aisle and it’ll have a thousand pieces of all these different just hoses and just all these different metal pieces and stuff, and I had to shoot all of those, and it was right before the AI got good enough to do the selection on its own without the pen tool. I had to go through and use the pen tool on like 2000 images/used the pen tool on 2000 images.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. Wow. It also kind of entails, I guess a bit of bit of production design too, because like you said, you’re doing this at a time before the tools really were sophisticated enough to be able to make this a easier type of task.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
If I did it now, I would probably just create an action or a script and just run it [inaudible 00:11:43] in an hour.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of which, what is the most challenging thing about what you do?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I would say just managing expectations, honestly, because there are limitations to some of the deliverables that we do because a lot of these things will go out to stores across the country. Some might be in more rural areas and may not have the fastest internet, so we have to make sure the files are a certain size or we have to make sure you want to shoot this, but this might require a budget. You don’t really have a budget, so we need to scale it back. It’s just kind of figuring out and problem solving, but that’s kind of what design is anyway, so we have to figure out what’s the best solution for the learner that’s going to get the point across in the most efficient way within the tool sets or the parameters that we have.

Maurice Cherry:
We just talked a little bit about how the tools have gotten more sophisticated. How do things say AI and machine learning and things like that, do those sorts of things factor into the work that you do?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
They do, yeah. Some of the stuff, I’m actually doing a shoot on next week that we’re basically recording someone who does product videos and stuff so that we can turn them into an AI avatar. We have to record them with certain specifications and we have to do 15 minutes of video, like HD and all those kind of stuff. We’re just now starting to get experimenting with it. Some of the videos that we do, they’ll have AI voiceovers, things like that. For the most part it’s still kind of low key right now. We’re just now starting to get into it as far as Home Depot goes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I know we’re recording this right now at a time where there’s this big writer strike going on. WGA Union is striking and a lot of writers are striking. One of the sort of things that they want to be addressed by the industry, and I think this kind of maybe spills over into design a bit as well, I just haven’t seen that many conversations about it, it’s how do AI tools, et cetera, how do they reshape the work that we’re doing? Is it replacing it in some way? Is it making it better? Is it making it worse? And just even what you’re mentioning with this AI avatar and things like that, do you see a future where AI is going to play a more pivotal role in the work that you do?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Honestly, it’s been around for a long time and it’s been in a lot of the programs that a lot of us designers are using. Anyway, a year ago I learned Unreal Engine and with the MetaHumans and doing a mesh to MetaHuman and all this stuff, that’s AI, machine learning that’s building all that out. You can take a picture of your face and turn yourself into a 3D avatar. There’s a program that I use called Cascadeur I believe it’s called, yeah. You basically set your key frames and then it will use AI to interpolate the motion in between it, but also to add the physics to it, realistic physics and things like that. Things like that to me are very, very useful. I think with as far as the image creation and everything, it’s great for coming up with ideas, but I can also see that it definitely has a look to it, so everything’s going to kind of start looking the same. You just got to figure out your own way to use it and make your workflow more efficient.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think certainly now with the fact that these tools are so commonplace to use a Midjourney or DALL-E or things like that, and you’re starting to see larger companies kind of dip their toe into it as well. Microsoft has a tool called Microsoft Designer where you can just sort of put in a prompt and it will generate some AI images. I tried it. Not that good, to be completely honest. It wasn’t that great. I was like, oh, this is trash. I wasn’t expecting Rembrandt level work, but I mean, interns could do better work than this. Adobe does something similar. They have Adobe, I think it’s called Adobe Firefly. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Adobe Firefly that does a similar thing. I agree with you about the look. A lot of the AI art and stuff I’ve seen has a specific look. Granted, I know that those looks have been cribbed off of actual artists and such, so it’s not even original in that respect.

It’ll be interesting to see how AI plays out with, I think things like say interface design and stuff like that, where there are more set patterns and things that you could probably create complete UI toolkits or something like that just based off of a prompt. I’m interested to see where this goes. I would love to see more of the digital design community talk about it. I haven’t seen a lot of talk about it. Maybe I’m not looking in the right place, but I would love to see more talk about how this sort of influences the work that we do because I’ve gotten some people that I’ve had on the show where freelancers, for example, they’ll say a client may come to them with an image or something that they created in AI and expect the human artist to change it or to make it better or to improve it in some sort of way, which is like, is that what the future’s going to be? I don’t know. It’s still, I think, a little early to tell kind of how this will really play into the work that we do.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, I did see a video last week, I think it might have been on Vox, and it was this AI artist, which he was doing it in a way that I thought was really cool because what he would do was he would create images, but he would do several different passes of these images and do the in painting and out painting and all this stuff. He was basically putting himself in all these different locations, like he was taking a selfie of himself. He would then take all of these images and put them in the Photoshop and he’d take different sections of them and mask stuff out and add stuff to it, and then do all the color grading. At the end of it looked like a totally different image, and I thought that was pretty cool and a very unique way to actually use it instead of just saying, “Here’s some prompts, here’s an image, I’m going to throw some text over it and I’m done.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Right now I think we’re seeing AI start to flood the workplace in different ways. I mean this will affect what we do as creatives ostensibly, but I’m just going to be interested to see how this plays out because I think the point of mainstream adoption is probably still a bit a ways away, but seeing what’s happened within the past nine months around the explosion of AI in layman type tools has been just astonishing to see. It reminds me a lot of the early, early web and how those early days in, I don’t know, early two thousands. Innovations were just happening left. Trying to keep up was wild. You might have been doing something now, but in two weeks that’s going to be obsolete because now there’s this new way to do it. It’s really amazing to see how it’s changing things now.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, along with this full-time work that you do at the Home Depot, you have this design agency called Phox and Phoe that you started right as the pandemic started in 2020. What brought that on?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, so basically I’ve always been doing some freelance work for the last 10 or 12 years, and I wanted to just create my own design agency and entity and build that up and build client lists and everything like that. Basically at the beginning of the pandemic, a few clients had hit me up. So that’s kind of when I started it, just so I can have everything, my paperwork right, my bank account, all that kind of stuff. I named it after two of my kids, Phox and Phoenix, so Phox and Phoe Agency. Basically when I was going into the office, I’d be getting up at 4:45 because I live a little bit North of Atlanta, and I had to drive all the way an hour to work. So I’d just get up, go to work, come back, I’d get home at 5:30, and then I would really wouldn’t really have any time.

Once the pandemic started and I was at home, I was like, oh, I’m getting back three or four hours of my day. Let me really dig into this and start to build up my portfolio and build up my client list. At the same time as well, literally probably a month before the pandemic started, I started getting into 3D design. I was like, oh, I got all this time. Let me really dig into it and build and build and build. Now, three years later, three and a half years later, there’s a lot of opportunities that have come my way. There’s stuff in the works that I’m working on right now that it’s pretty big and it’s pretty cool to see an idea that I had four or five years ago be a reality in current time. So it was just something I always wanted to do. I just wanted to have my agency and design and make music and shoot videos and photography. So I just made it happen.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s that been going so far?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
It’s been going pretty good. It’s pretty consistent for the most part. Of course, it ebbs and flows. It’s just kind of the nature of freelance. I also don’t take on work just to take on work. I’m kind of intentional about the work that I do. I worked really hard over the last 10 or 12 years to be able to ask for the rates that I ask for and all of these kind of things. It’s like I just don’t take on any work. For the most part, it’s pretty good. It’s an extra stream of income, it’s a good stream of income. So I have no complaints about it. I think that I’m about ownership, I’m about entrepreneurship. That’s just kind of how I grew up. A lot of the people I grew up around own businesses and things like that. It’s always just kind of been in me anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think it’s a great thing to have your own side business, especially when it’s not something that you’re 100% completely reliant on. You’ve got exactly your full-time gig, and so you can be a lot more, I guess picky is probably the best word, but you could probably be a lot more judicious with, as you mentioned, the projects you take on, the clients you work with, because you don’t have to have this in order to survive. You can pick and choose the type of work that you do.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah. I’ve definitely been in the position before of trying to grow business and it needed to support me and I needed to survive from it. That could be a very, very stressful. I’ve been in positions when I had a job and my side stuff started going well, and I quit my job, and then the side stuff wasn’t going so well. You know what I mean, I’ve done it. I’ve pretty much ran the gambit on all that kind of stuff. I could can pick and choose on what I work on. I still pretty much keep the same schedule when I wake up and go to sleep anyway. I don’t have to commute. I don’t have to get ready for work, I just walk downstairs. Instead of just sleeping in or doing whatever, I’ll just work out and then sit down at my computer and use that time where I would be sitting in the car to create and work on side projects and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve definitely been there with my studio before, so I know what it’s like when it has that kind of ebb and flow. In some years it’s good, some years it’s not. I think even with how the industry changes, I’ve recently kind of started getting back into doing more freelancing because I worked in tech roughly for about the past five years I’ve worked with different tech startups. After this last layoff, I was like, “You know what? Let me try to dip my toe back into freelancing and see what I can do.” I’m still taking on some projects kind of here and there. It’s a lot different now doing it in my 40s than when I did it in my twenties.

The good part about it is I can be a bit more, I guess, cautious about who I decide to work with, the types of projects I do, and really sort of what I put my name on. Because that’s another thing, especially I think with Black creatives is the work that we’re doing. What is it sort of speaking to in a larger sense? I’m there with you. I know exactly how you feel.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Definitely. Definitely. Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was poking around on your Instagram, and I saw this is fairly recently too. You’re also a part of a agency called The Future Is Black. Tell me about that.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
A lot of the stuff that I do that’s on my portfolio on my Instagram is self-initiated. I basically created a portfolio for the type of work that I want to attract and do in the future. A lot of that’s just around black culture, specifically around I like the sixties a lot, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, people like that. Just kind of focusing and building around that. Then Joy, who was the owner of The Future Is Black, actually reached out to me maybe about six months ago. She’s like, “Oh, I love this Malcolm X piece that you did. I would love to talk to you more. Let’s kind of stay in touch. I’m building something.”

