Matai Parr

Happy new year! We’re kicking off 2024 with Matai Parr, a designer with a unique approach to his work and his career. Matai just finished the Masters program in interaction design from ArtCenter College of Design, and our conversation was full of fresh insights into the evolving nature of human connections in the digital age, particularly with freelancing, gaming, and social media.

Matai talked about his love for computer science in high school which eventually led him to ArtCenter, and he spoke at length about the significance of gaming communities as modern-day social hubs, the importance of advocacy in the design industry, and what he’s got planned for this year — writing about design!

Matai is all about appreciating the now and making projects that matter to him, and I think we’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the future. Thanks to Breon Waters II for the introduction!

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

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

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

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

Sam Viotty

We’re exploring the intersections of design, music, and social impact with this week’s guest, Sam Viotty. Not only is Sam an extremely knowledgeable program and experience designer, but she’s also the co-owner of a record label and she’s an adjunct professor at Loyola’s Quinlan School of Business. And that’s just scratching the surface!

We started off by defining program design and experience design, and from there Sam talked about her label, Rosedale Collective, and her dedication to showcasing BIPOC voices in country music. She also dove into her previous work at The Obama Foundation, and how that opened her world to the importance of design in project management and social innovation (and for starting her own company, Viotty Design Studio). Sam even talked a bit about her current role at Adobe, and shared her plans on what she hopes to accomplish in the near future.

Sam’s career is a lesson in how we can all reshape our perspective on the conventional borders of design — something important to learn in this ever-changing world!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Sam Viotty:

I’m Sam Viotty. I’m a program and experience designer, a creative at heart, and someone who really just loves design all things design.

Maurice Cherry:

Just before we really kind of get into the conversation, I’d love for you to explain just off the top, like, what does experience design and program design mean to you? And the reason I’m asking this is because oftentimes and we’ll, I think, get to this later in our conversation oftentimes when people think of design, they’ll only think UI/UX, visual type of thing. What does experience design and program design mean to you?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I think a lot of the time when I say program design, people are like, you design computer programs? I’m like, no, not that kind of design. Or they’re like interior design. And so program and experience design really to me is thinking about service and experiences for people. It really is people design in how I see it. So when we’re designing the ways that people interact with one another, build relationships, operate in the world professionally, develop themselves, that’s how I see program design. So really designing programs and experiences that people go through and then experience design, I think is a little bit more broad than program design. So it includes program design, but also thinking about events and experiences and things that people kind of experiencing go through. So events, conferences, those types of things, all thinking about not just what people are going experiencing, but seeing, smelling what they’re taking away.

A lot of it is like learning. So overall experience.

Maurice Cherry:

So it’s kind of like an encompassing it’s funny you mentioned event because that’s really sort of something that indulges or can indulge all of your senses. What you see, the swag you pick up, any sort of beverages or drinks or food or anything like all of that kind of can fall into the realm of experience, design, it sounds like.

Sam Viotty:

Correct? Yeah, absolutely right.

Maurice Cherry:

How have things been going for you this year?

Sam Viotty:

It’s been a busy year. I was traveling a lot. I took on just, like, really trying to spend a lot of time thinking about what is my life outside of my professional work. I live in Los Angeles, so I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors. Started hiking this year. Yeah, I just really trying to absorb a lot of the outdoors now that I live in a warm climate. I grew up on the East Coast, and so it’s really nice to spend more time outdoors more times during the year. And I feel like it’s definitely ignited my creativity in a way that it hasn’t before.

So I’m really excited about that. So, yeah, spending lots of time outdoors reading, trying to figure out this has been an exploratory year, and I think next year will be more of the taking action on those exploratory ideas. But I’ve been thinking a lot about I’ve always thought of myself as a designer and a creative and an artist, but recently have more thought about myself as being a curator. So really trying to dive into what that means.

Maurice Cherry:

And also, I should say congratulations are in order. I was doing my research, and I saw you were recently selected to participate in something called the 2023 Keychange US Talent Development Program. So congratulations on that.

Sam Viotty:

Thank you so much. Really excited about it. It kicked off at the beginning of October with a cohort of 25 really incredible human beings. It made my heart really warm to spend, like, three days with all of them started in October and it ends in March. So I’m really at the beginning of the program right now, and so far we’ve only had a few interactions, so one in person and two virtual events together. And I already feel like I’m a part of a community, which is why I applied. I was really excited about being a part of a larger music and artist creative community in Los Angeles. But it’s a Los Angeles, New York and Nashville based program, so we’re also the first US cohort.

So I love being a part of a pilot program. We’ll probably get into this later, but yeah, I’ve been a part of a lot of pilot first time programs, which really is exciting to me to kind of lay the groundwork for what’s to come. It’s been really fun. We’ve spent time working together. We went to Joshua Tree Music Festival together. I’ve never gone to a music festival for work before as fun, so that was amazing. Yeah. Being a professional at a music festival is interesting.

It was really so four of the participants in the program also performed, and it was the first time I got to see them perform. So just seeing the people who are your peers do their thing on stage was just like a proud mom sitting in the audience.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice.

Sam Viotty:

So, yeah, it’s a really beautiful community that they’ve built.

Maurice Cherry:

And now you said it’s the first US based cohort. Is it normally international?

Sam Viotty:

It sounds like yeah, it’s an EU funded program, so they mostly do projects in Europe, and so this is the first time they’re doing a cohort in the United States, which is exciting.

Maurice Cherry:

And now what will you be doing as part of the program? Is this affiliated with some of your other work?

Sam Viotty:

It is. So I applied as an innovator. So it’s twelve innovators and 13 musicians or artists who come together to work just professionally develop. So really thinking about what is your career? I’m the co-founder of a small indie music accelerator and label focused on uplifting the voices of people of color in country, folk and Americana music. We’re expanding to other genres of music. So think like genres that you don’t normally see people of color on the charts. We’re helping amplify those. I applied thinking, how incredible would it be to be a part of a cohort of people who are working towards similar things, trying to achieve equity in the music space, trying to change the music industry.

I’ve been working in the music industry for a few years now, and it’s very interesting. It is unlike any industry that I’ve ever worked in. I used to work in nonprofit, I moved to the private sector. But music feels very different. And living in Los Angeles, on any Wednesday, you’ll go grab lunch and you’re like, Why is it crowded? Because everyone’s having a lunch work meeting within a different culture than I’ve ever experienced. Yeah, it’s very different. I applied thinking, how do I build my music community and work alongside other musicians and innovators to change how the music industry operates. A lot of the label is called Rosedale Collective.

We really often think about how do we change the way that artists are treated and supported and how do they have ownership, in particular, Black and brown people having ownership over the work that they create. So how do we revision no pun intended, actually, how do we revision a way forward for how artists create work and work with labels? And so we’ve designed a residency program that is a year long. We’ve done a few that are shorter. We have not launched our long term, one year long program yet, but we’re working on that. But the long term vision is you support a cohort of artists throughout a year. You pay them a salary and they get to focus on making the art. And then instead of owning the It or the masters to the work that the artists create, we revenue share throughout across all of the different categories that an artist to make money. So through merch and royalties on streaming and touring.

So we split those and instead of just outright owning the work, an artist gets to keep ownership. So we’re really trying to rethink how the industry makes money with artists, and right now they’re making money off of artists. So we’re like, how do we make money with you instead of off of you?

Maurice Cherry:

First off, that is a fascinating model. I mean, I think there’s no shortage of horror stories about musicians getting shafted in some way by the music industry or taken advantage of or something. So I love that you sort of have this revenue share thing and then also the fact that the focus is on a genre of music. I know you said you want to expand it, but you’re focusing right now on country music, which, again, is probably not seen as very super diverse. Like, I can probably count the number of Black country artists. There’s more now than when I was a kid. I’ll say that in terms of visibility, but yeah, that’s such an awesome I mean, I feel like there’s a great story behind even the fact that you co own a record label. That is amazing.

Sam Viotty:

It’s a fun, actually. I met my co-founders at a conference in DC while I was working at the Obama Foundation. We got tickets to A Day of Healing and Restorative Justice. And so I was like, I’d love to not go into the office today. I’d rather be at a conference. And so met these people who are working at the intersection of social impact and entertainment. And I was like, this is such a cool job. You just get to use celebrity money to change the world.

That’s awesome. I was 25 then, so I was still doe-eyed and excited…a little jaded now. So I was very excited about that. And so I kept in contact with the people who were working there, and they reached out to me in 2020 about starting a record label and thinking about designing programs for people of color in the country music space. And so I was like, I don’t know a ton about country music. I know a little Shania Twain, but I do know that it feels pretty racist and so that I can get behind challenging that. And so how do we really think about what music would look like and how it would be different if Black people or people of color kind of were at the forefront? So country music was made by people of color. And so Charley Pride is one of our people that we look up to.

And so, yeah, how do we just reclaim a genre that really was made by Black people? And now the face of country music is not a Black person, not in the United States and not on the top charts. So how do we reclaim that? So we spent a lot of time thinking about narrative change and really redesigning the system of the music industry.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I feel like there’s a lot that has to go behind designing a label. I mean, of course you think of general things like album art and logos and things of that nature, but the design and business of putting something like that together, that seems like such a huge undertaking.

Sam Viotty:

I’m going to be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing. And I think it actually has been really beneficial that I stepped into the music industry not knowing how the music industry works, because I’ve just been doing what I think makes sense, and that doesn’t necessarily align with what actually happens. And so I’m like, yeah, I think artists should own their work. And people are like, well, it doesn’t really work that way because we don’t make a profit. I’m like, well, that doesn’t make sense. We could figure out a way to make money while also letting people own things that they make. So let’s just design that.

I very lucky. My co-founder is an incredible…I don’t think he would consider himself a designer, but he designed our logo, and I think it’s genius. It’s a circle that has lines going through it and it’s the middle of a guitar. It’s a really amazing logo. I’m very proud of the logo. So we put it on everything. I wear a sweatshirt. I have a hat. Stickers.

And so thinking about how do we take symbols of country music and redefine them? Because I think right now people think country music. I think or before this, I used to think cowboy hat, cowboy shoots, cowboy boots. So what are the symbols of country music? And what are the symbols of country music for people of color. The guitar is one of them. We work with some other organizations who really like to uplift Black and brown artists. One of them is Black Opry, and so their logo is also a guitar. So just thinking about the symbols and iconography for black country music has been really exciting because I think it’s a different language. Like, we’re speaking a different language to a different audience.

And so I spent a lot of my time in undergrad thinking about symbols and iconography. And so it was exciting to bring that piece to the label. And thinking about a label, it’s like developing a brand. We developed a brand before we did anything. We came up with colors and a logo and a design and a deck. And so so much of it was like, how do we communicate who we are and what we do before we’ve even done anything? Which lots of conversations, lots of talking to people before we did a single thing, we did a listening and learning tour where we talked to tens of musicians, like 100 music execs and people in the music industry and in the nonprofit space trying to change things, social impact people. So just spend a lot of time talking to people to be like, what are people looking at? What do people feel and how do we communicate what we’re trying to communicate? And who is our audience, actually? So goes into a lot of the design work. When I went to grad school, I went to grad school at Emerson in a pilot program.

It was called Civic Media Art and Practice. And so that’s where I learned about design thinking. And so I’ve brought design thinking into ever since I’ve learned about it, I’ve brought it into every single job. And so I think when I don’t know what to do, I just rely on that process. I’m like, it’ll be good, we’ll just figure out how. It’s like the scientific method. I’m like, I don’t know how to get an answer, but if we just use this process, I can get us to figuring out how we get an answer. We did a lot of that.

And so that first stage of talking and listening to people is very similar to the empathy stage and the design thinking process.

Maurice Cherry:

I say that all the time to people about how design thinking is very much like the scientific method. So I’m glad that we see eye to eye on that.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I explained it like that. I’m like, it’s the same thing. People just yeah, anthropologists looked at it and I guess the design school looked at it and then rebrand it’s all branding. They rebranded it, but it’s the same thing.

Maurice Cherry:

I think what you’re doing with one, shining a light on country music and also promoting and uplifting artists, BIPOC artists, et cetera, in country is great because I grew up as a musician. I grew up as a jazz musician mostly, but there was one thing about like and this might be a bit of a stretch, so if it is, please let me know. But I feel like a lot of could do really well as contemporary country songs. I feel like there’s a thin line between Toni Braxton and that being a country song. I’m thinking love should have like “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” could totally be a country song.

Sam Viotty:

I absolutely could be a country song. We used to jokingly make a criteria checklist for what is a country song. One was like, is it about love or heartbreak? Check. Does it have a Twang check? I think you’re right. The only thing missing from the twang, like, if they all had a twang, they would absolutely be country.

Maurice Cherry:

Yes. A lot of, like, Anita Baker songs could definitely also sound like country songs. She has like, a slight Twang. But I get what you mean though. There is sort of a checklist of like, is it heartbreak? Is it lament in some capacity then it could totally be a country song. Now, we talked about Rosedale, but also you have another job where you work for Adobe. Can you talk a little bit about what you do there?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, that is really exciting. I spend most of my time working at Adobe now. It’s one of those companies that when you’re young and in college and you think about design and education and what’s the coolest job you could have. It is the job I have now. And I think that’s incredible. College me would be very proud. So right now, I lead all of Adobe’s higher education professional development. So training programs for faculty and students in higher education in the United States.

We’re expanding to the United Kingdom and Australia. Starting to think globally about what does it mean and what are the skills that a 21st century college graduate needs in order to operate in the world. Adobe is notorious for being extremely challenging, having a high learning, a very difficult learning curve and being quite know one financially. And also, just like, the tools are complicated and there are a lot of them. Adobe has launched something called Adobe Express, which is the kind of premier product that I work on and work with schools to use. So think of the rival Canva as…Canva was a response to Adobe being really difficult. Adobe Express is a response to that. And so it’s an incredible tool.

I think the thing that’s exciting about Adobe Express is it has the generative AI in it, which is really helpful now and interesting, brings a conversation about ethics and IP and copyright, which Adobe is big on, especially because we’ve been working with artists and illustrators and graphic designers for ages. I spend a lot of my time helping faculty and schools and instructional designers think about what does it need to be a digitally fluent individual? And so how do you redesign your curriculum so that students are getting the skills that they need to be successful beyond college. So instead of maybe writing that ten page paper, what does it look like to help a student create an assignment that is actually a video storytelling project or create a podcast instead of the paper? So what is the alternative to the typical research paper? Because in my personal job, I am not writing research paper long things anymore. I am doing research and then applying it to a project. And so how do we do a little bit more project based learning at the higher ed level? I think a lot of K Twelve and high schools have taken this on, which is incredible. But I think the project based learning often happens either in really vocational or technical student projects. So if you’re in a graphic design class or create this poster or create a project for a client, those things happen. But in the kind of social sciences and English classes that’s not really happening.

It’s still pretty static and it’s like write a paper to respond to this. And I’m like, the world that we live in now doesn’t really do that. So how do we change how we’re thinking about it? And how do we cultivate the skills that people need? Creating presentations, marketing on social media, creating posters, creating graphics like everyone video and short form storytelling. Short form video is the primary way that people communicate now. They cannot scroll on any social media without seeing video. How do we cultivate those skills to make sure that students are signed up for success? So I spent a lot of my time doing that, which is really cool because I was really interested. I started my career in education and then I also just have always had this passion for being creative and working with creatives and just thinking about arts and culture. And so I feel like I get to bring those worlds together in my role at Adobe.

Maurice Cherry:

Now that is fascinating. You’re designing education or you’re designing the way that people are learning about these new tools and these new methods. And I’m curious, does that work and the work you do with Rosedale collectors, does that bleed into each other in any way? It feels like that could be a lot to possibly try to balance it.

Sam Viotty:

Is it’s like, you know, corporate world and also working at a small indie, but I sit in between the education team and the marketing team. And so I’ve learned so much about corporate marketing through working at Adobe, which as an Indie label and accelerator, we have the finances to play small. But I’m like how do we play big? Because that’s how the music industry works. There’s so much like everyone’s a musician, everyone can be right. And so how do you get the people that you want to bubble to the top? And it’s marketing. I was talking about those interviews earlier and we talked to so many artists, and I’d say, what do you need help with? What’s your biggest struggle right now? It is not songwriting. It is not making the music. It is not finding a producer.

It isn’t even touring. It is marketing. They’re like, how do I get someone to hear my music? It’s marketing and distribution. And so I’ve learned a lot about marketing and distribution in this corporate role and seeing how that plays out and being able to say, okay, if that’s true here, how do we apply it to how do we use some of these strategies for our artists and teach them how to do it for themselves? And so I see my role in both of them as I’m professionally developing people. They’re just different. But coincidentally, the artists that I work with are about the same age as the students who faculty are working with. I have a similar audience. Like, how do I prepare these 18 to 25 year olds with 21st century skills to be successful in the world to either market themselves, market the things that they’re working on, and really tell stories?

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think what you’re doing is just such extremely important work because I think what we’ve definitely seen over the past few years is that our systems are changing. I mean, definitely with the advent of AI and things, we’re seeing how that’s been affecting certain industries. But even like you said, with marketing and getting content out there, it’s even weird to call it old school. But the old school ways, which we knew about how to market things and how to learn things are changing. And a lot of that is due to technology. So I think you being at the forefront of that, particularly with sitting kind of between marketing and education teams, that sounds like a dream. I mean, I’m speaking for myself, but that sounds like a dream job to have.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah. Again, I think college undergrad me would be like, if someone asked me what job I wanted, it would be this one. And so I’m excited about that. The other thing that I just so excited about is generative AI. I know that it’s a hot topic, but working at Adobe and seeing just, like, how these tools have allowed people to make things that they wouldn’t have created before, same. Like, I also am an illustrator. Not a great one, but it’s my hobby. It has enabled me to create things that I wouldn’t have been able to create before.

And not in a plagiarism way, but I’m like removing the background from something. Used to take ages in Photoshop. Now in Adobe Express, it’s a like, it has saved me time. Technology is catching up with how quickly and how fast the world is. Like, things happen and then it is online in seconds, and the tools are starting to catch up to that. So I’ve been really excited about how do we leverage those tools to ignite creativity because I’m someone who procrastinates, and I also get really stuck. I think generative AI has helped me get unstuck as a brainstorming. Like, you know, let me just pop it in and see what I can start with.

Whereas before, I kind of just sit and wait and then never do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Just recently we had Andre Foster on the show and he has a motion graphics company in Detroit called First Fight and he talks about how he uses generative AI, kind of in the same way that you mentioned it. He uses it like a I think he likened it to a Pinterest board or a mood board where it’s a good place to sort of just take the idea from your head and start to instantly visualize it, to see where you could possibly go next with it.

Sam Viotty:

Love that. I totally agree with that.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked about growing up on the East Coast, so I would like to kind of shift the conversation towards that and learn more about just sort of how you got to where you are now. So you grew up on the East Coast. Were you kind of always exposed to a lot of art and creativity and such growing up?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah. I grew up in New York City, so every field trip was to a museum. When I was in school. I also had parents who were really excited about the arts. My mother was a dancer, just really excited about performance arts. And with my grandmother and then my dad and my dad’s mother. My dad’s mother was a teacher. I was excited about reading as a kid.

He spent so much time at the library. I used to pick out books, and very often I would pick books based on their covers in contrary to what you’re told. I was like, if it looks cool on the outside, I’m sure it’s cool on the inside. And so I was just really excited about that. I used to draw a lot. Like, the Christmas gifts that I used to get as a kid was like, I don’t know if you remember those. Really big. I hope they still make them.

I haven’t seen them in a while, but it’s like pastel crayons paint.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, yeah, those 130 piece art kits or whatever.

Sam Viotty:

Yes. And they’d have a bunch of pencils, and I never used to use they had, like, four types of pencils, and I was like, I don’t know what anyone’s doing with this. I like the color, so I used to get those every year. I’d ask for a new one. I didn’t always need a new one, but, yeah, I used to run the cray pods down to the bone, and so I used to play with those all the time. And so I’d, like, draw pictures of our family, draw pictures of the sky, draw pictures of the books that I’d read. Spent a lot of time drawing and. Creating.

I’d like, do cutouts. I used to play with paper dolls all the time, just always thinking about what I can now see in retrospect is design. And my dad, who just was so proud of me, used to, in our basement, created kind of like a little curatorial gallery of my work on a string through the basement. So anytime I came down or people came down, it felt like a gallery show. And so I always loved museums and art. Yeah, my art was all over the house. Like, it was on the fridge, it was on the walls, it was upstairs. And so I was really encouraged to express my creativity.

My dad was a computer nerd, and so he tried to teach me computer programming when I was younger. I think it was called Logo?

Maurice Cherry:

Logo, with the turtle!

Sam Viotty:

Yes, with the turtle! So my dad was…yes, he tried to teach me that. I hated it. I was like, this is so boring. I can’t stand this. He’s like, but you can create art with it.

I was just, I’m not interested. I really regret it. I wish I became a computer scientist, but I just constantly encouraged. I used to use the Paint app on Microsoft and on, you know, all kids, but I was really into just, like, creating, and I was really encouraged to create, which I’m so grateful for now. I think my parents really let me explore, at least when I was a child. This changes a bit when I get older, but while I was a child, in my adolescence, I was very much encouraged to paint, create, make things get messy, do whatever, and explore my creativity, whether it was, like making my own clothes, designing clothes, designing paper, making notebooks, writing stories, like, anything. And I think that I brought a lot of that into how I kind of exist now and explore my creativity now.

Maurice Cherry:

Did that shift happen in high school?

Sam Viotty:

Yang it did. And I think it’s funny that, you know, that I was not encouraged to explore art when I was in high school. I remember I liked our art class, and I did quite well. My dad was excited, so my mom passed away when I was six. So a little hard. My dad had to take on being a single parent and then remarried. My parents were divorced at the time, so it wasn’t like that stark of they’re dating someone else difference. But I was close to the woman who is now my stepmother, who I’m very close with and who helped raise me.

She was a nurse, and so registered nurse. And so just like a very practical human in a way that maybe my dad and I were not. And so she’s like, you need a practical job. Need you to get a practical skills, like, what are we doing? Which I think she’s brought the logic to my creativity, which is wonderful. But once I got to high school, I was not discouraged from taking art classes, but it was like, well, then what are you going to do? I used to use my room as a curatorial space. I’d buy as many magazines as I could, and then my walls were completely covered with images, and I just would always do that. I’d look at font type and ads. I was like, how do I create this? And I wanted to go into advertising and market and communications, but my parents were just like, maybe I don’t know.

