Billy Almon

I first heard of Billy Almon at last year’s Black in Design Conference, and I was so energized by his talk that I knew I would have to have him on the podcast to share his story with you all. Being a biology-inspired storyteller and designer might sound a bit peculiar, but wait until you hear how vital and important his work is to all of us.

Billy started off with a primer on biomimicry, and then shared how his experience with Hurricane Katrina changed the course of his life forever. We also talked about the value of exposure, and the creation of Billy Biology, his way of giving back to the world and inspiring generations to come about how biomimicry and design are so important. According to Billy, “the answers are all around us.” And I think after this interview, we should be ready for them!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Billy Almon:
My name is Billy Almon, and I am a biology inspired storyteller and designer. So, I look at organisms in nature, I get an understanding of how they innovate, how they have been innovative, and I look for opportunities to apply that to challenges at the human scale.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Now, I regret to say, I first heard about you last year, at the Black and design conference that goes on at Harvard Graduate School of Design. You were on this panel, actually, with two other people who’ve been on the show, Ari Melenciano and Jerome Harris. Yeah, I know the panel was about equity and justice in technology and media. I remember you gave this example about a slime mold that I thought … I was sitting in the back like, “Wow, that is really dope.”

Maurice Cherry:
How had you heard about the event before you spoke there?

Billy Almon:
I’d been trying to go to the event, I’d been trying to attend the event since the first conference. My wife actually told me about an opportunity when they started looking for speakers for the last conference, so she actually reached out to them and said, “Hey, you might want to check out this guy named Billy Almon, he might be good for your conference.” Then, they reached out to me with an inquiry about participating.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Yeah, I mentioned before we started recording how your wife, she reached out to me too, years and years ago, about starting a podcast. That’s dope that she’s been proactive in helping out like that.

Billy Almon:
Man, she’s the most self actualized person I’ve ever met. It does wonders for my career.

Maurice Cherry:
I read where you refer to yourself as a biomimicry advocate and practitioner. Of course, I have to ask, I feel like you probably get asked this on every podcast but, what is biomimicry, and how do you use it in your life?

Billy Almon:
Biomimicry comes from this term called biomimesis, which translates to imitate life. Essentially, it’s the idea of turning to nature for inspiration on how to solve problems. If you think about the world in which we live in, every single organism on this planet, whether it be human, or bacteria, or mammals, all of us have to deal with the same conditions. Sunlight, cyclical processes, ebbs and flows in resources, competition, environmental factors that play into how we live our lives.

Billy Almon:
So, when you think about the fact that we all experience these things, and when you think about the fact that a lot of these organisms have been around longer than we have, you start to see that there’s all of these existing methods and strategies for solving problems, that exist in the natural world. What biomimicry does is we study these organisms, and then we find the underlying tactic, or strategy, or function that’s at play, at how these organisms are solving their problems, and then we apply that to parallel problems that humans face.

Billy Almon:
To give you an example, Velcro is an example of the biomemetic process at play. The designer of Velcro, he was a Swiss gentleman who would take his dog for walks. Every time that he would come home, he would find these little spherical seeds attached to the fur of his dog. So, he took these seeds under his microscope, and saw that there was these curly little hooks on the end of each strand of this seed, and he realized that this is a great way that this seeds attaches to animals, these curly little hooks. That became the inspiration for Velcro. So, if you think about how Velcro looks, when you look at it up close, it’s all of these little strands, and curly strings on one side, with fur-ish counterpart on the other, so Velcro came from the strategy of this seed, which is called a burr seed, to attach to animals, in order to have the animals carry the seeds to locations where they might potentially grow.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting. Yeah, I’ve heard something about that, with Velcro and how now, I guess there’s different types of Velcro, where the matting isn’t as plush, or the hooks aren’t as deep, but it is still based off of that same premise, of what you’ve seen in nature. You’re now able to recreate that, in an industrial setting.

Billy Almon:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Given that example, I feel like that’s something we probably, as kids just running around in fields and stuff, have instinctively picked up. You run around, and you’ve got grass and all kind of stuff stuck to your pants, and your shirt, your hair, or anything like that.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first learn about biomimicry? When did you first know that this was something that you were into?

Billy Almon:
I actually came across biomimicry as a result of Hurricane Katrina. By that, I mean after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I was an architecture student at Howard University at the time. After the storm hit, and after the manmade disaster that followed, there was a lot of students, obviously not only at Howard, but around the world … At Howard, there were a lot of students who wanted to do something. How can we help?

Billy Almon:
About 500 students from Howard University drove down to New Orleans, and to the Gulf Coast, to just find ways to volunteer to help during our Spring Break. Seeing what took place up close, I had the most transformative experience. It was the most transformative experience I’ve ever had, just witnessing people who look like you, people who look like me, in the conditions that that disaster left that community. As an architecture student I was curious, how do we avoid this from happening? How do we create spaces in communities where this event is not taking place? Especially knowing that climate change is not going way, especially coastal cities, and people in low income neighborhoods are going to be the most affected, and are the most affected by climate change, how do we prevent these kinds of things from happening again?

Billy Almon:
In trying to find answers to that question, I came across this book called Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, which was written by a woman named Janine Benyus. After I read that, everything for me changed, it became my design philosophy.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So, once you learned … Well, hold on. Actually, let me switch gears for a little bit. You mentioned climate change. Here in Atlanta, we have a Museum of Design here, and 2020 the theme that they have for this year is that it’s the year of climate and change. Actually, by the time this episode airs, there will actually be an exhibit there, about biomimicry. It’s titled Learning from Nature: The Future of Design, it was developed in collaboration with the Biomimicry Institute.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really interested in checking that out, because I heard about that right around the same time that I was at Black and Design. I was like, “I need to learn more about this,” because the examples that you were giving during that panel talk really inspired me to think about, what are ways that designers could possibly use nature for design, for technology, for creating more equitable futures? Which we’ll get to, later on in the conversation, but I wanted to mention that.

Maurice Cherry:
So, let’s switch gears here a bit, because you talked about Howard University. I want to go back, a little bit further than that. Where did you grow up?

Billy Almon:
I was a military brat growing up. My dad was in the Army, and my mom worked for the Department of Defense. So, I was born in Germany, I think we moved back to the States when I was, I want to say, one? Maybe two. Bounced around several states, Texas, lived in Georgia a little bit, lived in Maryland, before I went to Howard. Lived in South Korea, and then back to Germany. So, just all over the place, which was a fun experience, especially when you get to come across kids who have friends that they’ve known since they were in diapers. I have a new best friend every two years, so that was always a fun experience, growing up.

Maurice Cherry:
With all of that traveling, and seeing the country, seeing the world, how did that shape you, creatively?

Billy Almon:
Oh man, it made everything possible. It told me that there’s more options than I think, right away. It added all these different flavors to the mix of how you can create something new, by just introducing a new, or a different perspective, on what you’re trying to do. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that makes sense because it’s sort of like that adage, “You can’t be what you don’t see.”

Billy Almon:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So, the fact that you’re able to see all of these different experiences, different people, different cultures, et cetera, that all feeds into who you are.

Billy Almon:
Yeah. I’ve got to tell you, if there was one thing that really stuck out to me, about the experience of all that traveling as a young kid, was just the value of exposure. I mean, like you say, you don’t know what you don’t know. Once you’re exposed to something, it just reintroduces you to another level of possibilities, right? I can’t emphasize enough how much exposure, even in a lot of the work that I’m doing now, how big of a role that plays.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first know that design, in general, was something that you were really interested in? Were you just prone to it as a kid, or how’d you find out about it?

Billy Almon:
When I was a kid, these are the stories my mom would tell me, about me being in my room, building contraptions, building booby traps in my room, and building cities out of construction paper and Legos. So, my mom would always tell me when I was a kid that I was going to be either an engineer, or an inventor when I grew up. Just her telling me that I was like, “Okay, that’s the name of it,” and I’d just go back to playing in my room.

Billy Almon:
Finding ways to explore my imagination, I think that was really it. Then, her just feeding that was a big part of it.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember when I was a kid, they used to have this, I think it was a contest, called Invent America. Do you remember this?

Billy Almon:
No. What was that?

Maurice Cherry:
I might be showing my age. When I was in school in the ’80s, Jesus Christ, there was this nationwide competition called Invent America, and it was for K through eight students to, basically, creative thinking skills, critical thinking skills, et cetera. You just basically made stuff, and it was a nationwide competition, they judged it. I don’t know if Invent America is still a thing, anymore? I want to say, given the state that America is now, not to be political, but I don’t know if that’s still a thing that kids do?

Billy Almon:
Was that at a public school they did that?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it was a public school. Yeah.

Billy Almon:
Oh man, maybe I was in Korea.

Maurice Cherry:
This is a public school in rural Alabama.

Billy Almon:
Oh, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I figured it was a nationwide thing, I thought it was nationwide. I’m going to have to look into that.

Billy Almon:
You know what’s funny? When you said Invent for America, my mind went to us. What was it, reach for-

Maurice Cherry:
Hands Across America. Yeah.

Billy Almon:
I was like, “Wait, you did what?”

Maurice Cherry:
I need to see if Invent America’s still a thing, because … It’s funny, I think about the stuff that I did when I was younger in school, and how completely unorthodox I think it is, right now. We had a critical thinking … Not a class, really, but they would give us critical thinking exercises. They’d give us an odd scrap of construction paper, or something, and everyone gets the same shape of construction paper, and you have to basically make something out of it. Some people would glue it to a piece of paper, and draw around it to make art around it. Or, someone would take it, and fold it into something, or things like that. I don’t know if kids have that kind of stuff, now?

Billy Almon:
You know what’s crazy about that? Now, to do that, you’d have to pay $20,000 a semester at college, to do the exact same thing. Take this piece of paper.

Billy Almon:
I remember, one of our projects was we had to take one piece of cardboard, and turn it into a chair, and be able to sit in the chair. It was basically just a thicker piece of paper, I could have just went to public school in Alabama, and checked that box.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you have this, I guess, childhood curiosity for creating these traps, and buildings, and everything, so your parents saw that as something that, clearly, you were into. Was that what influenced you to go into architecture?

Billy Almon:
Yes, when it came time-

Maurice Cherry:
Was that what influenced you to go into architecture?

Billy Almon:
Yes. When it came time for me to start looking at schools and start thinking about my major, the closest thing, at that time, that I came across was architecture. I was looking at it like, “What is something that has to deal with psychology, has to deal with politics, has to deal with science and art?” This is 2004, so this is before everyone just was Googling stuff. Before that was a trend, it was… What was it? Hotmail and looking stuff up on that internet. Architecture was the first thing that I came across and understanding, researching about Egyptian architecture and how the architect was treated in society during that time period really kind of romanticized it in a way where I was like, “Okay. This feels like the right thing.”

Maurice Cherry:
How was your time at Howard?

Billy Almon:
I wouldn’t trade my Howard experience for anything. It was the best in so many different ways. One, because that was my first taste of Wakanda, and if you recall from the talk, but I just love black Panther. In part, because you can see biomemetic elements in the design. It was the first time, I remember stepping on campus like it was yesterday, stepping on campus and just seeing beautiful, intelligent people having diverse conversations and they all look like you, right? Just not getting that flavor, again, having traveled the world and primarily being the minority everywhere I went, it was just such a unique and special experience that, I just… Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Was it your choice to go through an HBCU or was that something your parents were pushing?

Billy Almon:
No, it’s interesting. I had actually planned to go to the University of Maryland and then I got accepted into Howard. I remember, I don’t know how not political or spiritual to not get, but this is literally what happened. I was praying about the decision like what do I do? And literally, I heard the clearest, as clear as I’m talking to you, something was just telling me, “Go to Howard.” Now, literally talking to you, I can totally see how just following that voice just turned into the beautiful life that I have now, especially because I got to meet my wife there. I think that’s probably the main reason anyone should go to Howard. I’m kidding. But so many great blessings came out of that just, I will always cherish it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We’ve had several Howard alums here on the show too. I’m sure they would all agree as well. It’s a great school.

Billy Almon:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious though about this connection between architecture and what you’re doing now. So you go through Howard, you’re studying architecture, you graduate with your degree, and now this is 10 plus years later, the work that you’re doing is in biology and design? That’s quite a path to take.

Billy Almon:
Yeah. Coming out of school, I got an opportunity to participate in a competition that Disney has called the Imaginations Competition. Out of that, I got an internship. Myself and four other Howard students, we entered this competition, submitted a design proposal for something we thought Disney should create, something we thought would be a cool Disney experience. Out of that, I got an internship and my first internship was literally, we were given a stack of things that were being worked on in the R&D department. They said, “Come up with new experiences for the future based on these cool cutting edge things we’re working on.” That was literally my first internship.

Billy Almon:
Long story short, after that, for 10 years after that, I worked at Disney in a lot of different capacities. My roles and responsibilities kind of changed to more, not just architectural design, but design of experiences and products and kind of a lot of really kind of forward future thinking. When you’re studying these things and when you’re looking at the future and all of that, you’re very often looking at the past. Again, for me, the natural world was full of all of these amazing innovative strategies. It naturally became something that I kind of just applied to everything that I was working on.

Billy Almon:
The other thing was my mother growing up, she loved animals and my mom is, God rest her soul, my hero. She’d always have stuffed animals on her desk at work and we always loved to be outdoors. That’s another thing that kind of just really stuck with me over time. Then when I got the chance to kind of dive deeper into biology and kind of studying how all these amazing creatures do things, it just blew my mind and really opened up this whole new avenue of resources for looking at innovation and design.

Maurice Cherry:
So then later on, you end up going to grad school. You went to Arizona State to study this kind of further. You studied biomimicry there.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, yeah. I was like, “Man,” as much as I loved Howard, I was like, “I’m never doing college again. I’m good.” Then over time, I was just kind of thinking like, “Okay, if I wanted to continue my education, it’d either be an MBA or be something else.” Then I realized that there was an opportunity to get a master’s of science degree in biomimicry. And I was like, “Okay, I have to keep going with this,” and that just further blew my mind and really kind of just opened up the natural world to.”

Maurice Cherry:
What was your time like there studying this now professionally? I would imagine that probably was a big shock in a way, right?

Billy Almon:
Yeah. One of the cool things about the program was I was also participating in an additional smaller cohort program where we traveled around the world to six different locations where we were immersed for a week in all these different ecosystems. We were literally in these amazing environments; costa Rica, Hawaii, the Sonoran desert in Arizona, the Colorado Rockies. We’re in these environments. We’re camping out. We’re looking at slug and you know, lichen and mushrooms and, and we’re understanding how, not only do they solve problems within their context and within the kind of operating conditions that they have to thrive within, but we’re also seeing how they relate to each other and how there’s so much cooperation in the natural world when most people just think it’s all about competition.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, survival of the fittest.

Billy Almon:
Yeah. So the interesting thing about that to me is how out of context that phrase is thrown around when that whole idea of survival of the fittest is really not necessarily the strongest organism or animal, but the one that’s most fit to the conditions to really thrive within that niche. It just completely reframes it in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:
It makes it then, more relational and environmental and not necessarily strength-based or some sort of adversarial kind of concept?

Billy Almon:
Yeah. Yeah. It makes it more about there’s a place where everything has its most optimal self.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Billy Almon:
You don’t have to be the strongest. Sometimes you need to be the weakest and the smallest because in this environment, to be small is to be optimal. Right? So it’s more about context than it is some sense of bravado, for lack of a better word.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How did Billy Biology come about?

Billy Almon:
Oh man, so it’s funny. It started kind of, I don’t want to say as a joke, but my background wasn’t in biology, but I would be around a lot of biologists. For me, again, a brother in an environment where I’m the only one, when we’re hearing our teachers and our professors talk about these big biological, complex terms, I would kind of break it down for myself to understand, but kind of just blurt it out to the class. Basically, that’s where the poop comes out, right? They have all of these kind of like really, really complex terms about stuff and I would just kind of like break it down like that. It made it that much more digestible for my classmates. One day, we were in British Columbia and I had time to talk to my nephew, he was 10 at the time, and I was just asking him like, “So what do you want to do when you grow up?” His answer was, “Oh, I’m still thinking about it, but either a basketball player or a rapper.”

Billy Almon:
For me, I’m like, “Okay. As your uncle, I support you if that’s really what you want to do,” but as a person who had the opportunity to work among the most creative, talented people at Disney and then travel the world and see all these amazing places, that showed me that this is more about me exposing him to the world that I get to have access to than it is about that potentially really being what he wanted to do. What I would start to do is every time that we would travel to these different places, I would shoot a little video of what I was learning and kind of in that vernacular that I use with my classmates of kind of understanding these biological principles. I would just upload it to Facebook so that he could see it and other people could see it.

Billy Almon:
I got so much great feedback from not only from him, but also from like other people who saw the videos about how they were sharing it with their kids and how much it meant for them to see a person of color talking about science and technology and design. So it became a thing where I was like, “Okay, there’s something here and it’s resonating with people and there’s a need for it. So let me just keep going,” and it’s just kind of blossomed into other opportunities since.

Maurice Cherry:
And one of those opportunities being a television show.

Billy Almon:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You have a TV show called, “Little Giants.” Talk about that.

