Azeez Alli-Balogun

Azeez Alli-Balogun came highly recommended by several former guests, so I knew that a great conversation was going to happen. Azeez currently works as a lead product designer on the globalization team at Netflix, and he’s also a co-founder of Design to Divest. But if you think that’s all there is to Azeez’s story, then think again!

We started off with a quick 2022 check-in, and then he talked about his plan to work on more Black-focused design projects, and also gave a glimpse at what it’s like working at Netflix. From there, Azeez spoke about growing up in Louisiana, becoming a jewelry designer, and how he transitioned into product design. We also spent some time talking about Design to Divest and Azeez shared what he wants the organization to accomplish in the future. Everyone has the power to make change with design, and Azeez is a prime example of this!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
My name is Azeez Alli-Balogun. I am a product designer at Netflix, a product design lead at Netflix on the globalization team. What that really entails is that we’re looking at how do we enable Netflix products and the content that we create to live in local markets, but also experience global audiences.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I work a lot on the enterprise tools or the tools that help us create the subtitling assets, the dubbing assets, and all of those things that actually help our content become very, very locally resonant in local markets and local geographies, but also accessible to global audiences.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It’s been going really great. It’s interesting. We’re in the end of January, and it’s been incredibly productive, quite a lot of work that I’ve been doing in the beginning of the year. I’ve been invited to do a couple of different types of projects that I feel were very, very impactful. I think it’s just there’s so many seeds and so many things that have been planted in 2020 and 2021 that are starting to kind of blossom a little bit, which is both good and, also, I’m getting to a point where I need to make sure I’m prioritizing myself and my rest. I want to make sure that 2020 doesn’t lead to burnout for me with opportunities coming my way.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything special in particular that you want to achieve this year?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I mean the biggest thing that I think is really focusing on some of the work that I’m doing with Design to Divest, but really starting to produce more content or areas in where people from marginalized backgrounds, particularly the Black communities and African communities and indigenous communities, to be able to access design differently, access learning differently, and be able to participate in the creation of the world that we live in through their own cultural knowledge base.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So that type of work is something that I’m looking to start to really tangibilize in more meaningful ways. So I’m pretty hopeful that with all of the work that I’m doing and the projects and the communities that I’m a part of, that I’ll be able to create these platforms that allow or bring in more Black, African, and indigenous creatives to the forefront of creating some of the institutions that are going to shape the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, let’s talk about the work that you’re doing at Netflix. You’re the product design lead for the globalization team there. Now, you mentioned what you’re doing has to do with subtitles and dubbing. I can only imagine probably after the success of titles like Squid Game and Lupin and stuff that you probably have had a lot on your plate. But tell me more about the work that you do.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. It’s a lot of stakeholder management. So it’s interesting in the sense that the team that I’m working on really crosses so much of what Netflix does. It’s an integral part to growth. As Netflix grows our global subscriber base and grows into global markets, it’s incredibly important that we’re effective in the way that we localize our content as we start to even increase the volume of content that we produce, the volume of film and the volume of movies, and really trying to create platforms for different geographical spaces outside of Hollywood to be able to share their stories.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So a lot of the work is when you go into Netflix and you’re able to see the option to choose 20 different subtitles or watch things in dubbing, all of that stuff is work that I’m directly impacting and the team that I work on directly impacts. We’re working with linguists. We’re working with project managers. We’re working across the board with so many different types of stakeholders to ensure that there is quality attached to the subtitles and the dubbing and that if a director in Nigeria creates a television show or a movie, that same movie can be enjoyed by somebody in Swedish and it doesn’t lose a lot of the cultural nuances that represent how that content or how that TV show or film was created.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So it’s a heavy task because it’s very difficult to even measure things, like what is a good subtitle? What is a good dubbing or voiceover? Can we make sure that we are staying true to the content? Because when you think about different languages, it’s very, very … If you’re lucky enough to be able to speak multiple languages, then you know that there are certain nuances and certain kind of things that just don’t translate.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
You want to be able to translate those cultural nuances so people start to really understand what it actually means to experience the culture that that film or that television show or those characters are actually situated in. So there’s a lot of really trying to figure out how do we communicate, also creating a lot of the workflows that allow our stakeholders, the project managers internally at Netflix with the linguists and the other vendors that we use in order to create all of these assets, how do we allow them to do this work very, very effectively and at the volume and scale of the amount of content that we produce on a yearly basis?

