Phillip J. Clayton

We’re ending out the month of November with the second part of my conversation with the one and only Phillip J. Clayton. (If you missed the first part of this interview, check it out here.)

After sharing his thoughts on brand purpose, we started discussing our experiences with art and education, and he spoke about facing limitations in school due to dyslexia and feeling misunderstood by teachers and other authority figures. Phillip also talked about his experiences working with renowned brands (including PepsiCo), judging creative work, the evolving nature of packaging design, the need for a holistic view of design.

Big thanks to Phillip for such a wide-ranging conversation!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

All right, so we’ve spent a lot of know time, you know, talking about the work that you do through your studio; a lot of your brand identity work and such. But I want to kind of shift the conversation so we can learn more about you. Like, what’s the Phillip J. Clayton origin story? So…you’re originally from Jamaica, is that right?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yes. Born and grew here.

Maurice Cherry:

How would you describe growing up there?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I grew up on a high point of a mountain — like a cold area. A cold part of the country, in a parish. So I grew up in a small town where it was a lot of mostly religion. So for me, I grew up in religion, Christianity specifically. There’s this traditional kind of way of doing things, and I felt kind of trapped inside myself. That’s what it was like for me, artistically, creatively, it’s more traditional for me. It was very frustrating growing up, honestly.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, your father, from doing my research, your father was in advertising, and he was also sort of a fine artist. Was that kind of a bit of a dichotomy between this sort of difficult growing up?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Part of my childhood, I think, was spent trying to be this great artist like my father, then learning about his profession in advertising, trying to become that as well. A little pressure I guess, I placed on myself. That was an outlet, for sure. Spending time with him in his office and watching him do what he does and then mimicking him. It was an outlet where I could express everything.

Then he started teaching me how to do. My first lesson in art was drawing was a tonal scale. So he taught me how to use one pencil to create from dark to light. It’s a gray scale, basically. So that’s where I started. And, oh, music. He’s also a classical guitar player, so I learned that as well, each day with practice. So I had my outlets. My mother did embroidery, so I was surrounded by art books and design. And my sister, she also was a great writer. So I got all of this stuff around me. So they were in the house. It was great.

It’s when I left the house, that’s when I had my challenges. I wasn’t like most of the children I knew, my cousins included. So I guess I had this big dream of what my childhood should be. But I was still on a massive property. But at the same time, I wanted to maybe a lot more creatively. I wasn’t really into games and stuff like that. I just cared about being really good at art and design.

That’s the summary of my childhood, really. Everything I did was in art or design. Sports didn’t really work out for me.

Maurice Cherry:

So you had this, really, sounds like super creative home life. Did that kind of influence you once you went off to college?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yes. When I got to college, that was interesting. I felt like I knew so much already. That might be ego, but when I got there, it was definitely because of my childhood. And at that time, I still didn’t know if I wanted to be an artist or not. I was just doing it. It was a question of whether I was conditioned to do…to be creative or am I really someone who likes creating? So college was that journey for me, but I was mostly bored there because it was like, again, I want more. And what I was doing is what I did at home.

I learned techniques. I won’t put it all down. I learned new techniques, but it was too academic for me. It didn’t feel like a creative environment. It felt more academic.

Maurice Cherry:

What all sort of things were you doing there?

Phillip J. Clayton:

After my first year? You do everything in the first year and then you choose second year. I went into painting, and then I moved from that to sculpting. And then…what do you call them? Not majors, like your secondaries. I don’t know what they’re called.

Maurice Cherry:

Your minors?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, like minors. So I did photography, printmaking. I did not get to do graphic design. I was not even allowed in the class because I guess the teacher didn’t see me as a graphic designer. But ironically, though…so it was all fine art. It was photography, sculpting, painting, and printmaking.

Maurice Cherry:

The teacher didn’t let you in the class? Like, you couldn’t even enroll?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, they give you this test, and to this day I hate that. And when I was…any job I went to and they said, “there’s a test”, I turned it down and said, “I’m not interested in that.” Because of that experience, most people saw my work that I did for this test, and they said, “but you’re really good at this!” But whatever the reason was…this lecturer there, he didn’t see me as a valid candidate or something. And the same thing happened with architecture. For me, in terms of high school, I’ve been experiencing these kind of things, so again, I’ve been forced into art.

So I had to really decide what I like, but I wasn’t allowed to do anything technical for some reason. I don’t know if it caused my dyslexia, or I don’t know if I was presenting myself the right way. So I can never be sure, but I was turned down essentially, so I just stuck to art. Design was something I was really in love with as well, but for some reason, I just couldn’t get into design. Architecture is something I love, but again, I wasn’t in high school, I wasn’t allowed to do the technical drawing class, whatever the reason was. I do not know to this day. Industrial design, all these things fascinated me. But the art school didn’t have that.

It was art and graphic design, and I found it quite mundane. I was like, where’s the intrigue?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Phillip J. Clayton:

So that was the experience for me. It didn’t work out well in the end. It’s a joke around my friends that I was asked to leave the art school. So, I think I can conform well — I think that was it, actually. Yes, I remember that statement. I think he asked me a question. He said that, the graphic design teacher. He said, “I don’t appear to be the student that will do what he asks.” So that was my experience constantly.

I don’t think they knew how to relate to me or relate or engage me. I was very dyslexic, and I have a lot of other cognitive stuff going on, and I guess I just didn’t fit into that mold that they wanted. So my entire college experience was me always feeling challenged to live up to some expectation, which I couldn’t because it’s not in my personality to do that. But I wasn’t being rude or anything. I just couldn’t fit into what they wanted. I was very expressive. My fine artwork was very dark as well, so there’s some personal stuff there. And I guess they couldn’t see beyond that.

But I did all my work. But if I may share this on here — when I was asked to leave, I don’t know why, but I found out some years later that it was for drug abuse and being a threat to the school. I was told all this is false, and I never did any of that there. There’s a lot of details to that whole process, so it was very insulting. I felt demotivated after that for a while, but today, it’s not true. Just want to make that record clear. I don’t know where it came from, but nobody asked my opinion on it. They just asked me to leave the school. So that was that college experience.

Maurice Cherry:

You know, as you describe that, that reminds me so much of my own high school and college experience in a different way, but I think in the same feelings of authority, not being able to know what to do with someone like you. And so because they don’t know how to handle — handle is probably not the right word — they don’t know what to do! That’s kind of just the best example that I can give.

I mean, when I was in high school, my teachers — especially my senior year — my teachers, my guidance counselor were like, actively not only trying to fail me because I was set up to be valedictorian, and they didn’t want that. This was a whole race thing in the South. There’s that. But then also my guidance counselor not allowing me to get certain applications to schools or to get application fee waivers, saying things like, “well, why don’t you…have you thought about learning a trade? Have you thought about going to the community college and learning HVAC or welding or something like that?”

And then in college, I mean, it wasn’t as similar as to what your experience is, but certainly…I started out in computer science, and didn’t like it because I wanted to be a web designer. My advisor literally telling me, “if you want to go into the Internet, that’s just a fad. So if you want to do that, you should probably change your major”…which I did. I changed it to Math, and I kind of sailed through on that. But it sounds like it’s just this textbook case of authority not knowing what to do with someone who doesn’t fit into their kind of rigid standards. And I feel like — and maybe I’m grossly generalizing here, please stop me if I am — but I wonder if part of it also was the fact that you said you grew up in this really religious environment, and that there’s sort of this kind of staid structure that comes with that. I mean, I grew up in a really religious town, too, so I know what that’s like.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Well, I mean, according to things I’ve heard in my own family, not my parents, like my relatives, I’m the only person like me in the entire generation. And we go way back. Chinese and European mix. Right? But everything you said is actually all my academic experiences. It’s everything you just said. And are you familiar with Frederick Nietzsche?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Right. So the will to power, which Hitler misused grossly, is what, in my adult age, that I discovered that, hey, this is the problem. And I love Jamaica, don’t get me wrong, but how I speak about [the] country professionally and academically, a lot of people don’t like it.

Well, I won’t say if you agree, but if you understand the concept of replacing managers with employees who want to be managers, was something I heard, that no employee hates the manager. They hate that the manager is doing what they’re doing to them. So basically they want to be the manager so they can do it to somebody else.

Jamaica for me, is very prudish, and that’s what I think leads to the academic experience we do have. High standards in terms of other courses or disciplines in the academic area. A lot of people do very well because we have this; I think we’re in Cambridge or something, I can’t remember. But at the same time, when you get into the professional space or the creative space, what my perception of it was, oh, you just replaced the Europeans with yourselves. So [you] use the same rules, same approach, same everything. Nothing’s changed.

The managers have changed. They’re now Black Jamaicans, and Jamaican is not even race. It’s an ethnicity. So you just replace the managers. It’s the same rules. So I’m supposed to not live up to my true potential by Frederick Nietzsche. I think it wasn’t even his originally. But anyway, the will to power, where the philosophy or the belief that society limits great thinkers from living up to their full potential. I was considered a rude child in my early school days, or not rude, or not paying attention, one of those two, because of my dyslexia and that knowledge of what dyslexia was, I guess, wasn’t that common back then.

So, yeah, the entire education experience was not great for me. I’ve helped put schools on the map regarding competitions I entered. I either won them or came second or something. I usually get one of three; first, secnd, or third, but the school was proud of that. And I’m not saying a lot of people…I’m not saying I was treated horribly by teachers or anything, but in terms of learning, they didn’t know how to teach me. And I’m probably one in the whole class that has this problem, or maybe more, or they didn’t know. So it was like, if you didn’t fit into this thing, you’re on the outside. And we know all the stories of successful people who have the same stories of teachers berating them, and they literally coming out in the exact opposite of what a teacher said they would be.

I’ve had that experience, and I guess that’s what my journey is on. But, yeah, everything you said about what you experienced is my entire education experience. And I had to leave to discover who I am and all that. Because sometimes these things come in disguise, right? So being kicked from college wasn’t…at first, it was demotivating, and I felt I didn’t feel valuable, which was a common problem with my childhood as well, not feeling smart, intelligent and valuable. I think all the experiences I’ve had forced me to discover myself and my strengths. So I guess there are blessings in disguise in spite of how horrible the experiences were.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, as you tell me all of this. It starts to make perfect sense as to why you started your own studio back in 2001. If all of this is going on and you know in your mind that you can do this and you strike out on your own and do it, it makes perfect sense.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. And then keep in mind that I’m only starting with the little knowledge I knew then, right? I’m trying to sell a creative service or my talents. And without the business knowledge I have now, it wasn’t as great, but, yeah, I had to. I was like, “I can’t be these people. I can’t be that good student, that good employee, that anything. I need to show my value.” And that’s what I did. As you rightly said, I was forced to do that.

But it did help me get 9-to-5 jobs after, when I needed my sustainability sorted out. It was the freelance work that I did that got me the jobs, not my qualifications.

Maurice Cherry:

I didn’t go to design school. I got my degree in Math, and I worked jobs after I graduated, and I couldn’t get anything with a Math degree. I mean, one of my jobs –actually, I was still in school, but this was right after I graduated. I was working at the local symphony and art museum and stuff, like selling tickets. And I remember the day that I graduated. I had to go to work that evening. I still had an evening shift. And they had taken the calculator away from my station, because they have these little stations where people come in lanes and that’s where you sell tickets at. And they took my calculator away, and my manager was like, “well, you got a Math degree now, so you don’t need this.” And it’s like, just rub the salt deeper into the wound.

And the jobs I had after that were all, like, customer service type jobs. I did telemarketing for the opera. I was a customer service agent for AutoTrader, which is sort of like this used car marketplace kind of thing. And I was doing design stuff on the side. Like, I was going to the local Barnes and Noble bookstore and taking pictures because I couldn’t afford to buy the books because they were too expensive. I was, like, taking pictures in the books and then taking them back home and using my cracked version of Photoshop to try to teach myself how to make gradients. You know what I’m saying? How to do all this stuff. And my first design job was off of that. It wasn’t because I went to school for it or anything.

Yeah, it takes a lot of guts to strike out on your own like that. Especially that young. So my hat goes off to you for that.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I appreciate that. And just like you, I sort of learned design through jobs or freelancing because my father didn’t grow up in a time of…didn’t do work in a time of computers. So the first time I got a computer, I didn’t think Photoshop was even out yet. But when Photoshop came out, I dove right in. And this is the artistic knowledge that helped me with design. My knowledge of lighting and shadows and stuff like that. It helps me with design.

Some of the best designers actually studied art first. Whether they graduated or not is irrelevant, but they studied art first or they knew art first. But like you, it’s something I learned as well in my teen years, and said, put the best foot forward. I’m sure you’re familiar with that. So what you’re doing in terms of jobs, I consider that survival. But what you put up front when you get the opportunity is, I’m a designer, and that’s kind of what I did.

How I got into professionally doing design is like, yes, art, I’ll do whatever I need to do to survive. But when I’m really selling? I’ll never tell people I’m trying to work with that I’m an artist.

Maurice Cherry:

Now. You’ve worked with a ton of different clients, I’m sure, over the years. I mean, starting in 2001, you’ve worked with, I’m sure, dozens to hundreds of different clients. What are some of the projects that you’re the most proud of?

Phillip J. Clayton:

When I was in production entertainment, that was the first time I understood management, because the team left me in charge of an entire comedy tour for three days, meaning there’s no other management person there. They said they have to do another show, so they trusted me to do this one, and I did it. That was my first time, and I felt really proud of that because…I don’t know if you know Red Stripe Light, not the original red Stripe beer. They had created this light beer, and they were promoting it through this comedy tour. So I was literally traveling around with all the people that worked on the show, and I’m representing the creative side, the art team. So the set design, all of that, I had to ensure we had our plans and everything. I had to follow that three times, morning and evening. So set up, pull down for three days. I had to ensure that that show went on not just for live performance, but for television as well. So that was my first time.

My second one, which I think I’m most proud of, is how I got into brand design, was I helped to relaunch…I was one of the people that helped to relaunch the PepsiCo identity. 2008, Arnold Group Identity, here in Jamaica. I believe Guatemala had got the ownership at that time, so it was on their directive. But I left printing and went right into relaunching this new identity for PepsiCo America through PepsiCo Jamaica. And at first I was like, “can I actually do this? It’s intimidating.” But I was working with an agent, a small design house at a time, so the director there got a contract and we launched it off. But then I became the key person to maintain the brand standards, to make sure that everything went out. So now I’m learning about brand and understanding the value, financial value, and the value to the company, the importance of the brand. And we also rebranded a local Pepsi Jamaica water brand here. It was a full stack, like nine years. Whole nine years, we did it all. And that was the first time I really embraced this idea of brand design.

I was all around brands, but that’s when it moved from graphic design and, “oh, this thing is here, this is interesting” kind of thing. That was kind of the experience for me. So that’s my most proud career moment, I would say. It was a big responsibility and we did achieve the objectives. Yeah, to this day it still looks, when you look back at the work, it looks really good. And just to be part of that, I think just to say I worked on that, that’s something we’re proud of. Being in Kingston, Jamaica, that I actually worked on something, an international brand like that.

I’ll only mention one more. There are a few others. I can’t remember them all, there’s so many because I don’t have favorites. By the way, it’s very difficult to pick a favorite. My idea of favorites is that it’s too partial, I think, because every project I worked on, if I’m going to pick something that was really proud of, it had to be on the value and impact it had. So that’s why Pepsi is one of those. But every product I’ve worked on, when the solution comes together, that’s great for me. And I think they’re all great products, but in terms of magnitude, PepsiCo is one of those. The Guinness, I don’t know what year anniversary we had to wrap an entire entertainment location for the Guinness anniversary some years ago, so we wrapped it all in black with the gold logo, standing out and curated experience for the guest. From the dishes all the way up to the music. That’s another impactful project. But I guess more on the event side, less on the consumer experience side. But, yeah, PepsiCo is one that stands out to me this day. I think it was the launching pad for me.

Maurice Cherry:

Red Stripe. PepsiCo. I mean, those are two huge brands. It really sounds like those helped to…I think whenever you get a really big project or you get a really sort of visible project, it really cements personally that you’re on the right path. You know what I mean?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. It’s an acknowledgement that you are capable or you’re knowledgeable about this thing. And the fact that they even spoke to me or asked me, was something — was acknowledgment that I can actually help them. And I think that’s the most important part of any profession, is that you are not needed as much. So much so you’re wanted. I think wanted even in your personal relationships, when you’re wanted, is way better than being needed. And that’s what happened, is I was introduced. I’m often recommended for stuff. So that was a recommendation as well. I didn’t apply for it. I wasn’t looking for it. I didn’t know it even was happening. I was recommended for the project. So that was a great feeling for me.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Now, it’s funny you mentioned that about sort of how it’s this kind of validating thing, because now what you’re doing is probably a lot of validation for other creatives and creatives teams, which is you’re judging. You’re a brand and a marketing judge with PAc Global for their Leadership Awards. How did you first get involved with them?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I was invited; again, another form of acknowledgment. I was invited through LinkedIn by the CEO, actually, in 2018, I believe, which is also happening this year. Again, I think I mentioned that off. I’m currently judging designs right now, but I was invited. Interestingly, I wasn’t thinking about being a judge, but I used to give my own critiques. I didn’t want to share things on any social media platform alone. I wanted to actually give my view on it, and I started to do that so I’d write my review of the thing I shared. Whether it’s a package design or brand identity, I actually write my perspective on what was done, the goods, anywhere that fell short.

I think just because I did that consistently and still doing it today, is that it got his attention. And I think we connected before, sometime before. And he invited me to be part of the commission, which is a global commission, and PAC has been around since 1950. I’m the only Jamaican on there, by the way.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’m not sure if I’m the youngest. I’ll be 41 in December, so I don’t know if I’m the youngest, but I’m the only Jamaican on there. And I guess in many ways, everyone there is one person from their own countries as well. But because of the context of design and art in Jamaica, where it’s either traditional, there are some great people here, but you don’t really see it because everything dominates it. So being the only Jamaican in there, a small Caribbean island that’s really business-oriented, if I’m being honest with you, we’re known to be creative, but we’re mostly business. I think it’s a great stage for me to be on. Most Jamaicans don’t know that I have them on international stage just by being a member there. It’s a very proud moment.

I was invited on and I accepted, and it’s just been a great journey. But you learn from it. You have to be very objective. And I like to make sure that creative people understand that when you’re looking at design or art, you have to be. Critiques are supposed to be objective. Your subjective parts are there, but it’s really supposed to be an objective view. And that’s what the judging experience is, because you’d see something really amazing. And if you’re not careful, you end up giving that particular project really high marks, and then you realize “but then this other thing is here.”

So how do you judge these two things? They’re both great. So you have to really get into the objectivity of the design and the purpose behind it.

Maurice Cherry:

I was just about to ask this. It sounds like you’re kind of segueing into it. I’m also an awards judge, and I don’t think a lot of judges really talk about how they approach judging creative work. So I’m glad that you mentioned that objectivity. When you’re looking at work, especially now, since you’re in the middle of this judging process, how do you approach it? Do you have like a rubric, or are there certain things that you take into account as you’re judging creative work?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, generally as a professional courtesy, it also helps you with client work as well. There are criteria that you have in mind of what makes this project a great product or this design a great solution. The good thing is PAC, and I’m sure other judging commissions, they have their criteria listed out as well. And you’re really looking for these projects that meet. They’ve already narrowed down the entries anyway, so you’re judging what you’re given and you’re going to basically see if these projects meet these criteria. Outside of that, you also have to use your own judgment on how they meet the criteria. You’re allowed to write your review of the project so you can rationalize the decision in the context of maybe it met one criteria, it didn’t meet the other one, or maybe it did in a way that is not as upfront, but it actually meets the criteria. It’s actually achieving the objective it stated it was supposed to achieve.

So it’s always approaching it based on, for me personally, it’s about the design. For me, it’s function and then aesthetics is part of design, but it’s more on what I call emotional responses. The aesthetics is used to wrap up a design solution to make it appealing the human response, but the design has to function as intended. Or unlike art, where it’s subjective, design has to actually work. If it doesn’t work, then it just failed. So I use that as one of my criteria.

In terms of packaging design, I always look for shelf positioning. That’s the first point of contact a consumer has with the design is before they even touch it, what got their attention, what will get them to go and interact with this design. So I look for shelf positioning in terms of packaging design. And I guess you could translate that into other forms of design where…how do you get people to interact with this? I always look for the function. I understand things like simplicity is often misunderstood with minimalism, but it’s not. Minimalism is a philosophy, a way of thinking, and simplicity is the functional side. So my favorite types of designs are the ones that are the simplest. If they’re really simple and have great impact. I love that one. I actually use the word love, not in my critique, but I’m saying it here. The simpler design with a greater impact, that’s a great design for me. So I look for those things. But the commission has its own criteria that we use.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you gain from being an awards judge?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Professionally, the learning never ends, and I’m always looking to learn more, add more knowledge to what I have already. But there’s also a professional status with it. The fact that you’re judging designs mean that you’re somebody worth talking to. I think it’s a big responsibility that you should never take for granted. I mean, anybody that’s put in charge of judging anything should never take that for granted. But it should also mean that you are a worthy conversation regarding knowledge and teaching, passing on that knowledge.

The lessons in judging design is you have to separate yourself. Detachment is a great thing that you can learn from design, from judging. You have to detach yourself, your personal assumptions. It’s invaluable regarding your client work. The same experience of judging can be applied to client work, and that’s how it has helped me in a lot of ways. I can detach myself from my assumptions or what I like. I can also speak to the client differently. I can listen more, to listen and observe before and respond appropriately. I know this is the right way and this is how you should do this and do that. But when you’re judging things, none of that really comes into play.

Because now it’s not about you. And in your client work, it’s not about you. It’s about understanding what the intent of the client is regarding speaking to you. And they have to trust that you are somebody who can help them. You don’t have to know all the answers, but you should be able to, in a very short space of time, through a conversation, be viewed as an expert, a professional that can actually solve problems, that you learn that a lot from judging other people’s work. That comes from art school as well. Judging art, critiquing art is the same process. When you’re critiquing art, it’s not about what you like or don’t like.

It’s always about objectivity. And I think a lot of that’s missing from the client process. So that’s what I’ve definitely gained from know.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s interesting that you mentioned that about objectivity, because sometimes what will happen, and I don’t know if this is such the case with PAC Global, but sometimes awards are just sort of an extension of marketing for companies. Like they’ll just build it into their budget. Like whatever project they’ve got going on, they’ll just automatically submit them, not necessarily whether or not they fit within a particular category or they meet a certain standard level or things like that.

I often find that when I am — it depends on the competition I’m judging — but I’ll always see the same studios producing the same work, and then sometimes I’ll know the studio just from viewing the work. Like, I won’t even have to look at who it’s from. I’m like, “oh, this is from such and such because they use this exact same template with four different clients.” They just did a color swap and switched out typography or what have you. So, yeah, it helps to try to be objective about it, even when you can see what looks just like a lot of repetition, because for companies, they may not even be looking at the acclaim that they get from awards as something that has any other merit aside from just getting them more business.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. One of the reasons that I absolutely love packaging design is that it’s an extension of the brand, and it’s often one of the first point of contact for consumers. The unboxing experience for consumers is also a very tangible part of that whole design process. Technology, and I guess molds and stuff like that, can limit your packaging design capability, but creativity is found in the limitations, right? So if this is what you have to work with, then you find a creative way to leverage what you have. And that’s what packaging design. Well, great packaging design.

