Kevin Tufts

Kevin Tufts is the real deal when it comes to tech and design. With over two decades of experience working across a number of companies in the Bay Area — Lyft, SendGrid, and Twilio, to name a few — he’s now a product designer at Meta working on their Creation team. So believe me, we had a LOT to talk about.

Our conversation begin with a look at the current climate inside Meta (pre-Threads, FYI), and he gave some thoughts on where the company is going as it approaches its 20th anniversary. From there, Kevin talked about his path to becoming a product designer, and we took a trip down memory lane recalling the early days of web design and what it was like working during such rapidly changing times. He also spoke on what he loves about product design now, and how he wants to help the next generation of designers through mentorship.

Kevin’s secrets to success are simple: seize opportunities for growth where you can, embrace collaboration, and remain flexible. Now that’s something I think we could all take to heart!

Interview Transcript

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

Kevin Tufts:
I am Kevin Tufts. I am a product designer currently working at Facebook, and I live in San Jose, California.

Maurice Cherry:
How has this year been treating you so far?

Kevin Tufts:
I’d say personally the year has been pretty good. I am grateful to be employed and obviously you’ve seen in the media that Meta has had several waves of layoffs, unfortunately. So all things considered, I feel pretty grateful. Feel pretty good, but a little anxious. I’m human, so it’s definitely some wild times not just within Meta, but the tech ecosystem as a whole.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you have any plans for the summer?

Kevin Tufts:
Plans for the summer are going to be pretty chill. So one of my side hobbies is I’m an avid cyclist, so I’ve been doing bike events from beginning of April up until just a couple of weeks ago. So this summer I think I’m just going to chill, stay local and got some family stuff happening. I got some folks coming into town, so should be hopefully a quiet summer.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s good. Is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish this year, like for the rest of the year?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, there’s some kind of like more career-oriented things that I want to sharpen up on and that’s with mentorship and maybe doing more design oriented workshops where I’m teaching kids from different backgrounds but mostly from people of color how to use design tools and how to get into product design as a whole.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think that’s a really good thing, especially now when I’d say I feel like over the past two or three years we’ve started to see a lot of the younger generation, like Gen Z and younger are starting to look at tech more as a viable opportunity for them to go into for their career. So that’s a good thing. I hope you get a chance to do that.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, looking forward to there’s a couple of avenues and programs that I’ve been working with here in the Bay Area that’s been awesome. So yeah, there’s some big things on the horizon for me personally.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Talk to me about the work that you’re doing at Facebook. Like, are you working on a specific product there?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, mostly working within what’s called Creation, and that’s the organization that handles a lot of our creation tools like Reels and Stories. And so for me, a lot of my work swirls around Stories, so I get to touch everything from the gallery to the Stories composer, just the experience itself, which has been pretty cool. And then I also work across Facebook, Lite, iOS and Android. And I call that out because most people that are listening, that are here within the US. May not be aware that we have such an app called Facebook Lite, but it’s a stripped-down version of the app that runs on Android and it’s a popular app in kind of like more developing nations.

Maurice Cherry:
So like if you’re using, say, like, I know there’s this terminology of a dumb phone as opposed to like a smartphone, but like a phone that’s not maybe always connected to the Internet.

Kevin Tufts:
You got it. Yeah, you nailed it. So there’s different flavors of that where you can go into low data mode, and then you’ll see almost just a very plain Jane. Just a few images and some text, just a stripped down version of the core app.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your team look like that you work with?

Kevin Tufts:
Team is pretty big, so within the organization there are different pillars that handle different aspects of the experience. I’m on the Creation Growth team, so we run tons of design experiments. It’s a really fast moving, fast paced.org, can be challenging, but really fun because you get to try all types of different unique design directions that you wouldn’t necessarily try in other product spaces around Meta. And we have quite a number of designers as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what does a regular day kind of look like for you? Are you working remotely? Are you back in the office now? What does that look like?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, I’m working remotely, and just recently, like most companies in the Bay, we have a new return to office policy. So a lot of us will be continuing to work remotely. And some of us that live here in the Bay are going to be going in three days a week.

Maurice Cherry:
So you would have to be going into the Menlo Park office then?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, that’s my closest office.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m trying to place the Bay geography. How far away is that from where you’re at in San Jose?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, it’s about a 20 minute drive. 25 minutes? I mean, it takes a while because of traffic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Okay, that’s not that bad. That’s not that bad at all. Yeah. The last time I was in San Francisco was in God. Oh, that was 2016, actually was 2016. I spoke at Facebook, and I remember it took…oh, wow. I think it took an hour to get from San Francisco to Menlo Park. And I was thinking, “people make this commute every day. This is a lot.”