She’s been building this and she’s actually a former makeup artist. She’s done a lot of different movies and TV shows and fashion design shoots and stuff like that. She’s kind of getting more into the design agency aspect of things. She reached out to me and was any clients that I have or bring on, would you want to partner with us and you do any of the 3D or motion graphic work? I’m like, yeah, sure, let’s do it. She just launched about a week and a half ago and started pushing it out there, and we’re going to see what’s going to happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Oh, I appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you balance all of this? You have the outside freelance work, you’ve got your 9:00 to 5:00, you also mentioned you have a family and kids. How are you balancing all of this?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
To be honest with you, I just really focus on learning the tools and being efficient, and then also just idea generation. James Altucher actually, I listen to his podcast a lot, just write down five ideas a day or 10 ideas a day. And the more you write them down, the better your ideas will get and the easier you’ll be able to come up with ideas. I don’t actually write them down, but I’m always kind of thinking of stuff, what 3D project can I do? What piece of music can I make? What graphic design or motion graphic project can I do? I’m always just kind of thinking about what would be cool to make and thinking through it. I kind of think through things in my head before I even sit down at the computer. When I sit down at the computer, because I do have limited time, because I do have a full-time job and I do have children and everything like that, it just kind of pours out.

I might be doing other things like cooking or cutting the grass and I’m thinking about it so I’m not thinking about it in front of the computer and getting frustrated. So that’s kind of how I approach most of my work, to be honest with you. Also, I’m not going to just take on work for the sake of taking on work. I do want to take on good projects that I’m excited about. I’m sure you’ve been there, you might have taken on a project that you’re not really excited about, but you just want the money or need the money. It’s like second day in you’re like, “God, I just want this to be over.” You know what I mean?

That’s another thing too. If I’m excited about the project, then the energy comes. Right? If I’m not, then it kind of drains me and I just don’t want to be drained. I want to keep my energy up. I want to be working on things that I really want to be working on. That’s another reason why when I mentioned about building up a portfolio of the kind of work that I want to do, that’s kind of the purpose behind that. So when opportunities come my way, most of the time there’ll be things that I’m actually excited about and want to do instead of things that I have to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I have a hundred percent been there. We can talk about it after the interview, but I have definitely had some projects where it’s like, look, I got to pay rent, I got to get these bills paid. I might not be excited about it and doing cartwheels in the street, but I’m like, it’s work. I’ll do it. Yeah, I’ve been there, totally. Let’s switch gears here a little bit because I want to learn more about your backstory. You mentioned to me before we started recording that you’re kind of right outside Atlanta. Are you from just the metro Atlanta area?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I grew up in Hall County, so in Flory Branch, Gainesville area.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
That’s where from the time I was three until my twenties I was there. I lived out in LA for about three years, but then I came back. Most of my background, most of my history is here in Georgia.

Maurice Cherry:
Growing up, were you sort of a really creative kid? I mean, you’re doing all this stuff now. I imagine that probably started at an early age.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, I mean, I was always drawing and stuff, and my dad actually was into computers and stuff when I was growing up. I was on the computer since I was six, and this was before Windows, so C prompts and all that kind of stuff, running MS DOS, putting in floppy discs. I’ve always been into technology, into art, drawing, taking art classes pretty much my entire life, to be honest with you.

Maurice Cherry:
You went to Georgia Southern, and then after that you went to the University of North Georgia. How were your college experiences? Did it sort of help prepare you for the work that you do now?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I would say not at all. Georgia Southern was cool. The reason why I transferred, because like you said, you’re in your 40s. I just turned 40 last year, so if you remember those early 2000s days, if anything about Georgia Southern, it was known for a party school.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I was just like, no, I got to try to focus. I was really into music back then and I was like, I just want to just focus on this and not flunk out of school. That’s why I kind of transferred out. I did learn a lot about networking and meeting people and I’m just by nature an introvert. So to be in an environment where everybody’s just like, Hey, what do you do? Or where are you from? And stuff, that was kind of helpful when you first go to school. Because everybody there doesn’t know anybody. Then I actually linked with a bunch of different people who had similar interests and within music and art and things of that nature. That was helpful. When I went to North Georgia, it was pretty much just go to school, go to work, come home and make music every day. That’s pretty much all I did.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you kind of more into music back then than design?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, I got out of design and creating for maybe about seven or eight years. I was just focused primarily on music. Then around I want to say 2009, 2010 is when I really kind of started getting back into design and digging more into Photoshop and Illustrator and just learning the tools and trying to become more efficient at those.

Maurice Cherry:
Prior to that, you were just kind of doing music production stuff?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Pretty much.

Maurice Cherry:
That was a, look, I was in Atlanta during that time. The music scene here was blowing up, really becoming known. I think Atlanta kind of has always been known as a big music city, particularly a big black music city. I just remember during that time there were so many artists coming out of Atlanta across all genres too. I could see how, shit I was actually a musician myself back then and I’m talking about it. I was a session musician, I played trombone, and so I would sometimes play in some clubs, play a gig here or there. I was doing this kind of alongside my day job. In 2005, I was working for the state of Georgia. Then from 2006 to 2008 I was working AT&T, but then at night I was either doing stuff for school, because I was in grad school or I was playing a gig somewhere. Just the energy in the city, I would say probably that extends out probably throughout the metro area, but certainly in the city. The energy around just the music scene here was so big back then.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, definitely. Definitely. The conferences and then it used to be Atlantis and then eventually A3C kind of stemmed from that. Just stuff going on at Apache Cafe and the beat battles and the showcases and stuff. Those were good times for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I played Apache a few times. Yeah, great times. I remember that. Yeah. You were kind of getting into music production, but then you said you got back into design around 2009, 2010. What sort of prompted that shift?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Well, I mean, throughout that time when I was making music, I would need some design work or need to make a flyer or something. I would dabble here and there, but I was never really serious about it. When I started, and I know you mentioned you wanted to speak about this, anyway, so when I started Project Generation D, I started creating all of my own marketing collateral and stuff because the reason why that whole project even came about and company came about was because of 2008, I had just graduated two years before, I had a young child needed some money.

It was almost like now, everybody’s getting laid off and jobs are hard to find. I had to do something so I created this company to teach kids music production, video production, graphic design, all this kind of stuff. I didn’t have money to pay anybody to make my logo or marketing collateral, and I had enough knowledge to do it myself. That’s how it started. Then I would start getting a few freelance clients here and there. I just kind of stuck with it and started building it. I was like, oh, this is going to be a good stream of income and a good way to build upon what I have going on with music. That’s just kind of how I got more serious about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’m looking at the website now for Project Generation D, which is dubbed an afterschool program for children and teens, ages 12 to 17, dedicated to providing students with a positive environment to flourish in the creative digital arts. Yeah, the 2008, I think that was right when the recession happened then. I remember that year vividly because I quit my job that year and started my studio. I was working AT&T, hated it, hated it to the point I thought I had Crohn’s disease or something because I would physically get sick going into that place to the point where I was like, I can’t do this anymore.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I’ve been there before too.

Maurice Cherry:
I quit and started. I started my studio in oh eight and we started picking up work in ’09. I continued it since then, but that time was really kind of an interesting time just in terms of opportunity as well as I think particularly I think if you were working in design, it was an interesting time because so much of what was happening in the country around one Obama getting elected, well, I’d say mainly with Obama getting elected is a lot of his work, I want to say, kind of played to the fact that that great design went into it. If you were a designer kind of working in that space, not even in the political space, but just in design during that time, so many people wanted that same type of polish or execution or diversity to be completely honest around the work that they were doing because they saw what Obama was doing. And this wasn’t just in politics, this was a cross design. I’m pretty sure the folks that made the Gotham font probably had dumped trucks of money because everybody wanted to use that damn thing everywhere.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Certainly. Yeah, it was definitely an interesting time. Yeah, when times get hard, you have to do what you have to do. If you have those skills, you got to kind of lean on those skills and build what you can to survive. That’s basically what I did and built upon that since that time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you mentioned earlier Digital Sherpa, which is where you worked in 2014. When you look back at that time, this is sort of after the Project Generation D time, what do you remember? What were you going through at that time?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
A lot. At that time, so yeah, we got laid off. It was very interesting time because I was producing music all throughout pretty much mainly until 2011, 2012. I actually had a song that blew up and it blew up overseas and had 50, 60 million views on YouTube and all this kind of stuff. it was like I had signed a publishing deal, but it’s like I didn’t see any checks yet or anything like that. The business basically shuttered, had $40,000 of debt, moved into an old department, was just looking for job all the time, couldn’t get a job. I actually ended up getting a job at Sherpa, and then I was also tutoring at the same time. I’d go to work 8:00 to 4:00, 8:00 to 5:00, and then I would go get a snack or something or a quick meal, and then I’d go tutor from 6:00 to 9:00 PM every day.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I was kind of just doing that, just trying to build. At that same time too, is when I started really digging into After Effects as well. It’s like, oh, I think this After Effects thing has some potential, if I can really figure it out and learn it, because it’s a little bit, it’s graphic design, but it’s like motion. I like the motion aspect of it. At that time, I ended up getting that job, and it was when blogs were really, really big still. Companies were like, “I need a blog. I need a blog. I need blog posts.” So basically the first position I had was, I think it was content manager. We contract out writers and then they would write blogs and I would proofread them and make sure they were good to go for all the clients that we had.

It’s mostly small businesses from around the country. Then I moved over to account manager, which was just kind of interfacing with the clients and things like that. Pretty much most of my day to day was just kind of overseeing content, making sure the blogs were getting written, they were correct, and getting posted and dealing with any issues that the clients had. It was just 2014-15 was really just a time of hustle for me, to be honest with you. I had the job, but I was also tutoring and I was also trying to design more. I would come home if I wasn’t tutoring at night and be trying to make art pieces and stuff and figure out Illustrator more and Photoshop more. During that time, it was kind of like a blur, but it was a hard time. It was, in retrospect, kind of a good time because it really laid the foundation for my life now 9 or 10 years later. Man,

Maurice Cherry:
Much of what you are mentioning is my story as well. I had my studio back then, but I was also teaching and I was writing and I was consulting. I was doing multiple different things to try to keep the income coming in, keep myself creatively kind of satisfied and stuff. And it was also really coming at a time where the industry was changing. I would say roughly about 10 years ago might have been the start of when we started to see so much UX. I feel like that’s when we started to see UX and product really begin as a viable option for designers. Like you said, we’re roughly around the same age.