Billy Almon:
Yeah. So that’s crazy. It’s crazy how it happened. A good friend of mine named Bradley Trevor Greive, who I had the opportunity to work with at Disney, he saw a lot of the videos and he and I, every now and then we get together and we’d go and watch bad movies and kind of complain about how bad they were and kind of put our cinephile hats on. He’s a wildlife author and just a really dope human being. So he hit me up one day and he’s like, “Hey, so I’m pitching a show to Animal Planet and I think it would be hilarious if you and I were the host of this thing.” He’s like, “So I want to see if you’re interested in me throwing your name into the mix.” He’s like, “Just want to be honest, it’s a long shot. We don’t know what’ll happened, but I just wanted to see if you’re interested.” I’m like, “Oh, well, you know, it’s a long shot,” which means it’ll never happen. So I’m like, “Yeah, go ahead. Tell them all about me.”

Billy Almon:
So he hit me up maybe six months later and he’s like, “Hey. So yeah, we’re doing this thing, man. The show got picked up. Are you still interested?” And I jumped at the opportunity. So the show, “Little Giants,” is myself and Bradley going out into remote places in the world around the world and finding tiny little creatures and highlighting some of the amazing adaptations and the amazing abilities, the amazing kind of super powers of these little creatures and then exploring, if we were to scale up this frog to the size of a beetle car… What are those cars called? Bug? [crosstalk 00:27:15]

Maurice Cherry:
A VW bugs. Yeah.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, yeah. If we scale this frog up to the size of a bug, a VW bug, how strong would it actually be then? Or how high could it leap? And you get to see that transformation. So it’s really fun. It was an amazing opportunity and experience.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to say, that’s also like a huge platform to be able to talk about biomimicry and about your love for biology and everything. That’s truly something. The show is still… There’s still episodes on and everything, right? It’s still airing?

Billy Almon:
Yeah. So I think six episodes have aired so far. You can find it on Animal Planet Go. I think more supposed to be rolling out. I can’t say the date, but I think there’s more on the way. I know we show more.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Billy Almon:
So hopefully, you guys will get a chance to see that soon.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ll make sure that we link to those episodes that you mentioned, link to them in the show notes. That’s really something to be able to take this love that you have to television that way. I feel like sort of what you’re saying about exposure, television feels like the ultimate exposure mechanism for people when they see like, “Oh, you’ve got to show?” All the other work that you’ve done leading up to that of course is great, but you have a TV show [crosstalk 00:28:27] people get to watch. That means that it really spread your message far and wide. That’s great.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, it was amazing. I consider myself a science communicator and it’s one thing to think that you’re doing a good job of briefly communicating a scientific or biological process, it’s a completely different thing when you’re doing it for television. Again, with my background in storytelling and the work that I did for Disney, I see myself as a storyteller too, but TV it’s such a different medium that having exposure to tell stories in that way was just another really cool thing that I’m hoping to expand on going forward.

Maurice Cherry:
So I want to kind of change the topic here a little bit. I want to talk more about biomimicry kind of as it relates to design and creativity because you mentioned being a biology inspired storyteller and designer. For those that are listing, that are kind of interested in these examples that you’re mentioning, can you talk about what the benefit is of using biomimicry?

Billy Almon:
Yeah, so if you think about it, there’s nothing that’s actually wasted in the natural world; the way that humans, the way that our design creates waste. The thing I love about the natural world and why I love studying biomimicry is nature is very entrepreneurial, meaning that things that live in nature, their goal is to thrive, grow, develop their community, protect their families while also expending as little energy as…

Billy Almon:
– while also expending as little energy as possible, and so energy in the natural world is a primary resource. So organisms, whether it’s a vulture eating the scraps left from another animal hunting it, things are very entrepreneurial. They’re very much about how can I be as opportunistic as possible, and because of that, there’s no waste. You have decomposers, you have producers, you have this kind of cycle of organisms that find their niche and are also very resource efficient, and so because of that, you have a lot of sustainable strategies that you see in the natural world. So I can give you a couple of examples. There’s this one company called Sharklet and they produce … they’ve invented this kind of film that mimics the texture of sharkskin. The reason that they do that is because shark skin is covered in these very tiny, sharp little triangular looking teeth.

Billy Almon:
And these teeth on the surface of a shark actually prevent microbes from collecting on the skin and the sharks getting bacteria and infections, and it’s antimicrobial, and so this company developed this film that replicates and imitates that pattern and it’s an antimicrobial surface. So now you have an invention that doesn’t require harsh chemicals for cleaning.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Billy Almon:
And I think that’s the real appeal of biomimicry is there’s so many different ways to derive inspiration from nature when you look at the process, because you’re studying the functions. So you’re studying, why does this form allow this beetle to fly at this rate and be that aerodynamic, but not only just the forms, you’re also studying the process of how these organisms solve problems, and you’re also looking at how, from a systems level, how all of these different organisms might be interacting with each other to develop more efficient and innovative processes.

Billy Almon:
So just to give you another example, one of the things that I’m studying now is how super organisms, things like ants, colonies of ants or bees or schools of fish. How these individual organisms work together as a collective to accomplish a task and what their strategy and how they approach accomplishing a task can be applied to a business organization. So there’s all of these really, really cool, amazing things that when you break down nature to its kind of its most basic principles. There’s design principles at play in the tactics and the strategies that animals use and that their biology use that we can apply as designers to architecture, to engineering, to manufacturing, to sustainability, and with the talk that I was giving even to social challenges, I believe there’s potential for that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we’re definitely hearing a lot about sustainability in the design world. I mean I feel like it’s more so from a conservation/climate change kind of angle, but you hear about plant inspired materials or even … I think I was reading something about how they’re trying to change how computer storage is more like DNA storage or something like that, looking at DNA and seeing how it stores data to see how they could do it for hard drives or something like that, which I thought was really interesting.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, I mean all of that stuff. I mean the more that you look at nature from … and I’m not saying from a … I’m not getting into the conversation around design versus evolution, not that kind of design, but when you look at what is actually the underlying mechanism that is allowing this organism to accomplish this task, what are the dynamics at play. When you break it down to almost a physics level, you really start to see all of these patterns and connections that just show you there’s some innovation at play.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So how can designers … I would even say probably developers that are listening to, how can they start to use biomimicry and biology in their work? How would you tell someone to go about doing that?

Billy Almon:
So there’s several different resources that you can tap into. The organization, Biomimicry 3.8, that’s actually the organization that Janine, the author of the book on biomimicry, she started, and they do a lot of training and classes and workshops. No shameless plug, or shameless plug. Workshops are a great way to understand how biomimicry works and how … I might even be over-complicating how approachable it is to get into this, but one of the things that I always recommend is talking to a biologist about a challenge that you have, because they have the understanding of the biology, and that’s one thing that we always advocate for is this idea of having a biologist at the design table, because they can serve as kind of a translator of the phenomena that’s happening with the organism and how that might actually translate to the challenge that you as a designer are trying to solve.

Maurice Cherry:
A biologist at the design table. I’m actually going to use that, because my mother is a biologist.

Billy Almon:
Nice.

Maurice Cherry:
She’s a biologist, so I grew up in labs and around all kinds of biological stuff like that.

Billy Almon:
That’s what up.

Maurice Cherry:
So when you mention that, it’s funny because I mean I went to school for math and I graduated with a math degree and I was selling tickets at the symphony. For a few years after I had no plan at all. What are you doing with your life? My mom would be like, “What are you doing?” And I ended up … I was always doing design as a hobby and then I sort of fell into doing design as a job and then I started my studio, but I kind of always feel like … I mean I know she’s proud of me, but I feel like in the back of her head she was like, “What are you doing? This isn’t science. This isn’t math. This isn’t what you went to school for.” It would blow her away to let her know that there are these biological connections to design. I’m definitely going to use that. You think I’m joking? I’m going to. I’m definitely going to use them when I talked to her this week.

Billy Almon:
No, yeah. Go for it. Go for it. She should be proud of you because you’re looking to expand your horizons as a problem solver, which is what we are as designers, and you’re using the natural world that she exposed you to to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Billy Almon:
That’s a good upsell.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean I grew up in the sticks, so all kinds of animals and running around in fields and all that stuff. So when you’re mentioning that about the little burrs sticking on things, I’m just thinking of … I’m thinking now of things that I’ve seen as a kid that would remind me of applications that people could use now. For example, the little roly poly bugs. I’m pretty sure there’s a way someone is using a similar type of technology now for armor or something like that. It isn’t totally how that stuff is being used, but that’s amazing. You mentioned these workshops. You have your own workshop, BESA lab. Talk to me about that.

Billy Almon:
So there’s two components to it. One is more kind of professionally design oriented for older kids and adults, and then there’s a second component which is more younger kid oriented that is really around kind of looking at nature through the lens of STEM and kind of having a fun exploration of the outdoors through kind of an inventor’s perspective.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting thing about STEM. I feel like it’s something when I was growing up, it wasn’t a big huge deal. Well, let me take that back. It was a huge deal in that they wanted to make sure that black people were going into these fields. I remember starting college. I started in a dual degree program. I got into that program because I had high scores in math and stuff when I was in school, and so I initially wanted to do computer engineering because I want it to be like Dwayne Wayne. That didn’t work out. After first semester I was like, “This is not going to work,” and I switched over to math, but it’s been interesting, I’d say within the past 10 years seeing how STEM is represented, I think particularly in black culture. I might be stepping on a hot potato here.

Billy Almon:
No, keep going.

Maurice Cherry:
So I hear a lot about STEM, but I feel like the focus is more so on the T and the E in STEM, not so much the S, definitely not the M. Let me tell you, everybody hates math. Nobody wants to touch math with a ten foot pole.

Billy Almon:
Man, you are not wrong.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that with what you’re doing with this sort of STEM education that people are trying to steer it towards more technical or more engineering disciplines?

Billy Almon:
I think part of that is if you think about where our society is, the iPhone is still the sexy mobile device. I think that whole Steve Jobs era of introducing the iPhone and programs and apps, I think that with that you have a better sales pitch for technology and engineering than you do science and math.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Billy Almon:
And I think that’s part of it. I think those are things that you can easily point to and they get the most buzz, they get the most shine, but all of the stuff that underlies that, like the math behind all of that, the physics of that, the science, those are really the two pillars behind the technology and the engineering part, which is kind of ironic about that whole thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Billy Almon:
But yeah, I think you’re totally right. They definitely get a lot more of the shine, but just taking it back to biomimicry, that’s also another reason why I love it, because you get the opportunity to go outside and then just completely kind of deconstruct a leaf, and you get to see a leaf as this power plant, you know what I mean? It’s this chemical, there’s all these kind of chemical exchanges and dynamics at play. There’s structural integrity, there’s fluid dynamics, there’s all of these things built into a leaf, you know what I mean? And so just kind of taking it back to biomimicry, that’s why I love using it as a platform to talk about STEM, because I think the natural world is such an easy way to contextualize some concepts in science and math in a very kind of present way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because then you can just tell people just go outside, look at the world around you and see how that inspires you. I’ve mentioned recently being in LA and one of the things that struck me as interesting was how plants were used as divisions in certain parts of the city. So if you go into Hancock Park or even further North to Beverly Hills or right around in that area, you’ll see a lot of houses that have these sort of protective hedges and topiary, but then if I went downtown, I just saw nothing but iron gates, iron gates, iron bars on windows, and it’s interesting because you see a gate like that and you think, “Okay, I need to stay out. This is clearly for staying out,” whereas the hedges felt more … I don’t know, almost like a privacy screen in a way. It was a really interesting thing. I noticed a lot of interesting kind of architectural stuff in LA, like all the arches and even a lot of the older buildings, although I heard that LA doesn’t really have that great of a culture for conserving old buildings, which was kind of sad, going down Broadway and seeing all the like burnt out marquees and stuff. It reminds me of New York, I guess that’s why they call it Broadway.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, I get that. That’s one of the things, LA’s … I think part of it’s like cultural, which is a huge part of architecture. Architecture in a lot of ways is this kind of preservation of cultural philosophies and ideas of a certain time, and so when you have a place like LA where by and large, a lot of it’s about like what’s the latest and greatest, hottest thing? What’s the latest trend? And all that kind of stuff. I can see how there not necessarily is a great affinity for preserving a lot of the history, even though there’s a lot of really great history. I have a friend of mine who has this company called Mojo, and what they do is they essentially take you on a tour throughout LA and kind of tell you the stories in this really kind of compelling way of the history of these places, so you really get this really immersive flavor for the city and it’s kind of culture throughout time, but yeah, I’m with you. LA is such an interesting place.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like it’s a good place for what you do? I mean aside from, like I mentioned earlier, the proximity to television studios and execs and stuff, but being around the nature that’s in and around the city, is it good for you?

Billy Almon:
Oh, absolutely. I mean one of the great things about living here, and you hear people say this all the time, is having the opportunity to go to the beach and then go skiing in the same day is one of those unique things about this place, and so for me, that also means that there’s all of these different ecosystems that I get to explore. The weather is awesome, but it’s such a great place to kind of just understand … again, going back to what we were first talking about with niches and kind of this diversity of life that you find here, not only just in terms of the people that live here, but also the biota, the natural life of this place. That’s one of the things I love here. I can go to the aquarium and I can talk about octopus with my daughter and then we can go to Descanso Gardens and get all of these different flavors for different ecosystems of our local area. It’s awesome for a lot of the stuff that I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now speaking of your daughter, do you find that she kind of wants to follow in your footsteps?

Billy Almon:
Yeah, yeah. I’m seeing … she’s got the bug. So it’s funny. She’ll be turning five soon, and –

Billy Almon:
She’ll be turning five soon, and I’m a comic book nerd and I didn’t force this on her, but she took a liking to Spider-Man, so her whole room is decked out in Spider-Man stuff. It’s like our favorite movie and she loves spiders. She has no fear of bugs, or we were on vacation recently and we saw a gecko, I picked the gecko up and I had it in my hand and then I gave it to her and she was handling it gently and she was telling me how to handle it gently. So I was just like, “Oh, my baby. She’s got the bug.” Yeah, it was great.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s nice. What advice would you give to people that are listening that they’re inspired by your story, they’re hearing about your work. What advice would you give to any designers or techies out there that want to do what you do?

Billy Almon:
I would say this is kind of a big theme and rooted again… Sorry. So, for me it goes back again to exposure, right? The more that you expose yourself to new things, things that maybe even make you uncomfortable to explore, the more resilient, the more versatile you become as a designer, the more innovative you become. It’s going left when you usually make a right. It’s simple things like that. Like challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and learn something new.

Billy Almon:
For me, it starts like take a walk outside. Take a walk outside, and as a designer, breakdown when you see a squirrel climbing up a tree, what is actually happening, right? Or again, when you see a leaf falling to the ground, go and Google anthocyanins and understand how chlorophyll plays a huge role in the cyclical process of trees. I think I’m getting too out there, but there’s…

Maurice Cherry:
Not for me. Remember, my mom’s a biologist. So I’m like, “Yep. I got you.”

Billy Almon:
There’s this poetry to the way that life works. And actually that’s a great book too, The Way That Life Works. It’s like a biology 101 kind of book. But just go outside, start there. That’s the first thing. Go outside, take your curiosity with you and just look around in your backyard and just try to find some connections that you didn’t see before. Just start there.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny, I’m thinking back now, like my old days in science classes and stuff, and I used to be obsessed with the Krebs cycle. I was obsessed with it.

Billy Almon:
Oh.

Maurice Cherry:
For people that are listening, the Krebs cycle, it’s basically, I mean to dumb it down very, very dumbly, basically we breathe in oxygen, we consume oxygen and then we exhale carbon dioxide and water and that is converted into energy, like ourselves converting the energy. So we can get what we need for energy just by breathing, and I don’t know if that’s the whole concept behind breatharians, or whatever those people are that all they do is breathe to eat or whatever.

Billy Almon:
Oh, trying to eat. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But I used to be obsessed with that in high school because I was into comic books and stuff too, and I’m like that’s like some mutant power shit. We just breathe in oxygen and get energy from it. Oxygen is everywhere. It’s in full supply. How is this possible? You know?

Billy Almon:
That’s the thing, right? Going back to your last question, I want to share with people, yes, my background is in biomimicry and yes I studied biology, but I don’t know everything about biology. As a designer, that was one of the things that made biomimicry approachable for me, was I didn’t have to right away know everything about biology. When you brought up that term, I didn’t know the term, but I understand the process, you know what I mean? The fact that that’s a chemical process, you know what I mean? There’s alchemy at play in the natural world and our bodies are a part of that alchemy.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. So where do you see yourself in the next five years? I mean, with the work you’re doing with the television show and Billy Biology and E-Slap, it’s 2025, what do you want to be working on?

Billy Almon:
Man, oh, there’s so many different things. One thing that I’m working on as a longterm thing is I really want to do more workshops in different locations, so I’m currently writing a proposal to different aquariums for being a designer in residence, a biomimetic designer in residence and having workshops at aquariums. That’s something that I’m hoping to do, especially getting a chance to go back to the aquarium in Atlanta. I love that place.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I remember when they broke ground on that too. I was working downtown at the time and initially they were doing it because honestly they were trying to keep tourism dollars in the city, but they also were competing with Chattanooga, because Chattanooga has a really great aquarium and we wanted to have something that was a similar draw in the city. I mean, I’ve been several times since it’s opened. For someone that lives in the city, it feels like a hidden retreat. It’s right downtown in the middle of the city. I don’t know. It’s a really great aquarium. It’s a great place to just go and just spend an afternoon.