Kevin Tufts:
That sounds great compared to doing like an hour and a half or two hours if there’s an accident.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to approach this part of the conversation rather gingerly. I feel like there’s a third rail that I really don’t want to touch with regards to Facebook. But what’s the mood like there right now? I mean, as you mentioned, they’ve been in the news recently because of conversations around the metaverse. The Meta Quest 3 just dropped fairly recently, and then right after that, Apple dropped their AR headset. Yeah. What’s the mood like at Facebook overall?

Kevin Tufts:
I think because of the frequency of the layoffs, you know, we went into the end of last year with the first big wave, and then we just had the two more recent ones. People, they seem to be resilient, but a lot of us are kind of reserved and really just a little numb because all this stuff has been in such close succession, right. So ultimately everyone is just kind of moving forward and performing their duties as they always would. I think a lot of us are just trying to like, ride this out because we know that it’s going to be challenging for at least quite a few number of months before the dust truly settles. After every large layoff at any company, then there’s always the trimmers that you experience, right, because you’ll have a series of reorgs, so then you have to ride those waves. So that’s kind of where we are right now. But for the most part, everyone is pushing forward and we’re now into roadmap planning season. So it’s like our minds are occupied with just trying to plan for the next half.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it can be a very odd place to still work somewhere after a layoff. Sometimes you have I guess the best way to call this, or the best thing to call it, would be survivor’s guilt that you’re here when maybe a team member has left or someone else you knew at the company has left. And then especially when these kinds of things happen in succession like that, it can almost kind of feel a bit like you’re walking on eggshells, I guess.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, in some regards it’s exactly like that because this is also impacting our performance reviews, right. So a lot of us engineers as well, you’ve been working on a project or maybe you’ve been reordered. So now the work that you had going on, you had to drop it midstream to go pick up something else from someone else’s team. And yeah, it’s chaotic and so there’s the stress of like, hey, how is my performance review going to look? That’s just kind of like where we are. It’s like you can only worry about what you can control. And I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we all get there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now for those of us who have been online for a very long time, when I say that at least 20 years or so, we remember when Facebook launched. Facebook launched in the early 2000s, like 2003, 2004…I think right around that time. And we’re now about to come up on Facebook’s 20th anniversary, which is wild to think of for an Internet company. What do you think, like Facebook’s place is now in this kind of modern internet era that we’re in?

Kevin Tufts:
Well, obviously we’ve tried to well, I shouldn’t say try, but we’ve entered the VR space, so I don’t see that going away anytime soon. But I think what we’ll start to head is maybe putting more development and focus into AI things as everybody is sort of racing to get there wherever there is. So we may have more of a shift towards AI oriented experiences and less attention on the metaverse and then obviously just kind of moving forward with the ultimate goal of just having a totally connected planet. Right. And what I noticed between the US. And just working on things that will be tested in other countries is that here in the US. The way the media spins things is that Facebook’s dying. And it’s really just kind of how the media frames things. But it’s not. It’s like the popularity of the app hasn’t really dipped and it’s actually increasing outside of the U.S. market. And then within the U.S. market, there’s quite a number of unique things that I think we’re going to be able to latch onto and really just kind of like shock the general public.

Maurice Cherry:
Sort of reminds me of that saying about the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated or something like that. I think Mark Twain said that probably. I mean, with a company as big as Facebook that has a global reach like that. I get what you’re saying about the media, like tech media here or even the more mainstream outlets here will make it seem like, oh, Facebook is this big dying site. But Facebook is still the number one website in the world. And the world is a big place. It’s not just the U.S. I mean the U.S. media scene, the U.S. tech scene, et cetera. Facebook has not only just Facebook the social network, but Instagram and WhatsApp. And there’s other apps and things that are out there in the world that are heavily used. So to say that Facebook is dying feels kind of premature just because it has a reach that eclipses so many other products, so many other companies. It’s a lot bigger, I think, than we might think that it is based on what the media might say it is.

Kevin Tufts:
And we don’t think about a lot of the other sub-products. Right. We have Groups, which is the communities based product within the app. It’s extremely popular messenger. We’ve got our foot in so many different pools right now that it’s really just kind of like the media, the U.S. focused media that’s always basically picking on the company.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And I mean, folks that have listened to this show for any period of time know I am not a Facebook fan. I’m not going to say I’m a Facebook hater, but you can’t knock the fact that Facebook has…it’s got its reach in a lot of different places across a lot of different products. And so just the social network itself is not the entirety of what Facebook is about.