My dad was like, Please go into science. I was like, I’m really not good at physics. And my mom was like, Please do something practical. And so I was kind of, like, torn. And all I really wanted to do was change the world. Then I just became privy. I went to a predominantly Asian school in New York City. So 50% of the population was Asian, maybe 20% was white, and then the rest was, like, Black and Latino.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, maybe Southeast Asian. It was a very interesting mix, but just was starting to become more privy to racism, I think. Growing up in New York City, I’d always thought in high school, thought, I’d go to such a diverse school, I’ve gone to diverse schools, everything’s fine, and then realizing the world just doesn’t operate in the ways that it should. Extreme poverty exists. I want to work in that. How do I do that? And my parents were not excited that they were proud of me, but they were not excited about that career path. My mom’s like, you want to go into nonprofit, you’re not going to make any money. And so I ignored them and went to college.

So I went to college at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Small liberal arts college, about 1600 students. So very small campus was like, you could run around it. I couldn’t even really get my laps off when I go for a run because it was only a mile and barely. So it’s a very small campus. And so I was like, I’m just going to major in English. I wanted to go into marketing, communications, but small liberal arts college only had English as a major. I was like, Seems close enough.

I major in English. My parents are like, sounds fine. It seems like a scale. Great. And I start applying to internships, and I’m not getting anything. Like, absolutely nothing. I’m like, I can write things. This seems practical.

What’s going on? But I was applying to things that were a little bit more creative, a little bit more ad comms marketing, and I think they were, like, looking for someone who was in that. My junior year, there’s a new major called Film and New Media Studies, and so it sat within the English department, and so I could take film classes as an English major, and so I did. And the first class I took was race and racism in U.S. cinema. Blew my mind, was excited. I was like, this is all I want to do forever. I need to change my major right now. I know I’m getting ready to graduate, but I have to.

And I also need to study abroad. So how do I make it happen? My professor and advisor at the time. Incredible. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to switch your major. You’re just going to change it, and you’re going to go to Australia because that’s where they have a mutual program. And you’ll study film and graphic design there. You’ll make up your freshman credit for the major, and then you’ll come back and you’ll finish the credits and you’ll graduate on time.

I was like, great. Sounds lovely. I changed my major to New Media Film and New Media Studies on my resume before even changing it formally on paper. And all of a sudden I’m getting responses back on internships. People are so happy to talk to you. This is ridiculous. And that to me, is the epitome of that’s. The power of branding and marketing.

Yeah, pursued that. I was excited about Film and New Media Studies. I didn’t love actually being behind the camera. I was like a senior in freshman classes in Film Production 101, learning about Aperture. I was like, I don’t want to do this. This is not fun for me. I was like, Can I just tell someone what to do? Isn’t that a thing? And someone’s like, oh, you want to be a director? Yes, exactly. So, yeah, I moved a little bit away from technical film and really loved the theory and things like that.

And so I was able to explore ideas of concepts of social justice and equity and race and representation through that studies and then took that into my hope. I was hoping to take it into my professional career, which I did, which quite different as my first job, which was I was helping first generation college students get into college when I first graduated, which there’s more similarities than I thought. I was really excited about that role, and I wrote a lot. I helped every single student tell their story, writing college essays. I reviewed lots of college essays, lots of supplemental essays. They ended up being more connected than I thought they would be. But yeah, I did not go into a Film and New Media Studies advertising role right after college like I wanted to. But I think supporting students to get into college was really an impactful, one that led me to the career that I have now in education.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I feel like, and I’ve said this on the show also before college is really that time for you to experiment and explore exactly what it is that you want to do. And I think it’s specifically for the reasons that it sounds like your parents didn’t want you to go into some specific field. I mean, K through twelve, we’re kind of booked or we’re sort of subconsciously shaped and molded into a particular trajectory that we may not even want, we may not even want to do. I know for me, when I was growing up, I really wanted to write and I wanted to major in English, and my mom was like, no, you stay on that computer. You’re going to do something with that computer. Like, you’re going to major in something with that. And I liked web design, but I also went to a small liberal arts college, and this was in the oh, my God, I’m dating myself. This is in the they didn’t have web design, so I was like, oh, I’m going to be a computer science major.

And that was not web design back then. I mean, we’re talking 1999, 2000. That was not web design. That curriculum did not exist. You learned it on your own, and you just kind of hoped to make a way for it. It wasn’t something you went to school for. But I say all of that to say college is really that time where you’re able to branch out and see where your interests take you. I mean, there’s very few places outside of that particular type of institution where you’re allowed to explore and play and do different things, and it won’t have a detriment on your status as a human in this capitalist world.

Maurice Cherry:

You know what I mean?

Sam Viotty:

Totally. And I wish I knew it. I guess I felt it then that that’s what it was for. My parents were like, the tuition money four years, so explore all you want within that amount of time. So I felt like there was a ticking time bomb. And I was one of those kids who was like, I literally cannot go back home after college. I can’t live my parents. I am an only child who is just constantly being helicoptered.

I need to live elsewhere for all of us, for everybody. And so I really need a job. I need a job that pays me enough to leave. And so, yeah, I moved to Boston. So my school’s in Massachusetts. I ended up moving to Boston right after college and lived there for quite a bit. But yeah, college was an interesting time, and I loved school. I was one of those kids who loved school.

When I was younger, I looked forward to going to school. I think part of it was being an only child, because I make all these designs and stuff, and the only person looking at them was my dad or friends who came over occasionally. So I was so excited to go to school and get affirmation from teachers.

Maurice Cherry:

I 100% know what that’s like. I mean, I wasn’t the only child. I had an older brother. But yeah, to get that sort of validation that the work that you’re doing means something, it’s actually making an impression on other people. I was very much. Oh, yeah. Especially in college. I was very much like a school kid.

Like, I did not want to go back to Alabama. I’m like, we have to make it out. I don’t know what that looks like, but we got to get out. We can’t go backwards. Now. In 2017, you started working at the Obama Foundation, and you sort of touched on some of your early career things that you did right after Wheaton. How was your time at the Obama Foundation? Like, how did you sort of start there?

Sam Viotty:

That was like I remember getting my offer verbally, and I just was stunned. I was like, I cannot believe I’m about to work for the person who was the first Black president of the United States. It meant so much to me. I think it was after he was in the presidency, so he made a foundation really focused on organizing community work for young people. I worked on the education team at the Obama Foundation, which, again, mixing education with what I was excited to end, like, changing the world. I was like, my goodness, dream job. And it’s so, like, at every stage that I’ve had a job, it’s been like a dream job only. And now I’m in a job that I also think is my dream job.

And I’m like, what will I think years later when I have another job? Anyway, it was incredible. I have made the closest friends I’ve ever made. It was an interesting time. I think a lot of I never worked on a campaign before, but I imagine some of the campaign culture had seeped into our workplace. And so all of us were very close, spent a lot of time together trying to work towards the goal of empowering 18 to 25 year olds to change their worlds and their communities. I loved it. It was incredible. I was hired as an experienced designer, so thinking about our program, so the education team had one program at the time.

I was there for a few years, and so we developed more programs, but the original program was like a one day experience for 150 18 to 25 year olds in Boston, Chicago, and Phoenix, Arizona. And so we went to each city, and we work with community organizations. We’d work with designers and organizers to really fire up these 18 to 25 year olds, get them passionate about the thing that they were excited about. So we’re like, what aren’t you passionate about? What do you care about? And how can we drive you to a plan of action to organize towards that? And so I saw my role as one just understanding our audience. So I spent so much time talking to the 18 to 25 year olds that we worked with. I set up design workshops. I would work with them. So I used a lot of my design thinking stuff from grad school that I learned and would go through that with them.

I taught a lot of our design thinking sessions, so I go from city to city just going through project based learning and talking about, how do we like, well, if this is what you care about, how do we develop a plan for that? How do you understand them? Who is your audience? A lot of 18 to 25 year olds are like, I want to end poverty. And I’m like, yes, where do we start? Like, poverty, poverty where? And so that was really exciting for me, and it was really impactful. I can still remember the day that we brought President Obama to meet all of the students who had been in the program. Not students, community members who had been in the program. And it was just, like, the most joyful I’ve ever seen. People are crying. They’re, like, falling down. He decides to shake every single one of their hands.

He was supposed to be going to a meeting with donors, and we were scheduling him to just take a photo. He was supposed to come and take a photo with the group. We’re very excited about that, that he was going to be able to do that. But he is supposed to be rushing to a donor meeting. He was already late. He was late to come get us for the photo. He finds out that he’s late to the donor meeting and is like, oh, well, and just stands there and shakes 350 hands. And so I’m so happy I got to witness that.

And so that was the power of his brand. I was so lucky to be able to I felt like I could walk into any room and just be listened to because of who we were representing and the power that that had for people in many communities across the united States. It just symbolized change. It symbolized hope. And I’d never been a part of a brand like that. I’d worked at many nonprofits, but obviously nothing like that. And so that experience is yeah, I loved working there. I met so many incredible people, so many smart people who have worked and lived all over, had different experiences, but everyone came together for this one central mission, which was to empower people.

To change the world is absolutely incredible. I think about that experience very often.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, if there’s any brand that could get you probably in the foot of any company, it would be Obama. I mean, God, that has been such an amazing experience to be able to do that kind of work. I think you kind of alluded to this a little bit earlier when you said, like, making I wrote it down. You said something about using celebrity money to change the world. That is awesome.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, it was so great. And the other thing that I was able to do was, because I was our experience designer and helping to design our program, I got to choose who we put on so or who we got to put on a platform. And I was so excited about that. I was like, this is it. I get to choose the people of color that I want to be on stage or the people who I think are making a difference. I can get to curate that experience. So lucky. I’ve worked with Antionette Carroll and Chris Rudd, who have also been on this show, who were a part of that amazing program that we ran over the course of a few years.

So just really excited to be able to give opportunities to people who really deserve one recognition, the amplification, and just, like, the connection with the community that we really thought they were already doing but wanted to uplift them. So absolutely incredible. Got to work with a ton of designers and creators because I was working in that space, and you send an email with Obama.org attached to it, and people responded, which was, you know, there’s.

Maurice Cherry:

A saying that you can’t be what you don’t see. And I can only imagine, because you had that level of access that it probably opened up for you a lot of possibilities of what you could do personally out in the world. I know while you were at the Obama Foundation, you started your own design studio, via studio. Did that sort of come from that time of seeing what was possible because of the Obama Foundation?

Sam Viotty:

It did. I didn’t know how much money existed in the world until I worked. Mean, like, talking to donors and who you have access to and who responds and what people are willing to do, and how many people of color I’d seen and worked with who started their own companies. So many of the designers that we worked with ran their own design firms. And I was like, oh, I can see how it’s possible. I had never thought of it before. I knew I wanted to start something when I was younger, but I didn’t know what. And so I started doing design consulting, so designing programs and giving design thinking advice and doing design sprints and workshops for other companies and nonprofits at the time.

But, yeah, I was so inspired by all the work that I was doing with other people. I was like, well, if you’re doing it, I think I might be able to do this, which is really exciting. And I had help. I mean, the connections that I made at the Obama Foundation and the people and the designers that I spoke, like, I don’t think people were trying to gatekeep at all, which I thought was really beautiful. People were like, I mean, I work with them. You should totally work with them. Let me just make an intro, which I had not experienced before. I think a lot of nonprofits that I worked with before that were gatekeeping, and I understand why.

It was like, well, if I tell this company or this grant about you. Will we get the money next year, right? So it was a lot of, like, I want to keep things to myself, but it was not like that at all. I was like, this is amazing. So everyone wanted to help each other, and so I was able to make connections and get clients pretty quickly. And a lot of them came from I think all of my first clients are Obama Foundation related.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. Now, you were there for a number of years, and then afterwards you left and you went to work for a biotech startup, Curative. When you look back at that time, what do you remember? Because I could imagine it’s probably a lot different from nonprofit work, especially the Obama Foundation.

Sam Viotty:

So it was 2020. So the pandemic had hit, and I used to do programs in person at the Obama Foundation. 2020 happened. We’re doing programs virtually. I just was like, I don’t know that our programs virtually are doing the same thing that they were when they were in person. And so the world is in a really scary space. I want to be on the ground. And so I got recruited by Curative to lead all of their kind of expansion with communities.

So the job actually when I had that interview with Curative, the woman who hired me actually was in political organizing before that. And she was like, it’s actually she’s like, you’re telling me about your job at the Long Foundation, but she’s like, I think it’s really similar. I know it’s biotech, hear me out. But I think what you’re doing is, like, partnering and working with communities. We’re changing health care, and it’s the same thing, only it’s healthcare and not community organizing. And I was like, I think you’re right. So I partnered with community organizations to pop up COVID testing at the time and then vaccinations for communities of color in particular, where they didn’t have testing and vaccinations. And so I thought that I was like, this feels like a need, right? Like, people are dying.

I want to be of service. And so it was a crazy time. I don’t understand how I did not get COVID then. This is like, before, people were wearing masks. I was out helping set up test sites without a mask. And then I was wearing a mask, and I was traveling everyone’s at home, and I am on a plane to New Orleans to set up a test site alone on the plane because obviously no one’s flying. And I was, like, flying all across the country trying to make sure that people were getting tested. I thankfully, in the year and a half I worked there, never got COVID.

I got COVID last year at a conference. Yeah, literally, just like I was completely fine. But it was a really impactful experience. I got to use my design thinking skills. I did lots of marketing and trying to understand our audience. I worked with a bunch of different types of clients and customers. I worked with city governments. I worked with fire stations.

I worked with federal government. I worked with everyone private sector. I worked with schools. So many schools wanted to go back to in person, but they didn’t have a testing plan. So I was like, working with each individual school to workshop what will work best for you. And so I used a lot of what I felt like was my design thinking hat to design programs and processes that made the most sense so that people could return, not return to life, but be able to live lives that felt safe enough to live and still benefit. Yeah, it was a really crazy time.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, it feels like it’s a lot of that sort of practical application or continuation. Like the person that hired you said you’re taking that same energy and that same sort of skill of putting programs together, but you’re doing it on really kind of a more tactical level in that way, especially during a time when the pandemic affected. I feel like all of us in different ways, but the one thing we all had to do was sort of figure out how to kind of move through it, navigate through it, move forward, especially with information changing a lot. Like you said, pre masks is a time that now is a bit hard to think of because they were so ubiquitous. And I mean, people are kind of still wearing masks now because we’re kind of still in the pandemic. But in a lot of ways, because of work that people like you have done, we found ways to kind of manage our lives through it, which who knows how long that would have taken if that didn’t exist or if there weren’t people like you that were able to make that happen.

Sam Viotty:

Thanks. Yeah, I was able to hire an incredible team. Just could not have done it with a bunch of other people. And it was a wild time, and I learned a lot about healthcare. I used to hate the healthcare system. I still do. But I now understand why there are so many entities designing for healthcare. Now that I’ve worked in it, I’m like, it makes sense.

It needs redesigning. It was my first for private sector job, which I was trying to pivot. Like, the Obama Foundation was great, but I was kind of tired of being a nonprofit. I was tired of not having enough money and working really hard all the time and working to the mission, but not getting paid enough. I was like, I think there’s a way for me to get paid enough and work towards a real goal. Being in the for profit during COVID was very interesting. Healthcare. We’re trying to save the world, but we’re also making money.

So a conversation for another day about the healthcare system. But yeah, it helped me understand a little bit more about the way the world works.

Maurice Cherry:

And now you’re doing Rosedale, you’re doing Adobe. You still have your studio, and you also teach. You are an adjunct lecturer at Loyola’s Quinlan School of Business. How did that come about?

Sam Viotty:

It’s an incredible am again. So I met two people. One was someone who was one of the first community members in the Obama Foundation program that we ran. Just stayed really close to her. She was one of those people that I called her our super user. She just would do exactly what I would imagine someone would do in our program. She’s ideal. I could predict her behavior.

It was amazing. And so we stayed in contact. She started working at the Baumhart Scholars Program at the Cleveland School of Business and asked me if I wanted to guest lecture her class, like, come and just talk. So I did. And then there’s another person who was in the program I did Starting Block, the Starting Block Fellowship a few years ago, probably 2018. More than a few now, but someone else who was a designer also taught another course and was like, hey, could you come to my class too? And so I did. He was getting ready to leave the following year because he got a very cool job at Capital One doing design. And so he left, and they were like, well, we don’t have anyone to teach class.

Do you want to teach it? I said, I’d love to teach this class. So it’s a project management and social innovation class, and it’s taken a bunch of different iterations. This will be the third year that I’m teaching it. It actually starts next week. Time for me to start designing the deck. But the incredible thing about the program in particular so the Bomb Harvest Scholars Program is within the School of Business, but it is for a select group of students who really care about social impact. And so a lot of their courses are focused on it. Obviously, you get an MBA, but a lot of courses that you have to take in addition to the MBA requirements are social impact focused.

So the project management course, I’ve done lots of project management, so I hadn’t thought about it as like, how do I teach it? I was like, It’s just something that I do. I’d gone to trainings for it throughout my career, but had not thought about, how do I teach this and then how do I teach the social impact piece? And so I actually really excited about how this class was taught. I have kind of mapped the class into different sections, and each section is a different aspect of the design thinking process. So it starts with empathy and goes to reflection. I also take the design equity framework. If people aren’t familiar, it’s the kind of typical design thinking process. Empathy empathize. Define ideate, prototype iterate, and do it all.

Over again. But I’ve added kind of equity pauses, which is a term that I learned from another designer, and reflection at every stage. So I talk about doing all of those things within project management because I think that’s really what project management is. It is like working with people. It’s understanding people. It’s trying things and then doing them again, and then trying it and doing it again. And so I’m really excited about it’s. A project based class.

Every single person in the course, it’s usually a small class, but every single person, I encourage them to choose a project that they are working on at work, or they’re all adult professionals who have jobs and do this MBA mostly on the side. And so they choose a project from work. And then I want you to change something at work or a project that you’ve always thought about doing, which you have never actually had the time to do. Like, let’s use this class time because you have to take this class. Let’s do it now. So people have come up with incredible things. Someone came up with a youth program last year, which I was really excited about. Someone revamped their entire board of directors processes, which I was impressed with.

She’s on the board of a nonprofit and was like, we just don’t fundraise right? How do we rethink the fundraising strategy and how do I lead my team through a process? A lot of the work is quite meta, where they’re redesigning experiences that will be redesigned. So they’re coming up with a project plan. So I bring a lot of the design thinking aspect to the course in addition to trying to give people practical skills on how do you manage a project, like what tools are we using, are you using Trello? Are you using Monday? Are you using Asana? How are you assigning roles to people? Are you thinking about equity when you’re deciding roles for people, how do power dynamics come into play? So really intertwining all of those things. And so I’ve learned so much from all of the students because they all work at different places. Some people are working in consulting, some are working in education, some are working at healthcare nonprofits, and so they all are working together. A lot of it is group work, but the end project is individual. So I hope that they’re learning from each other about what each other is working on and challenged with. So I love teaching that class.

It’s also not that long. It takes a few months. And so it’s what I look forward to every end of year. It’s a nice close out to the year.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, it really feels like a perfect way for you to take all of these skills and things that you’ve learned throughout your career and pass that on to the next generation of, I want to say of innovators. You mentioned at the top of the episode that you had applied for this development program as an innovator, and the more that you talk about your career and the experiences you’ve went through, I’m like, I can see it plain as day. Like, you’re really out here changing minds and hearts. It’s so awesome.

Sam Viotty:

It’s nice to hear. I hadn’t thought about yeah. I guess when you talk to someone and hear it back, it definitely feels different. So thank you.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, I think what’s probably most interesting about you and your career and what you do is that you take design. And design is such a broad category. I think even when you tell someone you’re a designer, if you tell five different people, you may get five different definitions of what that even is. I mean, for you, what does design mean? Like, what’s your personal philosophy? When it comes to that?

Sam Viotty:

I believe everyone’s a designer. I also believe it’s people who want to take on that role. Like, if you want to be a designer, you can be. I think the most important thing about being a designer is understanding who you’re designing for. Graphic designer, and I someone who is a programmer, experience designer will have. What we have in common is, who are we designing for? The graphic designer is like, I’m making a poster, or maybe they’re making a poster, and they’re like, okay, well, who’s the poster for? I’m like, I’m designing a program. Well, who’s the program for? So really getting to the meat of how do I understand people? And for program design, I think it’s beautiful because it’s everything or experience design is everything. What I said earlier was, it’s what things smell like, what you’re touching, what you’re seeing, who you interact with, when you interact with them.

When we show you something, all of those things make an impression. So I think about design as design is everything. Yeah, I look at and now that I’ve been in so many different sectors, and I know that design means so many different things, I see design in everything. I can’t open a door without being like, someone made this and thought about how humans will open this door wild. So, yeah, designs and everything. I think it’s a branding. As I always say. It’s a branding, marketing.

Maurice Cherry:

It sounds like you’re really interweaving with design, at least with the way that you’re approaching design. Everything works together. All these processes work together. Nothing is in a vacuum. And I think that’s really a holistic way to look at design, because for years, people always say designers are problem solvers, but the problems they end up solving tend to be UX problems or browser problems or things like that when there are so many other things out there in the world. You mentioned healthcare. Government is another one. Government services.

There are so many huge systems that we encounter every day that could use that design eye and that design thinking. And so I hope that people listen to this conversation and start to think of design in a bigger way. Like, think outside of just what you see on a monitor or on a phone. Like, think of design in a broader sense.

Sam Viotty:

Absolutely. Yeah. I think you’re spot on.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s inspiring you these days?

Sam Viotty:

Thank you for asking that. Color. Color has been inspiring me. I started reading. I went to the library and I started reading Color — I have the book right here: “Colors for Designers: 95 Things You Need to Know when Choosing and Using Colors for Layouts and Illustrations”. And I’ve been having, like, a lull in inspiration, and I never really learned about color theory formally.