Billy Almon:
It is, man, it’s so magical. Seeing that whale shark fly over your head in the tunnel and just that huge wall. I mean I just, I love getting lost. You can just fade away, in a way, you know what I mean? Just staring into the aquariums. That’s one thing that I’m hoping to do more of, and then I would love to do another TV show. There’s a couple of, now that I understand the way that wildlife filmmaking works from this perspective, I’ve been working on a couple of different additional show pitches for ways to extend that, that I’m hoping will be picked up in the next couple of years as I work on them.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, what do you think about the, so there’s like these, I don’t know if I would call them up and coming, but there are these sort of, we’ll call them aficionados because I don’t know necessarily how professional they are, but there are these nature aficionados on YouTube and social media. Do you see yourself in the same realm as them or is the work that you’re doing on a different level?

Billy Almon:
It depends on which nature aficionados you’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
I was thinking of two people off the top of my head. The first person I was thinking of was Brother Nature, and the second person is this guy named, I think his name is Coyote Peterson, I think.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah. I saw some video where he was getting stung by a bullet ant, and I was just like, why?

Billy Almon:
Yeah, yeah. He’s next level. The cool thing about him was he started on YouTube and he wound up actually getting his own show on Animal Planet as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Billy Almon:
So you know, props to him. I couldn’t do what he does. I like to tell people my perspective is as an African American male coming into the world of biology, but my primary lens and my primary approach is that of a designer, right? So for me, my design philosophy is where nature, science and design intersect. When I’m communicating biology, the biomimicry background and my background as a designer and storyteller is what I think is my distinction. Brother Nature, shout out to him, and The Real Tarzann and all of those guys who are bringing people and making nature less intimidating. I think that’s great that they do that.

Billy Almon:
I think depending on your understanding of some of the more technical and academic debates around how you interact with wild animals, that’s a separate topic. But again, for me exposing Latino kids or Latin X kids and African American kids to nature in a way that they wouldn’t before because of them, I’m all for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Billy Almon:
I don’t know about Coyote getting bit by the bullet ant. I’m passing on that one. I got the chance to be in Costa Rica and see bullet ants up close, and, nah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you’re like, I’m good, I’m good.

Billy Almon:
Yeah. What I say when I come across things like that is I’m not there in my biology yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha, gotcha. I hear you. All right. Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?

Billy Almon:
Billybiology.com is the website where I have everything, and you can also find me primarily on Instagram at Billy_Biology, is the handle and yeah, hit me up and look out for a podcast called Nature Be Wildin’.

Maurice Cherry:
Nature Be Wildin’, I like that name. That’s a good name. That’s good.

Billy Almon:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Man, Billy Almon, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s very clear to me just based on the conversation we’ve had and the work that you’ve done that you sit at this really interesting intersection of nature and design, and I guess technology in a way too. You sit at this intersection, and it’s something that we need to see I think on multiple levels. One, because there’s always talk about there’s not enough black people in tech, black people are underrepresented in technology and design. So it’s good to see someone doing that. But then also, there’s all these stereotypes around black people in nature, like black people don’t hike, black people don’t camp.

Maurice Cherry:
Granted, I’m pretty sure there’s probably some, well, I know that there’s racial bias in it because there’s laws that said we couldn’t, back in the day that we couldn’t camp out in national parks or things of that nature.

Billy Almon:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
So I think some of that is certainly an inherited kind of trauma, I guess in a way. But you’re also bucking that stereotype and bucking that trend too. It’s like I’m a black man in nature, showing you how nature works and how you can use it to have a more sustainable future or to use it for greater things. I mean, you’re a visionary. You really are. I’m really glad to have been able to talk to you and to talk about the work that you’re doing, and I’m really excited to see what you do next, so thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.


RECOGNIZE is open for essay submissions for Volume 2! The deadline is April 30 – enter today!

Sponsors

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Roland A. Wiley

I was recently in Los Angeles for work, and while there, I had the opportunity to do a live show with AIGA Los Angeles and interview renowned architect Roland A. Wiley.

Roland spoke to a packed house about his day-to-day work through his firm, RAW International, including the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project, Destination Crenshaw, and other projects in the Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills neighborhoods.

He also spoke about how his faith helps inform his work, gave his thoughts on gentrification and afrofuturism, and also had some great tips for those who are looking to use their skills for helping out their community. Roland is a true urban visionary, and Los Angeles is lucky he is there to help transform the city for Black folks!

Links

Transcript

Full Transcript

May de Castro:
How this is going to take place is Maurice is actually going to be interviewing Roland Wiley. Maurice Cherry works as a creative strategist at Glitch. He is also the host and founder of Revision Path, the award-winning podcast that he launched in 2013 and what we’re about to witness tonight live. His in-depth interviews, showcasing black creatives all over the world, has the honor of being the first podcast to be added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American… Yes… of African history and culture.

May de Castro:
Other projects Maurice has provided to the world include the Black Weblog Award and 28 Days of the Web to name a few. Maurice is the recipient of the 2018 Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary from AIGA, was named one of Graphic Design USA’s 2018 People to Watch and included in the Root 100, the annual list of the most influential African Americans ages 25 to 45. His projects and overall design work and advocacy have been recognized by Apple, Adobe, AIGA and NPR.

May de Castro:
Let me now introduce Roland A. Wiley. He considers himself an urban visionary, whose ultimate goal as an architect is to build cities from the people up. He has over 37 years of experience and is founding partner of the LA-based architectural affirm, RAW International, a nationally-recognized, award-winning studio whose projects range from transit planning to sanctuary design.

May de Castro:
He has passionately advocated for the sustainable revitalization of urban communities through both professional and civic activities. Notable projects have included the Union Station Gateway East Portal Building, Motown headquarters in LA and more recently on the planning and design of transformational projects here in the Crenshaw community such as the Crenshaw LAX Transit Project, Leimert Park master planning and Destination Crenshaw. His firm has served in a leadership role in all of these projects with a consistent goal of transforming the physical environment while empowering and preserving the culture of the existing residents. Please help me welcome Maurice Cherry and Roland A. Wiley.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you, May, for that introduction. And thank you all for coming out tonight for this live recording of Revision Path. Roland Wiley, do you prefer Roland Wiley or Roland A. Wiley?

Roland A. Wiley:
Well, let’s see, Roland Wiley just because it’s easier to say, but I like Roland A. Wiley, because those are the initials of our company, RAW.

Maurice Cherry:
RAW International. Gotcha.

Roland A. Wiley:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. We’ll start things off. Roland, tell us who you are and what you do.

Roland A. Wiley:
My goodness, Maurice, this is a tough one. That would last all hours if… Let me see where I start. I would start with I’m a man of God. I’m a husband, a family man. I have a beautiful wife who’s here, Andrea. Let’s give a hand for Andy, my wife. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. I have two sons, Randall, who’s 21, and Roland, who’s 23. I’m an architect, and being an architect, that is something that is really my passion. I truly enjoy it and it’s a very tough profession for anybody, but particularly a black man. It’s a very hard profession.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, we’ll get into that certainly throughout the rest of the interview, but for starters, just tell me about your day-to-day work.

Roland A. Wiley:
Oh man. We’ll just start with today.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Roland A. Wiley:
Get to the office at 6:00. I had a large presentation at the Veterans Affair in Westwood. It’s for a 800-car parking structure. Now, you may think, “What’s a parking structure?”, but a 800-car parking structure is a big deal. There’s like a room of 12 people, everybody with a different opinion, from administrative to safety, to psychology, to architecture, to landscape architecture. Everybody has an idea, and we are the ones, we are the leaders. We have to direct all of these interests, all of these varying interests into a project that’s safe, cost-effective, and beautiful. As an architect, that’s the challenge.

Roland A. Wiley:
So after that, I get to the office, and we’re working on the Beverly Hills City Hall. We’re renovating the tower at Beverly Hills City Hall. I just find out we get our plan check corrections from Beverly Hills City Hall, and they’re voluminous, so then I got to wonder, “Okay, I got to deal with that.” I’m leaving town tomorrow, so then I have to plan all of staff to make sure staff is assigned and they know what they’re going to be doing while I’m away. In addition to that, there was an employee issue that a long email went out, and I had to be the peacemaker to mitigate whatever feelings were hurt from that email that went out. Then after that, before I got out the door, my CFO made sure I went through all the invoices that had to go out and determine how much we were going to get paid for the month. So it just goes… Every day is intense. Every day is something. That’s what keeps you in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So some of your current projects that were mentioned in the intro, Destination Crenshaw, Crenshaw LAX Transit Line, can you talk just a little bit about your involvement in those, how those came about?

Roland A. Wiley:
Yeah, I’ll go chronologically because the Crenshaw LAX Transit Line, which most of you know, should be opening this year, outstanding the delays. That was somewhat the catalyst to what really energized me as an architect and urban visionary. That was in 1993. We started planning this project in 1993.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Roland A. Wiley:
That’s right. So that’s how long it takes for a transit project to come to reality. That is not an exaggeration. From concept to planning to funding to construction can easily take 20 years. But from that I started to get to understand, to start to envision how transit can transform a community because Crenshaw… I live in the Crenshaw Corridor. I live in View Park, and I’ve always been disappointed about the Crenshaw Corridor. The commercial retail infrastructure is so great, but yet the investment is so small.

Roland A. Wiley:
The history of that goes back to the white flight in the early ’60s after the Watts riots, where the major commercial retail base disinvested from Crenshaw and moved to the Valley. Then what moved into the Crenshaw Corridor were smaller mom and pop stores, barber shops, hair salons and that kind of thing, but it wasn’t commensurate to the income of the folks that lived in View Park, Windsor Hills, Baldwin Hills. They had just as much or more income than the people that then moved down into the Valley, so I couldn’t understand why don’t we have the same level of goods and services that were there prior.

Roland A. Wiley:
Then you look at transit investment. A typical transit station probably costs I’d say about 50 to $75 million just for the station. The entire transit system from Exposition to the airport costs about $2 billion. That’s a major investment in our community, and at those stations you’ve spent almost $100 million. You know they ain’t going to keep a barber shop or a hair salon. You know they’re going to make some kind of investment. That’s when the term urban visionary came to me. I started to see, “Well, this could be so much more than what it is.” Some of those renderings show what we envision, what our firm envision of how transit can transform a community.

Roland A. Wiley:
That went on for from ’93 all the way until today. There are several steps. You have a feasibility study. Then you have a major investment study, then you have a route refinement study, then you have a draft environmental impact study, and then you start to get into preliminary engineering and design and construction. That takes 20 years, and here we are today, 20 something years later, and Crenshaw is about to open.

Roland A. Wiley:
But from there you just start to… Then there’s spinoff projects, development around the station areas. Then from there, you look at Destination Crenshaw. That’s how Destination Crenshaw was born. For those of you who don’t know, Destination Crenshaw is a unapologetically black art program that goes from Crenshaw-Slauson to Leimert Park that was born by Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson. He came to my office or he called our office. By the way, he specifically looked for a black architect. Although you think that might be usual, it is not usual. It’s disappointingly not usual. He wanted a black architect who knew this corridor, and so we worked with Marqueece and Joanne Kim, his deputy. He wanted to make lemon out of lemonade. In other words, that section from Slauson to Crenshaw is at grade and everybody feels they got the short changed by having an at-grade train as opposed to everywhere else is subway. So there was a lot of contention about that.

Roland A. Wiley:
The Councilman wanted to make lemonade out of a lemon, and we thought, “Well look, this is the only place that somebody coming from the airport would see any part of Crenshaw, that section. Everything else is subway. So what can we do to talk about Crenshaw? What can we do to talk about who we are?” That’s how we came up with the idea of this lineal art gallery that celebrated black culture, black culture in Los Angeles. There’s so many people that grew up, that worked, that lived, that learned in the Crenshaw Corridor who are famous, Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner. It just goes on and on, and they’re not celebrated. They’re celebrated everywhere else, but not here.

Maurice Cherry:
In our community.

Roland A. Wiley:
Yeah. So that was the idea to represent us in a way that celebrated our culture and people coming from around the world would see it because it would be at grade, people were looking out of the train and they said, “Well, wait a minute. Why don’t I get out of here? Why not check it out?” That’s, in a quick story, how I became so passionate about transformation.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Well we’ll definitely dive a little bit more into those projects as we keep talking, but I’m curious to know where the spark came from. Where did you first get the notion of like, “Architecture is a thing that I want to do. I can see the vision of things”? I want to take it back. Tell me about where you grew up.

Roland A. Wiley:
Oh man. I’m going there tomorrow. Indianapolis, Indiana.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Roland A. Wiley:
That’s right. That’s my hometown. It’s a great place to grow up. I’m a proud product of a public schools, public grade school, a public high school. I got a state scholarship that paid my tuition. Ball State University was the only accredited school of architecture in the state. Graduated from Ball State University and came out to Los Angeles immediately after graduation. I always wanted to be an architect. I love buildings even as a child and ironically I still remember the day I discovered I wanted to be an architect.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell us about it.

Roland A. Wiley:
I was with my mom and we had a little Volkswagen. I was about five or six years old. I don’t know if you guys remember the Volkswagens on the dash had this little rubber handle that you grab onto. I remember I would grab onto the handle and kind of chew on it. I was a kid. I was a kid. I’d to chew on it and look out the window. I’d be downtown looking up at the buildings, and I asked my mom… I said, “Mom, who makes the most money?”

Roland A. Wiley:
She said, “Well, doctors.” Even then, I knew, “I don’t like blood, not going to be a doctor.” “And lawyers.” I was like, “Well, that sounds kind of boring.” Then she said, “Architects.” I said, “Architects? What’s an architect?” She said, “Well, they build buildings.” That was it. At that point, I knew I wanted to be an architect because I love buildings. I love the built environment. I love just the energy of a building, just looking at a building and seeing the dialogue it has with you. Every building is saying something. It’s many times negative, but they’re all saying something. That’s where I went.

Maurice Cherry:
Roland and I was driving around LA yesterday and we passed by… I think it was a police station.

Roland A. Wiley:
Right, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It had all of these really sharp, jagged, amber rocks outside, sort of like how you would normally see shrubbery or topiaries or something. These were rocks, as if to say, “Don’t come here, don’t sit here,” or whatever. It was really a odd bit of defensive design.

Roland A. Wiley:
Like I said, every building, it says something to you. That was in Skid Row by the way. That was, “Don’t even think about laying down around here.” I think that’s really unfortunate, but that’s the language. Architecture does have that ability to speak. From that point, I wanted to be an architect, and I was very fortunate to have role models or to see architects who looked like me at a very early age. That was a blessing.

Maurice Cherry:
So that was in Indianapolis, you were able to see those role models there?

Roland A. Wiley:
Yes, I was about fourth grade. We went on a field trip to an architect’s office. His name was Walter Blackburn. I didn’t know anything about anything except, “He’s an architect and he’s black and I want to be an architect, so I guess I’m going to be architect just like him.” That was a blessing. It really was. I didn’t know at that time that you don’t really get to see those role models. That was a very fortunate set of events because in my mind I wanted to be an architect. “I saw a black architect. I saw his office so what’s the problem?”, although there were plenty of people who didn’t think I could be an architect.

Roland A. Wiley:
When I was in high school graduating, my guidance counselor, I told him I wanted to go to architecture school. At that time I had a work-study program where I’d work. I’d go to school in the morning. I worked at the city hall in Indianapolis on the 20th floor. My counselor said, “You got a great job with benefits. What do you want to go to architecture school for?” I just looked at him. I was like, “Ah, you know… But on the serious tip, just think how many young black men have been discouraged from following their dream because they didn’t see a role model and they had a person of authority that told them they couldn’t do it. That’s what’s disturbing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You had asked me this yesterday during our drive. No, it wasn’t during our drive. We were here in Leimert Park. I don’t remember what the name of the coffee shop was.

Roland A. Wiley:
Hot and Cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Hot and Cool. Okay, we were at Hot and Cool. You were asking me out of the 300 plus people I’ve talked to, what’s one of the common things, and I was telling you it’s that, that like lack of a role model or a person that they can see that’s in some position of authority or whatever when they’re a child or when they’re in their formative years to say, “Okay, this is something that I can do myself.” That seemed to be a very sort of common thread. So that’s interesting that you were able to kind of have that as an early influence for you. Was it like that also at Ball State when you were studying architecture?

Roland A. Wiley:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Roland A. Wiley:
Architecture is… That’s where I started to learn it’s a… Back then and today, it is a white male elitist profession. The curriculum, you get indoctrinated into the white male elitists and you don’t even know it. It’s just defacto. The architects, the classical architects, the modern architects, the cutting edge architects, they were all white male with no exception at that time. That’s something that to this day disturbs me in terms of the architectural curriculum and how one is indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking where you don’t see yourself, you don’t see your culture. You don’t see a way to express who you are. You have to find a way to fit in and to speak that language when your language is just as relevant, if not more relevant, if given the chance and given the venue to express and to practice it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It reminds me of… It’s an essay by the late Sylvia Harris. It’s in this anthology from Steven Heller called the Education of a Graphic Designer. She has an essay in there titled Searching for an African-American Design Aesthetic, or I think it’s a black design aesthetic, but she talks in there mostly about education and how black design students are often learning out of imitation as opposed to kind of like what their culture is about. They learn about Swiss styles and German styles and Dutch styles, etc. But then it’s like, “Well, if I’m a black design student, are we learning about Nigerian styles or Botswanan styles or South African styles?” And the answer is no.