Kevin Tufts:
That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kevin Tufts:
And I never thought that I would be working here. And now that I’ve been here almost three years, I could definitely see both sides of the coin, especially in terms of how the media positions things, but also rightfully so. We have a huge trust deficit that we’re continuing to try to improve. But it’s a hard mountain to climb, especially after the ways of layoffs that we’ve just seen. And some of the initiatives that the integrity teams have been cut. It’s tough, it takes time, and unfortunately things move faster than we can react to.

Maurice Cherry:
And some of those things are not even in Facebook’s control. Like the things that happen with workforce reduction and things, a ton of tech companies are doing that because they’re looking at the economy and seeing is the country going into a recession? So they’re trying to sort of react and pivot to what might happen. Like they’re trying to forecast the future here. So I think the longer a tech company and I’d say this is any company, not just tech companies, I think tech companies are specific in this case because they span so many different industries outside of just like software development or whatever. But the longer a tech company sticks around and almost feels like the more issues people will find with it one way or another, the companies are going to mess up. They’re going to inadvertently say something or inadvertently do something or maybe purposely say something or do something. Like the longer a tech company sticks around, it feels like…I’m a Math guy, so if I think of the duration of a tech company as like the limit of a function, it’s like as the limit approaches zero, or wherever the end of the company is, so to speak, things are going to happen. Things are just going to happen because social media influences culture and that influences technology. And so what might have been good five years ago is no longer good now. And if there’s one thing that’s going to be constant, it’s change. And I think when a tech company sticks around long enough, unfortunately they’re going to possibly come up on the short end of the stick when it relates to that.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, definitely. Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, enough pontificating on my part.

Kevin Tufts:
Love it.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s turn this back on you. Let’s learn more about you and about your journey as a designer in tech. I want to really take this back to the beginning here. So talk to me about where you grew up.

Kevin Tufts:
So I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the town and city known for LeBron James and it’s river catching on fire in the 1970s and terrible sports. Right. So that’s where I was born and right around the time I turned like eight or nine is when I moved to Southern California. So I have a big group of large group of family in Ohio, and then I have a family based in Southern California between the L.A. and Orange County area.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Were you exposed to a lot of design and technology growing up?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, so I was fortunate growing up that my dad, he was a computer guy, so I had a computer in the house growing up, which is completely rare, especially for the 1980s. So my dad, coming out of Vietnam, he was in a program that taught him how to work on mainframes. So when he got out of the military, he ended up landing a job in downtown Cleveland at one of the it’s really just kind of like a storage company, I guess you would say. I remember going to work with him and one computer took up the entire room and there’s these big reels and tapes. Yeah, I’ve always been exposed to tech stuff. And he was also like a big science fiction guy. And between having a computer in the house and then playing games at the arcade at the mall and just really watching science fiction flicks with him, there’s no surprise that I ended up doing what I’m doing today as for a career.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you went to Cleveland State University where you majored in design. I’m curious, before that, did you know that design was something that you really wanted to study?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So by the time I went to Cleveland State and it was a total fluke because I moved to Ohio for other reasons. And while I was there, it looked like I was going to stay for a few years. I just come from Southern California and went to Ohio and got myself enrolled in university because I wanted to make sure I didn’t have any huge lapse in time to get my education out of the way. By that time, I had already been doing freelance things. Like, I was pretty much thinking I was going to be a print designer around that time. So the late 90s, probably around like ’96, ’97 is when I had thought, “okay, yeah, I’ll get into graphic design.” At the time, I didn’t even know it was called graphic design, but I was always the kid at high school doing the hip-hop flyers, a lot of flyers for open mics raves. So it was like the starter. The inkling of me being coming to designer was back in those days doing like bootleg flyers.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, those early print days back then were something else. Just the amount of creativity that you had, even though the medium itself was sort of fairly limited, I mean, that was a lot of fun.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. Do something like really weird on the computer and then print it out. And then I would take some markers and then do something on top of that so it’d be like this multimedia flyer thing. Cut stuff out, paste it on and then xerox it again like at Kinkos. All that kind of stuff. Using QuarkXpress.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, man. QuarkXpress. I just had someone on recently and we were sort of talking about those early days with like PageMaker and Quark and trying to figure all that stuff out because I remember Quark specifically because I used that along with PageMaker to design my high school newspaper. And the instruction manual that it came with could choke a horse. That thing was huge.