That’s what it does. It finds ways of making this mundane thing very interesting. It can be little changes, whether it’s the actual graphic design on it or is the type of cap, but it’s the same bottle. You can use the same container and do amazing things. And I know exactly what you’re talking about regarding templates because I’ve seen it outside of packaging. I don’t know all the judging. I’ve never been part of anyone. But in terms of designs that are shared on social media or case studies, there are some agencies that stand out, or some designers, because you cannot be so unique.

But it doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before, or they’ve leveraged something you’ve seen before in a much more interesting way. Packaging design with PAC, the submissions are always unique in that context of being unique, and that’s one of the best parts about it for me. The agencies, the clients — even clients submit their own packaging designs, or the agency submits it on behalf of them. So you get a diverse group of people submitting designs. We do have the big brands, obviously, and they may improve on something they already have out there. And you judge that, and that’s also a very valuable thing. But in terms of…my favorite part is either improvements on existing packaging designs from established brands or new products being launched from smaller agencies. They are very experimental on that side because they’re not as known as the big brands, but they submit some really interesting designs and it’s just exciting to see what they’ve done. Like, “oh, I didn’t know you could do that with this thing.”

And then we’re in an age of technology now, right? Packaging design is changing. We have the brand extensions moving beyond the package itself. What’s the consumer shopping experience like? So the ultimate goal in the end is to have the consumer have a great experience. So packaging design, for me is a great place to understand a lot about design, a lot about art, a lot about craftsmanship.

I only say this because you’ve mentioned that some of these agencies, the templates, you can tell who they are. Because if you have a style in design, I think you have a problem, because every strategy is supposed to be different, right? So if you have a style, it kind of means that you haven’t really giving different clients the same thing, doesn’t it? So, yeah, I like packaging design because it’s very difficult to be the same there. It’s just more difficult to stand out, more challenging. I don’t like saying hard. Difficult is a better word because hard probably means it’s never going to happen, but difficult means there’s a challenge to overcome there.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I think you also just have more opportunities for innovation with packaging design than you do for the web. For what it’s worth, it’s a kind of staid medium. That’s not to say that there isn’t innovation that exists, but I judge the PRINT Awards from PRINT Magazine. And I am amazed every year —

Phillip J. Clayton:

I love PRINT.

Maurice Cherry:

— at the new stuff that comes through. I mean, things that I never would have thought about in terms of how people have packaged certain things. And the good thing with PRINT is that it’s not just packaging design, but it’s also experiential design. So you can see how people have designed spaces like a gym or an office building.

And to me…I just really love it. I also judge podcasts, and if you want to talk about repetition and podcasting, I’m not going to say any names, but there’s a certain company that rhymes with “water bowl” that sweeps every year, and I’m just like, it’s the same stuff over and over. You got some celebrity to get behind the microphone and interview other celebrities. Like, where’s the innovation?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’m hoping to get into podcasts at some point. Maybe I’ll do something innovative there. But I love PRINT Magazine, by the way. That’s such a great experience to have. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s an opportunity to just see what other people are doing outside of, I think, you know, what people…. It’s interesting because design in and of itself is such a broad field, but depending on who you talk to, they may have a very narrow view of it. Like, if I tell people I’m a designer, it depends, I could ask five different people. I could tell that I’m a designer. They’ll think five different things. For a long time, when I would tell people I’m a designer, they thought it meant, “oh, so you do UX?” “No, yeah, I don’t do UX. I’m not a UX designer.” Like, I have to sort of qualify that, what that means to me, because I’ve dabbled in so many different types of design, and it’s all design, but the viewpoint is skewed, I think sometimes.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I think you need, I think, I hope I have it because I support it or advocate for it. A holistic view on design is required. A wider perspective, and then you narrow it down based on the purpose that you need it for. That’s when you get graphic design and UX design all these things. A graphic designer, for example, should have the understanding of animation as much as they do stills. I guess what you’re hired for is completely different, but you pay a graphic designer well who understands those two things. They’ll do it.

But if you want somebody who does animation specifically, hire an animator. But for some reason, when you say design, you’re a graphic designer. Everything on the two-dimensional plane comes to you, and it’s unfathomable to say, “oh, I don’t know how to do that.” Right? And it’s okay to not to know how to do that. It would be nice if you did. But design is, it’s a plugin. Most people see it as a plugin.

It’s like, let’s get something and plug it in here. So let’s get the graphic designer to do these ten things, because they are a designer, and design is a process. What makes a difference is the purpose, the intended purpose of going to a design process. Evidently, if you’re doing print, you want a graphic designer. Or if you’re on the execution side, you might want a print technician, but that technician might not be a designer. But they may understand design, and they may do a lot of why I like print, by the way, which is why I’m such a big fan. I worked in printing as well, is that the things I used to do, because of my artistic knowledge and design knowledge, I didn’t print nothing amazing. That’s all over the top.

But there are little things that I learned about the machines and ink levels and the pigments that I was able to achieve when I’m printing. And then the experimental side of it is like, how about we just not do it the way it’s supposed to be done, for example? Well, you don’t damage a machine. But what if I could turn something off here? And I did that and I got different results. So, of course, my dream at the time was to have my own machine so I could go experiment at home, right? But it’s pricey. But it was like, yeah, printing machine is supposed to print this and print that, but how do we use it in a creative way? What if I wanted to do an entire exhibition and printing? How can I make it interesting? That’s how my brain works. So the machine, I was always trying to experiment with it. What happens if I…because some machines actually recognize the layers in Illustrator, for example. So you get a different result depending on how much percentage of ink you put on it.

Because the machine that I was using anyway, it automatically printed layers and layers of color depending on what I have on the artwork itself. And then if you print a rastered image, like a JPEG or a TIFF file, it would do something completely different because the colors are not layered anymore, which was amazing to me. I’m like, how does a machine know that difference? By understanding those things, it’s an advantage, I think, in design, and that helps me. And I’m sure with your knowledge as well, even your customer service experience, you can actually do marketing. A lot of people started in door-to-door sales, like David Ogilvy, and then now he has his own agency.

It’s three, four things I look for is business, authority, opportunity, and time value. Four things, right? Yeah, I said four. Those I learned from a business, from somebody who does business. And I apply to my creative development as well and processes. It has to be a business. You have to have authority of it, and there must be an opportunity, and then you don’t want to waste your time on something that doesn’t meet those three things. So for me, design is just a holistic thing of value, process and impact. That’s how I look at it anyway.

Maurice Cherry:

So on your website, you mentioned — and I thought this was really interesting, especially given how this conversation has went. You said that you’re not a self made man. Who are some of the people that have kind of helped you reach your current level of success?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Oh, wow. It’s a very long list, but I can think of some key people. My very first professional experience while freelancing was when I went into production entertainment. My friend, she worked in the entertainment. She’s an architect, but she started a production company, and she used her knowledge in architecture to execute some brilliant event projects, and she became popular for it. What I learned from her was work ethic. She’s very meticulous about process, and I fell in love with process because of her. And I think my work ethic to this day, I would always give to her by working with her.

I learned from her other people. My last agency boss — or he’s a CEO now. I know his father’s around. At the time, I don’t remember his position, but he was essentially my boss. I learned from him how agencies are managed and how to handle client conversations.

And then there are the people that I never worked with, but just being around them. Michael Beirut said something. I think that’s why I did what I did was he said “hijack your mentors.” Because honestly, if I’m being honest, I didn’t know who to go to to get mentorship from, because what I was seeing was not anything that I wanted to necessarily learn from people. But when I got into the older I got, I realized I need to understand a lot of things, a lot about business and how agencies work. And I started hanging around people. A lot of my friends are way older than me because I learned from them, whether they’re bosses or project managers, that I was a part of a project. I learned from people like that. I learned from clients. I learned from going to unknown territory with clients, learning about their industry, learning how they manage their employees, learning how to have the client conversations with their clients. So I observed them talking to their clients. You learn from different people. It’s just that we don’t often don’t pay attention to it. And everybody goes to this self-made thing. I just one day said, “well, that doesn’t make any sense.” You can’t really be self made. You may put a lot of effort in yourself. Yes, because nobody’s there. You’re doing the work.

But what happened to me was that I said I don’t think I would be anywhere I am and where I’m going without the people that I worked with or the relationships that I’ve made over the years. When I looked at the value that I’ve learned from all these people, I said, there’s no way I can be a self made man. And I started to detest that statement. I guess I can’t say for sure if there’s actually no one out there who’s self made. I don’t know. But I think even entrepreneurs get help along the way. And I guess that help isn’t acknowledged. But I believe that you cannot be self made.

And I guess I just applied it to myself. My website is a bit of satire in terms of narcissism. It’s not seriously narcissistic, but at the same time, I wanted to have people understand how I perceive the professional space and my knowledge. So I put it up there. But it was mostly people I’ve worked with. That’s why I said that.

And I obviously put my father in there. My mother, I learned from both of them. My mother was the one who really gave me that drive that I have now. I think she is a trooper. She’s not somebody who gives up easily. So she taught me as well about discipline. And she told me, any job I’m doing, I should always do my best, even if it’s a horrible job, because you never know who’s watching. So stuff like that stuck with me.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s funny, when I saw that on your site, it reminded me of…this was way back in high school. I had a…I guess it’s like a senior book. Like, there would be these organizations like Jostens or whatever, right? They try to sell you all this stuff leading up to graduation. Like, buy these invitations, buy this tassel. But I have a senior book, and I went back and looked through it recently, and I was…God, I was so angsty in high school. But there was a quote that I had in there that was like, “I’m a self-made man. Who else would help?” Or something like that. So when I saw that on your site, I was like, “you’re not a self made man. What’s that about?”

Phillip J. Clayton:

When we’re in the challenge, or the journey? It’s easy to say that because I deal with depression. And I’m only saying that to create and illustrate something. When you have an episode of any mental challenges, mental health issues that you may have when you’re in an episode, it’s not that you don’t know what to do. You just can’t seem to find that will or ability to get up and do what you need to do to get out of it. So no matter how somebody tells you to do something: “You need to start doing this. When you’re depressed, try these things.” All these things take practice. But no matter how much they tell you, you just can’t do it until you make the first move to do it and you start to do it. And what happens is that over a period of time of learning things and doing them and becoming proficient at them, you cheer yourself because it was difficult, right? And in your context, I’m assuming in high school, that being great, your great experience, you probably wrote that because you had to do a lot of stuff yourself.

I think that’s what happens. And we tend to block out the external forces, whether good or bad. Even some bad experiences contribute to your progressive movement. Right. It’s at least, at very best, it tells you, oh, I don’t want that experience. So you make different decisions, right? So I look at everything. I look at the good and bad. I don’t believe in trying to kill fair. I think that’s illogical. I think negative and positive energies are supposed to be balanced. You can’t really get rid of one or the other. When one is given more power or energy, it throws off the balance. So these things is what I think about. So I was like, there’s no way it’s after a maturity. Of course, this is something that you need as well. So I guess my maturity came into play here and I said, “what does it mean to be self made?” And you started to process that and you started to think and you’re like, “yeah, I got help with that thing.”

Should I be grateful for the jobs I had? Would I be here? I don’t know. I think about these things all the time. But I have to kind of…should contextualize it because you just said something that, yeah, when you’re in high school or along your journey, especially when you’re younger, you’re probably putting a lot of effort in trying to get what you want out of this world. So it does feel like you’re self made because sometimes people don’t see your vision and what you’re trying to do. But at the same time, I believe in being fair. And life isn’t fair, unfair: it’s indifferent, or it just is. But we can decide the fairness of that experience. And I think to be fair, we would have to start acknowledging all the people that has helped us along the way.

They may not have helped us build our companies or build our careers, but even my college experience, it was great. But I did learn some things from it. I have to be fair about that. I learned how to critique, for example, I never learned critiquing at home. I think it’s giving the chair to the things that help you to get where you are. And I’d go too extreme and say, on a bad day, if a store was open on a public holiday and I was able to buy something that cheered on my day, I’m going to thank that person.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. So what keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Reading philosophy. Gratitude. Each morning I wake up, I always make an effort to spend a few minutes with my mind, whether it’s meditating or a prayer of some kind. I think it’s just a tone for the day. My mind goes into a place where I can deal with any challenges that show up. And it’s always easy but it’s really starting each day with gratitude. I’m reading a lot of books on…I guess I could call them the schematics of living. So I found this balance where it’s setting a vision. That’s what drives me.

I have a vision of what I want to achieve each day and the months in the years and so forth. So I think setting three goals at least each day, is what I do, and that motivates me to get things done because it induces fulfillment, I think. Is it a Chinese philosophy somewhere there? I can’t remember the exact philosophy, but it’s something about not trying to do everything all at once and setting smaller objectives, not try to achieve the big ones unless you can.

So reading is part of my objective each day, to read at least a chapter of something, to review work, to have a conversation with somebody, just setting daily objectives, waking up gratitude, setting daily objectives. And the reading definitely helps. I’m motivated by my vision mostly though, that’s my biggest drive, is I would endure great pains to achieve it, I think.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t doing this kind of work?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Wow. I’d love to have been in the sciences because I did pretty well in it. I like developing theories and experimenting with things, understanding how they work. I would hope that if I was able to be in the sciences, particularly biology or neuroscience, I’m an explorer. Archaeology was on the list at one point too. Yeah, my first desired job was as a child was to work with a Red Cross actually, but I didn’t know how to even do that. And I think I found out that you had to fund yourself part of it. I don’t remember. But yeah, I would like to be doing something that has impact on our society, I guess. Or humans.

I’m hoping design is doing that in some way, but yeah, science in some way or some humanitarian thing, as long as I can sustain myself. I like to definitely be involved in something like that.

Maurice Cherry:

To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like, what do you want the next chapter of the Phillip J. Clayton story to look like?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’d like to be recognized or acknowledged as an authority in my disciplines or the field that I’m in. I’d like to know that I’ve had great impact through that discipline, whether it’s our society, whether through technology or something I’ve written just being conversations that are larger, that are beyond my skill sets. I like my thinking to be beyond everything that I do because I think that’s the ultimate point of self awareness and enlightenment is to be someone that people recognize as some kind of philosopher. I guess I would say I just want to be an authority in my field. I don’t know if authority sounds very aggressive. I’m not trying to say like this egotistical authority. What I mean by authority is that I have contributed something as an expert to the industry that’s worth something to a lot of people, that they would also come to me as a source of voice, of knowledge or something. What that means, obviously, is not just, I’m not going to go sit on a chair and counsel people.

What I mean is being an authority means that even my work should be reflecting that in a different way in five years. The type of work I do, type of conversations I have, I think being an authority establishes your prowess, professional prowess, in any industry you’re in.

Maurice Cherry:

I hear that. I mean, I think it’s certainly something where…and it’s funny, I think you definitely are at that point already. Like I’m wondering because you’re judging and you’re doing all this work, what do you think it would take for you to reach that sort of level of authority that you’re talking about?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Definitely through the work. I’m trying to do different types of work now, work with different type of clients. You’re right. I’ve been told that I am in an authoritative position at the moment. My value is strong and high. I guess it’s what Bruce Lee said: “be happy, but don’t be satisfied”…or something like that. Meaning that you should always deserve to be greater than you are, but be happy with what you have. I guess that’s where I’m coming from. It’s not greed.

It’s like, as long as I’m alive even if…I have a question. You asked about what else would I be doing if I wasn’t doing this. I make statements like this, and I don’t mean to be extreme, but I do make statements like this to my friends. And anybody that asks, is that if I can’t get to do what I want to do, I’d rather be dead. And I don’t mean that from a…I hope I’m not putting the wrong words out there. It’s not that if I can’t do it, I’m going to go die. It’s just, what is the point? If I’m not doing this, if I’m not doing what I’m doing, then why live? So it’s kind of like, be useful.

I think every human being desires to be useful in some way. And then when they don’t have that use or purpose, it’s hard to live. You start figuring out how to survive and you just never leave that place of survival. It’s like you’re always trying to find a reason to live. And I think purpose gives you that reason to live. So that’s my purpose, is to achieve that kind of level of authority where I don’t even have to go look for clients anymore. I would like to be in innovation, some R&D kind of process. If NASA had a creative department, for example, I’d probably want to be there.

I guess I would say this professionally. I like to be in a place where there’s a seamless process of innovation, R&D and innovation that leads into the brand design process and ultimately contributing to advertising and marketing output, adding meaning to the consumer — the consumer experience; people — the experience people have shopping or engaging in government services or anything. I like to innovate those things because the end user for me is always something important in our process. That’s who we’re creating for. Design is supposed to be having positive impacts on the lives of people. No matter what form is in. The only reason you’re doing it is because you’re trying to change something for an end user somewhere. And I guess that’s the kind of authority I want, is where I can develop something that changes the industry also, I guess, in how we work with people, I’ve been told, actually I’m a thought leader.

I’m not really clear on that definition yet, because I hear it used a lot. I think of myself as a practicing philosopher more than a thought leader, but maybe it’s the same thing, I don’t know. But somebody once called me a thought leader.

Maurice Cherry:

I think the difference between that and this may be something that you’re already doing, but if you’re thinking of how to take the next steps to try to get there, it’s really all about — and this is, I mean, from a design standpoint, it sounds silly — but it’s all about writing and sharing your work.

Phillip J. Clayton:

That’s so…that’s well said.

Maurice Cherry:

Like people…I think of folks like Frank Chimero, Steven Heller, etc. I mean, they’re well known as designers, but they’re also well known as sort of just writing and talking about the craft. You know, Mike Montero is another one, for example. That sort of…I think to me, when I think of thought leader, and I think also just in terms of how your work spreads beyond the visual medium, how it spreads beyond, you know, a campaign or some sort of a visual project: writing is the way that I think that happens.

Phillip J. Clayton:

That is absolutely correct. I think even Blair Enns — not think, I know even Blair Enns shares that. He actually says in his book that the expert should write. And I started writing. I’m sure you think I probably shared that with you. You see them on my website. I’ve written articles and I’ve written other things, but writing, being somebody dyslexic, I didn’t see myself writing this much or reading this many books.

I used to detest both of those things growing up, but it was because I didn’t think I was smart enough to do it. But now I buy so many books and read them, and I don’t just read them, I actually put them into practice and I write. And you’re absolutely correct on that. We should write. That’s what professionals should be doing. That’s how you establish yourself. That’s absolutely correct. You have to write a thesis or theory or opinion we should be writing.

And that’s why I like to do case studies. I like to write out the experience. Everything else that follows that really is just the know, oh, we developed this philosophy, and here is the brand identity from that philosophy, that kind of thing. So you’re absolutely correct in that we should write.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, Phillip, where can our audience find out more information about you, your work, your writing? Like, where can they find all that online?

Phillip J. Clayton:

So the first place, I guess I’d say, because I have all the social media links I believe on there is pjclayton.com, my primary website. Outside of that, you can go directly to LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And it’s always Phillip J. Clayton. Phillip with two L’s. J. Clayton. And I think if you hashtag it too, somewhere there, I have hashtags for them too. PJClayton. Phillip J. Clayton. P-J-C.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good.

Phillip J. Clayton. Thank you for…I mean, such a wide-ranging and expansive interview. I feel like we went in like a dozen different places from your first interview, talking about branding, to this interview, which is certainly more just kind of personal about you and your upbringing and how you got to where you are now. I really do feel like that level of thought leader that you’re talking about. I think you’re already there, and I hope that this interview will help to elevate you to get further to that, because I really think that with everything that you’ve talked about, with everything that you’ve done, you’ve got all the components. Like, you put in the work. I think we’re right around the same age. You said you’re 41, right?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, I’ll be 41 in December.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m 42 now. So we’re right around the same age. So I know the work that goes into it to sustain yourself this long in this creative industry. And you said one thing before we started recording, that you have sort of these six rules for a quality life experience. You were like: disciplined, patient, kind, acceptance, forgiveness, and letting go. Look, that can be your philosophical bent to taking yourself to that thought leader status. But I’m really excited to see what else you come up with in the future, man. So thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I appreciate it.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Thank you so much. I enjoyed it. It was, I think, my deepest conversation on a podcast. Most of it’s really about work, so I really enjoyed it. I appreciate the compliments and the chair. I do look forward to what’s next. And likewise, same to you. This is a…I don’t know if a lot of people know it, but since you’ve shared it with me through the invitation, being part of the Smithsonian Archives is a brilliant position to be in from a content perspective. I never knew that was something that could happen, and I want to celebrate you for that.

Maurice Cherry:

Thank you. I appreciate that.

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Phillip J. Clayton

Phillip J. Clayton is a design voice that you need to know. The Kingston-based creative is a strategic advisor, an international design judge, and an expert on branding. We talked for hours about his career and his philosophies on branding and life, so I split this episode into two parts just to make sure nothing got lost. If you’re interested in branding, then get ready for a masterclass!

Our conversation started off with a check-in on this year, and then Phillip shared his goals about being seen as a facilitator and about tackling complex problems and making a meaningful impact. We also talked about how he started his own company PJClayton & Co., the client-vendor relationship, and Phillip dropped a ton of knowledge about his creative process, brand purpose, and the power of extracting valuable information from conversations. (Kind of like what you’re doing with this episode!)

Tune in next week for Part 2! Happy Thanksgiving!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’m Phillip J. Clayton and I’m a brand consultant, a strategic advisor and an international design judge. I focus on brand design and development. I’m a writer. I write articles, copywriting, etc. I focus on art and design holistically as a foundation for advertising and marketing. And I’m usually hired as a creative director. I do have a consulting company called PJClayton and Company.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay, we’ll talk about all of that, certainly. But if you could use three words to sum up what this year has been for you so far, what would those words be?

Phillip J. Clayton:

So…agony is definitely part of that. I did agony…awareness. And enlightenment.

Maurice Cherry:

Agony, awareness, and enlightenment. That sounds like the hero’s journey.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, well, I’m hoping it will be.

Maurice Cherry:

Have you given thought to what you want to accomplish next year?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yes, I have. That’s the awareness part. I’ve discovered things about myself personally and professionally. So next year I would like to actually be more focused on becoming what I label a fixer, not necessarily a facilitator. I went into consulting for that reason. I would like to be more on the consulting side and looking at complex problems. They’re usually very impactful. So I like to focus on complex problems with larger corporations, I guess.

And the reason for that is the impact it can have both in this, like in their specific industries or on a societal level, regarding the thinking and the approach to sustainability and marketing behind that internal change. Right? I’d like to focus more on that regarding innovation — R&D — there are a lot of things out there, and the unsolved. Most of them that I can think of, they’re unsolved. They’re worth a lot of money as well. So it does benefit me to sustain that focus if I’m able to sustain myself doing it.

Maurice Cherry:

In your eyes, how is a consultant different from a facilitator then? Because you really sort of try to make that shift.

Phillip J. Clayton:

For me, a facilitator? Well, generally, to my knowledge, a facilitator would normally broker two parties together. I guess the ideal between two parties or to facilitate one party to another, or they find a way to accommodate something else, to align it with another thing. The consultant to me is more of a fixer. And that was something. The word fixer in this context I learned years ago, I think it was on a movie or something. But it intrigued me because I always had this desire to be someone so important that I’m only called when I’m needed. And it’s usually for something that nobody can solve. No, I’m not the only one, obviously, on the planet, but it’s kind of like that being the only one kind of thinking behind it, where you get called in because you are the only person who can fix this problem.