And so I’ve just been so excited about color. I’ve been going on hikes recently, and so I’ve been obsessed with the sky. I go on runs, and there’s a beautiful sunset on Monday, and I counted eleven colors in the sky. I was just like, wow, what eleven different colors? And so I’m, like, training my eye to see different colors and hues. So I’ve been really inspired by that. I started reading. I just finished the book “Stay Inspired” by Brandon Stosuy…or Stossai? Finding motivation to your creative work.

And it’s a book of just, like, a bunch of activities to get you motivated and inspired to do creative work. And so much of the book has you tap into childhood experiences. So I haven’t been writing all the activities. I’ve been at least thinking and meditating on them. And so that’s been really fun. So thinking about my childhood as inspiration for things that I create and do now has been really cool. And then, yeah, just thinking about color. Lots of color.

Lots of just trying to find inspiration and creativity. My end of year project right now is trying to create an art book. And so very similar to the fade on kind of like big coffee table books, I want to curate some type of yeah, I’ve never tried. So I’m going to just try and map that out over the holiday and see what I can come up with. Have a little theme. I love material culture, so I think that’s going to be the theme for the art book, is thinking about material culture and how artists use different materials to create meaning. So I’ve been doing lots of research. So that’s been my end of year inspiration.

Maurice Cherry:

At this stage of your career, even just looking back to where you’ve come from and where you’ve worked and the impact that you’ve had, how do you measure success now? What does it look like for you?

Sam Viotty:

So do I feel happy? Do I feel good? Do I feel motivated? Has been whether or not I feel successful or those are my metrics for success. Are things feeling right? Feels a little woo. Woo. I think it’s because I live in La now. I don’t think I’d ever talk like this before, but yeah, a lot of it is. Like, how do things feel? I think I’ve had a lot of moments in life. I have ADHD. I also have quite a bit of anxiety.

And so a lot of my life has been me trying to get around those things. And so my metrics of success now have been, do I not feel anxious? How often have I been feeling anxious? Is it less? That seems great. That feels successful. So, yeah, just kind of just like, monitoring my mental health and feeling good about where I am in life right now and being content, spending a lot of time just being happy with what I have right now. It’s hard because I think, how do you balance that with wanting more and being ambitious? I’m wrestling with that now, but just be happy with what I got.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there anything that you want to do that you haven’t done yet?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I really want to curate a show. Like an art show. I say it every year. So now that I’m saying it out loud to you and shared with the public, I think I have to do it. So maybe it’s on the 2024 docket. Yeah, I really want to curate a show. I’ve always said I plan for it, I figure it out. But maybe 2024 is the year that I start actually doing it.

Maurice Cherry:

You’re right there in La. That’s a great place to do it. I know that United talent artists has an artist space, but, I mean, there’s just so much art and design in Los Angeles. I feel like you could definitely make that happen.

Sam Viotty:

Thanks for saying that. I live close to the UTA artist space, and I’ve contacted them before just for other stuff, so yeah, thank you. You know what? Yeah, it’s going to go into the like when I envision boarding for 2024. This is it. Thanks for this.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. What kind of work do you see yourself doing in the next five years? I mean, I feel like you’re someone that, because of the skills and experience you’ve had, you could really almost go anywhere. Because what you do is you help build systems and you help build processes to work through things. So say it’s five years from now, what kind of work would you like to be doing?

Sam Viotty:

The thing that I have not dove into that I would like to do more is or just curation in general. So I think I want to move to a space where I think I’ve spent a lot of this part of my career being like, I want to be the artist, I want to create, I want to work with people and uplift them. I think I can do that in a different way. Whether I’m curating music shows, which I’ve started to do with Rosedale curating an art show, just like doing more curation and leaning into, I don’t have to be the person that’s doing the thing. I can support the people doing the thing. And so I think that’s where I want to go, and I want to do it across I imagine it being across a bunch of different sectors, and maybe it’s not just visual art. Maybe it’s also fashion, and maybe it’s also interior design and objects and vintage and stuff like that. So I want to dive more into my creative self of putting things.

I feel like a lot of the work that I do ends up being behind the scenes or I don’t get to share it very often, or it doesn’t feel like I share it very often on a public platform. So I would like to move into that space a little bit more.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to wrap things up here. Sam, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, your projects? Like, where can they find that information online?

Sam Viotty:

I occasionally post on my personal instagram, which is @samviotty, S-A-M-V-I-O-T-T-Y. But my art stuff is at @theviottystudio on Instagram, so both of those are on Instagram. I occasionally tweet. I’m @samviotty on most things. I think I’m also the only Sam Viotty. So if you google Samantha Viotty or Sam Viotty, I’m pretty sure you’ll find me anywhere that’s mostly I respond to DMs. People can also email me at hi at sviotty dot com. So happy to chat.

I love just talking to other people about what they’re working on.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Sam Viotty. I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, when I was doing my research, and I think what really kind of blew me away was, like, this is a program designer that’s like, trying to change country music. It felt like this weird sort of combination. But now that I’ve talked with you and I’ve gotten the sense to kind of see how you work and how you think, you’re the kind of person that I feel like the design industry needs to have more of. Like someone that can really synthesize all of the things that design can do and use them in ways that can help forward, move people forward, move systems forward, move companies forward. I mean, there’s been so much talk about generalist versus specialist, right? And I think what you embody is, like, the true kind of generalist type of designer that I wish more designers were like.

I wish more people were able to take their knowledge and think of it and use it and apply it in ways that can really sort of benefit the world. I mean, we live in a very crazy time right now, and a lot of the systems and practices and things we have are designed and can be and should be redesigned. And it’s just so empowering for me to see someone like you that’s doing this work out in the world, and I’m glad to share that with the audience here. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Sam Viotty:

Thank you. I’m so happy that you have this platform. It’s incredible. Everyone I’ve listened to a few episodes and people are really inspiring. So I’m honored to be on the show. So thank you so much.

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Maya Gold Patterson

What a difference a few years makes! When we first had Maya Gold Patterson on the podcast back in 2016, she was a product designer in Chicago. Since then, she’s moved out west and has held down design leadership positions at two of the most well-known tech companies on the planet — Twitter (now X) and Facebook (now Meta). And after a recent stint as VP of Design at Riverside.fm, Maya’s facing one of her biggest challenges yet: quitting her job and embarking on a journey of self-discovery and career exploration.

We caught up and talked about her recent decision, and about how it’s left her feeling about Big Tech and about her future. But we also spent time looking back at her tour of duty at Facebook and Twitter, and she spoke about the lessons she’s learned, the products she’s built, and the importance of making choices that align with her personal goals and values.

Maya is proof that taking a chance on yourself is never a bad idea, so if you’re feeling burnt out or unsure about your career direction, then this episode is a must-listen!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Maya Gold Patterson:

Hi, Maurice. I am Maya Gold Patterson. I’m a designer and I recently quit my job on a good note. I’m doing good, so it’s good. But what I do traditionally is product design and I’ve worked in big tech companies — Facebook, Twitter — and small tech companies. Riverside, a startup most recently, has filled up most of the time of my career.

Maurice Cherry:

You know, you dropped this on me, like, the day before we were about to…I mean, first of all, I’m always excited when someone decides to quit their job because I just feel like that’s just such a great opening up to new experiences and new opportunities and stuff like that. And we’ll get to that, we’ll talk about that. But I’m just curious so far. Leading up to this, how has the year been going?

Maya Gold Patterson:

The year has been rough. Oh my gosh. Well, it’s been highs and lows. It’s been yoyos. So just to give a little bit of context, like starting out the year, I’m a new mom, maybe not as new as I was at the start of the year. So my son is eleven months old. But at the start of the year, I was on maternity leave, but supposed to come back and I was supposed to come back to Twitter, where Elon Musk had recently acquired the company while I was on maternity leave. So that was kind of terrible. I was dealing with post weaning depression, which people don’t talk about often. It has to do with breastfeeding and all of that, and then using all those emotions and trying to figure out what was next for me, I was doing job hunting and soul searching, and so that was a rough start to the year. But then I met these two incredible founders, the founders of Riverside, and we had some awesome working sessions, sort of informally, that escalated into a full time role as a VP of Design, in which we all knew it would be kind of an uphill battle. They were based globally, so it was going to be a ten time zone difference between me and them. And yeah, so I was waking up at like 5:00 a.m. to get on calls between 6:00 to 11:00 a.m., essentially. And at first it was really working and I was really excited. And eventually, for a lot of reasons, it wasn’t right. And I’m like, smiling while I’m saying this, not because of what has happened there, but because of the state that I’m in now. I’m so excited for the next half of my year and the six months after that, but the first leading up to now, it has been rough but also amazing and incredible. And to watch my son grow up and I just turned 30, there’s a lot of newness and experience and learning that I’m taking in, and I feel like it all just sort of, like, came to a head in the last six months.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. Well, congratulations on your son. That’s amazing.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:

I’ve done the ten hour time zone thing, too. The last company I worked at was headquartered in San Francisco…or co-headquartered in San Francisco and Paris. So I would sometimes have to meet whatever was happening in the West Coast. But then we had people, I think as far out as, I want to say as far out as India, maybe not that far. I know we had people into Africa, we had people throughout Europe, but it was roughly like a ten time zone kind of gap. And it’s rough, it’s hard. I know remote work has made it so we can work from anywhere, but time zones are time zones. And it’s rough.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, it is. It really is. And the most challenging thing, honestly, wasn’t for me, like, getting up early. I had already learned how to not sleep so much with the baby, so he trained me well for this. But it was the type of impact that I know I want to have on a company and on a product and for customers through my design work was just super challenging with that time zone gap and the nuance of what I was dealing with in comparison to what I had come from. Like at Twitter, we were all remote. That was the nuance. Everyone was remote versus in this scenario, at Riverside, I was the one that was remote and everyone was local and they were locally ten time zones away.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh…wow.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Right. So there just would be a lot happening. A lot happening that I would never just get to pick up on in terms of context and decision making. And it’s a startup, so it moves fast. And so there’s only like that three hour overlap where I’m actually getting to meet with the team and different people at the company. And so if a lot of that time is spent just catching up, when is the time spent to do the work? And it was tough to find that rhythm, honestly, but everyone was really committed to it, so I commend us for that.

Maurice Cherry:

When you were last on the show, this was November 2016. We were talking about this a little bit before recording, but you were a bonus episode because we ended up doing this right after I think it was the week Trump was elected in November 2016. And I went back and revisited that conversation and listened through it. And you mentioned talking about when you’re nervous about something or there’s something that you want to do that you’re not sure is the best thing, you kind of have this knot in your chest of nervousness. Did you have that feeling when you decided “it’s time for me to quit, it’s time for me to move on”?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, I did, but yes, for two reasons. One was because I genuinely really liked working with everyone I was working with at Riverside. So it was hard to come to the decision. Like, I needed to walk away. So just deciding to walk away gave me the ick. It was really difficult. But also the other part of me quitting was me committing to not taking another full time job and to not interview. And that’s something I’m even just exploring within myself, like what I really mean by that. But I really mean it. I’m committing myself right now to a year of not just jumping into another tech role, and that’s a statement to make for myself. I’m always the one to go and figure out what the Plan B is. So if I were to quit and then go to the next thing, I wouldn’t be that scared and that nervous, but I’m quitting and not immediately jumping back into Big Tech or any type of tech. I’m kind of exploring a bunch of different paths. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

When you emailed me yesterday, you told me that you were pulling the plug on Big Tech and that is something that you’ve wanted to do for a few years now. What does pulling the plug on Big Tech mean to you at this moment?

Maya Gold Patterson:

I’m such a drama queen. I am pulling the plug on Big Tech right now because it was taking too much of me, and I’m at a time where I need to invest in myself and explore myself a bit more. So I don’t know if I won’t even be as ignorant to say I’ll never go back into tech. That’s probably unlikely, but right now it’s a no. So that means I am going to start turning down interviews that I was ramping up on and being clear with them and hopefully leaving on really good and open terms with those hiring managers that wanted to take a chance on me. And it’s nerve wracking, right? Because I got into this, and I don’t know if I touched on this in my first interview. I cringe listening back on myself, but I was a self-taught designer, and I was a Midwestern girl. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to what Silicon Valley was. So to decide to walk away from something when you’ve built so much progress and you’ve put in so much work for the last ten years, like putting in so much work to make it to where I’ve made it. To then say “I’m going to walk away.” I don’t know what it looks like, if people will open, receive me again if I want to come back. And I had to decide that that was okay with me. If that ended up being the case, that was okay with me, and I will figure it out.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, yeah…I mean, when you were on the show, you were in Chicago, you were a product designer at Trunk Club, and I think it was maybe about six months after that is when you ended up leaving and then going out to California to work there. And as you mentioned, you’ve worked for two of the most well known tech companies in the world. You were at Facebook, which is now Meta. You were at Twitter, which is now just a single letter X. How was your time at Facebook? Like, we actually met in person in 2017 for the first time. Revision Path did that event here in Atlanta with Facebook.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Oh, that was so fun. I almost forgot. I was like, “I know we’ve met in person,” but I couldn’t remember what was the context.

Maurice Cherry:

You surprised me because you had came up to me over like, “hey Maurice.” And I was like “who is this?” because we had only talked on Skype. And I was like, you didn’t look like your photo. You had short hair then.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

And the photo you sent me, you had like, this long, curly hair. I was like “oh, oh…okay. yeah.”

Maya Gold Patterson:

I know, the hair will really do a number on you. How was my time at Facebook? My time at Facebook was awesome. Oh, my goodness, like, I would not be where I am today without Facebook and the unique experience I had at Facebook. So the way that I transitioned out west, first of all, I wanted to be in Silicon Valley to start with, but I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t get any job offers originally, but I found a really cool company in Chicago, so that was really good for just arming me with the tools to eventually try again for Silicon Valley. It did happen really organically where I was recruited into Facebook. I hadn’t reached out yet. I was preparing to. Dantley Davis, who was a deep mentor of mine, and I’ve worked with him now for many years. he found a piece of writing that I did for AfroTech that went, like, semi-viral at the time. That was “Five reasons why UX design and Black people go together” or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:

I remember that. It was on Blavity.

Maya Gold Patterson:

On Blavity. It’s not Afro Tech. Yeah, this is at the time, you know, when UX was still kind of fresh to people’s minds, like, what that even meant. I guess he saw that. He saw a couple of other pieces that I had done, and he was like, “yo, you interested in, you know, my team?” I was like, “I’m interested in anything. Please. Yes.” And I really wanted to work at a social media company, so I got the experience of working for a Black director, first of all, so that’s already new. A Black director that was really pushing the culture and doing so in an authentic way. Awesome experience. My direct manager was also Black, which is already…it’s a bit abnormal than probably your typical Facebook experience. And then there were not a lot of Black people in product at all at Facebook. But because it was so big, there were tens of thousands of people even just having 1% of us, there was a lot more than what I came from in Chicago, which was like, I knew one person who did UX design that looked like me in Chicago. So now I had access to incredible women and men who came from experiences like mine and cultural contexts like mine that were IC6’s and 7s and 8s and directors. And I’m like, oh, my gosh, and people are getting money and things are happening, and they’re talking in different languages, and you’re immersed in this incredible culture because Facebook Design, I really feel like, was leading a lot of the sort of education on what design organizations could look like and best practices. They were putting out a lot of content on Medium. Julie Zhou was, like, doing a ton on Medium and, like, I would religiously read everything that she put out. Like, I just felt blessed to get to work within this in the space that I had dreamt about.

I learned a lot, technically. Like, I was up against and working with some of the top prototypers who became good friends of mine, top visual designers, top strategic thinkers and storytellers. And I got to sort of see through their own craft, okay, what of this do I like to do? What could I be good at doing? And then they also sort of taught me how to implement that at scale through working with cross functional partners like PMs well, PMs and engineers I was already used to working with. It was working with people even bigger than that that really impacted the full customer experience that I first got to immerse myself with. So that was like, product marketing managers and data scientists and a formal user research team, like all of those people that are so important to the product you put out that I got to be introduced to at Facebook. So that was super cool. The offices were super fly. First of all, this is when Facebook, they were giving money, so they relocated me from Chicago to theBay. So they moved my car. I remember these movers came into my apartment, packed up my house, and set me all up.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, really nice stuff. I don’t know how else I would have moved to California or afforded it. I mean, the offices were just super luxurious. They had seven, ten, I don’t know, fifteen different cafeterias and vending machines filled with Apple products and just ridiculous type of stuff. And then you were expected to travel around the world to sort of meet the customers that you were building for. So you’re flying like first class, essentially, to these different countries that I probably would have never been able to visit. So you’re having all expenses paid by Facebook to go learn and do research, do the thing that you like to do. It just…it was a really fast and fun time. That also was really challenging too, because, again, not a lot of people that looked like us. Sometimes the decisions that the company made was not vibing with, and it was a huge ship, and you’re ultimately like a cog in a bigger ship. And I definitely made impacts in the way that I wanted to, but not as fast always as I wanted to, or in the way that I wanted to do it. And that ultimately led me to start looking elsewhere.

Maurice Cherry:

Were you working out of MPK 20 out of Menlo Park?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yes. So I started there right when they opened MPK 20, I think like a year or two prior to me joining. It was really new.

Maurice Cherry:

I was out there, oh, I remember it was October 2016 because Facebook was doing their design lecture series and they were supporting Revision Path. And so I was like, “well, I would love to do some interviews on Facebook’s campus.” I was like, joking, like, “ha ha”, you know, “we could do it. And they were like, “okay.” And they paid for a first class ticket, flew me out, flew my equipment out and everything. And I remember going to the building and just…it’s kind of hard to describe how tremendous the scale of just that one office was.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yes.

Maurice Cherry:

Because it has like this…it’s almost like an indoor track or like a loop where you can sort of walk around the whole building and yeah, they have all of these different cafeteria stations or food stations or whatever, and people’s desks are just kind of out. Like, it didn’t feel like a cube farm at all. It just felt like almost like a department store. But people worked here in a way because it was just that big and massive.

Maya Gold Patterson:

I had a love/hate relationship with it because to actually do work in that office was terrible, but like, there’s so much going on and there were so many people, and open floor plans are just really ridiculous for the creative process sometimes, because everyone just comes up to you and they’re just looking at…you know, it’s just obnoxious. But yeah, the lifestyle of Facebook at that time was…I don’t know what it’s like now, but it was really cool, at least for someone who was like 23. I think I joined when I was 23. 23, I had no responsibilities…

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, yeah, you were living it up.

Maya Gold Patterson:

I was living it up! I was like, “yeah, I’ll be here all day, all night, whatever.” You’re taking the shuttle. Because I lived in Oakland, you would take the shuttle with the WiFi. The shuttles for Facebook are like the most beautiful Greyhounds you’ve ever seen in your life. Like, not actual Greyhounds. And oh my, you do all your work, get in at 11:00 [a.m.]. I remember the first day I showed up like 9:00 [a.m.] and no one was there, which is the opposite of Chicago, where if you were there at 9:05 [a.m.], you were in fucking trouble. Sorry, you’re in trouble. This was not the case. People were showing up late in their flip flops and sweats, which I didn’t love, but whatever. And then they leave on their shuttle at like 3:00 [p.m.], and they’re just living it up. Yeah, it was good. And we did some really…I got to work on some really cool stuff. The best projects were working on like a Fenty Beauty AR project and working on Facebook Music, which included some AR stuff and really cool effects, and just the whole vibe of it was, like, really fun, honestly.

Maurice Cherry:

We’re talking about one building when we say MPK 20, but it’s almost like a town. It’s almost like Facebookville in terms of the scale, and there’s even an internal transit system to get you to different buildings and stuff.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Free Uber.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I was so blown away. That was also, I remember, because you know Tory Hargro, We know Tory Hargro.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Tory was giving me a tour and we had went to the Instagram building and he’s like, “Oh yeah, you know, this is the Instagram building where we do Instagram,” and they had these little stages as soon as you walk in the building where you gold take pictures for Instagram, he’s like, “oh, yeah, give me your phone and I’ll take some pictures for Revision Path’s Instagram.” And I didn’t have an Instagram for Revision Path. I was like, “oh, yeah, I don’t have Instagram.” And I’m saying that in the Instagram building. And it was like you could hear a pin drop. Needless to say, I was on Instagram by the time the day ended. But the scale of that place is just so massive to think about. And yeah, I could see how you were saying you felt like just a cog in the whole ship of everything, because it’s huge.

Maya Gold Patterson:

It’s huge. And Facebook was definitely a place driven by data, and it was pretty top down. Like, they say it’s bottoms up. Yeah, you could decide your roadmaps with the PMs and such, and that’s a skill that you learn. And there are certain initiatives that I got to be part of that definitely influenced what we worked on. But your impact, which translated to, okay, your performance review, which happens every six months, which is tied to your bonuses, whether you’re going to get promoted or not, your impact is tied to data, like, what metrics did you move? And so that kind of started to incentivize not kind of it incentivized everyone to work in a way that was really not necessarily what I defined for myself as building the best user experience always, or even the way in which I like to go about product development. And so the promotions felt real good, the raises felt really good, the equity refreshes felt really good. But over time, it’s like, I want to try something else. I want to try something else just for now.

Maurice Cherry:

So you made the jump over to Twitter, and that was right before the pandemic began, is that right?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, my timing is just really interesting, so I coincide everything that I do in my career with major stuff happening out in the world. Dantley had moved to Twitter maybe like two years — I can’t remember — prior to me joining. He was pitching me on a team, or rather an opportunity area that he thought I might be good at. Now I’m fresh off of what was like the Facebook Sharing team and then the Facebook Watch team. So Sharing is a really ruthless team to be on at times at Facebook because it’s always the most impactful to the bottom line, but it’s really hard to get the metrics up. And again, Facebook was oriented around metrics, so if you can’t move the needle there, it just was really stressful. So I was really burnt out by consumer facing sharing products, like Creation products. So that’s like creating things on a newsfeed, creative things in any sort of social media app. And this opportunity that he was describing sounded like Sharing to me. It wasn’t Sharing, but it sounded like some of that same sort of stuff, but it was vaguely like, okay…”we want to build something in audio, we don’t really know what it is. The team needs that sort of design vision and design strategy and some of the velocity that you probably would bring…if you’re down.”

