Salih Abdul-Karim

For our final episode of Revision Path for 2023, I talked with the amazingly brilliant Salih Abdul-Karim. If you’re a motion designer, then there’s a good chance you’ve used Lottie, which Salih co-created during his time at Airbnb and is the new industry standard when it comes to animation on mobile apps and the Web.

Salih talked about his current work at Cōlab, exploring their non-traditional approach which eschews agency hierarchies to maintain a hands-on, skill-diverse team that seamlessly fills in the gaps for startups and other companies. Salih also shared his personal journey of how he found his passion for combining tech and creativity, and we even gave our thoughts on Andre 3000’s debut solo album, New Black Sun.

Even with such a seasoned career, Salih’s humility and mindset of constant learning is truly inspiring. From all of us here at Revision Path, consider this episode our holiday gift to you! Merry Christmas!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So my name is Salih Abdul-Karim, and I am a creative director [and] motion designer.

Maurice Cherry:

So, Salih, we’re recording this at the end of the year. When you look back at 2023, if you could pick three words that would describe how this year has been for you, what would those words be?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I would say…confusing. What’s the word to say that something went fast, like…

Maurice Cherry:

Swift?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Swift. Okay, so I got confusing. I got swift. And maybe lastly, I would say family is what I would say would be maybe the third word when I think about this. And that has to do with both my literal family, but also, like, where I’m working right now has a lot of family vibes. We all take care of each other, so it always comes up.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you have any goals that you’d like to accomplish in 2024?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, I think that I don’t have any kind of specific goals, and I never really been the kind of person to sit down and set goals. I’ve tried to do it before, but if anything, maybe my number one goal is to really try to foster even more relationships. I think that’s probably the thing I think about the most right now, is I got a lot of great relationships based on the 20 years I’ve been doing this. And I kind of have been riding the waves of those relationships for a while. And I just know that there’s more out there, especially as new industries like AI come out. There’s people working in it. I want to meet those people. I want to talk to them. I want to foster just some more relationships in some different areas.

Maurice Cherry:

Isn’t it wild to say that you’ve been in this industry for 20 years? Doesn’t that feel wild when you look at the grand scheme of things?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

It’s wild. And I feel hella old, man. And then what has happened in those 20 years? It’s just been such a whirlwind. It’s interesting, I think about where that 20 years started, and it started in such a kind of ambiguous place where I’m getting out of school and I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m trying to figure my way around it. And again, I still kind of feel like that. Today I’m at a company where we’re working with startups and I’m trying to find their way. And the feeling almost has not changed from when I got some experience and I have some skills I can lean on, but the feeling when I got out of school, I kind of still feel like that today, 20 years later. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you feel like the guru at the top of the mountain? A little bit?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Definitely not. I definitely do not feel like the guru at the top of the mountain. And again, I can’t say that I don’t have knowledge or tricks that I lean on or experiences that I lean on, but more often than not, I definitely still feel like I really don’t know what the heck I’m doing and I’m trying to make the best decision I can with the information I have every day. It’s worked out. I still got a job, I’m still working, and I got a lot of great colleagues that I’ve built over the years, but I definitely still don’t feel like the wise guru or feel like I know what I’m doing at all.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk about Cōlab, which is where you’re currently at. It’s this creative studio that’s based out of San Francisco. Tell me more about it. Like how did you get started there?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So Cōlab is like you mentioned, it’s a creative studio focused in on marketing, brand design and product design. And Cōlab kind of sits within a growth equity company called Westcap. And so you imagine Westcap invests in mostly tech startups. They invest in the startup. They say, okay, we’re going to give you x amount of money, but we’re also going to have our creative team Cōlab parachute in and help you with various things. And when I say various things, I mean it could be almost anything. We got 22 people on the Cōlab team. We have brand designers, product designers, growth marketers, insights.

People do insights and research to better understand companies’ customers. We got me as motion design and creative director. We have brand strategists, we have content strategists, writers, we have pr. So we have a lot of various skill sets. And most of the skill sets we have are exactly the kind of skill sets that a startup shouldn’t quite have yet. There’s no reason for a startup to have a motion design, but there is a reason for me to, like I mentioned, parachute in and help out with various things. There are times where we have startups where they don’t have a CMO, but we have these two VPs of growth marketing. Maria and Diane. Sometimes they’ll parachute in very well what a CEO does and how to work with one based on all their experience.

They’ll be a temporary CMO for a minute. Cōlab is really about helping startups reach another level, and sometimes you can only reach that level when there’s a certain set of skills that you may not need yet. And that’s what we fill that gap for.