Roland A. Wiley:
Is no. I wonder why is that still today when we have access to the internet. We start to know… Our history is available, but yet we still don’t know who we are. When I was at Ball State… And I don’t know how or why I did it. I researched the pyramids and the construction of the pyramids and what’s crazy, I didn’t realize they were black, the Egyptians were black, because the illustrations that I researched, they were all just… People drew illustrations of how they were built with white-looking Egyptians. I knew it was in Africa, but it wasn’t until far after I graduated and I went to Egypt that I saw those folk look like me. They look just like me. We designed those pyramids. Folks that look like me designed structures that far exceed what the classical Greek temples were, that far exceed any monuments that have been built to this day… Were designed and built by people like me, that looked like me.

Roland A. Wiley:
So that opened up a door to me to explore more about, “Well, what else do I don’t know? What else have I been indoctrinated and that is not true?” That’s the journey I’m on to this day to discover who we are as a people so that we can express our design aesthetic that comes from our spirit, not that comes from some discipline that you’ve been given and that you’ve been taught, but it comes from your spirit. We are very spiritual people, and I think that we are in danger of losing that spiritual connection because we are so busy trying to adapt, adopt and fit in to what popular culture is, which is not us.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you end up moving to LA? Was it right after Ball State?

Roland A. Wiley:
Yep. People ask, “Well, why did you come to LA?” I’ll say, “You ever been to Indianapolis?” Hey, anybody from Indy… It’s a great place to raise a family. It really is, but in terms of a career in architecture, I can imagine what pigeonhole I might have fallen into in Indianapolis. I just wanted some to be someplace that had warm weather. It was extremely cold.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s fair.

Roland A. Wiley:
In Indianapolis. That was just, again, another blessing. I just feel that God has been very good in my life. I had a lot of interviews right out of school. Then a nice little resume and had interviews set up. One of the interviews, it was at Gruen Associates. They’re an internationally-known architectural firms. They’re known for inventing the shopping center. I was in the lobby, this great international-style lobby, and this silver-head, caramel-skin woman walks up to me. I thought, “Oh, that’s the secretary of the guy who I’m going to interview with,” and she introduces herself, “I’m Norma Sklarek, and I’m going to interview you,” Norma-

Roland A. Wiley:
… Sklarek, and I’m going to interview you. Norma Sklarek is the first black licensed architect in America.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Roland A. Wiley:
It was history from there. I mean, of course I was terribly intimidated. She had a New York accent, very nice-looking woman, and she took me back to the studio, a sea of white shirts and white men, and she’s the boss over them. She walks me down the row, because I did well in the interview. She made an offer.

Roland A. Wiley:
The first person she stopped to introduced me to was this young black man named Steve Lott. Steve Lott was just Mr. Cool LA. He was just real cool. I was Mr. Polyester-wearing Country. We became very good friends. He taught me the ways of LA and we became business partners, and we’re business partners to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice. What was LA like back then, when you first got here?

Roland A. Wiley:
Oh, man. I’ve got to look at Andy. That was before Andy and I got married. LA was live. Back in the late ’70s, ’80s, LA was live, and it was a new experience for me. There was just so much action, so much activity, so much to explore. People, black people, upwardly mobile, interesting, had layers of experience and travel, and the party scene, all of that. It was just happening back then, that back then they had clubs. The Speakeasy, Jackie O’s, Red Onion, places you could just go. Some of y’all know what I’m talking about, but just places you could go and just experience LA.

Roland A. Wiley:
Then on the other hand, I had friends from all spectrums, so I’d go backpacking up to Sequoia National Park. I’d race. I had a friend that had a Porsche, and we’d go Porsche racing. It’s just there were so many opportunities that I had no clue about in Indiana, that just this whole wide world was opening up for me, and it was just every day was an adventure.

Roland A. Wiley:
Then at work, just getting tremendous opportunities. Norma, I think I was a pretty good architect, so if you’re good, she’s going to give you a shot. She’s going to open up some doors for you. Professionally, Norma opened up doors for me and gave me opportunities to work on really good projects, really high-profile projects, and I got a chance to work closely with one of the partners, Allen Rubinstein, and he just opened up more doors for me. I started to make personal relationships with some of his clients, who they just talked to me because I got the job done, and Allen was happy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What was it like being a black architect then, versus now?

Roland A. Wiley:
Again, I was blessed because I saw Norma. I was like, “Okay, I can do this.” Then in Los Angeles at that time, there were several successful black architectural firms. Bob Kennard, Harold Williams, John Williams, Jack Haywood, Vince Proby, just it went on and on. They were successful because they had political leadership that would advocate for them, that they would tell a developer, “You are hiring this black architect, end of story.” There ain’t no minority or small business.

Maurice Cherry:
No MBE kind of thing?

Roland A. Wiley:
Yeah. “You’re hiring a black architect.” That enabled black architects to build a really good body of work. They got major county projects, they got major institutional projects, they got major educational projects, because the leadership would advocate for them. Once again, I was very fortunate to see examples of success, examples of black architects who were successful.

Roland A. Wiley:
Then also, to give honor to Paul Williams, he died the year after I got here. He died in 1980, and I remember the day at Gruen. Somebody walked up to my desk and said, “Paul Williams just died.” I said, “Well, who’s Paul Williams?” They looked at me like I had three eyes. I didn’t know, and a lot of people didn’t know. People are only now starting to understand his legacy and his greatness.

Roland A. Wiley:
There was always a glass ceiling for black architects, always. However, that glass ceiling was substantially higher than the ceiling for black architects is today, for black architectural firms today. I mentioned that earlier. There are two statistics we need to know about black architects. One is that nationwide, there’s only 2% of all licensed architects are black. That’s been the same for 50 years. It’s stayed at 2% … is that right, Steve? It’s for 50 years, 52 years.

Roland A. Wiley:
Two percent of all licensed architects are black. That is a sobering statistic, but it speaks to the lack of nurturing, the lack of opportunities for black architects. I might go a little further, Maurice, to say that I don’t blame white society for that. Actually, I blame more black society. We don’t need white folks to hire us. If black folks would hire us, we’d be just fine. I believe that situation goes across the board.

Roland A. Wiley:
We’re at this crossroads right now. We’ve got to turn around and start helping each other. We’ve got to start reaching back. We’ve got to start trusting one another. We have to start loving one another, but that’s all connected to knowing who you are and whose you are and where you come from. That’s the spiritual aspect that I believe is continually being pushed out of our culture that is essential to our culture, and essential to us being able to come together.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, early on, when you introduced yourself, that was the first thing you said. You’re like, “I’m a man of God.” How does your faith influence your work and the projects that you take on?

Roland A. Wiley:
Well, number one, it influences me to keep getting up and coming to work, believing that the vision I have for myself, my profession, my career, will happen. It may not happen in my time, but it’s going to happen as long as I stay under this umbrella of faith, stay under this belief in God, this God-centered life where God is at the top of my life.

Roland A. Wiley:
It’s like a pyramid, where God’s at the top. My family and my community is at the base, and everything else fits inside that pyramid. As long as I stay within … I call it an integrity box … I believe that I will achieve what God has set for me. It’s a journey of obedience, it’s a journey of humility, and it’s a journey of discernment.

Maurice Cherry:
Something that’s big right now I think in LA, probably in many other urban areas, is gentrification. Something interesting you said in our earlier conversation we had was that you see gentrification as a catalyst to Afrofuturism. Can you expound on that a bit?

Roland A. Wiley:
It goes back to the point I said about a crossroads. We’re at a very critical point in our society and in our country, and I believe it’s really dependent upon all of us, especially black people, to break out of this chain we have around our brains and to express ourselves. We are getting pushed out, pushed around, oppressed, and yet you’ve got the talented tenth that they’re always going to get theirs, but then you got 90% that aren’t. This is what’s happening.

Roland A. Wiley:
I think “gentrification” isn’t a fair word … but that’s the word … because it’s a negative. There are positive things about gentrification, and Steve talked about good things can happen, but you have to have ways to ensure that we are not displaced from our communities. This right here, Leimert Park, View Park, Baldwin Hills, Windsor Hills, this is one of the last intact black communities in urban America, and we are threatened.

Roland A. Wiley:
This, we’ve seen what happened in Harlem. We’ve seen what happened in U Street. We need to understand that, and come together with our unlimited creativity and work together to make statements that help to mitigate this term called “gentrification,” so that we can have this balance. We can stay in our communities, and other demographics are welcome to come in our community, but this is our community, and we should have a culture that speaks to our community.

Roland A. Wiley:
That’s why Leimert Park is so important. It’s so important to amplify what Leimert Park is. It is the cultural capital of black Los Angeles, and I believe it will set an example to be the cultural capital of black America. There’s so much potential here in Leimert Park, and it’s a matter of catalyzing all the potential.

Roland A. Wiley:
We have this building here, owned by a black man. Now I’m getting old. I forgot. Calloway, Fred Calloway. Thank you, Damien. Across the street, Community Build is owned by a black organization. You’ve got Ben Caldwell and KAOS, black-owned. Then you’ve got the anchor of Art + Practice. They own about three buildings. Mark Bradford, the internationally-known artist, a black man.

Roland A. Wiley:
You’ve got all of these black ownerships. There’s a housing project was owned … well, he sold it, but he’s a black man, and some of those buildings on 43rd Place are owned by … black-owned. Well, Fred Calloway owns this whole block, so you’ve got this opportunity. Across the street, across the street, this parking lot should be black-owned.

Roland A. Wiley:
It’s going to go out for a developer RFP. I’m going to be the developer. I’m telling you all that right now. I’m going to be the developer for this site across the street, and it’s going to be an African American cultural and conference center that celebrates our culture, that talks about our history. From whether you want to know the Hebrew history, the African history, the Moorish history, all of the rich history that we have that we don’t celebrate, that many of us don’t even know.

Roland A. Wiley:
We don’t even know our roots before slavery, which are deep and important, that define us, but we don’t know. Once we do know, I tell you, that’s when we’re going to have our power. When we know who we are, when God reveals to us who we are and whose we are, that’s when the power’s going to happen, and that’s when you’re going to see tremendous change.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Right. Absolutely. We’ve been seeing some of your projects here, cycling behind us as we’ve been talking. When you look back at the portfolio of work that you’ve done, is there one project in particular that really stands out to you as being your signature project?

Roland A. Wiley:
Not yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Not yet?

Roland A. Wiley:
That’s easy to say. That’s one of my biggest struggles, is my body of work, and the only comfort I have is that architects don’t really reach their stride until they get in their sixties and seventies. That’s my comfort, is, as you know, the best is yet to come, and that cultural conference center across the street. I feel very good about the future, my experience and my body of work. I’ve had a lot of great projects. Destination Crenshaw was a great experience.

Roland A. Wiley:
I got to work with Nipsey Hussle. I was there the night that the name Destination Crenshaw was born. View Park Prep, the new school, the middle school. We had a community meeting, and Nipsey Hussle had agreed to be there. The whole school showed up, and then more people. There ain’t never been no kids show up at a community meeting. The whole school showed up. We had captured them, and we got some great ideas from them about what this project could be.

Roland A. Wiley:
That’s why it’s so important for us to build that bridge with our young people. They’re the ones that came up with the idea to call it #DestinationCrenshaw, because they wanted to make it a … again, I’m not a social media person, but they wanted to have it as social media, and it was born out of their vision, out of their understanding of where we are today.

Roland A. Wiley:
They had that kind of vision, that creative vision of social media, and we have that knowledge of architecture, planning, infrastructure. That’s where I think that the power is going to be, when we come together, the two generations.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s shift gears a little bit. There’s an anecdote that you told me yesterday while we were riding around about Muhammad Ali. You can share the anecdote if you want to, but as a lead-in to that, who have been some of the people that have really inspired you throughout your career?

Roland A. Wiley:
Norma Sklarek. She was one of the first people that I was just in awe of. Actually, my two business partners, Steve Lott and Steve Lewis. Steve Lott is one of the most talented men I know, and Steve Lewis is one of the nicest men that I know, and talented. Between the two, I grab something from both of them and try to be who I am.

Roland A. Wiley:
There have been men. My dad played the most, the influence in my life of being a good man and being honest. He got up, he went to work every day. He took care of his family and never failed. I got the benefit of seeing that, seeing how a man models manhood. No matter how he was discriminated against … he came from the South … even in his job, he still kept doing what he did. That inspired me to just keep getting up. There’s always going to be disappointment. There’s always going to be discrimination.

Roland A. Wiley:
Then Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, as a young man I observed him, and I was so impressed by how you couldn’t stop him. He was so confident and so arrogant, to a point, but he believed in himself. You have to be that way in order to win, to fight that fight. Even though they took away his belt, he kept fighting. Even though they prosecuted him and tried to hold him down, he kept fighting. He sacrificed. He sacrificed his life for what he believed in. He sacrificed his livelihood for what he believed in. That’s something that’s very important to me.

Roland A. Wiley:
I think as all of us get into the business world, you have to be careful not to compromise, because your integrity is so important. As you get older and you start to maybe enjoy some success, you want to have that success with some integrity. That’s what I saw in Muhammad Ali. That’s what I saw in some of the older athletes, but particularly Muhammad Ali, and it’s just always stayed with me.

Maurice Cherry:
Do your sons want to follow in your footsteps?

Roland A. Wiley:
No. They want to follow in my footsteps in terms of being a businessman, but they see how hard I work, and they see that, “Hey, where’s the money?” The kids, they’re about getting paid. They’re about getting paid and not working hard and having fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds about right.

Roland A. Wiley:
It’s a whole nother kind of value system that the millennials and the … whatever the other generations, you call them, but it’s very digitally based, and they just work from a different paradigm. Both of my sons definitely have high ambitions and they want to do well in life, and they would be interested in working with me if I’m able to turn the corner and turn an architectural firm, a traditional architectural firm, into something that is nontraditional, that speaks to some of the community-building that I’m talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That’s interesting to hear. We have a lot of designers here in the room, of course. This is AIGA, American Institute of Graphic Arts, all that jazz. What advice would you give to designers that are looking to use their skills and their gifts for I want to say community activism? Because I feel like a lot of the work that you’re doing is putting back into the community. You’re making and creating these built spaces that not only celebrate the community, but also it gives it a place. It gives it a marker of some sort. What advice would you give for someone that wants to follow in that same fashion?

Roland A. Wiley:
The first thing I would say is believe in yourself. Whatever it is that’s in your heart that you’re passionate about, you’ve got to believe in yourself, because the world is going to try to tell you different. The world is going to try to make you conform to what they think you should be, whatever demographic you fit in. Believing in yourself is number one, and give back. You’ve got to give back. It’s so important to give back. To share your gifts is so important.

Roland A. Wiley:
I think if you do those two things, things will start happening, because when you’re giving back, things happen. Doors open, opportunities come. I mean, this opportunity, Terry Scott, because I’m in Leimert Park giving, and Terry just said, “Hey, talk to Roland,” and here I am.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, we were around here yesterday again. We were at the coffee shop, and I got to see it in action. I mean, every person out here came and shook your hand and you talked with them. I think you even talked someone down that was having a bad day and everything. It’s amazing how much you’re a part of this community and how much you give back to it. It really establishes you as being, I mean, well, one of the community, but also someone that cares about where the community goes in the future.

Roland A. Wiley:
Yeah. Well, I just think that’s important, and everybody … I can see you asked me for that advice. Everybody, everybody, has a way of giving back. Your way may not be coming to Leimert Park, dealing with homeless people and stuff like that, but everybody can give back. Everybody has a way, has a gift to share and to give back.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s been the most important lesson of your career?

Roland A. Wiley:
Man. My goodness. I think that’s very interesting. The most important part of my career I think is my constitution of integrity, because there have been some tough decisions, and I’ve made the decision based on integrity although it was extremely tempting to go the other way, and I chose integrity. Now, it certainly didn’t help my bank account, but I chose integrity, and I have peace. I think peace is the most important thing that a man or a woman can have in their life.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, all of your projects, at least from the ones that are cycling behind us and Destination Crenshaw and the others that you mentioned, they have these very long timelines, so maybe this question might not apply, but I’ll ask anyway. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s 2025. What do you see yourself working on?

Roland A. Wiley:
I see this cultural conference center just being completed. It’s a five-year plan. We’re in the second month of that five-year plan. I see two years spent getting financing and getting the right financial proforma funders, partners, all of that lined up, and then a three-year construction project. Our offices are downtown. My lease expires in five years. I plan on having my office on the top floor … it’s going to be a five-story structure … of this cultural conference center.

Roland A. Wiley:
I plan on using that as an example to encourage communities across the country on how to pool their resources together, and not trust or depend on government or any charitable venues, but to be self-supporting and have a level of self-determination. My wife doesn’t like that, that term “self-determination,” but the fact of putting it all together with your own resources.