In the early two thousands, even say mid to late two thousands, you were either a graphic designer, a web designer, or a web developer. Then as the industry matured and changed, you have all these different type of design that pop up. Different titles go with it. There’s different titles with different companies. If I tell people I’m a designer now in 2023, they might automatically think I’m a product designer or UX designer as opposed to say a visual designer or something like that. So yeah, that time there was a lot about hustle, but the hustle came because there were just so many opportunities to do different things because that’s what the industry allowed you to do. It allowed you to wear a lot of different hats in that way.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
No, I remember 2015 or so going to the general assembly open house for the UX course, I was considering that at the time. It was a very interesting time. There was a lot of different avenues that you could take. Now a lot of these positions and jobs are commonplace, but at the time it was like, “Oh, what’s UX? What exactly does a product designer do?” That was where I was at at that time.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when you look at what you’re doing now compared to what you kind of did then, I’m curious how do you handle creative burnout or periods of low motivation? Because I would imagine all of this, like I said before, takes its toll. When you look back then and then you look at what you’re doing now, have you managed any sort of strategies or ways to pull yourself up during these times of burnout or low motivation?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, honestly I think that it’s okay to have low motivation. You’re not going to be going at a hundred percent all the time. Instead of forcing it in those moments, usually what I’ll do is just step away. If I don’t feel like making some 3D piece, I cook a lot. Cooking is a form of art. I’ll do that or exercise, or I’ll just catch up on a TV show or play some video games, and then I’ll see something in a TV show or a video game, or I’ll come across something and it will just spark some creativity and then I’ll go back and build off of that.

At this point, after creating for so long, I just try not to force it. It’s going to come in spurts. You’re going to have times of very high productivity. You’re going to have times where everything you make, you just want to just smash your computer because you hate it. It’s just part of the game. I think that’s just kind of how we are as humans. Everything we make isn’t going to be great, but you just have to learn how to manage what works for you and figure out some routines or steps that you take to get out of those funks to get back to creating again.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really good piece of advice I think for folks now that might be trying to figure out what is the best way to manage themselves through all of this. Because you know mentioned you started your agency at the beginning of the pandemic. I feel like that pandemic period, particularly with people working at home kind of unlocked something in them to say, “Oh, wait a minute, I could also do this.” I think so many folks started getting on TikTok really back then, and now they’re like, “Oh, well you know what? I was doing this nine to five, but I could be a content creator.” Which I kind of have beef with that term in general because I feel like it glosses over so many different skills and specialties within the realm of content creation. Sometimes it can even be used as a misnomer. If you tell someone you’re a content creator, they’re like, “Oh, wait, so do you do a podcast? Do you do OnlyFans?” What does that mean if you say I’m a content creator? It’s such a broad kind of term.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, I mean, I’m glad you said about a pandemic, because I viewed it that way since pretty much day one. And I mean, I’ve told my wife, and I’ve told a lot of my friends as well, I’m just like, I’ve been waiting for a time, not for people to be sick or to pass away or anything like that, don’t get me wrong, but as far as the opportunity to invest a massive amount of time into something to grow a skill, because you got to think when the pandemic started, you got to think of all the phases that people went through just on a broad level. There was GameStop and then there was Crypto, then there was the Metaverse. Now there’s AI. Know what I mean? It’s through all of that, I’m also, there’s time and the time is really our most valuable asset. What am I going to do with this time? So I took that time and added another skill. Cause I’m all, I’m really big on a unique skill set or a skill stack.

It’s just like if someone were to come to me and say, “I want to do a short animated music video or film, and they need the music for it, and I need to have the poster created and they need to cut a trailer of it and have all these different aspects.” I could do all of that. That’s because I utilized that time to really put in those hours. I do hear you about the content creation. It’s almost like it cheapens the value of people who’ve spent the time to learn the craft and the skills. Right? Because I just post videos on TikTok and I’ll make money off of that, whatever. It’s like, what if TikTok goes away? That’s not really a transferable skill, just posting on TikTok. If you can design, if you can create an application, if you can do all of these different things, you’re going to be able to figure out your next move from that. That’s what I wanted to use the pandemic for was I have this time, let me add more skills that’s going to future-proof me moving forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We’re using TikTok as an example here. I mean, I do think that there is a skill to that, but the problem that I see is that the skill is so closely tied to the platform that it’s hard, and I see this with some TikTok folks too. It’s hard for them to take success that they’ve made on one platform because the platform locks them into a specific way of maybe delivering content that doesn’t translate into a similar type of medium. For example, TikTok to Instagram or TikTok to YouTube, there are people that have millions of followers on TikTok and have 45 followers on YouTube because it just doesn’t translate. I don’t know if it’s them not being able to transfer the skill to the platform because the skill is so tied to what the TikTok app allows you to do within its creation tools.

I remember this was back when I started my studio, my friend John, who had started a business together and he had found me through Meetup. They were like these web design meetups in the city, and he had just graduated from UGA, this white boy just graduated from UGA. We had met at a Panera Bread up in Buckhead, and I remember one of the first questions he asked me because he was like, “I’m looking to get into web design. Should I learn HTML or should I learn Dreamweaver?” I’m like, well, the language itself is probably better than learning the tool because the tool is just a tool that’s like saying, should I learn carpentry or should I learn how to use a hammer? It’s a difference in that.

I think sometimes with the tools like TikTok for example or things like that, you can get so locked in creation within that particular toolbox that you can’t transfer it over into something else. You can’t take the success that the platform or the algorithm or whatever TikTok gives you and transfer that into a magazine article, a blog, a long form video, a podcast, et cetera. The tools and the algorithm I think can sometimes lock creators into a box that is hard for them to get out of.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I think that’s why even a few years back, if you look at Desus and Mero, they were actually able to translate from Twitter to a podcast into a TV show. There’s plenty of other people who were funny online or on their YouTube channels who try to make the jump to TV or the radio and just bombed. It’s kind of the same concept.

Maurice Cherry:
It can be tough to make that leap, to make that jump, especially if you’re just not able to transfer the skill that you have outside of the confines of the platform that you were kind of initially on.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I noticed that you refer to yourself as a creator over referring to yourself as a designer. Is there a specific reason behind that?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I just like to create. Right? I wouldn’t say there’s a specific reason behind it, but I do a lot of things. If I make a motion graphic, for instance, I’ll go create my own music for it. That’s kind of, I guess where that comes from. I create meals, I’ll have friends over, I have family over, and I’ll be on the smoker for five hours and create an experience in that way. That’s why I kind of look at it as more of a creator than just strictly a designer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you think it’s hard to, well, I don’t know what’s the best way to kind of frame this question, but I notice a lot of designers now are strict specialists. The work that they do is only within a specific type of design. They can only be a product designer or a UX designer or something like that. Not pick on product or UX folks, but they can only do what they do within that particular realm. I feel like designers like us, older designers, I think because we came up during this period where there was just so much opportunity because we were learning at the same time that the industry was learning and sort of discovering new things that we know how to do a lot of shit.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I was doing, ’97, ’98, I was making cash money websites on Geo City learning HTML.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember teaching myself HTML. I remember teaching myself Photoshop off of a cracked version of Photoshop, and then going to Barnes and Noble and looking at those $50 Photoshop tips and tricks books and just taking photos and bringing them home and using them on my cracked version of Photoshop to figure out how to make that sort of pixel and pin Diamante kind of cash money design or something like that. We know how to do a lot of things because the industry and just, I think the time period we were in allowed us the opportunity to do multiple things. It’s almost like now people want you to be more specialist.

Generalists and designers from our age group I would say we just know how to do a lot of stuff. You do audio editing, you do video, you do 3D, you’re a photographer. All of this is kind of wrapped up into what you do as a person and as a creator. I think sometimes in the industry, that can be hard for people to understand. “What do you do?” And you’re like, “I do a lot of stuff. What do you need?” You know?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Also too, from my perspective with starting the agency, if the agency continues on a good trajectory and it continues to grow, obviously I can’t do everything myself. Right? If I need to outsource, I want to know what to look for, and I want to be able to speak the language. If I’m talking to a photographer, I’m just going to be different from talking to a video editor than talking to a graphic designer. I want to be able to understand and explain and to lead and to coach and say, “Let’s try this instead of that, or let’s do this instead of that, or maybe we should use these file formats instead of these file formats.” That’s how I look at it having knowledge of all these different areas is because then in the future, when I’m working with my own team that I hope to build, I’ll be able to speak their language and to be able to break it down and to communicate with them on their same level, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, that makes sense. How would you say your creative style has evolved over the years?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
It’s kind of hard to say because even musically over the years, I’ve never really had a definitive style. If it moves me or if it feels good, I like it. But I feel like over the last three or four years that it’s definitely started to form into something more concrete. I just like clean design for one. Yeah, I just like clean, sophisticated, something that can draw emotion, especially with the 3D work, if it can take you into the world building those worlds and bringing the viewer into that. I would always say that the underlying aspect of all of that though, is really the storytelling. If you have the visual aspects of course, but the key parts for me is what’s the story that’s being told and does it evoke emotion? I think that’s what I focus on is more than what it looks like. Hopefully it always looks good and people like it and I like to experiment a lot, but my style I guess, would really be more of a storyteller just using all these different mediums to tell different stories.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you do a lot of self-initiated projects as you’ve mentioned. We can look on your website or your Instagram and see these little video vignettes and other things that you’ve done. Do you have a dream project that you would love to do one day?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Actually, I think I’m working on it right now. I can’t really discuss it right now, but yeah, I think I’m working on it right now actually.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. We’ll keep it vague so once it comes out it’ll be a big surprise, but no, that’s great.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, I got to keep it vague because the NDAs and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, I feel like the work that I’ve done over the last three years has been definitely, like I said, I’ve been very intentional about the work that I create for myself to attract the kind of clients that I want to work with. So I think that since I’ve done that, I have actually, even The Future Is Black, that comes from me creating work that I want to do in the future. It’s all been very intentional and I think that now a lot of that stuff that those dream projects and the type of people that I want to work with and the type of projects I want to work on are showing up in my inbox.