Maurice Cherry:

So you mentioned the team, and it has all these sort of different components. I mean, it sounds like almost kind of like a full-fledged agency.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah. And the only reason why we don’t call ourselves an agency, and this has been a debate between us since I started, the only reason why we don’t call ourselves an agency is because, number one, we don’t have all the layers that an agency has. Account director, senior account director, and all of the, I would say, account services of an agency. What we have are pretty much a couple dozen people who can, again, direct projects and lead projects, but also those people also design. So we don’t have people who are just managers for managers sake or salespeople or anything like that, that maybe a kind of traditional agency would have. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:

And I guess, like you said, it’s coming in from the bigger partner. So everything that comes in is basically like a fully qualified lead. You don’t have to hunt down work.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

That’s true. And one of the things I do like about Colack is we do have a group of companies that we work with on a regular basis that come in through who Westcap invests in. But we also do take external work as well. So we do sometimes reach out to companies that we’re interested in doing work for, or it might be a contact that we’ve known that has decided to start their own company and we’ll help them. So we do have external companies. Again, the main difference is when you work with us, you’re not really getting the same kind of, I don’t know, full fledged, layered agency experience. You oftentimes are working with a smaller group, four or five people. Each of those people is senior enough to do the work, but also to run the project as well.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay, I got you. So when new work comes in the door, what does the process look like? By the time it comes to you, I should say, what does the process look like?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, when new work comes in the door, usually, obviously there’s kind of a meeting with me. I serve as a creative director, executive creative director. We also have Brian Wakabayashi, who’s our head of strategy. He’s also kind of like our creative studio managing director. And then we have Michelle Ha, who’s our operations director. So the three of us usually will meet with whoever the company is that is interested in collaborating. And really we start a conversation about what they think they need, what we think we can do, and begin to kind of formulate a plan on how we think we might be able to help them. And from there, depending on what it is, sometimes I fade away altogether and they don’t see me anymore, because what they need is something that’s more like strategy.

And then we’ll bring our other brand strategists in, they’ll do a strategy process, and that might be the end of the project. Sometimes a thing will come in, like as an example, we had an AI startup approach us to do an explainer video for them that explains their product. That was an instance where I took that project on. I brought on a designer, brought on a writer, and then Brian, our head of strategy, he disappears. Depending on what the project is, you’re going to get a different combination of people from the team that really focus on the thing that you need.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, it’s funny you mentioned AI. That’s been a regular theme that we’ve had on the show probably for the past two years now. We mentioned it at least in every episode in some capacity. Like, how are you using AI or any of this other new tech, like virtual reality, mixed reality, et cetera. Do you use any AI tools in your work, or do you have any just kind of general thoughts about AI with motion design?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, I love it. I use them, but honestly, I more or less play with them. I haven’t yet figured out an exact way of how to integrate it into my day to day workflow. I imagine how I hope to be able to integrate it. Like as an example, if I have a video that I’ve made that’s 60 seconds long and it’s in a 16:9 kind of TV format, I’d love to just tell AI, :hey, make this into a square format for Instagram. Hey, cut this down to 30 seconds.” I’d love to be able to do that and have it just do it. But as of now, more or less any AI tool that I see come out, I try it, I play with it.

I play with mid journey, creating images, sometimes for fun, I definitely play with ChatGPT in terms of asking questions, or sometimes I’m doing writing for blog posts and I’ll have a proofread, stuff like that. But I feel a little bit like I’m just playing. I haven’t really found a way of integrating it into my work in a real way.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, has the AI gotten sophisticated enough to do motion work? I mean, I’ve seen like, chat, GPT will do text and mid journey and Dolly and things like that, can do images, but has it gotten sophisticated enough to do motion?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

There are some programs that do it. There’s one called Runway ML.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

They have a whole suite of tools. So sometimes one of the kind of projects that I work on sometimes is like screen replacement, right? So you imagine you have this app, and they need a video to show off what the app does. So obviously you need people walking around using the app, and you’re showing footage of someone using that app. And usually what happens is I go in and I put in a new screen on top, and I track it, and I do what’s called rotoscoping, kind of painting out the frames, the fingers in front or whatever, and making a new screen look like it’s integrated into the shot. And so this thing, Runway ML, they have a bunch of tools that can help you do that. For example, you can click on something and have it track. So if it’s a footage of like a surfer on a wave, you can click on the surfer’s body, and it’ll give you a tracking point as they move along. Then you can use that as you want to put a hat on the surfer or whatever you want to do.

So it has some stuff that are really kind of cool or fun to play with. But again, I’ve been using certain methods for a pretty long time, and occasionally I’ll try to use it to replace one of my methods, but it’s not quite at a place where I feel like it’s going to take it over quite yet.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. I was curious if it had the capability to do that, because I had a motion designer on the show a couple of weeks ago, Andre Foster. He co-founded a motion graphics design studio and production house called First Fight. And he talked about how he uses it sort of as like a Pinterest board. Like, he uses it for just kind of like inspiration and stuff. But then he said it inspired him enough to actually put together almost like opening credits to a show, not a real show, but just like, oh, let’s see how far I can sort of push the technology. And honestly, it looked like something I would see on, like FX or something. It looked really good.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, that’s dope. Yeah. See, I’ll talk to you when we’re done on what that is. And play with it.