Roland A. Wiley:
I use Booker T. Washington as an example. Back in the day, there was this clash, if you will. They like to divide us. Back then it was Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Then it was Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Booker T. Washington started the first architectural school at Tuskegee, and his whole curriculum was designing, construction, maintaining, building, making the bricks, understanding the whole cycle of building construction. That’s when an architect was a master builder. That was the first black architectural school.

Roland A. Wiley:
The second school was Howard University, and Howard University, one of the leaders was W.E.B. Du Bois. Howard University needed federal funding to fund the school, so they had to act like the traditional white architect, who is don’t roll up your sleeves, white shirt. Don’t get your hands dirty, just design. Unfortunately, that school of thought became prevalent in all of the black schools of architecture. We melded in with the traditional white male elitist form of practicing, and that’s not who we are. Emulating. We wanted to so much be like them, and so here we are, 2%.

Roland A. Wiley:
That’s what we want to do with this cultural conference center, is build it, manage it, maintain it. There’ll be a catering kitchen. Partner with LA Trade Tech. Build jobs. Have people having a sense of ownership to this project, and offer public shares. The community can buy shares into it, because it’s not a charity. It’s a profit. There’s revenue streams.

Roland A. Wiley:
We want to make something that people can feel they own, people can feel that they’re getting paid, and it’s being a source of jobs. We just didn’t get that. Architecture school just teaches you how to build pretty buildings. Then on top of that, only 10% get to do that.

Roland A. Wiley:
And then on top of that, only 10% get to do that. I think the whole education, architecture education process particularly for black architects needs to change.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think black architects can design like white architects?

Roland A. Wiley:
We try and you see where that’s getting us.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you mean by that?

Roland A. Wiley:
Well, okay, look around. Somebody point out a building that was designed by a black architect and that’s probably a nice building. My point is there ain’t a whole lot. And if you look around the city scape today, you drive up and down Crenshaw, all these new buildings going up. I’m a be safe to say one of them was designed by a black architect. I don’t know if it was, but I’ll just be safe. I would say none. Now that’s a horrible statement. But we’re trying so hard to be like them and sometimes I think they just laughing at us because we’re not moving forward.

Roland A. Wiley:
We’ve got to come together and understand it’s about us.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Roland A. Wiley:
And we don’t need them, it’s everybody else is all good. But we need to start supporting us. We need to start loving us. But then it goes right back to we don’t know who we are and that’s what this cultural conference center, the concept of it is to teach us who we are. This is a place of learning. We are broken people. We have 400 years of slavery, oppression, affliction. We’re traumatized and we’re sitting around here not recognizing it. The end result is where we are. And so to understand that and it’s biblically based. If you read the Bible and not look at it as a myth, but look at it as a history book and don’t allow society to marginalize it because the moral trends of society today think the Bible is old fashioned and you should just do what you want to do.

Roland A. Wiley:
That’s very dangerous because the Bible is our history and that’s a paradigm that many of us don’t know. It’s not just Jesus was black, it’s all of them was black in the Bible. If you go back to biblical times and look at what did people look like-

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roland A. Wiley:
… thousands of years ago in Israel, in Persia, in Syria, they look like us. When you read the Bible, you reading about people that look like us. We don’t recognize that. If we knew that, that’s where the power is and that’s why I have peace. My wife, she’s much more aggressive about it. I don’t have time, the people I started talking about it, eyes started glazing over. I like, “God’s might have to touch you because I am going to drop the seed and I’m moving on. I got to get paid. I got work to do.” I know that’s selfish. I’m sorry.

Maurice Cherry:
No.

Roland A. Wiley:
I’ll do better, my wife’s going to make me do better.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, bro this has been a great conversation. Again, I want to thank you for just sharing about your work and about your life. Where can people find out more about you and about your projects and what you’re doing?

Roland A. Wiley:
Www.rawinternational.com. It’s a very outdated website that needs help. I’m happy to get your coWww.rawinternational.com.mments. We have the Leimert Park Village, Terry, www.leimertparkvillage.org , we’ll talk about the cultural conference center. But that’s one of the things, my goal is to get better with social media and understand the digital age a lot more, I need to do better with that.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean I think certainly with this work that you’re doing that’s making these big public spaces and everything, the word will get out there. So being ahead of it will help a lot I think.

Roland A. Wiley:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well I mean that’s the conversation I want to thank you Roland so much for coming on the show for sharing your story. When you were introduced as an urban visionary, I really saw it yesterday when we rode around for people that are listening. We rode around LA and you showed me View Park and I think it was the view coming down towards St. Bernadette’s Church, I believe-

Roland A. Wiley:
The Catholic school on Stock, not Don Philippe, Don Philippe, and I forgot the cross street-

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve never seen a view like that. And when I think of the term urban visionary, it makes me think for you that you probably see so many spaces, you see the possibility. You can look at the empty lot and see what can come up there. You can look at maybe the blighted building and see what it should be. And I feel more of that is what’s needed as we progressed into the future. Because certainly, LA is a big city, LA is a overpopulated city and so there’s going to be a need to have more spaces that are not just for us, but also to help make sure that we have an equitable future. And I think it’s really great that you’re one of the Vanguards of helping to make that happen. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Roland A. Wiley:
Well thank you Maurice. And I do want to also congratulate you on your achievement with the Smithsonian and I know your mom is very proud of you.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so where’s my, I think we have-

May de Castro:
Time for Q and A, if anybody has any questions, if you can just come up here please.

Speaker 2:
Two things real quick. One, just to clarify a point of correction about Norma. She was the first black licensed female architect in California. The other thing is the constant return to how we have been victims of miseducation or under education. How important do you feel inculcating our true histories authentically told by us today into curriculum would be in freeing, just providing that knowledge that you feel is essential for particularly our young people to go beyond where they’ve been able to go so far?

Roland A. Wiley:
Well, I have a simple theory about imagery, and television, and education. It’s all about inspiring people. And I think the majority demographics get inspired all day long, reading history about their history and their achievements and they’re just all good. But it’s rare that we, and particularly in architecture, read about our success, our journey, our knowledge. So I think just by showing and illustrating those kinds of success stories, even something about Norma, something about Paul Williams, that’s in our curriculum, that it starts to, young people will just be automatically have that kind of impression that, “Oh, okay, somebody like me is doing it. I want, I know I could do that.” So that’s where I see that need in education.

Speaker 3:
First, I’m going to give you props in your shoes with some sick shoes.

Maurice Cherry:
They are some nice shoes.

Roland A. Wiley:
My son gave them to me for Christmas, I was like, “These are bad.”

Speaker 3:
He has good taste. You mentioned earlier about how building will speak different things to you and [inaudible 00:57:31] project would take years and years. How do you maintain keeping your vision along with not getting lost with politics or things like that on during a project?

Roland A. Wiley:
One of the things that keeps me motivated on these long projects is to have in the queue more projects. Crenshaw is opening this year, hopefully. We’re working on the West Side extension, which is a subway to the C under Wilshire Boulevard, that’s not going to open for another six years, but see that’s in the queue and you think the Crenshaw project is going to be transformative, watch this Wilshire project. The Wilshire Corridor is going to just explode. You’re going to see high rises. It’s going to be like New York. Now it may take 10, 20 years, but you look 20 years from now, the Wilshire Corridor between say LaBrea and Beverly Hills, it’s going to look like New York. It is going to look like New York. And so those are the kinds of things that keep me motivated. We’re also doing the planning for the Crenshaw North project, which means it’s going, the Crenshaw line will extend from Exposition all the way up into Hollywood. That’s going to be transformative. So to have the opportunity to be a vision and all of this transformation, that just gives me, 10 years goes by and it just keeps going.

Alison:
Thank you so much for being here. When I first went to school, I went to Columbia in Chicago and I was going for interior architecture and I didn’t see anybody who looked like me. So I wound up being a project manager for eight years. So I was burned out and pushed out by the ivory tower of it all. And now that I’m doing my own thing, how do you see people like me who are not necessarily of this neighborhood but are of this people I want to be able to give back, but how do we stop thinking that blackness is this one monolith because I don’t fit in, or I don’t look like you, or I don’t have your experience for us to be able to come together and be accepted into these neighborhoods which maybe we haven’t been from originally but are a part of because of our culture.

Roland A. Wiley:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). The first, I’m sorry, what is your name?

Alison:
Alison.

Roland A. Wiley:
Alison. One thing I would recommend is to be active in organizations, cultural organizations, professional organizations and I stress the word active.NOMA, the National Organization of Minority Architects, every year we have a project pipeline, it’s a summer camp to introduce young kids to architecture. To just be involved in that and then it’s just doors start to open, you start to meet people, you start to network. Leimert Park has, we love Leimert Park, and that’s young people like you that are promoting Leimert Park. You have to search, but once you get in, then you start to see this network, but that’s what I would really, really encourage you to do. Even if you just start with NOMA, that it just branches from there. LA has a tremendous network of black folks who are actively trying to make a difference in a positive boy.

Speaker 4:
Okay.

Roland A. Wiley:
Here’s Shaw.

Speaker 4:
Here is the next question. Based on all of your years of studying architecture, what life philosophies, understandings about life, about people have you gained over time? What have you created? What else ideas do you share with people based on the ideas of architecture?

Roland A. Wiley:
That’s deep. Number one, philosophy. Number one, you never give up. You never give up. Number two, I see the humanity of everybody. I see the human person first and I think that’s important, whether white, black, brown, yellow, whatever. I look for the humanity in a person. I’m from, I think it’s a Midwestern thing where you give people the benefit of the doubt. Just because you’re white, I’m not thinking, “Oh, you’re a bad person,” or anything like that. I look at their eyes, I feel their spirit and then I listen. So I think that’s, and it gives me a sense of confidence in any place that I go, that I look for the humanity in a person and then I go from there. It’s really simple. I don’t have a complex set of rules or, I really base my life on biblical principle. I follow my passion. There’s something in everybody that you know, you know, that’s what you want to do and it doesn’t matter that well maybe it’s not going to make a lot of money or maybe everybody else isn’t doing it. If that’s what you want to do, if that’s where your passion is driving you, you should continue to pursue it.

Speaker 5:
How you doing Roland? Thank you so much for you both doing this and for the center for doing this. I have two questions. One is short, one requires detail. The first one, what pushback, if any, have you experienced when it comes to using more sustainable materials? And things like containers, shipping containers or recycled materials when it comes to actually contributing to that structure. Because I know there is pushback. And then the second part of the question is what push back have you experienced when it comes to making our cities look futuristic? You know what I’m talking about? So can you speak to that for a little bit?

Roland A. Wiley:
Yeah. The first question, sustainable materials, two things, cost and logistics. Costs is simple but with sustainable materials, there’s a brother here today, Richard Tim, and he has a system of glass. It’s not solar panels, but this glass can transform into electric energy. And so I was immediately intrigued and interested however my question is cost. And so he gave me the answer that it can pay for itself and plus tax incentives. And then the second question is logistics. Logistics from an architectural perspective is UL rating, ICBO number, research report number, has it been used before? What are some of the drawbacks that you don’t know about yet? So those are the two major push backs, if you will. It takes innovation and courage to take that step. I definitely want to follow up with Tim, number one, because he’s a brother and I… Anyway, I can help a brother who’s, and that’s another thing. If you see a brother or sister is about something positive, y’all got to open up a door.

Maurice Cherry:
Amen to that. Absolutely.

Roland A. Wiley:
That’s just what we should be doing. Now, the second question, repeat that second question again.

Speaker 5:
I feel like our cities are not looking how they should look in a 2020 vision, right? Promised flying cars in year 2000 right? We have those, but they’re not readily available.

Roland A. Wiley:
Okay. So great.You laugh about flying cars, but I’m, I’m going to go back to what I’ve been talking about since 1989 and that’s autonomous vehicles.

Speaker 5:
There it is.

Roland A. Wiley:
These autonomous vehicle technology has been in place since 1989. You know why we don’t see it yet besides people being scared, but that’s not the reason.

Speaker 5:
It’s money.

Roland A. Wiley:
Insurance companies can’t get paid, auto mechanics, can’t get paid, taxi drivers can’t get paid. All these people, drivers unions don’t get paid. All these people to stand in line, not to get paid are blocking. And that’s what happens with technology. Now when a crisis happens, then people start getting out of the way. But right now that kind of technology, futuristic technology is here, it’s just there are competing interests that stand, they ain’t going to get paid. So what I’m figuring is they’re making deals with the insurance companies now, they’re making deals with the truck drivers union so they can share and somehow these can move forward.

Michael:
Well thank you for doing this tonight, man. It’s always a pleasure to listen to you and you sharing your passion and your knowledge is really important. I had a question that goes to something where your notion of your community center and the fact that you’ve talked about having it be a sustainable operation. What do you think? And you can look forward maybe another 10 years, what do you think is going to happen in terms of ownership in the broader community here? Because you see it changing right now and how does this community look like it does today if you don’t own it?

Roland A. Wiley:
Well, the truth is Michael, that this place is going to look different 10 years from now. But that doesn’t mean that our culture should not be the predominant culture. I’m a true believer in an open society and I am very, very pro-black, but that doesn’t mean I’m anti anything. I’m just unapologetically black. I think that if we continue to promote our culture and we continue to ensure that projects like Destination Crenshaw are implemented, projects like that Cultural Conference Center are implemented, that we patronize our black businesses to sustain them. I think ]that we’re going to be fine. I just think it’s going to be different. But to me that’s a good thing.

Alison:
So I guess to follow up with that question of what does the future look like, sustainable materials, how do we get young black people to understand urban planning, and transit, and things like community land trusts? How do we get us to get together to understand all of these things and to understand parking is a huge issue when we’re talking about housing for the one-to-one? For every unit that needs to be built, there needs to be a parking space for it. How do we do that? How do we put that education into our landscape?

Roland A. Wiley:
Community activism is very important. You talked about [inaudible 01:07:54] community land trust. The owner of this space, Mr. Damian Goodman is one of the largest voices about community land trust and advocating for our community. We have to rally around leaders who are willing to be a voice. And I think one thing that we have to know that there’s power in numbers. Our electeds, they pay attention when they see numbers. If they just see Damien’s voice, that’s Damien, but if they see Damien and 2000 other people, then they’re going to start listening. I think it’s very important that we do rally around folks like Damien who have a vision, who have a true heart to improve our communities, and we be a voice. We sign the petitions, we make the phone calls, we show up at the meetings and this is just community 101. You go to any other community in it, I can promise you that’s what’s going on and it’s just that we need to adopt that culture. Again, that comes to that whole realization or that revelation if you will, of who we are.

May de Castro:
We’re going to wrap it up on, on behalf of AIG LA, I want to thank you all for being here tonight and to our wonderful, amazing guests, Maurice Cherry and Roland A. Wiley. Another round of applause please.

Roland A. Wiley:
All right, Maurice, can I do a shout out?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, go ahead.

Roland A. Wiley:
All right, I get to shout out! Shout out to my folks in Indianapolis. My mom, my sister, my cousins, my boys, Greg and Tommy. Shout out to my folks at RAW International. Shout out to my two sons. Shout out to Steve Lewis who’s right here and last but certainly not least, shout out to my lovely wife Andy.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you everybody for coming out.


RECOGNIZE is open for essay submissions for Volume 2! The deadline is April 30 – enter today!

MODA and Revision Path present Creative Atlanta 2020, an interview series highlighting Black creatives in Atlanta ranging from an award-winning cellist to a Harvard GSD Loeb Fellow.

Tickets are free with regular admission to MODA and include access to our exhibition. Space is limited, so grab your ticket today!

Sponsors

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Navigating the creative industry is a big theme of this podcast. (Why do you think we’re called Revision Path? Well, that’s one reason.) For our final interview of the year, I had the opportunity to talk with motion graphics designer Handel Eugene. If you’ve seen Spider-Man: Homecoming or Black Panther, then no doubt you’ve seen Handel’s amazing animation work.

Handel talked about his typical day as a visual storyteller, detailing the tools that he uses, as well as how his educational and work experiences have contributed to his career. He also shared what he wanted to see more of in the animation industry, and wrapped up with discussing how he balances work, family, and staying fresh and creative in his work.

2019 has been such an amazing year for Revision Path, and I just have to thank you all for listening, downloading, and supporting the show! 2020 is just around the corner, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store!

Full Transcript

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

Handel Eugene: Yeah, my name is Handel Eugene. I’m a Haitian-American, [inaudible 00:00:06] disciplinary artist, animate and designer. I’m also an instructor. I dabble in public speaking from time to time and I’m currently residing in the San Francisco, Bay Area.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. And now, you told me, right before we started recording that you were permalancing and you’re working at a bunch of different companies out there. Can you talk just a little bit about the types of things that you’re working on?

Handel Eugene: Yeah. So right now I’m freelancing for some different companies out here, basically in Silicon Valley. Right now I’m currently at Apple, and right now I’m just… Obviously Apple being Apple, super secretive, can’t talk about a whole heck of a lot what I’m currently working on. But I can touch on a little bit of what I’ve done in the past for them. I’m currently working on whenever they have a new product release or they have their events and such, to unveil their new products or their new service and what have you.