Maurice Cherry:
So talk to me more about the team. What does the makeup look like?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It’s a typical product team. I mean you have your designers. I lead a particular area of the globalization design side. I have two other design partners who are also design leads in other areas. I work with a product manager, and I’m in constant contact with the globalization project managers and program managers as well as vendors and linguists in order to really understand what is necessary and how to create the best conditions for their workflows to be successful in delivering on the subtitling and dubbing and other localization assets.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So the core team is I’ll have my UI front end team and backend team designer and me, as a designer, project manager. We’re the core product team building out all of the tools. And then we’re in constant communication with the project managers, the vendor managers, the linguists who are actually authoring and creating a lot of the subtitling and localization assets in order to ensure that we’re providing the tools that are really supporting their workflows in a positive way.

Maurice Cherry:
So Netflix has linguists that are doing the translating, I mean as they’re listening through to the content and making sure that those subtitles, like you said, are kind of accurate to the plot, culturally accurate, et cetera.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean there’s a whole process there of subtitle authoring. I can’t get too deep into lots of that stuff because I think it’s one of the things that does set Netflix apart from some of the other services that you might encounter, the level of detail that we go into trying to create good subtitles. There’s a lot of experimentation and things that we’re doing right now in order to enable that process to be better for our members.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember when Squid Game had come out and there had been some kind of talk about like, “Oh, well, if you’re watching Squid Game, don’t watch it with subtitles because the subtitles aren’t right,” or something like that. Or no, it wasn’t the subtitles. It was the dubbing, I think, one of those two things. But I mean I can imagine even with a show like that, there’s still going to be some sort of cultural differences or things like that that get lost in translation.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean that’s exactly right. I mean there’s always going to be some dissonance. We’re always testing things out to try to get it right. I think the one thing that’s really great about the culture at Netflix and how we go about designing and building product is we experiment in order to figure out how we can learn and improve and constantly improve. So if we don’t get something right the first time, it’s a learning experience for us. We take all of that feedback and use it to ensure that we’re doing better as we move forward.

Maurice Cherry:
What does an average day look like for you?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Average day? I try to segment a little bit of my days or my week. Some days I load up with meetings, so I’m meeting with engineers and my product manager partner and other stakeholders. And then other days, I create that space for me to kind of just work and I’m designing and creating different concepts that are related to the conversations that I’ve been having, so kind of going through the whole design process, but in very, very short cycles.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It’s not spending three months or two weeks or just doing nothing but research, but do longer cycles of discovery research on a particular area that we’re trying to improve operational efficiency on and then take that, summarize that research into some opportunities, create some concepts behind that, and then start to socialize that with engineering and product in order to start to tweak and do more of … I try to do much more co-creation, co-designing with the stakeholders, the engineers, and product all together.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That way the decisions that are being made are made with the right amount of input from the different internal stakeholders that influence how the product actually tangibilizes itself. So my typical days typically would be I have some times where I’m dedicated. I need time to intake all the information that I’ve gotten and then start to visualize that into some sort of concept.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
And then a lot of the times, I am taking those concepts in meetings and doing a lot of co-design in order to fulfill requirements and understand what the needs are directly with both the users and then my product stakeholders as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the most challenging part about what you do?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Stakeholder management maybe. The reason that I would say that is when I think about the idea of complexity, what really makes anything complex is that you have a bunch of different competing priorities that happen at scale. So being able to really clearly align all the different priorities that are happening from different parts of the process and different stakeholders into something that works, I think, is the most difficult part because I’m also constantly listening and observing what people are saying, what people are doing, and then trying to translate that down into a language that can be understood by everyone who is involved.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
As you know, it’s interesting as we talk about language and linguistics, not only in different languages. There are different languages within different industries. There are different languages within different professions. So everyone might have a different way of communicating the same thing. Oftentimes, you can be in meetings where people are trying to communicate an idea or a concept with the language of their own profession.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So engineers might be communicating things in a certain way that’s different from product. That’s also slightly different from the way that the type of language that design would use to communicate something. And then our end users are using a different type of language and trying to wrangle all of those different concepts and in the way that people are trying to express what it is that they’re trying to think of in a way that everyone’s aligned on and everyone kind of understands.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s where I feel like a lot of the true power of design comes because once you start to take the language and start to visualize things, then people can have something to have an opinion about. They can have something to kind of analyze and say, “That’s not it,” or, “That is it,” or, “It’s this and this. Add this or that or the other.” But bringing life to the words that are being said by all of the people in the room and then allowing people to kind of mold what’s been created to make sure that everyone’s voices is really being heard.