I was like thinking about it, and Twitter I loved as a consumer. Twitter was my social media of choice. I had always loved Twitter, and I built a really strong design network on Twitter and found a home there. I never was interested in joining the company because I had heard through the valley, it’s just very white. The way things were run. Didn’t feel really fresh and innovative and they weren’t shipping a lot of products. I pride myself a bit on being able to ship products. That always was my sort of thing as a designer. I don’t get stuck in la la land. Like, I really will deliver something by the end of it. And with Dantley moving over there, he was changing the culture along with some other bigger cultural changes too, happening at Twitter. He’s like, “no, things are changing, and we’re hiring talent too, to help with those changes.”

I ended up taking that role.

It was incredible. Twitter was really incredible. I joined Twitter in January 2020. I went to their One Team. It’s called One Team, which was a time where everyone across the globe gets together in person to have this big conference that was in Houston. It was like the first week of January, or second, and it was lit. Oh, my God. Oh, it was so lit because Twitter was just that sort of more hippie tech company, you think Jack Dorsey versus Mark Zuckerberg. It just had that sort of vibe. And then they really leaned into, quote unquote, “the culture.” There was like Black people doing stuff. It just was cool. We were there partying and hanging, and the vibes were just right from start. And it was a much smaller company than Facebook. So I’m going from I think when I left Facebook, it was like 40 or 50K, at the time, employees, and Twitter was like 7,000. So it already felt much smaller, easier to navigate. We get back from One Team. I’m working with my team, which is three guys that were jamming on a very ambiguous scope of audio. And then we are about to head to a user research session in, I think, Houston actually, again, and I get a call to say to cancel my flights because Twitter is going to shut down, probably. Twitter was the first company, I think, in tech to shut down and go remote when 2020 happened. So I get that call. I had to cancel my flight. And I remember asking, I was like, “it’s not going to be that long, right? We’re not going to be locked up for that long, right?” And they’re like, “I think it’s going to be a bit” and I’m thinking to myself, okay, three weeks to say I never went back into the office again. Like, three years later, and only three months in was, yeah, I just wouldn’t have expected that. So from there on, it was like a fully remote position. And we were all working remotely, everyone in the globe, obviously. But yeah, my entire time at Twitter was remote, which was interesting. It was really important to have that one team experience. So I think that made me feel much better about the situation.

Maurice Cherry:

And now one of the products you were working on while you were at Twitter ended up becoming Twitter Spaces. We won’t go into that. You actually did a whole episode with this podcast I produced called Happy Paths. I’ll put a link to that if people want to hear about your journey with sort of helping to build that product. But there were some other features that you worked on as well. You worked on voice tweets, is that right? Some other things as well?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, I worked on voice tweets, the first commerce/sort of beta approach which turned into a whole organization. And then I transitioned from Spaces because I was just ready for something new. And I was working on our crypto — sort of like very ambiguous crypto space — I was second trimester pregnant at the time. A couple of months prior to that, Jack Dorsey left. They let go of Dantley and a couple of other really important leaders, Kayvon, and those two really were the ones that were driving a lot of the positive change on the product side. So Twitter was quickly corroding from my point of view. And I also just didn’t care about work like that because I cared about my baby and myself and whether I was going to be able to deliver. There were bigger questions I had for myself, right? Yeah. But I did get to work on a couple of interesting things by the end of it, like some interesting concepts for crypto, but those didn’t really get to see the light so much. And then a couple months after that, Elon bought the company and the rest, I guess, is in the news.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. I mean, it sounds like with all these sort of things changing as quickly as they were, it sort of kind of put that idea in your mind that it might be time for you to go then as well, right?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, for sure. And I think Spaces was such an incredible experience. voice tweets and Spaces really were like a one-two punch together. I loved the team I was working with and I loved how we built that product and even how we approached it. Everything just felt so good. But it was really hard too. There was some really not cool stuff that went down as well. And we went from a team of three, four to a hundred, and I realized I just didn’t like that part of the job so much. Maybe in the future I will, but the scaling to an org, I did not like it. Well, I didn’t know why fully I didn’t like it, but I knew I didn’t like it in the context of this bigger tech company where you have the KPIs and the roadmaps and the vision planning, like all that stuff. And it just was a lot of politics. And so I was really burnt out after Spaces and needed a break. And honestly, with all the drama that like, I got that, like people really weren’t checking for me after Jack Dorsey and them left because no one knew what their job was. Everyone was running around with their heads cut off. And I was like, “well, I’m pregnant. I’m just going to lay up.”

Maurice Cherry:

Well, it sounds like it was also just a big career shift in a way, because you had went from being an IC as a product designer. It sounds like you were mostly an IC while you were at Facebook and then at Twitter, you’re now, like, managing a team. You’re on management. How did you approach that shift?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, that’s good context. Just to be super transparent, when I joined Facebook, I was IC 4, got promoted, was about to get promoted, left before that and went to Twitter, and I still was on the IC track. I went from staff to senior staff. So that’s just like going up the IC sort of career ladder. And during that senior staff transition, which I think translates to an [IC] 8 at most companies, that was at the same time that Spaces had gone live as a beta, the company decided, “okay, it’s our number one priority. Maya, Alex, Remy, all the people that were like, the leads of the team, what do you need to make this make product market fit?” And that included bringing on a lot more designers. And so there was a point where I was getting coaching from Dantley, where I was telling him, I was like, “I don’t know how to do this.” Like, I’m not a manager, and I never went into management at Twitter. It wasn’t my goal. But he wanted me to essentially move into a design lead role, which was undefined at Twitter at the time, even though they were starting to try that out with me and a couple other designers. And he was like, “you’re essentially like the mass editor of Spaces, and you need to orient the team, the design team, to be able to create the product that we all see could happen.” So I internalized that, and I also knew for myself what type of culture and environment I wanted to work within, and that mattered to me. So while it wasn’t my actual manager, I wasn’t a manager. I also paid a lot of attention to the team culture, and I worked with my direct manager, and he was awesome. He gave me a lot of support in doing this. I worked with him to sort of set a culture and different activities, put those in place so that the team could not only create the best product, but it felt good getting there, ideally, even though the pressure was high. So, yeah, going from being the sole designer to leading seven designers — super talented designers, too — that was an incredible learning experience. But, man, that was really fun. Really fun, really hard.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, it’s good that they sort of were also kind of giving you the sort of support to support that team. Like, they didn’t just say, “okay, now you’re leading. Good luck.” It sounds like you sort of had help and support along the way, as you were kind of navigating all of this.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yes and no. So I got the support and I definitely got help. But it usually happened at a major junction point where I just completely was burnt out. One of the ways in which we even realized I needed so many more designers than I originally thought. I remember a new design director leader in the industry, Halli, had just joined. I had never met him. Big fan of his Twitter presence and everything he did with Ueno, they had just been acquired. He and I were going to sit down and have a conversation. Spaces was like…oh, my God. I was just so stressed out by it. And I couldn’t figure out how to essentially meet the leadership team’s ask, which was like, “okay, figure out how to do all of these things and what resources you need.” I just didn’t know. And he and I get on a call — and he’s so good at reading people; he and I had never met — and he was like, “how are you?” And the most embarrassing thing happened. I just started bursting out crying to this man that I’d never met before. It was, oh, my God, it goes against everything that I want to be. I’ve cried twice in front of people at work, and I always hate myself afterwards, but I could not help myself. I was so distraught. And through that, that’s when we really got to the essence of what I needed, and that was more support, more designers, and then also the sort of go ahead from design leadership. Sometimes people are really…I find that managers and leaders sometimes are really nervous about saying, “no, this designer is who you need to listen to.” Usually they’re like, “oh, everyone’s opinion is sort of like, equal, and the best one will come out.” But that’s not always true. Sometimes you need a decision maker. And so it was a combination of getting those resources and being everyone explicitly knowing, like, Maya is the decision maker. That empowered me to really lean into that role and then sort of transition in that situation.

Maurice Cherry:

And so now, after Twitter, you joined Riverside as their VP of design, which is where you were most recently. I know you were only there for a short amount of time, but can you just sort of sum up what it was like there for you?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, yeah, yeah…and even why I chose it.

So after leaving Twitter, I was curious still. I had some questions about my career. Like I mentioned, I had gotten to a pretty senior level of IC path, but I had been leading a team of designers. Several managers of mine had pitched the idea of me going into management. I knew that I wasn’t really that interested in doing it at a big tech company, just based off of what I was witnessing was the role of a manager. But I was curious about it, and I kind of thought that at a startup maybe that would be the way that I could both still keep my hands in the product making and product strategy and all of that while also getting to trial management. So I thought that this VP role would be like the sort of best of both worlds and I probably downplayed the challenges.

I knew it was going to be challenging to work in the ten time zone difference and I knew even just the cultural differences might be a challenge but I wasn’t too concerned about that type of stuff. But yeah, that ten time zones and even just the nuances of the startup world, right? Like I’m coming from big tech into startup world. It is different. Even though Spaces liked to brand itself as a startup within a big company, no, it’s still different. It’s really different.

What I really loved about Riverside is that they just moved really fast, but from a place of curiosity they would always be observing what’s happening out in the world and where their competitors are moving. And they weren’t afraid of scrapping a roadmap and just redesigning one or reprioritizing it. Sometimes we did that probably a little bit too much and I think honestly through our work together we started to get a little bit more consistent with our priorities, and that was great. But some of that even was a bit of a headache to just navigate just how rapidly things could change in terms of priorities.

What I found with Riverside was people were really just genuinely down to create and hopefully create a really solid product for customers. And I know everyone says that, but I don’t know…people just seem to be really curious to do that and really open to receiving wherever that idea gold come from. So they’re all taking a bet on me too. I’m in L.A. and they now have this new leader who’s all the way over here and they kind of have to listen to, like, they kind of embraced that with open arms and that was cool. And I think the startup world in general, I really am still fascinated by. But one thing I learned was I probably want to be…to create it myself. I have so many skills at this point and I have a way of working where actually startups aren’t that different from big tech companies. If you have a boss, the boss is still the boss and what their vision is and how they want to do work. That is the way in which you have to do work. That’s not a bad thing. And it wasn’t even bad how Riverside did it. It just at this time in my life, I was realizing that’s not what I’m looking for. Like, I was actually trying to get away from that sort of, I don’t know, like company-first mindset. I want to build something. I want to build something. I don’t want to push forward something that’s already been built.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, that sounds like a natural progression, though. I mean, going from these larger companies to smaller companies, but you’re gaining more and more experience just as a designer, as a person, you’re just gaining more experience. So I feel like that’s a natural progression.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, I hope so. It’s a messy journey. I think it’s even messier now that I’ve pulled the plug on big tech, apparently. But I think it’s going to shake out to something really beautiful, hopefully.

Maurice Cherry:

I think it will. I mean, one of the beautiful things about this show and having done it for so long with these conversations, it can kind of show people that your career path isn’t always a linear thing. Like, it can have ups and downs and highs and lows, et cetera, as long as you kind of at least have a sense of what it is you want to do and where you’re going. And it sounds like you’ve kind of weathered that in your own career.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, 100%. Oh, man, you hear it when you first start out. One of my best friends who originally was just a colleague of mine, she just would always tell me, “your path and your journey is your path. In your journey, you make the decisions that are right for your career.” And at first you’re like, “oh, yeah, of course.” And you kind of can get taken away in the career paths that these companies have sort of set out. Like IC 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, then you go into VP and then you go into C-suite, or you can start your own. There’s these very set paths of what success, quote unquote, should look like. And they’re attached to money and they’re attached to potentially notoriety and all those things. And what I found myself doing was going through that path, making a couple of choices that were uniquely Maya, but not enough. Not enough of those uniquely Maya choices and ones that only I could answer.

I think, you know, you really have to put in the hours and the effort. Like, the last decade of work was really important to get me to where I am today, where I feel comfortable being comfortable and confident being like, “actually, it’s a no right now. Right now I need to go do something different.” And I believe in what that difference is. And I have the skills to go approach that difference and turn left on this path instead of turning right, even though right is maybe what everyone else would naturally say I should go. And I think when people are able to do that — and what you and I were talking about a little bit earlier — was just like, I think a lot of us, a lot of millennials, and definitely people, you know, and other generations, too, are just kind of waking up and realizing, like, “oh, I don’t know if I want to do this path in the way in which it’s been laid out for me. I don’t actually know if I believe in this work for 30 years and then get to go do the thing that I love to do or that I want to explore within myself. I don’t even know if I love to do it because I haven’t been able to do it.” Do I want to wait until I’m 60 to do that? Do I need X amount of money to be able to go do that? I think what I’ve been doing, what I decide to do, is figure out what those constraints are that I’ve applied to myself; what I’m missing to be able to go and do that self-exploration through my career path. I don’t know. And then see, I guess, where the cards land after it. I’m now not willing to wait until I’m 40, 50, 60, I guess, to go figure it out. Like it needed to happen now. That’s what I learned.

Maurice Cherry:

So when you look back at kind of the experiences that you’ve had, you look back at your career, and I would say even, like, looking at what the current landscape is now in tech and design — I should say we’ll put tech and design together — what do you think it means to be a designer these days?

Maya Gold Patterson:

What does it mean to be a designer these days? I feel like designers are typically multidisciplinary, like the best designers are, but there is a singular part of their design skills that they can get paid to do or paid really well to do. And so we kind of lean into that. But I’ve seen people, whether they’re product designers or really honestly, outside of product designers, like interior designers, stylists, just creators in other ways. I’ve seen when they leave their corporate structure, and they just take that bet on themselves because they’ve put in the time and the work and gotten the network and gotten the resources that they need to go do that, amazing stuff blossoms.

So what does that mean for design? I think design is still messy. As messy as it was back in the day, it’s still messy now. Yes. We have more understanding as an industry of maybe the different types of designers, like what exists and what types of design work we need. But we’re not yet good at helping designers blossom in a variety of design skills. Like, are you going to be a tech designer? Are you going to be a graphic designer? Are you going to be an agency designer? Are you going to be a fashion designer? It’s very limiting. There are people that push outside that box, and what I assume is happening is they’re finding some interesting happiness and making stuff that can be really impactful on the world in a unique way. I’m kind of hopeful that that same thing happens to me. I don’t know if it’s actually their reality or not, but that’s what I’m interpreting.

Maurice Cherry:

Are you where you kind of want to be at this stage in your life? Maybe that’s an easy question. I don’t know.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, I am, actually. That’s why I think I was comfortable walking away, right? And what does that mean?

So for me, honestly, since I was a little girl, I knew that I wanted to be successful and that meant money and being able to do whatever I wanted to do. So having the financial means to be able to do whatever I wanted to do, have a loving partner, have a family, probably. And so by choosing this career path and then going all in on it and having a lot of luck along the way, I was able to sort of achieve enough to be able to check the boxes on a lot of my childhood dreams. And I think because that happened, I’m now in this state where I’m like, “so then why am I still doing that? Why am I still in the rat race in that way?” One good answer is I need healthcare. My family needs healthcare. But honestly, again, we tucked away a good amount of money and it’s not enough for us to just retire retire, but it is probably enough to stop, get out of the rat race, look at it from a different vantage point and maybe go invest in ourselves or myself. Me and my husband are both on our self-employment journey now, and kind of see where it shakes out.

And corporate America is always going to be there. That’s like the backbone of this. You know, I don’t know if I’ll be able to enter back into big tech shiny roles when I’m done with this self-exploration, but I’ll be able to feed my family. And I think being able to distance myself from the keeping up with the Joneses mentality enabled me to sort of make that call. And a good example of this is like, me and my husband bought a house and that was like a really proud moment for us. And I remember one of the things that happened after we bought this house was like, a lot of people were like, “oh, this is your starter home. You’re going to move into a bigger house immediately.”

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Maya Gold Patterson:

I know! And they didn’t even say it coming from a bad place at all. At all. I understand why they said that, but I just was like, “wow, shouldn’t we just be satisfied with what we have?” Because I immediately started thinking like, “okay, yeah, I need to go get like, a bigger tech bag so then I can go get the bigger house.” And I’m like, “I don’t want the bigger house.” Like, I have enough house problems. I have enough house problems with what I have. And I like my home. I like designing my home. Like, I don’t need more. So because I’m in this space, I’m like, okay, so then I don’t need a job that has these super high dollar signs attached to it and benefits and stuff. Like, maybe I will in the future. Maybe my son or myself or our health will require it. Okay, then we’ll saddle up and go do that. But if right now my family doesn’t need it and it doesn’t bring us ultimate joy, then I’m not doing it. I’m not going to do it.

Maurice Cherry:

I’d be interested, like even, you know, I think you’ve sort of alluded that you were kind of taking a year off in a way — I’m using air quotes here — but you may not even want to go back into big tech after that. I’d be interested just to kind of see what your priorities are at that point.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Me too. Yeah, I leave the door open on big tech just because I know myself and I know also how beneficial big tech can be when you need it, and maybe there’ll be a right time and right place for it. But this year for me is definitely not going to be a sabbatical. I actually don’t want that right now. I think I’ve done a lot of resting and rebirthing and actual birthing over the last two years. I’m just, like, ready to go after it. Me and my husband talked about it actually yesterday. I want to balance my time really well, where we’re explicitly saying, “okay, if no money comes in, that’s scary, but okay, we’re just going to do that. That’s fine.” If you’re spending your time investing in your passions, that maybe could lead to making money. And then so, like, the first six months, I’m hoping is just investigating what I like to do, how far I can go with that sort of sorting out can it make me any money, and if so, how much? Okay, out of those five things that I might want to do and could maybe make me money, let me pick one that actually, like, is drawing me. And now if I really invest all my time there, what would happen? That would be maybe the next six months. Can you tell, like we’re type A, so we’re planning already. Very structured, in a very structured way, but that’s kind of how I see it going, is like, I want to go and I want to maybe reopen up my vintage shop. I want to maybe go and start some stuff with my husband. I’m going to do some design advising on the side because I’m interested in that and I have friends building cool stuff and I know a lot now, so maybe I can be helpful, explore all of that, see what feels good or not. I can say no at any time because I’m not beholden to anyone but myself and my family. And then hopefully success to me would be like, by the end of the year. I’m not rich or anything at all, but maybe I found a business that just speaks to me or is mine and I’m loving and also could earn enough for us to continue letting me walk this path. That would be incredible if that happens, but I don’t know if it will.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, there’s one project that you started recently called Recshop, is that right? Tell me about that.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Oh, man, that was a really cool project with my brother. So I love all things vintage, so I love vintage clothes, vintage cars. My dad was and still is as a DJ. He was, like, a DJ in the 80s. So he spun vinyl and we always grew up with a ton of vinyl in our house. And recently me and my brother have been getting into it and we decided to open up a record shop. Honestly, it was just like a creative passion project to have. And I think after shutting down my clothing shop, I was looking for that again. Quickly we realized the used record shop business is just not a business and it just wasn’t sustainable. And I had just had a baby and it was just like too much. So I think I want to do more of that type of stuff, though, because it teaches you so much. I learned about that business and there’s unique problems for the customer in that business. That was a learning, and even just what I enjoyed about it or didn’t. And it was a cool outlet. Like, we got to design a brand and a customer experience that was all about music and curating these really important pieces of artwork to the American music landscape. We got to curate that sort of stuff for people; that was really cool. And so maybe I do a couple more things like that that sort of get me closer to understanding what my actual purpose is.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you want your legacy to be? And again, I feel like asking this now is maybe a bit premature because you’re right off the heels of quitting. You’ve got this freedom. The rest of the year has opened up to you. But have you thought about that?

Maya Gold Patterson:

I had not thought about that until you asked it a little bit before the podcast. But it’s such an important question. I do know from a gut sense what legacy for me, and I think my husband shares this, but one of the drivers of me quitting and quitting tech for a little bit was just I want my legacy to be the imprint that I have on my son in the type of woman I’m proud of and he’s proud of me for being. So I want him to see that he can make radical choices that are okay and can be honored and enable you to be your best self. And best self means like, showing up as a better partner, a better mommy, a better…just individual in general, making choices that go against the grain if it means it’s right for you is okay. That’s the type of legacy; like him approaching those intersections of life head on and not being scared of that and really having that sort of gut sense of like, “no, this is right for me. I’m going to try that. I’m going to work hard. I’m going to go try that. I’m going to go do something kind of crazy and feel good about that because I know it makes me a better man.” That’s the type of legacy that I think about. And if I leave some cool projects in my wake as I do that, that’d be awesome too.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I feel like that’s a good place to wrap up, but I guess before we do that, is there anything that you wanted to talk about that I didn’t ask you about?

Maya Gold Patterson:

No. I think though, if anyone’s doing some cool work in any cool work, honestly, I’m obviously open. I have some free time, believe it or not. So I guess I would just share that. Maybe I’ll leave my email for people to reach out directly if they’re working on anything cool, especially any cool collaborations in the vintage space, any cool design product startup stuff. I’m just here to sort of understand what people are trying to do and see if there’s some synergy, and if not with me, then maybe with somebody else. So I am open and more accessible than ever, I would say, right now. And yeah, just leave that.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. Where can people find you online?

Maya Gold Patterson:

I know that’s a good question because I kind of am off socials, but my accounts exist. So I’m on Twitter @mayagpatterson, and then I’m on Instagram @mayapatterson. I’m not super active there. Maybe I’ll become more active. I don’t know. We gotta see, but usually there.

Maurice Cherry:

I feel like we’re sort of at this time where people are maybe trying to wean themselves off of social media.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

I don’t know if it’s…well, I think what it is, honestly, is that Twitter has lost its damn mind. And then all these other Twitter clones kind of popped up, and folks are like, “oh, well, now I’m on Threads, now I’m on Spill, now I’m on Spoutible,” and I’m like, I’m not going to be in six different places. I’m going to wait like a year and see if any of these still exist. And then maybe I’ll see like, okay, if I decide to migrate to somethin, because people have asked that about Revision Path. They’re like, “well, why isn’t Revision Path on Threads?” I’m like, “well, I’m squatting on an account, but I don’t think I’m going to ever really use it.” But we’ll see how things work out.