And a consultant, to me, is that because consulting is a form of therapy, in my opinion, where we have to…the execution is the last step of everything. The consultant listens to people, a client I guess you could say, and they have to diagnose a problem and make a prescription to that problem or symptom. A facilitator doesn’t really do that. The consultant…actually, this is why the time is so important that they spend with each client. That’s why if you’re really narrow in your focus, you probably don’t have as many clients as a company that’s serving a wider market. You’re probably working with very few clients. But those clients are really valuable, not just in the work they do, but also in the financial gain that you get from it and they get from you helping them. It’s really a form of therapy because a lot of times the problems that they come to you with are not what is not what they say it is by listening to them and allowing them to speak and asking specific questions, great questions that lead to answers, because we don’t always know the answers either. It’s just the information that we can extract from the conversation that builds trust. And then the client reveals themselves to you and you realize, “oh, there’s either a personal issue here or there’s actually a deeper company problem here.” And what most company owners will do is because there is this cliched response, especially in brand. Our brand is a solution, is that they will come with a list of requests that they believe will solve the problem for their company. And this could be anything from a little new logo or website or rebrand, something aesthetic or surface level, I call it. But those things are results of deeper processes.

So that’s kind of how I view the consultant regarding a fixer as opposed to a facilitator.

Maurice Cherry:

I want to talk about your company, which you mentioned earlier, PJ Clayton & Co. And I think it’s important to note that you started that 22 years ago, which is fascinating. My hats off to you for your longevity of keeping it going all this time. What made you decide to start your own company?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Irony is the life experience. I actually didn’t want the company. I just wanted to be recognized when I was younger.

Well, let me rephrase it. In my mind, a company requires employees. That’s what I knew back then. I didn’t really want that, but I said, I need to be respected as a professional, and I need a name for that. And during my college years, which started in 2001 — if remember I that correctly…yeah, 2001 — I was freelancing before college. You’re doing side projects. I just left high school like a year before, and I’m just getting hired by people who knew I could do graphic design or art or anything creative that I could do. People are hiring me to help them. These were really small jobs, but I always had this thing growing up in the house I grew up in, which was with my father being my first door to the world on design and all that.

At a very young age, I had this image of myself, even at that age I fell in love with, like, movies and advertising, or anybody, if it is an advertising agency, or architecture or some kind of design firm. I was fascinated with that thing, not necessarily the movie itself. And I always had this perception of myself that I wanted to become someone so valuable.

And that’s where it started. I said, “well, one day I would like to have a global firm.” I think my name, PJ — the J — is important. That’s how people find me. So I added the J in there. I’m talking like twelve years old here. I’m writing. My first logo was done around that age, too, which was hand drawn, because what, my father? That’s the era he’s from. Everything was hand done, not computers. I learned from him. I didn’t know what a logo was. I didn’t know what graphic design was. I just saw him doing stuff, and I’m like, “he’s getting paid. This is fun.” And I started at that age, sketching out my logo, which was PJC. I didn’t think about the Phillip J. Clayton part of it yet. I was just like, “PJC represents me. That’s my name, my acronym.” What’s that word for that again? It’s not an acronym. What do you call it? Yeah, no, something more language related, I can’t remember. Initials. Is that what we call it? Initials?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, we can call it initials.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. Right. So that’s what I knew growing up. My initials. I didn’t know what a logo was. My father used to sign his work with PJC or PJ Clayton as well. He has a J as well. But he’s Paul and I’m Phillip, so we had the same initials.

As I got older, I started to discover all these things about design. And then Letraset. He had Letraset books, art history books. And I’m just reading through — being dyslexic, when I say “reading through”, I’m really looking at what I can understand. And I realized that there is the typography and this thing called advertising. And he used to do mockups that he presented to clients by hand. He’d build the actual billboards, miniature versions of them, and he understood color separation, for example. That was a manual process back then. And I just started falling in love, and I said, “I want to be the person who knows all of this stuff.”

I wanted to become an admin. This is before I even knew about David Ogilvy. I said I want to be an admin. I want to be some kind of…I don’t remember if I used the word “consultant” at that age. And by the time I was in my teens going to college, that’s when I started to freelance, I guess you’d say, officially, while I’m in college under Phillip, it used to be Phillip Clayton. And I added the J because I said, I need to stand out a little bit here. The more I got involved in projects, I started to have this awareness of how the world works. And I said, “I need to have a company.” It wasn’t a company at the time. It was just Phillip J. Clayton Creative. I think I had it at the time. And it was short of PJ Clayton Creative and worked with that for a while.

And then this one that you’re currently looking at, Phillip J. Clayton. I mean, PJ Clayton and company. That one happened last year when I was pivoting myself. When I finally said, “this is it”. I think I know who I am now and what I want to focus on. And so PJ Clayton and company is the newest iteration of that.

But it’s always been PJC. It’s always been something of that. I have logos. I have, like, I think six versions of this logo. This is the most current and pleasing one for me. I wanted to have something that represented me professionally, and I still wanted to maintain my individuality as a person, where I should be able to walk into meetings in corporate offices without having to become what people expect me to become, I guess, for those meetings. So it wasn’t very important that I maintained Phillip in some way.

And I think it was like five years ago, someone saw that name that Phillip J. Clinton on LinkedIn, actually. And they said, “oh, that’s a very prestigious name.” And that’s when I said, “oh, I’m changing this company. He’s going to be PJ Clayton & Company now.”

Maurice Cherry:

Hey, other companies do it all the time. They change up logos, they change their names around. So it sounds like you already sort of had that foresight.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, from childhood, like I said, I was always thought highly of myself, but I was dyslexic. So even thinking of myself as smart and intelligent was not my strongest attribute. I guess the self confidence, well, externally was low, but in my head I was very confident, and I knew what I wanted from a very young age. It was “you’re going to be a famous artist or you’re going to be in advertising” — that much I knew.

Maurice Cherry:

What were those early days of the company like? I mean, you started back in 2001. You were still in school. What were you doing?

Phillip J. Clayton:

It was just me. I had no concept of hiring people for help at that time. It was just me and some friends of mine. They work in production, the production entertainment industry, and I started working with them. It was mostly on our art direction and set design. I basically helped them with the graphic side of things. I get paid for that. And then I slowly worked my way into becoming into the management side where they start asking me to manage a whole production by myself: stage, set up, everything. Making sure everything looks good for either the TV screen or a concert. Also worked on music videos. So there’s a lot of art and graphic applications from my side. That’s why they wanted me to work with them.

I was doing all of that as myself, and that’s really the foundation of the company where I was known as, or I was dubbed as, a great graphic designer or an artist. So it was a lot of projects like that. It was either logo work or some kind of art consulting thing where I would use my artistic knowledge to help on something. On a visual. As a visual component.

Yeah. So that was the early days, but as a starting point of my official professional career.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, if you look from then to now, what are some ways — and I mean, you’ve sort of already talked about your personal journey growing as a creative — but what are some ways that the company has kind of changed from then to now?

Phillip J. Clayton:

There’s a dramatic change. I have partners now. I’ve narrowed myself into brand consulting. The clients are different. I mean, I’m between corporate startups and the industries are diverse. It’s fintech. So I’m actually solving business problems now. That’s a big difference there, as opposed to then being a creative service, as opposed to a company that has a creative service.

It’s flipped around now. What’s happened over the years is that I now focus on actual business problems. So I’m a business that offers creative services, but I align it all to a business objective or problem. So it has more impact now as a company and myself as a professional. The partners that I have, or people…clients that I work with, are way more, I guess, grown up. You’d say there’s an adult version of the company now where we’re having serious conversations, having fun about with what we do. Yes, but it’s really trying to have that impact on someone’s company who’s asking for help becoming an industry voice.

As someone once said, I’m speaking on behalf of the company when I communicate anything online. And now there’s this responsibility. It’s like you feel responsible now in regarding or accountable for anything that you say and do. There’s this thing behind me that I need to protect. And I guess that’s the big difference now from then, back then it was, “oh, I want to be creative and make a lot of money” and that’s it.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s say like you have a new project that’s coming into you, like a new branding project. What does your creative process look like? Because I imagine there might be steps that you have to take to sort of transform that client’s vision into a brand identity.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Oh, absolutely. This is a diagnosis, part of the whole process that, well, once anyone engages me of interest, I have to ensure that one: I can actually help them. I can actually solve, or at least I have a process of how to solve it and then I have to align myself if it’s something that is where we are good fit. But once that happens, let’s say it goes well and we are actually going to work together. That process starts with assessing the company, the business development, product development and management. There’s usually probably a brand audit as well where they are in the market and are they okay in the market, should we point them in a different direction? But we have to start with assessing the company and what it offers. And process mapping is part of that, where we identify what happens when a customer is engaged on what happens at that point and then when the engagement ends, what happens after. So you identify these points, pain points or points of leverage. And a lot of times the process of helping that client is not necessarily always going to be on branding.

They may come for that, but it turns out that they need to redo their marketing or we need to do their business management. But in terms of creative process, it’s going to start with. I try not to, first of all, do research until I’ve been given the information or because I don’t want to taint that perception. And then once I have that, I observe that thing, whether it’s a product or the company itself, whatever I receive, I try to observe that from an ignorant place where I have no idea what this is, but who would buy it kind of thing or what’s the value of this thing that I’m looking at. So you have to understand how it works. And this is why I look at a company, you have to understand how the company works. Then you can go into the strategy of how to represent that value and leverage it as on the brand side. So the process is usually going to start with business.

It has to, in my opinion…I always start there. There’s conversation therapy. That’s the part where I am…it’s where I sit with the client and we have these conversations that lead into the development process. I mean, of course, you have to make sure your agreement is mutual regarding timelines and objectives. And I tend to ask this, by the way, I learned from my lawyer, “what’s your pain threshold” and “what’s the results you’re looking for?” Those two questions are really very good questions to start with.

Maurice Cherry:

Your pain threshold. Yeah, talk to me a little bit about that. What do you mean by that?

Phillip J. Clayton:

It’s a way of identifying what that client is willing to do to get the result they’re looking for. Because a lot of times people try to charm me for some reason. You know what I mean? They try to impress you with how much money they have or money is not an issue, or “we want to be different and bold.” Oh, I love that one. They always come with that one.

Maurice Cherry:

Everybody wants to be bold. Everybody. Every client wants that.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. And there’s this unique thing and it’s like, what I’ve learned is that no matter how complex a problem is or how unique it is to the client, it’s not that unique on a wider viewpoint or industry viewpoint, but it’s unique to that client. No matter how similar, it’s always going to be unique to that client and that company. But bold and different, distinctiveness, differentiation, fine. But when they say they want to be bold and different, it’s not a well thought through statement, because there’s risk to that. And unless you’re willing to take that risk, you can only be so unique in this sea of sameness, right? But you can definitely stand out with distinctive marketing and branding and all that, or how you represent yourself. If you have something different about a product in a competitive market space, then, yeah, you can differentiate that, but it’s to be bold.

Boldness. I love boldness. It goes against fair, which is different from being brave. I think bravery is a product of boldness. But when they come to me like that and I look at the company, this is why I assess the company, I assess the market, I assess their thinking. You’re learning about the management, the owners, you’re learning how they think, what they like, what they don’t like. That’s what conversation is about. So the pain question is to find out or identify what they’re willing to do to achieve it.

And they can tell me when it’s a pain threshold, like, well, they’re willing to do whatever it takes or, yeah, we don’t want to rock the boat too much. You get those things when you ask a question, right? You start getting the real answers, right? Then based on that you say, well, what’s the result you’re looking for? By the way, I learned it from a divorce lawyer. That’s what she asked, because she said, you’d be surprised. These two parties are, when they really go in with that aggressive approach and they want this and they want that and they realize, well, you’re not willing to do anything for this because relationships, it’s complex, right? So yeah, they want to hurt the other person, but what they really want is justice. In the end. They both want justice, right? That’s where the question came from. So what do you want in the end of this? What are you hoping to achieve at end of this process? And once the pain is threshold, what are you willing to do to get it?

Maurice Cherry:

When you look at a brand or a brand design, are there key elements that you try to put into this design that really make it memorable? I would imagine those probably stem from that conversation like you talked about before.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Always. The value of the brand is really what it represents or who it represents. So what you put into that is meaning. People add meaning to things. When it’s symbols, so that’s what a philosophy is for; what I call brand philosophy. I didn’t come up with it; that don’t mean I called it that way. I need to have that information, that knowledge that helps me or the team working together to develop a philosophy. This represents the thinking inside the company or the ownership. For people to feel valuable on any team, they need to have that accountability that without them, this won’t work. So there has to be a philosophy for this company that the brand now would express as the philosophy that this is their belief system. Right? That’s what people buy into a lot of times, whether it’s in religion or not.

I use religion a lot in conversation because it’s a great example of what a brand is and the belief systems are and how people buy into it, getting vested interest. So I have to have a brand philosophy. And then what you do is you make a declaration, so the manifesto comes out. You make a statement as a company and a brand, or you make a statement that this is who we are, this is what we’re about, and it’s based on this philosophy. So when I look at brands and I’m observing them, yeah, you’re going to see the aesthetic stuff first, service level stuff.

These are functional assets, I call them, because the very good ones are usually from a really deep philosophy. And the results of that is something so simple and powerful. When I see too much effort in the visual, I’m not usually very impressed with that because it means that you’re trying to convince something that’s probably not there. When I see a simple symbol and a really distinctive, confident visual language and architecture to a brand, I know that this company is something that I need to pay attention to.

For example, and that’s what happened, as an example I could give you was when PepsiCo, Mauro Porcini did the PepsiCo design innovation. I think it was 2012, they never had that before. That changed PepsiCo completely as a corporation. How they go about their business and their marketing. Design innovation at PepsiCo added deep meaning to the brand itself because it tells me what their focus is, it tells me what their thinking is or how they perceive their market and the customers in that market. So I look for those things. I look for deep meaning behind the logo, I look for deep meaning behind the communication. And I think that’s because of myself. I think I tried to say less and speak more. I hope I’m doing that now. Sorry. I like to speak less and say more. That’s what I meant to say. Because I think that’s one of the most powerful positions you can have when you don’t have to explain anything, urge to explain anything. If a company can do that, then, I mean, if the brand can do it for a company, then you’re really powerful. So I look for that. I look for less communication, more visual communication, less explanation, less wordy. And visual means typography as well, but less wordy, less explaining everything to me. I just want to see it because the logo is what I’m supposed to see. I’m supposed to see your whole story.

And then the logo is supposed to intrigue me enough that I want to know more. And that’s where we pour meaning into brands, because the brand actually forms when that experience ends. Anything that you have in your mind now after that experience is what the brand does to you.

Maurice Cherry:

How have you sort of seen brand design evolve, like over the past 20 years? I mean, we of course now have AI, we’ve got machine learning and all these sort of things, the way that technology has sort of infiltrated a lot of the creative industry, but then we also have changing consumer behaviors. I’m thinking particularly in the U.S. — I’m sure this is different internationally, just based on economies — but there’s been ups and downs and waves of how people spend money, what people spend money on, what people even value from a brand. How have you seen things evolve over the years?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’ve seen both sides of that. Good and bad, I guess, or horrible. I know it’s bad or good, there’s pleasant and there’s this horrible experience I’ve seen over at least ten years, is that with automation, the objective changes.

For some reason, the brands that are paying attention, their core values didn’t change, their philosophy didn’t change, what they did was change how they interacted with their consumer and society in a whole. For example, the shopping experience, waste management, these things also all add up to what the brand represents because the company has to do these things. So that’s one, I guess, favorable experience on the brand side. The other side is that it has opened up a whole new services on what a brand is and what the process of brand design and development is. Because I rarely if ever use the word branding as a process.

I specifically say brand design and development because branding for me isn’t actionable — it’s under that process of brand design and development. Branding is a stage of the process where you start to develop these assets that represent and communicate for the company. But because of technology, what’s happening now is that…I’m sure you’re aware of a lot of on-demand services are out and what they’re doing is titled branding. Visual design. Visual identities, for example, have somehow become a separate thing from the brand design process. I don’t know how that happened where people are actually doing visual design as a service and I’m thinking, “how do you get there without the brand design process?” So when you go into on-demand services, what you’re doing is…I can pay you less money because clearly you’re billing by time, which I don’t do, but you’re not really providing a valuable solution.

Now I’m not saying that smaller companies or startups who don’t have a big capital can’t start like that. Sometimes you just want to get the company out and if you focus on doing good business, the brand will form anyway. If you’re going to go into brand as a service and you’re expecting a certain result, then it’s probably not the best move to go on-demand. It’s probably better to focus on your business and just hold off on the development of the things like logos and whatnot. You can just register a company name and communicate as a company. Your brand will form and then obviously you made some money at this time and you can do it now you have a proper process, you have an understanding of what your company does and how people perceive you. But what I’ve seen with brands is that…I won’t say the entire brand landscape is like this, but there are some brands that are aligning themselves with deep and meaningful experiences for the consumer. They’re looking into how to make the seamless process of shopping and acquiring their products in a more sustainable way. Obviously there’s financial incentives there once a consumer buys into your thinking. The other side is that there are brands who are aligning themselves to trends. And we saw this when the pandemic came, when everybody started changing…well, a lot of people started changing their messaging. You’re now changing your core value. This is a philosophy — again, you have to have a philosophy that you stick to. It has to be something that you can adapt to environments in, but it doesn’t change your philosophy.

You’re only adapting how you do what you do, but not the philosophy of it, not your core values. That’s what I have seen happening regarding most brands is that they’re aligning themselves to trends and the consumer is dictating a lot about how they do things, and that’s fine. But at some point you have to stick to what you believe in and the consumer gets over it. We saw that with Nike and Kaepernick where Nike just stuck through, right? And I think that’s the most important part, is not to adjust the brand to fit with these trends, whether — and I mean this on a deep level — whether it’s with social movements or activism or anything, do not change your brand to fit that.

If I’m selling shoes, that’s what my company does, then my brand represents a company that sells shoes. And the background, I can support these organizations, but I should not be marketing them up front where I have a company with a brand that supports, I don’t know, some social movement and that has nothing to do with my business unless you build it into your brand like Patagonia. I think they are very open and upfront. It’s part of their brand philosophy. So unless you have that, I don’t see a hardware company to not sell certain tools, to align themselves with some kind of trend. A hardware company is a hardware company. The more tools or lumber they sell, the more money they make. What they can do now as a brand is that they can use that money, I guess, from your profits or whatever they used to choose to use to support some kind of social cause.

Do that, but don’t label it as your brand purpose, is what I’m saying. Don’t get up and say “our brand purpose is to support this cause.” Your brand purpose is to represent your company. That’s what a brand purpose is. That’s what has changed; brand purpose is not a new thing, and the brand no longer serves the purpose that it’s supposed to serve. It’s now serving human social causes or needs, or it’s not representing the companies effectively because they’re changing the meaning behind what a brand’s purpose is to represent your company. So your company is the one who should be doing the social support. The brand is only supposed to represent your company so that when you see it, you think of the company and what a company does for society. That’s what it’s supposed to be.

Maurice Cherry:

They’re starting to become synonymous these days, especially, I think with, not to put this blame on social media, but I do think because social media has allowed a channel of communication between the consumer and the company that probably didn’t really exist that transparently before. What you end up having is a lot of companies having to, in some ways, sort of change their brand values or put something on their brand values that do stick with a specific social thing that might be happening.

Of course, the one thing I’m thinking about that has to do with this is regarding the summer of 2020 here in the U.S. where a lot of people were protesting and they were out in the streets. That was George Floyd. And you had so many companies kind of posting black squares on Instagram and making vows to do this specific social change or whatever. And now three years later, all of that stuff is non-existent and cut. And I mean, people try to hold companies to try to hold them accountable for that sort of stuff. But to your point that you’re mentioning, brand purpose has now gotten…it’s changed and evolved to now include how the company feels or has a stance with or against particular social issues.

And I can imagine that’s like a really difficult place to be.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, you don’t want to make your brand too human. It’s patronizing. It’s like, okay, so everybody has this human-centric buzzword now, and everybody has this brand purpose buzzword. It’s like, what is your brand purpose? And they’re going to tell you, I don’t ask that question. I don’t ask what your brand purpose asks. What’s your company’s purpose? When people try to make the brand very human, you have to understand what that means. The human being is a contradiction and a paradox. We’re subject to change. So unless you’re willing to put your brand through that constant change, that’s what it means to be human.

So yes, you can have values like you’ve mentioned there that you can add things to, you can build on it. This can be a foundation, and you can build on that foundation. But if you don’t have a foundation to build on, what’s going to happen is that you’re going to put up a black square, and then it’s going to mean nothing afterwards. But if you’re a company that has a foundation and a core value, and you express that core value — and this is what we do — but we are going to show support for this thing. That’s fine. But don’t make these bold statements as if you’re going to change the company now for the next ten years because of what’s happening.

I’m still a company that sells ice cream. My brand is whatever I write on…it’s Phillip. I sell Phillip’s ice cream, so that’s my brand. But my company sells ice cream, and I would like to donate money to this cause I like to do this, and I like to do that, but that’s not the brand. That’s a company. The brand represents the thinking and philosophy inside the company, the type of people that work at the company. So a company that used its brand to put up that black square, and then nothing else followed that, was either a company that’s just saying, “we do support, but we’re going to get back to work” or a company that gave the wrong message out there and made some kind of promises to the Black community and hasn’t delivered on it, now they’re accountable. That becomes a marketing problem for you.

So you don’t want to make your brand do that. What you want is to remember that company management or business management and brand management are two different things. I don’t know if I’m saying it in a way that people understand or if I’m making sense to them, to anyone listening, but brand purpose — if I’m going to be grammatically correct, I’d say your brand’s purpose — is to represent your company. Your company is what you do and the people that do it or help you to do it, right? The company is a group of people. So it’s about your thinking. It’s about what you find important. It’s what you value as a company. The brand represents that.

And I love using Batman. It’s a very great example of what a brand is. All you see in the skies is his logo. That’s it. But the logo represents the promise he made to the city. That’s all it is. So your brand upholds the promise that the company made. Quality products. Quality service. These things. The logo is the symbol that represents the brand and the company all at once. It’s your identifying mark.

Just develop a good core value system, a belief system that you can uphold next 10, 20 years on average — most companies, I think, they last 30 years, unless they pivot or do some kind of innovation. Like Amazon did innovation. I guess you could say Facebook, because all of these companies, their lifespan was, I think, expected to be 30 years before they closed. But they innovated. So yeah, what’s the brand in that? If they’re going to, they didn’t change. They just adapted to a new environment, made product innovation, service innovation, better customer experience. I just want to make that part clear about the brand purpose because I think it’s very confusing and muddy right now with what a brand is.

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Chris Charles

How will you pursue your passions in 2023? If you’re anything like this week’s guest, Chris Charles, then you’ve probably already got some great plans in motion. Chris is a true multihyphenate — a creative director, a film maker, a visual artist, a photographer, and more — and he’s blazing his own trail while staying 100% authentic to himself.