Maurice Cherry:

You mentioned this in a past interview that you’ve done. You said that motion design is so crucial to making high quality digital products on any platform. Why is that the case?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

The case is just because the way, and this is maybe too deep and existential, right? But the way we experience all of our lives is through time, right? You walk outside, you walk down the block. That took 10 seconds. You experience time. You saw a dog, you saw a tree, you saw the sun. The way we experience life is through time. And I know that for years people were reading books and you using your imagination, people reading magazines. There’s a very static kind of experience. It lives as that thing, like a rock, just lives like that forever.

But now that we have technology, and smartphones are just ubiquitous, they’re everywhere, and you’re able to actually interact with them. You put your finger on it and you move it. You’re adding motion, you’re adding time to the equation. And the reason why motion is so important is because it helps you do something that feels more natural to what humans should be doing, if that makes any sense. So just as an example, right, if you’re on a website and you click on a button that’s going to take you to another page, the old school way is it’s just going to slam you right to the next page. Now you have to reorient yourself and figure out where you are now. And the way I think about it is motion can actually help you bridge those two things. It can help you understand where you were, it can help you understand where you went, where you’re going, and it just creates a more natural experience than just kind of blinking.

And now you appear somewhere else.

Maurice Cherry:

That makes sense. Now that you put it that way, it is something that I think humans are used to, that they’re used to motion. And also, so many things now are skewing towards video, and that’s nothing but motion. So it kind of makes sense to still put those sorts of animations and interactions in most types of applications because that’s just what we expect now.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Totally. And it’s not a surprise that TikTok is as popular as it is with videos. Right. We love to look at things that move. It feels good. In addition, to help you understand how Ui might work, motion just helps you add emotion. We are all emotional. You feel happy, you feel sad.

And the things you interact with, you want them to give you that same thing. So when something you interact with has a little bounce to it, it gives you a feeling. Oh, this is supposed to be fun when something you interact with has a smoother nature to it. Elegant. Oh, this is supposed to be classy, right? So it helps you give emotion to digital products, no matter what the devices are, whether it’s on a phone or AR or VR or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:

Motion adds emotion. I like that. That’s good.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

100%.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit and learn more about you. I’m curious on where this sort of spark for design and animation sort of came from. So tell me more about where you grew up.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I grew up in the DC area. Kind of moved back and forth between DC and Philadelphia. And growing up, we always had the latest game thing. I’m dating myself here. I’m an old man. But we used to have the Texas instruments, we used to have the Atari 500, or we used to have all these old game systems when I was like a little kid, and I loved playing with them. But I also had this curious mind where I would try to take it apart. I would say, what’s in here? So I would get a screwdriver.

I would open up the back. My mom would come in a room a week later. She’d be like, “why is the cover off of the Nintendo?” And I’d be like, “well, I just wanted to see what was in there”, right? So I actually had a Nintendo that did not have a cover that I played for years because I couldn’t figure out how to put the thing back on. I just have a love of technology, like a lot of people. And I used to build my own computers when I was in middle school and high school, I’d buy the RAM, I’d buy the motherboard. I’d build them from scratch. It was just a fun thing. And when it’s time for me to go to college, I thought, okay, let me try to do computer science.

I’m going to learn how to program. I’m going to build. Make games, something like that. And my first year, at the end of my first year, I had a 1.2 GPA, and that was because the math was destroying me. We had, like, this Calculus, or Calculus 2, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. And not only that, at the time, I just didn’t know how to learn. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t know how to sit down and study. I didn’t necessarily have the discipline yet to really push through.

I didn’t know how to tell my homeboys, like, I can’t go out with you all; I got to get this computer science work in, you know what I’m saying? So I just ended up almost kind of flunking out of school. And this is a story I’ve told before. That one evening, my dad came…I used to live in my parents basement. During college, my dad comes downstairs, he’s like, “bro, we saw your grades. Like, look, we don’t care what you’re going to do, but either do this right or don’t do it at all.” And then he closed the door and walked upstairs.

Maurice Cherry:

Damn.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

And it was just a note. We don’t care what you do. We’re going to support you. But don’t just do something and be flunking and failing out. So I had a moment where I had to really say, am I going to really try to do this, or am I going to look for something else? And the school I went to, George Mason, they had a digital arts degree. It was basically a degree to help people make art using computers. So I thought, oh, well, let me do that. That seems kind of cool.

They have class in Photoshop. They had a class in after effects, which is wild that I still use after effects today. And then they have a class in 3D program that doesn’t exist anymore. And I took those classes. I was in the art department. I was learning about our history, critical theory, critical thinking, and I was really kind of enveloped in the art world through a technology lens. And from there, I got straight in. So that shift enabled me to kind of see how I could bring some of my creative mind and technology together.

So my senior year, I started to find these motion design companies all around the country that were doing these awesome commercials, and commercials will be animated with all these awesome graphics and characters. And I said, you know what? I want to do that after school. So after college, I packed up my little car, a little Acura, and I drove up to New York, and I moved up there, and I was knocking on doors. I had a little dvd. So funny. My kids, they saw some of my old DVDs in the garage. They were like, what’s going to use them no more? But I had my old DVD that I made. I burned it and had my reel of student work.