Kevin Tufts:
And you had no one to read that stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Nobody was reading through all that. This is way before online documentation. I mean, this thing came with a brick of an instruction manual that you had to go through. And I’m like, I have to know all of this just to use the software. It almost didn’t feel like it was worth it.

Kevin Tufts:
Right. Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, while you were in college, you were also a working designer too, is that right?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So I went to college, I was probably in my mid 20s, so basically I thought I had the world figured out because after high school, I didn’t go straight away to college. And that’s when a lot of my high school friends and people around me were just getting hired out of high school to just do HTML and build some wacky website. So I followed that path. And then when the.com bubble burst, it was a hefty smack in the face of reality. So that’s kind of like, what got me into Cleveland State. But by that time, yeah, I was working for E-Business Express, which is a web hosting company. So I was very fortunate. I was already kind of knowing my destiny, what I needed to do, where I wanted to go. And then I was also, like, in practice where other students in the class were just kind of like, figuring out what Illustrator is or Photoshop.

Maurice Cherry:
E-Business Express is like a quintessential 90s online business.

Kevin Tufts:
Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Exactly. What kind of stuff were you doing there?

Kevin Tufts:
I started off as a Linux server admin, so I wasn’t even doing, like, design stuff. But what I was doing that was valuable was because it’s a web hosting company is now I understand how things work behind the scenes, like how websites function. So I had that foundation of, like, I guess you would say webmaster at that time. That’s what it was considered. But yeah, just understanding how DNS works for www, your web domain, registering names, taking servers offline, like, really heady stuff. But I enjoyed it. It fulfilled, like, a side of me that I really like to tinker and explore things, and just being a Linux admin that it did it for me. But then it also gave me access to kind of like host my own little microsites and really just enable certain things on the server that people just don’t have access to. Right. Or if you’re designing a website, you’re certainly not thinking about uploading things on the command line and just really kind of Star Trek stuff at that time. That’s how I treated it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, also the thing back then is a lot of that stuff around web hosting was very opaque. Like, you almost had to be a command line or a terminal coder to know how to really get around, because the graphical user interface, or the GUI, I guess what we called it back then, like, the GUIs, were just not super user-friendly to that point. So you did have to know maybe how to telnet or how to or use a Linux command in order to change the permissions on a directory. Like you couldn’t just click a button or something to make that happen.

Kevin Tufts:
That is a great point. Yeah, in the early days it wasn’t for everyone. You definitely had to have some technical prowess in order to upload a file or to get your web address, like get it all working, pull up a page.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember I was in high school in like the late 90s, and I remember even doing FTP stuff and being told at the time…I think maybe one of my teachers that told me was like, “oh, so you’re hacking, you’re a hacker now.” I’m like, it’s not hacking, it’s just FTP. But because they don’t see any graphics, all they see is just code. Because you know, this was like right before The Matrix or right, Matrix came out in ’99. I remember because I was a freshman in college, it came out in ’99 and yeah, all that stuff about FTP and oh my God.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, it was crazy, right? It’s like the only context the common man had was like some science fiction movie and then you think about it…it’s really like quite simple stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, in hindsight, when you look back at it, it definitely is simple stuff. But yeah, during that time, just knowing how to do some of that sort of stuff, like people thought you were like a magician or something. You can make a website, you can put a picture of yourself online. How do you do that? And even what does online mean? Because the concept of being online in the 90s, like mid to late 90s, is such a different thing than now because social media didn’t exist. So for you, do you remember what that time was like for you?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, it was a whole new world and it felt like there wasn’t much online to look at. But I do remember like in the early days you had to work hard to make friends. So forums were real big, the IRC channels, so forums and chats, so AIM or Instant Messenger, Yahoo Chat. I remember all those different worlds and rooms and just whatever your interest was, you would just go out into that forum or chat, find your folks and then it was just kind of like not even instant replies, especially in the forum. You go in there, you chatted up, and then maybe 24 hours later you got a response. A lot of that stuff was amazing. I remember downloading my first video and it was a clip of a race car. It was like a drag strip. It was a 30 second clip. And I think it took like an hour and a half, maybe even two hours for that 30 second clip to download so that I could watch it over my 56K or whatever the modem was at the time. But yeah, it was just such a cool adventure and tinkering around with HTML and doing all the corny stuff like making the animated tickers. It was the Wild, Wild West, and I loved every bit of it. But it definitely took some patience. And you had to work hard for anything that you wanted to do on the Net.