We caught up recently and talked about some of his plans for this year with his studio, and he shared his process for approaching new projects while also discussing how he balances the business and creative sides of his work. Chris also spoke about growing up in Brooklyn, joining and serving in the Army for over a decade, and talked about how his style has evolved over the years. He even shared the one project that he’s the most proud of out of his impressive body of work. Chris is a true example of how staying adaptable and building great relationships can be a recipe for success!

Interview Transcript

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

Chris Charles:
Hey, first, thank you for having me, Maurice. Really been digging the platform since I’ve been introduced to it. Once again, thank you for having me, man. My name is Chris Charles. I am a photographer, creative director, designer. I just try to bundle it all up into… As a creative designer or art director.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. How are things going so far? I know it’s just the start of the new year, but how are things going for you?

Chris Charles:
Yeah, so far so good. I was very intentional about taking some time off leading into the new year, so I can kind of rest a little bit, spend time with family. So, thankful I have been able to get that time in and spend time with the kids and the fam. But yeah, so far so good. It’s kind of taken me a day or so to still get into the flow again of work, and consistently checking emails and communicating again. But yeah, I’m ready to get it popping.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I told myself this year that I’m going to start turning my phone off one day of the week. So I’ll turn it off Saturday night, turn it back on Monday morning. And I tried that, actually, a few days ago, just so people know we’re recording this at the top of the year, but I did it over New Years. It was so peaceful. That Sunday was so extremely peaceful. Monday was super productive, and it was so peaceful that I didn’t remember to turn my phone on until Monday afternoon or evening. And I turned it on, and I mean the flood of notifications. People were like, “Are you all right? Is everything…” I was like, “I’m fine. I just turned my phone off for 36 hours.” It’s good, the world can wait.

Chris Charles:
You are much better than me. So I have measures implemented to where my phone isn’t as invasive as I know people who have all the alerts on, the lock screen thing. And so what I’ve done is I turned off notifications on my lock screen, the one that kills the battery. I keep my phone on silent with the exception of a few key numbers; my mom, my partner, my daughter, people who they will need to get to me just in case something happens. Other than that… I don’t know. I don’t know if I can just turn my phone off. I think for me, it’s easier to just have it readily available so people can reach me in the event that they have an emergency. But kudos to you, man. I don’t know how you did it, but you did it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it’s an experiment. I just tried it once. So we’ll see if it sticks.

Chris Charles:
I’d have to send a mass email or text message to everyone to let them know, hey, I’m out the loop. I’m not communicating for X amount of time, so don’t expect a response but in the event of emergency, call this other number. I have to have an emergency contact person in place just for that, but.

Maurice Cherry:
I might end up doing that too because certainly I turned my phone back on, and I guess the way that my phone is set up too, I can get text messages on my computer, I can get some notifications, but it just wasn’t on my phone. And so I still was able to do some things, I just couldn’t or didn’t respond back to people right away and stuff. But let’s just say I’m paying for that today. I’m having to do a lot of catch up today.

Chris Charles:
Yeah, a long day of responding to folks, I’m sure.

Maurice Cherry:
But that Sunday was so peaceful. I was like, I’m doing this again. I can’t stress how no pings or nothing. That whole Sunday, I cooked breakfast, I listened to some jazz, I was chill all Sunday. I’m like, I want that feeling every week. I’m going to try to see if I can stick to it.

Chris Charles:
I think you can do it. I think you can do it.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at last year, what do you want to change bringing into this year? You mentioned taking some time for rest.

Chris Charles:
Yeah, I’m part Jamaican so I don’t know any other thing than to work all the time. Running my business but also working another job across town, and I just left that job before the new year, just because it just didn’t make sense commuting that far several times a week. But yeah, I think for me, working smarter not harder for 2023. I think 2022… And most of my career, I spent a lot of it doing all of the heavy lifting. I’ve had assistants in the past who helped manage communications and emails and I’ve worked with tons of young artists who volunteer their time, and some I’ve actually mentored and was able to get them going with their businesses. But I think it’s time to build a team. And I think it’s time to start delegating versus me being the lead communicator, the lead invoice generator and the lead key artist on set and then the key editor. Time is so much more important to me, I’m realizing, especially now that I have a young baby, six months old.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow. Congratulations.

Chris Charles:
Thank you. Thank you, thank you. His name is Cerulean Amir, and he’s amazing. But yeah, I think moving into 2023 I definitely want to facilitate me being more present, and the way these knees are set up, doing all the squatting and getting all the angles, I would rather be able to guide that process through other people who are under the umbrella of my business.

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

Chris Charles:
That’s the goal.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s talk more about your work in your studio, Chris Charles Co., which you’ve ran now for 15 years, so congratulations on that.

Chris Charles:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me a little bit more about it.

Chris Charles:
So, ultimately, and this kind of plays into the vision for this year and moving forward. I’ve always kind of been a multidisciplinary artist, I mean with roots in obviously photography, design, music. I produce music as well. I’ve worked with a few artists and I’ve always felt that the three words that I’ve used to encompass my business are style, creativity and soul. And for me, that’s kind of the type of person when it comes to aesthetic that I always wanted to be. Even when I was a kid, I just wanted to be cool. And that being influenced by music and jazz and seeing how cool those people were.

I always wanted to have whatever business I ran encompass those kind of things. Just like a cool energy, a cool vibe, some fly music going on, some fly art, whatever it is. So yeah, I think my business, while I also focused on trying to strive to be technically proficient, but it was also about creating a vibe or a feeling to the point where whatever I put out in the universe via the internet, it’s a reflection of those three things, style, creativity and soul. So I’ve just kind of ran with it and it seems to have helped me find my voice over these years. So that’s pretty much… Be it design, photography, music, show-making, those are the things that I’ve really pushed to have come to the forefront.

Maurice Cherry:
So given all of that, what are the best types of clients for you to work with? I know you mentioned musicians, but are there other types of clients that you find you work best with?

Chris Charles:
Honestly, I work just other artists in general. DJs, musicians, visual artists. I’ve worked with other photographers doing portraits and collaborating with them, painters and also high-level business people. For some reason, it’s more like a, wow, this person is amazing. I could learn so much from them, and they hired me to do this work. You know what I mean? So it’s like it’s feeding my desire to learn more and have goals based off of what I’m seeing this person has done, and I’m actually doing what I love to do while learning. So yeah, I would say anyone in the arts, like I said, high-level business people. I’ve worked with district court judges, I’ve worked with mayors, mayoral candidates, city council people, attorneys, high-end real estate folks, and all of these people have great lessons that I can pull from to use at some point in my business. So this is great. I love that.

Maurice Cherry:
So given that variety, how do you approach creating a new project or working on a new design project? Because I would imagine with each of those types of clients, the setup might be a little different, I’m guessing.

Chris Charles:
Yeah. One thing I used to struggle with… Well, I won’t say I struggled with it, but one thing I had to really understand was find a way to maintain whatever vision or artistic integrity I had while still fulfilling my clients’ needs. And sometimes those things don’t always align, and I’ve had to adapt and adjust in order to facilitate my client being happy and just doing the work. But yeah, I think for me, I just like to assume that people who have hired me, it’s not like sight unseen. They’ve seen examples of my work and they’ve seen… Or other people who I’ve worked with and they’re like, hey, I want that.

Unfortunately, I’ve had some clients who have no… Whatever I do, whatever they want was the opposite. So that I think has been a big challenge over the years. But ultimately, it’s just about adapting and adjusting, interjecting those three things, style, creativity and soul while still keeping whatever format my client wants to maintain their brand and push their image forward. So it’s a lot of, I’d say, adjustment. I don’t want to say shape-shifting, but it’s more like a, yeah, I can do this, but I can still slide some of these elements that I always kind of hearken to for this person.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like that’s a common thing with multidisciplinary folks. It’s like we know that we can do a lot of different things, and sometimes the client is aware of that and sometimes they just want the one thing that they want, but it is a lot of adjusting to try to make sure you’re fitting in with the scope of the project, their involvement in terms of how things are going. It is a lot of… It’s a constant adjustment, I find.

Chris Charles:
Yeah, it is. And I don’t know, I think by nature, just based off of my travels, even as a child I’ve always been very adaptable, but I’ve always tried to stick to a certain thing that, okay, well I’m going to do this but I’m going to do it this way. And it kind of made me a rebel. When I say that, I mean I’ll follow the rules but up to a certain point that I’m just going to just do it this other way because I think it’s more efficient. I kind of relate that to working with clients and just adapting. And yeah, I hear what you’re saying. I know you want the logo with the money, the dollar signs raining and all of that, but maybe we can simplify it a little bit. Here, let me show you this. So I found using examples of other brands within that person’s market helps kind of dial those things in for me too, so I don’t have to really have too much conflict.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you handle the business side of everything? Because the work definitely is the creative part. That’s what you specialize in. But, when it comes to marketing and contracts and finance, how do you balance that with the more creative aspects of your work?

Chris Charles:
It took me a while to actually find a rhythm with managing all the things outside of the art and creating, but eventually I was able to figure out a way to say, for example, automate my booking process so I don’t have to have these conversations and these email threads that just lead to dead ends. Usually if someone clicks and books, they’ve already made their mind that they want book me. So that saved me so much time. I’d also, say, having an assistant, I had a really great assistant and then she moved on to greater things. But I really learned to appreciate how… For one, she was really good at what she does, and she actually is based in Atlanta, so she was working virtually. But that type of communication, I’m not saying I’m a horrible communicator, but sometimes I’m too busy out working to communicate in a timely manner.

And having someone who that’s what they’re doing for me made it so much easier. But other than that, it’s just kind of trial and error. It’s like, hey, I’ve gone through so many phases with trying this invoicing system or trying this business bank account to see that works in payment gateways and figuring out the most seamless, easiest way for a customer to pay a deposit and then book it online without having to have conversation, after conversation, after conversation. So yeah, it’s been a journey. It’s definitely been a journey, but I’ve been able to figure it out just based off of trial and error and kind of doing what works, but also evolving, being open to evolve. There’s a few things I want to add into the mix this year. Definitely want to get someone to do the actual books and have an accountant, or someone who I can contract to have to do the accounting. Because I’m pretty much doing it all of that myself as well, so.

Maurice Cherry:
Now outside of that, being in the arts and being self-employed, that’s a lot to balance, I think particularly with just the way that our attention economy kind of works. What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve had to face staying independent and doing this for as long as you have?

Chris Charles:
Dealing with the economy. I think managing… Be sustainable, which is every business during economic downturns, and that’s another challenge. I’d say just dealing with the ebb and flow. My business is a cash flow-based business, and most businesses that, but fortunately I don’t have much overhead, so that makes it a lot easier. I’m not producing a physical product that requires me to buy inventory and surplus. So that in itself has really helped me manage the challenges of an economic downturn and keeping clients and being able to have clients who just keep coming back. And some of my best clients are those repeat clients. But ultimately also over-saturation. Over-saturation. When I started doing photography professionally, there were just maybe a handful of really, really great photographers in my area who I looked upon for inspiration, and I saw they had things established. They did great work.

Fast forward to now, it’s like you can just close your eyes and point your finger one direction, and you’re probably pointing at a photographer. You know what I mean? So staying relevant, being open to new ideas is kind of, like a lot of artists, I think specifically more with musicians and kind of trying to grow their art and their craft while still maintaining that voice that put them on in the first place. So for me, I don’t want to look at it as competition. However, it is somewhat of a competition. This is a free market. So if I want to be competitive in this market, I have to pay attention to what other people who are 20 years younger than me are doing. And if I have a client and suddenly I see my client shooting with this 20-something year old, I’m like, oh okay, great. Yay. But also, I’m like, huh, how’d that happen? What do I need to do to where I can keep this particular client or clients? So yeah, it’s a few challenges.

Maurice Cherry:
I know when I was actively having clients and doing client work, one of the biggest challenges, aside from what you mentioned, is just making sure that they still keep you sort of top of mind with what they do. Because I think, like you said, there’s over-saturation sometimes in the market and there’s a number of different people that folks could choose from to do kind of the same work. And so I think it’s really important also to just have those relationships. The relationship building part is so important with so many other people out there, because the benefit I think that we have, you and I, and probably others of our age group, is being able to build those relationships as opposed to just putting out whatever the newest, hottest, latest, fastest tool or product is that can get the job done.

At the end of the day, it’s about relationships. You mentioned one of the clients you’ve had has been a mayoral candidate. I did a mayoral race back in 2009. The person didn’t win, the candidate didn’t win, but she ended up working then for a nonprofit organization and I had that organization a retainer for five or six years. And then every place that she ended up going, I kind of followed her in some aspect in terms of like, oh yeah, I could do this work, I could do this work. Or just keeping top of mind so they know, oh, well I know someone who could use you. So then that relationship building really comes into play because your name gets mentioned in rooms and other places that you’re not necessarily available.

Chris Charles:
Exactly, exactly. And yeah, I think I’ve definitely been fortunate to have had several of those types of clients where I’m talking about 10, and you mentioned the foreign exchange. It’s almost like 10 years we’ve been working together. And then of course, with Nikolai individually and with Phonte individually, it’s been like I’ve been their go-to guy, and I appreciate that. I have some clients who, once again, are in the political scene and some musicians who, there’s no question they will call me, and I don’t take that for granted. But also it’s because we can sit down and kick it after we do a long shoot. We go grab some food, we have a couple of beers, and we kick it for a little while and just decompress and catch up. I value that.

Because to me, that’s connection. And for me, especially when it comes to doing portrait work and photographing people, it’s important that I established that rapport, which could potentially lead to a cool relationship and friendship. But I can’t get a good picture of someone if we’re doing a session, if we haven’t had a conversation that kind of face-to-face, and that way we can feel each other out. I can see where I need to go, how I need to handle this particular photo shoot. Yeah, I’ve been able to, like I said, make some really great, great friends because of that relationship aspect that you mentioned.

Maurice Cherry:
I just started back doing some client work through my studio now, and one thing I’ve been doing is going back through my old contact list of clients. And the first of the year, best time to do it, best time to restart a dormant relationship or a dormant former communication. Just hit them up, Happy New Year, how are things going? This is what I’m doing. Because people just kind of have that energy at the top of the year to want to do something new, try something new. So it’s a good time now to make those relationships happen or to try to at least begin to forge them.

Chris Charles:
Absolutely. Yeah. Just before Christmas, I sent out some tests, newsletters with some things just to see, once again, updating that client list and seeing do I need to remove or add some things and change and seeing the response and looking at the numbers. So yeah, you nailed it, man. Definitely going to be doing the same this year.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to get more into your work and some of the clients that you work with. Of course, you mentioned foreign exchange, which we’ll talk about later, but I want to hear more about your origin story. I know you’re in North Carolina now. Is that where you’re from? Is that where you grew up?

Chris Charles:
No, I actually grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. ell me about that.

Chris Charles:
Spent my formative years in Brooklyn, but also going back and forth between Brooklyn and Jamaica. We usually go every summer, or every other summer. And Brooklyn is a melting pot of West Indian and Caribbean culture, anyway. So yeah, growing up in New York was such a great experience for me. I think I tell people I grew up, I think in during the best era to grow up, which was the late ’70s going into the ’80s. Because once again, I literally would’ve had a Irish neighbor across the street. Their neighbor was Italian, who was my first babysitter. We had a Puerto Rican family on the corner. We had the Haitian family right there. You had my family, which was a mixed ethnicity. You had people from Aruba, people from Barbados. It was such a melting pot of culture. So I was exposed to a lot of different languages and a lot of different foods and energies. And thankfully, my parents and I, we traveled.

We’d get on a plane and go somewhere, go to LA, go to Jamaica, and my dad had family in Pennsylvania, so we’d be in the mountains. Just being in that type of environment or those types of environments where I’m surrounded by so many different things, it influenced me and grew up in a very musical household and very artistic household. And I played guitar, took formal guitar lessons for years, and my household was the type of household that always had music playing, be it jazz or reggae music. So my parents loved to dance. We do the New Year’s Eve party at our Puerto Rican friends’ home, and they’d be dancing salsa all night. So I just love music and culture. So, I couldn’t help but be influenced by all of that growing up during that time in New York. So went to high school, did that. Played football in high school, actually. So I wound up going to college initially at a Kentucky Wesley College with a partial scholarship to play football. And that was a disaster because that was my kind of first time away from home.

Being in Kentucky as a New York dude was kind of different for me. I made it through football camp, and I was like yeah, I’m not feeling this, and I went back home. So I had to regroup, and my parents were looking at me like, okay, so what are we going to do? You can’t just be laying around here. You know what I mean? You got to do something. So I said, okay. Always loved architecture, always loved art and clean lines and drafting. I took drafting in high school, so I pursued a degree in architectural engineering, the New York Institute of Technology in Farmingdale, it’s a [inaudible 00:24:32] entity, and that was great. But I also have a military family. All my uncles were in the military. My dad was a Marine, my brother was in the army, and that’s also something I always knew I wanted to do. I was a boy scout and I loved wearing a uniform. I was one weird kids who just loved putting on a uniform and being fresh. So yeah, I did college and then immediately joined the Army.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Chris Charles:
So this is, what, ’93, ’94. And wound up getting a job doing surveying, but it was for artillery. So I kind of got hoodwinked. I kind of got made switch with you have engineering background. Yeah, this could be a great job for you. But I’m sitting next to a [inaudible 00:25:18] blowing up stuff, you know what I mean? But ultimately, it was good. I had a good time, did a couple of overseas tours, and I made sergeant. And so now I had to manage a team, and that kind of taught me leadership and politics when it came to, not just the military, but corporate, I came to find out later.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s where corporate gets it from, so that makes sense.

Chris Charles:
Structures, politics of it all. They parallel each other. So anyway, I decided maybe I want to change jobs. So in the military, they have what you can do as reclassifying. So I reclassified as a communication specialist, and more specifically a network switchboard engineer. So like an internet guy, basically. And that was great because it basically helped me transition out of the military eventually with those same skillset sets. And I was able to apply them. But meanwhile, I was also a paratrooper, so I was jumping out of airplanes and went to jump master school. So I was jump master qualified. I was aero [inaudible 00:26:16] qualified.

So I was propelling out of helicopter, jumping out of airplanes, doing all the cool stuff, even though I had these technical jobs, because that was kind of that guy who just wanted to do the hard stuff as much as possible while I still had the young legs. So yeah, eventually 2003, after my last deployment in Iraq… Well, 2004 is when I began… I came back, I think April, and put in my paperwork to get out the military because I just felt it was time. My daughter was very young at the time. She’s 21 now. But I just didn’t want to be away from her and missing her grow and potentially not being able to see her again, not making it back from the deployment is very real.

Maurice Cherry:
Especially right around that time in the early 2000s. Yeah.

Chris Charles:
Yeah. 2003, 2004, maybe going in 2005, ’06 was a rough one because the warfare over there with the IEDs… And it was really bad at one point. And I was there for that when you never knew if you were going to get blown up in a convo at some point. And that hit me. That was real, that was real to me. I said I’m good. I’m a smart guy, I think I’ll be able to figure something out, especially with the skillsets that I gained in the military. And that’s what I did. So I got out of the military in November, 2004, and haven’t looked back since. I transitioned almost immediately into a corporate IT job.

And that was great. I did that for about five years. And then 2009, the 2008, the bubble burst and the economy tanked, and I wound up getting laid off. So here I am, had a corporate job, great benefits, great pay, and now I got laid off. Never happened to me before. I didn’t know what that felt like. And it was horrible being called into the operation manager’s office with all of us who got laid off. It wasn’t just myself, walking back to your desk and you see all your stuff packed up in a box on the table with a security guy waiting to walk you out.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Chris Charles:
It was embarrassing. You feel powerless, you just feel like, wow, that’s what we’re doing? Wound up getting laid off. And I had to really, really sit on it for a minute. And then I realized that was a universe kind of pushing me in the direction of becoming an artist full-time. Now keep in mind, when I was working at this particular company, I became good friends with the art director there, and he knew I was kind of dabbling in photography, and he invited me to drive to Boston to shoot a wedding because I guess he’d seen some of the work I was doing just for free. And he thought I had an eye. So he took me, and that was the first paid gig I ever had as a photographer shooting that wedding. And that’s when also the light bulb clicked.

Was kind of already getting over the job, it was very stressful as far as just the IT and networking, dealing with clients, having to take the blame for other people’s mistakes or whatever. So when he says, hey man, I’m going to cut you a check for $1500, just drive to Boston in my Audi. I was like, oh shit. Okay, let’s go. Hey, maybe I can just keep doing this. And then a few months later, I wound up getting laid off. So it was all serendipitous how it happened, even though I wasn’t seeing that at the time. But it definitely helped guide me into the direction I kind of eventually went. So I took my GI bill and took a little bit of time off. Because I did get a bit of a pension, not a pension, but a severance day. So I was able to survive and pay my bills, but eventually enrolled back into college and wound up getting a degree in graphic design while slowly building my business and getting to know the community.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Chris Charles:
So that was a very big transformative time for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And in hindsight, like you said, it worked out in the end. Something I want to just touch on, you mentioned though that time between, I would say roughly the mid 2000s, 2004 to 2008, 2009, that was such a… And I can’t stress this enough for designers that were not around during that time. That was such a wild time in terms of just design, I guess you could lump tech in with it, but particularly web design, graphic design. So many things were changing in that just five-year span that you were lucky if you could stay at the same place for that long because the technology was changing, the browsers were changing, the actual hardware itself was changing, the software was changing. There were so many changes that took place that it would be hard to keep up with everything that’s going on.

Chris Charles:
Yeah, definitely. And I don’t know, for me I think what helped me was being in school… And at the time I was still using Windows, for example, but we had iMac Labs where I was able to kind of… I was like, oh, this is nice. Okay, cool, cool, cool. But not only the technology, but I guess you said the design language, right? Like I said, I loved architecture, I loved clean lines. I loved a certain minimalist aesthetic. And I started noticing design shifting to that versus heavy drop shadow and beveled fonts. And a lot of overly-designed things that have, and I attribute that to Apple, actually.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely.

Chris Charles:
I think Apple’s brand pretty much influenced the design world when it came to aesthetic and minimalism. Being able to be able to sell something and tell a story as cleanly as simply as possible and maybe using really great imagery overlay with text. So that whole look… Like when I started seeing that and I realized that that’s kind of how I love that, that’s what it was for me. So it made my transition fairly easy. Because I just wanted to stick to that aesthetic. It was just, like you said, learning the technology and learning in Design and Illustrator and all those things. I was pretty good in Photoshop already. But those other Adobe products, they were kicking my butt for a while. But I think I got a handle of them now.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember the macro media stuff when it switched over to Adobe. I used Fireworks a lot in one of my old jobs. And then Fireworks pretty much became obsolete. Adobe bought Macromedia and changed a bunch of stuff over. And then I was a web designer at the time. There was the whole switch from table-based layouts to CSS-based layouts. Which then changed the browser because the browser then was less about just display and it became more of a canvas. It became more of somewhere you can create things just on there and not have to transpose. I remember cutting up tables in Dream Weaver and exporting them over and making sure everything was right. But now you could use CSS and you could float things and create divs…

And it was just such a big shift… It was a really seismic shift, I think, in design online during that time. And yeah, also the switch from the nineties style of design, especially with tables and things like that because they borrowed a lot from print, to more clean lines. Because it’s just based on what the browser did, because the browsers then had to catch up. This is after the whole browser wars of the late ’90s and stuff. But browsers became less about, oh, this is just a place you can view a website. It’s like, no, this is a place where you can build a website. There’s technologies, there’s like a stack in the browser where you can make things. It was just such a… I look back at that time fondly, but also in hindsight, there was a lot going on.

