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!
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.
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.
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?
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.
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?
It’s been going great. We officially separated. So yes.
I guess it is great. You’re like, “It’s great. I’m no longer working there. It’s wonderful.”
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.
So what do your current days look like now? What kind of work are you doing just in general?
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.
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-
What are all these new openings here? And you’re like, “Okay.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
Yes. Yeah, this is correct.
Tell me what it was growing up there.
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.
Now growing up there, were you really getting into design, or art, or anything? Were you a really creative kid or a creative teenager?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So is that what precipitated your move from San Francisco here to Atlanta?
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.
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.
Yeah. And I mean, let’s be clear. The compensation is ridiculous.
Oh yeah. Okay.
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.
So what do you do to try and maintain your authentic self?
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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?
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.
May I offer some advice?
Yes, absolutely. All the time. Always welcome.
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?
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.
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.
Onto the next, and searching under different rocks and crevices to hopefully find more talented people to inspire myself.
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?
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.
And hopefully when people listen to this interview, that’s what they’ll start to get.
Yes. Yes. Thanks again Maurice, for your time.
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.
Yes. Yes. Thank you. Thanks, Maurice. Really appreciate it.
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