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

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Not to sound dark, but death, to be honest with you. We’re not going to be here forever, so we got to use our time wisely. Last year I actually lost my dad, so that kind of just lit an extra fire under me that was already under me. As we get older and you start seeing people that you’ve grown up on, even to see something like Jamie Fox having a medical emergency or something, you’re like, dang, we really are the middle age now. Half our life is done. It’s like we have to really figure out our legacy and what we want to leave behind and that kind of motivates me to keep going and to keep getting better and just try to be the best, not just creator but human I can be in the time that I have.

Maurice Cherry:
If you could go back and talk to your college age Reggie, if you could go back and talk to him, what advice would you give him about just being a creative?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
It’d probably be the same advice that I’ve given myself throughout the years anyway. It’s just keep going. It’s going to take time, and I’ve always knew it would take time. People always say it takes 10 years or whatever to be an overnight success, so I always knew whatever I wanted to do would take time and I would have to have the discipline and keep motivated to get to those goals, but also just be open to the possibilities and the opportunities that come your way. You might have a specific vision in your mind of how you want things to turn out or how you want things to be, and it might not turn out that way, and when it goes in a different direction, it might actually be better than what you thought it would be. You just have to be open and you just have to keep going and stay focused on what you want to do. For sure. You got to have a plan, you got to execute that plan, but don’t close yourself off to other opportunities that may open up even more doors for you.

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

Reggie Perry Jr.:
My goal right now, especially with the 3D, is to tell Black stories through a medium that is traditionally not Black.

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

Reggie Perry Jr.:
My website is reggieperryjr.com and then my Instagram is @nobodyfamous. That’s pretty much it. I don’t really mess with Twitter or anything else, but yeah, if you want to see some of my work, you want to connect, I guess the best place would be through my website, via email or my Instagram.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Reggie Perry, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, I think just thank you for just kind of detailing your creative journey. I had mentioned before so much of what you mentioned has been kind of neck and neck with things that I’ve experienced. I really kind of know exactly where you’re coming from with your thoughts on just content creation and just creation in general and using the skills that you have to put your mark on the world.

I think it’s important that people see that you can have a long career in design and creativity and whatever you want to call it, as long, like you said, you sort of put in the work, stick to the plan that you have, things will kind of work themselves out. Basically, from what I can see from your work, you definitely have put in the long hours, you’ve done the work, you’re continuing to do the work. I’m excited to see what you do next. I think certainly what you’re mentioning about telling Black stories like that through maybe kind of a non-traditional medium, I see that definitely in the future happening for you. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I appreciate you having me. Thank you very much.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Ube Urban

Maintaining authenticity is an important part of every creative’s journey, especially as you move up the ranks and gain more experience. But does it come at a cost? That certainly came up during my conversation with the highly acclaimed designer Ube Urban. Ube defines a space that is unclear — the innovation space — but he’s learned to wield that in his favor and now he’s on the lookout for his next opportunity.

Ube explained more about what he does, going in-depth with how he first got involved in design and how he works with brands. He also shared his story about growing up in Hawai’i, moving to California for college, and how his early entrepreneurial journey as a creative in San Francisco eventually brought him to Atlanta. We also spent some time talking about how he maintains his authentic self in an industry that often forces you into a box. Ube is so much more than his profession, and I think by the end of this conversation, you’ll see that too!

Interview Transcript

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

Ube Urban:
Hello everyone. This is Ube Urban, and I’m a customer user experience either director, practitioner, and chameleon within the customer experience space and digital transformations.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, just to I think level set a bit for the audience, and we’ll probably go into this later. But what is customer experience? What does that mean?

Ube Urban:
Customer experience is kind of, here’s another buzzword for you. The phy-gital experience. So physical and digital, omnichannel experiences. So really focusing on each individual point where a customer may interact with the brand, whether through social channels, going to a website. Or even going through some type of service, whether it’s a buy flow, creating an account, and what have you. Basically, you’re looking at the efficiencies and/or pain points, and trying to create opportunities from that to create a holistically better and hyper personalized experience. And this is done through many other ways that we can unpack later.

Maurice Cherry:
Now when you and I last talked, you were working at a company, Simon-Kucher & Partners, I think is what it’s called. How’s that been going?

Ube Urban:
It’s been going great. We officially separated. So yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I guess it is great. You’re like, “It’s great. I’m no longer working there. It’s wonderful.”

Ube Urban:
Hence the tone in my voice may seem more joyful, and relaxed, and even keel, and less anxiety in the background. And it was for the best choice of both of us, having that leadership support and buy-in. Also trying to meet goals within a year. I mean, at the digital space, if you ask anybody, it’s pretty much like dog years. So in your first year, you pretty much have to create any type of game changing go-to-market strategies with these unrealistic expectations.

But at the same time, you’re just up for the challenge. You think you can meet and exceed that. But given the amount of time giving how you unpackage processes and methodologies, culture within an organization, it’s very difficult. Especially shifts in org, so this is very problematic within the space. Everybody is moving jobs. Your leaders are changing probably anywhere from one to maybe even three times a year. And this is not necessarily healthy not only from myself, but the people that you interface with and lead.

There’s a lot of fluctuations in morale, and it’s really hard when your job is on the line. Bot because of what you do as a practitioner and what you bring to the table, but rather if you’re a useful resource, a number. “What can you do for me? Do I like you? Can we interface? Can you opt into my swim lanes of success? And it’s usually sink or swim. Are you the gatekeeper of your success? Not anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
So what do your current days look like now? What kind of work are you doing just in general?

Ube Urban:
My current days, the separation is very fresh. So it’s going back to the pastures, and seeing the grass is greener. And whether I want to go into pixel pushing and being a quintessential user experience, user interface designer within the tech space. Or do I want to lead and build another department. There’s a lot of open-ended questions and instant gratifications. Yes, of course I want to go back into my designer years.

But to be honest, I know too much behind a curtain. So it’s hard to have that niche aperture to put on my blinders. I cannot do it, because I’m exposed to so many different aspects of the professional space. And not only as the design space as a collection, but more of the business, who you have to interface with, the different dialects that you have to speak. Cultivating the relationships in order to really bring up your sense of self, your accountability, and basically the reach you have within an organization or clients. And this has everything and nothing to do with the reason why I got into being an artist or a designer.

Maurice Cherry:
I know what you mean. I think when you get to a certain stage in your career, you’ve just seen too much. You know how the sausage is made, you’re not interested. And I mean it’s too much in that it sort of prevents you from really getting into the work, because now there’s all these other things that you have to contend with, that don’t have to do with the work as you’ve mentioned. That can impede your performance, your progress, what you’re able to accomplish, etc. Yeah. I feel you. Especially in a space that changes as much as design and technology do, particularly the tech space. I mean the tech space over the past, six months has been the red wedding, Game of Thrones. Every week, I’m hearing 10,000 people are laid off from these companies and it’s like, geez, what does that-

Ube Urban:
What are all these new openings here? And you’re like, “Okay.”

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Because the work doesn’t disappear just because they laid these people off. So it’s an odd time. So I get what you mean about just slowing down and trying to figure out what the next move is going to be. Because look, the older you get, it ain’t too many more moves you can make. That same bounce back doesn’t get easier. I would say one, the older you get. And two, just the more that you get into it, it’s like, “Okay. What do I want the next thing to be?” Now you’ve been occupying what you call the innovation space for the past five or six years now. How do you define that?

Ube Urban:
Innovation is not innovative anymore. When I self-reflect and look back, let’s just say on revisiting my CV, innovation just doesn’t mean what it is today. And what I mean by that is when you’re working on an initiative and you’re doing something that is unheard of, at least within let’s just say the direct to consumer, even retail space. And you’re doing heat tracking, you’re doing eye gazing, you’re doing everything that Nestles under machine learning and computer vision. It feels like you’re basically trendsetting that particular space.

But when six months go by or even to a year, and it feels that everybody’s on that bandwagon, where you could do a quick Google search and find research segmentation of various customer markets and how they use it, or how larger companies are using this type of technology within their flagship stores. It’s not innovative anymore, it’s just part of the work. It’s business as usual.

Innovative spaces is basically trying to nurture and shift with the customer and what the behavior is ,of what they’re interfacing at that given time. Platforms shift in so many different ways depending how you’re using it. Basically having a computer in your back pocket, we’re used to that. We’re used to doing every single thing that we can do on a computer, on our phones. Let alone you have an iPad, or you have a desktop setup or what have you. So we are basically spoiled by all these experiences, and basically selling our digital footprint and souls to a lot of these organizations.

So this is something also that we didn’t really talk about. We’re kind of skimming the surface of what it meant to have privacy, what it meant to start to establish trust. If we’re starting to peel back the layers and find out a lot more about one particular person, or even thousands of people. Are people with basically selling their digital souls for hyper personalized experiences? It’s very controversy. And no matter where that landscape goes, people are always thinking about it.

Where’s my data? Where’s my work landing? What server is it on? If it’s in the cloud, what does that mean? Is it safe? Where are my archives at? What is attached to my name? If somebody’s trying to extract and just find out a little bit more about you, is that information correct? There’s so many different outliers and things to consider, especially within the umbrella of innovation.

So innovation, it was a word that you could use for anything that didn’t have a set definition. User experience UI. Organizations still don’t know what these practitioners really do and what they can bring to the table. But you can lump that under innovation practices because it’s like, “Hey, we have people that are basically jack of all trades.” They’re chameleons, they’re entrepreneurs. That’s usually the newer way of, “Hey, you have so many different traits. And interest in your background, here, we’ll just slap this buzzword on it.”

So as I went through it at the time in this trend setting space, and trying to basically peel back these layers of what identity was within the technological space, it was very interesting. But as it became pretty much shifting into the status quo, it’s hard to make something compelling and different.

Maurice Cherry:
You said innovation is not innovative anymore. I felt that. That is so true. I mean, I think to even your earlier point about these new considerations around privacy, and where our data is going, and things like that, I think if there’s anything in the past few years have taught us is that people, while they are concerned about what company is selling their data, they’re also giving it away freely.