Maurice Cherry:
Going back to E-Business Express for a minute, I mean, you worked there for almost eight years. When you look back at that time, what do you remember the most?

Kevin Tufts:
I remember that it really helped me understand how the web functions and everything that’s needed for standing up a business. Because E-Business Express also specialized in helping medium, like small to medium sized businesses get set up online to sell. So it also gave me experience working within the realm of e-commerce. And then while working there, I worked there for eight years. And part of that was because the first few years I spent doing Linux admin stuff before I moved into becoming a full-blown just web designer for the company. So I’d switch roles, and the back end of my tenure there is what gave me experience with design, working with clients. So working more in, like, an agency style format is where I cut my teeth, as I guess you’d say, a traditional Web designer before moving into product.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, let’s talk about that shift. After E-Business Express, you’ve kind of started your career as a product designer at DotNetNuke, which now is known as DNN. How can I explain DotNetNuke? It’s a content management system. I have minimal experience with it. I worked with it briefly at WebMD and just thinking, like, how could someone make software so convoluted and confusing?

Kevin Tufts:
Well summarized.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Tell me about your time there.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, so the company is very unique because, as you said to CMS, and we had a lot of big government contracts, and there’s some educational institutions as well. And it was I’m trying to think of how to compare it maybe like a behemoth compared to WordPress. WordPress was really easy to get up and running. But there is a large community for Net Newt and primarily ran on Windows. So then you’ve got the IIS crowd of folks that are into it. So you got the engineer side, a lot of developers that supported the community. And then you also have the support side because there’s a lot of folks that were spinning up businesses around, like installations and helping you get up and running. On DNN, we also had those services as well. And then for me, it was awesome because it was my first foray into product thinking and product design. So when I worked at the company, we had, I think, three designers. Two of them were in marketing, I believe. And it’s just one product design person that did everything. It was like the jacket of all trades, but it. Was really cool. This is the first time getting experience with a design system where at that time we had a sticker sheet. So working in that capacity and then also working on product features. So where I’ve kind of come from more or less building websites that are catering to businesses to sell online now I’ve moved into kind of like more enterprise software. And a lot of the nuances of working within these product spaces and different product features and how to plan accordingly and doing a light amount of user research to the community, things like that. So kind of like an entry level crash course into product design.

Maurice Cherry:
Now. Was it a big shift from E-Business Express? I mean, you’re going from this web hosting environment where you said you were in the back half of your time there doing design to now focusing on product, which I feel like during that time, if we’re talking like, the early 2010s, product was still kind of a new ish sort of term in a way. Did you know what a product designer was when you started there?

Kevin Tufts:
No, because I think around that time also, we were still seeing on job listings, UI/UX. We were seeing like a myriad of job titles that meant the same thing, like visual designer or UI/UX and product designer. So when I moved out to the Bay Area, I had to kind of wrap my head around like, okay, I’m seeing these titles, but the job description is just a product design role interaction designer even. And then the description would be nothing more than just, like, a product design role. So, yeah, it took a while to kind of figure out what the companies were looking for. And then also, what did that mean? Like, what are the job functions that are necessary for me to be successful?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there was definitely a shift in the industry right around that time where web designers, graphic designers, visual designers just suddenly started becoming product designer, UX designer. And, I mean, that’s something even I’ve encountered now. Like, if I tell people I’m a designer, I feel like nine times out of ten, they’re going to think that means a UX designer. And I’m like, oh, actually, I haven’t done UX design. Maybe not in the way that they’re thinking it, but I feel like that shift just kind of happened. Was that something that you noticed also?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, I did notice. It naturally sorted itself out because prior to that, I guess in our era, we kind of came up around the time where you’re expected to know all these different things. You had to be a visual designer. Also, Flash was pretty big too, so it’s like you had to know Flash and then programming languages, right? There are all these things. And I was also a front end developer at E-Business Express, so I did a lot of the integration work as well. And when I came to the Bay Area. I still had that mindset that I had to be a jack of [all] trades and know all these things. And then I was noticing that there are actually specialized roles now. Like, no longer are we living in a day and age where they’re expecting you to be a webmaster. Like, I hated that term and seeing that, it’s like you have to know Java. JavaScript, there was all these back end languages that were on our job description roles. When you just want to use Photoshop.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When I worked at AT&T as a designer, I think my title was just web designer. But we were doing web design, we were doing graphic design, we were doing front end design because we had to, of course, actually build the whole thing from scratch. And this was at the time when layout switched from tables to CSS. So you had to learn that with all the different cross browser compatibility, especially with IE6. And yeah, we had to know like, a little bit of Flash. Actually we used…oh my God, do you remember Swish? Yeah, Swish was like “Flash Lite”, I guess. It wasn’t made by Macromedia, which Adobe ended up buying, but it was a totally different company called Swish, and it was a more, I guess, sort of user-friendly interface to make Flash animation. But we had to know Flash. We had to know a little bit of Java, and I mean, like actual Java, not JavaScript. Ironically, we didn’t have to know JavaScript, but we had to know Java because we would do these web audio applet things and so we had to know how to troubleshoot the applet. So this is one position, graphic design, web design, Flash, Java, and you’re also sometimes doing some debugging of other people’s stuff. It was a lot into one particular title, and I feel like now that’s five different jobs at a company. After your time at DotNetNuke, you worked for a lot of other companies out in the Bay Area. You worked for — I’m listing off here — Workday, eBay, SendGrid, Twilio. And before Facebook, you were at Lyft for a short period of time. When you look back at those positions collectively, like, what stands out to you? Do you remember any particular things?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, I remember at DNN had an amazing time there and I felt like that was the kickstarter to my official tech career in the Bay and just getting my feet wet with engineering teams because we had a team of roughly like 100 engineers or so. And so that was the first time going from like a small web shop where there’s three developers and they’re within arm’s reach, to now I’ve got to talk to engineering leads and have these presentation reviews. So that was kind of like the world that I was living in at DNN.