Maurice Cherry:
I would imagine language and linguistics probably influence a lot of the design work in general, right?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean just really trying to understand the nuances of it and how those nuances can be misinterpreted because, as you know, a misinterpretation of even body language or a language or just a word or a concept can have dire consequences. So it’s important operationally as well as it is tangibly when we’re trying to create the product and making sure that the things that we create are very, very clear and transparent.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Netflix, it’s been an interesting place working. It’s been the most different place that I’ve worked at in my career because of the culture. The culture at Netflix is very unique. As I mentioned a little bit before about the experimentation culture of just trying to do things to learn, to get feedback, and then course correct. That also kind of goes into how we’re managed as employees. There’s a lot of the idea of freedom and responsibility and then the culture of feedback. All of those feed into the way that we’re able to work and the way that we’re able to kind of explore different areas of our profession in ways that we may have been restricted in other organizations.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I think that that’s a huge part that I typically really enjoy at Netflix and enjoy working with a bunch of other people who have similar mindset of growth and discovery and learning. It really shows through whenever we’re able to create, learn from the products and the things that we create, and prove it for our members.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. That’s pretty cool. It sounds like Netflix does give you that freedom. I know there’s some companies of people whom I would love to interview, but they have a strict embargo on their employees cannot do podcasts or anything like that. So it’s good that at least they let you all be able to talk about your work and do other things freely.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean it’s definitely encouraged, but I mean there’s definitely tons of stuff that we can’t say.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I walk a line a lot of times trying to make sure that … Because there’s so much transparency at Netflix and I think that that’s one of the really great parts of the culture at Netflix is that, as an employee there, the leadership from the top down is always going to be as transparent as possible. But with that comes responsibility of we’re letting you know all of this information. We don’t expect you to go out and tell the world all of the secrets and things. This is internal information that we are providing you context so you’re able to really do your job to the best of your ability. We don’t want to hide things from you.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
But it comes with a lot of responsibility, that level of transparency and that level of trust that our leaders kind of put in us as contributors to the mission that the company is trying to achieve.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. I’m curious to learn more about you, your particular origin story. Tell me about where you grew up.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Both of my parents are from Nigeria, and I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So I grew up in Louisiana. I spent most of my childhood in Louisiana and went there to high school. I went to Southern University when I graduated high school for a couple of semesters before switching over to design and going to University of Louisiana at Lafayette. But growing up, I wouldn’t have thought of myself as being a designer. I wasn’t exposed to it in that way. I mean my dad was in school for architecture, so I was exposed to that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
But the ideas of industrial design or other aspects of design weren’t really things that came across. I played basketball, growing up. I was more interested in trying to go to the NBA than I was with anything else. But I was also an avid reader. I read quite a lot, and I did a lot of writing, drawing. So there was always that creative aspect, but I imagined myself going into medical school rather than design.

Maurice Cherry:
So when you went to University of Louisiana at Lafayette though, you ended up majoring in industrial design. Talk to me about that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean that was really the reason that I left Southern University because they didn’t have an industrial design program. So initially, whenever I was in school, my intention was to be a pediatric surgeon. Actually, I was like, “I’m going to study biomedical engineering and then go to medical school to be a pediatric surgeon.” That was my intention. At the time, too, biomedical engineering was a fairly new field of study within the higher education to where if you really wanted to do that, you had to get a master’s degree.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So while I was at Southern University, I needed to kind of create a curriculum for myself, working with my engineering faculty. I was doing mechanical engineering and double majoring in cellular molecular biology. But after a while, I was just like, “Something about this is not really what I want to do. I would love to create the medical tools and the medical devices. I’d love to design those things.” But it was just something that just didn’t feel right in terms of the education for me while I was in engineering.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I started doing some research. Maybe I might like automotive design. Through that, I found what industrial design was, and I was like, “Whoa. With this field, I can actually design medical devices. I can actually go and design prosthetic legs and all of these different things that I was interested in kind of creating.” That’s how I found University of Louisiana at Lafayette because that was the only school in Louisiana, at the time, that had an industrial design program. So I ended up going there and studying industrial design.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you kind of, I guess, looked at another way to get into the medical field then by looking at industrial design.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So in your early post-grad career after you left school, you ended up going into jewelry design. I’m curious. What drew you to that?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It wasn’t anything that really drew me. It was literally I graduated shortly after a recession in Louisiana. There were no jobs, really. It was really difficult to get a design job, especially in the South, in Louisiana. So really, what happened was that my portfolio was a bunch of … It was pediatric medical tools and prosthetics and stuff like that. The jewelry company, which had a connection to some of our professors at University of Louisiana, looked at my work and they’re like, “We really like your aesthetic visually. You have a really good sense of style and taste,” even looking at the medical tools, the medical stuff that I designed.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s literally how I jumped into jewelry design. I was interested in fashion. I was interested in design in general, but I wasn’t intending to go be a jewelry designer. If anything, I would have wanted to go to do something in footwear design at Nike because that would have merged a lot of the biomechanics and technical medical things that I was thinking about in terms of design with human performance. So yeah. Jewelry design just kind of came about. It was an opportunity that kind of came about, but it really allowed me to start to understand what it meant to design for things that were going to be worn on people’s bodies.