Handel Eugene: You’ve got to promote those different aspects. And my job is just to kind of like do creative advertisement, creative promotion, creative material and content to help unveil and roll out some of those different products. I’ve also worked on in-store content as well, the [inaudible 00:01:23] device content as well for them. Not just on Apple, but also I’ve gotten the opportunity… Fortunate to have the opportunity to work at Facebook and Google, doing those same different aspects. Just kind of creative advertisement and also doing some work on the platform internally as well.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. So what is a typical day like for you? I know you’re kind of bouncing between these different companies, although you’re mostly at Apple right now, but what’s a regular day like?

Handel Eugene: Yeah, yeah, of course. So yeah, I work in the motion graphics industry. It’s kind of like more of a specific area that I primarily work in and it’s called motion graphics, but I guess it falls under the umbrella of creative advertisement. So yeah, like a traditional day, let’s just say in my free day… I’ve worked in LA for seven years. So back then a job would come in through the studio. We’d have a brief, and a client’s looking to promote a service or a product or show, a new show.

Handel Eugene: Or even having the opportunity to have worked on a film. Obviously, that aspect as well. And our job is to service the client’s needs and provide them with creative solutions, creative designs, creative advertisements to kind of help tell their story and meet their needs of whatever they’re looking for in particular, and visually. What I like to describe myself, it’s kind of like a visual storyteller. Basically taking these aspects and these elements that are on paper, these kind of rough ideas and presenting different design options for them.

Handel Eugene: It can be design and animation. Either or, or both combined, and delivering that to the client. So I guess a traditional day just to get into the kind of nuts and bolts is yeah, you come in, you’ve got your brief, you’ve already been briefed on the project and yeah, you just chipping away at designs. Sometimes you have pitches where those are kind of like short form like, “Hey, let’s just kind of provide a buffet of options to the client for them to pick and choose from.” And once the client picks a direction, then we’re kind of like full steam ahead and just into production.

Handel Eugene: Taking that concept that won us the job and executing it. Executing it into design phase and animation phase, and ultimately delivering the product for the client. So it’s just kind of working on those different aspects. Again, I guess typical days, I’m getting more specific, I’m designing a Photoshop, animating side after-effects or cinema 4D. And I guess, those are primarily where I’m spending a lot of my time. Also putting pitch desks together, writing briefs and content and material. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. Now what’s kind of been the biggest challenge that you faced with doing a lot of this? Like you’re working for these large companies, you’re looking at briefs and pitches and stuff. What’s the biggest challenge you face with doing all this?

Handel Eugene: Yeah, the biggest challenge, I mean, there’s lots of different ones. I guess trying to figure out what the biggest one would be. Trying to stay fresh and creative. It’s interesting. We’re all fortunate as designers and artist to do something creative for a living, which is amazing. But sometimes that can be exhausting especially if you’re kind of at a rapid pace. Some studios kind of work faster than others and kind of like have a lot of material and content that you kind of just jump on and get pulled on left and right.

Handel Eugene: So sometimes, it can be a little taxing. So I think one of the biggest challenges is to stay inspired, stay fresh and stay creative. Not to get burnt out. I think burnout is a real, real issue in our industry just because of the nature of what we do. Can be labor intensive, for sure. I mean if you’re working long hours, sometimes you can kind of get tunnel vision and it’s kind of hard to see the big picture. So I think that’s one of the more challenging aspect, is like trying to find that balance of working hard on something because you want it to be great, but then trying to not burn yourself out, stay inspired and especially be inspired outside of work.

Handel Eugene: So that way, the experiences that you’re having outside of work can kind of fuel and feed and form kind of your ideas internally at work. Because again, yeah, like working in a creative field, you’re always being asked to create new, fresh creative content all the time. So sometimes that can be a little hard at sometimes.

Maurice Cherry: Emotionally, I mean it’s something that you see anywhere from animation to product reviews to a number of different things. So I can imagine after a while it’s something… I’m just thinking to myself like as a viewer, it’s something you kind of take for granted. Like you expect everything to be able to move and work well. But certainly I think modern digital design, I should say, features a lot more animation. I would imagine one of the challenge, and you can correct me if I’m wrong here, but I’d also imagine one of the challenges is making sure that you stay kind of unique in a way?

Handel Eugene: Right. Yeah, absolutely. So what? Like let’s say 10, 15 years ago, our industry to have as a kind of like for clients was a luxury. It’s like if you knew how to key frame something from point a to point b, I mean you had a job and you were in demand. But nowadays there’s just so much content, and the bare bench entry has definitely been lowered. Technologies and applications have become cheaper, things have become more accessible. So there’s been definitely is a flood of material. Obviously, the way we consume content has changed.

Handel Eugene: Obviously with content coming straight to our phone with Facebook and Instagram. So yeah, there’s a lot more, I don’t want to call it noise, but there’s a lot more content out there for us to consume and a lot of more content that’s fighting for our attention. So yeah, to stand out is definitely, absolutely a big challenge. Stand out from the crowd because yeah, you’re competing against all these other… Some can be distracting and some can be really good content. Yeah, you’re competing against lots of other really good content as well.

Handel Eugene: So yeah, that’s always, always a challenge. You want to create something that’s meaningful, that’s impactful, that’s engaging with the audience and that’s something that we’re always considering and trying to meet and provide for the client. And yeah, that can be super challenging as well because that’s something you got to stay on top of and understand. And there’s trends, there’s aspects that you want to try and fight against, but then also there’s aspects that you need to incorporate because it’s new and it’s something that we’re… Yeah, it’s always something that you’re always balancing.

Handel Eugene: And like you said too, you touched on a little bit like it’s one of those things that requires a whole heck of a lot of work, but people nowadays may take for granted and just kind of like… Because we just consume so much content nowadays. So it’s definitely challenging for sure.

Maurice Cherry: One thing I’m curious about, and you can let me know how much of this you can speak on or not, is accessibility. So of course we have, like you said, there’s all this content. Things are always moving and shifting and changing. Even with just I think regular web design now, there’s a lot of animation that you can do with coding. Like with CSS, you can make things fade in and fade out or transition or stuff like that. How does accessibility play into your work, if it plays into your work at all?

Handel Eugene: Now, when you say accessibility, are you saying kind of like how readily available some of these animation techniques are to the general audience and general consumers? Is that what you’re-

Maurice Cherry: I’m thinking more I guess from the viewer end, like say for viewers that have say visual impairments or if a lot of moving things cause motion sickness or something like that or even, you know colorblind. Things like that.

Handel Eugene: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ll tell you, that’s something that there’s a team dedicated to that. There’s always like this struggle between creatives and let’s say the legal department or so. The creative wants to push this idea forward and be like, “Okay, we’ve got to consider this audience, we’ve got to consider this aspect or this might be too much for this particular audience.” So I’ll tell you, just as a creative and an artist, we’re always putting the creative first and pushing the creative. And then we kind of allow those two different departments that specialize in those areas to kind of rein us in and inform us of different aspects that need to be more accessible or more readable or adjustments and alterations that may need to be made.

Handel Eugene: So there are definitely departments that are dedicated to that, that will inform us. And we’ve definitely got through revisions and made adjustments that have made our content more accessible. I think just in general as a creative, and this is kind of like one of the fun part of the process, especially the pre-production process is you just start broad. You start broad, just kind of like trying to find, come across something. Those happy accidents are really something that you’re always searching for. And kind of like once you start broad then as you progress through the production pipe, I mean you start to kind of chisel away and get a little bit more narrow, a little bit more focused.

Handel Eugene: Trying to figure out what you can take away or what you can adjust to kind of make the content as strong as possible, but also reach as much people as possible. So that’s my angle and my perspective on it a motion graphic standpoint. But there’s been a lot. I’m sure lots of people have different experiences with that, but that’s just my particular experience.

Maurice Cherry: Now, I’m curious about that just because I know that there are… I mean we’ve had people on the show that have accessibility experts that have talk about this sort of thing. I was actually also even thinking of most recently Domino’s Pizza had filed a case and it even went up to the Supreme Court around accessibility. And I think it was more so just about accessing the site. But then also a lot of modern sites put motion in their transactions and interactions in a lot of ways that sometimes are good, sometimes they get in the way. Like parallax scrolling and scroll jacking and all that sort of stuff where you’re like, “I just want to view the page. I don’t need you to guide my decision.” And that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry: So I was just curious about how you deal with that or if you deal with that at all. But it’s interesting that it’s kind of is a thing with legal that you have to sort of go back and forth with. I didn’t even consider that.

Handel Eugene: Right. Yeah because it’s definitely not our area of expertise. I guess for me as the content that we’re creating, for example, working at a studio in LA. Whenever we get a brief there actually has been a lot of thought and already a lot of development that has went into the particular idea. And it’s just kind of like on us to develop and execute it. And once we deliver it to the client or present our first rough draft or first… Like there is a chain of command as far as where it needs to go and different eyes have to get on it to kind of approve it and get sign off on it, including the legal team as well.

Handel Eugene: Like this is something that I’m sure artists can relate, who’ve gone through this. But it’s always sucks whenever you get close to the finish line and then that’s when legal gets their eyes on it and then they ask for changes that should have been brought up ages ago, early on in the process. Again, from just my perspective, I wonder if pure graphic design, like that’s something that is considered more from the get-go than in my industry, as far as motion graphics and motion design. Yeah, just honestly, it’s not something that is at the forefront at the beginning of production, but it’s something that does come up in production and we kind of make adjustments and pivot if it’s something that’s not readable or accessible and such.

Handel Eugene: And again, most of my content that I create is in video format and stills and such. I don’t dwell too much into the web design space, because I just designed my own website. But yeah, most of the stuff that you’ll see that I’ve done is kind of like on the TV screens or content that you may consume on your phone or it’s like having… Fortunate to have to work on a couple films as well, so.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So it’s like more media and less web, I guess.

Handel Eugene: Right, right, right.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Handel Eugene: Yeah, definitely.

Maurice Cherry: So you mentioned being in LA for a number of years. You started out your professional career at Royale, which is the creative agency there. What was your time like at Royale? How did it help prep you for the work you’re doing now?

Handel Eugene: Yeah. So my time there was great. I absolutely, absolutely loved it there. And it was my first job out of school so I interned there for three months. And it was funny because I was just finished up with school. I was in Florida and I’m trying to convince my parents to be like, “Hey, can I move to LA?” And they were like, “Oh, you got a job up there?” And I was like, “Kind of a job. It’s an internship. Nothing’s guaranteed but it’s pretty promising. If I landed, it’d be a dream job for me.” And so thankfully, they were hesitantly supportive of me, encouraging me, supporting me to go out there.

Handel Eugene: And yeah, when I got there I just worked my butt off for those three months because this truly was a dream. Is a place I wanted to work since the beginning of school. And thankfully I was able to prove myself to them. I used my time there kind of like… I like to say this a lot to other people, I used my time there kind of like as grad school where I was still young, fresh and hungry but I still wanted to continue learning. I was like using it as like it’s a continuing education program to where I was trying to get my hands dirty as possible, testing out.

Handel Eugene: And I was also trying to find like my voice and what I really wanted to do because there was so many opportunities to touch different things there. And I was fortunate, grateful. Not all internships are like this, but thankfully at Royale, they do a good job of grooming their interns there by giving them lots of different assignments besides just the drought work or… Actually I did have to walk a dog once. But majority of the work day I got to do was like working on some real portfolio quality content that was great.

Handel Eugene: And yeah, so I was like a sponge, just trying to soak up as much information as possible and as much as possible. Mainly because I didn’t know how long they were going to keep me and I didn’t know if I had to go find a job after this. So I was like, “I’m going to try and take full advantage.” Because the saying, take advantage what others take for granted. I was like, I’m going to just work my butt off and grind as much as possible here so that way, I’m going to put my best foot forward and if I get [inaudible 00:18:40], great. If not, at least I can take all this experience with me to the next opportunity.

Handel Eugene: Thankfully, they kept me around and eventually went staff there and I worked there for five years.

Maurice Cherry: Wow.

Handel Eugene: Yeah. And seriously, up until the point that I ended up leaving, I want to say it still was like grad school and continued education. Like I was always learning, always pushing and always trying to grow and get better and push my skills there. And thankfully it was the perfect environment to allow me to do that. I really feel like if I’ve achieved any type of success, it’s primarily due to the foundation that I had during my time at Royale.

Maurice Cherry: What were some of the projects that you worked on there?

Handel Eugene: Man, I remember when I was, not to jump too far ahead, but when I left, I went back and tracked all of the projects that I worked on during the five years I was there. And I’m blanking on the exact number, but I knew I averaged about two projects a month there, and some of the projects I got to work on were just for clients all across the spectrum. I mean, we worked for Apple we works for Google, we worked for Toyota, Starbucks, Nike, Adidas and all those big brands. And of course like lots of local brands as well, like In the Raw and all kinds of different… Like video games, EA and the like.

Handel Eugene: And just working on creative content for them to kind of help promote, like if it’s a new shoe or new apparel or it’s this new promotional program at Starbucks that they’re rolling out for October, whatever the case may be. So all kinds of different content and it was great because again, having the opportunity to work on all those different projects just kind of got me up to speed so quickly with the industry and helped me learn. And thankfully I had an amazing group of artists and mentors and people who supported me and saw how hungry I was and kind of leaned into that and fed into that and gave me opportunities to continue to challenge and prove myself while I was there.

Maurice Cherry: Now, as I was doing my research, the biggest thing that I saw that came up was that you had even done some work for Marvel, more specifically for Spiderman Homecoming. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Handel Eugene: Yeah, yeah, of course. I got the opportunity to work for a Marvel two times, actually, in two different occasions. And the first one being for Spiderman Homecoming in the summer… No, late spring of 2017. I got the opportunity to fly out to New York and work at a local studio there called Perception, which was working on the titles for Spiderman Homecoming, and it was always my dream. It’s always my dream, right? To work on a film. Even before knowing that I would ever be in this industry, I was like, “It’d be cool to work on a film one day.”

Handel Eugene: It was cool when Perception reached out saying they’re interested in bringing me on board. It was for film, but they couldn’t tell me what film it was for and I was like, “I don’t care. Whatever film it is, I’m your guy. Let me know. I’ll take the gig.” And you have to sign the NDA paperwork and such, and finding out what the film was it was like, “Oh, wow. This is awesome.” Because it’s actually a film that I truly want to see. And it’s cool to be able to help out and work on it. And it was cool because I remember going into the studio and looking at all the storyboards that were onscreen and I remember it’s like, “Oh, Donald Glover’s in this movie.”

Handel Eugene: I was like, “Oh, that’s so dope.” Yeah. It’s like just seeing the cast and everything like that and the title itself. The work that I did on the film was the end-title sequence. So it’s actually the last thing you see before the credits roll. It’s a glorified version of credits where you see, directed by… And you see, starring… And you see the main actors and directors and the high profile figures that worked on the film, that were behind the film and were starring in the film. You’ll see them in end-title sequence as pretty much just taking the best of the film and interpreting it in a creative medium.

Handel Eugene: In this particular case for Spiderman Homecoming, our task was to take basically content from the film and make a title sequence that fell under the theme of high school art class.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Handel Eugene: Yeah, that was super fun because it was just like going back to your childhood and just like finding these different mediums of clay and plasticine, and colored pencils and watercolors, and all these different fun mediums to just kind of get your hands dirty and just go and just kind of create traditional art, which is great. And then bring that in, scan that in, stop motions, and bring it in and just incorporate it with digital assets and just animating all that together to create this really, really fine title sequence that you see at the end. So that was a whole heck of a lot of fun. And that was the beginning of what allowed me to have the relationship with Perception.

Handel Eugene: So I must’ve done a good job for them because they asked me to come back and work on another high profile film for them, which was Black Panther.

Maurice Cherry: Oh.

Handel Eugene: Yeah. And I have to say, when I was working there, I was working on the film. They had already started doing some early development on Black Panther. They were doing some research development, especially in their UI animations and their future tech designs. And while I was working there, I kind of saw that they were working on this. They’ve been working on it for like a year now. And I was like, “Guys, look this Spiderman Homecoming job, this is cool. This is cool. But man, would I love to come back and work on this, on whatever you guys are working on for Black Panther. I’d come back in a heartbeat.”

Handel Eugene: Because I was living in LA, but I flew out to New York to live temporarily there, just to work on that film. And I was like, “I’ll do it again in a heartbeat.” And thankfully they did. They called me again and it was like, “Hey, we’ve got another assignment coming in and we’d love to have you work on it.” So yeah, that led to the next opportunity to work on my second film, which wasn’t a bad film to work on, which was Black Panther.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. We did a whole episode on the art and design of Black Panther. I mean, you love Black Panther clearly. [Crosstalk 00:25:56] but no, I didn’t know you worked on that movie too. That’s dope.

Handel Eugene: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that was-

Handel Eugene: Yeah, that was probably the highlight of my career. I ask myself this all the time. I’m not sure what’s going to top that. I don’t know. But it was really a dream project to work on that. And you know, it’s funny because once she reached out to have me come speak, I’d been listening to some past guests on the show, and Hannah Beachler, I was listening to her episode and it was cool to work on my aspect, but I was like, wow. Like it’s how hearing her perspective on the film, which was great.