And then when I moved over to Workday, that was my experience into the world of enterprise software and really how to work within the confines of a design system. Coincidentally enough, I worked on the internal tools team, so that was really unique to be on the team that has to essentially vet and take in requests from other product areas, different components that may need to be built or reviewed to see if there’s any efficacy to having engine spin up resources to bring to life. And then also working across different time zones. So Workday was amazing. And having to work with engineering teams in Ireland, and I’ve also got a couple of trips to Europe out of that as well. So can’t complain with that. The design culture at Workday at the time was growing, so design hadn’t been around at Workday for too long before I got there. I think maybe like a couple of years at the most. So we had a young but super talented design team that was working at Workday at that time, research, I want to call that out as well. So we did have a few research partners that were at Workday. So that was my first time interacting with research, other than me standing up some guerrilla survey or just doing kind of like personal research. My own living from Workday.

So I left Workday and went to eBay. And eBay was awesome because I met some incredible people and I’m still friends with a lot of them to this day. eBay was just a special time in my career where I was able to again, work at a massive company, work on different product spaces. And also, I’m an avid eBay user, so I came in with some personal knowledge of how the product works because some people that work at eBay, they don’t necessarily use the product. I’d say the same thing is probably like for a meta as well, right? Which probably is problematic. But I actually used the thing that I worked on, so that was really cool. Several opportunities to travel throughout Europe, mostly Germany, and eBay was close to home, so I didn’t have that long commute, like a lot of folks in the Bay Area. So that fulfilled my mood, was incredible back then.

And then transitioning from eBay, this is where things get interesting. So I ended up at a company called SendGrid. And SendGrid is kind of like an API communications company, more around the email marketing space. Really powerful tool. A lot of companies use it today. It’s kind of like the rival to Mailchimp for anyone that’s not familiar with SendGrid. So if you know Mailchimp, that’s basically what SendGrid is. And SendGrid was acquired by a company called Twilio. So that’s how I ended up at Twilio — through an acquisition.

When the acquisition took place, SendGrid had a very mature, young, but mature design organization, and Twilio was engineering centric, so they really did not have design. And I think literally there may have been like four designers, four product designers there at the time of the acquisition. Funny story. I’d actually interviewed with Twilio before the acquisition, maybe like a half a year prior to that, and got an offer. Decided that wasn’t quite where I wanted to be in my career because I wanted to go somewhere that had a mature design organization and I didn’t want to go somewhere where it’s just you kind of have to fight for your seat at the table. So I’ve seen some things at that time during the interview process that the folks were incredible, they were great, but I’m like, maybe I’ll pass. So I ended up going to SendGrid and I kid you not, on my first day, my first day in the office with my team and our first team meeting, we got an announcement to basically shut our laptops and we need to receive some news. And the news was that we had been acquired by Twilio. So the company I ran from was the company that ended up acquiring. They got me anyway, so I was the most expensive hire ever.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So to wrap things up, Twilio was just an interesting time. PDs were basically working across like anywhere from 4:00-9:00 p.m. At a time. I think I had eight that I was reporting to. So it was pretty chaotic, but at least you were shipping work like, daily. We didn’t have enough design resources. And also it was challenging because I mentioned that Syngra had a mature design culture and organization. So when we came in with a lot of our process oriented things and checkpoints with design briefs, which is necessary, especially in large, fast moving companies, we were trying to get the company to slow down so that we can improve the quality versus just kind of like PM coming up with an idea and ends just building it. And if it doesn’t work, oh well. We wanted to kind of move away from that mantra and more towards being design led. So tiny bit of friction around there, but ultimately they’re getting to where they need to be. And Lyft, I know I’ve done such a tour of duty here in the Bay Area.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to say.