And I’m, like, walking into these shops trying to get work. And luckily, I had this. He kind of became my first mentor. He’s a creative director at BET right now, Kendrick Reed, and walked into his office, and it was amazing again to see somebody like me, six foot something, Black man, bald head, and he’s a super fashionable guy, wearing cool clothes. I was like, okay, I see. So I walk in his office, and he’s like, “so tell me, what do you want to do?” And I was like, “well, I love design. I love animation.” At the time, he was the creative director at Comedy Central, and so they had a department at Comedy Central that made commercials for Comedy Central that aired on Comedy Central.

So that was the department that he ran. He’s like, “well, what do you want to do?” I was like, “well, eventually, I want, you know, like, I want to be creative director at some place with a team like this.” So he kind of laughed, and he gave me my first job out of college. I was there for a couple of years, built some good relationships with some folks. I ended up going freelance after he left. I was kind of sad when he left. So then I left after he left, and I ended up going freelance for about eight or nine years after that. And I was just designing and animating wherever I could get in the door.

Design shops, ad agencies, TV networks like HBO, Showtime. I just would get in wherever I could. And it was an amazing experience. And some of the people I met back then, I’m still in contact with today, even though I’m kind of on the other side of the country, I’m doing something a little bit different. That was a really important part of kind of what led me to what I’m doing today.

Maurice Cherry:

During that time that you were doing all this freelancing, I mean, yeah, you were at a bunch of different studios, a bunch of different places. Do you feel like there was something that you were trying to attain? Like, were you trying to get to Kendrick? Were you trying to get to his position in terms of moving up the ladder or moving up in your skills?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think the thing at the time, those ten years, what I really wanted to do was learn how to make my work good. Like, I would make something, and then I would go see someone else’s project. And it was very clear to me that mine wasn’t as good. My whole thing for that ten years was, I need to figure out how to make something good, because I see this person over here is crushing it, and mine doesn’t look like theirs. Why doesn’t mine look like theirs? And in the industry at that time, there’s a lot of late nights, and everybody worked from, like, ten to eight. We went out afterwards and come back to work the next day and deal with it. So it was a lot of hard work, but that was really the thing I thought about the most. Just like, why isn’t mine as good as that other person? It was more of a creative pursuit to make something that I felt was equal to the people I admired at the time.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I’m kind of trying to also place this just like, chronologically. So this was really during the time, I’m guessing this is like the early 2000s. Like early 2000s to 2010s, pretty much?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah. 2002 to 2011.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. I mean, during that time, even if you just step back and look at the web, think about how much the web had changed from 2002 to 2011. And of course that would end up invariably being reflected in media and advertising and publishing, because computers are now taking over as, like, the primary way that you do design, and the technology is getting better and the browsers are getting better, and all of a sudden now we’re using CSS, and now we have to change what we thought we did before with tables into something new. So there was always something new, I think back at that time, and it felt like there were new discoveries or new ways of doing things. Like every month it felt like it was something new and you had to keep going, you had to keep making stuff just to catch up. Like, you couldn’t really rest on your laurels during that time because of just how fast things were progressing in the industry.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, yeah, that’s 100% true.

Maurice Cherry:

So after you were doing all of this freelancing and everything, you ended up as a motion graphics artist at square, and you were there for, I think, roughly about three years, is that right?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, that’s correct. And square was the first place that I ever worked. Number one, that was a startup, but number two, that had, like, a physical product. All the things I had done for the ten years before were all advertising and marketing for tv shows. And the shows have people and Dave Chappelle’s show. It was interesting to be at a place that they had this little square card reader. And not only that, they had a whole team that worked on it. They had a team that worked on the box.

They had a team that worked on logistics of where the parts come from. They had a team that worked on every aspect of this little physical device. And so it was the first time where I worked at a company like that that I could actually get a peek inside the technology. I mentioned earlier. I was taking apart my Nintendo because I was curious what’s in there. And so it was really fun for me to be around people who were kind of making things, sending inside out. I think that it was mostly, again, like I mentioned, a little bit scary and daunting. It was comforting that I was on the video team at this company.

So I was still making videos. But when I would go into a meeting with the group who was responsible for the launch of the new Square Reader, and they’re talking about engineering challenges. I don’t know what they’re talking about. You know what I mean? I feel a little bit lost and confused, but the only thing I could rest on was like, okay, I’m still here to do the thing I came here to do. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn about what they’re doing. But that became my challenge at square was like, how much can I learn about what they’re doing, what they’re talking about that can help me do my job better?

Maurice Cherry:

And then after that, you ended up at Airbnb, where you started off as the company’s only motion designer. I bet that had to be pretty daunting, especially at that time when Airbnb was really starting to take off.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, definitely. And so when I was at Square, like I mentioned, I was in the room with all these other functions, physical engineering, but also product designers. Yeah. And there were a couple of times when I was at Square where I collaborated with the product designers. Oh, I would do an animation for the square’s website. One of those product designers, Jason Mamro, who I still work with today, he left Square and went to Airbnb. He’s on Airbnb’s product design team. And at the time, their head of design, Katie Dill, she was, you know thinking, we probably should get a motion designer.