Chris Charles:
I don’t think… for me, I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I was just like, oh, okay. This is cool. Oh, this is… Okay, cool. This is cool. That’s cool. I even look at… I use Photoshop a lot, for example, and I look at Photoshop from back then to now and how much I can do that I really couldn’t do without having to download a plugin or something. And the same thing with everything in the Adobe Suite. I was using Premiere for a while and I just couldn’t, didn’t jive with me. So even now transitioning over to Da Vinci Resolve has been like, my head explodes every time I use it. So it’s so phenomenal. And it doesn’t bog down my CPU. I don’t have to open up a whole nother program to do as much. I can do it all in here. I can do audio the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Chris Charles:
This is awesome. For 300 bucks, I don’t have to do a subscription, a yearly subscription. I [inaudible 00:34:48] with it. So I’m just really thankful for it. I love technology, so I’m thankful for technology. I’m kind of a computer nerd. I was as a kid, backtracking real quick, I used to write programs on the old… Gosh, it wasn’t an IBM computer. It was a Commodore.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, the Commodore 64?

Chris Charles:
Yeah, yeah. Definitely showing our age. Because that one [inaudible 00:35:12]. Yeah, I’d go to the library and rent and take out these coding books and you’d spend three hours writing code just to make the colors on the screen. And that was fascinating to me. Just learning syntax. And anyway, so it helped me, even in corporate. When I was working in corporate, I had to… The company I was working for, it was a proprietary voiceover IP network, one of the first in the country. So I would have to be able to trace a call from London to California, and I could literally look at the numbers on the screen and see the nodes as the signal is… Well, the communication is traveling and seeing where it breaks. And that always remind me of when I was a kid. Wow, this looks just like when I was programming my Commodore 64. But yeah, I’m just nerding out a little bit on the tech. But it’s a great timing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it was. Even visually with… Flash was just everywhere. Flash was such a huge component of creating experiences online. And now in 2023, really years prior to that, I’d say probably as early as maybe 2020 or so, Flash is just a distant memory.

Chris Charles:
During that transitional phase when I was going to school, I actually gig doing graphic design and marketing for a local recording studio. And I had to do Flash. And I was like, what the hell is this? I’d never really had much experience with Flash and I thought it was kind of an antiquated technology, even back then. But they insisted on using it for their banner ads and whatever. But me being at that job was also a big turning point for me because of just where I was. And then being around musicians and kind of transitioning into connecting with artists who needed photography and design. You know what I mean? So yeah, that was a good time.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s bring it back to your studio, then. So you had that spark to start your studio then after doing that photography gig, you’ve kept it going now for 15 years, and your client list is extremely impressive. Just some of a few, I’ll name off here. Moleskine, which are the notebooks, the Italian leather notebooks, Apple Music, Spike Lee. And of course, musicians, The Foreign Exchange. They’re one of my absolute favorite groups. I’ve been a fan since Connected. I’ve been such a fan. This is complete fanboy moment at this point. How did you get involved with them?

Chris Charles:
Yeah, it’s kind of a funny story. So back in late 2009, I was kind of slowly making a name for myself as a photographer. I’m a music nerd, and I was dating someone at the time, time who knew Phonte.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Chris Charles:
Actually, I think they dated years before she and I met. But anyway I was also on… I don’t know if you remember the Okayplayer.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, I remember them.

Chris Charles:
Yeah, yeah. I was on Okayplayer, and I go into the, what do they call it, the rooms or whatever, the chat rooms, I guess, and just nerd out on music. And at the time that’s pretty much how the product exchange met on Okayplayer. And they recorded their whole album by just sending tracks and vocals across the ocean, because Nicolay was in the Netherlands at the time, living there. So anyway, so it was cool being able to connect with these artists like Little Brother and Questlove, and kind of just being involved in conversations and casts happen about music. And the person I was dating at the time would randomly post my photography into the forums. Like hey, my boyfriend did this picture, blah, blah, blah. And apparently Phonte was paying attention. So one winter, like I said, I think late 2009, we went to a gig.

It was a Red Bull event, and it was a battle of the bands featuring The Foreign Exchange and a punk rock band. And it was brilliant because what they had to do was play each other’s music and interpreted however they saw fit based off of the genre. Right? So it was cool hearing The Foreign Exchange’s band, which was amazing, playing these compositions that the punk rock band made. And then vice versa, you know what I mean? Really good time. Of course, I brought my camera, took some really cool photos of the bands. And then as we were leaving, I hear someone calling me and it’s Phonte. He and I had never met, but he’s like, “Hey man, you Chris Charles? I saw you coming you up here. We got a new album coming out, man.” I was like, “Word? Okay. Hit me up, man.” And that was it. That was the beginning of that relationship. I just loved the process. So I worked with almost all the artists under the, not just The Foreign Exchange, but their record label.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Chris Charles:
So Median when he was on the label, just finished working with, well last year, last summer. BeMyFiasco, who is Phonte’s protégé, musically. And yeah, pretty much have done every project after Leave It All Behind.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Chris Charles:
So did all the photography, the design. Think the first one was Love in Flying Colors. That was the one. And yeah, did all the pre-flight, the layout, the photography, excuse me, and then yeah, all the way up to their last one. So it’s been a great journey with those guys. And we just did a photo shoot a few months ago, actually. Because they have some things that they’re going to be doing here. So it was good reconnecting with those guys again. But yeah, it was just, once again, those types of circumstances that the relationship building aspect of it is what’s important. And we’ve always had a great relationship. Really great guys. So yeah, those guys are cool.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m trying to think how I first found out… I think I found out about Foreign Exchange either through… It was one or two ways. One, there’s a music store here in Atlanta called Moods Music.

Chris Charles:
Yeah, I know it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Darryl.

Chris Charles:
That’s a hot spot, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s the spot. That’s the spot. I’m gatekeeping a little bit now that I’ve told the whole world on the podcast, but that’s the spot though. That’s the hot music spot in Atlanta. But I either found out about them. It was either through there or through this website that a couple of friends of mine founded called SoulBounce. I can’t remember if it was through one of the two. It was one of those two that I remember first hearing about it, because like I said, I’ve been listening. I’ve been a fan since Connected. Leave It All Behind, still gets rotation in this house to this day. “House of Cards,” oh my god, love that group. And even all the other stuff that Phonte did. I know Phonte and Zo! did this ’80s cover album. That was really good.

Chris Charles:
It was Percy Miracle, and I forget the other name. But yeah, Phonte had the Jerry Curl wig on.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they did Stepping Out. They did Africa from Toto. Yeah. That was…

Chris Charles:
Those guys are so talented, man. Even now with… What’s that show? I know Zo! and Phonte been writing a lot for this new kind of musical skit comedy show.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, is it Sherman’s Showcase?

Chris Charles:
Sherman’s Showcase, yes. And then of course, I designed the Eric Robeson Phonte record, Tigallerro. I did Phonte’s last single. Any visuals that came out pretty much revolving around the phone exchange or Nicolay’s or Phonte individual projects, I also had the privilege of working on. So, such a good time, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, man. I think of all that. You mentioned Eric Roberson and now I’m thinking of all the soul music that was also just kind of in and around during that time. That was such a… When I think on that time, that was late 2000s early 2010s. That was such, for me, that was just such a pivotal time. I think I was just turning 30 right around then, too. I was like, oh man. Such good music. And that’s so cool that you were just a part of all of that. And you get to work on it all. Do all that stuff.

Chris Charles:
It’s still surreal. It’s still surreal. Whenever I see… When President Obama had one of their songs on his yearly playlist, I’m like, what? I’m looking at a photograph and design I did and now President Obama saw that, word? I mean, that’s cool. It’s cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you give me a sneak peek on whether or not they have a new album coming out?

Chris Charles:
I’m sworn to secrecy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right.

Chris Charles:
Let’s just say we did a….

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned a photo shoot, I thought I would ask.

Chris Charles:
Yeah, yeah. I’m sorry, that’s all I can say. But yeah, stay tuned, man.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re talking about Foreign Exchange and Phonte too, but Nicolay is super talented as producer. I have some of his solo albums, too. One of them… I forget what it’s called. Something with Shibuya in it, I’m not remembering…

Chris Charles:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no. The City Lights. City Lights Volume II. Oh man. That’s one of my favorite, favorite just chill out albums. One of the songs on there is… I forget the… I have to go back and remember the name. Because I know the song when I hear it, I can’t necessarily think of the name of it, but it’s like some song. I don’t know. I call it my getting home from the club song. When you get home super late and the sun’s about to Rise, it’s like that kind of song.

Chris Charles:
Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I forget the name of it. But they’re all super talented. That whole clique is super talented

Chris Charles:
And super nice. Whenever I get to catch up with Nicolay. The guy’s really, really smart. He has a degree in musicology. He’s not just like self-taught. He’s really formally trained, but also humble and tall. The guy’s like seven feet tall. He’s like about six foot seven. He’s huge. But just the nicest guy. Same thing with City of Lights Volume too. Those guys are always gracious whenever we connect. What’s another one I did? Not the Shibuya one. I did the next one.

Maurice Cherry:
Soweto.

Chris Charles:
Yes. I did the graphics for that one as well, as well for [inaudible 00:45:08].

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Chris Charles:
I’ve been lucky, man. I’ve been lucky.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you do to stay motivated and productive with your work?

Chris Charles:
Just constantly evolving, actually, as far as what I do. For me, sometimes it’s just if I’m editing photos, I run into a creative block with where to go with a certain edit. I’ll put it down and I’ll step away and indulge in another media, be it a short film or looking at some art books that I have. But I know for me, staying inspired revolved around kind of exploring the balance between what’s in my head and what I see that catches my eye out in the world. And also music. A lot of my photography and design, I feel it’s so connected to musical energy. And at least to me, I always like to think of a song whenever I present a certain edit or if I do a print.

So for me, sometimes I’ll be inspired by music, or if I’m producing music and coming up with a theme and a rhythm, and I’ll start to see colors and I’ll start to say, oh, okay, maybe I think that’s rare. Then I go back to the edit and it’s like yeah, I add that touch of red to it. So, it varies. But mostly I’d say music and using contrasting mediums to kind of offset each other. So if I’m doing design, I’ll stop and do some photography or look at photography. If I’m doing photography, I’ll listen to music. It’s weird. I kind of traverse these different medium when I need inspiration from something else, from another place. So yeah, that’s one of the ways I use medium.

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

Chris Charles:
When I first started doing photography, especially when I was in design school, I was implementing design elements within my photography a lot. And it was just how I saw things. I would do a portrait and find a creative way to add text to it or add texture to it using overlays. I think as I’ve evolved as an artist, I think my style has… It’s gotten a lot simpler. So I’ve simplified it. I’ve been able to deconstruct it in a way that there might be some texture, or I’ll just use a textured backdrop or a textured setting, versus actually adding the texture in post.

But also just kind of continuing to try to master fighting in the technical aspects of photography. And then getting into filmmaking and learning that technology and learning how to edit and just being a one-stop shop. Because I just love all those mediums, so why not learn how to do them? And then eventually that became another aspect of my business. So I think expanding, going from this photography, to design and photography, to dabbling in web design. And then, oh, short films, and then doing promo spots for clients and doing commercials for schools and things of that nature. So yeah, learning new technology is pretty much how I think I’ll be evolved over the years, specifically

Maurice Cherry:
Overall, is there a piece of art or a specific project or something that you’ve done that you’re particularly proud of? Like the crown jewel in your portfolio, or something like that?

Chris Charles:
There are a couple, actually. I think most recently I got commissioned by a really amazing local candle making company, Black-owned, to design a signature candle to be distributed through the NBA, the NBA 75th Anniversary candle series. And they gave me full autonomy to design it within the specs of the candle. And with that, I was given access to seeing what the candle kind of smelled like, and taking hints from the notes of the candle and then implementing that into the design. That to me was very exciting, very exciting. And for that to be connected to the NBA was just mind-blowing. I’d say another one is probably the Spike Lee project that between… It was joint project between Spike Lee and Moleskine where they were doing these cheap, got-to-have-it books, Moleskine books. So that’s where that connection happened.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh!

Chris Charles:
I was able to connect with Spike Lee and his team and come up with a… I had to shoot a short film of a local artist, a Black woman artist who embodied the whole image, the vibe of Nola Darling.

Maurice Cherry:
Nola Darling, yeah.

Chris Charles:
It was cool because Spike Lee, huge inspiration for me. One of my favorite movies is near all of them, but I say from an aesthetic standpoint, [inaudible 00:49:37] blues, the way he used colors and contrasting colors to point out personality differences, and music and jazz. I think another fun time was shooting Martin Lawrence and his daughters’ graduation party. And that was interesting and totally random. One of actually, it so happened that his daughter, her hairdresser was my client. They needed a photographer. And she graduated from Duke University. And I’ll never forget this, this was Mother’s Day a few years ago. And I remember going to brunch with my mom and then having to leave and drive to Duke University to their private banquet thing, golf club. And I’m looking at Martin Lawrence and his family. Oh, and Emmett Smith. Because they’re all connected. Emmett Smith, who’s one of my favorite running backs of all times for the NFL is Martin’s ex-wife’s new husband.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Chris Charles:
So I’m looking at Martin Lawrence and his family, the kids, Emmett Smith, and I’m just there to take pictures and you’re paying me to do this. Are you kidding me? It’s like, that’s living the dream. So yeah, I’ve had some really amazing… Gosh, I don’t know. It’s times like these, and I’m thankful for you to these great questions because it really makes me think about… For one, if there was any time where I didn’t, or if any people didn’t respect the craft of image-making, be it photography or design, and the times that I’ve doubted it as well. Like oh yeah, people don’t take this stuff seriously. But then one day I’m in Venice Italy, because I was commissioned to be there by a client. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Chris Charles:
And it’s like, wow, I said that but I’m actually overseas right now, and my whole job is to just be cool and take fly pictures. So yeah, I’ve had a few instances of really amazing experiences and being in rooms and work and opportunities. So yeah, I have a few, that’s what I’m saying, I just can’t pick one.

Maurice Cherry:
I think once again, all of that really speaks to the power of relationships.

Chris Charles:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
It really speaks to being able to know who, not just know who certain people are, but to maintain those relationships enough where people are advocates or sponsors for you in places where you’re not available. Especially with what you just mentioned with shooting Martin Lawrence’s daughter’s graduation, like you said her hairdresser is one of your clients, and so that’s how that all happened. They could have picked any photographer. Martin’s a celebrity. They could have picked any photographer.

Chris Charles:
What’s so funny about that, she just called me randomly and she was like, “Hey, I got a gig for you. Just say yes.” I was like, what? She wouldn’t tell me who it was until the day before. She was like, oh, by the way, this is the Lawrence family and Smith family. Like, “Lawrence who?” [inaudible 00:52:29] I was like, oh, okay. Yeah. Relationships, knowing people and doing good work in this treating well manner.

Maurice Cherry:
And the Spike Lee Moleskine, I have the Spike Lee Moleskine. It’s still in the plastic. I refuse to open it.

Chris Charles:
Oh, nice. Yeah, that’s definitely a collectors’ item. Definitely a collectors’ item.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve had a few people on the show that have done work with Spike, either presently or in the past and stuff. It’s amazing how he pulls in other Black designers to work on his projects, whether it’s like Art Sims doing projects, whether it’s you on this notebook project. I think most recently he did some work with this black typographer I had on the show, Tre Seals for his book, like design the font for the book and everything. Spike is really good about pulling in other Black creatives into his work, which I really appreciate that.

Chris Charles:
And I honestly believe, I think it should be like that. It’s always great to see and I always appreciate it. But how else are we going to continue to spread and learn about each other’s talents without actually giving each other shots and [inaudible 00:53:34] opportunities?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

Chris Charles:
I love to see it. Love to see it.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice do you have for aspiring creative directors or artists out there, particularly those that want to be self-employed like you are and be able to kind of forge their own path?

Chris Charles:
Yeah, I’d say do your homework. And when I say that it’s great to go out with passion and present it, but you have to have a plan. And that could be, do you want to be a generalist? This could be applied to a couple of different mediums, of course. But yeah, do I want to be a specialist? Do I want to be a generalist? I’ve gone back and forth between that as well. For me, it’s about also diversifying, right? I don’t just solely rely on photography or I don’t just solely rely on consulting or design, or filmmaking. It’s about building a brand based on those three words. Like I said, style, creativity, and soul. And thinking about how you want your clients to feel when they work with you and after they’re done working with you, and will that make them want to work with you again? So it’s like a lot of soft skill stuff. I mean, of course, being technically skilled and talented, those are all great things, but if people don’t like you, you’re not going to go very far.

So I think learning how to maintain or establish and maintain relationships with people who align with the vision that you want to sell your artwork to, present your work to, and being able to manage that and navigate that and be in spaces and present yourself well, I think that’s really important. And then also, of course, the more technical stuff about managing business, establishing an LLC, your contracts, delivering, over-delivering at times, under-promising versus the vice versa. Because people will call you out. You said we were going to get 30 pictures, you only delivered 29. It’s like, oh, okay. Gotcha. But if I say I’m delivering 15 and I deliver 30, guess what? Now I’m a rockstar. And a lot of creatives take that for granted. And I also understand that there’s time and money involved with creating and running a business. So be mindful of that. Don’t kill yourself. Rest. Take your time to step away from it and reevaluate, reassess, learn, and then ask for mentorship from people who are already doing it that are in the game.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing, like future stuff or continuation of what you’re currently on? Where do you see yourself?

Chris Charles:
Yeah, ultimately five years… It’s funny because I’ve been actually writing out my tenure plan. And in the next five years, couple things. I definitely want to have a new physical space to run a shop and have a team, a dedicated team on payroll to where I can manage and be lead creative or a principal for projects that are being done by people that are working for me. But also, I have a really big passion for veterans’ affairs. So I’ve been researching ways that I can somehow participate in helping veterans, be it they’re transitioning or trying to find their way out in the workforce. Or if they’re trying to start a business, there are so many benefits out there available to veterans who they don’t know they’re there and they’re just out here flapping and trying to work, but also might have some disabilities or issues that their workplace or workplaces are required to accommodate. So yeah, that’s a huge passion of mine honestly, in helping veterans, especially veterans of color, transition and live good lives after having lived through some really potentially horrible situations because of war. But yeah, having a shop and helping veterans.

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

Chris Charles:
Sure. So my main website is chrischarles.co. That’s chrischarles.co, not dot-com. The person who owns that domain name refuses to give it up, so I’m stuck with the dot-co and that’s no problem. That’s fine. So that has pretty much leads you to all of the other work that I do. I have a separate photography website, which you can also find once you go to chrischarles.co. But for people who are specifically interested in photography, it’s my full name, christophercharlesphotography.com. I have a Facebook business page, it’s Chris Charles Photo. My Instagram handle is the_chrischarles, so the, underscore symbol, Chris Charles. Those are the main places to find me. I’m there.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Sounds good. Well Chris Charles, I want to thank you so much for coming on this show. I think certainly everything that you have talked about speaks to two key things that I think folks should kind of take in mind, particularly as we go into the new year. One is about being adaptable, and the second is about building relationships. I think everything that you’ve described about your career to date has been a testament to both of those abilities, and you’ve been able to craft and use both of those to be able to build a career for yourself, build a life for yourself, and continue to do great work out there in the community. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Chris Charles:
Thank you so much for having me, man. This is really fun. Enjoyed talking with you, Maurice. And yeah, anything you need from me, just let me know.

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Tiffany Stewart

While the World Wide Web has evolved tremendously over the past couple of decades, it can still feel like we are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to accessibility, even though this push for accessibility has existed since the first set of guidelines created by the W3C in 1999. Making the Web more accessible is a benefit to everyone, and Tiffany Stewart is working hard to make sure that happens.

Our conversation began with a discussion on her work at Thomson Reuters, and she shared how she got into design systems and accessibility. Tiffany also talked about moving to the U.S. from Jamaica as a teenager, attending college in Mississippi, and spoke on what prompted her to shift her focus from engineering to UX. Thank goodness we have future-thinking designers like Tiffany Stewart to ensure that we have a Web that we can all use!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Tiffany Stewart:
Hi, my name is Tiffany Stewart. I’m a senior UX designer specializing in digital systems with a focus on accessibility. And yeah, that’s me. Very much a blurb and just really passionate about accessibility and UX.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going for you so far? How’s 2022?

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, 2022 has been a blast and then some. I bought a house.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Tiffany Stewart:
Right. I am officially now a homeowner and I am in the process of building out my office. So I went and bought the IKEA cabinets and I attached them to the wall and I’m painting and I’m sanding and breaking out the miter saw. That is my life at the moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a huge accomplishment. Congratulations.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you. It was a lot. The process was a lot because I think it was right before the interest rates went up, so it was just like, “Oh my gosh, I have to hustle and get this house before everything just goes to pop.”

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s such a big accomplishment already for the year. Is there anything else that you still want to try to accomplish before 2023?

Tiffany Stewart:
I have so many, but I think for the immediate goal for me is to see this Black Panther movie that’s coming out this year, the second one, the Black Panther. And then on my professional work and getting my design system up and running to a point where it’s doing what it needs to do and folks are able to use it in a meaningful way. So yeah, those are my big ones for the end of the year.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s tap into a little bit about the work that you do. You mentioned you’re a senior UX designer and you’re working at Thomson Reuters. Talk to me about that.

Tiffany Stewart:
I think they initially hired me as a contractor to work on one of their products as a regular UX product designer. And then once they heard about my previous work on a design system prior, they’re like, “Oh, we’ll just move you over to the design system side so we can get that up and running and you can help facilitate that process.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.” And so I shifted into that particular space. Design system tends to be more, because I think not many people know what design system designers do. It’s more of a space where you’re looking at applying concepts across the board holistically for several products and several teams and spaces. So my day to day is really thinking about, “Okay, how do I apply the concept of warning across a design system so that all of the products are consistently representing warning in a way that’s meaningful and consistent?”

So my day to day is that, making decisions about what our colors are going to be and how they’re going to be expressed and just setting all of that up so that the designers can build their products relatively quickly because all of these decisions are already made for them. So they can already just bring those into play. And then working closely with the accessibility team, which I’m very excited, the first time I’ve actually ever had one. Usually, it’s just me doing it by myself. But we do have a dedicated accessibility team at TR and they’re amazing to work with and we just make sure that the DS is accessible as possible, that our products are accessible as possible. So that’s my day-to-day.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about that accessibility. I’m curious, what does that look like at a news organization like Thomson Reuters?

Tiffany Stewart:
A lot of it is making sure that we are meeting WCAG requirements. We’re making sure that within the code itself, everything is labeled with the correct ARIA labels, that the DOM is in the correct order, so that when you are tapping through with your headings, everything gets represented semantically type of thing. Making sure that people who are using screen readers are able to get their news in a way that is accessible and meaningful to them. Because I think most people when they think of accessibility, they think, “Oh, I just have to match the color contrast ratio of 3:1 or whatever it is at the time.” But no, it’s actually making sure that the code works, that someone who is a purely keyboard user can tab through, everything makes sense when they tab through, they can read things, whether they are blind or otherwise situationally disabled.