Ube Urban:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I think over the past few months, the biggest topics in tech… I feel like our intersections of technology and culture have revolved around AI generated art, ChatGPT, etc. And it’s like yes, it is these artificial intelligence things, these language models that are outputting this stuff. But it’s only as good as what we give it or what we use for it. The AI art is pulling from stuff that is already publicly available on the internet. The ChatGPT stuff is pulling from the immense corpus of text that’s already available online.

Now granted, I think when the web and the internet were first created, especially as they got popularized, that’s not something that we even considered, as people started sharing stuff. I remember vividly the age of “user generated” content, the whole Web 2.0 era. People could not put enough stuff willingly online. Videos, photos, location. I mean, Foursquare? People ain’t doing Foursquare no more. You mean to tell me I could track exactly where I’ve been, and where people are, and congregating? That shit is now a huge security risk. So it’s interesting now that the innovation space has shifted and changed as technology has improved.

Ube Urban:
And then we go into instant gratification. This piggybacks off of all the behavior of these data breaches and basically providing all this information. You have a driver’s license, you have a credit card. You have PreCheck to fly. You’re basically selling your whole background just to have a better experience. But this means you’re giving your fingerprints. You have your mugshot. You’re basically getting a background check pulled.

And a lot of this is happening even if you have an email. And a lot of times, it’s great to have these interactions to demystify… You have these broad statements. I don’t share my data, or I don’t put my stuff on a drive. And I just ask people simple questions. “Do you have a driver’s license? Do you have a credit card? Do you have an email?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I have all of those. Of course.” And I’m like, “What is your email title?” “It’s a Gmail.” “Interesting.” And when I was at AT&T, we had some pretty top secret products where you can essentially see what your marketers are pushing your segments, how to respond to that. What campaigns would be basically pushed out, if it triggered any type of red flags. So basically what you’re seeing and what you’re being pushed, you’re not controlling that in the backend.

And it even got to a point where you could see the types of emails that were coming into a particular customer’s account. And you think, “Yeah my email, it’s my safe space. It’s my haven. Nobody has access to it.” That’s not true. And if you work for any large company, you pretty much have to sign over any T&C. And I mean, who reads terms and conditions anymore?

That’s not happening. You want to use the latest, cool, amazing flagship phone? Guess what? You’re going to have to go through all that terms and conditions to basically sign over everything that you do on this computer, to me, the company.

It’s something where you say it in retrospect, either you’re okay with it or not. Sometimes you have visibility. Most societal trends, a lot of people don’t really know the extent of how things move in the back end. Which is expected, and it’s okay.

But I think that’s why you start to see a lot of this narrative shift around, how do we build trust? How do we build transparency? Well, you’ve hid everything that you do.

Maurice Cherry:
No, you’re right. Even going to what you said about these unusual licensing agreements, you can easily just scroll to the bottom and click a checkbox. You don’t have to read all of that. I mean, it’s a design decision to put it in a place, or gate it in such a way where it’s going to be an impedance to the flow of how you move through the service. So people are just like, “Let me just get to the thing.”

Ube Urban:
Yeah. If I click a next button and it has me [inaudible 00:19:49] or scroll through six pages of legal, yeah, I’ll click that. You just saved me what? Five, 15 minutes of reading all that? I don’t want to read that. I just want to use my new shiny device.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. So let’s learn more about Ube. Let’s learn more about you, the person. We’ll get more into your work later. You’re originally from Hawaii, is that right?

Ube Urban:
Yes. Yeah, this is correct.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me what it was growing up there.

Ube Urban:
There’s a lot of different emotions with growing up on an island. And although it’s part of the colonized US states, it still embraces a lot of island culture. People that are Guamanian, or Samoan, Tongan. Even islanders that are from Portugal, even. Japan, you have right around the corner as well. And then all the Pacific Islands. Filipinos also came and kind of congregated that at this island.

So you have a lot of mixed cultures. You speak a lot of different languages. And people, or at least my family, we really embraced the cultures that we occupied. Mine in particular focused more on the Japanese-Filipino makeup. For all the people that don’t know, I am Black, Japanese, Native American, Cherokee, and Filipino. So there’s a lot going on in the background. And a lot that is a juxtaposition of welcome identity, and trying to reconfigure and how that aligns with my political visual self, especially on the mainland market.

But when you’re in pretty much the melting pot and brown bag of the islands, it feels like there’s no worries. And you have this expectation kind of like where anybody has grown up, that it’s like that everywhere else. You really embrace the culture, the food. You love the people around you. You love to congregate. You have parties all the time. You have the karaoke jams in the background and what have you.

And a lot of the culture is embraced in the kitchen. That’s how you brought these valued connections. It wasn’t about classification, or how much money you brought to the family, or how much you made, or what you did as a job. It was just more bringing your sense of self and coming to a gathering.

And these parties were mostly in people’s backyards and garages. There’s nothing fancy about it. And it was pretty much true to the heart of having the laulau or a pig cooked in the backyard, or a goat, or what have you. You had your older grandmothers, aunts, uncles cooking in the kitchen. You had some oysters in the corner. You had the kids playing and what have you. A lot of this sentiment and feeling is essentially what I try to go back to and showcase within different parts of my professional experience, personal experience, and all the different social channels that I occupy. And this adds and is a huge anchor to bringing that consistency within authentic experiences, is how do I capture what I went through as a kid in the islands into the new environments that I occupy? And it’s very difficult. But at the same time, there’s people that are welcoming, that are up for buying into this overall lay of the land.

Maurice Cherry:
Now growing up there, were you really getting into design, or art, or anything? Were you a really creative kid or a creative teenager?

Ube Urban:
Yes. Yeah. I was a very creative kid. I was one of those kids that were very particular, had OCD. But I was the only person that had that in my family. So I grew up in an environment where a lot of my family members, they were like hoarders. They were pack rats. A lot of stuff around them. So maybe it was rejection of having all this stuff around and trying to figure out, how do I create a controlled space within the perspective of a four or five year old, or even into a teenager?

I played with Legos a lot. I would build based on the instructions, and then dismantle it, create a new invention. I did basically pixelation of the Ninja Turtles, which was amazing at the time. I would build planes, motorized sets, marble creations, and what have you.

Yeah, so there’s that part. And then I had my artistic side. Bob Ross, it was pretty big time. So I got into oil painting, and that’s where I started to really work with a new medium, and what have you.

And then I always drew my own Marvel cards. X-Men cards were very popular along with any other type of sports cards. So I wanted to try to make my own set and what have you.

So a lot of what I did was self-taught. And nobody even knew what being a creative, or a designer, or a practitioner in the artistic space. Feels was very foreign to my family. And essentially, let’s be clear. Nobody thought you could have a profession out of that. And the overall perception was, “Hey, are you painting pictures? Are you sketching? Okay, I guess that’s okay, but what else are you doing? Are you an engineer? Are you a doctor? Are you a lawyer?” It was just something that everybody gravitated to within my family, because it was all that we knew. And nobody was really going down to those verticals.

I grew up not in the best place of Hawaii islands. It’s not the glitz and glamour of what people visit. It’s in a pretty rough area of [inaudible 00:26:21]. And rough in the context of looking back. Growing up, that was just the state of mind. That was just who I was. But that’s why as an adult, pulling in whatever revenue, having the visibility, having this working knowledge. It’s great to have something that wasn’t in particular accessible to our family. It’s a lot of colorism. It’s dealing with being landlocked. And also just coming back to the island. If you went to the mainland, basically US to go to school, have a job, you always came back to support the family. You would never leave and keep going off to different, greener pastures. It was just an unwritten rule, unfortunately.

So it got to a point where hey, how do we build and use these new kind of outliers? New to me, predefined for many people that already had this structure and safety nets in place. Going to school, going to college, knowing what you’re going to major in, knowing what your interest is in high school. Doing AP classes. That’s more the academia side.

Then you have this cultural shift of okay, there’s a language barrier. Because I grew up speaking, mostly it was a mixture of Japanese, Hawaiian, and Filipino, and sprinkle of English. In a Pidgin way, that’s basically a slang. So not the correct way to speak English, I quickly realized. But having that interaction with somebody in the mainland and then coming from the islands, it just makes you self-conscious. Because you’re the only one speaking with an accent. You’re the only one that embraces different traits of your culture. And essentially, you’re trying to integrate yourself into something that you’re always built up to look forward to, which was American quintessential culture. Things that you see on TV. The white picket fences, and the large property, and the house. And that was something that you kind of strive towards, and that was ingrained in you.

In the mainland, you have the paper bag test to determine your worth based on how fair-skinned you were. And this was very prevalent even in the islands. Even in a melting pot. Still you have this if you’re a lighter skin, you can tell that you’re a tourist, a Haole. You have to darken up. Which is not like the status quo, but you have contradictory thoughts in your family because they’re trying to enforce, “Hey, you need to be lighter to enable you to navigate within the mainland space of America.” So stay out of the sun, be lighter, stifle your accent, try to speak more quote unquote “American.” Have that vernacular, that slang. And you’re kind of brought to embrace your culture. But at the same time, try to adopt another one and strive towards that, while concealing your own identity.

And that’s something that even till this day, I tend to struggle with. Even though we’ve shared a stage many times, Maurice, where it’s like, “Hey, how do we bring our authentic selves? What does that mean? Is it even true? Is it prevalent?”

The long and short of it is no. If I brought my authentic self to work, the foundation island boy. A, there would be a language barrier. B, it would just be too welcoming, too hyper empathetic. Giving your sense of self in order to embrace these new connections. Nobody really does that in corporate identity, let alone in a professional landscape. So we can unpack that a lot more, but I’ll pause there.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you already unpacked a lot. Part of that, I do want to revisit I think a little bit later. But I’m curious. It sounds like all of this might have been the impetus for you to leave Hawaii and go to San Francisco. You studied design there at a few colleges in San Francisco. Walk me through that time. I mean, you were at Berkeley. You were at CCA. Walk me through that time.

Ube Urban:
Yeah. I would say in sophomore year of high school, that’s where I was pretty much going through a huge transition culturally, self-identity. Also, just seeing how things, and structures, and academia worked in the mainland. And it was very different from what I was used to, and it was a very hard experience.