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. How long were you a jewelry designer?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I was there for about two to two and a half years.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It was quite an interesting experience, but even though while I was there … This is also the field of user experience design or a lot of the digital product design, all of that stuff. That was still fairly in its infancy. So even while I was there, I participated in some things, some interface things that were very interesting. From there, after I left that company, I wanted to discover what is it that I really wanted to do, but I also needed to look at where the market was going.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Industrial design jobs weren’t en masse. A lot of these jobs that when you’re designing physical things, they don’t have incredibly large teams. Just seeing the digital world kind of pick up, I started to make some pivots over into really learning that particular skillset, branched off to try to do a little bit of my own freelance work, both as an industrial designer. But then what I found was that I was getting more clients, more people looking for branding and web development and more digital kind of stuff.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s kind of how I ended up pivoting or going to grad school to learn really more of a service design kind of method to incorporate both to be more agnostic about what my skillsets delivered and more focused on what the outcome needed to be of whatever it is that a client or somebody wanted to create.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good way to put it in terms of trying to be more agnostic because what I’m hearing, and you can please correct me if I’m wrong here, it sounds like you were just trying to find where you were going to fit in. You’ve graduated. You have these design skills. While there certainly were things that you wanted to do in terms of design, those opportunities just weren’t available. So you were trying to see what could maybe your skills transfer into.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean I think that that’s a good characterization. I’m a person who is always ready to adapt to a situation. I have my core values and principles that I’m going to stay in those, and I’m not going to allow my value set and my principles to be swayed. But those principles aren’t rigid outcomes. They just help guide me in terms of the decisions that I need to make in life. But at the same time, I don’t create a level of rigidity to what it is that I can be and what it is that I can do.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Because it in the same way of when you’re designing a product or a service for someone or for people or a community, you need to allow it to be what it needs to be rather than always trying to force it into being something that you envisioned from the beginning.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when did you decide to go to grad school? Was that during this time as well?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. That was during this time. I was looking at a handful of schools. I was looking at Pratt, RISD. I almost went to SCAD for the service design program because I had a friend who I was in undergrad with who was there, and he told me it was a great program. Service design’s still kind of a fairly newer field in design in the United States. It’s still catching on. You’re starting to see it more so now than it was years ago. I mean it’s definitely been something that’s far more developed in Europe than it has been in the United States. That’s just a reflection of the market and how we view the utility of design here at organizations.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Hearing the service design methods and methodologies, that was very interesting to me, and I was ready to go to SCAD. But also, another friend of mine who I was in undergrad with had mentioned ArtCenter to me before, and I really liked the rigor that ArtCenter placed on developing your technical skills and the level of polish that a lot of the portfolios and a lot of the students had the capacity for after graduating from ArtCenter. And then also, ArtCenter had this program with the Drucker School of Management where the graduate industrial design program also could be a dual MBA degree.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Once I got there, I didn’t see the usefulness not necessarily in an MBA because I did take MBA classes at UCLA. I do see a benefit in that, but I didn’t see the benefit for that particular school that ArtCenter was partnering with. So I didn’t actually go forward with that, though it was a decision that I made to go to ArtCenter in the first place because that option was available.