And so we meet with the accessibility team regularly. My particular specialist that we work with is Yvonne, hey Yvonne. And then I think on the other side is Fariel. So we meet with them regularly. There’s a whole team of them, they’re amazing. We reach out, we ask questions, we pair and make sure that the code matches as well as the Figma files match so that all of our products in theory, leave the board fully accessible.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like that’s a lot to do from day to day. What does your regular everyday job look like?

Tiffany Stewart:
It is a lot of pairing. So I will pair with devs, I will pair with like I said, Yvonne on accessibility. And then it’s also a lot of research to make sure that we are meeting the use cases that are given to us by the various teams that we work with. And then figuring out those solutions for how do we solve their problem, but make it agnostic to a design system because it can’t be really specific. The teams are usually responsible for the more specific work that they do in terms of the workflow for their particular product. But from the DS side, it’s more of a super relatively agnostic approach to how can I apply, what does a header look like in an agnostic way that everybody can just pull from the DS and use. Modify here and there. But for the most part, this is generally what a header should look like and where things should go and it is accessible because we’ve already sorted out that when you tab through, it’s going to go through here, here, here and here.

Maurice Cherry:
And just to be clear, a design system would be different from say a brand guide or something because it seems like because you’re applying this across several different products, there’s just going to be different, like you said, situations or use cases where you may not be able to apply it directly, but maybe some elements of it. Am I getting that right?

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, that sounds about reasonable. Now brand does sort of inform a lot of the things because we can set those colors and that typography and some of the spacing as set colors within the system. And then if you are that brand and you are on the brand team, we at least have those in the system so that you can pull them if you need to. Those decisions are already made. So your H1 is in whatever font with whatever spacing that’s already set in the base token work. So whenever the engineers go to code it, they don’t have to worry about it. That H1 is always going to be that H1.

Maurice Cherry:
Got you. What’s probably the most difficult part about what you do?

Tiffany Stewart:
Probably convincing other designers that accessibility is the thing. That is probably the hardest thing. Now, I will say that my coworkers and my teammates at TR, we’re all very passionate about accessibility, so it’s not so much a problem there per se. But I’ve worked with other designers before or other strategists or other brand folks who are just… It is pulling teeth to get them to do the bare minimum of a contrast check on a color or a button or trying to understand that there are people… Is there a focus state that’s set? What happens if you try to tab through? Because a lot of sites will break. I think in my example at the State of Black design talk, I was just trying to buy a book from a website, but just using my keyboard and it completely failed. And so I wasn’t able to check out.

So in my mind, if we’re making a use case for it, which I don’t generally like applying to accessibility, but if you do need to make a use case or a business use case for it, you’re preventing people from buying your product by not making it as accessible as possible. It’s easy to throw away accessibility, I think because people as a very general rule, and I mean very generic here, seem to be willing to ignore people with disabilities or having a disability in general. You hear all these stories nowadays of airlines who are completely throwing away people’s wheelchairs or people not allowing the dog for the blind user in this space because of whatever. There’s a level of disposability there that I personally don’t enjoy and I don’t like seeing it. And more so too, if you’re looking at the numbers in the U.S., a good majority of the people who have disabilities do tend to be Black and brown people. So then I’m doubly more so like, “Oh no, no, no, we have to get into this.” We absolutely have to get into this.

Maurice Cherry:
And accessibility is one of those things that has definitely increased in importance over the years. Not just because more and more people have gotten on the web, but there are now more and more ways of experiencing the web that is not just through a standard computer monitor. There’s laptops, there’s smartphones, there’s smart watches, there’s probably a toaster out there that can get online. There’s all these different ways now to access information on the web. And granted those use cases are important, but also just as you mentioned, just differently abled people will have different sorts of things like vision requirements for high contrast or colors or even the alt text that you put on images is I think almost remedial accessibility and that’s still something a lot of people hem and haw over.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, they will fight you down. They will absolutely fight you down. Or they’ll produce this interface that has no contrast whatsoever. And so you’re just guessing at this point as to what is happening on that page? I don’t know. Because I think the new thing now is everything is light and bright, so there’s no borders on anything and everything just fades into the next one. And it’s very pretty aesthetically, I will give it that, but unfortunately it’s not really usable by everyone. And I think often people forget that by and large, when you make something that is accessible, that is usable by everyone, everyone benefits. Everyone benefits there. Like the grab bar in the bathroom, I am not disabled. However, the amount of times that I have slipped on the conditioner and that grab bar saved my life. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
And it can look cute too. So yeah, it’s just accessibility works literally for everyone, so why not just do it?

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And accessibility also makes sure that as many people as possible can experience what it is that you’re putting on the web.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember back in the day, we’re talking this is early 2000s, maybe even before that, when websites would have those badges that are, this site is best viewed an Internet Explorer 6 on a desktop that’s 1024 X 768. It was almost like a bouncer at the door telling you, you have to be this old to get in or something.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. Well, no, it’s a matter too, because I think what people don’t include in accessibility when they are thinking about the digital part of it too, is that they don’t include access. Not everybody has access to the best monitor, not everybody has access to the fastest processor and not everybody has access to a credit card. When we make everything credit card only for the longest time, I think before a Venmo and a PayPal came into the play, it was just the people that don’t have a credit card or don’t have that level of financial literacy don’t deserve to buy things. What are we saying when we don’t include that as part of the conversation around access and accessibility?

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say one thing that is also, I think made accessibility more important is the increase of multimedia on the web.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re recording a podcast. This podcast will have transcripts for accessibility.

Tiffany Stewart:
A transcript? Yes, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Videos with captions-

Tiffany Stewart:
I was going to ask.

Maurice Cherry:
And things like that.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re starting to see it be more and more commonplace now that the media that we consume is not just what we read, it’s also what we hear, what we see. Even smart speakers and devices, you have to talk to them in a certain way in order to get back what you need. All of that is a factor of accessibility.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, no. I think they just released a study maybe day before yesterday that Netflix was saying that the good majority of their users that have subtitles turned on are not blind or deaf.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there’s some shows I would watch with subtitles. I used to watch Scandal with subtitles just so I can make sure I can catch everything.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, I keep mine on. Yeah, I know because I’m like, “I don’t know what’s happening.”

Maurice Cherry:
Another thing that it’s good for, and this is not so much accessibility, but if you’re watching foreign language programs, to have subtitles in a different language. For me, it can help with learning a bit of the language because you know what they’re trying to say and what you hear, your mind connects those things together. But even with accessibility, there’s bad captions out there.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, I live for those.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a whole thing.

Tiffany Stewart:
I need to make a website that’s just bad captions. Because they’ll be like, “Pop music playing enthusiastically.” And you’re like, “What, where did that caption come from?” The descriptions are great, I love it. Yeah, yeah. No.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
But I’m just glad that they’re there at this point because like I said, people don’t think about those things a lot of times.

Maurice Cherry:
And we’re talking about now accessibility in a largely, I don’t want to say 2D context. You might see where I’m going here, but there’s been all this talk about Web3 and the metaverse, and you want to talk about inaccessibility? It’s inaccessible even for the average person because, it’s not only about what you can hear or see, but just to get it… And maybe this is a tangent of accessibility, but you have to be watching on a certain device that costs a certain amount of money and you’ve got to have a high speed internet connection. There are other barriers that I think people might not look at as accessibility that does factor into accessible web experiences.

Tiffany Stewart:
Absolutely. I talk about it all the time. I’m like, “So let’s talk about the actual experience part of this. How am I meant to experience this when I don’t have access to any of these things?” Maybe your point is to gatekeep, I don’t know, maybe. Because that’s usually the argument that will come up too, is that like, “Oh, well those people are not my target demographic.” And I’m like, “Run me by again, what exactly is your target demographic?” Because every demographic has someone who may or may not be disabled. So I’m not really sure why. Again, it just plays back the disposability of people with disabilities. So it’s stressful to me. I get annoyed all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit. Let’s learn more about you, about your origin story. I can tell you’re very passionate about UX and about accessibility, but I’d like to get a sense of where that came from. So just to start off, where’d you grow up?

Tiffany Stewart:
So I am originally from Jamaica. I moved here when I was about maybe 14, 15. Don’t ask me about the numbers. It was a long time ago. And then moved here. And the immigrant family story, my options were either engineer, doctor, MBA. My career choices were very narrow based on that particular set of criteria, which to be fair, I gave my mom her engineering degree so I could be left alone. Right? But everyone in my family is either a physician or a NASA scientist in my cousin’s part. So we’re all pretty diverse in terms of our applications to STEAM and STEM work.

I was actually going to be a surgeon at one point. I was attending NYU as a bio major to do that. But I think working with my mom in terms of listening to her talk about medicine as it’s in medical practice as it functions today in the U.S. and really hearing the stories about how people with disabilities or even older people are treated in the hospital system. I was like, “I can’t sit back and not say anything about it.” So I think I got a lot of it from going to work with my mom and seeing how people were being treated within the medical space. And even being handed their prescriptions and they couldn’t read it or they had to fill out online forms and they didn’t know how. And I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to fill out online form via a hospital, but it’s usually a very bad process. Nothing is readable, any of those things. Don’t even ask them about a language option for you.

So going through all of that and watching my mom do it and then getting into the digital space and then understanding and linking the two was probably what drove most of my passion for accessibility.

Maurice Cherry:
From what it sounds like, just based on life experience, that you had this early desire to get into this, but then you also just said, I gave my mom her engineering degree. I want to talk a little bit about that. You went to undergrad, you went to the University of Mississippi and majored in electrical engineering. Did you have an interest in it or were you just like, “This is what I need to do to get my family off my back?”

Tiffany Stewart:
No, no, no, no. I did. I really, really did. So back, oh my gosh, my mom is going to be so mad. So I dropped out of NYU, to which my mother was livid and that’s fair. But then I dropped out of NYU because the company that I worked for at the time had given me a promotion and wanted to send me out to California to train their engineers on a particular ticketing system that we were using for our IT program. And so while I was out there, I ended up switching jobs and then my job was basically what they call a client support specialist is what they called it. And I was basically a liaison between the engineering department, project management and the sales people and customers in order to get them moved into their co-location space, set up their routers, all of that extraneous good stuff.

This was back before when we were doing network address translations and you had to do a letter of justification in order to get IPs because they thought that the IPs were going to run out. It was a whole thing. It was pre 2000, so pre Y2K, they were very concerned about these things. So I did that. But then the Dotcom Bubble essentially burst. And so a lot of us in Silicon Valley got let go. And so I came back and I was like, “Okay mom, I’m ready.” So because of that work that I did with that ISP, I determined that I wanted to build computers because I thought that was fun. So I did electrical engineering specializing in computer engineering. So in theory, I could build you a badass circuit. So yeah, that’s how that happened.

Maurice Cherry:
But you had the interest in it though. That’s the important part, right?

Tiffany Stewart:
I am of a person who I like to take things apart and tinker. I like to work with my hands. Like I said, I’m building the shelves in my office. So miter saw, table saw, planar, let’s go. And I’ve always been that person. And then I’m also an only child, my mom’s only child. So she was very much of this is broken, you need to figure out how to fix it because I have to go to work. So I was like, “Well, got to figure it out.” But I’ve always had an interest in it and it was fine. I enjoy taking things apart. I’m a very curious person by nature. So I’m always fascinated about how things work, how things are put together. And you’ll see, you see me use the phrase all the time, “Oh my God, that’s fascinating.” Because I’m generally, I am that person.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I understand. I went to college and I majored in math… Well, no, let me roll that back.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, math major.

Maurice Cherry:
I first majored in computer science, computer engineering because this was turn of the century, like ’99, 2000. Started college in ’99 and I had been already dipping my toe into web design with Tripod and Angel Fire, GeoCities, reverse engineering view source websites and stuff like that. And I thought, “Oh, if I become a computer engineer, I can design a website,” because I didn’t know. I had not heard of what a web designer was or if that was a thing. And I that first semester, I was taking courses in I think it was intro to computer programming, learning C++. And I was like, “This is not HTML. What is this? How do I make a website with this?” And I’m going to my advisor and telling him what I want to do. And my advisor, Dr. Jones, he was like, “If you want to do this internet stuff, that’s just a fad. If you want to get into that, this isn’t going to last. That’s not what we do here.”

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh no. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s like, “We don’t do that here.”

Tiffany Stewart:
But I will say they are teaching you the backend part of it. So they just completely tossed you over for the front end. But they gave you the backend part.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but again, this was-

Tiffany Stewart:
You had that Java stuff too.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. And this was ’99. Our lab had Sun Microsystems and SGI Machines and stuff like that. So this was still very, very early in the web/internet days. And he was like, “We don’t do that here. We’ll teach you assembly, we’ll teach you C++, but if you want to do this web design thing, you might want to change your major.” And so the next semester, I changed my major to math. And then that’s just what I ended up getting my degree in. I like math, but people are always surprised with me being a designer that I have a math degree. I would imagine people are probably surprised you as a designer have an electrical engineering degree. They’re like, “How does that work?” For me, math teaches me how to think. Yeah, go ahead.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, that’s what I was going to say. I think for engineering, it teaches you how to identify a problem and think about the steps needed to solve the problem. So engineering for me teaches you how to think about problem solving, which as a UX designer, that is pretty much all that we do is problem solve. How do we get the checkout flow to work in such a way that they actually finish checking out? What are those steps? And if there’s an error, what happens? So going through all of those steps and iterating on that process by testing every time. It’s very much an engineering mindset, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I know with math, the thing I think that struck me at one point learning math in college was that, “Oh, there are some equations that have either no solution or infinitely many solutions.” And that blew my mind at the time because I was like, “Wait a minute, I’ve been taking algebra and trig and calc and all these things.” They resolve to something. And they’re like, “Well, there are often going to sometimes be equations that don’t make sense, that are not going to have a solution or they’re going to have an infinite amount of solutions.” And so when I say it teaches you how to think, at least for me, it teaches me how to take something I may not know and process it and break it down. The steps of writing a mathematical proof to me are the same steps to writing a research paper, the same steps to writing a proposal for a client or a statement of work. It’s the same logical flow of take these elements, prove this thing, therefore this, all of that.

Tiffany Stewart:
I used to love those.

Maurice Cherry:
I look back at some-

Tiffany Stewart:
I was that weird kid in class who loves doing the geometric proofs. I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to show you that this is a right angle. Let me break it down right quick.”

Maurice Cherry:
I looked back at some of my old stuff. I found my thesis from, god, 20 years ago. I found my thesis recently that I wrote in college on sigma algebra and measure theoretic entropy with the existence of Lie groups. I have no idea what any of those things mean now. But I’m looking back at it and it’s just symbols and letters. I’m like, “I used to really know this. I don’t know it now.”

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes. Listen, I stopped because with electrical engineering, especially at Ole Miss, they were like, “We can’t let you do a math minor. You’d have to double major do EE and math.” And I was like, “Listen, after differential equations, I’m good.” It was differential, discreet, all of that. And I think after those classes is when you start getting into the theoretical math where they just don’t use numbers at all. It’s just theory and proving that this process works.

Maurice Cherry:
My last year and a half because I majored in pure math and my last year and a half, it was differential equations, it was topology. And my teachers, great teachers, but absolute sadists. They would be like, “I’m going to give this test and not everybody is going to pass this test.” Or they’ll say, “Well, these last two questions are only for my top students.” And there will be infinitely just wild stuff like, “What in the world? When am I ever going to use this?” I’ve never had to use anything with differential equations, ever. I love it though. The thing is, I went into math because I love it. I love to do the problems and solving and all that sort of stuff, which is a lot about what design is. It’s about solving problems, different kind of problems, but you’re still solving problems. And math teaches you those steps and ways to think and consider in a way that… I didn’t go to design school, so I don’t know, but I feel like it teaches you that logical way of thinking through something that perhaps design school may not.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. Because I think for me at least, it felt like design school was more about the psychology of things. So understanding color theory and understanding that different colors make people feel a different way than other colors do. So it’s more so about how these things make you feel more so than anything else. And so it was the engineering part that taught me the problem solving and then the design part that taught me the aesthetic piece. Is that the word?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the aesthetic piece. Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
The aesthetic piece Of it, and how things make you feel.

Maurice Cherry:
I totally get that. Yeah. Because for example, if you put red text on a blue background, yes, that’s going to be really jarring.

Tiffany Stewart:
I will fight you.

Maurice Cherry:
They won’t go together. But then mathematically, I know it’s because of the frequency of the color red against the color blue causes your eyes to do this weird jump shift. It’s really tiring to read that. So I’m like, “Okay, that’s why it doesn’t make sense.” I’ll always be trying to think of the reason behind the feeling instead of just going with the feeling, which I don’t know, maybe if I went to design school, I’d have more of that, “Oh yes, these colors, they mesh. I get it.” As supposed to being like, “Well, this makes sense because of some other reason.” But you end up going and majoring in design after you got your degree from Ole Miss, you went to Mississippi State and you majored in graphic design. Why did you make that switch?

Tiffany Stewart:
Well, because I wanted to be an animator. Funnily enough, I think they had not updated their website at the time. So Mississippi State was like, “Oh, we have an animation program.” Because I really wanted to do graphic design for film or design for film. And so I was like, “Oh, I can combine my problem solving with design if I become an animator and do that.” That was a thought process in my mind. I don’t know why. So on their website, they hadn’t updated it. And so I enrolled and got in and I was super excited and they were like, “Oh, we no longer have that program. All we have for you is graphic design, good luck.” And I was like, “Huh? Okay. Well let’s try it and we’ll see.”

But then I think at the time, maybe it was more so print focused than anything else. So I could tell you all the things about the GSM of paper. We did watercolor photography, all of those things. One of my favorite classes was 3D design. And so that’s when I spent most of my time in the wood shop. The instructor at the time, I think he was a famous furniture designer, but he was teaching us how to build things by sketching it out, thinking about from a 3D space perspective, how something would look and then we would have to build it, build it, build it. So did some sculptural work. It was great. Oh my gosh, that design program at Mississippi State, I loved it. It was great.

And then they also allowed me to pair with video game designers they had. And so I was doing design work for that too. So it was a good time. Even though it wasn’t necessarily an animation program, I learned a lot from the graphic design program at State. I will say that.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds like a lot of fun, actually.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, it was so much fun. And I’m still friends with a lot of people there. And the people that left that school went on to do amazing things. I think Tim is out here designing the graphics for Roku. Let’s see, there’s another young lady, She went on to work at Gensler as an architect. So the class is good. The classes are really, really good. And some of the students that came out of there based on the teachers that we had at the time were just amazing, amazing folks to work with.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like your background in engineering helped you out in any way when you were majoring in design?

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes and no. It helped me figure out how to approach thinking about what I was going to do if I needed to put together a logo per se. I knew, I’m like, “Okay, this is the result that I wanted. What are the steps to get there?” So in that sense, the planning of how to do it was helpful. However, engineering is very much, I like things to be symmetrical. There’s always those projects that we had to do that were you had to make something asymmetrical. And I did not enjoy that because my brain just refused. And I think that just came from the engineering side. It was like, “No, it has to either be in order or it has to be on a scale of some sort that I can understand like 2, 4, 6, 8,” that type of thing. I can’t have you jumping around all over the place in the design. It makes my brain not work well.

So it does both. And more so now with the digital side of things. Like I said, it mainly applies to the problem solving part of it where I’m like, “Oh, okay, if we want to get this result. How do we apply that concept in a way that scales on a DS?” And I can do that through my engineering thinking, coupled with my design thinking.

Maurice Cherry:
So once you graduated from Mississippi State, you’ve got your design degree, you’ve got your engineering degree. Did you go right into UX design after that?

Tiffany Stewart:
No. I actually got a job at a church. It was one of those big churches, biggest churches in Austin, Texas. And I basically was doing everything. So I was doing all of their print work, so designed magazines, all of their photography. So I was a photographer. And then I was also responsible for building and maintaining their website. So it was a full on, you’re the only person here, you have to do everything type of moment. And I learned a lot from that job for sure. Yeah, printmaking and printing things is no joke. Web work is no joke. Because I think at the time they only had access to, what is it, WordPress? So that was the medium that I was working with. And WordPress has its own caveats. So putting all of that together and making sure everything got out on time every Sunday, I learned a lot. I learned a lot.

What I remember the most is we had to print magazines because the rector at the time wanted us to put out a monthly magazine where we interviewed various people from the church. We had to take pictures of everything and there was whole thing. So I was like a Vogue Magazine editor with the big old board where you put things up and your articles are there, and you pick what pictures and you basically art direct that whole entire process. But then after that was done, assembling them in this giant InDesign file and then sending that to the printer because we had a dedicated printer room. And figuring out how the printer worked, troubleshooting all of that, and then actually printing it, trimming the edges, cutting it, mailing it. I actually ended up sleeping at the office doing a magazine run. It was a good time. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a good time.

Maurice Cherry:
You were truly a webmaster.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Doing all of that. I especially tip my hat to you about the magazine thing. The last gig that I worked at, we put together a quarterly magazine and that was a lot just to try to get it out the door, hopefully every three months. I can’t imagine every month. How big was the magazine?

Tiffany Stewart:
It wasn’t very big. It was a very… I want to say how many sheets as I’m looking through my paper. Maybe like 24, 32.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That’s still a lot though-

Tiffany Stewart:
So it wasn’t too bad.

Maurice Cherry:
To try to pull together every month.

Tiffany Stewart:
Listen, my main thing was because people would submit photos and the photos that they would submit, I’m like, “This cannot be printed. It’s entirely too small.” So then I’d have to schedule a photo shoot and run out there and retake all the photos and then run back. But the church had money, so we did what we had to do. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
It was a good time. Like I said, I learned a lot because it was literally only me. So I was responsible for all of it. From the rooter to the tooter, as they say.

Maurice Cherry:
As they say.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, as they say, the rooter to the tooter. And so it was just picking the font, understanding how the typography was going to be laid out in an enticing way on the cover page. Figuring out how the table of content should be displayed, what was the concept and theme for the magazine. And then making sure that we got all the articles and everybody returned their corrections on time. And then making sure that we had the correct paper in stock and making sure that the printer didn’t jam. And then after all of that, running it through the cycle of getting it mailed out to the individual households that were part of the membership was a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
That alone is a job. The fact that you were doing that on top of web stuff, on top of graphic stuff. My hat goes off to you because I’ve had those positions before where you’re doing all the things because you’re the only person that can do all the things.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. It makes you indispensable to a point, but you get serious burnout after a while because it was one thing after another. And I think a few minutes later or a few months after the choir director left and the choir director was responsible for printing the Sunday brochures. So after he left, guess who was responsible for printing the Sunday brochures?

Maurice Cherry:
That was you.

Tiffany Stewart:
Mm-hmm, yep. I was at that job all the time, actually slept there. And one would not think that of like, “Oh, you’re just a graphic designer at a church.” No, no friend.

Maurice Cherry:
No.

Tiffany Stewart:
No, no friend.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve done church work before. Because sometimes what will happen, and I don’t know if this happened maybe in your case, but sometimes what will happen is that your obligation to your job ends up getting wrapped up in some level of religiosity where it’s not just the work that you’re doing for the church, but you’re doing the work for God.