Handel Eugene: Like, I got to work on the film but I didn’t get to hang out with Ryan Coogler, and it’s actually just seeing how close she was to the production of that film was like, so awe inspiring. So, I just got to be kind of like a small fish, and I got to work on the first and last thing you see on the film, the prologue sequence, and the end title sequence which was a lot of fun, but it was just so, it was just so, because I was like, it was like reliving it all over again. You know, just hearing her perspective and hearing what she had done on the film. But, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Now, one thing I have to really give to Marvel is that they have really started, and I guess I still do in a way, they’ve trained audiences to sit through the credits.

Handel Eugene: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: So you can actually, and I don’t know how many people are really paying attention. I would imagine they are because they want to see the mid credits scene, after credits scene. But, you now get to see just how many people have contributed to the work that you just saw. You know, before you watch a movie and it’s like as soon as those first few credits, people are up and out the door. Marvel movies, people will sit through the whole thing and I’m assuming they’re looking at all the names and being like, wow, there are like, thousands of people that went into this. And it wasn’t just the actors on screen. Like, it was like an almost a city of people that have helped to make all of this happen. I really have to give that to Marvel, in a very subversive way, making moviegoers appreciate, or at least have some sort of a recognition that a lot of people go into the work.

Handel Eugene: And you know what? You know what you want? A new found appreciation you’ll have for the amount of people that work on the film is everybody who came up to me, because my name was in the credits, which was super, super awesome. I was bummed because my name wasn’t in the credits for the Spiderman homecoming. I wasn’t sure if was going to be on Black Panther. Like, that’s one thing I would love to have, because I could show my grandkids this and thankfully it was. Everybody that came out to me, I was like, “Yeah, I sat in the theater and I had to look for your name for so long that had to go through all [crosstalk 00:29:02] , and it was so long. And then, by the time we saw your name, it was too late. It was like, we screamed like two seconds of your name, scrolled past”, and it was like, you have a new found appreciation whenever you’re trying to look for a specific name in the credits. Then, that’s when it’s like, wow, you really have a new perspective on how many people really worked on that.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I mean the fact that it’s in there is what’s important. Whether you got to see it even just for a few seconds, it’s there. It’s there for posterity. So, you don’t have to worry about that. So, you mentioned Florida, that’s what you grew up, in Florida?

Handel Eugene: Yeah. Yeah. Grew up in Florida. Born and raised.

Maurice Cherry: Was art and design and all of this kind of like a big part of your childhood growing up?

Handel Eugene: No, not at all. And it wasn’t discouraged or anything like that. It was more of, it just wasn’t introduced. Yeah, we dabbled in art, but it’s an elective, right. And you take that art… I had some drawing skills and everything like that, but nobody ever encourages you to like, “Hey, you’ve got something there. Maybe you should try to look into the [inaudible 00:30:13] .” Nobody even knew that you can make a career out of, at least not in my circle of influence. And it’s funny, because my brother, I always saw him as the creative in the family. He would craze on comic books, and he would sketch all the time, and draw. But it was just always like a hobby thing.

Handel Eugene: It was just like a fun thing to do. I kind of got started with all of this… kind of by accident, because I took TV production for three years in high school, and the only reason I took TV production was because my brother recommended it, because he said it’s an easy A, and there’s a couch in the room so you can hang out. So, it was like super chill and [inaudible 00:31:05], he’s got to do the morning show. And, for two years of the three years I took TV production, I was just chillaxing. I was just hanging out, just like, enjoying the time, easy assignments. And, it was fun. It was cool, but it wasn’t anything that we were pressured to stress about or anything like that.

Handel Eugene: But, for some reason, I ask myself this all the time, for some reason, for the life of me, I don’t know why. But, at the end of my junior year, I had this quarter life crisis, can’t even call it quarter life at that point, where I was like, “Man, I’m going to college in a year, and I have no idea what I want to be. So I got to figure out.” I thought when you go to college, as soon as you’re a freshman you have to know what you want to do, and you have to decide, and spend four years learning that. I thought that’s what college was, little did I know.

Handel Eugene: And so, that summer I was like, “All right, I’ve been taking this TV production thing. Let me try to take this thing seriously. I do know a thing or two about cameras, and editing, and I have done a couple of assignments. So, let me try to take it serious this year.” And, one of the best things anybody’s ever done in my career is my TV production teacher, Joe Humphrey, which he, this was like probably the simplest gesture, but it meant the world to me, is he saw how hungry and ambitious I was becoming to learn more about TV production, that my senior year he gave me the title Executive Producer of Terrier TV. And, to this day, still the greatest title I’ve ever been granted, and probably ever will be granted because he bestowed upon me this prestigious honor that I didn’t think that I was worthy of, and I was executive producer. It was the first time I’ve ever had a title of anything.

Handel Eugene: I felt like, it’s very empowering. So I was like, “I got to live up to this title that I now have.” And, so I took it even more serious and I was kind of like leading the department and doing video editing, and all that. Long story short, I did football highlights that that kind of got me some recognition, and eventually landed me a scholarship to go to University of Central Florida, where I learned and developed, and found after effects there and found that there’s this whole new industry, this whole new department. I didn’t know what the industry was. I thought I just wanted to major in after effects. I didn’t know about motion graphics or motion design at the time, but I started learning more and more and decided that I was at University of Central Florida, which was great.

Handel Eugene: I was at UCS sports video. I was kind of like a PA there and learning, and learning, and I was a camera man for their football team and I would record their practices, but the only reason why I was doing that it was because they also have this production department, which isn’t a job, they don’t have a job for you, but you can kind of like volunteer your hours. So my primary responsibility was to be this camera man and record practices, and work your way up to recording games and stuff like that, which I wasn’t too interested in. I love sports, but I just wasn’t crazy about that. But, I was volunteering my time, especially at nights going into the control room with their production room, like learning, editing and that kind of stuff, like picking up avid at the time.

Handel Eugene: And also, that’s where I met my first motion graphic designer. There was one in the department, and I saw what he was doing. So I picked up after effects to try to make my video highlights better. And then I just opened up this whole new world of possibilities. I was like, “Oh wow, there’s people that are actually doing this. Oh, you can actually major in this and go to school for this.” And so I looked into it more and more and more, and eventually transferred from University of Central Florida to Full Sail. So, I think your question was what started off with Florida. I kind of went on this long little journey leading up to like me getting into Full Sail. But yeah, I grew up in Florida. That’s kind of how I got into the arts.

Maurice Cherry: Full Sail has a great reputation in the motion graphics and digital design industry, I think probably more so than some. I think, probably a lot of four year, I mean, Full Sail is a four year institution, but you know what I mean, like some traditional liberal arts college kinds of places. And actually, when you were at Full Sail, that’s when I first heard about you, I’ve mentioned that I saw, I was a feature in Graphic Design USA. It was you and another student, I think another Full Sail student, maybe at a different location that were being profiled. I think Gordon K., who’s the publisher had asked a few questions about what are you working on, and that sort of stuff. And Full Sail caught my eye, one, because of its reputation, but two, because for-profit universities kind of get a bad rap in general, I think with education.

Maurice Cherry: Certainly, we’ve seen in the past three or four years, places like Westwood College and others like that, where they’ve done all this marketing for students, but they’re not accredited, and then they get shut down, and then it makes you wonder, “Well what’s the value of the degree?” or anything like that. But, for-profit education has tended to really make an impact in the design industry. General assembly is technically, I’m using air quotes here, but it is a for-profit model, where people sign up for classes and it ends up becoming a bit of a feeder industry into other positions, and things like that. And it sounds like Full Sail really kind of helped after you went to UCF. Full Sail is kind of what really prepped you for the work that you did at Royale. Is that right?

Handel Eugene: Yeah. So, it’s interesting that you said that, because there’s mixed reviews, right? It’s all just depending on your experience there. And I’ve had people who wouldn’t recommend Full Sail to anybody. And then there’s people like me who had a great experience there. And I think it’s largely due to the individual. You know, like actually, truthfully, honestly, I would have a hard time recommending Full Sail to anybody, not because of the institution, because more so it’s about the individual. Art school just in general is expensive, and I highly encourage anybody who’s looking into it to make sure that you’re at the right point in your life, to really be committed to something that’s going to really affect you for the rest of your life.

Handel Eugene: Because, I think one of the most tragic things is like having a friend who was a classmate of mine who’s not in the industry. He’s not even doing anything remotely close to, motion graphics, emotion design and such, because you don’t want to go to school to figure out what you art school to figure out what you want to do. That’s a formula for disaster. You want to make sure that, I think also too, a big thing is maturity. You want to make sure that if you decided to go to Full Sail, or any art institution, that you’re prepared to be fully committed to it and the more experience you have coming in, the better. That was probably my competitive advantage, but I was there, and why I was able to maximize my time at Full Sail is because I came in and I already knew the tools.

Handel Eugene: There’s one advice I would give to anybody, which is don’t go to art school to learn the tools. You can learn that anywhere. You can learn that online. There’s so many resources online to help you learn the tools. So, because I knew the tools, I was already ahead, and I was able to just focus on just creating projects and portfolio quality work. As soon as I got into the door, I didn’t need the beginning classes that they had you take, I was just spending the whole time just working in designing and animating. I didn’t have to go through the hurdles of doing the tutorials as any other.

Handel Eugene: So, a large part of it. Yeah, for sure, the institution provided me so many resources and was actually gave me access to Jayson Whitmore and Brian Homan who are the owners at Royale. Jayson Whitmore is an alum of Full Sail and he comes back to speak every so often to students at Full Sail. And Full Sail gave me access to him. I was fortunate to be able to show my work to him in a closed room with a couple of other students that were doing good work, and we got to present our work to him, and he eventually recruited me out there to come, and gave me an internship opportunity, which really just kind of jump-started my whole career.

Handel Eugene: So, from my personal experience it was great-and I went through the accelerator program. Now, they have the four year institution program. But I went through the accelerated program where it was 21 months, just under two years, and you go to class five days a week, eight hours a day. And it was intense. It was almost like a bootcamp almost. And again, that’s why I say as I can’t recommend that to everybody, because everybody isn’t used to operating under those conditions and everybody isn’t mature enough to fully take advantage of that particular aspect of it. But it was great for me, because it just got me up to speed. I had already done two years at University of Central Florida, so I already had like an unofficial Associates , as far as just having an experience in my industry and having gone through those early freshman, sophomore hurdles, or what have you. So, as soon as I got to art school, which is where I really wanted to go, I just hit the ground running.

Maurice Cherry: Now you’ve done work for Marvel, you’re doing work for Apple and Facebook and Google. So it’s all really paid off.

Handel Eugene: Yeah. Yeah, it really has. You know, it’s funny because I didn’t have anyone growing up that encouraged me to get again to the arts. But when I did transfer from an accredited university like UCF, University of Central Florida to this, what some may consider as trade school, to pursue the arts. There was definitely some pushback. There was definitely some people who discouraged me from doing that. And there were a lot of people- it’s interesting to hear you say that you’ve heard some positive reviews, but there’s definitely a lot of people, a lot of naysayers who told me the opposite, who gave me a lot of negative feedback. Like, “Oh, I had a cousin that went there and he just wasted a whole lot of money.” It’s like, “Don’t go there”, this, that and the other.

Handel Eugene: And that’s why I say it’s truly dependent on the individual. So , I went in there a bit hesitant because I was- not hesitant, but fearful of failure. I’d heard stories of people coming here and having failed, and I kind of used it as fuel to my fire to ensure and make sure that I work my tail off to be as to somewhat ensure some success during my time here. So I was like, “If that means me being in the top 10% of my class, then that’s where I need to be for me to be able to get to where I want to go.”

Handel Eugene: So yeah, getting there definitely was a struggle. And I’m a Haitian American and I come from a Haitian culture, an immigrant culture where both my parents were born and raised in Haiti. My grandma had eight kids and she came to America first, and she sent for her kids one by one to come to the US and I show that, because you’ve got this very strong figure in our family, and you’ve got this hard work ethic that’s just embedded and rooted in our culture and nobody knows about somebody who is successful in the arts, and you tell them that you want to go pursue that. It’s really challenging and tough, because you want to make your family proud, and you want to make your parents proud, and you want to do something that they will respect and will support you in.

Handel Eugene: And, the fact that nobody knows somebody who’s successful, there was a lot of pushback on that because you’re hesitant to give your well wishes to something like that because… Yeah, it’s just an exposure thing, and even myself, for example, if I have a cousin who wants to go into the music industry, I’ll be honest, there’ll be some cause for pause, some hesitation to encourage them to pursue that at first, because all right, the music industry is great. It’s a creative field, but you also want to be aware and mindful and you’ve got to pay your bills and on one hand, obviously, you’d love to see them to be successful, but also, what are the numbers, what are the statistics is on the other, and for me, for my family came from a good place.

Handel Eugene: It was just a place of concern, and so it took me a while to eventually get to Full Sail because I needed my parents’ blessing because I respect them too much to go rogue and just go do my own things. I respect and admire my family and my parents’ opinion. Thankfully, I was able to like gather enough evidence. I think it just pushed me even further. Honestly, I wanted to make my parents proud, and I wanted to prove to them that, “Hey, your son’s doing this, and he’s going to be all right.”

Handel Eugene: I’m going to be able to put fo- there’s the whole “broke artist” misconception that’s prevalent in society. And, it forced me to do as much research as possible and be like, “Oh look, there’s this person over here who’s doing it and you can actually make a living doing it over here.” It’s like, “Oh, I talked to this person on the phone, he’s doing this.” I think it forced me to do as much due diligence as possible to ensure that the decision that I was making, was going to pay off. And having had to go through all those hurdles, and those uncomfortable conversations, and trying to convince people that the thing that I’m doing, I really believe in, and I’m going to be successful at.

Handel Eugene: When I got to Full Sail, college, I just had this burning desire to like make sure that, yeah, there’s some risk involved, but I’m betting on myself. And I want to make sure that that bet pays off as much as possible. So, I’m going to do whatever I got to do to make it during my time here. So, that meant working harder than the next person. I think you’ve heard this before, just being an African American in general, it’s been said multiple times, you’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as much. There’s not as many African Americans in my industry and that’s something that I’m definitely cognizant of, and it’s something that I was aware of, and I use that as extra incentive to be like, “All right, maybe the odds aren’t in my favor, but if I’ve got a chance, then I’ve got to make those odds work for me as much as possible.” And that’s why I just worked as hard as I can. I’m going on with a long tangent here, but.

Maurice Cherry: No, no, no. It’s good to hear that. I was really going to ask this probably a little bit later on about kind of where that ambition comes from, but I mean I think being able to speak on it from, like you said, the perspective of one, not really being exposed to it that much growing up, and it sort of being more of a hobby, but then also having your family that kind of wants you to go into something that’s more stable because motion graphics or design or whatever you were calling it back then wasn’t really something they could see as being successful. So, you had to prove it to them in a way, but you also have to prove it to yourself.

Handel Eugene: Yeah, I was telling my mom and dad, “Don’t worry, I’m going to be all right” without having done it yet. It was like, I don’t know for sure what the future holds and I’m taking a big risk here. And so, all those different aspects…And I’m thankful I learned this lesson early on, you can use that to prevent you from pursuing something, or you can use that as a driving force as fuel to push you further. And thankfully, I chose the route of allowing that to push me to go above and beyond during my time there.

Maurice Cherry: So, what is your opinion about, I guess calling it animation was kind of just put a big tie in a big bow, but what is your opinion about diversity in the industry? Like, what do you want to see more of in your industry?

Handel Eugene: Yeah, I mean, this goes without saying, but definitely more black representation in general. You know, especially like at the decision making level. I’ve had to navigate through this industry in this field being the only black individual in my class, for example, or working at a studio, or freelancing at a place, or such, and being the only back individual in the room. And it’s so funny, because when you do come across those individuals that look like you, they’re just like the most talented people I know. And, it’s like, “man, there should just be more of that around and we need to…”

Handel Eugene: So, that’s definitely something that I’d love to see more of, and I’ll tell you, I was listening to one of the previous podcasts and I can’t remember who I was listening to, but there was something that you said that really stuck with me and this is why I’m really loving the work that you’re doing is that, you’ll reach out to some people and maybe they’ll tell you, “No, I’m not in a position to come on the podcast yet”, or “No, I’m maybe not as accomplished, or maybe not as successful or maybe I’m”, whatever the case may be. And they’ll put these barriers on themselves and I love that you say like, “No, that doesn’t matter”.

Handel Eugene: You want to hear from people from all different aspects and all different levels and all different areas in their life. And I love that, because that’s like, truthfully, honestly, had you asked me, I don’t know, two years ago, or something like that to come on this podcast, I would’ve said the same thing. And, it’s because it’s something that I’ve learning more and more now that, just in general, I think it’s so true, because you don’t see as many people that look like you. So, therefore you’re more susceptible to like imposter syndrome, like if you’re the only one here, you wonder if you even belong. And that’s something that I had to struggle with and had to deal with. It’s one of the reasons why my voice is… Like, I was very shy, very timid, not very bulky at all, but thankfully, like that hard

Handel Eugene: Thankfully, that hard work and ambition I had in school, that never left me. When I got into the industry, I just continued working hard, working hard, and thankfully my work started to get noticed, and my work started speaking for me, because I wasn’t screaming it from the hilltops or, “Hey look at me.” I wasn’t doing any of that, but I was sharing my work was in one word and just doing good work started in having that start to travel and, people were liking my work and it was just so, it was just so humbling because more people started reaching out to me, especially people that looked like me and African Americans. I’m going to say, “Hey, I’m rooting for you man”. “Like I’m loving the work that you’re doing keep up the good work”. And it, before it was, oh these are just some compliments and like, all right, that’s awesome.