Maurice Cherry:
While you were there, you also managed to work on an internship which let you transition into product design, right?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I did a couple of internships there. The education, too, in grad ID, the name can be misleading because it’s industrial design. But really a lot of the training was for us to be innovation leaders, to be able to come in and really understand what the business needs are for a company and help them pivot into creating products and services that now are able to accommodate the changing landscape. So we would routinely have different companies come in. This is part of the ArtCenter education where different companies come in and do these studio projects.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
We did one with Uber whenever I was in maybe my fourth semester or something like that, where Uber was creating their Uber Air platform. We worked in groups with other students from other departments. So we had transportation designers, automotive designers, as well as interaction designers, in addition to us in graduate industrial design and worked with some of the key executives for that particular unit doing the Uber Air. Our task was really to design what that whole experience would be if we were to create air taxis.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
If Uber were to go into this business, how do we start to visualize what that whole experience would be, all the way from understanding what the airport security type situation would be to what is the interior of the electric vertical landing takeoff vehicle going to be, all the way to really understanding the market. So if you create this type of service, well, who are going to be the people to use this service and who are going to be the early adopters all the way down to the late adopters in order to get this service off of the ground?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So it was a pretty involved project that took a whole semester where we built life-sized mock-ups to test out what the interior of the vehicle could be and could look like. We did a lot of architectural design and sketches to understand where would we create and put some of these what we call sky ports, which would be the airports for people to access these vehicles, designing also how would we implement or integrate this into the existing application, so if somebody wanted to catch an Uber Air vehicle. So it was a pretty involved project that spanned the scope of a bunch of different design skills from automotive design to interaction design to industrial design and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
Kind of sounds like a air taxi, in a way.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Exactly. It was an air taxi. There’s so many different nuances in terms of what that whole experience could or would be. And also, there are limitations to the technology that existed at the time, still even to right now. A lot of that technology is still being developed in a way that could make it really feasible and economical to launch a service like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would imagine also even just getting FAA certification because, unlike something like UberX where anyone that has a driver’s license can drive, that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone with a pilot’s license, I would imagine, would do Uber Air or something like that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. There’s definitely some technical and some licensing, piloting things there, especially, also, I mean you’re thinking about just air traffic control as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s right.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I mean that’s been there for a while. There’d be some adjustments and things that would need to be made in order to allow for another set of vehicles to be in the air.

Maurice Cherry:
So after you graduated from ArtCenter College of Design for grad school, you ended up working at a couple of other places before Netflix. You worked at a biotech company called Script Health. So you, I guess, in a way managed to get around to doing some work in the medical field, even in this sort of roundabout way. But then you also worked at IBM working on products on their data, AI, and cloud integration teams. When you look back at those two experiences specifically, what do you remember the most?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It was interesting because with Script Health, one of my friends who’s a pharmacist, that was his startup that he was creating. I was actually working on that while I was in grad school and helping him really design and bring to life the vision of that product and that service that he was trying to create. So I won’t go too deep into it, but the gist of that really was building out a service to deal with the opioid epidemic and providing the right type of medication for overdoses, things like naloxone, to places in rural communities.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
There’s a huge lack of access to the right types of drugs and services in the most marginalized communities or the most affected communities. And then that learning, kind of taking a product from zero to one, the amount of work and effort that it takes to do the research and then finding a market fit, pivots and things that need to happen, partnerships that need to be made and created, and then visualizing the concept and telling the story and the narrative in a way that is going to inspire and communicate what it is about.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That was also a crash course for me, really working with engineers as well as working with outside agencies that were taking my design work and starting to code it into something and really understanding what are the specific things that I need to communicate in order to make sure that what I do design ends up being the thing that gets created and it not being some kind of mangled version of that because there are details that I left out or things that I didn’t communicate that they just had to make a decision on, and it may not be the right decision.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
When it comes to IBM, the thing that I learned at IBM really was a lot of stakeholder management and also a lot of leadership skills, what it means to manage up, as well as how to align people and influence people around a shared objective and a shared goal and then trying to get things done within a short period of time. I feel like those were some of the key things. I mean I can dive really deep into aspects of that, but I think those were the main things that I’ve learned.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Working with people, I think, is an incredibly important part of being a designer, and understanding how to do that effectively, I think, is something that it takes a lot of designers a lot of time to really understand what it actually means to do that beyond just your hard technical skills.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, another thing that you sort of created that came about while you were at ArtCenter was Critical Discourse in Design. Talk to me about that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. That happened while I was at IBM. So this was after my graduate program. I still have a lot of really great connections with a lot of the faculty at ArtCenter. After the murder of George Floyd, there was just a lot of energy around something needs to be done. I’m in the design community. Think about racism. When we think about prejudice, when we think about all of the things, these institutions that are perpetuating these things, they are designed institutions. They’re created.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
For me, in addition to, okay, well, protesting is one thing. But based off of my own skillsets and my own proximity to the type of work and things that I do, how can I start to impact or influence the change that I want to see in the world? So I started these conversations with some of my friends who are still faculty at ArtCenter to try to uncover what is something that we can do. We didn’t really have an idea of what it was going to be.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
But through the conversations and through a lot of the things that I was talking about in terms of how … A quote that I constantly say is that, “Design is the invisible hand that shapes all lived experience.” So Critical Discourse in Design came about when we started really thinking about when you think about oppression, oppression needs physical tools and objects. It needs a physical space. It needs to be designed.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So when you think about you can go throughout history and you can look at what are the tools or the innovations of oppression? A noose, a prison cell, all of these different things. So if you can design for oppression, then you can design for liberation. Critical Discourse in Design came about like, “Well, what does that conversation of designing for liberation, what does that actually mean? How do we start to translate theory into action? And then who are the voices that we need to bring to the table in order to be able to have these conversations?”