Maya Gold Patterson:

I know. It’s interesting. It’s in a really interesting space. I don’t know where it’s going to net out. I think because I’ve worked in social media now for a bit, I know that it’s not good for us. I know mentally it’s not good for us. And so that’s why I had to make the call for myself to quit smoking, which is like quit social media. Realistically, when you have a small business like you do, or any sort of project, using social media is really one of the best tools you have to get your work out there and make connections and stuff. So I think now I’m going to have to probably re-investigate my Instagram or something like that. But yeah, it’s just yuckily…I don’t know, it’s just not good for us to be consuming people’s lives in that sort of way that frequently. And I know I feel much better since I’ve been off. And when I do go on, it’s like through my desktop for like five minutes. I don’t think that I’m going to be on Twitter for much longer, which is so sad because like I said, I loved Twitter, but I don’t believe in anything that’s going on there. So I probably got to delete that, I guess Threads is kind of left or Spill.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’m going to just wait and see. I mean, I talked about this on another episode, but I was like back in 2006, 2007, a bunch of Twitter clones popped up and there was like Yammer, there was Pownce, there was Jaiku… there were a bunch of them. And then within like a year or two’s time, they all either looked at other markets — like Plurk is, I think, huge in Taiwan — or they got bought out by a bigger company and then got closed down, or they just shut down. I don’t wanna…I think the way I said it in the last interview, I said, if Elon Musk is the problem, I don’t know if Mark Zuckerberg is the answer.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Oh, I know that’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

So maybe there might be just an option to divest altogether.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Maybe I think that there should be. I actually have thought about this as like a potential project, but more on that later. But yeah, get ourselves out of it. You know what I’ve been doing though, instead of scrolling? You know what I’ve been spending my time doing recently?

Maurice Cherry:

What’s that?

Maya Gold Patterson:

I’ve been going to the public library.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay!

Maya Gold Patterson:

I’ve been going to the public library, which is an incredible resource that is actually inspiring and gives you a lot of content for free that is not destructive to your mental wellness and health. And it’s been so…I like go there regularly and check out books and I spend so much time reading now, it feels really nice. I would encourage people to do that.

Maurice Cherry:

You heard it folks; support your local library. Maya Gold Patterson, thank you so, so much for coming on the show. One. It’s just great to have you back on the show, but then also just to have seen your glow up over the years, to see how you have grown as a person, as a designer, I mean, I’m going to be really excited to see what is next for you. And I’m so glad that you were able to come on the show, especially on the heels of such a big life change, to talk about sort of what that means in the greater context of your career and everything. So thank you so much for coming on the show.

Maya Gold Patterson:

I appreciate oh, thank you, Maurice. And thank you for creating this safe space. I mean, I am so happy. Like, you’re essentially the first place that I get to even share this news with. So just thank you for that and being always so warm and open, keep doing what you’re like. Your type of energy is what this world needs.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, thank you. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Carl Bogan

Artificial intelligence has been a running theme on the podcast this year, and I couldn’t think of a better person to talk shop about this with than the one and only Carl Bogan. Through his studio, Myster Giraffe, he’s created viral mashups that have racked up millions of views across social media.

Carl spoke a bit about his experiences as a visual effects artist, and then we went into a deep discussion about all things synthetic media — generative AI, deepfakes, media literacy, government regulations…you name it. But we didn’t just geek out about that! Carl told his story about how he got interested in visual effects, what motivates him, and where he wants his work to go in the future. This episode will definitely give you some food for thought!

A selection of Myster Giraffe’s work:

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Carl Bogan:

My name is Carl Bogan, and I am a digital creator and VFX professional living in Los Angeles.

Maurice Cherry:

How’s 2023 been treating you so far?

Carl Bogan:

2023 is…every year is a bit different. This one is no different from that. Starting out, very interestingly, more inbounds from Myster Giraffe. The VFX industry is a bit slow right now. The strike isn’t making it much better, but of course, always optimistic, looking for new opportunities in every single direction.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’ve been hearing from friends of mine in L.A. and other folks in the entertainment industry how the strike is kind of…I guess it’s reverberating throughout the industry. Because it’s one thing when the writers are striking, but then that affects production, it affects actors, et cetera. So, yeah, I mean, we’re recording this now as the strike is going on. I have a feeling it might still be going on by the time this airs. Given that, what plans do you have for the summer?

Carl Bogan:

Lots of family traveling time, creating new projects, coming up with new ideas, new ways to create new ways to engage with people. And so sort of never stop creating is one of my mottos. So the strike doesn’t really stop that.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Is there anything in particular that you want to try to launch by the end of the year?

Carl Bogan:

I’m still working on a list. I have a long list, I’m turning into a short list, but Myster Giraffe is always sort of near the top of that list. It tends to act as a calling card in general, and so I keep creating every — I don’t know — every six weeks or so, maybe every eight weeks of a new piece in order to keep the beach ball in the air.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you’ve mentioned Myster Giraffe a couple of times now, and I think listeners have probably seen your work a lot on social media. If not, I’ll make sure to link to a couple of clips in the show notes. But yeah, talk to me about Myster Giraffe. Like, I’m really curious on where that name came from.

Carl Bogan:

So Myster Giraffe is an online handle I created in April of 2019 as a way of honing my deepfake skills in a world that was very much pre-deepfake, generally speaking. And so the name Myster Giraffe was sort of a flippant reaction to wanting to put something out there, seeing if it had any value, and so it just sort of stuck after the first video went very viral. So now I was married to it, so it didn’t matter if I didn’t like it or not at that point.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Carl Bogan:

But I do like it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, it’s a pretty unique name, Myster Giraffe. And also, I guess the spelling of it probably also calls into a bit of mystery as well.

Carl Bogan:

Now, that was on purpose, namely because Myster Giraffe was born out of not seeing any…I had seen deepfakes to date at that point, but not any deepfakes that I could identify with in terms of Black culture or pop culture. And so I wanted to be that voice, but at the same time, knowing that history has told me, for good or bad or indifferent, you can be marginalized as a Black creator. If you show your work and then put yourself next to your work, the work may not stand by itself. So the M-Y-S — the mystery in Myster Giraffe — the goal was to be sort of more of a Banksy character, and that did work for many, many years and it really stoked the interest of many media outlets and people. Like, I wanted the work to stand by itself instead of having to say, “oh, well, that’s good for a Black creator,” or for that, sometimes people can put an asterisk next to your accomplishment.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, brother, you do not have to tell me about that. I know that all too well. I mean, it’s one thing…yeah, you put your face or your likeness or something next to it, and then people will automatically kind of either discount it or buy into it. But when I was doing the Black Weblog Awards back in…I did that from 2005 to 2011. And even though it was, like, gaining notoriety, like NPR had reported on it, et cetera, I knew that people would not even pay attention to it just because it had “Black” in the name. Like, it would just go in one ear and out the other. And that was also when Obama was running, and so everything was post-racial. So if you mention anything with “Black” in it, you must be racist. So I know that feeling all too well and kind of being able to stand behind a bit of a pseudonym or just to kind of obfuscate your personal self from the work helps the work stand out on its own.

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely. Not to mention, I was thinking about having a clear delineation between me and Myster Giraffe, in case I get into a bit of trouble. You know, deepfakes are still sort of new, and so I didn’t know what I would create that may or may not get me in hot water. So I wanted to be able to put up a firewall just in case. So I can go get a sandwich and not get attacked.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s interesting you say that, because I thought about that as I was looking at some of the clips, and one of the last clips that I remember seeing from Myster Giraffe was — you probably know the one I’m talking about — is Jonathan Majors and Michael B. Jordan, you know, doing the Dennis Edwards and Siedah Garrett, you know, “Don’t Look Any Further”. And I think that came out and then maybe it was like the next month or so, those allegations about Jonathan Majors dropped, and it was like, ohhhh.

Carl Bogan:

Mm-hmm. You never know.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. And it was in that media time where he and Michael B. Jordan were doing a lot of press together for Creed III and everything, and people were kind of speculating on their friendship or their bromance or what have you, and then that happens, and…yeah. I get what you’re saying. I get what you’re saying.

Carl Bogan:

Yes. You can’t always control the narratives when they leave your mouse click.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. You mentioned wanting to do the studio to kind of hone your talent, but what was the other inspirations behind starting your own studio?

Carl Bogan:

When I first started doing Myster Giraffe, I got a lot of inbounds from different people who wanted to work with me. This is even before I was really ready for the attention. I had been in freelance visual effects for maybe fifteen years at that point, so I was very familiar with freelance work. And so the demand kept growing and growing and growing and growing and working more and more brands, more and more music artists. And so it just made sense to launch an entire effort in order to take advantage of the inbounds.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay, so just sort of have one place to kind of funnel everything into.

Carl Bogan:

Sort of. That’s correct.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Now, do you have a team that you work with or is it just you?

Carl Bogan:

Generally? It’s just me, unless thee job is too big and I need to scale it. And so if I have to do production onsite, I have to scale the team. I have people I go to and I hire, and we work very well together. Friends of mine, colleagues of mine. But for the most part, the Myster Giraffes online as far as the social media effort, that’s just me.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. How do you come up with the ideas? I think some of them probably certainly are just inspired by, of course, Black culture. A lot of them are. But like…Steve Harvey as Megan Thee Stallion? Where do these ideas come from?

Carl Bogan:

There’s an instinct that only shows up during certain times. There’s maybe about 10 out of the 40 that I’ve created, I think around 40 or so, that I knew what they were going to do before they did it because there’s a little tickle that you get. There’s a little sort of…where you can’t stop giggling. You’re working on it and you watch it 37 times and you’re saying, “this is a good one. This is really good.” So I allow myself time in between creations. That way I don’t wear that muscle out. I wanted to always be able to recognize the funny before it shows up. Some of them I do them for me. Some of them I do as an experiment. Some of them I do as tributes. But there is a certain section that I have an idea for what’s going to work well within the demographic that I’ve sort of created or taken home in.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, some of them certainly are really fun. I mean, they’re all fun. I don’t want to say some of them aren’t, but I think the one that really sort of stuck out to me and I was like “wait a minute, who is this?” I think it was one for Insecure…for the HBO show. And Issa Rae singing Luther Vandross.

Carl Bogan:

That’s one of my favorites. Well, because that one’s fun. So what normally I like to do when I first started out, it was a bit more cheeky. Man over woman, big difference over here, big difference over there, chasm in the middle. That’s where the joke is. But then pretty quickly I realized, “oh, you can really tell stories with this and sort of come up with alternate realities.” So that was before the term metaverse had really — or multiverse had really — sort of come to fruition. And so I had the idea of Rick and Morty’s intergalactic cable mixed with what Myster Giraffe sort of became. And so each of these sort of are their own reality and their own channel in a multiverse somewhere existing in simultaneous fashion. And so that one was all about the love triangle between Issa and their two male interests on thee show. And so it lines up with the lyrics of the song. Who doesn’t love that song? It’s an iconic song. Who doesn’t love Issa Rae? She’s fantastic. And so you put them together, you cut a trailer around it to help the story get sticky and then you put it out.

Maurice Cherry:

Now when you put that out, was it for HBO and the show, or were you just doing it just to release it through the studio?

Carl Bogan:

That was spec, but I wanted it to look as if it was commissioned because why not? I have no doubt in my mind they would have commissioned it or asked to repost it had it not been a day before they launched the next season. I just kind of got to it late because I don’t rush through these things. It’s like, oh, let me sit down, I’m ready to create again. And so Luther Vandross actually reposted the video — or rather his team — and most people from the show reposted it minus Issa. I’m not sure if she liked or she didn’t. I guess that’s not really the point. It’s to make art that I like and then see if others can appreciate it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. What does the process look like when you’re working on a new project? Like, you have an idea for one of these deepfake videos, or if it’s something from a client, like, what’s the process behind going from idea to conception?

Carl Bogan:

I would say if it’s for me, the process is 80% concept and that is a very passive process initially, whether that’s daily Twitter usage or Instagram usage or TikTok usage. It’s a sort of…collecting things, collecting daily life into your brain. And then I sit down when I’m ready to create. I just kind of feel like, you know what, I’m ready. I sit down and it takes about three to four hours of just kind of going through, combing through what I want to say. I think… I want to have an idea. I think I want to do something with 70s African-American hair care products. I think I want to use this person. This person’s sort of been of the zeitgeist lately. Let me see if I can work them in. And so I kind of have this rolling list of people and topics in my head over in between the pieces. So then when I sit down, that three or four hours, I march, march, march, march, march and then I eventually end at a singular point which is a video. And then I back into it. So I always choose a person second. So I always choose the video first. It’s easier, I found, to not have to force a person into a place. So the people…if I wanted to do a person right now, I wouldn’t really be able to because I haven’t found the piece of media that fits yet. So finding the media is much harder than finding the subject. But if it is a studio, they normally come with thee concept [of] what they want to do. So that’s the easy part. Then they say, okay, great, they have an idea. I’ll either go on set and VFX supe it to make sure they’re shooting it correctly, because there’s a lot of things you can get wrong. We do a data collection of the person that you want to put in what they just shot, you know, we use a stand in. And so I’ve also created a very unique process of data collection for the subject. So that takes about half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, and then I take all the data back to my workstation, my home office, and I make a data set of the data. I get the plates from the studio and it takes about an hour to pre-process everything. And then I start training. It takes about a day and a half or two days. Then the compositing takes about a week, depending on how long and short it is, how perfect they want to be, how much they’re paying me to be perfect. So for the Myster Giraffe stuff, I purposefully don’t spend more than a day on the compositing because it’s not about how perfect it is, it’s about the story that it’s telling. If I do that, I’ll never get done because of my VFX background. I know too much in order to make it take less time.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Carl Bogan:

That’s about it. That’s sort of the broad strokes.

Maurice Cherry:

So it sounds like with Myster Giraffe, at least for your self initiated stuff, you kind of want to be a little bit more and this is not a diss by saying this, but it’s kind of rough and dirty, like you want to go ahead and get it and get it out there and get a reaction from people.

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely. I didn’t want to chase the pixel perfect deepfakes that some people chase, which is fine. I want them to push the technology forward. But I also realized, like I said, from being in visual effects, the goal is to have it be so good it disappears. Good VFX are invisible. And so since putting different faces on purpose, on different people, the goal is to create cognitive dissonance. So being perfect there is sort of working backwards. And so I do a good job of blending skin tones, face sizing matting and masking around the faces. Yada, yada, yada. So I get a lot of praise on how well integrated they look, but nothing past that because if they can’t see the job that I’ve done for this particular world, then I think it goes against the work that I’m doing. So sometimes I see an error and I just leave it in.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

Because it’s not worth the three hours to fix it.

Maurice Cherry:

Right. I’m curious also…when you put it out I’m imagining people aren’t coming back to you saying “oh, between this timestamp and this timestamp it’s a little off” or something. They just like the concept.

Carl Bogan:

Correct. I have yet to hear anyone complain about the compositing or the face generation because the story generative is so enthralling that it doesn’t really matter that it’s not 100% perfect. I will take 85 to 90 for this since it’s just for social media.

Maurice Cherry:

And I think that’s probably just an important thing that creatives listening can kind of apply to their own work. Like don’t let perfect get in the way of good. I don’t know how that saying goes. It’s something like that. But done is better than…

Carl Bogan:

Done is better than perfect.

Maurice Cherry:

Done is better than perfect. Thank you. Because you can spend a lot of time trying to get something to what you think is perfect. But the reality is that once it’s out there in the world, the person that sees it already thinks it’s perfect as it is. I mean there’s going to be some that will scrutinize, but for the most part, just put it out there and get feedback. You can always iterate on your own time but don’t let that stop you from releasing the thing, you know?

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely. Put the work out. Don’t worry about it. You can always go back and fix it, but put the work out. I remember the very first one that I did — very first piece was a Will Smith and Cardi B that he ended up reposting. I’m going to believe, to date, it’s still the third highest viewed post on his social media account. And I remember getting ready to really get granular and get into each pixel, make sure it’s perfect. And I stopped myself and said “you know what, this is good enough.” And I know sometimes you hear that, oh, “good enough is never good enough.” Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is good enough depending on the place you’re sending it and what you want to use it for and the time that you have and the effort that you have. And so I would say that examine that before you really spend a lot of time on something that may not matter in that context.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s good advice. Now you’re working in…the area that you’re working in is known kind of generally as synthetic media, which I feel like is the talk of the tech industry these days. Generative AI, personalized media, deepfakes, like you said, with some of the social clips that you’ve done. And I’m sure that you’ve got thoughts on all of this. So I do have some questions. I’d like for us to chop it up a little bit and talk about some of this stuff. Now, the most obvious thing is synthetic media has the potential to kind of blur the line between what’s real and what’s fake. When you’re working with synthetic media, are there sort of ethical considerations that you think are completely essential for doing this work? Like, when a project comes in or when you’re working on your own project, what are sort of the ethical considerations that you have around creating something?

Carl Bogan:

So I will start with saying deepfake porn is a scourge on society, and they need to legislate that into the ground. It’s not okay. And I say that because that’s where all of this started.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

I say a lot of the tech industry is born from video games and porn. Well, this is no different. And actually, as quiet as it’s kept, a lot of creators would use a forum on a deepfake porn site because that’s where all of the information was on how to do this, how to do that. It was sort of an oddly placed forum in sort of a deep, dark place on the Internet. Sort of, I would imagine, in the same way that YouTube was created and how to get compression rates down and so on and so forth. So I don’t know how it still exists. I won’t list the website because it’s not important. But the sites that do indulge in that practice, I think they should be held to a much higher standard and shut down, so to speak. Because permission and consent in synthetic media is extremely important. Which is exactly why I and many other creators do not do work or use anyone’s likeness for money where they did not consent to it. And so if someone came to me and said, right now, “hey, I want you to put Steve Harvey in a commercial, I’ll pay you money,” I have to say no, because I did not get Steve Harvey’s permission to do that. And so when it’s all fun and games on the Internet, I’m not getting paid for it. It’s fine. It’s parody. As soon as you take money for it, it steps outside of parody and it’s paid for hire. And now you’re infringing on his likeness. Now, that being said, here’s where it gets tricky. You take Steve Harvey’s likeness, you put it into the machine, it turns those pixels into numbers. The numbers turns into whatever goes into the latent space of the training, and it spits out something that looks like Steve Harvey, but legally, is it Steve Harvey? Because I always ask sort of this thought experiment: if you have two twin brothers who are identical, one is a senator and one does pornography, what happens? It hadn’t happened yet. But is the twin brother who is in pornography, is he allowed to practice his pornography as well as next to his brother who’s running for Senate? And so that’s sort of, at least from where I’m standing — how do you handle likeness and what [someone then] does with something that looks like you, right? And so we’re kind of reaching this grey space of what to do with that and I don’t think anyone really has the answer right now. But I will say that having ownness over your likeness, not in the way that it has been done for the last 20 or 30 years, but in a new way…that hasn’t yet been created, I believe that’s going to become very important.

Maurice Cherry:

Last year, right around this time, I was working with a startup. We were doing a magazine and we were doing this issue on Web3 and it was really like my first time diving into, in a deep sense, learning about a lot of these issues. And it was amazing. Like, just hearing about the concept of digital twins and people considering licensing or putting some sort of restrictions around their voice, because someone could take like…someone could take this podcast and the hours of audio that I’ve done and put that into some type of, I don’t know, whatever sort of generative AI type of thing and spit out something that I’ve never said, but they’ve cobbled it together from the words that I’ve said over the years and stuff like that. It was fascinating in like a Black Mirror sci-fi kind of way. But I could see there being some really heinous implications if that is used for nefarious purposes.

Carl Bogan:

Five years ago I was talking to several generative audio companies, and none of them were really that good, if I’m just being honest. But something happened the last six months, because in AI, six months is like six years. And now, all of a sudden, from this one podcast, my voice can be cloned. Your voice can be cloned. And we can be singing Frank Sinatra or saying really inflammatory things about different races and cultures. And so where is it going to be in six months from now? I don’t know. But I will say the technology is allowing for less data to do better impressions visually and audio wise. The future of that I believe is going to…someone’s going to come out with a way to identify or there’s going to be some protocol that everyone’s going to have to adopt if they want to seem as if they are with the time. Sort of like the Truth campaign which got rid of a lot of smokers or stopped a lot of people from smoking. It was a social movement and if you were seen smoking, you were seen as sort of a disgusting act. And because of that, many people do not smoke. And I don’t think the Truth campaign or the Truth company get enough credit for doing that, but I believe it’s going to take that sort of social movement in order to prevent people from being ripped off. Or I think you’ve heard of the kidnap scam where people take your voice and they say, “oh we have Maurice. Maurice, say something.” And you’ll say, “help me, help me give them whatever they want,” just that little bit. And it triggers your family to then go into their banks and their coffers and pull out whatever money they have to satisfy the demands of the would be kidnappers. But little do they know you’re just on vacation in Hawai’i.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

And so that is a real thing that will also happen. And not to be too dystopian or anything, there’s so many other good things that are going to happen.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, yeah.

Carl Bogan:

But these are just the immediate things that are sort of the low hanging fruit. Especially because we’ve been in the media lately and we’re making tools and we’re using tools but we’re not really getting ahead of them fast enough. But not necessarily saying that these things will happen, it’s just that they can happen. But oftentimes things that can happen will happen.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s true. That’s true.

Carl Bogan:

I forgot. Is it? Occam’s Razor. No, I think it’s something it’s one of the laws.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s probably like Murphy’s Law or something like that.

Carl Bogan:

Murphy’s Law. That’s what you have. Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, to that point, you know, you’re right. I mean, I even think about, you know, some technology that we have now that we take for granted, like cell phones and things like that. Those were inspired by science fiction. So you kind of have this interesting, almost symbiotic relationship of how the technology can be influenced by fiction and then that ends up influencing what people actually do with it in real life. It’s a weird sort of process and I think you’re right; it is going to have to get to some point where there’s some type of protocol or regulation. I know the government has been talking to Sam Altman from OpenAI about artificial intelligence and how it can be used. So I can see the government trying to put some guardrails around this. But in the meantime, what do you think? Actually before we do that — side note, you mentioned Truth. I was on a Truth street team in 1999.

Carl Bogan:

Thank you for your service.

Maurice Cherry:

No, you mentioned that and I was like is the Truth campaign still a thing? It’s still a thing. It’s been around for 25 years. Damn.

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Carl Bogan:

Now little did we know that they would go from cigarettes to vaping which I think depending who you ask is better or worse. But at least we don’t have to smell it.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Carl Bogan:

So maybe that was the goal. I’m not entirely sure.