Handel Eugene: Yeah, I appreciate it. Thank you. But appreciate this, that and the other. But it just started coming, just the more my work has getting more visible, more people started reaching out. It’s like I love seeing what you’re doing. I love seeing that you’re doing this, that and the other. And it’s just like I just got back, I just got back from speaking at a pretty big conference, one of the bigger prop conferences, my personal favorite conference called Lift Fest and I got asked to speak this year and come on stage and man, I can’t tell you the reception that I got after giving a talk on stage from the people in the industry that felt underrepresented and it was like they’re just love seeing you up there. So what I, what I’m starting to do more of, and I’m not perfect at this, but what I’m starting to do more of is embracing that platform and embracing that voice that I have because I can use that and I can use that to encourage and inspire and represent.

Handel Eugene: Because you don’t, they don’t hear from us that often, and so when they do, I want to make sure that we represent, I represent myself and others and represent the best of what we can be in what we, and so now I’m more embracing that, that aspect because naturally I’m out of my comfort zone. I don’t like attention. I don’t want to be the poster boy, anything like that. Like I feel like that’s a lot of pressure, but I’m learning more and more, especially hearing other people’s testimonials and people reaching out to me, sending me emails out of the blue. Hey, I just wanted to hear about your experience navigating through this space because just I’m just being as, as, as African American in this industry, I wonder if you are feeling this particular way because definitely how I’m feeling and I’m wondering if I’m the only one, I was like, nah man, I’m going through the same, I’ve got the same thing going through, still going through the same thing.

Handel Eugene: And so I appreciate again, what you’re doing with this podcast because it’s giving a voice to individuals and making it, letting us know that it’s possible and that we’re out there and we can be successful in design and in this industry and that we’re all going through a lot of the same things and experience a lot of the same things.

Handel Eugene: So as I’ve grown into my career, I’ve realized that I’m not just doing this for me, but I’m doing this for people like me. And, and that’s just something that I’ve been embracing a whole heck of a lot more as I continue to progress. So I, if there’s an opportunity for me to speak and voice and speak out, like I no longer shy away from that because even though that is my nature and that’s my tendency, I no longer shy away from that because if I can use my voice to again reach somebody else and purse somebody else to pursue the arts or to step up to the plate or strive for greatness, then I almost feel obligated to do so.

Handel Eugene: Because this is the best work that I can do is having the impact on others and influencing others, especially people that look like me to strive for greatness and to continue pushing forward.

Maurice Cherry: Wow. That’s powerful to hear, man. I mean it’s, it’s interesting like you mentioned, because I would imagine a lot of the work that you do, you are sort of behind the scenes as it, as it relates to the work that you do. The work kind of does have to speak for itself. And I get those same kind of emails too, where people just reach out and it’s a an advantage point because sometimes they’ll look at you as if you’ve made it, but you’re also still navigating through the industry because as your profile changes or as the work gets out there more, it puts you in different rooms and different places and different scenarios and you’re still trying to navigate all of that. It’s a really interesting kind of paradigm.

Handel Eugene: Yeah, for sure. For sure. It’s interesting because just being, just being in some of those rooms where you’re the only one representing your background, that’s the, and especially like in those decision making rooms, especially in those high profile creative environments, those and such, and having the confidence to speak up, especially in those rooms, that’s something I had to learn to do. I had to, I was just speaking at Ben Fest as I mentioned earlier, and a good friend of mine who’s also African American, man, where did you get that confidence from to go up there on this stage? And it’s so ironic and funny to hear her say that to me because I’m not confident, this is something, this is something that I had to truly work on, work really hard on and break out of my shell and, really kind of overcome that fear of that.

Handel Eugene: I think it’s something that, like you said, it’s always, you’re always working on and as you progress through your career, it’s always a struggle and a challenge. And, and I think I, like I said, we’re more susceptible to the imposter syndrome just because of how underrepresented we can be. And it’s not even [inaudible 00:58:16]. Like there’s real barriers, there’s real gatekeepers who want to prevent you from getting to where you go. So having to not meet those hurdles is a real struggle. There’s been like subtle slights that I’ve experienced for sure where there’s rooms where I felt like I should of been in or meetings I felt like I should’ve been in or like, especially like client basing meetings where I was, I felt I could bring a real strong perspective and outlook towards the particular project at hand where that didn’t happen.

Handel Eugene: So, yeah. And, and again, like I said earlier, I think there’s two things. There’s two responses to that. You can either use that to kind of draw further into your shell, draw back further into your shell and, and, and lower your confidence. Or you can use that as fuel to your fire and use that as a, I wasn’t asked to be in this particular this room, then you’re, you’re passing up on an opportunity that could make you better. I’m going to go and take, continue to work on me and continue to develop myself to make my skills and my talents and undeniable wherever I go. You know? So, so it just pushes it for me, it just pushes me further to, I don’t want to, I’m not looking for, I’m not looking, I don’t have a big debtor. I’m not looking to like prove anybody wrong.

Handel Eugene: I’m trying to prove myself right. Because I know what I’m capable of, I know my potential and I’m always constantly, I’m trying to strive for that and reach that and wherever I go. So it’s just more fuel to my fire for me.

Maurice Cherry: What does success look like for you now?

Handel Eugene: I’ve got somewhat of a controversial response to that. It’s not really controversial, just more so a topic that’s not touched or talk about. But like for me in my career I’m fortunate, I’ve gotten the opportunity to work on some great projects and I’ve gotten to work on opportunity work on some high profile projects, films and such. Got to work for high profile clients and such. And now I want to, for me, and I’m not here by any means, but I, I want to make a lot of money.

Handel Eugene: Right? And that sounds, that sounds controversial, but the reason being is it because I desire money in it of itself? That’s not the reason I want to use money. I want to use the money I earned to buy back my time. At the end of the day, we trade our time for money, right?

Maurice Cherry: True.

Handel Eugene: In the form of a job, right? We trade the type of money, but yet, what’s more valuable, right? Time or money. Like most people would say your time is more valuable than money, right? And so if, if time is your most valuable resource, right? So then the more money you have, the more time you can buy back in your day. Right? I want to I want to spend more time with my family for instance. I want to spend more time pursuing creative endeavors that are important to me.

Handel Eugene: Right now. My most precious resource I have is being allocated to a job, which is the norm, right? That’s the norm of society. But I’m working hard to try and create an alternative lifestyle that kind of circumvents the traditional system that we have with what the traditional job and such. So, and I say that and I wanted to, I say that because we make money in this taboo subject, right? But it’s a topic of discussion we need to have more of and we need more talk more you talk about, especially in our culture in general. Again, I don’t value money in itself. Money is just a tool. It’s a resource we can use to buy or trade for something of greater value. Right?

Handel Eugene: So yeah, I’m just working really hard to find, try to find creative ways, trading passive income, residual income, trying to find these different revenue models that allow me to buy back my times, that way I can pursue projects that are important to me without having money being an issue.

Handel Eugene: So I want to talk about that, how that discussion, because a lot of people may not realize that that’s an option.I think people may only considered just having a job being the only way, to navigate through life. But I’ve learned that I’ve seen and observed different alternatives. So I’m working, striving again, not there yet by any means, but I’m working, striving to try and get to that point. I’ve like, I’ve made a step in the right direction already currently.

Handel Eugene: Right? Like for example, I’ve always said, and this is just me personally in my, my personal glove, I’ve always said I don’t want to, I don’t want to worry about how many vacation days I have left. That’s something that’s always been a goal of mine. And thankfully I’ve actually achieved that goal somewhat by being freelance now. And having put it like now the ball kind of is in my court, to where I can take as much time as I want off. I feel that though, obviously I feel that financially, but I’ve kind of taken a step in the right direction and creating a career that is in enough of a demand to be able to take time off and turn down work. So where I can pursue some things that I want to pursue that are important to me and make the impact that I want to have, spend more time with my family.

Handel Eugene: I’ve got a beautiful wife, a young daughter and a young son. And as I mentioned earlier this industry at times can be labor intensive, can be long hours and although it’s incredibly rewarding and I do enjoy it. When you’re working in a job, you are building somebody else’s dream you’ll work hard to create a business and a machine that’s a for-profit machine that’s building up their dreams. And I want to take that time and devote it towards something that I truly, truly believe in and want to work on and pursue and build up my own dreams and my own business, my own in part empire and such. So that’s something that I’ve been thinking of more and more so lately. In the past there were certain priorities that are important to me that maybe aren’t as important to me now.

Handel Eugene: And so that’s something that’s something that I’m currently navigating and currently trying to solve. And like I said, I’ve made some steps in the right direction. Hopefully in the near future I’ll be able to have that autonomy to be able to do that.

Maurice Cherry: I mean, speaking of your wife and your kids, how do you balance all of that? Like while still striving to do great work and, and staying relevant in everything in your career?

Handel Eugene: Yeah, absolutely. For sure. It’s an adjustment for sure. It’s a major adjustment. It’s funny how much time we take for granted and how much time was a luxury for me and not realizing it. Until you have, until you have kids. I said that very same thing when I had one kid and I was like, man, I took all that time, extra time. I took that off granted, but then when I had two kids, I said it over again. I was like, man, that’s like what I had one kid. I was like, I was taking all the extra time for granted man. Like even less time now.

Handel Eugene: So yeah, well it’s something that is a major adjustment and it’s one of those things I’ve constantly, constantly trying to learn about how I can use this precious asset as effectively and efficiently as possible, so that way I can maximize, when I do have those times to pursue things, I can maximize that time. So there’ll be things that I’ve, I have to decide and know what’s a priority. There’s a saying that goes don’t major in the minor things. There’s some minor things in my life that I’ve had to be like this isn’t worth the time commitment.

Handel Eugene: Like I have my time is a valuable resource and I have less of it now so I can’t allocate it towards some of these other things that are things. Maybe there’s some leisurely stuff that weren’t of incredible importance to me and my family is that I may no longer need to, to indulging, and so I’m being more and more strict and more tenacious about the different things that I allow to consume my time now, because it’s becoming, because again, my time is so valuable. Even down to every little aspect. Before, I felt the need to respond back to every email that came into my inbox, and I was realizing how much time that was being that was taking away from, from my, there’s this small little things in my life that I’m like, all right, is this, is this a valuable use of my time right now?

Handel Eugene: And so now I don’t feel bad for responding back to somebody like two weeks later because, that sounds terrible, but it’s the truth because, because I can’t respond back to every single email or every inquiry or right away, I’m not that bad. I’m not too bad. Maybe a week. But no, but I just being very, without touching on too many sensitive topics, but like social media is another aspect that I’m like trying to curve as well and all these other different aspects of that conditioner, even distractions that can utilize your time that you can be otherwise using product productivly. Because I want my family to be our priority for sure.

Handel Eugene: Like it’s my number one priority and I don’t want to compromise on that by any means, but also to, I worked really hard to get to this point in my career and I don’t want to let that subside, and I want to continue. I feel like the older I get, the more I progress in my career, the more ideas and more I feel like I have more ideas now that I want to pursue than ever. And I want to, these are ideas that I want to pursue and I feel like they would have a major impact and I want to work on work that, is greater than me and transcends me and Travis further than anything I’ve done before.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, you want to be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor. You work hard, you want to be able to at the end of the day, be able to leave work at work and enjoy your family, enjoy your free time. So we’re at the end of the year also. The end of the decade. When you look, let’s say the next five years it’ll be 2025 before you know it really, you sort of mentioned already the sort of feeling that you want to have, but what sort of projects do you think you’d want to be working on? Like where do you see yourself in the future?

Handel Eugene: Yeah, absolutely. Hopefully in five, ten years or so. My career path has led to the opportunity for me to pick and choose the type of jobs that I want to work on without, I touched on this a little bit earlier, but that without money really being an issue. Hopefully I’m at a point in my career where I have that autonomy that allows me to be able to take initiative and don’t develop projects that are important to me and using my skills and God given talent for good for social issues, I’m working on projects that are bigger than me and make an impact and are meaningful because like it’s, it’s, it’s one of those things like in my industry, which I’m incredibly grateful to be able to earn an income and work for some amazing clients.

Handel Eugene: But maybe a pessimistic alternative viewpoint of what it is that we do is that we’re kind of glorifying products, or services and selling to consumers things that they might not necessarily need. And so if anything, I want to offset some of that by just working on projects that are meaningful, that are impactful, that are informative, that are educational and have a purpose and advocating change and raising awareness on particular projects. So, and that’s not even five, ten I, that’s actually stuff that I’m working on now, honestly, that I’m trying to, to pursue more of. And there’s always the whole money versus and time issue aspect of it, whenever you’re pursuing those jobs that necessarily aren’t for profit but they’re there for the good of society, so those are the projects that are like incredibly interesting to me and project that I want to pursue.

Handel Eugene: Because it’s interesting because as an artist, as artists were uniquely positioned to speak a language that the generation today speaks. We speak it fluently, right? And the language that degeneration today consumes, and there’s a real power in that and it’s a cool uncle Ben here to be like super cheesy, but with great power comes great responsibility. If you think about it, like just think about how powerful just, they think about Cambridge Analytica and how powerful having access to those resources and influencing individuals to swing an election that’s crazy and insane. And to think that’s how much power you can have just by advertising to two people, well what if we use that power for good too to advertise, and promote and push and encourage ideas that that need to be heard. So that’s something that I’ve been thinking of more and more lately and what I’m trying to pursue more of is just just pursuing those projects that are more meaningful and using my talents and designs for. Good.

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

Handel Eugene: Yeah, absolutely. My website is in handeleugene.com and you can find all my socials on there and all my work and everything that it is that I do. And, yeah, I just want to say too, like anybody has any questions about, we didn’t, we didn’t go into all the different things, millions of things that I could have talked about. But I guess the biggest thing I wanted to leave too with your viewers, if there’re any questions about navigating this industry, like motion graphics, most of the design, even the creative industry just in general. Just reach out, reach out to me. My email is on my website and you can reach out anytime and, and I’d love to continue like discussing this further with anybody who’s interested in and pursuing this, this industry and just in general.

Maurice Cherry: Sounds good. Well handle Eugene. I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, not just for sharing about the work that you’re doing with Apple and other companies is as well as the work that you’ve done with, with Marvel and in films and everything. Your story and your drive I think or something which is kind of the core of what revision path is about. As it relates to showing that there are people that are in the creative industry that have the same passion and verve and work ethic to really create great things. They just don’t necessarily always get recognized. And so it’s important to be able to not only provide a platform for them to shine, but also, as you alluded to, just a few minutes ago to find ways to use those skills to better the world around us.

Maurice Cherry: A lot of the work that I think we do as, as digital creatives can be very ephemeral. You designed something really great and then a year or two later it’s been phased out for whatever the next thing is. And then you wonder, I put so much time and energy and effort into this thing that now is no longer existing. So how do you use your skills for something that can be more impactful? And I think your story and everything that you’ve had to share, it’s something that is a great thing for us to end up the year on. So, I mean brother, I really want to see where you are in five years. Because like I told you, I’ve been following you since full sail. I’m so proud of the work you’re doing. I really just want to see where you’re it in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Handel Eugene: Thank you man. I appreciate it and thank you for all the work that you’re doing. Seriously, once I found your podcast, I immediately became a better person, a more informed person, and learned so much. Just from hearing from you and hearing from the guests that you’ve had on the podcast. I seriously, I recommend it to anybody that I come across that’s dealing with the same issues that we’re dealing with. And I can’t thank you enough for having done over 300 episodes, interviewing so many talented and amazing creatives in the industry and just making us more visible and making more people aware of our potential and, and what we can strive for and what we can do. Seriously. Thank you.

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

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

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We’re kicking off August with an inspirational conversation with Jeremi Dudu. By day, Jeremi works at Salesforce as a UX designer on Philanthropy Cloud, a platform that turns employees into citizen philanthropists by empowering them to give back and make change. Outside of work, Jeremi’s keeps that same charitable energy going, paying it forward to his community through mentoring and tutoring in his community.

I started by asking Jeremi what drew him to Salesforce, and from there we talked about his past work experiences at Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes, growing up in South Los Angeles, and how DJing became a gateway into working on the Web. According to Jeremi, “it’s the journey that made it fun”, and I think after you hear his inspiring words, you’ll feel that way as well. Enjoy!

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


Guests of the show know that before we do an interview, I always ask them what I call “the Oprah question.” But how do you ask the Oprah question to someone who works for Oprah? Turns out that when you’re Dave Hall, that’s a pretty easy task. As the VP of digital design for the Oprah Winfrey Network, Dave oversees a number of different design professionals from coast to coast to create interactive and eye-catching work for web and TV.

Dave walked me through a typical day, including sharing how he works with his team and how they approach new projects. We also spent time talking about the possibilities and challenges for designing for television, and Dave shared information on his upcoming graphic novel project! Dave says that you don’t have to ask for permission to be successful, and his journey as a designer proves that!


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