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Because when you think about the design industry, also where the Black designers is calling out is the 3% or 4%, depending on who you ask, of the people who are designers are Black. So the voices that are the most impacted by the things that are being created in the world are not at the table to voice how they feel things should be. They’re not able to provide their cultural intelligence to the institutions and the systems and the tools and the things that get created in the world.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So Critical Discourse in Design really was a response to that. It was really a response to how do we start to now bring in these voices and also to leave people not with just new words and new theories, but a theory that can turn into practice and really starting to understand what the connection between pedagogy, what people are learning, is with practice, how people create, how people experience and actually deliver things into the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, let’s talk about Design to Divest, which it sounds like came out of Critical Discourse in Design. Tell me about that. I know you’re one of the founding members of this collective. We’ve also had another member of the collective on the show before, Michael Collett. But yeah. Talk to me about Design to Divest.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. While I was actually creating Critical Discourse in Design, one of my really close friends who was working with part of Design to Divest messaged me and said, “Hey, do you have some capacity to join the steering committee here? This is what we’re doing.” So I joined Design to Divest. At the time, it was really meant to mobilize design skills and different designers, to mobilize those design skills around social impact projects. It was very like graphic design-based.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I think part of what I was doing whenever I joined the team was really thinking about what Design to Divest actually meant as a concept, and what are the most impactful ways that we can create positive change or the change that we want to see in the world? That started over the past two years that we’ve been just having these discussions and doing projects and working on things to manifest into a version of what it is today, where we have a lot of things that we’re going to be releasing this year, hopefully, and that really talks about what it means to divest the inequitable systems that have been designed and created in the world. How do we start to celebrate and design for the communities on the margins?

Maurice Cherry:
I mean I think that came about at such a monumental time, during the summer that you mentioned where, of course, there were people out in the streets that were protesting against police brutality. You talked about the murder of George Floyd. Again, it seems like this was a time when a lot of people were really looking for this kind of thing. They were looking to hear from Black voices, but also just looking for ways that they can, I guess, channel whatever frustrations they had into something more positive.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. Not to say that that time still isn’t happening now, but [crosstalk 00:45:33]-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. We’re still in it very much. Yeah.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
We’re very much in it, but it was reaching fever pitches. It wasn’t just in the United States, it was globally. Me being Nigerian and seeing with SARS and the protests that were happening in Nigeria, the protests that were happening in South America, things happening in Brazil, it was everywhere, where you started to see people were really fed up with the institutions and the things that were meant to serve them. But people were just like, “Nothing is actually serving any of us, and nothing is serving us in a way that’s going to provide any level of comfort or any level of support. It’s actually doing the opposite.”