And everybody’s, all the product designers like, yes, let’s get a motion designer. And Jason luckily threw my name out and I ended up kind of coming in, interviewing for the role. And it was funny, my first week, I’m sitting with my manager, and since I’m the first motion designer, it’s not exactly clear how I’m going to plug in. So he asked me, he said, well, what should you work on? I was like, what do you mean, what should I work on? You should tell me what I should work on. Right? He’s like, well, no. Since we never had a motion designer, you have to help us understand what you can do as well as us telling you what would need you on. So it kind of opened my mind up to like, oh, this is a kind of a role where I kind of get to help create it and it’s not so cut and dry exactly what I’m going to be doing all the time. If I see an opportunity, I can pursue it.

If I see something I think I can help out with, I can go help; and likewise, people who think I can help can contact me for help.

Maurice Cherry:

What were some of those early things that you were doing?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So I remember when I first joined, they were about to launch the Airbnb Apple Watch app. And you mentioned earlier how everything was always changing. So I was very much used to working on animations that were for TV. And the Apple Watch screen is tiny. And so I think the first project I ever worked on was the animation for the onboarding for the Airbnb’s Apple Watch app. We had these little characters and we had the little character, like, tap their watch and then we had a little Airbnb logo. It was very cute. I think that was the first project I ever worked on.

And then from there, I remember working on, they launched the Apple TV app and I worked on an onboarding video for that, or onboarding animation for the Apple TV app for Airbnb. And then from there, really honestly, it spread out to so many different things. Sometimes I was doing the animation for either the website or the app, but other times it was prototyping UI. Okay, we need a prototype. We got a meeting with Brian Chesky in three weeks. We need to put together a prototype to articulate how we want this flow to go. Or it was. Brian Chesky has a presentation about this new feature and he needs an animation for his presentation that shows what the UI is going to do.

And they still do this today. When you see Airbnb’s launches, they have a couple of motion designers now that they do this all the time where they’re making prototypes for presentations. So I used to kind of do, there were probably like a dozen different things, ways that I would help out just depending on the time and what was going on at the company.

Maurice Cherry:

Man, I mean, it sounds like you really had your hands full, because I know that as Airbnb was growing, and I said, like you said, the tech was also changing. Mean, did you feel like you were stretched thin? I mean, did they eventually hire more motion graphics designers?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, eventually we hired another one. Maybe on my third year we hired another one. Then he kind of subsequently left. So then it was just me again. But I used to tell everybody there were 60 product designers on the team with 60 product designers to one motion designer. I used to tell everybody, like, I’m just one person, so I’m going to do what I can and everything else is not going to happen. And everybody again, everybody who’s very understanding the culture that we had at Airbnb at the time it was real friends and family vibes. It wasn’t like people were like, oh, man, he’s not doing his job right.

Everybody knew that there’s no way that one person could do, you know, for a lot of teams, it was like even me helping a little bit was going to be better than not helping at all. So they would accept any level of engagement that I could give. Everybody’s really understanding.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s good, because I’ve definitely worked at some places that are not that. Definitely the opposite, where you’re the person that does it, they expect you to always be the one to do it. No matter how many times you’re like, I need help. No matter how many times you’re throwing out a life preserver, they’re like, oh, you got it, you’re good. No, I’m drowning over here. Can you help me? So while you were at Airbnb, and like you said, they ended up eventually building out the team some more, you were on a team that launched Lottie, which is an open source tool that adds animations to like, iOS, Android, native apps, et cetera. How did the idea for Lottie come about?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So I mentioned earlier that one of the first things I worked on was the Apple Watch app. I had these little characters animating, and the way I delivered it that delivered the animation to the engineering team was, I’m pretty sure it was a sequence of PNGs. My engineering partner, an iOS engineer, he had to build a way for the app to play those PNGs in sequence. I think it was like 30 PNGs per animation. And for me, coming from tv, I was like, there has to be a better way for us to do this. The png sequence to do all our animations. The file sizes were pretty big and I think everybody hoped for a better way, but there just wasn’t anything out at the time. And I developed a really good relationship with an iOS engineer named Brandon Withrow.

He was an iOS engineer, but he went to school for animation. So we clicked right off the bat. And Airbnb used to have these things called Hack Weeks, where during the whole week you could work on anything you wanted. And I remember I approached Brandon, I say, maybe let’s try to find a way for us to get some data out of after effects, the thing I animated, and get it into iOS playing somehow. So he’s, I mean, let’s try it. What do you got? We ended up finding this tool called Bodymovin. It was this engineer named Hernan Torrisi created this tool that could export data out of after effects into a file, JSON file. It just has all the raw data of the animation.