Tiffany Stewart:
None of that, fortunately that was not. They were very nice. I want to say the church was Episcopalian. And I just was like, “Mm-hmm, Mm-hmm. This is great. I’m very happy for everyone involved. Yes, exactly that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I feel like maybe if it had been, for lack of a better word, a Black church, that might have changed. Because I feel like there’s a level of guilt, I find.

Maurice Cherry:
Guilt? Yeah, that’s what I was going to say.

Tiffany Stewart:
I know, I’m trying. How do I say this nicely? But there’s a level of guilt that only Black churches because-

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

Tiffany Stewart:
Because they’ll be like, “Oh well, your grand mama Marlene.” And I’m like, “Oh no. So now I have to do this flyer.”

Maurice Cherry:
I empathize with that a 100%. Oh my God. Okay, yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Especially if your parents or family members or members of the church too. It’s just like, “Yeah, no, I’m absolutely going to just have to make this flyer and make Miss Martha look good.”

Maurice Cherry:
So after your work at the church is when you got more into, I would say digital design. You worked as a product designer and then a UX designer, which is what you’re doing now. Was it a big shift to go from doing all the things at the church to now just focusing on product or focusing on UX?

Tiffany Stewart:
Honestly, no. And I think that’s because the church in its way of making me do everything, prepared me for the slightly, and I do mean slightly, slightly less work of being a product or UX designer because I’m only focused on one thing at that point. I’m not focused on doing everything. So it was a breath of fresh air because I was like, “Oh, okay, I can just focus on the digital. I don’t have to worry about the magazine and whatever and whatever, whatever. I can just do the digital.” And then it also helped that I worked for a luxury travel agency. So I was just staring at beautiful pictures of hotels all day long and being like, “I will go there some day. Absolutely.” But yeah, no, it wasn’t too bad at all.

I think a lot of my experience with my work in print actually helped with my work at digital because they actually also did print magazines, but I was responsible for the digital version of it. So since I already knew how to do all of that work from the church, it was like, “Oh no, no, this is good. This is great. I can do this.” And I think the engineering team had already set up a pretty decent templating system. So at that point it was basically just making sure that all of the digital stuff was set up in a way that I could just very quickly upload it to the web what I needed it to, whenever they needed to release a digital article. And on my side, it wasn’t a set thing. So we only had released maybe one or two articles a week. And so it was just basically sourcing photos and making sure that all of the digital stuff was set up on there.

It wasn’t until they decided to end the print half or move the print half and mainly focus on digital in terms of booking flights and booking hotels. Then that’s when it was like, “Okay, so now we’ve shifted to the user experience side of things.” Because before, it was a lot of really just allowing consumers to just read articles based on our recommendations for things. And so it was very narrow in that sense. And then when it came time to book things, then it became, “Okay, so how does our booking thing work? How does search work? What is the experience if someone were to try to book a flight?” Is it that it goes to the travel agent or can they book directly? And what did the steps look like for that?

So that’s where it shifted is that that last piece of the UX of completing a full entire process to get that booked result versus I’m just serving you up an article on the best restaurant in LA type of thing. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. And I think for people that are listening, I feel like at least nowadays, UX and product tend to get conflated in a way. There may be subbed out one thing for another. So I’m glad that you were pointing out what the differences are between those two.

Tiffany Stewart:
They do both carry an aspect of user experience in the very basic sense of how is a user meant to experience reading an article on restaurants versus how is a user meant to experience a checkout flow for booking a flight? So they do share that in that regard. You could use them interchangeably, I don’t think anybody would be mad. However, I do have friends who are product designers and I think they call them industrial designers now. I remember they’d be like, “Oh, I’m applying for a position for a product designer.” And I’m like, “Ooh, that’s not what you think it is, friend.” So it also depends on what the company defines a product designer or a UX designer as well in the job description. And so a lot of my industrial designer friends were like, “This is lame, we’re the product designers, not you guys.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
So, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What gives you purpose to keep doing the work that you do?

Tiffany Stewart:
So I follow several people on Twitter who are in the disability activism space. And while I don’t comment per se, them sharing their experiences fuels me to make the web better. The internet is not going anywhere as far as I know. I would love it if they made it a utility, but I digress. And so I want everyone to have an equitable experience on the web. I want for, or I would like to be able to help that further along, whether it’s being passionate about making sure that there’s a contrast and the code is right and whatever.

But I want the web to be as equitable as possible. Because a lot of times when folks don’t have access to these things, people’s lives are in danger. No one talks about that side of it. But if all of a sudden you’re saying access to government grants and access to COVID vaccinations can only be achieved by going to a website, how many people are you cutting out with that one decision alone? Especially if the web is not accessible enough to accommodate everybody. And so following these women and their work in that space really fuels me to make sure that I champion it on my end as best as I can.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you work to stay your authentic self throughout your career? certainly I think when people hear this interview, they get that you’ve got a bubbly personality and working in tech and then working in design and working in tech in news. I would imagine you encounter a lot of different types of folks, we’ll just put it that way. But how have you worked to stay your authentic self?

Tiffany Stewart:
Antionette told me to, I think you’ve interviewed Antionette Carroll?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, I’ve had her on the show. Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. So she used to come hang out at the house whenever she would come in for South by Southwest and we would have these long conversations about the work that she was doing in design equity. And she’s amazing and she’s also another inspiration. But Antionette was like, “Listen, you have to be authentic in your work all the time. You just have to be.” And I said, “Okay, yes ma’am.” I just did what she said. I trust her and she’s an amazing human. And I do find that it is helpful because people then know what they’re getting from you. And I do tell people in front. I remember teasing my poor boss. I was like, “Are you sure you want to hire me? Because you were getting this mouth along with the hire, so I need you to be okay with that.” And he was like, “No, no, it’s fine. Please, by all means, bring your authentic self to work.”

And so I appreciate that about my bosses at my company. They’re very much supportive of that. And I have not run into a situation, because sometimes they’ll say that and they don’t mean that. But I have not run into that thus far here.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good.

Tiffany Stewart:
So I’m very grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Very grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry:
#AntionetteTaughtMe.

Tiffany Stewart:
Listen, that could be a series in and of itself. My goodness, I miss her so much.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best piece of advice that you would give to somebody that wants to follow in your footsteps? They’ve heard your story, they want to be like you, they want to be where you’re at, at that level. What would you tell them?

Tiffany Stewart:
Stay curious. Be curious about everything. How everything works, how people feel about things. Be observant. Watch people, watch how things function. You would be surprised what you can learn just by looking at a thing and being like, “So what was that meant for?” We always used to joke that there’s these products out there that the designers built them for one way and then the users use them in a completely different way and you’re just like, “That’s not what that was meant for.” But even that is some semblance of feedback. So just observing and being curious and watching and learning. Stay learning. Stay curious and stay learning. Never stop learning.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Tiffany Stewart:
I feel like at the moment, my big thing is I’m planning on having my mom come live with me. So learning more about accessibility in terms of interior design and home design and making sure that everything is set up for her to live comfortably if she chooses to come live with me. So just furthering my experience in accessibility, but just applying it to different things and seeing what that looks like. And then whatever I learned, share it with everybody who asks or didn’t ask. Y’all gon’ get this accessibility on today, as I say, often.

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

Tiffany Stewart:
I tend to keep a low profile, but I am on LinkedIn. You can find me there. I am on Instagram, but I don’t post often. I am a lurker, as it were, one of those things. Those are my two spots that I’m usually-

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the Instagram name?

Tiffany Stewart:
Elemango.design. It’s from an old graphic design project that I did for my senior year at university.

Maurice Cherry:
All right.

Tiffany Stewart:
But yeah, elemango.design. Elephants and mangoes.

Maurice Cherry:
I thought that what it might be.

Tiffany Stewart:
My two favorite things.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounded like that’s what it might be elephants and mangoes.

Tiffany Stewart:
Elephants and mangoes. My two favorite things. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Awesome. Well, Tiffany Stewart, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you for sharing your story. It sounds like you’re someone that is just passionately curious about a lot of things and you had the opportunity to be able to really go into a lot of places with your career. Engineering degree, then doing design and then doing all these other things. It sounds like you’re someone that is always trying to keep on the pulse of what’s next. And I think of course, with accessibility being such an important topic to our world right now, I feel like we’ll be hearing and seeing a lot more from you in the future. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you. So lovely to do this. This is a lot of fun. So yeah, no, I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

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Kamar Thomas

Every designer or artist wants to be able to make a living from their work, and this week’s guest embodies that desire. Generally, Kamar Thomas splits his time between being a design educator at two institutions — Centennial College and VCAD — but outside the classroom, he’s a prolific artist who specializes in vibrant oil paintings filled with deep meaning. He also just finished his first book, The Artist’s Creative Vision, which publishes this winter. Very nice!

Kamar started off talking about his teaching career, which also includes stints in the U.S. and Jamaica, and he talked about getting into art and painting as a kid before attending college at Wesleyan. He also spoke on the themes of the Black figure, masks, and abstraction in his work, his first gallery show this year, and what he ultimately wants to convey in his paintings. For Kamar, you can make art from wherever, and also have a great career!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kamar Thomas:
My name is Kamar Thomas. I am a fine art painter, primarily an artist. I’m also a professor at two colleges, Centennial College and Visual College of Art and Design. And lastly, because I have finished a manuscript, I will be an author of a book called The Artist’s Creative Vision.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations on the book.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you, thank you. When it comes out, hopefully it does come out, I hope it makes an impact.

Maurice Cherry:
It will. I think every person’s book makes an impact, especially for the person who wrote it.

Kamar Thomas:
Especially for the person who wrote it.

Maurice Cherry:
Book aside, how has the summer been going so far?

Kamar Thomas:
The summer has been busy. I fill essentially three roles. I teach and I make and I write. And the summer is my season of making and writing, so I’ve had an exhibition in the summer. I’ve been going to museums quite a bit, and I’ve been just polishing up the manuscript, which is a whole long process in itself.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I see on the websites you’ve got the book here available for pre-order and everything. We’ll also make sure to put a link to it in the show notes so people can check that out.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you. I’m very grateful. I need it.

Maurice Cherry:
What was your inspiration behind it?

Kamar Thomas:
It came from solving my own problem, which was I was a starving artist, and I didn’t want to be a starving artist anymore so the book is written to, if I can, eradicate that concept, get rid of the idea. And to solve that problem, it’s… The real issue is how does one come up with work consistently that people want to buy? Rather than just making and following the muse and blindly following inspiration.
And I sat down and I came up with a system. And by sat down, I mean with trial and error and teaching people and tried a few other method here and picking up things through teaching and applying them to myself. And the system is combine your interests with your biography, with art history, repeat. Eventually someone will buy.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds pretty simple.

Kamar Thomas:
Sounds pretty simple, just like saving money is simple, but it’s really difficult. Just like exercise is simple, but it’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, I want to get more into your work as an artist, but let’s talk about your work as a professor first. You mentioned teaching at two universities. You’re teaching at the Visual College of Art and Design; that’s in Edmonton, Alberta. And you’re teaching at Centennial College, which is in Toronto, which is on in Ontario. That’s east coast, west coast geographically. How do you balance teaching at both of those schools?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, balance is a strong word. Let’s just say… What’s the word? Manage. Balance supplies. For a season, there is teaching Visual College of Art and Design is online, and their classes are two to three hours long. And I fit them in the schedule where I can. And I teach at Centennial in person; I’m full-time there. And that schedule is largely immutable. The meetings have to happen, the classes have to happen, and I have to physically be there. And so it’s just a matter of systematizing and being rather ruthless with what I say yes to and being very hands on with the planning. I spend a significant portion of time just planning just 20 minutes here and there. I think if I added it up over the week, it would be at least an hour and a half just on planning what I’m going to do with the time that I have.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it’s good that you manage both of them because it sounds like one’s online, one’s in person, but then the schedules don’t seem to really cross over either, so that’s pretty good.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. If it’s one thing I’ve learned from teaching, it’s systematize. If you repeat anything, figure out the best way to repeat it rather than having to make yourself figure it out each time.
I have a complicated system of things coming into my inbox to moving to a… I gather up a place, I put them in a folder, and then once a day I go in the folder, I put those into the planner ,and the the next day I get out a physical piece of paper and I write down the things from the planner. And I keep it on my person so I won’t have to keep checking the planner. And then somewhere on the paper on my person, I have somewhere to put the new stuff coming in so nothing really slips through the cracks. Some things do, but for the most part, 90%, 95% do not.
The same with art; a system that you can go back to, that you can rely on to produce results is much better than inspiration-based or client-based. It’s more of if you have a method of working, you go, you consult the system. I do this. Let me check art history. What do I have inspired there? Let me draw something from my biography. Go.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting, I didn’t really realize that about teaching myself until I started teaching. Which when I was in college, I would always have professors that would… They wouldn’t necessarily repeat themselves, they’d always just tell you it’s in the syllabus. It’s like, “It’s in the syllabus. I put it in the syllabus.” And I’m like, yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Then when I started teaching, I was like, I get it, because the syllabus is like your system. You put everything in there, and it’s up to the student whether they read it or not. If they don’t read it, it’s not your fault. You put it in the syllabus. They should have read it.

Kamar Thomas:
Correct. It not only has everything, it has when everything is going to happen and it has how you expect it to happen and it has the consequences of if they don’t happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Yep. And then the students get mad when they’re like, “Well, I didn’t read the syllabus.” Well, that’s your problem. The syllabus is the key to the system for me, so I get it.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. That’s exactly right.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve been a teacher for awhile now. Not just with these two colleges, but you’ve taught in Canada, you’ve taught in Jamaica, you’ve taught in United States. What do you learn from your students? Are there any differences between students in different countries and stuff?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, there sure are. In Jamaica, the difference in students in Jamaica, I was teaching high school. And the difference really… Well, what would have made the difference there is finances, it’s money. A lot of the issues could be solved by a few dollars here and there. The main challenges I was up against was actual art materials, was the space to make the art, was the resources. Once you have the money, those problems are solved.
In the United States, when I became a professor, the problem I faced the most was a problem of agency. And that I loosely define as is this thing for me? The students, a lot of them didn’t feel like making art was… Nevermind being possible, it’s possible, but just for someone else. And so a lot of my teaching was geared towards having students not only believe that it’s for them, but making projects that reinforce that belief. And there are very few things more encouraging than a few dollars in your bank account.
In Canada, it is the students I teach now, it is a equivalent of a community college. And the students I teach are adults, and they want to be professionals, and they need tangible results. The difference in Canada is students are a little more responsible because they’re a little school older. But they just need the resources. They need to know when and where what’s happening. A lot of my job is just finding things for my students to enter, finding outlets for them.
In Jamaica, it is a straight financial barrier. In the US, it is a problem of agency a lot of the time. And in Canada now, it’s a matter of finding and connecting the students to the resources.

Maurice Cherry:
I found when I talked to some educators here in the States that teach at HBCUs, it’s a combination of those things that you mentioned. If they’re teaching on HBCUs, it’s often the lack of funds and resources as well as the agency, depending on what program it is or how many people are in the department and such. It’s interesting how the problems scale based on not just country, but also just where you’re teaching and the students that you’re teaching, the type of students you’re teaching.

Kamar Thomas:
That’s correct. The agency is a rather complicated problem because it’s not an individual problem. You can’t really solve it by one student, you have to get the whole class to want to do well. And as a result, the individual will do well within that, so you have to set the expectation and then you have tom in a way, make it known that what they’re doing is hard, and it’s supposed to be hard, and see if you can get them on board for the difficulty. It’s a really delicate dance. But the US, that was the problem I faced, and hopefully I rose to the challenge. And I apologize to the students if I have not.

Maurice Cherry:
Do your students take you up on office hours?

Kamar Thomas:
Yes, they do. Because drawing is a bit like singing where it’s your voice, with drawing it’s your hand, it feels, and it’s your art, it’s what you are trying to say, a lot of the things that I give in class, it feels like I’m attacking them personally. They take up the office hours to tell me that I shouldn’t have attacked them personally. And then we have sessions to show them, no, it’s not you, it’s understanding of the subject matter that we’re doing is not quite there yet. This is what you’re doing. You’re over here. I need you to get to here.
An example of that would be I’m teaching measuring things, just measuring, and I’m I say, “You draw a line, a straight line, a perfectly vertical line and then you measure every other angle from that.” If I say picture a 90 degree angle, you have that in your head. If you cut that in half, you have a 45 degree angle. If you’re looking at a line, you can guess what that angle is because you know what 90 is and you know what 45 is. If it’s below 45, you can say, “Oh, that’s about 30,” et cetera.
And what students do, they don’t do that, they just guess. They just put it down, it looks right, and they come to office hours and say, “Hey, you were picking on me.” And I said, “I knew you guessed because you immediately put down something before attempting… Before I even finished the sentence.” Yeah, they take up office hours, they get extra time at the beginning.
Now, at the advanced level, when they’re about to graduate, they want to know if there’s a gallery showing, which ones I should contact. If there’s an art festival, how do I get in? What do I do now? I’m about to be out there. What do I do now? And I have a whole packet for them. I have what’s the steps that they take. What are the expectations? I break out the spreadsheet. Rent is $1,500. If you sell for $500, you need to sell three every month. You need to contact 10 people every month as a result. It’s 30 days in a month. If you do one every other day, you’ll get to 10; three of them might buy. And if you do this over a year, you won’t run out of money. That’s what my office hours are for.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, back when I was teaching… Oh my goodness, this might have been over 10 years ago. I started off teaching in person, and then I asked to be moved to teach online because my students were wearing me out. One, well, my students were all older than me, and so a lot of them tried to think that they would punk me because they’re like, “You’re my son’s age.” And I’m like, “So? I will fail you if you don’t get these assignments right.” Some of them would ask me to… They would bring their kids to class and they would try to use office hours as babysitting. They would have their kid come to office hours. And I’m like, “Where’s your mom?” And they’re like, “I don’t know.” What am I supposed to do? I’m not running daycare over here. And I asked to be moved online because I was like, I can’t keep coming out here and fooling what y’all doing this stuff.
And online is just different because the students just have to have more discipline. And again, this was 10 years ago, pre-pandemic. Now where I think everyone’s used to doing virtual work. Just trying to get them to have the discipline to just say something in the forum, just participate in class. Because there was a participation element to their grade. And then when they have office hours, it’s just like, “Well what can I do to make up for the time that I wasn’t speaking?” I’m like, “You can’t. You can’t make up participation. There’s no extra credit for participation. You didn’t speak up. That was it.” Trying to do anything they could just to pass. I would have students that would try to justify why they thought it was okay cheating because the class was online. And if the class wasn’t online and Wikipedia wasn’t there, then why would it be available as a resource? They’re very creative.
I was teaching a… It was basically principles of web development to business students, which was probably why they were so duplicitous, because it wasn’t design students, they were business majors that just needed a credit. They didn’t really care to learn, they were just like, “What can I do to get past you?” Essentially. And it would be just so disheartening because I would have students that would fail my class two and three times coming back doing the same stuff, and it’s like, “Do you want me to just pass you out of pity? Because it’s getting there. It’s hurting me to see you doing the same stuff. The assignment has not changed from semester to semester. I would think you would be better at it because you’ve done it before.” Yeah,. I do miss teaching though, I just don’t miss all of that, I don’t miss all of that.

Kamar Thomas:
Some people you’re not going to get when you are in… What is it? The lower school levels of everybody, and everybody’s decent. But as soon as you go to high school and you’re high school as 2,000 people, you know at least one or two crazy people, just absolute… You see them, you cross the street.
In teaching, some people it might be they might not make it. It might be that they, for whatever reason, their motivation, they’re unwilling to do the work; and that’s fine. I do my absolute best to not take it in any way personal. I actually take it as a point of pride to produce the same professionalism, no matter what the student comes with. And I treat them extra, extra nice just to make the D or the E that they’re about to get a bit more palatable. But I’m-

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, did you say D or E?

Kamar Thomas:
Listen, there’s no time machine. You’re going to fail this class. It’s over for you.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait. There’s a grade that’s a E?

Kamar Thomas:
There’s a F.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Kamar Thomas:
It exists, but I explain in great detail, the grades that are coming, and I explain the connection. And I try and point out what they can do next time, provided and they take it again. And I make it really long, and it takes a long time for me to do it. When they come back the next time I say, “Remember that long list I sent you? You haven’t done it. You showed up when there was three weeks remaining in the semester and you were asking me to perform a miracle, but I am merely a teacher. I am not the Lord. I cannot turn the water into wine. I’m sorry, I can’t make time return itself.” If you plan on making it, you have to come to a certain number of them to get participation. A lot of it is merely giving people the benefit of the doubt that they’ll try again and not taking it personally. And I’m going to be honest; it’s been really difficult.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine. I can imagine.

Kamar Thomas:
It’s very, very difficult. But again, systematize. I’ve seen it before now. I’m actually mad if it bothers me at all when I see the second time. I always think you’ve seen this before. You really [inaudible 00:21:30]. You see it’s not the first person that has come in three weeks before. Go look for the three weeks before folder, search to your computer. Oh, here it is. Oh yeah, this is what I said. Got it. And then I go and set out the template.
And that way, again, because in the US, agency was the problem, I always wanted to preserve the idea that this person felt like what I was teaching was theirs. And so I would try and be excruciatingly kind, the kind of understanding, “Oh, you’re still going to fail, but it’s an understanding fail.” It’s with love, it’s with kindness, it’s with accountability. And I think if the students have changed me in any way, I’ve become way more understanding and way more empathetic. Still going to failure you, though, but way more empathetic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I get it. Sometimes I know students are going through a lot, and you try to do as much as you can. You want to get them to the level where they hopefully are understanding and doing it for themselves, and then sometimes you just don’t have that. But I think as educators, you and I both realize that it comes with the territory.

Kamar Thomas:
Unfortunately, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit and talk more about you. I think, as folks can probably tell by now with the quiet storm voice, that you’re from Jamaica. Tell me what it was like growing up there.

Kamar Thomas:
I’m from port Antonio in Jamaica. Place called Boundbrook, which is near the town of Port Antonio. Yeah, it’s called Stony Hill. As the name suggests there are stones. It’s a hill in areas. Not forest. There are trees, lots of them. There are dogs wandering on your properties. That’s your dog now. My neighbors knew all of my business. It’s a small place and it’s…
My parents, man, they did a great job. They did what they were supposed to do. And as a result, I felt like I could… Not only was I supposed to do well in school, but it was like, yeah, when I pass any exams and I come home with some a good report, all right, that’s nice, but we were expecting this. And that environment, I think, is what I credit for my trying so hard at anything.
Growing up there, our national heroes are all Black people. Every teacher I ever had was a woman. The prime minister was a woman at the time. When I came to the US and the term African American or Black had anything negative attached to it, I was very, very surprised, to say the least, because we don’t really have any negative connotations towards a Black identity in Jamaica at all when I was growing up. Things may have changed. But when I was growing up, we didn’t.
I come to the US and, oh. In Jamaica, you’re a man, and you come to the US, you’re a Black man. What does that mean? And my work is a direct result of trying to answer that question exactly. What does that mean exactly? And the answer for me was to expand what I think Black identity is, to expand what identity is in general. And to do that, I make a whole bunch of paintings that refer to my identity on the one hand, but also does so in a more abstract way. I make a whole bunch of paintings that are abstract, but they’re real, and I’m trying to say identity is abstract and also real.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first get into art and painting?