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I think Design to Divest became, especially for designers, because I think so many designers get into design feeling that they can change something or that there’s some sense of positivity that they can use design to affect, but no one ever tells them how. And then it typically falls flat with very altruistic ideas that really don’t connect back to impact. It just connects back to some sense of moral I don’t want to say superiority, but just a sense of moral reflection that you did a project that did something, but it doesn’t necessarily connect back to impact.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I think with the idea of Design to Divest, we really want to give people a path to connect the things that they do to the impact that they want to see in the world, the impact that they want to see in institutions, and the impact that they want to see in the different products and tools and experiences that we experience in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of that impact, given now that the collective has gone on now, what? I guess this will be your second year of going into things?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to see Design to Divest accomplish?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Quite a lot over time. But I think about education is a really core thing in terms of … One of the things that we’ve identified, too, is that there’s so many designers on the margins, designers of color, but particularly Black and indigenous designers who don’t have access to any type of content or education that teaches design in a way that validates their culture, in a way that validates their identity, in a way that celebrates the cultural intelligence of their heritage towards the creation of the things that exist in the world.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
When you look at design, the canon of literature and text that’s being taught to designers all are from European white men, and so there’s always a cultural disconnect. Essentially, what it does is informs people getting into design that you need to either erase your culture and assimilate into this culture if you want to find success in this profession because your culture is devalued or isn’t valued as a producer of good design, if you call something good design.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So part of what my hopes for Design to Divest is to really provide that platform, on one hand, for Black and indigenous designers to be able to have content and community to engage with around design that validates their identity, that validates their cultural heritage, and then that brings them to the table of creation. I feel like the world is a group project and, typically, only a select group of communities and culture have gotten to participate in creating the institutions, organizations, and business that shape the lived experiences for all of us.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I think it’s time that we create this space of ownership. I think this is what equity means, ownership and creation, and stop blocking these communities that are on the margins, Black, indigenous communities from participating in the creation and the stewardship of the world. I think that I want Design to Divest to be that platform that allows Black and indigenous communities to harness their ability to design through their own cultural intelligence, to create and populate the institutions and things in the world that are going to serve our communities.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that inspire you?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s a tough question because I’m typically just inspired by people, in general. I’m inspired by culture, in general. Obviously, I’m inspired by my family, by my parents, aunts, and uncles, especially coming from Nigeria, making a way for themselves as expats into the United States and balancing multiple cultures. I’m also inspired by other designers, other creators, but also other people in other professions. I constantly draw inspiration from economists, from lawyers, from doctors in the way that they approach the work that they do.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I can say, as of late, too, I’ve been inspired by people like André Leon Talley and Virgil, who both passed, but seeing the impact that they’ve had. You can see that by the outpouring of support and the outpouring of responses that people have to their passing. To have that level of impact on community, I think, is also something that’s incredibly inspiring to me.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to somebody that is looking to enter into the design field? Because it sounds like, with your career, you’ve managed to really take that and apply it across a number of different facets of design and, even now, you’re still kind of paying that forward with the work you’re doing in Netflix, but also with this community work through Design to Divest. So if someone’s listening to this and this is inspiring them to want to get into design in some sort of way, what would you tell them?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I mean one of the most important things, as a designer, is to be curious. I think that one thing that I would tell people is you just kind of have to do it. There’s so many people who are going to have something to say about whatever it is that you do. It’s also kind of that’s the idea of design is that whenever you design, there’s a difference between art and design in a sense, whereas design is really not meant for yourself. Design is outward. It’s meant to be critiqued by the people that you’ve created it for. So you can’t wait for perfection.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I think I would tell people that they have to just go out and do it. But another one of the most important things, too, is that design is a very community-driven profession. I think that it’s not done in isolation. I think that that’s in contrast to the way that we were taught about design. We were always taught about these individual people who are design heroes, whether it’s Dieter Rams or Frank Gehry or whatever. They’re not doing these things alone as individual people. They have a network of people. They’re talking to people.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
They are influenced by people, and they are finding different people who is inspiring to them to communicate with and also build with. So one of the most important things is to constantly seek out the people who are doing things that you find interesting and try to have a conversation with them and try to build your own communities, because that’s going to be the path forward for you finding the opportunities to design the things that you want to design, to create the things that you want to create and with the people that you want to create.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
And then lastly, too, I would also say is that you really want to start from a place of purpose. So if you don’t really have a purpose yet or you haven’t identified what that is, definitely just take some time to think about it. As everything, it could be an iteration. Your purpose whenever you were 16 could be different when you’re 24 or 50. But having a sense of purpose and principles to back that purpose then allow you to make decisions a lot easier. It gives you something to filter the opportunities that come your way with something that means something more to you than just existing.