So I send this file to Brandon. I’m like, what do you think? Bodymovin is open source? Take a look at it. So he said, all right. A couple of days, he came back, and he had a blue square show up on the screen. It wasn’t moving, wasn’t animating, just a blue square. And I think that kind of spurred the next step, which was, okay, now he has the square going left to right. Okay, next. Now he has a triangle and a circle.

And he, Brandon himself, just worked on features in his own time, and he got it to a point where we could do some small animations similar to the ones I did on the Apple Watch, and we could actually put know, I could export it from after effects, get the data out, put it into the iOS app, and the file size was much smaller, and it was way more performant. And so we had a little thing for iOS that was working, and we thought, well, we have an Android app. Kind of a bummer to have animations on iOS. Let’s find an Android engineer that could help us. And we brought in another engineer, Gabriel Peal. He was an Android engineer at the time. And we said, well, look what. Here’s what Brandon has on iOS.

Maybe we could do something similar on Android. And Gabe was the funniest one because he was like, I don’t know. He’s like, if we could do this, somebody would already name it. We gave him the same files, but he did the same thing. First he had a box, then he had a circle, then he had it moving left to right. And the next thing you knew, we had an iOS and Android framework that could play these really small animations in our apps. So we had that for a handful of months. And I think it was February, or I think it was like December of 2017, Facebook open sourced their version of what we had.

It was called Facebook Keyframes. It was exactly the same thing you export from after effects. Your data comes out. It works on iOS and Android. So when we saw that, we said, oh, they made it, too. It wasn’t open source at the time, so I thought, oh, well, let me try theirs. And I remember exporting one of the animations that worked on ours. I remember exporting it in their format, and there was a whole bunch of stuff broken.

So it was very clear to us that, oh, the thing we have is a little bit better than the thing they have. So we should open source as well. So Brandon came up with the name Lottie. It’s named after an animation pioneer named Charlotte Reiniger, who’s German. In the 1920s, she created full length feature movies and we got the name, we open sourced it, we made a little landing page and it just kind of took off from there.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. It sounds like it was a pretty organic thing, though. It didn’t just sort of come. I mean, it came in a way out of necessity. But the way that it managed to sort of build out and really become a framework was really organic.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Absolutely. It was really organic. And it was just lucky. It feels a little bit like the right place at the right time. It was lucky that Airbnb had a motion designer at the time. It was lucky that Brandon was an iOS engineer who kind of knew about animation. It’s lucky that we were friends and he would work on it in his free time. It was lucky that Gabe was so talented that he could jump in and create.

And at the know, we all had other stuff to work on. Our managers really didn’t care if we worked on Lottie in our free time as long as we got our other stuff done. And so that was the vibe for about a year. It was really a side project.

Maurice Cherry:

And now Lottie is used all over the place. It’s used in hundreds of thousands of different applications and stuff. What does it feel like knowing that something you’ve created has really caught on like that and made such an impact?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

It blows my mind. It really blows my mind because again, it could have easily not happened or it could have easily been Facebook keyframes that have been the thing that really caught on. So, yeah, it blows my mind. And it’s just humbling to be a part of something that people like and they use it and all. Full disclosure, I’m sure someone’s going to come out with something better than Lottie and then Lottie will disappear. That’s just the nature of software. That’s just the nature of creativity. I’m cool with that.

But to have had a hand in something that people like and use and have been using for the last handful of years is really humbling and amazing.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I can imagine. Just seeing your work make such an impact and then to know that you were really kind of behind it in the beginning is amazing. And it’s not something that is, I would say, hidden to history. People know that you did it. It’s not like Lottie just sprung forth anonymously. They know that you’re one of the people behind.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Really, the thing that I really like now is, like I was saying, at Cōlab, I’m working with startups all the time, so I’ll be working with a startup and they’ll be like, hey, can we put this animation we do? Can we put this on our app? And they’ll be like, I heard of this thing. It’s called Lottie. Maybe we could use that. They don’t know how. You’re like talking about my child, you know what I’m saying? I know this thing so well. I helped build it. I was there from the beginning. But people don’t know and oftentimes I don’t say anything.

I’m not that kind of guy to be like, well, that’s my thing. But it’s just kind of cute and funny to me that it’s now coming back to me through other channels I can imagine.

Maurice Cherry:

Like, you have to sort of keep yourself in check, like, “oh, like, I can’t…I don’t want to blow my cover here.”

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, 100%. But also, you know, design, motion design, this is a small industry of many. And what I did, while it’s maybe important to a couple hundred thousand people, there’s probably a ton of other people that don’t even know about it. So it’s not that big a deal. It’s not brain surgery. I’m not saving lives here. It makes me laugh when that happens, and it does happen every couple of months, which is great to me.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there still active development on it?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

There is some. So Gabriel Peal, the Android engineer; he still works on it. He still works on it. He gets requests through and I think that’s probably the benefit of being open source. You have other people in the community who contribute, you have other people who change the code and submit it. So yeah, it’s still being not, I think that for a little while, while I was at Airbnb, after Brandon and Gabe left, it wasn’t really worked on internally, but there were a couple pushes internally to help develop. So we, I remember it got changed from one language into Swift, and then I think more recently since I’ve left, they’ve done a couple small things on the iOS side, but it’s really honestly mostly being pushed outside of Airbnb. So there’s a company called Lottie Files.