Kamar Thomas:
Ah, so that is a really good question. In Jamaica, we have, when we leave school, they’re called Caribbean examination council exams. Everything is exam-based. And I took art in these exams, and I got just a little bit below the best, so I was into art in high school.
As a profession, absolutely not. That’s not in the tables. That’s not a thing. It was at my university I met my painting professor; her name was Tula Telfair. She was born Capon. She had long hair. She wore Prada dresses. I don’t know if it was Prada dresses, I just know these dresses were expensive. And she got oil paint on them and it didn’t bother her. And she drove an Audi, a blue one that sounded like a hair dryer. And she could paint quite a bit.
And I was thinking to myself, I understand being a professor pays, but you’re not buying an Audi from professor money. And I actually asked her, I got up courage, “Hey man, how you sell these paintings? How does this work?” And she’s like, “Well, you have to get very, very good and go take the classes you need. And we can talk about it when you get into the class.” And I did. I took the classes that was needed. And while I was painting with her, she just treated me and all the other students as if we were already professionals.
Now, to many people, she was mean, but it’s a very specific thing where she wants you to be ready. As soon as you step out, she wants you to be already ready. And so she would come into this studio and say if she were a curator and she gave me a show, she’d take it back immediately. I need to be painting way more than this, and then just leave me to contemplate what she just said. She would come in and just really treat me like an equal, to be honest, treat me like, “Look, when you graduate, nobody going to know what this is. This is not fun and games. You really need to be making the work consistently and professionally.” And somewhere along the line, it just happened that I felt like I was a professional. It was very gradual, but a few well placed curse words got it into my head that one should be a professional, treat it you would like any other job. It was really in college.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s get back more into you, into your background. Was your family really supportive of you getting into art?

Kamar Thomas:
That is such an interesting question. Supportive is a strong, strong word. My father is an EMT, and before that he was a fireman. He’s out here saving lives. My mom was the secretary to the dean of a college in Jamaica. This serious working people. And they send their son to America definitely not to paint, definitely not.
I’m there. Initially, I was doing physics, and it went okay, but I decided, okay, if I attack the painting with the same consistency I was doing physics, I might be able to make it work. And I, behind their back, just major in art. Don’t tell nobody. Get down to business. And it’s time to graduate now. And I call them up and I go, “Hey, the graduation is nice, but it’s me and 700 people. Nobody cares. Why don’t you come to this thing I’m having called an exhibition?” And they came and I made some sales, but I told the people, “Could you wait and give me the money in the exhibition so that my parents could see that I’m out here making it?” And they did. And they’ve been supportive ever since.
They’ve been supportive of me as a person, but because I hid it initially from them, as an artist, after I graduated, they were on board. And they have the ordinary fears. All parents are afraid that their children will perpetually depend on them until they’re 60. Parents live like, “When are you going to grow up?” And once I demonstrated that I got this, I’m fine, then they were very happy. Then it was like, all right, relax, mom. You don’t have to tell this lady that’s doing your nails. Then it’s a matter of holding them back right.
But before that, if you’re an artist listening, your parents are afraid you are going to be broke. Avoid it at all costs and you will be supported. And then you’ll have the problem of having them… Telling them to relax on the support a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
What made you decide to go to Wesleyan for school?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, so I got into medical school in Jamaica. Got into the University of the West Indies. I’m 17 years old applying to things, my dad’s an EMT I saw those medical books. And my dad has been going on, ambulances, picking people up, so I was barely familiar with what medicine actually means. And I thought to myself at 17 years old, nah, can’t do that.
And I was in this program for… I don’t want to say gifted. It was the Association of Quietly Excellent Scholars and Thinkers, AQUEST was the name of it. Just a group of people who met. And they said, “Apply to some colleges in the US. They give scholarships.” And I applied to a few and a few said yes. And I picked Wesleyan because it gave the most.
I went blindly with not very much information. These are the days of, of course, paper applications and paying for internet at internet cafes for half an hour at a time. The kinds of research that people do today, not possible. The virtual tours and the flying in and doing it, that’s not a thing. It’s you see a name, all right, it’s in Connecticut. How much of a flight is that? Okay. All right, apply, see what happens. And what happened was they called me and said, “Hey, you’ve been accepted.” And I go, “Great. What does that mean?” “It means you’re going to get a visa and come and you live here before.” “Oh, all right.” It was more of I need to get an education, and medicine at 17, at 18 is rough. That choice was too difficult, so let me go to a liberal arts school and figure out another path.

Maurice Cherry:
And what was that path? Of course, it was art, but tell me about that.

Kamar Thomas:
Initially, it was physics. In general, I really like excellence of any kind, but I really was into all of the great physicists, Faraday and Einstein and Niels Bohr. I read these people’s biography. I loved the mathematician, Riemann’s hypothesis. I was reading that. I was just in the library reading up about people, with their mind, with their head, they were doing things. And that kind of a thing was impressive to me because I’m nearsighted so physical feats, they were impressive, but they were hard. I wasn’t going to catch anybody. Got glasses and sorted that out. But what really wowed me was sitting into the library and reading. Wait a minute, this guy, Newton, came up with the theory of gravity and figure out white light is made up of all the other colors and invented calculus, and then he turned 26. Whatever he’s doing, I need to have some of this. These people were what were impressive people to me.
And then I went to college and I found out what professional physics was, which is you write some code and you run a model and then you refine the code and then you run the model. If you are a professor and you’re at the end, if you can manage a tenure position, you have a grad student write parts of the code and run the model. It’s not this romantic notion of sitting down and solving the kinds of universal questions I was hoping for. It was more of can you learn to code? And can you learn the math? And can you learn the math to tell it to code?
And so I figured that out around my second year when it was time to decide a major. And I was doing some drawing and I said, “If I actually flipped a coin, flipped it, heads, I stay with physics, tails, I go with arts.” It was tails. I then went, “This can’t be real,” so I went online and I took a random question answer generator, and it ended up with art as well. I said, “All right, I’ll go with art.”

Maurice Cherry:
What?

Kamar Thomas:
That’s what it was. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You just left it up to chance, huh?

Kamar Thomas:
Left it up. Because again, I figured… Let me put it in perspective.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Kamar Thomas:
There was a guy in my classroom, his name is Zin Lin. He was from Burma. He skipped both levels of calculus, and multi-variable calculus, and was the TA of the physics class while he was taking it. And there was fives Zin Lins in my class of 20 people. And there are people who they’ve been doing physics so long, they are as good at physics as Mozart is as good at music. These people are good, good. You’re not going to catch them in your lifetime.
And I was working an extreme amount just to… I would get 92%, and that would be a B because somebody got 108% and the A was moved up to 108%. It’s this kind of environment where the effort I’m putting in, I’m thinking if I apply this work ethic to basket weaving, I’m going to have some amazing baskets.
And again, I was already doing… It’s not a random pick, it was something that I was already doing. I was taking languages, and I’m doing art at the same time, art and art history all at the same time. And I figure if I threw myself at this art the way I’m doing at physics, I’m going to be all right, I’m going to be cool. And that’s why I was comfortable leading up to chance. For those listening, that’s not wise. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. If you already have an arena of proven work ethic, go for it. But if not, then put some more thought.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re attending Wesleyan, you’re majoring in art, and you graduated. After you graduated, you ended up going back to Jamaica for a while, and then you ended up coming back to the States. Tell me about that time.

Kamar Thomas:
I graduated, and I just couldn’t come up with the money to move to New York so I stayed near that the school and worked at a little supermarket, sold paintings and again realized… really figured out that I don’t have a gallery, I don’t have a curator backing me. I have no critics looking at my work. I’m just a guy out here, but I need to eat. And so I would, for jobs that I was applying to that were arts related, I would send them what I was working on and just let them know that I painted as well and let them know what it was about very quickly. And many of them would respond, and I wouldn’t get the job, but they’d buy a painting or they’d refer me to somebody else, and they would buy a painting. I figured out pretty early, if you tell people, they will buy.
Then, of course, my visa expired and I had return to Jamaica where I was hired as an art teacher at my old high school. Taught 8, 9, 10th, and 11th grade. And then after that, while I’m in art school, I’m doing the same thing I did, just whenever I had to email somebody or whenever I met someone and I took their number, I just told them that I painted. And it worked the same way in the US, it worked in Jamaica. Somebody was like, “You paint. I never met an artist before.” Said, “Well, now you have. Would you send them what I’ve done?” And I sold paintings. And people would pay me in installments, so they’d pay a little this week and then another bit next week in Jamaica, and that allowed me to save up the money to apply to graduate school. Came to graduate school, did pretty much the same thing. And I’ve been doing it since.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it seems like you always had your eye on the prize when it comes to that, which is good. Even though you were doing other things like teaching and stuff, you still were telling yourself and other people, “I am an artist.”

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. I think around half of the battle is just showing up and making the work and committing to telling people. Around half, which seems like an exceptionally large percent but the thing is, if you continually tell people, you are going to need to show them something that you’ve told them about, which is going to make you want to continue to paint. And the more you paint, the more you want to tell people, and it starts this virtuous cycle of making something, talking about it. And the more you talk about it, the more you make, the more you make, the more you talk about it.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s also just keeping that dream in the forefront. It’s not about having whatever the weight of reality or the weight of the world kill that idea for you. You still had it in the front of your mind, I am an artist, I am an artist. You’re telling people, you’re doing it. I think that’s just a powerful thing for people to keep in mind as they go through whatever it is they’re going through as part of their creative journey; keep the dream at the forefront and keep striving towards that.

Kamar Thomas:
I was raised as a rather religious person, and in the church, they have daily bread. They have daily readings, daily Bible texts. And as a young child, this is bothersome. This is a problem. You’re up every day? kind of a thing. And I applied that same concept to my artwork, which is the daily reminders and daily things and daily… not affirmations, but something entirely dedicated to reminding me that I can probably be better but also looking back at what I’ve already done to give myself the permission to just do a little bit more. All around my house, I have all kinds of… Well, I have paintings that I’ve made, so I see them every day.
But I also have whiteboards here and there. And I’ll write a quote that I want to keep repeating. And one of them, the most recent one I have written is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. I didn’t realize that that’s where that came from until you asked me that question, but it’s the idea that you have to do something every day to remind, to get yourself to do it so that inevitably when you don’t feel like doing it, you’ve had 47 days of reminding yourself of the importance and looking back at what you’ve done so much, for how much you’ve done so far. And you eventually will just keep making stuff just because you’re in the habit of reminding yourself.
The same with exercise. I haven’t really missed a workout in years. And when I have to miss one, I feel it because when I get up, I exercise. I don’t even think about it. I get up, I exercise, them’s the rules. The same, I get up, I exercise, and before I leave, I have to see this thing that I wrote down with my hand. I’m surrounded by paintings that I like, so it’s a constant reminder. I think that’s really key when you’re pursuing something that is a creative risk, to constantly and regularly remind yourself and encourage yourself because outside is not going to do it. There is no reassurance coming. You have to provide it for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s get more into your particular art style and your process. Based on what I can see from your website, I feel like after you came back to the States from Jamaica, this is when you really started to come into your own as an artist, not just in words, but in deeds as well by the actual paintings that you’ve created. Tell me about your process. What inspires you to make the art that you do in this fashion?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, so the main inspiration was the difference of being a Black man from Jamaica to the US and trying to work out what identity means and trying to make something that says it’s a little bit more complicated than you think. And what changed in graduate school was I more clearly could articulate what the art was supposed to do and I could use better metaphors. I could talk about it better is really what changed. And talking about it better is a function of thinking about it better and more clearly.
The change I want to make was I want someone to look at whatever identity they occupy as something that’s within their control. That sentence took two years of making artwork that I didn’t like to figure out. It took two years of trial and error and critiques in graduate school.
And once you have a clear direction, then I choose from the tools that are available to me. Oil paint I can paint really realistically or I can paint really abstractly or I can use technology to manipulate how an audience interacts with that artwork. And I make series of paintings that are somewhere between really abstract or close to realistic to walk people painting by painting through the idea that your identity can also be… Sure, it can be tangible, it can be reifined, it can be reaffirmed, but it’s also changeable by you. What changed in graduate school was I refined the message a lot more.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you have a connection with one of our other guests on the show, Bennie F. Johnson. He’s the executive director currently of AIGA. How did you two connect?

Kamar Thomas:
After I graduated but before I graduated, a parent of one of the students graduating was walking by the cafeteria, and they had some paintings of mine in there. And she Googled me and contacted me and said, “Hey, I’m in the art business. I’d like to have a conversation.” And we had that conversation. And she introduced me to Bennie. And we went down to DC and I painted Bennie and his wife and hung out with his kids. Wow, those kids must be grown by now that I’m thinking about it, probably. He was really little boy and really little girl, but now they must be big.
Yeah. I made two paintings of him and his wife. And I actually painted their face with face paint with the kids. But the kids are just rough with the face paint while stabbing daddy with the paint brush. I’m like, “You have to be gentle. Just paint a little bit at a time.” And just attacking his face. And same, his wife Akira, I believe is her name, [inaudible 00:46:26], painted her as well I painted them both. I painted a pair of paintings, and I delivered it. And I believe it’s still in their home to this day. It was a lovely experience, and I thanked them for trusting me to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
He texted me the photos. They’re really something. I know the photos don’t do justice to your work, but they’re really striking

Kamar Thomas:
Again, remember I’m from Jamaica, I’m from this hill in Jamaica.

Maurice Cherry:
Stone Hill.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, Stony Hill. Washington, DC may as well be Mars. It may as well be a different planet. This is a place where people work in the government and people talk about the Capitol. And people are like, the president’s going to be… White House down there, and this is an Anacostia. And this is professional. He’s driving around and telling me about all this, and my world is expanding. And I thank him quite a lot for that, just telling me about the history of the place and the residents that were there and the kinds of just work that people do.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, Bennie wanted me to ask you a question. When I talked with him, I told him I was interviewing you. He’s like, “Oh yeah,” and he texted me the photos. Bennie wanted me to ask you about how you use the Black figure and abstraction in your work.

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. When I came to college in 2008, around ’08, ’09-ish was when occupy Wall Street happened. And it was activisty, activist town, activist everything. I arrived in the United States in 2014. And if I remember correctly, that was when one of the first big public police shootings happened. It was just bam, I stepped out of the airport, and then the shooting happened. It was on TV. And it was very much in the air, the making of work that was overtly describing the Black experience as well as it is lived by many in the United States. And I said to myself, “They don’t need anymore negative portrayals of Black people.” I understand, I get it fully what’s happening, but I think… What’s his name? Do you know the book Between the World and Me?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yeah.

Kamar Thomas:
Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yeah. If I’m a writer, he got it. He nailed it. He got it. I don’t need to write another one like that. I think he has it. I said the same with my paintings. I think when I look through what’s being made right now, I think they got it. I don’t think if I say something, it will be nearly as impactful as if I really focus on this idea of agency, of mutability, of aspiration. And I think now more than ever is when it’s needed.
Never say never, but for the most part, I look at the Black figure… I want, when I’m an old man and my memory’s going in the art history books, they see images of representation that are complex, that are layered, that are nuanced, that are not only in relationship to whiteness, that are exploring the same way every other artist gets to explore. And so that’s how I use the Black figure. Complicated. Take its place, like everybody else.

Maurice Cherry:
Masks are a regular theme in a lot of your work. Tell me about that.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. Masks are a metaphor that I return to. And masks in the Caribbean… In Toronto, they recently had this big carnival called Caribana. It’s where one gets to put on a mask and put on a costume and go outside and essentially simulate sex through dancing, essentially, to a beat. And that’s only acceptable if you’re wearing this costume. You can’t just do this at your day job. You can’t pull up to accounts receivable and start doing this behavior.
And I use and I think about masks in that way. It allows you to occupy an identity that gives you privileges, that gives you the ability to act in a way that you ordinarily wouldn’t. And you don’t have to keep it forever. You can change it. And so masks, as a notion of identity is look, of course you are who you are, you’re born or you’re born, but if, when it comes to making art, if you view all of it as yours and like you’re supposed to be there, suddenly where you take influence from is much wider. If you view that the creative production is for you, then telling people about it is not that big a deal. If you think that you are supposed to be passing this class, that your identity is, yeah, pass classes. Then chances are, you’re going to work to pass that class.
Masks are this wonderful metaphor that I keep going back to, I keep finding nuances. Mask can conceal things. You can put it on, you can rob somebody, you can get away with it. Masks can review things. You can wear a mask for ritual purposes to act in ways to enter into states like trances, to enter into states, well, at carnival, et cetera. And masks, with the pandemic, went from being something to protect other people from getting infected with COVID to protecting yourself, to being a status symbol, to… The meaning of it changed over time, so I’ve been fascinated by this concept of masks.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you talked earlier about this exhibition that you had recently. How did it go? Tell me about it.

Kamar Thomas:
It went okay. What I did was I rented a gallery and just paid them the rent for a week and told as many people as I could about it. And people came and purchased the work. It was undertaking because when you pay for the gallery, you have to do everything. You have to show up and hang the work and sweep out the gallery and paint the wall and nail in the painting onto the wall and set up the lights. But from a introducing Toronto to my work perspective, it went swimmingly because one does it. I can show you better than I can tell you. It was a matter of inviting people. Many of them were new to Toronto. And I sell my art mostly to people who have never really bought art before, so it was a great success in that way. I got many, many people who didn’t even think of themselves as people who buy artwork to buy art and to think about it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s awesome, that’s awesome. I’m glad that it was really successful for you in that way.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you planning on doing another exhibition this year? Or surely in the future, you’re planning on doing something.

Kamar Thomas:
In the future, yes. My time for the next couple months is taken up with the book and with… I’m going to be the coordinator of the program I’m teaching at Centennial, so it’s a lot of emails and a lot of tours and a lot of interviews, et cetera is coming up.
But next year I’m planning to… I’ll be painting the whole time. Next year, I have anywhere from five to 10 exhibitions that I’m putting into the calendar. But I’m going to be producing the work to get that done now next year, 2023, by January, the book will be out. By March, I’ll have at least one exhibition. By June, I’ll have another. By July, I’ll have another. By August, I’ll have another. And if my papers are right, I might have one or two in Jamaica as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, you got a plan. That’s good.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, I have a plan, but saying man makes plans, God laughs, because COVID really.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, well, that’s true, that’s true.

Kamar Thomas:
Here there’s a whole monkeypox coming on the scene.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kamar Thomas:
We can’t get a break in this century.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that you ultimately want to convey with your work?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. Ultimately, I want people to see art as something that is for everybody. And I want them to see it as a decent job. Now, will you get rich doing it? Probably not. That being said, will you get rich doing anything? Probably not. It’s not more difficult than anything else.
I want people with looking at my work to understand and think through their identity as something that they get to pick. I want to overall increase agency in the world. Increase not just confidence, but the idea of possibility.
My largest challenge is getting students to not just believe that they can do what I’m asking, but that they’re supposed to do what I’m asking, and they’re supposed to do it well. If you look at identity, there is… I think Ben Akerlof, he’s an economist, and he says identity is one of the most significant economic decisions that someone can make. That means when you pick your identity, you pick what clothes you’re going to buy, you pick what shoes you wear, what colleges you can get into, what person you can marry, what neighborhood you’re going to live. And I want people, after having consumed my work, see the significance of those decisions and see that they have much more agency over them. They have way more power.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your younger self, let’s say your 16 year old self, when you look back at him, what advice would you give him?

Kamar Thomas:
Oh man, that’s such a really good question. At 16 years old, I was honestly not listening to nobody. You weren’t going to tell me I’m not going to be pretty good at physics. You weren’t going to tell me I’m not going to be pretty good at anything.
At 16 years old, well, I would actually say go to the dance, is what I would say. When I was in college, they had these things called winter dances. And I was a member of the ASA, African Student Association, and they had a dance. And every year they would ask me, “Just come practice for the dance and do it on the night.” And I would go, “No, I have to paint. I have this problem set to do.” And I never did the dance, never did the dances because, again, your undergraduate was so hard I never did them.
And it was in graduate school I realized how much I missed by not doing the dance, how much outside of class relationships I could have formed if I did the dance, if I just went through the thing and practiced and maybe gotten 98% instead of 100%. You still get an A. I realized at that time, because when I started selling paintings, I realized the need and the importance of human relationships. That’s most of life. Life is group work, is what life is.
I would tell my 16 year old self, A, just go to the dance. Sure, be focused, but you don’t have to be all that focused. Go to the dance. You will have a good time. You’ll form human connections. And when they need help, you’re going to be able to help them. And when you need help, they’re going to be able to help you. But go to the dance is what I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of where you’re at in your career as a painter, as an educator, now as an author, how do you define success?

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. I was talking to someone earlier about this concept. I woke up when I was 26 years old and I realized that I had all that I wanted. I wanted to be a painter, and that’s what I did most of the time, most of my days. I applied for a professor job, and I was working as a professor at 26.
Success for me was spending my time doing and utilizing God’s gifts as they have been bestowed to me. And I can learn pretty quickly and I can teach fairly well and I can paint, and I do all of these with most of my time. Success is doing or using the gifts that you have for most of your time. Doesn’t have to be all the time now. We all have to pay taxes and commute to work; most of the time. And for me, I have all I want.

Maurice Cherry:
Given that, and you’ve sort of, I guess, already teased this out a little bit, but where do you see yourself in the next five years? What work do you want to be doing? Any bigger projects or anything like that?

Kamar Thomas:
Whenever I run into any new medium, I try and figure it out and do a project in that medium. Now I’m looking into AR, so Instagram filters and Snapchat filters, provided Snapchat still alive as a company. Those are the kinds of AR that everyone would be familiar with. Augmented reality is what AR stands for. And I’m thinking that this can be a really strong addition to my work. And I’m thinking if I can figure this out, if I can learn that small bit of code… I’m taking a class here and there. In four or five years, I will have two, three projects tying technology and the art that I’m doing.
When I moved in Quebec, all of my friends were concept artists, and they worked in the entertainment industry designing monsters and trying to tell stories. And a part of my job now as a professor is I found myself helping people become illustrators and helping them learn to design those monsters. And as such, I’m looking at them watching much more stories, so there might be some short films in the mix. There might be some form of narrative in the mix.

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

Kamar Thomas:
You can find me at kamarthomas.com, or you can find me on Instagram at O-H-K-A-M-A-R. As mentioned earlier, I was a flowery languaged young man, and I got the sentence, “Oh, Kamar,” quite a bit so I made that my Instagram handle. And you can find me at those two places primarily, or if you type my name, Kamar Thomas, into Google, I am proud to say you will find me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Kamar Thomas, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, I think just like your energy, you really just come across as very self-assured and cool as well as artistic. But I think also just telling your story of coming from Jamaica and always putting your artwork and the work that you’re doing and who you are as an artist at the forefront as you’ve went through life I think, one, it’s granted you the success that you have now, but I think it’s just a really great example to set for others out there that can hopefully do the same thing. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kamar Thomas:
Perfect. Thank you. Thank you so much. It was a privilege and an honor.

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