Kevin Tufts:
Finally — it’s going to stop now. But Lyft, I would say Lyft was a cherry on top for my career. It fulfilled so many things that I had been looking for, where I want to move fast, ship quality work, have a mature design organization, and a mature design system. Right? You don’t ever have to worry about what’s real, what’s not real, what’s in flight. Our design systems team at Lyft, product teams, everyone was just incredible to work with. And so I worked on the community safety team. My short stint at Lyft and the team that I worked on was unique because we got to wedge ourselves in between different product spaces without actually being a full-fledged member of the team. So I got to work on the Driver app and the Rider app. And then there’s some kind of like, unique things around the rental car space, which is Fleet, so there’s a lot of interesting work. And because it wasn’t a massive company, you could move fast. There was a researcher embedded on my team, so it was almost like bi-weekly we were testing things, and I just loved it. So I didn’t have to worry about the design system. Inevitably, when you’re working on the thing, sometimes you’re not working with a system that’s flexible enough to adhere to your needs and what you’re trying to solve. But while working with Lyft, I didn’t have to worry about all that. I just worried about the experience itself and everything else just fell into place.

But the pandemic is what got me to Meta. So when the pandemic hit and no one was going anywhere, no one’s driving, no one’s riding, I’m watching my colleagues, like almost weekly, like different goodbye emails that are going out. And it was a wild place to be in the year that everything seemed to have melted down. So out of self-preservation, and a need for not legit thinking the company was going to go over, I ended up making the jump over to Meta.

So I’ll stop there. And that’s the whole transition to where I am today.

Maurice Cherry:
No, like you said, that is quite a tour of duty. One question I think that really stands out among all of that is, like, how have you seen product design change over the years? I imagine from company to company, it’s probably fairly similar because you’re working on software products. I guess you could say Lyft is software, but it’s transportation as well. But how have you seen product design change over the years since you first started?

Kevin Tufts:
The tooling. I would definitely say, in terms of ease of collaboration, that is one of the biggest things that I’ve seen change. And then the tooling itself. So now that we’ve got these robust prototyping tools, it’s so much easier to demonstrate the design and the experience that you’re working on without having to know some hardcore programming languages. Like, back in the day, it was like you had to know JavaScript or jQuery just to maybe animate a dropdown, right? Or you may have had some ideas around something fancy that you wanted to do, maybe you wanted to have a side drawer appear on a website. But in order to do those things, you had to know a programming language or just mock it up in After Effects, which is also tedious. So I would say just the sheer volume of tools in the collaboration space and prototyping is just incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s another podcast that I produce — I’m not going to mention the name of it — but there’s another show that I produce, and one of the things that we have been exploring through that that I feel like is also relevant to our conversation is like, just how much the browser has become a tool in and of itself. Like, the browser used to just be about presentation. You made a website or something like that, you put it online, whatever. But now, as the browsers have gotten savvier, as different frameworks have been created and such, the browser itself is such a tool to the point where there are services now that only exist in a browser. They don’t exist as standalone software, like an executable file or something like that. Like Figma, you can do full fledged graphic design all within your browser. And like, ten years ago, that would have almost been unheard of.

Kevin Tufts:
It is mind blowing to do that in a browser. Like, through Figma, you’ve got these other tools like Webflow, and trying to think of some other ones that are out there canva I mean, it’s just totally jealous of the new designers, by the way. Every time these tools come out and I have to interact with them, and I’m just like, wow, I really couldn’t use this back in the day when I had maybe 100 buttons that I need to make a change on it. I had to go touch every hundred, you know, component.

Maurice Cherry:
Listen…modern designers will never know the pain of cross-browser compatibility. They will never understand how much of a pain in the ass it was to try to get one design to look the same across different versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox and Opera. Oh, my God.