But at the same time, I found out that I was incredibly bright. So I would go through all the different classes. I wasn’t really challenged. And this is why I started to leverage City College. So you can do all AP classes. But if you do that, what is next? You have to start doing undergraduate classes. And then I figured out in high school, “Hey, the more classes you take for a college credit, you can apply that to whatever school you go to for your undergrad. That’s very lucrative. That sounds about right.”

And take note. Nobody’s funneling my rent, my groceries, let alone my higher education and extracurricular activities. Which was sports and playing a little football. I did bowling, pool. I tried to get into a lot of different areas, while at the same time trying to find myself and see where I fit within the new landscape of these cliques that form in high school.

And I quickly realized, at least looking back, that being hyper empathetic… I wasn’t hyper empathetic, but I really cared about the wellbeing of others. I didn’t agree with bullying. I tried to make everybody feel welcome. But at the same time, tried to be very personal to different demographics. I never saw myself as just one thing. It was something that I always I wouldn’t say rejected, but I could never pigeonhole myself to be one thing, because I embrace so many different things in cultures. I could never call myself, “Yes, I’m American.” I could never pick one particular identity that I embrace, or even my makeup of myself. It’s something that going through the evolvement and starting to learn who I was, I think I embraced different channels of that, to really play into the gray area and see what the benefits are for, hey, if I’m signing on for a job interview at a retail store? Was it better to put my Filipino background, or Japanese, or mix? Or could I play my Black card?

These were things that I was starting to find out, and just trying to demystify what it meant to be these different backgrounds, and whether it was cool to be quote unquote “mixed.” There was a period where it was. But even if you were, you still identified with one particular identity. And that was your dominant one. And typically if you’re mixed with African American or Black, you identify with that. It’s better. You can segue into groups more. You have more of a support structure. But if you identify that kind of ambiguity, it just goes off into the abyss. You have to figure that on your own. Google search is not going to help you out.

Back to the academia, I first got into computer programming surprisingly, and did C+, Unix, Linux, Java, CSS, HTML, HTML 3.0. And that’s where I thought my digital calling was. And let’s be clear. I’m trying to figure this out. I don’t have mentors. I don’t even know what a mentor is. Nobody in my family knows, “Hey, this is digital arts.” So I’m kind of finding this out, and finding out that I really don’t want to be an engineer. I don’t want to write code.

And when I was at Berkeley, I found out through an instructor. And he turned me on to web development. And this is when I also met, I would consider them my mentors today. Ricardo Gomes and Steve Jones. And they really shaped and they provided that color of, “Hey, this is industrial design.” I can’t remember if it was specifically… I think it was Ricardo Gomes, but he wanted me to enter, what is this? A sneaker design competition. And I was like, “What is this? What do you mean? I don’t design sneakers. I have a pretty good portfolio that I built in up in high school. But what do you mean a competition for drawing?” It was just so foreign to me. And I’m just quiet islander boy, just trying to figure it out. I was always hesitant to speak up, because I was very self-conscious of my accent, not saying the right words, and articulating myself in a way that could reflect my thoughts. That was very hard. I knew it in different dialects. But in the English dialect, I could not think of some of the words. So that made me hesitant when I had these interactions.

So this is the beauty of going into art is that you could use other channels to really showcase how you think as an individual, no matter what linguistics barriers you have.

So I went into that competition. I was runner up, I didn’t win. But it was great to have somebody invest in you. And that’s when I also met Steve Jones as well. And he really provided that aperture mainly into graphic design and showing that, “Hey, there’s art schools out there. Here’s this thing called industrial design.” And I’m like, “What is that? That’s kind of like an inventor, but wait. I could use a little bit of my programming background. I could work on different platforms, whether it’s digital, whether it’s an interface, human ergonomics. Whoa, this is kind of cool. I could get behind that.”

So that’s when I applied to CCAC, and then I got in. I pretty much didn’t make it to a lot of other art schools. But again, on this journey of trying to figure it out, trying to peel back the layers, and see what my calling was. Because honestly, going through this trip, I was lost half the time. It wasn’t like I had this predetermined track where it was like, “Yes, Ube Urban today, and customer user experience, and the digital platforms.” That’s what I was going to do as a kid. I didn’t know I wanted to become an inventor. Nobody knew what that was. Nobody even knew that it was a job in my family, let alone my network.

Going back into shifting into going to CCAC, that’s where I really started to flex my creative muscle, and started to really adopt this new culture. And adopting this new culture, you’ll start to uncover that it’s intersectional. It’s the fabric of who I am, because it’s the involvement. It’s how I interacted. It’s how I presented myself. It’s how I develop these methodologies. It was me starting to learn what I did and didn’t like within a culture that was very foreign to me. And trying to adopt the culture that essentially wasn’t designed for us was something that I was living and still living to this day, which is quite amazing.

So my aperture of the overall world started to just really open up. And I started to go into different art forms, learning about art history, all the different channels. From interior design, fashion, the creative writing arts, and what have you. My mind was blown.

And then I’m around eclectic amount of mindsets and diversity. From people around the world, from various economic levels. And it was just refreshing. I met a lot of great people that I never had experience meeting in my whole lifetime, until I went to college. So yeah, it was basically an eye-opener of, “Hey, there’s supportive people. There’s people that think the same way I do, but they’re from different backgrounds.” You’re getting to know me for me, and I don’t have to provide my professional sense of soul forward, or the person I want to put forward, and have that perceived value in order to gain acceptance.

It’s like this was when I was starting to drop down my walls, lower my guard. Because I was pretty much on guard until my early twenties. And this is something that also I learned about myself, speeding up in to current day of some friction points.

If that one particular pain point is pressed in that way that I’ve experienced when I was a kid, boom, the guard goes up. And then I shut down. And when I look back into who I was, and tried to showcase and flourish into this more charismatic, and open person, and bringing your authentic self to the forefront, that wasn’t me. I was the introverted self for a very long time. And I still am a hybrid. I’m introverted, but I’m extroverted and I can turn it on. But I do need to recharge myself.

Maurice Cherry:
So I’ve heard in past interviews, that you’ve talked about this transition to the mainland as a culture shock. Which I think you definitely have outlined that this was a real shifting and changing of worlds. Not just because you’re breaking out from the island to the mainland. I think that’s one part of the narrative. But also expanding your own awareness of what you can do as a creative and as a designer.

And I think it’s also just really cool that part of that story is getting inspired by Black designers. Steve Jones that we’ve had on the show. Steve was one of my first guests back in 2013, 10 years ago. Jesus. Oh my God.

But I say all that to say that I think it’s really cool that through your education and even through getting inspired by these Black designers, that it helped to shape who you were at, I think this very important stage. I would say late teens, early twenties, going into college. That’s such a highly impressionable time in terms of the kind of work that you want to do, the kind of person that you want to become. I just think it’s really great how much that time has really shaped you.

Ube Urban:
Yes, it has. And that timeline, we pretty much all cultivate it in so many different points of our lives. And that’s why for me personally, yes, that was a groundbreaking time. But even people that I influence and interface with today, you never know if that moment is going to be that pinnacle moment. Whether it’s their first job, or they are a senior within their field. But you never know when you’re going to have these meaningful experience that people are going to reflect on and be like, “Hey, I have this conversation with Ube. He pointed me in this direction. We kind of went back and forth, and I spun off and did my own thing.” It doesn’t have to come back full circle. And this is why I really love to embrace these relationships. Whether they form into a new bond, or they pretty much spin off and go into their own trajectory. It’s just very interesting how we kind of influence the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Now speaking of spinning off and going into your own trajectory, and this was a really interesting part that I learned about you coming into this. Tell me about Ube’s Icecream Shop. How did that come about? Tell me about all of that.

Ube Urban:
Yeah, yeah, sure. This was basically an answer to working into smaller consultancies and boutique agencies in San Francisco. During that time, it was you wanted to work at basically the two main spots, which was either Frog Design or IDEO. I could go down the list of other ones that were very hot during that design culture.

I went through a lot of different management styles. I was a pixel pusher at that time. So I was at that stage where I was just trying to get my leg in the door, get that professional experience. And also start really building these tools that I either learned at Berkeley, or at CCAC, or what have you, and bring that to the forefront.

Most of my interactions with management probably wasn’t the greatest. Never really saw eye to eye, or I just didn’t like other people being treated basically of where you sat in the ladder, myself included. Let’s be clear, you can pretty much feel if you’re not being respected as a person, let alone a professional. And that doesn’t feel good. You don’t go back from a long working day and be like, “Oh yes, I feel recharged.” A lot of these experiences kind of break you down and make you self-reflect. That’s what I could call it now. But during its time, was navigating to something that was better. So that was basically a rejection of how I wanted to treat people. If I had my own company, how would I want to embrace others? What would be my methodology? How would we interface with our clients? Do we want to flatten the org? Whatever that meant. That didn’t exist during its time. It was just like, “Hey, I’m a true person. I’m a big grunge. I’m a really play into the boutique street life, and also showcase a little bit of my graffiti background.” Actually, a lot of it.

And Ube’s Icecream Shop pretty much comprised of omnichannel experiences or how we defined that today. It spun into doing graphic prints, to doing custom bicycles. That’s what the primary business was. And we did this for small, medium, large businesses. We did it for a lot of prolific clients as well. From Robin Williams, to Prince the artist, Mel Gibson. I mean, we’ve done so many different custom initiatives for a lot of A-listers, sports players as well.

But the long and short of it was if you went into our environment, our studio, it was there to just pretty much what you’re doing now, Maurice, is breaking down the walls. Be your authentic self, be who you want to be. Check your ego, check yourself, check your personified value at the door. Here, we’re going to have a different way of building our packages or ice cream. So when people came back returning customers, they would have this kind of lingo, this dialect that pulled us together, “Hey, I want to come to have a single scoop of your service.” That meant just pretty much the basic package. Or, “Hey Ube, I want the full experience. I want the banana split with the sprinkles on top.” “Okay, cool. I’m going to have to allocate more of my team to your initiative. This is really big. This is a high valued target for any particular client.”