Maurice Cherry:

But to go back to that whole thing about protocol in the meantime, what do you think we can do to sort of cultivate some literacy or some critical thinking around how folks can sort of, I guess, navigate and discern between what’s synthetic media and what’s authentic media? Like we’re already starting to see political campaign ads use kind of this generative video or generative AI for some things of course. I think probably earlier this year you were starting to see people do those AI avatars and stuff like that. And I know one way that people were sort of saying, like, “oh, well, you can tell this is fake. Look at the hands, because they could never get the hands right.” But now they’re starting to get a little better with the hands. But in the meantime, until this sort of protocol is implemented, how can people start to spot the fake, I guess?

Carl Bogan:

Well, for video, it’s easier right now. So for fully generated, like, prompted video, the data is not there. The computational math hasn’t really been done yet on the full models to make them fully realistic. Yet six months ago, it was much worse. Six months later, it’s much better. Six months, it’ll be even better. And two years from now, it’ll be almost impossible to tell. Sort of like Unreal Engine. And they got really, really good at generating rock formations and trees and landscapes because they’re using scans of actual rocks and trees and landscapes. Science plus computing power plus data equals reality, essentially.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

And so eventually, we won’t be able to tell. And so I actually work with a larger group put on by MIT. It’s sort of like a disinformation panel of people all around the world, and we get on a call once or twice a year. We talk about where things are, what can we do to help usher in a safer future, a more honest future, and a more ethical future for everyone, so that we don’t end up in a Black Mirror episode, which we’re rapidly racing towards. And so one of the easiest things, I believe, that always comes up is just an identifier, whether that’s a logo or a bug in the bottom right corner or somewhere on the screen that lets you know what you’re looking at has been generated. That’s it. It’s nothing terribly difficult to do, but there just has to be one commission or one protocol that everyone signs up for says, you know what? I’m going to be a part of the winning team in terms of wanting to make sure that disinformation is not spread, whether that’s innocent or whether it is really damaging. There was a person who went to the Met Gala. Allegedly, she wasn’t there. Someone posted her in a beautiful gown on thee red carpet, and she was at home in her pajamas, so that’s not a big deal. But then you see, like, you’re saying, the political information where you see Trump kissing Fauci.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

And that’s a big deal. And so these are just images, or the images where you see Trump running from arresting officers.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, I remember those. I remember seeing those. Yeah, yeah.

Carl Bogan:

Which is weird because you would imagine with the video capabilities of deepfakes and whatnot, and especially with voice generation, you can do a much better fake, but the more data points you have, humans are really good at spotting things that are not real. And so with images, they say a picture is worth 1000 words, but people are generally pretty bad at noticing what’s fake about one single image just because of the way we’re wired. Ever since we’re born, we open our eyes, we start collecting data about what’s real and what’s not, about what does a human face look like, what proportions, what are the microexpressions, so on and so forth. But you can’t capture any of that from a single image.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, you know, what you mentioned there is sort of an interesting corollary to what I tell people all the time about design. I often have encountered people over the years that are like, “oh, I’m not creative, I’m not a designer,” that sort of thing. But I tell them that everything that they have used or encountered in the world is a byproduct of design. Like the clothes you wear, the chair you sit in, the car you drive. Someone had to really think about that and cater that to a human’s usage or what have you. And so we know when something has been designed poorly. We don’t have to be a designer to know that, but we have enough just sort of like tactile experience with designed objects to know when something is poorly designed. So it’s kind of a corollary to what you’re saying with we see and know enough as humans to know when something is just not like maybe it’s in that uncanny valley, but something is just not quite right about the image that we’re seeing. Like the Pope in a white puffer jacket or something like that. Is that real, you know? That kind of thing.

Carl Bogan:

Exactly. I was reading a book about that, about design. I believe the author called it the Norman Door. Have you ever gone up to a door and you didn’t read the push or pull sign? But it had a handle, and handles generally mean grab and pull.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Carl Bogan:

But you grab the handle and then you push in where you’re supposed to push. And so you feel kind of stupid. You grab the handle and you pull toward you and it goes and then you see the word, it says push. Well, that’s not your fault, right? That’s bad design. Yeah, flat surfaces are for pushing and pulling gives you a handle and there’s no two ways about but, you know, depending on where you stand.

Maurice Cherry:

Like I like that analogy. That makes sense. One thing that I love what you’re doing with Myster Giraffe, and you talked about this earlier, is kind of…you’re using synthetic media to kind of amplify otherwise, I think, marginalized voices and faces. Honestly, looking ahead, what developments or advances do you see in synthetic media, and how do you plan to kind of contribute to that through Myster Giraffe?

Carl Bogan:

So what I would like to see, for one, is I’d love to see the world’s first synthetic host for an awards show. I think you can really get away with that for an awards show because the stakes are low.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

Or like a Dancing With The Stars or something where it’s purely entertainment. There’s no real weight on it. And then what I’d also like to see is…I’d like to see someone take the reins, if they haven’t already yet, and design a show specifically to allow you the choice of who you want to be the main character. So let’s say you have three identical body types. You have 5’10”, brown skin, clean shaven. There are several actors that can fit in that category. And so if you take three of those actors and you have one sort of dummy body, if you will, run through the scenes, run the acting, and still tell a good story. Right. And then let’s say, much like Bandersnatch on Netflix, you could choose your own adventure. I would love to be able to sit down and choose who I want to see in that role for that film and then watch it three different times to see how I feel about it. Because a lot of the times how we feel about actors changes how we feel about the film. And so if Jim Carrey was Vin Diesel in Fast and The Furious, the whole movie would feel different.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Carl Bogan:

Even if he wasn’t being funny in the moment, he would feel funnier because of who we know Jim Carrey to be. And so sort of experimenting and playing with that juxtaposition I think will be cool to see. I think also allowing us to…there’s no reason why when shopping online, we shouldn’t be able to see ourselves in the clothes that we want to wear. Why do we have to buy the clothes and send them back? We should be able to see how we look in them before we waste the fuel and polluting the environment, not knowing how it’s going to look on us. So we should be able to deepfake ourselves pretty much wherever we want to, whether that’s in a…I’ll give an example. Let’s say Cardi B comes out with a new music video, but she comes out with a version where you can put yourself in it and then everyone can put themselves in it as a means of creating another viral sensation. I mean, there’s so many different flavors of ethical ways to engage with people, allowing them to have fun with it instead of it being all sort of doom and gloom and, “oh, no, they’re gonna come get you.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. You mentioned that about the shopping, and that immediately made me think about what Snap is doing with augmented reality. Like, I think it’s like a Snap…I think it’s called like Shop Suite or Shopping Suite or something like that, where you can do just that. You can sort of use augmented reality to see how clothes will look on you before you buy them. So you can get a sense of like, “oh, this might work for me.” I think Target does this, Amazon does this, for some products where you can use AR to see how like a piece of furniture or a plant or something might fit in your space before you actually buy it. Because you know, if you go to the store, you got to measure, then you got to go to your spot and measure and make sure that it fits and all that kind of stuff. Whereas now you can just use AR to kind of approximate for the most part how something will look on you or in your space. So I could see that being fleshed out more certainly as technology kind of gets better.

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely. I’ve seen them for shoes. I’ve seen people…I just saw someone was just acquired or started working with Amazon for putting, trying shoes on, which is great because the hardest part about trying on shoes is that you have to go there and they don’t have your size, so on and so forth. But being able to see that the shoes are on your feet now, you still can’t feel them, which is the other half of that, but at least you’re halfway there. But I think there’s a lot of ways to use the technology and use your own face. Or my favorite one, or actually two of my favorite ones — one of them is…there’s a quote that says, “today is the youngest you’ll ever be ever again and tomorrow you’ll be older and older and older. So for online creators whose faces are their money or their investments, they spend a lot of time on skincare and wellness products and Athletic Greens to make sure their skin is glowing and they never bank the data. They never bank the data. And so right now you could take 30 minutes out of your day or every year 30 minutes and bank your data and keep…and sort of put this version of you in carbonite. So in five years from now, gravity, sun, wind takes us all down eventually. Why not be able to call on that older version of you to essentially freeze a digital version of you in time and have that be your Internet facing version forever?

Maurice Cherry:

I like that.

Carl Bogan:

That cuts down on having to get plastic surgery if you don’t want it, having to get Botox if you don’t want it. Just having an independent version of you that only lives online. Sort of like a Max Headroom that never changes. And I believe that’s going to be a way we’re going to interact with the Internet sort of in the near future. Sort of like a Ready Player One way where you just have your avatar and you can choose to show up how you want to show up because you should have freedom and individuality on the Internet.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Carl Bogan:

And the second one is — and I’m really passionate about this and I haven’t found the right candidate yet because I don’t know if I’m approaching it correctly — is that I would like to offer a burn victim the chance to restore their face digitally for use on the Internet, depending on how severely they were burned and so on and so forth. But if they have enough data of their face before the accident, you can restore their faces if they so choose.

Maurice Cherry:

If they choose, yeah.

Carl Bogan:

There’s so many different use cases that have yet to be seen that I’m really excited about either Myster Giraffe creating them or other people creating them.

Maurice Cherry:

You know, you mentioned the thing about the digital host, and immediately I was like, if there’s any media entity that I think that could probably pull that off and it would work, it’s probably BET. Like, BET had “Cita’s World” back in I was hoping you would like early 2001, but not only that, they brought Cita back. I think it was in 2021. BET had a reality show called “The Encore” that had these like it had like, Black girl groups from the it had like 702 and Total and I think Kiely Williams and some other folks and they were like all in a house, like, trying to make a hit or something like that. And Cita was the host. I mean, granted, it was only like, on a television, but it was like a more updated version of Cita that would be the so, like, if anybody, I think, could pull it off and at least has a precedent for it, BET, I’m putting that out there.

Carl Bogan:

You know, I’ve used that example and depending on the room you’re in, they won’t know it. They don’t know who Cita is. They’ve never heard of Cita.

Maurice Cherry:

Right!

Carl Bogan:

Cita who? Cita who? But that was ground– And this was 20 years ago. Yeah, actually, I was reading the story behind that and it was a couple of brothers out of Atlanta, I believe, that came up with the idea. And it was very popular and it fell out for whatever reasons. But I think you’re right about that. I think they definitely have the prestige in order to bring that back or to be the first. Let’s just say…let’s hope Tyler Perry gets to buy BET and puts it up.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, speaking of Atlanta, I want to kind of shift the conversation because we spent a lot of time, you know, just kind of talking shop, But learning some more about you as I was kind of doing research for this interview…you’re from Atlanta originally?

Carl Bogan:

I am from Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:

Tell me what your time was like here.

Carl Bogan:

So I’m from Atlanta and I went to elementary school through high school and college. I started out going to…I got a band scholarship to go to Clark-Atlanta University. I was in the drumline, like most of the people in 2001 who played an instrument at the time. Only stayed there for a year, went to Georgia State for a couple of years for a graphic design foundation. Wasn’t really thrilled with the program, wasn’t really into graphic design as much as I thought it was. I was more into the motion. And so I left Georgia State after two years and went to AIU for the last year and a half to focus on visual communication, where I really dug into 3D, specifically Maya and After Effects and whatnot. Graduated, did an internship at Riot Atlanta, which I believe was absorbed by Company 3, and got my start. Left there three months later, worked in graphic design and motion graphics for the next six months, then I said, “you know what, I’m just going to go for it.” So I left to go to Los Angeles.

Maurice Cherry:

And so for your time here in ATL at Georgia State and then at AIU — I’m kind of trying to place this in terms of the time frame. I’m guessing this is like right around late 90s, early 2000s kinda?

Carl Bogan:

I graduated college in 2005.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. So a little bit later. Okay. But I was trying to think of what the curriculum might have been, because what it sounds like is what you wanted to learn, there might have just been maybe just a limit in terms of how much the school could teach you.

Carl Bogan:

Absolutely. Everything was still books. YouTube didn’t really exist in the way that it did now. I believe They just got started and everything was 240p. And so if you wanted to learn it, you get a book and you get a DVD and good luck. So that’s not my preferred way of learning. Neither is most people’s based on the success of online courses. But I would say I didn’t really learn what I needed to to be competitive until I left Atlanta. Unfortunately, I had to come to Los Angeles, which at the time, and I think before the pandemic, they were still the number one market for motion graphics and visual effects. Now it’s much more global, so I don’t know if they’re still number one, but I do know that a lot of filming still happens in Atlanta, but rarely, if ever is there any post-production done in Atlanta. It still comes back to Los Angeles.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, you know, we talked about this a bit before recording. You were like back then, the only places you really could have gotten a job was, like you said, TBS. What was the other place you mentioned? I forgot already.

Carl Bogan:

TBS, The Weather Channel…

Maurice Cherry:

The Weather Channel! That’s right. The Weather Channel. Or if you’re lucky, Cartoon Network.

Carl Bogan:

Correct. That was sort of it. It was sort of a one horse town in terms of post-production. Now it’s maybe a three horse town, which is great. I’m happy to see them growing, but there’s still not a lot of shops and certainly not — I know Method Studios opened up an office there, maybe a couple of others, but it’s definitely not a booming industry there yet.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Atlanta, I feel like, has always been…and God bless them. I was working in the tourism industry like in 2005 and 2006. And I got to tell you, Atlanta was kind of as a city, and I say this only from, like, a tourism perspective, not from a cultural perspective, but from a tourism perspective…Atlanta was kind of failing because we had lost as a city…we had lost this really big convention. I think it was the Home Builders show. And that was like something that brought in like a billion dollars worth of revenue into the city every year, and then they just chose another city. Hurricane Katrina happened in…I think it was 2005. I think Katrina happened, and Atlanta picked up a lot of their convention business, and that really kind of turned things around, I think, for the state to the point where they were able to lobby to state government. And then state government started putting in these tax credits for entertainment. And then that’s how these production studios started coming here and filming. I’m curious as to what Atlanta would have looked like if we hadn’t…I mean, benefited is probably the wrong word, but if we hadn’t benefited from being able to pick up that business from New Orleans, because a lot of people, at least back then, really didn’t want to come to Atlanta. They had a really negative perception of Atlanta, partially from Freaknik, that just carried over into the next decade, but then also know people would come downtown and there was nothing to do. Like, they come downtown, and after five o’clock, everything is dead. And conventioneers would often be angry about thee fact that they can’t walk from their hotel to the restaurant without getting accosted by homeless people. And I don’t want to bring my family here, and there’s a whole bunch of strip clubs, there’s a lot of Black people. I just don’t know what to know to do…that whole thing. And the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau was really trying hard to, like, we need to find a way to brand the city. Like, we need something like Milton Glazer’s “I Love New York” or something like that. And they paid this agency like $8 million to put together this Brand Atlanta campaign. Were you here when Brand Stlanta happened? I think you might have been maybe on the way to L.A.

Carl Bogan:

Might have just left. I left in 2007.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, they did this whole Brand Atlanta campaign, and they paid for this really bad logo that was like a combination…like, if you took the Target logo and the Ubisoft logo and put it in a blender, it basically just looked like a bullet hole, which probably was not a great visual for the city. It’s like ATL in this red bullet hole. And they had produced a song called “The ATL” with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Ludacris, because I remember being in the [Georgia] Dome when that happened, when they premiered it, I was like, “this is really bad.” And granted, people still come to Atlanta for the music, and the entertainment and stuff, but they wasted so much money on that branding campaign, it was ridiculous. I say all of that to say that Atlanta really sort of benefited from that in some ways in the creative industry. But like, I think in other ways, you know, it took a while for the schools to catch up because Atlanta is pretty unique in that we have so many HBCUs, but then we also have kind of some top tier schools like Georgia Tech or Emory or something. And there’s also like art schools here. There’s [The] Art Institute [of Atlanta]. Well, Atlanta College of Art got absorbed into [The] Art Institute [of Atlanta], but the Portfolio Center, SCAD now has a campus here, but they didn’t back then. And now the city, I think, is known for its creative output. But for creatives that are here, and I can tell you this from trying to do the show, it’s been so hard to try to get Atlanta people on this show. They don’t want to do it. Or there’s always some excuse, or…and I mean that this is probably neither here nor there. But I say that to say I think Atlanta outputs a lot of creative work. I think it’s tough to be a creative and stay here because the infrastructure is just not supported from the business end. It may be from the community end, but not from the business end. There’s a lot of folks, a lot of really talented folks I know that have had to pick up and leave because the opportunities aren’t here.

Carl Bogan:

The opportunities aren’t there. I would agree with you. I just shot a music video in Atlanta maybe five weeks ago. Hopefully it’s going to release soon. And shooting the music video there with a small budget and three days of prep would have been impossible in Los Angeles, be completely impossible. I was able to show up on a Friday afternoon with nothing, no talent. Well, I had the main talent, but no supporting roles. It was a two day shoot, had zero locations, and in a day and a half I had everything. So I had the warehouse location that had proper lighting and had the white psyche and they had the robotic arm. I had the people who knew other people. I mean, it’s a very small community. The people working in post-production or production in Atlanta is a very small, insulated community. But I was able to find one person who let me into that community enough for me to get the resources that I needed. And so as much as I say Atlanta is not ready, it is ready if you have that one person. But if you show up to Atlanta and you know no one, you’re going to have a really hard time with trying to make it happen.

Maurice Cherry:

That is true.

Carl Bogan:

So, you know…it can be tricky, but they kind of saved my bacon. So I do want to say that. Now, that being said, all the post-production went back to Los Angeles, but in terms of getting stuff shot, finding makeup artists who actually know what they’re doing, B-camera operators, producers. Those people do exist in small amounts. There’s no strike going on there right now, so I think they’re okay.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’m pretty sure there might be some strikes here. I haven’t heard of anything but then I also haven’t really been looking, so I’m not sure. Now, right before you started, Myster Giraffe, you joined Aliza Technologies as their chief technology officer. This was in 2019. Tell me about that experience. How was that?

Carl Bogan:

So I had been freelancing for about a decade at that point, and I was looking for a new opportunity, and I really wanted to build something instead of just being the hired mercenary to solve this problem, which I really like doing, and I’m talented at it, but I just wanted to sink my teeth into something. So I reached out to a buddy of mine who has a company — shout out to Zerply — who does a lot of hiring for the VFX industry, and he connected me with someone who was looking for someone to build a team to create digital avatars. And at the time Lil Miquela was coming out, she was making a lot of noise being the first big one, the first American influencer to be an AI robot, and people didn’t really know what that meant, instead of just I don’t know. It’s sort of like a weird time. Anyway, Brian Lee of the League of Zoom Company, the Honest Company, and ShoeDazzle, had this big idea to have a universe of influencers, and he needed someone to help build the team and get the influencers created digitally. So I was hired in 2018 to facilitate that as a consultant. So I hired people from around the world working from home and getting those sort of…this quarterbacking that process, getting the designs from the concept artist to the sculptor to the renderer to the look of that person. When everyone was created, he said, “all right, we want you to come in here and lead the team and get everything going in person.” So April 1, 2019, got in the office, and besides building computers and setting up networks, asked, “where can I provide the most value?” And he said, “I want you to figure out how to animate these characters.” Prior to that, two months prior to me starting, I talked about deepfake, and they didn’t know what it was, so I told them about what it was and how maybe we can use it to animate the characters, because initially I gave them a budget, a VFX budget, and it was very expensive. And I said, welcome to VFX. And they said, can you make it cheaper? I said probably. So I told them about deepfakes. It was open source code out of the Eastern bloc, so from day one, I start specing out a machine to start learning on, and I don’t have a machine learning background. But what I do have is a method of solving problems from working in VFX, so I didn’t have to have a machine learning background or to solve a problem, so long as I would approach the problem methodically and chart my progress, so on and so forth. So three months from April 1, we were seeing really good signs of progress, and the task was to turn 3D data into a data set that could be used for machine learning to make animation 80 times faster and cheaper. And so three months later, we’re seeing some progress. Six months later we started filing patents. We got granted five patents, and those patents still hold. And that was sort of my role at Aliza was many things, but mainly focusing on the animation of these characters and how to get them, how to use a real human to drive the character, replace their head with a CG character in order to save time and money.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m curious if that work kind of helped feed into what you were sort of doing with Myster Giraffe. Not to say it’s like on-the-job training, but I’m curious if that kind of helped you out in that aspect.

Carl Bogan:

It was absolutely off-the-job training because I would do it on the weekends or in the evenings, because I was trying to, as a person who was not a deepfake artist at the time, I was just practicing. And so what Myster Giraffe started was it was really just scratch paper. I have this idea, I want to know what happens if I use less data for this, or I want to know what happens if I use three different types of data here. And so each of the first, I would say ten or twelve videos was just me trying different things. And then it became, well, I wonder how people are going to respond to this sort of thing. And it just became this sort of social experiment of how are people going to respond to this? Whereas it started as, I wonder how this is going to look if I do this XYZ, how much data do I have? What kind of data do I need? How big does video have to be? So on and so forth.

Maurice Cherry:

So it sounds like that was just a really good, I think, like you said, you had to have something where you could focus on building one thing as opposed to kind of doing these off, I guess, freelance type work, like working, doing one thing here, doing one thing there. You kind of had some stability, it sounds like.

Carl Bogan:

Yeah, I had some stability. I had now had a full time job for the first time in a decade, which was odd because I had not been in that role, but at the same time, I wanted that role so I could sink my teeth in. And so when everyone was settled and in the bed on a Saturday night, I’d show up to work at 8:00 p.m. and stay ’til 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. Wow. And just experiment, experiment, experiment. So there’s a lot of bloods and tears on intimate draft. I would say out of everything I’ve posted, that’s only about 10% of the work I certainly that’s only about 10% of the work I show. The other 90% is in a graveyard of stuff that is either too inappropriate to show because of it’s funny when you try to tell a story sometimes and you’re also trying to use comedy. Sometimes you try to toe the line, but you accidentally fall over to one side or thee other, and if you get lucky, you’ll stay on the good side. But sometimes thee experiments end up on the not so funny side and then you have to bury them or the data doesn’t work out. Like, I’ll give you an example. Some of those videos I’ll sit on for two or three years, and I’ll know I want to use them, but because I don’t have the right data, it doesn’t work out. So Michael B. Jordan, I’ve been trying to get the data of him for two years, and when he was with Lori Harvey and when he was doing different press campaigns and so on and so forth, I couldn’t get the right data. But because of this newest run for Creed III, I was able to get the right data, which made that video happen. So it wasn’t really up to me when I got the data. It just had to sort of arrive and now I could move forward with it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, interesting, because yeah, like you said earlier about consent, you couldn’t just put this together if the footage didn’t really exist or you didn’t get that permission from them. But now that he’s doing this press work, he’s out there. You’re now able to sort of gather these sources and then use that to put together a clip like that.