They’re based in Malaysia and they’re doing a ton of development on themselves, bidding on top of it, building state machines on top of it, which is a complicated term. People can google it and they’re kind of doing all kinds of things with the format and helping develop it outside, mostly because it is open source.

Maurice Cherry:

When you look, sort of, back at the early parts of your career to now, what would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Maybe the biggest lesson I learned about myself is that I really do enjoy being in an environment that I don’t know what’s going on. Okay. That there’s things that are new, there are things to learn, there are things I can be curious about. So, for example, like I mentioned, when I joined Airbnb, I was the only motion designer on a team full of product designers and engineers, none of which I had worked with before. I’d never worked with an engineer before. But it was so interesting to me. I ended up taking an eight week coding class because, again, we were in meetings where I didn’t know what they’re talking about. So that part of trying to help myself understand someone else’s industry to better do my job is fascinating to me.

And now it’s a similar thing at Cōlab. I’m working with startups, I’m working with ceos, cmos, and founders. I’m understanding what they care about. I’m understanding that they care about their business goals, so they don’t care about how the thing moves or what it looks like. Is this having an impact on the business?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So now I’m having a whole different set. And I think every few years in my career, when I start to feel like I’m pretty competent at the thing I’m doing, I usually end up moving to something else that puts me a little bit off balance.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that because I think that that is a practice that is something that more creatives, I think particularly more Black creatives are starting to embrace. I’m tying this into something, I promise you. So we’re recording this right now on the day that Andre 3000 just released his new album, his debut album, debut solo album, New Blue Sun.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

We’ve been talking about it at work all day.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, really?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I listened to it this morning, actually. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you think about it?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think it’s…

Maurice Cherry:

You can be honest! Yeah, be honest. Think about it.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I mean, I’m such a big Andre 3000 Outkast fan. Like, I’ll listen to whatever they put out.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

You know what I’m saying? They could put out themselves beating a bucket and I’ll listen to it. But the interesting thing, I saw that they had an interview with them last night at GQ, and he was talking about, like, they were at the top of their game, and it loses some of its magic when you feel like you really know what you’re doing. And I think he was looking for something different where he could feel like a beginner again.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

You know what I’m saying? But, yeah, I listened to it this morning. I think it’s cool. I put it on while I was writing something. And honestly, for about 40 minutes – the album is like 90 minutes long. For about 40 minutes. I totally forgot it was on.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

And I think that’s the point.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s the point, too. And the reason that I was asking about this is because I think sometimes, especially when people know you for a specific thing that you’ve accomplished in your career, that tends to be a box that they put you in. So anything else that you do is, like, compared to that thing, or they expect that the next thing that you do is going to be the same box-shaped thing that you’ve done before. So, of course, everyone knows 3000 for his lyrics. They’re expecting it’s going to be a fire rap album. Right? Instead, he comes out with some Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Yusef Lateef-like flautist sound bath 90 minute journey that’s like the product of an Ayahuasca trip, right?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, he definitely was.

Maurice Cherry:

And I’ve been seeing some of the reviews. I mean, it just came out. By the time this airs, people will have known about it or. But. But I was thinking, like, man, I bet people are going to clown this album like they did when Solange’s last album came out. Like, When I Came Home came out and people were like, what is this? Because they expected her to be in this, Beyoncé’s’ little sister, kind of like, T.O.N.Y.-shaped, Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dream- shaped box. And she comes out with this…I mean, that’s one of my favorite albums of all time, her last album.

So I really like what you said about you, like, being in these spaces where you don’t know kind of what to do or what’s next. And I think that’s something that creatives in general, particularly Black creatives, should embrace, because it locks you in a box when you’re always doing the same type of thing over and over and over in a way. And as creatives, there’s more things that we want to do. There’s more ways we can sort of express ourselves. I think that’s a really good practice to have as a creative.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

And it’s scary.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

You know what I’m saying? It’s scary. But I think that’s part of the point. That’s the reason why people like roller coasters. It’s kind of scary.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

But that’s kind of what’s fun about it.

Maurice Cherry:

What would you say are, like, your next steps of growth for you as a creative? Like, where do you want to grow into?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, I think I have some knowledge from television. I have some knowledge from kind of the product design engineering side at Cōlab. I’m kind of putting those two things together. So I get to help startups with brand campaigns that have tv commercials, but also animations within their app. I think after talking with you about it for a little bit, it definitely feels like the thing that I butt up against most that I’m not always really sure about is really about business goals, how a business runs, how a startup runs, how do you actually make business impact, how do I use my skills in order to actually fundamentally change the direction of a business? You know what I’m saying? And I think that learning more about things like customer acquisition costs. Right. Learning more about measurement and research and strategy, I think will just help me put my work through a slightly different lens. And these are all things that at the moment, I would say I’m like a child at, but I think those are the things I’m starting to butt up against right now, especially when you’re talking to founders or people running companies.