But you started to have this overall internal culture and feeling of, “Hey, we’re creating something new.” But it’s so modular where I didn’t want to have control. But as the business started to flourish, as the visibility started to become a little bit more known, also tapping into a global market, you have to start growing up. And it’s kind of counterintuitive of the graffiti world.
You do this amazing art. You don’t know how long it’s going to be on the walls, on bus, on whatever surface that you choose. You’re competing with either your friends, some competing artists, to really get your name out there, to put your art out there on a street level. But you never put your actual name to it.

It was always your graffiti name. It’s this personified value. “Yeah, if you knew me, you knew the art. You knew my name.” And vice versa for all my friends out there.

But when you start to have more of that public lens, I had to start making these decisions of should I represent the brand, the business, and sell it with my face on it? Or should I sell it for the brand of the name? I went down the route of really popularizing the brand through the name, through the face. And there’s positives and negatives about it that we can go into later. But that’s pretty much the beginnings and involvement of the ice cream shop.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean let’s get into it now. I mean, it sounds like you were really making a name for yourself as a creative in San Francisco. You’re an artist, you’re a painter. Look, I saw the videos of you on the track bikes zooming through San Francisco, which surprised me because I was like, “This is not a movie that I made before.” On a track bike, got chopsticks in here. I was like, “Who is this? This is not who I knew.” Talk more about that.

Ube Urban:
Basically, I was just doing whatever I wanted brand wise. I didn’t care about what my identity was on the forefront. I pretty much was a trendsetter within my own world. And being in San Francisco, everybody embraces that. You could be whoever you want to be. You could be whatever niche culture. Guess what? You’re going to have your group there. And if you want to cross pollinate your group and try to find somebody that’s completely opposite to you, that is readily available as well.

So you had this mixing pot of a lot of what I embraced and what I could relate to growing up. But it was just really pushing the behavior of my social interactions, and starting to really embrace and be proud of who I am and who I was meant to be at that given time, and forward.

I could call myself a entrepreneur or a creator. But it came down to, that’s where I started to take people under my wing. That’s when I started to glorify personalized mentorships, doing internship programs and what have you. Worked with schools in the Bay Area and whatnot.

I learned a lot of different elements of what I embrace today, which is something I would never look back and have that reasoning that, “Hey, I could be an evangelist in the space. People could actually look towards my guidance for doing better or exploring other areas.” That just wasn’t top of mind. It was more about, how can we run a successful business? How do we keep it grunge and small? And how do we keep it a boutique agency in the city? We’re trying to embrace and reflect the culture of San Francisco. We are proud of that. But also, I was proud of my heritage. So I had the long hair. I had my man bun. Yeah, I had a lot of chopsticks that match with all the different outfits and whatnot. I wore a lot of purple, a lot of lavender, because Ube is a purple yam, and my family is infatuated with purple. So if you see that in a branding or anything going forward, it goes down to basically the crux of what I’m based off of is this purple identity.

That’s where I started to also flourish my management styles and start to explore what areas of expertise that we wanted to define ourselves by. And long and short of it, I just wanted to not want a pigeonhole.

So you’ll start to see this over and over again. You’ll start to see the pattern of me not wanting to be defined as one particular thing. And this is both in my personal landscape and professional world. I don’t want to be known as one, two, three. Or, “Hey, he’s this. Hey, he’s that.” I know we have to have these nomenclatures in order to define who we are within different spaces. But I essentially just wanted to put the brand of the people first. Myself first, my team, and really embrace that.

And this was before we would showcase to everybody in our narratives or in our proposals, “Hey, this is the team. Here’s all the stories. Here are all the people you’re working with.” We’re doing that. And we didn’t know if it was popular or not. We just thought, “Hey, it would be great to just really showcase cool individuals.” We have different working styles. We are essentially doing our own things. This is my own thing, but it’s becoming popular. And my friends would pretty much go towards, “Hey, Ube’s doing something big. I want to get on that.” And I would have friends that would be videographers, or other graphic designers, or even photographers.

And this also helped put that brand out there. And then you had the Japanese market and people from around the world really chomp out the bit with what’s going on in San Francisco. Because you’re doing something anywhere trend setting in the bay, the bay proper. If you’re doing it in that seven grid of San Francisco, you’re doing something well, whether you know it at that given time or you self-reflect.

At the time, I didn’t know I was doing something that big. I mean yes, the A-listers came in. But when you’re doing a one-off client project, they don’t really have that sustainability as opposed to doing a large contract with a corporate gig or something.

But the long and short of it is we’re just essentially doing what we loved. We’re riding track bikes everywhere. Track bikes, FYI, do not have brakes. So basically, you’re carving a snowboard using your back tire to slow down, going down the hills of San Francisco. Or climbing them. Let’s just say my legs were double the size they are today. And they’re fueled by tacos, and burritos, and horchata. That’s all we ate all the time.

It was a beautiful grunge time before a lot of the gentrification happened within the rest of the parts of the neighborhood and what have you. The city that it is today was way different from the early 2000s. I would say the shift happened in about 2014. And that would be my catapult out of the Bay Area into a newer metropolitan city.

Maurice Cherry:
So is that what precipitated your move from San Francisco here to Atlanta?

Ube Urban:
It is. And I also met my wife in the Bay, which was quite amazing. This added to just that overall mindset of, “Okay, what is the new pastures going to be?” And yes, being in a lucrative industry and having your name out there, it was great. But you have to hustle hard. And let’s just say it’s hard to make good money, and live in the Bay Area, and have all the overhead.

So it just got to a point where I was at a pinnacle point of my career of, “What do I want to do next? Do I want to grow the company? Do I want to sell it? Do I want to get back into maybe leadership for another company? Do I want to try corporate identity?” Because I rejected it. And everybody around me, especially being in San Francisco, you didn’t really support larger corporations. You always try to keep things more small and intimate. And a lot of the larger firms like the IDEOs and the Frogs, they’re basically bought from larger parent companies now. And just the overall culture and what it meant as a designer, it’s just very different.

And then you have these new industries and titles of UX/UI, UX researchers, copywriters. And this digital existence pretty much shaping what people do as a craft. Being an artist, a designer. This is something that’s outside of that digital field. This is like using your hands. This is like using the city as your landscape. This is like tinkering to come up with these amazing ideas.

And I feel like there’s just a lost art and direction for that. People develop their skills, which is great in the tech world. But in order to push that to a different barrier, you have to really leverage those meaningful connections. Whether it’s through your relationships, or even you as a core artist, what that meant. How do you bring it back to that space?

And this is something that it’s an infinite circle. How do I re-embrace why I got into this industry? Like we talked about before, Maurice, we’re just so jaded. We know what’s happening behind a curtain. We’ve been around this space for more than 15 years. Things are changing. But a lot of the crux of it, guess what? Still the same. You can change the landscape, you can change the platform, methodologies. They still stand. The tools change. Whatever, learn a new tool. But people aren’t paying for you to be basically a pixel pusher. They’re paying for you to look beyond what is in this occupation.

How can you be a proven leader? How do you know about all these different aspects and verticals of the business? That’s what they want. And if they can get more titles and more hats out of you, guess what? That’s their benefit. And is it your benefit? Is that what you want to do? I don’t know. It depends. It depends on the grass is greener.

There’s been times where I want to wear one or two hats. And there’s other times where I want to wear eight, and I’ll do it at a cost. So it all depends on where you’re at that given time within your career, life, and what have you.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, there’s been a shift now I’d say probably over the past, I think 10+ years now of design moving not out of visual. I mean, I think visual of course is still a big part of it, because we all have eyes. But moving into design, and strategy, and business. How it all works together, particularly when you see the rise of SaaS companies or the product based companies. It’s not so much about, “How can I express myself as a designer, as a creative?” It’s about, how can I use my skills for the product? It feels like that’s what the push has gone into.

Ube Urban:
Yeah. And I mean, let’s be clear. The compensation is ridiculous.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. Okay.

Ube Urban:
Yes. I would love to just really explore my craft as an artist, as a model maker, as an industrial designer. But you compare that compensation to what you do within strategy, or even the tech world. Let’s just say it’s a cool four times more. And it’s hard not to notice that. You’re like, “How do I get into that world?”

Especially if you’re, I wouldn’t say a starving artist. But let’s just say your net worth, keeping that up. You’re hustling. You’re working like a dog. And then you can sit back and work in a corporate job, write the funding, have that apply and fulfill your lifestyle. Give you accessibility of things that were unattainable. Maybe going back to my family and my basis. The numbers that I see, I’m just like, “That’s unheard of.” Nobody’s making that kind of money in my family. I don’t care who you are. We don’t come from that type of background. Plus guess what? Again, it wasn’t important.

So kind of shifting that mindset where you bring up this as well, Maurice, which is something that I self-reflect of, “This is not really the Ube that I know.” For me personally, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, that nicks a little bit out of my thick exterior.” But at the same time I’m like, “Okay, this is interesting on my new platform platform on what I spun off into.” You’re seeing me more in the suits and ties in corporate identity, but that wasn’t my basis. I wasn’t like that all the time. And guess what? If I had the option, I always want to be that authentic self of what I was in the bay. Because I learned so much.

I learned so much about myself, interacted with people, what it meant to burn bridges, the highs and lows of having your own company, taking risks. It got pretty deep. And that’s why I never capture my journey as puppy dogs and ice cream. It was rough. And to be honest, it’s still rough till this day. That journey, I would say it’s easier, but it’s different. And the things that I have to think about as an adult and somebody that’s very seasoned in my career, it’s just a different landscape of what’s important. The visibility, things that are also currency to other people. Let’s just say everything that my makeup is based off of isn’t really currency within corporate space, which is very interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
So what do you do to try and maintain your authentic self?

Ube Urban:
It kind of jostles me a little bit. Like, “Whoa, wow.” Yeah, I have my predefined journey, but not a lot of people turn to tables that often of, “Hey Ube, I want to get to know you.” It’s more of, “I want to get to know you, but there’s some type of value, and we need some trade-offs going forward in order to cultivate this relationship.”