Carl Bogan:

That’s correct, yeah. There’s tons of people I would love to do, but I just can’t get the right data for them. Like Prince. He’s gone now, unfortunately, and he looks so different every time you would see him. But it’s hard to really nail down a good data set of him. So it just may never happen. But that’s okay because that’s how it should be.

Maurice Cherry:

Personally, over the years, how would you say you’ve evolved as a creative?

Carl Bogan:

I would say I’ve become more thoughtful in what I create. I also spend less time creating and more time thinking. I used to create for the sake of creating, which scratched a different itch. But I think as I’ve gotten older, I want my creations to have a bigger impact with less effort. Because I believe that’s…when you’re creating a painting of a Campbell Soup can, you know, it seems like student work, but yet that’s one of the biggest American pieces. And so I think the more and more I do Myster Giraffe or anything for that matter. I try to spend more time thinking than time doing. That way I can do it correctly the first time without having to make a lot of changes to end up at the same place.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, this work with synthetic media, I think is only going to improve as technology improves. What kind of keeps you motivated to continue with this?

Carl Bogan:

I would say the storytelling aspect of it all. There are so many stories that need to be told. Whether they’re in still format or whether they’re a full video, whether it’s found footage, whether you have to go on set and shoot something. There are so many stories to be told. And I think that to be Black in this country is to have your culture cherry-picked for what it’s worth. But rarely do we get a chance to be at the forefront of technology and to tell the stories that we like to tell. Which is why there are so many slave biopics we don’t need anymore. Yeah, we want afrofuturism and afropunk to see the newest Spider-Man and to see the character that was the British punk character, but he was Black, was mind blowing for a lot of people because most people have never seen a Black British punk character in their lives. And while that was an entire movement, maybe the 70s, 80s, and 90s and in Europe, we never saw it in the U.S. And so I think just being able to see something and tell a story around it just because we want to, I think that is important and powerful because we’ve never been able to do that before. So now that the technology is being more democratized, I think is the best time to do it now.

Maurice Cherry:

To that point, I’m pretty sure that there are listeners that are hearing what you’re doing and they might be interested in wanting to try to get involved in synthetic media creating it or something in some way. What advice would you give them if they want to try to delve into this deeper?

Carl Bogan:

I would say to start just by absorbing as much knowledge as you can. Everything you ever wanted to learn is now on the Internet. Everything, every single thing. And if you don’t want to learn it, you don’t have to. But if you want to, just go read, go watch a TikTok video, watch a YouTube video, read a Reddit entry, go on a forum, ask someone. But there’s no more excuses for not doing. Everything is available right now.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Maybe this is a little hard to kind of see because of how the technology is changing so rapidly, but what kind of work do you want to be doing in the future?

Carl Bogan:

My immediate goal is to produce the very first deepfake leaning entertainment show. That’s my first goal. There’s a deepfake show that has not been created in the U.S. Yet. There’s one in the U.K. that didn’t do so well. But I would like to create the first deepfake entertainment show in the US. And then from there have a slew of game shows, talk shows, so on and so forth, proving that you can use the technology in an ethical way and have sign off on everyone who watches it.

Maurice Cherry:

I love that. I think you can make it happen too. I really mean it. You’re in L.A. You’ve got skin in the game clearly for doing this. I mean, you’re a pioneer as far as I’m concerned when it comes to this. So I feel like that’s definitely going to happen for you.

Carl Bogan:

Well, I appreciate that. From your mouth to God’s ears.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to wrap this up, where can our audience find out more information about you? Where can they see the clips, the studio? Where can they find that information online?

Carl Bogan:

Sure. So you can find me online on Instagram at @mystergiraffe, which is M-Y-S-T-E-R. Giraffe. G-I-R-A-F-F-E. Or you can just send me an email at carl@mystergiraffe.com.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Carl Bogan, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Like I mentioned before we started recording, I was super excited to talk to you and this conversation did not disappoint at all. I mean, like I just said earlier, you’re a pioneer when it comes to this. You’ve had skin in the game for years. You’re making work that is one I think showcasing and celebrating Black culture. But you’re doing it in a way that is fun, it’s informative. It’s not like you’re not trying to incite anarchy or anything like that. I mean, really, you’re at the forefront of this as far as I’m concerned. So I really am interested to see how far you can take synthetic media in the future and I really do see that show for you in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show, for sharing your story and everything. I really appreciate it.

Carl Bogan:

Of course, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed the time together.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Breon Waters II

The past few years has been a testing ground for a lot of creatives. For Breon Waters II, he’s used this time to dive deeper into design across the digital world and the real world. And the results have been paying off!

Our conversation began with a look at his line of letterpress greeting cards, which are a fun mix of old-world printing techniques and cutting-edge technology. We also talked about his work at DEPT, and Breon shared how he came into product design throughs his earlier explorations in visual design and UI/UX. Breon has been steadily building his career brick by brick, and that’s given him a strong design foundation that will serve him well into the future!

Interview Transcript

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

Breon Waters II:
Hi, I’m Breon Waters II. By day, I’m a senior product designer at an agency called DEPT. By a later part of the day, I’m the founder of Holiday Free Of, a company that creates weird but memorable experiences that merge print and augmented reality.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I remember when we met a few years ago, you were sending out these letterpress Christmas cards. That’s where Holiday Free Of sort of grew out of, right?

Breon Waters II:
Yep. It started back when I graduated from ArtCenter, so back in 2011, which is wild to think it’s been that long. It was just a way back in before times, having in-person meetings or interviews and having to leave behind something for people I was doing interviews with to remember me, hopefully help me get a job. I’m not exactly sure how the hell I thought of Christmas cards. The whole idea is being not about Christmas, so it’s a Holiday Free Of these weird things happening for me. I think the first one was wishing me a Holiday Free Of a Christmas tree filled with renegade ninja squirrels. So really kind of off-the-wall, bizarre things, but really showing my personality. But also gave me a chance to really do the type of things I’m going to do creatively and really just get out of my comfort zone.

Maurice Cherry:
The cards are great. I have the one that you sent me last year right here by my desk. It’s great, really thick paper stock, of course, because it’s letterpress. And it’s so fun to interact with. It’s really a great idea.

Breon Waters II:
Oh, thank you. I’m glad that people don’t just think I’m some weirdo and just people actually enjoy it and not just me laughing like a little schoolgirl while I make these, so I really appreciate it.

Maurice Cherry:
So, how has the year been going so far? How’s 2023 been treating you?

Breon Waters II:
It’s been fast. I know I’m not the only one, but it seems unimaginable that we’re basically almost, I guess, a quarter of the way done with the year already. My son just turned two. My daughter’s about to turn five. I’m going to turn 40 next month. So just a whole lot of milestones are happening. But yeah, definitely blessed. Things could have definitely been worse in the pandemic, but thankfully we have a roof over our head, haven’t really had to have much pain or strife or whatnot. But all is good, just working and then trying to actually launch Holiday Free Of this year. That’s my third baby, if you will, is just seeing if there’s a market for that.

Maurice Cherry:
I definitely think there’s a market for that. I mean, it’s funny, I think about the last place where I worked, and one of the things that I was helping them with was getting together their swag. Because, you know, people think of tech startups, they think of T-shirts or maybe some little glossy pamphlet that you might get at a trade show and that you’ll throw away later. I find a lot of tech startups, like SaaS companies, et cetera, are always looking for unique merch.

So, at the last place I was at, I know we were looking at socks, we were looking at custom one-by-one keycaps for mechanical keyboards. I think those cards could be great. And I say this also because we did dabble in doing some print. We did a legit print magazine. That could be something great if you want to tap into that. The swag markets doing custom AR letterpress cards for companies. That’d be great. That could be a good way to do it.

Breon Waters II:
No, thank you for that, Maurice. I’ll definitely keep that in mind because that’s a damn good idea. I’ll have to [inaudible 00:06:24] on to that one for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you come up with the ideas for the card? I know you mentioned the name of it being Holiday Free Of. Do you keep a running list of stuff?

Breon Waters II:
Yeah. It always happens last minute, unfortunately. I think maybe one year I had the idea done maybe by September. But last year I was basically working on the design in November, a couple weeks before Thanksgiving. I have sketchbooks since starting design in college and I keep onto them and just writing word stuff. And sometimes, I think actually for this year’s, I was looking back at a sketchbook, it was a couple years ago, and just the idea of rock, paper, scissors. I was like, “Huh, there’s something kind of interesting there.”

It starts with a theme and just trying to figure out, “Okay, what’s the story from that theme?” And I can’t reveal the story fully yet, but it’s pulling inspiration from old school wrestling posters, boxing posters, patch show print-type posters and things like that for inspiration. I remember just being a kid, too, watching old school WWF back in the day. And just taking those memories, and what would happen if that fell in this world?

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I could see something like that, that could be pretty fun.

Breon Waters II:
I was lucky to get a really talented 3D animator and illustrator, Mr Lubo Designs, to collaborate with him, and just really took my silly idea and really made it possible. Because I wasn’t sure if I could even make it move with animation. I thought it was going to be static. He was able to make it move, and knocked it out the park. Really proud of it.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s talk about DEPT, which is the agency where you work at. You’re working there as a senior product designer. Tell me a little bit about your work and how you found out about them.

Breon Waters II:
Well, when I joined them, they were called it Rocket Insights. They were acquired by DEPT, I think five or four years ago. We’re officially known as the digital products US arm of DEPT. So, we basically design digital products for DEPT on the state side here. And how I found them actually was reached out, I forgot the name of the actual site, but you know there’s job placing sites, recruiters. But this one was basically by AI. And so I was working actually with another East Coast agency, funny enough, and I left and got approached by DEPT and the rest is history. I’ll be working with them two years in April.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations.

Breon Waters II:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a typical day look like for you?

Breon Waters II:
There’s not really a typical day. We’re kind of weird. We’re an agency, we work as consultants. But depending on the client, we could really be almost working an in-house counterpart to their company. So right now I’ve been working with FIFA for NFT projects. I joined it in November right before the World Cup started, which is the craziest time to join the project. But also learned a ton though too, because the project was going on way before that in preparations for all that goes into World Cups and big events like that.

So for this, basically, there’s two designers, a team of developers on our end and a project manager. And we have two different clients on behalf of the other side. And really just working with them for new features, figuring out what are things need to be included. One big push is the Women’s World Cup is coming up this year, and so we’re working on initiatives and features specifically for that. So that’s been basically the start of this year has been all focused on designing for the Women’s World Cup for this.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned the team. Are you working between different clients or do you just focus on one client for that specific project?

Breon Waters II:
Yeah, thankfully it’s just been one client. In the past I’ve had multiple clients. I’m trying to think back. Actually, before this project, I was on a design sprint and we were working with a mom and pop jewelry that’s looking to explore NFTs, and really seeing if they were to decide to create something within NFT world, what would it be? Is there a market for it? Who would it be for? And so that was basically a two-week sprint, just kind of along with the client learning what the hell NFTs are. Like what they’re all about, what’s Web 3.0?

And really just talking with them and potential users, just seeing what makes sense for them. What’s the story to tell? What would be their version of NFT? And it was really eye-opening just because NFT’s a real buzzword now. You hear the CryptoPunks and Tiffany’s collab’d and made millions of dollars. And people think, “Oh, it’s so easy, I’ll do that.” But every artist wants to be Picasso, or insert famous… or Basquiat. But there’s how many different artists and how many Basquiats? It’s not the same. It’s not as easy as that. So it’s really all about value. How do you really show that people should care or buy what you’re selling?

Maurice Cherry:
This might be an odd question to ask, but do people still care about NFTs? I mean, I ask this because a year ago, I swear you were seeing success stories about NFTs, and Adidas was making NFTs, and people were designing NFTs and making all this money. And now it’s like you barely hear about NFTs. Have they fallen out of favor?

Breon Waters II:
Right. No, I think there’s something to that. I remember last year the Super Bowl was everything about crypto. And all those companies basically are bankrupt or out of work. I think there still is, but I think we’re still so early in NFTs and Web 3.0 that it’s kind of like looking back in the first websites, where it’s just wild, wild west, crazy colors, rainbows everywhere. But it’s kind of matured. And I guess the trails of social media were there before, but it’s more mature now. And even still, trying to figure out what that’s going to be moving on forward. I think it’s kind of same for NFTs. NBA Top Shot is still popular, but it’s weird though, where it’s like you watch a game, it’s copyrighted by ESPN or Fox or insert whatever big broadcasting company.

And so it’s not even really clear. They own the rights to play it, so how’s it work you owning a highlight? I’m not sure exactly how that works. But even in that workshop I mentioned earlier, they mentioned NFTs for buying houses or for even for the contract sides, for if you’re working with artists. And having basically Web 3.0, big word, but basically it’s receipts. So basically capturing from the first person that bought it to fast-forward endless in the future. And so something like that, it’s not big and exciting and sexy as a Ja Morant NFT. But I think something that’s transaction-based, that could be a huge thing for it, but we’re still early for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I still don’t know if NFTs… I don’t know. I don’t think they’ve really penetrated the mainstream yet. I know why brands are jumping on it now. It’s all about that perceived value. Just like folks were really bang on about the metaverse a year and a half ago and stuff. I think people probably still are, but not to the fervor that it was back then. I attended a conference… When was this, was this in 2020? Might have been 2021. I attended a conference about the metaverse in the metaverse.

Breon Waters II:
Oh, okay.

Maurice Cherry:
Like, I have a Meta Quest, one of those helmet things or whatever. It was an interesting conference. There were some sessions that were, I don’t know if there was intentionally supposed to be that hokey and sales pitchy. There was one where this guy had bought some virtual real estate inside of the metaverse during a talk.

He bought a 800 square foot piece of land for, I don’t know, $10,000 or something like that. Probably more than that. 25,000, that’s what it was, he bought it for $25,000. And I’m like, why? It only exists in this particular metaverse subdivision, which is the best way that I could put it. Because there’s still a big interoperability problem with the metaverse. And I think this extends to NFTs too, where you can use an NFT maybe in Horizon World, but can you use it in Solana World or can you use it in another metaverse? Are you really able to take it with you? But speaking of things to take with you, after the conference, they gave us an NFT.

Breon Waters II:
Oh, okay.

Maurice Cherry:
They sent us an email, they’re like, “Here’s your NFT.” And then they’re like, “This is how you claim it. Get your hardware wallet and do this, this and this.” I was like, “I’m not doing that.” First of all, I have no idea what that is. Do I have to buy that? It’s all good. I’ll just tell people I went, it’s not that big a deal.

Breon Waters II:
Yeah, that sounds like… I imagine it wasn’t the same as actual attending a conference in real life. It doesn’t seem like it’s on par with that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You attend the conference in real life, you get a badge. I keep all my conference badges. You get something like that. But this was something called POAP, Proof of Attendance Picture or something like that. I’m like, “Is this like a Foursquare badge? What do I do with this?” I don’t know what it means for me to have that, or how to obtain it or why it’s useful. So I think I let it lapse because they kept sending me emails like, “Don’t forget to claim your NFT.” I was like, “I don’t know how, nor do I care, but thanks.”

Breon Waters II:
That’s a bad sort of a gift when you have to repeatedly ask that person, “Hey, you want to open the gift? Hey, you want to open the gift?”

Maurice Cherry:
But I think it’s cool, though, that you get to work with of new technologies with clients. So then you as an individual get to find a way to get your own understanding around it.

Breon Waters II:
Yeah, definitely. Even DEPT, our CEO, Dimi, there’s been a huge push and they’re all in for all things Web 3.0 and AI. Just like you said, being at the forefront where of course there’s a lot… Just like the experience you mentioned for the conference, where it’s not the greatest, but for the ones that do figure it out early on, being well-versed to really design and tell stories within this, it really will be a huge thing. But just early on, it’s going to be really rough and wacky. And a lot of bad things are… Hopefully not bad things, but bad experiences happening. But yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m looking at the DEPT website now. You all have a Web 3.0 division, it says, “With a global team of over 300 specialists, including solidity engineers, ethicists, economists and game designers, we have been building for Web 3.0 And the metaverse since 2015. Our pioneering work is fueled by patented and proprietary technology.” Okay. I didn’t know the Web 3.0 was a thing in 2015, but that’s cool. I mean, I’m not doubting y’all, I’m just saying, I’m looking through it like, “Okay, that’s cool.”

Breon Waters II:
I agree. [inaudible 00:17:34] my paycheck.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the most satisfying thing about what you do?

Breon Waters II:
I think really, and it’s going to sound sappy or cheesy, but when a client comes and they have an issue, or they’re working on something not sure of, it’s a really good feeling of helping people actualize, not their dreams, that’s too big and broad, but helping them get past their hurdle or issue or their problem. I think that’s really cool. Even for things like design sprints where on day one you have this big issue, you don’t know what the hell you’re going to do. It’s a whole mystery. And day by day everybody’s learning from it. And on that Friday, you do five user tests and just learn so much. And just that feeling of going from not knowing to, “Hey, there’s some [inaudible 00:18:28] here.” That’s a really good feeling.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you approach that process of designing a new product or a new feature? I know you’ve mentioned the team that you usually are working with, but what does that process look like?

Breon Waters II:
It definitely varies on what we’re doing. But a lot of times we have a lot of really talented strategists that during the sprint doing the work together with us or sometimes doing it before our project or our phase of the project starts. So, really getting insights from that. And I think it sounds cheesy again, but some of the biggest skill sets for designers, not just product designers, but designers in general, just listening and just asking questions, just trying to learn as much as you can from your client.

They know it better than you do, but they’re coming to you for your expertise to actually how to visualize and build this. And a lot of times, too, people aren’t able to really say what they’re trying to say. And be able to decipher between that what are they really trying to say? And even user testing, talk with users, really listening, paying attention, getting out of the way and seeing what they’re doing. And taking all that together and helping it to inform your designs.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s learn a little bit more about you, about how you got to where you are now. You’re originally from California, is that right?

Breon Waters II:
Yep. A city called Rialto, California.

Maurice Cherry:
Rialto, where’s that?

Breon Waters II:
That’s in the Inland Empire. I like to say, if you’ve seen Friday After Next, it’s where Day-Day and his dad moved to, Rancho Cucamonga. So, next door to that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. So, outside of LA, but it’s not quite a suburb I would say, right?

Breon Waters II:
Right. It’s not quite the desert, but desert adjacent. And yeah, it’s a big bunch of different cities where basically you’ll go through it if you drive to Palm Springs, or if you’re looking to drive to Vegas, you’ll have to go through it. At least from going through LA.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What was it like growing up there?

Breon Waters II:
It was cool. I loved it. Basically, imagine like most kids, you play out in the streets, playing tag or football, basketball, hide and go seek and whatnot. Where basically, it’s old school, but once the street lights came on, okay, you better bring your ass inside before you get in trouble. But yeah, just having friends around the neighborhood, just hanging out there.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that where you first got exposed to a lot of design and art and stuff?

Breon Waters II:
Thinking back, the first design or art was from my dad. And he wasn’t a classically-trained artist or anything, but I remember growing up, there’s a big portrait of my mom he painted. And there’s also, he did some different scratchboard pieces. They’re hanging up and just always remember seeing them as a kid. And so I’d always see that. And I was always sketching stuff. My thing was being a baseball player and designing airplanes, which are a perfect pair, right?

So, I would always draw that. And when I was in middle school, back when you would take shopping paper bags and wrap them around your books, I would draw Jimi Hendrix and baseball players on it. So never really blatantly had someone as a kid say, “Hey, this is designer art.” But from that and my dad really artistic in drawing, that’s where I really got my first dose of it. Or dose is the wrong word, but first learned about it.

Maurice Cherry:
And so you kept with that imagination of drawing and getting into it enough to the point where you decided you wanted to study it in college. I’m curious about this, and I know we talked about this a little bit before recording, but you went to college in North Dakota.

Breon Waters II:
Yep, that’s correct.

Maurice Cherry:
Which is, I mean, it’s not far from California, but you got to tell me-

Breon Waters II:
[inaudible 00:22:17]

Maurice Cherry:
It’s far? Okay. Oh, okay. I mean, I’m thinking it’s not on the other coast. But what brought that on? You went to Minot State University. That’s in North Dakota near the Canadian border, so you’re up there.

Breon Waters II:
Yes, sir. [inaudible 00:22:31]

Maurice Cherry:
Why? What brought you to Minot?

Breon Waters II:
You sound like you’re my therapist, which I don’t have, Maurice, so maybe I should have you be my therapist. Young Breon thought he was going to be a major league baseball player, playing first base for the Angels, and so I was hell-bent on playing baseball. After high school, I went to Cal Poly Pomona, which is a really good college for different engineering disciplines and especially aerospace. It’s in Pomona, California, actually, not far from where my folks live. So I was there, and excited being in college. But well, I didn’t just learn then, but I was terrible in math. I’d forget equations, especially on finals day. When you move into the senior level of classes, you do really cool stuff. They have partnerships with Boeing, working on airplanes and different things like that. I imagine now they’re probably working on drones and stuff. But I was bad at math. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to play baseball there.” I tried walking on and tried out for the team two years and didn’t make it, but I was still… The desire to play baseball, I wanted to do that.

And it was funny, a family friend of ours was working in the career center at the time. And she had me do a career placement test where you answer a series of questions. Whatever you pick, it’s kind of like, “Hey, you should do this,” or, “Hey, you should do this.” And so, one of the results was graphic design. I was like, “Huh, I never really heard about that.” I took some art classes in high school but didn’t really think too much of it. And so after that it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to switch to graphic design, but I still want to play baseball.” So I looked online and looked for colleges that had a baseball team and graphic design programs and just emailed a bunch of their coaches and whatnot. And I heard back from Minot State University and a school, Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa or Sioux Falls, Iowa.

Maurice Cherry:
Iowa’s Sioux City. I think Sioux Falls is in North Dakota.

Breon Waters II:
Okay, thank you. So, Sioux City, Iowa. And so my mom, God bless her heart, I told my mom and dad, “I was going to major in aerospace engineering and you’re paying for college. So yeah, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to go move to the Midwest and play baseball and do graphic design.” [inaudible 00:24:48] my dad, but my mom is just… And I get that too, my dad, you want your kid to be having something secure, not the whole starving artist kind of visualization. So I definitely get that now, being a dad. But my mom was really just supportive, “Okay, yep, we’re going to do this.”