These are things they care about and probably some things I need to learn there.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, and that’s a good point. I mean, the best designers, I think, eventually end up finding out how to meld the creativity with the business and the strategy to really take it to the next level, because there’ll be a certain point in your career, and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I certainly have, where you just feel like you’re the hired hand, like you just come in to do this part of the work and that’s it. And you may or may not see what the impact of it is. It may not be privy to you or you may not be exposed to it, but you know that you can do more. Like, you can feel yourself kind of growing out of that constraint that you have. And so I think that’s a good place to be, is to try to learn more about the business end. And I think with Cōlab, you’re at a great place to do it. You’re interfacing with startups.

Plus Cōlab is sort of this creative arm of a larger business entity. I think you’re in a great place to make that happen.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think you’re right.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you pull strength from?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Most of my strength comes from probably just my curiosity, like when I think about, what am I doing? So sometimes it’ll be like 11:00 and my whole family, my kids, my wife, everybody’s sleeping, and I’m just up, can’t sleep. And I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about some project that I’m involved in. It might be some explainer video where we have a script, but I think the script is not that good. So I’m really curious about looking up other scripts and good ones and seeing what they did. I’m really curious about doing, like, let me do, like, ten different versions of this thing and see what they look like. That curiosity, that creative itch. The part of the creative process where you’re really exploring this blue sky, it could be anything. I think that’s probably where I draw my strength from, is I’ll stay up late for those reasons.

And again, when I’m staying up late and I’m working hard on something, it does tend to be better.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. If you wouldn’t have gone into motion design and animation, what do you think you would have ended up doing?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I have no idea, really. I’ve been doing this so long, I don’t know what I would have done. And it all happened so kind of happenstance, you know what I mean? It was like, I rolled the dice, okay, now I’m in New York. Roll the dice again. Now I’m in San Francisco. Roll the dice again. I couldn’t have guessed that I would be where I am today, doing what I’m doing today. I don’t know if it’s like a question I have a really good answer for.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I guess, to that end, what do you want the next chapter of your story to look like?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think I want to continue doing the things I came to Cōlab to do, wherever it is. I want to keep bringing these two halves of my career together. So how can I use design and animation to entertain people? And also, how can I use design and animation to make people’s experience better, to make their experience of a product better? And I want to keep kind of jamming those two things together and then put a layer on top of. I want to use design and animation to help businesses achieve their goals. Right? So all three of those things. I want to just get much better at doing those three things.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I’m the worst with social media, so I’m not really on Instagram or Twitter or X or whatever. Our work is at colabgroup.com. That’s where our work is. We’re actually probably going to start releasing some thought leadership pieces, just some things we talk about internally that we want to put out there so you’ll be able to hear my voice through that. I used to have a website. I used to have a portfolio on a rewl. I took it down because it got kind of old. I was like, man, I don’t like this work anymore. So I don’t really have a personal site.

But, yeah, I would say colabgroup[.com]. And the work that’s there, the things that you see on that site, is probably the best representation of me on the Internet right now.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Well, Salih Abdul-Karim, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, the work that you’ve done with creating Lottie, like I said, it’s had such a huge reach, just in terms of how many people use it. I think there are people that are sort of the benefactors of your work that have no idea that you were sort of the person behind it. But I really love what you had to say about the big takeaway, because I asked you this before we recorded, is like, what do you want the takeaway to be? And it’s like, you don’t have to know what you’re doing. And I think the cosmic happenstance of this episode happening at the end of this year, potentially the end of this podcast, is such a profound way to sort of close things out, because the main thing that I’ve always wanted to accomplish through Revision Path is that there’s more than one way to get to be a creative. There’s more than one way to do this, and you may not know what that is. And so maybe the stories of all these people can give you some insight as to what that thing might know.

So I really like that. That has been sort of a guiding force throughout your career and throughout your life, and I’ll be excited to see you bring those two halves of your career together in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

No, thank you, Maurice. And thank you for doing all these episodes and putting this together. I think you’re doing something really special.

Maurice Cherry:

And we’re releasing this episode on Christmas, so it’s my gift to everybody. That was kind of corny, but, okay.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Pour a little rum in it for me.

Maurice Cherry:

Hey, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I’m talking about.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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

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

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You might not immediately think of a strong design community when someone mentions Cleveland, Ohio, but UX designer Alex Binder is well on his way to changing that perception. His work ethic and reputation are already helping him establish himself in the industry, including his current position with health tech company OnShift.

Alex and I started off with a look into the Cleveland design community, and he talked about how his education at Cleveland State University gave him a solid look into how design isn’t always about visuals. From there we touched on a number of other topics, including the increase in UX designers over the past several years, and Alex told me about his dream role and what he wants to accomplish for the remainder of the year.

Keep an eye out for Alex Binder — he’s making moves!


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