And this is where it becomes a little complicated because I’m invested in growing people. But it doesn’t have to go full circle. But the relationships beyond corporate identity, it’s always tit for tat. What are you going to do for me? You know? You got to play that bureaucratic landscape of, “Okay, you do this for me, I’ll do that. And from there we’ll grow off each other, and eventually burn bridges and shape shift, and go through all the reorgs, and what have you.” And essentially you’re just looking out for the best interests of yourself. So if you go against that, but you’re living and navigating that landscape, it’s interesting. And it’s a social experiment that will never get old.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s take work out of that. And let’s take also, I think doing this for other people’s benefit. How do you try to maintain your authentic self to yourself?

Ube Urban:
This is probably a difficult part of the navigation. Because being your authentic self, especially if I’m in an environment that is not receptive to that. But it’s definitely throttled. Yes, I’m personable. Yeah, I’m authentic. Am I my authentic self? Absolutely not.

And we’ve had these conversations in the past, Maurice. When you have even an uptick of 5%, 10% of bringing your authentic self in who you are, we know what comes from that. I knew my background wasn’t the best. I knew that it wasn’t picture perfect. But there are a lot of things that I embrace and still do to this day.

It gets to a point where, how do I really have acceptance? How do I mitigate stereotypes when I’m interacting with people, and how do I put that forward as well? I want people to see past what you see me on the forefront. If you see the suit, you see the armor, you see whatever monetary objects that are on me. Whatever. But when it comes down to it, that’s not the person that I am upholding. It’s my armor, and I’m very particular about it. But I’m doing it just for myself and myself only. It’s not to gain acceptance. It’s not for other people to gain any type of, how do I say this? Acceptance within their environment. It’s just hey, how do I navigate my sense of self being myself? But how do I also navigate being myself and going along with the current? How do I blend in? Because I have a hard time within society to blend in. At least the physical forefront would be just how I dress, or even my hair, or even being the ambiguity of ethnicity. People are just very curious human beings. They want to know, and a lot of people cannot bite their tongue.

So if I’m getting a cup of coffee, they’re going to be like, “Oh wow. Hey, cool hair.” Or I’ll get some sly come in, “Hey, have you seen that cartoon character?” And this is all interactions that you honestly don’t have time for, but they just come to you? “How long does it take? How long does it take to get ready in the morning?” And these are basically party tricks. Yeah, they’re kind of cool.

But this is what people want to know about me. And it’s very unfortunate because I’m a lot more than my personified value. Even just, “Hey, ask me about what I want to do.” A lot of people don’t ask me what I do as a professional. You’re probably the first person in a while that’s asked me, “Hey Ube, what do you do as a professional? What do you do?” As opposed to having that talk track that I have with the clients, but I feel like a puppet sometimes when I go through that vernacular. I have my bullet points. I know what pretty much makes people’s eyebrows rise and interest. And they’re like, “Oh cool. Awesome.”

Maurice Cherry:
I think you’ve used some very interesting language here. I don’t know, this is not turned into a therapy session. I promise. I notice this tension between who you are when you’re just you, just yourself. Nobody else is around. And the Ube Urban that is presented to the world. You mentioned your dress and your hair as armor. And even when I asked about the authentic self, I was like, “Take work out of it. Take other people out of it.” And you brought them right back in.

Ube Urban:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I noticed that kind of tension between you who are, and that you have to be in order to move forward in this hellscape capitalist society, I guess. Would you say that’s accurate?

Ube Urban:
Yes, it is. It’s very accurate. And this basically aligns with my identity both professionally. And when to turn it on, when to turn it off. And there’s a lot of gray area where it’s just confusing, or a lot of times you’re just so saturated to be this person that you aren’t. But you have to play these cards so frequently when you do shapeshift, or you’re around different friends, or around different networks. You kind of go into this behavior of, “Okay, cool. Let me just use these cards real quick.” It’s productized, it’s easy, and it works.

And then when you use that in front of the wrong audience, you’re like, “Wait, hold on. What happened?” So you start to become a little automated yourself. And I’m not going to lie, it’s happened to me and it still happens to me. I have my best friends, they have to pull me out of it. They have to check me. They’re like, “Hey Ube, I really don’t care about what your last initiative was. I don’t care how much you sold that work for. I don’t care what you bought. Can you stop talking about that?” And I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m sorry.” And then you basically have to pull your head out of your and just be like, “Hey, I’m trying to work on being myself.” But at the same time, like you’re saying, you have these tensions. You have these friction points where you’re playing different personified values, and then you get caught up into being that person.

If I’m an executive leader, I can’t be the authentic self. That’s not the currency. But I could be my authentic self around my best friends because that’s it. But again, you’re constantly playing different cards. And if you played the wrong card in a different landscape or environment, you might get checked on it. And I typically do with people that are still authentic, and still themselves, and coming back as the grownup Ube, and interfacing with these folks that still embrace that. Yeah. You can definitely guarantee that there there’s a ton of tension drawing between the lines of bringing full authenticity in your makeup forward, and having that valued. But if it isn’t valued, those talking points, they just start to be placed in your back pocket. You start to not use them as often. You start to just use basic talk tracks.

Maurice Cherry:
May I offer some advice?

Ube Urban:
Yes, absolutely. All the time. Always welcome.

Maurice Cherry:
I think if there’s any place in this country outside of perhaps San Francisco where you can lean into the various Venn diagram intersections of your identity and use that to your advantage, it’s here. I mean yes, it’s the south. I get that it’s Atlanta. It’s Georgia I should say. Georgia and Atlanta are two different things. But I feel like if there’s any place you can make that happen, it would be here outside of San Francisco. Perhaps New York too. I don’t know. And this is not to say, “Pick up and move,” or whatever.

But I would like to see the Ube that leans more into those spots that it sounds like make other people uncomfortable, especially as you’ve described it. And see how far that gets you. Because I think if anything, with personal branding now, so much is about identity and about the different spaces that you occupy. Whether you are queer, whether you’re disabled, different race, etc. You can lean into those and find community, and find like-minded people, and opportunities, and things of that nature.

Given where you’re at now, you are currently free from corporate obligation, which is a fun way of saying you don’t have a job right now. But given that you’re outside of that space now, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing? What do you want the next chapter of your story to be?

Ube Urban:
Yeah. That’s something that I am asking myself during this duration as well. There’s always topics of shifting into being a mentor, a coach, a leader, an advocate within the space. But that would mean going back into the best and worst practices of my own brand. Let’s just say I don’t have the best work ethic when it comes to representing myself, so I need to sometimes steer clear of that.

But from my understanding, I’m trying to cultivate consistencies in my life. And to be honest, it’s really hard to answer that question because work. I know it sounds like it’s priority based on my interactions. Nut on my actual list, it’s at the bottom of the list. So it’s hard for me to devote that much time and energy of what the forecasts are. If you asked me a couple moons ago, I’d be like, “This is where I want to be in three years. I want to climb this ladder, I want this visibility.”

But now I’ve pretty much had my appetite fulfilled in so many different areas, that question of, “What do you want to do next?” It becomes much more difficult to process. It’s almost like grass is greener. What am I revisiting that I’ve already done to fulfill that void, and how sustainable is that void?

I could go corporate identity, I could do agencies, I could have my own brand. But what are the trade-offs, and do they coincide where my life is now? There’s a lot of things that come into play rather than, what is the ideal job? “If you could have any job, what would be your perfect job? It’s like a behavioral question that you would get from human resources or something.

So coming into that, I still struggle with creating that identity and that appetite for what is to come. To be honest, I’m seeing what’s in the market. Because as you know, there’s new titles, there’s new formations. And who these new practitioners are and can be, and which ones are the same. Because I’ve had over 20 different titles, but I do the same type of work. So that’s also something that’s very interesting to me as a professional as well. But I know I didn’t answer your question, Maurice. That’s all I got as of now.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to say if you haven’t thought of what that is because of the time that you’re at now, give it some thought. Give it some thought. Don’t think that you have to rush right into slotting into whatever the next position is that you know you could get because of the work that you’ve done. Really take some time. And sit down with yourself, do the introspection, do the work, and think about where it is you can really be your most optimal self without the armor, without the expectations of other people. Really take some time and think about that.

Ube Urban:
Onto the next, and searching under different rocks and crevices to hopefully find more talented people to inspire myself.

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

Ube Urban:
Yeah. You’re not going to find authentic information. But you can get in touch with me either through my website, which would be www.ubeurban.com, basically first and last name. I’m pretty receptive on all my social channels, but you could also reach out on LinkedIn. Just type in first and last name again, Ube Urban. And drop me a call. Drop me a message if you want to grab some time on my calendar and peel back the layers of the navigation and Ube Urban himself.

Because it’s very difficult to provide that identity forward. Yes, I have that professional and corporate makeup. But you need to have discussions. You need to have the conversation in order to actually understand where my journey is and where it’s heading.

Maurice Cherry:
And hopefully when people listen to this interview, that’s what they’ll start to get.

Ube Urban:
Yes. Yes. Thanks again Maurice, for your time.

Maurice Cherry:
Ube, I just want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I sort of had an idea of where I thought this conversation might go. And certainly as I did my research and I was like, “I didn’t know all this stuff about Ube,” and I’ve met him, and we’ve talked on panels and stuff. But I will be interested to see what your next move is after you’ve really like I said… And this is advising, take it or leave it. But if you take the time to really think about what you want that next move to be like Ube without the armor, etc., I’d be really interested to see where you go in the future with that.

Because you and I, I would say we’re probably roughly right around the same age. We’ve reached this point in our career where we’ve paid our dues. We’ve paid our dues, we know our shit. And we’re at the point where we can start to really carve our own identity and make the path forward with doing what we want to do, and not so much about what the corporate sphere might have in space. Whether that’s entrepreneurship or what have you. But I feel like the more you lean into that, lean into those uncomfortable parts. I think that’s where you’ll really start to really grow and shine more. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Ube Urban:
Yes. Yes. Thank you. Thanks, Maurice. Really appreciate it.

Donate to Selma Tornado Relief

United Way of Central Alabama, Inc.

We are raising money for Selma Tornado Relief through United Way of Central Alabama to help serve victims of the tornado that tore through Selma, Alabama on Thursday, January 12th. Donate now, or text SELMA to 62644. Send us proof of your donation, and we will match it 100% (up to the first $1,000 donated).

Thank you for helping fund Selma’s recovery!

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get started? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.