And so we flew out to Minot State. I visited the school, tried out, and we rented the car and we drove from Minot to Sioux City, Iowa. Tried out there too. And just so happened where I got a chance to meet the team in Minot, it was during their tournament days, and just hit it off with them and just wanted to be a part of it. And that was how I went to being from California to moving to North Dakota, never having seen snow in my life, and being in blizzards there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to say, I mean, of course, weather-wise that’s wild. But I mean, baseball and graphic design, that would’ve been an interesting Venn diagram intersection.

Breon Waters II:
Yeah. And it doesn’t make sense either, where California is one of the best parts for baseball. And I moved from there to North Dakota, which is not known for baseball. So, on hindsight, not the wisest decision, but it did lead me towards that graphic design path, so I’m grateful for that. And that was the right path for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, while you were at Minot, you studied art, you focused on graphic design and marketing as well. How was your time there? Do you feel like you got a good foundation as a designer?

Breon Waters II:
Yeah, I think it was a good entry level way. Whereas, I actually was playing baseball there. I couldn’t play my senior year, which was at the time devastating, but it really worked out because I actually did my own senior solo show instead of… That wouldn’t have been possible at all if I was playing baseball. So basically, there, they introduce you, you have a class on typography, photography. I forgot what level of Photoshop or Illustrator it was, but it was back when you had the fifties looking MacBooks, or not MacBooks [inaudible 00:26:52]. So that was the time of that. So it did give me that sense, but I think one of the best part was the art side.

I had a lot of good professors there. Bill, and Walter Piehl was really amazing [inaudible 00:27:07]. He does these really amazing abstract rodeo paintings. And I remember he was the first person that put me onto Basquiat, was like, “You should check out this artist.” And really just was amazed, of course, rightfully so. Basquiat was an amazing artist. But I think that being an artist, getting your hands dirty, the first time doing screen printing and stuff like that, I think looking back it did set a foundation of having that kind of different approach to things.

Maurice Cherry:
What position did you play?

Breon Waters II:
I was first base but didn’t hit a lot of home runs and couldn’t hit a curveball to save my life.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know. I think that’s just really cool that you were able to pursue this design degree and you were effectively also a college athlete. We’ve had college athletes and designers on here before, maybe not at that exact intersection. That’s pretty unique. I mean, out of the hundreds of interviews I’ve done, you are the first one I could say that has done baseball and graphic design. So that’s pretty cool.

Breon Waters II:
Oh, thank you for that. Yeah, it was NAIA, which is basically division two. But one cool thing, though, is that we actually did play, in spring before we started league play we played in the Metrodome. They knocked it down years ago to build the new arena where the Vikings play. But playing in a Major League baseball stadium was cool. So that was really something I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life, even though we got destroyed and we actually were playing wood bats for the first time. So we’re playing wood bats against metal bats, so as you can imagine, we lost, and it didn’t work out so well. But it was still fun, though.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, I’ve met you, you’re tall, so it helps to be tall as a first baseman.

Breon Waters II:
Right, yeah. No, definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
So after you graduated, did you stay in North Dakota? What was the game plan after that?

Breon Waters II:
Oh no, once I graduated I got a U-Haul. Had a truck at the time, put all my stuff there and drove back. And I moved back home to my folks and just trying to get a job but found it was really hard to actually find a job. Actually, couldn’t find a job. When I was in Minot, I first heard about AIGA and spent a lot of time in Minneapolis for it, and just loved the city there. I think I went to my first portfolio show there. And so, okay, I’m going to go to a portfolio show. I went to one at USC at the time and I believe Ed Fellows was the actual speaker at the time. Does amazing work.

And I remember when I was getting my book reviewed and one of the persons there was like, “You know, you really need to go to a place that’s going to teach you design.” They’re like, “If you develop that eye for design.” And he mentioned a couple different design schools. And so I researched it and was thinking about, I think, actually, Creative Circus and Portfolio Center. But I think I got a booklet or something from ArtCenter. And funny, living in Rialto, never actually heard of it before that time. And just visited the campus, fell in love. You know where they have the bridge, it’s this 1950s-style architecture and just all the amazing work that students did there. And I was like, “Okay, yeah, I want to be here.” Decided to attend ArtCenter.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. ArtCenter out in Pasadena. It’s a beautiful campus. I’ve been there once. I know the bridge that you’re talking about, though.

Breon Waters II:
Yeah, it’s weird now, though. They actually have bought… So there’s South Campus in South Pasadena, and so a lot of, I think… Graphic design has a big building there, illustration. So there’s still stuff on the bridge, the Hillside campus, but not as much as it used to be. But still really talented folks go there.

Maurice Cherry:
How was ArtCenter different from Minot? Did you feel like because you had that four-year education already that it was easy?

Breon Waters II:
No. It was really intimidating. In other words, I remember in my initial class, people whose parents were designers, had done designs, had their own T-shirt companies and stuff like that. I’m sure like most folks you have imposter syndrome in your life, and you’re like, “Oh, how am I going to cut it?” But a blessing was Jay Chapman is a creativity coach there. And I will always be in debt and love Jay for the rest of my life. Just an awesome person and he’s really all about just helping you get out your way and have a sense of play in your work. And just would visit him at the time. I remember would visit him for a project and it clicked for you. You think of ArtCenter, it’s great design but it could be kind of stuffy, I guess, in a way.

Think of Bauhaus. It’s really kind of beautiful design but sometimes inject some life into it. So Jay is complete opposite, where it’s ArtCenter, this amazing school, but surrounded by a bunch of rich houses. And you basically, most folks just stay on there and design and work and work and stress out. And where you have LA and all the different cultures and cities that make up LA right around you but don’t even experience it. So really just enjoying life and experiencing different things and then injecting that into your work. Once from that just really did that and that really helped open the doors for me there. Just really, okay, it’s not worrying about other’s story, but what are my experiences? What does my perspective look like? And really just going well with that.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like the combination of Minot and ArtCenter probably gave you a much stronger foundation once you got out there and worked as a designer. Because of course you had this foundational knowledge from Minot, but then as you mentioned, with ArtCenter, you’re learning about this sense of play as well as also probably learning about some different techniques and such that you didn’t get from a four-year college that you’re now getting at an arts college.

Breon Waters II:
Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What was your early career like?

Breon Waters II:
After ArtCenter?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Breon Waters II:
That’s a great question. It’s funny thinking back. It’s funny, in design school, and it might be for the majors too, you’re taught basically the world’s your oyster, right? Designs going to save the world and work on these amazing projects. And so it was funny, my first actual project, at ArtCenter, they have what’s called, as part of your last day is speed dating. So different companies come to your spot where you’re presenting your work. Basically, you’re showing off, “Hey, this is the work I’m proud of from my time at ArtCenter. Hire me.”

And so, one of the people that did was someone from Saputo Design, which is an agency in Westlake LA. Or not Westlake LA but Westlake, California, excuse me. They’re a small ad agency and they were working on a pitch for K-Swiss. And I had some collage work in my portfolio from a project for my senior year. And they basically had me work on a freelance project with them for a little bit from that. So that was my actual first one. So that was cool, just like, “Hey, you liked the stuff I did for a class and able to use it for a pitch for a shoe company.”

Maurice Cherry:
So you started out doing visual design, right?

Breon Waters II:
Yep. After that, I was there, moved on to another place where a professor worked. And actually it was my first time being fired on the spot. And that was-

Maurice Cherry:
Whoa.

Breon Waters II:
Yeah. Of course, at the time I was not laughing at all. I remember basically was working on a branding project. I forgot what I did, but made a mistake and basically the person’s like, “Yeah, thank you for your time, but kindly pack up your things and go.” I’m paraphrasing that. So, by the grace of God, I managed to say thank you, shake hands and head down to the lobby and that’s when I burst into tears. And I remember the security guard or someone down there, like, “Hey, are you okay?” And me just melting down, where it’s fresh out of ArtCenter, have, what, six figures in student loans?

I’m still living at my parents’ house. And how am I going to tell my parents and also my girlfriend, my now wife, at the time girlfriend, that, “Hey, I got fired.” Just feeling like a complete failure. But looking back, it’s one of the best things that happened to me just really because it really was my first lesson, a big lesson, that there’s no such thing as security. Things could change in the instant. Not in a way of being afraid of, “Oh, this could be gone,” but there’s some freedom of, “Okay, this happened but I’m still surviving. This is not going to end me. Yeah, it sucks right now, but I’m going to keep going forward.” And that’s definitely something that’s really helped me along the way, just because it’s tough finding a job at times. The design world especially is really small and it can seem like everything’s turning against you and things aren’t going to turn around. But if it’s not like being any smarter or talent makes you “successful.” But just sticking in there, getting back up and that’s really helped me in my career.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really glad you said that because I think designers now, particularly during this wild period of layoffs that’s happening in not just the tech industry but the design industry and others as well, I think it helps to just hear that. When this sort of stuff happens, it’s not the end of the world. It certainly can feel that way. But you have to find a way to bounce back from it. And I think it also helps, and maybe in this particular instance, to know that you’re not alone when this stuff happens. I mean, yes, it’s the ending of one thing, but it also has the potential to open up into new opportunities that you can do. So, after that happens, how did you pull yourself out of that?

Breon Waters II:
So, funny enough, you mentioned you’re not alone, and that was something that actually helped too. A friend of mine at ArtCenter, Megan, was working at a company called Guess Clothing Company. And so she mentioned me to her boss Hiro, and basically I forgot, it might have been a month or two after that. I’m wondering what the hell’s going to happen next. And Megan hits me up saying, “Hey, would you want to work at Guess?” I’m like, “Of course,” so I actually ended up working there for a little bit. And I went on from there to Live Nation/Ticketmaster. And Hiro’s been a boss that I’ve… He attended my wedding, someone I consider a really good friend and kept in touch with and still keep in touch with now and just helped, advice. It’s really just like you never know when things are going to change, but having those people around you that are rooting for you really helps you out.

It may not happen exactly then, but along the way in a little bit of time, things will really pan out where it’s like, oh, okay. I’ve actually worked with when he joined a different startup and was looking for work. And yep, “Hey, Breon, looking for work?” And “Hell, yeah, I am.” And so I joined that too. So I definitely think it helped later on.

Maurice Cherry:
So for you, keeping that community in line is something that was really a good asset for you.

Breon Waters II:
Definitely. I know I’m not alone in this too where just I hate asking for help. And it’s just being stubborn. Just, “No, I’m going to do it myself.” But you need help and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. And I think one of the best things too is turning it forward when you actually are in a position to help people out, be able to do that too.

Maurice Cherry:
What inspired you to pursue product design? I mean, you were doing visual design and I see just from looking at your LinkedIn, you did UI/UX design. What brought you to product?

Breon Waters II:
So, back when I was at ArtCenter, there weren’t product design classes, or at least not for what we mainly consider it now. Product design as I knew it then was basically designing shoes or physical products or physical objects. So, I was actually, my specialization was in branding. So basically the idea of once you know, you do your research and your strategy and figuring out who you’re designing for, you can design whatever the hell you want to design. Whether that’s a logo, traditional stationary assets, things like that, or packaging, websites, you name it. So it wasn’t until I was working out in the field. I worked at Ticketmaster for about a year and just wanted to move to the Bay, where it still, it’s like that now, but it’s kind of awesome design place. It’s kind of like Starbucks, there’s one on every block pretty much.

And just wanted to really try to make a name for myself in the Bay. And so moved there. First learned about UI and then UX design and then later product design. And it was really from a point of trying to have more ownership on the project, where I went to the place, I was working as a UI designer. And it was the first time, once I moved back down to LA after a couple years. And it was the first time in my career where it just basically felt like it was a complete wrong fit. The design team overall was nice, friendly and whatnot. But the actual team I was working on seemed like basically didn’t really care, value my contributions to the team. And also from the company standpoint, the things we’re working on, we’re basically the red-headed stepchild of the company.

We’re not really having the funding or developmental talent to work on what we’re doing. It was basically like that, where I was working as a UI designer, but basically just it’s like, okay, the UX person does the UX, does user testing focus, all that stuff, does even some mockups. And, “Okay, here you go, Breon. Make it look pretty.” And just not what I got into design for. So I ended up leaving and I did an online class at General Assembly on product design, or UX design, rather. And just wanted to see, is this something that I do? And I had worked alongside some in-house teams, really great UX teams, UX designers, and learned a lot during that. And really found out this is all stuff that I could do, just all the things I took from them and be able to apply it from there.

And so I did that online course, it was basically a month long. And after that, Hiro, my boss from Guess earlier in the years actually reached out, because he had moved to the Flex Company as a creative director there and was looking to build a design team there. And so he hit me up and that was actually my first UI product design-type role after that General Assembly class. So it kind of all snowballed there where I was working there, really great company, they’re really small, tight-knit. Got to know the head of marketing, Maytal there, a really great person. And she put me on to someone who she knew who was an entrepreneur, has his own company, is looking to actually rebrand the logo, the website and app. And so that was another project where actually applying what I applied from that General Assembly class to that. So it kind of all just, unbeknownst to me at the time, lit and connected to each other and just slowly but surely evolving to being able to apply what I was looking to do.

Maurice Cherry:
And now that you’ve been working as a senior product designer at DEPT and you’ve been doing this work, do you feel like it’s been a natural evolution of your skills over the years?

Breon Waters II:
Yeah, I think so. There’s things from the branding side I definitely take in. As a product designer, you have design patterns you leverage. So think about, you open up your smartphone, buttons typically look the same, or different interactions or swiping and things like that, where they make sense because they’re something we’re all used to or trained to use. But there’s still a lot of design, a lot of digital products look the same. If you cover up a logo, it’s hard to tell what’s what.

And so I think from the branding side, that’s where it’s a chance to inject personality and experience into things. Not sacrificing the overall experience from a usability standpoint, but from a personality standpoint, how can you make an experience that really feels like this? So if you think of Apple products, where if it’s opening up your iPhone, the physical packaging to it, or looking at your iPhone or looking at the website or looking at things like that, it’s different things but it all feels the same. It feels like an overall same experience, so that kind of idea to it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, looking ahead, how do you see the field evolving in the years to come?

Breon Waters II:
That’s a good question. I think rightfully so, there is some hesitation or the sky is falling there with ChatGPT or we’re talking about AI before. Where those things are real, but thinking about it, having read some stuff, it seems like that’s the natural order of things. So I imagine designers before were working with their hands, like calligraphers, when you have the setting presses, type presses were kind of the same thing for that. Like, “Oh no, what’s going to happen for us?” And then after that, fast-forward to the computer. And so thinking that same thing too. But it seems like all those things, yeah, they did take away some jobs, but it seems like the bulk of the jobs they took away were things or actions that you don’t like to do, the more repetitive things.

Where it feels like more of these being our assistants of sorts. Maybe if it’s for ChatGPT. ChatGPT, I know I use it for coming up with ideas for the copy for the website for Holiday Free Of I’m generating for copy. I’m not a copywriter, but at least, it’s not perfect, but having a place to start from or even really refining ideas I have. So, in that sense, almost a old school ad idea like the partners, you have a copywriter, AD paired together. So a team where it’s helping you generate ideas and work towards a common goal.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I use Chat GPT now, and I mentioned this before we recorded, I use it a bit like a writing partner. It’s good to give some prompts on some things and maybe help guide you in the right direction, but it’s certainly not a magic bullet. Although I feel like that’s how the media is certainly reporting on it. They’re sort of anthropomorphizing Chat GPT and similar types of things like, “Oh, they can think, they can hallucinate.” They can only do what they’re trained on based on the data that we give them. That’s just how it works. I mean, we taught rocks how to think and now we have computers, so what’d you expect?

Breon Waters II:
No, it’s spot on where they could do things, but the soul of what makes people people, that personality, at least not yet, it’s not easily repeatable by AI or machines. So, at least we got that going for us.

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

Breon Waters II:
Really just experiences. I think now when you typically think of a product designer, you think automatic like a phone or websites and apps and things like that. And that’s great, but I’m more interested in things that span mediums. Like going back to the cards, how do you create something that’s in experienced physically in your hands, but also digitally. But it may be slightly different, but carries along the actual same storyline you’re trying to tell. So things like that. Things like AR and VR, virtual reality, augmented reality. How do you really create meaningful experiences with that? I think that’s, at this point in my career, is really fascinating to me. Not so focused on the devices or the mediums, but more of these experiences or touchpoints for you.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best advice that you’ve been given about design?

Breon Waters II:
I probably want to say it’s not even directly design related, but more of… And I’m not sure who I heard it from, but basically the point where it’s at one point in time everybody was a novice, or basically no one has all the answers. And I think that’s been really eye-opening just because when you’re coming up or just moving to something new, you think, “Oh, okay, they may have their ish together.” But a lot of times they don’t, or even at one point they didn’t. Even thinking about Web 3.0 or NFTs and all that stuff where no one has all the answers for it, so don’t feel like you have to be a “guru” or so much experience to know what’s going on there. Just having a sense of curiosity and playing around, asking questions, eager really to contribute to things. So it’s like there’s not this one elite path to doing anything it seems like.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Breon Waters II:
Just my family. It’s wild even thinking of being almost 40 and having a family. And you can have bad days and just have things of being an adult, what makes being an adult tough, but still hearing my… My kids are still young enough where they’ll call for me and actually want to be around me and my wife. I know that’s going to change, especially when they’re teenagers, but that’s the most awesome thing where just people are super happy to see you and just that sheer look of happiness.

And just their laughter, their personality is so infectious too. I love to create things. I’ll create things till my last breath. My kids will be the most inspirational, best part of something I had a part of actually creating. And so that’s really a humbling and also a daunting challenge, but also just so rewarding, though, too.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, your kids are also, at least the oldest one, probably, you say the oldest one is five, right?

Breon Waters II:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
Is she at that age where she’s interested… I want to say interested in design, but I feel like kids, just the way that we structure things for them, they have so much time and freedom to just play and do creative stuff. Are you finding that she’s into painting and drawing and stuff like that?

Breon Waters II:
Yeah, it’s funny. My daughter Essie and my son Mackaye. Essie is super in singing and dancing. She loves to draw. Like Jackson Pollock work, just wild and chaotic with making marks and things like that, but also that freedom for it. So I’m not really sure what she’s going to do, but I think she’ll be a lot better at it than I am, just because just how passionate she is and just loving to sing and dance and just that freedom that she has. For my son, McKay, I’m not sure. He’s like the Tasmanian devil. He loves books. So I think they’ll do something maybe in the creative world somehow, or at least have those hobbies and things like that. I definitely won’t pressure them to do that, but I think there’s something there that they have from me, which I got from my dad.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you can pass on the legacy of design in a way.

Breon Waters II:
Yeah, we’ll see. It’s wild, too, I wonder will there be a point in time in their lives when they’re older, will there still be jobs? Just how automated things are, it seems it’s not out of the realm of possibility where these things called jobs aren’t a part of our lives. But if that’s the case, what the hell’s going to fill that? So, I don’t know.

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

Breon Waters II:
I think in a perfect world, if Holiday Free Of is something that catches on, and not even just that, but I think to a point where just I could survive off of my weird ideas and creating experiences and building a team potentially around it. Or actually, in January, last month, we’ll figure, I started teaching for the first time. And I had wanted for the longest time to teach, and just like a dummy feeling, “I have to be at a certain level of my career to actually teach,” which doesn’t make sense. And it’s been early, but I really get a lot of pleasure out of teaching. Early to see how, it’s a cheesy saying, but just if you want to learn something, teach. And just there’s so much that you have to do and learn just to be able to know what the heck you’re actually trying to teach.

It’s like how do you actually communicate your ideas, and knowing enough to actually try to teach something, but knowing that you’re not going to know everything? So I’d love to do more of that. And just really too would like to be, when I think about my career, what I want to be, ultimately, I really think of a conductor, or just having an idea, but assembling talents to actually help them do their best by helping to overall steer the goal for it.

When I was working years ago back on my senior art show, I first heard about Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Amazing talents, but had these amazing bands built around them. And now if you think of Robert Glasper and the work he’s doing, I’d love to do something of that ilk where it’s maybe me creating my creative type of interests, like maybe a Nick Fury type of person, I guess, I think. Just really designing different things, even if it’s more like a sociological type study or things like that. Really just thinking about things or experiments and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
The Design Avengers, I could see that. You could pull it off, though. You could pull off Nick Fury with the iPads. You could do it.

Breon Waters II:
Luckily, he doesn’t have hair, right? So I got that [inaudible 00:52:03].

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

Breon Waters II:
By the time this comes out, Holiday Free Of will be out. So I’m launching that. So you can check out Holiday Free Of on holidayfreeof.com. On Instagram it’s @HolidayFreeOf. For my personal portfolio, it’s breonwatersii.com. Personally on Instagram, I don’t do it that much, but [inaudible 00:52:35] politemanliness.com. And really just trying to do more things, really just more storytelling with that. So look out for some interesting things and experiments, explorations on Holiday Free Of.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Breon Waters II, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Like I mentioned at the top of the episode, I think you had reached out to me several years ago and asked for my address because you wanted to send me a Christmas card. And I was like, “Yeah, sure, go ahead and send me a Christmas card.” And I mean, we’ve kept in touch since then. I’ve seen how your career has grown since then.

And also I think just hearing your story now and seeing the path that you’ve taken to get here, you’ve always struck me as someone that really has their eye on the prize, like you know what it is that you want to do and you’re steadily working and going towards that goal. So, I could see in five years, the cards really taking off and being a success. And I just want to thank you so much for the work that you’re doing, for continuing to blaze a trail in the industry, and just for being, I mean, to somebody like me, just being a positive influence in the industry, family man, doing the work that you’re doing. It’s just good to see from this vantage point, somebody that’s really out there making their dreams happen. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Breon Waters II:
That means the world, Maurice. Thank you so much, and thank you for your platform. Like I was saying before, the work you and Cheryl Miller, all different platforms that came out during 2020, like Where Are the Black Designers? It’s been a huge blessing for us, just knowing we’re not alone, there’s others like us. And just thank you for giving us a platform to share our stories and connect, so thank you so much for it.

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