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I’m doing a lot of the work that I want to be doing in combination with Design to Divest and some of the freelance projects that I’ve been working on as well. But I think more of that work, more of the work that I’m doing with Design to Divest, more of the creating the platforms, creating archives and things who are Black and indigenous designers to be able to participate in the creation of the world. Also, I mean I do quite a lot of mentorship.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I’d love to be able to build careers and create more pathways for designers from other marginalized communities, including Black communities and other marginalized communities to have a pathway to create. So I see within the next five years, continuing to grow and scale the impact that I’m able to have on the design community from both a pedagogical, educational standpoint as well as a practice and people standpoint.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So when I think about the practice, it’s really illustrating to both the business and design world that you want to be able to take … What it really means to be diverse and to harness diversity for innovation is being able to take the different cultural knowledge systems that exist, where there’s the aboriginal system of knowledge, the African system of knowledge, and being able to apply that to the problems that you’re facing as a society or in your particular company, reframing the problem underneath those systems of knowledge, and then allowing those systems of knowledge to be able to deliver on solutions for you.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So doing work that allows me to bring more of those different systems of knowledge and those different diverse perspectives into the creation of things, and then on the people side of just continuing to bring more of those people who are holders of that knowledge, the descendants of African people from different African cultures who hold that knowledge or indigenous people, Native people, and providing a platform for them to use that knowledge that’s been passed down to them to design and create things that make the world a better place.

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I try to not be so visible online all the time. They can find me on my Instagram, Azeez_Alli. In the near future, we’ll be releasing a new website for Design to Divest where they can check out some of that work that I’m doing. If anyone wants to chat with me or anything like that, they can always shoot me a message on LinkedIn. I definitely try to respond to people who reach out to me and might not be immediate, but definitely something that I’m open to chatting more and more with people who resonate with some of the things that I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Azeez Alli, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, of course, for telling your story about how you got into design. But I think it’s really important, especially now, as a lot of people are really looking at the work they do and try to figure out how it can make an impact in the world, I think the way that you’re taking your design knowledge and, one, how you’ve been able to apply it to different parts of design, but then, two, also using it in a way to pay it forward to the community is something that is super important.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope that we get to see a lot more of that in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Sponsored by The State of Black Design Conference

The State of Black Design

Texas State University’s Communication Design Program is excited to announce The State of Black Design Conference, a three day virtual event March 4-6, 2022.

This year’s theme is “family reunion”, and there will be over 50 amazing speakers, including author and educator Jelani Cobb, and world-renowned poet, activist, and educator Nikki Giovanni.

This year debuts the State of Black Design’s Resume Book initiative, so if you’re a Black design student, or you’re a Black designer looking for your next role, then listen up!

You will be able to submit your resume and your portfolio to the Resume Book, along with your institution of study and major if you’re a student, and recruiters and employers will have access to it before the event. If you’re interested and you want to be included in the Resume Book, send your info to blackdesign@txstate.edu with the subject line “Resume Book”. You have until March 3, 2022 to submit.

The State of Black Design Conference is brought to you with the support of the University of Texas at Austin, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Microsoft, General Motors, Design for America, Civilla, IDSA, AIGA, and Revision Path.

Visit The State of Black Design Conference website for tickets. Hope to see you there!

Miles Anderson

When I first chatted with Miles Anderson, he said that he’s “just a normal guy who works hard.” But then I heard his story and the growth in his career and well…Miles is no normal guy — he’s extraordinary!

Miles talked about his recent move to Seattle in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, starting on the Xbox team at Microsoft, and how he’s getting along during this time. He also spoke about his time at IBM and how it helped him grow as a designer, the power of self-education in tech, and what he would do in his career if failure wasn’t an option. Miles is finally getting the recognition he deserves, and I’m glad to have him on the show to share what he’s doing with you all!

Sponsor

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

Adrian Franks is a one-of-a-kind renaissance man. His work as a UX creative director at IBM focuses on experience design (iX) for their global business services brand, but trust me — his skills don’t stop there.

Our conversation began with Adrian walking us through his typical days of meetings and projects, but things really came alive when we talked about his days growing up and learning design in Atlanta. Adrian also talked about how he connected with the venerable film maker Spike Lee for a series of art projects, and shared some great advice on the types of skills designers need to have in order to achieve their best work. I’m so glad we have designers like Adrian out there who can show us what the true possibilities of creativity can be!


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

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

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


Shani Sandy is a real mover and a shaker in this industry. As a design executive for IBM, she combines business leadership and creative concepts to help advance design thinking for clients all over the world. But how did she go from freelance work to being a lead at one of the top tech companies in the world? Find out in this week’s interview!

Shani and I spoke about design thinking and what IBM looks for from designers, and she gave some great advice for designers who are looking to take their career to the next level and advance into bigger and greater roles. We also talked about building teams, diversity in tech and design, hiring and recruiting, and a lot more. The key to Shani’s success has been carving out your own lane, and I think this week’s interview really shows she’s done a phenomenal job doing just that!


Revision Path is sponsored by Facebook Design. No one designs at scale quite like Facebook does, and that scale is only matched by their commitment to giving back to the design community.
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