Kevin Tufts:
Safari. Safari behavioral things. Yeah. [Internet Explorer] 6 through 8 were probably like the nightmares. Six and seven, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, for a while. I know. There was, like, a whole cottage industry around basically browser emulators. Because if you were on Windows, of course you couldn’t really use Safari. You’d have to use I mean, the Windows version of Safari you could use, but it didn’t even render the same between Windows and Mac. And so you had this software that you’d use that could hopefully reliably look the same between everywhere, and you had these little HTML shivs you had to do to make certain properties work. It was man, it was a jungle out there. It’s only like ten or so years ago. It was wild. Yeah.

Kevin Tufts:
Not that long ago, when I was at E-Business Express, we bought a dedicated iMac for that very reason, so that we could run all the browsers on the Mac to see how they were responding as well. It’s like, I don’t miss those days, but I am so grateful that I got to experience it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right? No, absolutely. Because, I mean, I think there are certain skills, I think, that you build because of that, like being able to really debug and even to sort of refactorize your own code that you’re doing, because you know that if you do it this other way, it’s going to look bad in this browser. So now you sort of learn all these little eccentricities and stuff like that. So now things are pretty standardized between the browser, I feel like, and I haven’t done front-end in a while, but I feel like things are pretty standardized now between the modern browsers like Edge, Safari, Chrome, Firefox are pretty much going to render things pretty much the same.

Kevin Tufts:
Yes. And I think a lot of it’s like the proliferation of frameworks like the CSS frameworks have helped out with the consistency as well. Right. The browsers have the support built in for a lot of the neat CSS tricks that you can do. But then also a lot of people have adopted these frameworks that have that stuff built in as well. So it just really speeds up the design and development process. And I could say, like, for people that are front end developers and they’ve moved over to just being a designer, it’s always been easier to communicate with your engine partners too. So when you need to go into engineering meetings as well, it’s always refreshing to communicate in their language as much as you can. Right. So it helps you out that way as well, career wise.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve said that there’s no better time to be a designer than now, and I feel like we may have kind of talked about that a little bit now, just with tooling, but expand on that for me. Expand on that thought.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So let’s say FigJam, the collaboration tool within Figma. It has really opened up my world where I could send people just a design, like an early design. They can go in there, they can comment, or we can comment, live the collaboration aspect, especially in the remote world. Obviously we’re not all in the same space, but it has been world-changing to get early buy in through Figma, through sharing a link and even doing research. The tooling for research has been a lot better over the years. The last ten years, it’s improved greatly. And so speaking to that, yeah, I’m all about collaboration tools because we have to do a lot of virtual brainstorm sessions or design sprints. And without having that mechanism, I’m not sure where we would have been today. We could have probably been doing design sprint in Google Sheets or something like that, right? Which would be terrible. That has just been world changing for me in terms of just building more momentum and getting buy-in.

But also with prototyping. I’m a big fan of prototyping and I do remember the days of struggling for weeks and weeks through using JavaScript and jQuery to do something relatively simple or maybe I had an idea that’s kind of elaborate but do not have the technical skills to pull it off. So prototyping in Figma, Origami and some of the other tools that are out in the market today. It’s like you spend maybe an hour or two going over some tutorials and then all of a sudden you’re off to the races, making a really immersive, native-feeling prototype that you can view on your phone and even share it. So that’s why I kind of like saying, I’m so jealous of all the folks that are becoming designers now because they’ll never know the pain of taking days or even weeks to do something really simple and sometimes it just ends up being like a throwaway thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I didn’t even touch on mobile. But you’re like, absolutely right about that. I mean, mobile is another thing where a bunch of different environments across different smartphones are going to render things differently. That’s a whole other part I didn’t even consider. I’d say also just education back in the day a lot. I mean, this stuff was really online. We were all just sort of reverse engineering and looking at View Source code and trying to figure stuff out. And there were books that came along eventually because some people might have been a little bit ahead of the curve, but you couldn’t really go to school for this. And now you have like, Treehouse and you’ve got General Assembly and there’s no short share skillshare. There’s YouTube videos. There’s so much stuff now around education that just did not exist when we were trying to learn design back then. Especially if you were self taught. Like, if you were self taught, you really were self taught because there were not even just these educational platforms to help you to figure this stuff out. You really were doing a lot of trial and error.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, great point. I don’t know how I could even forget that because that was a huge part of my life and career and I felt like I took a long road to get to where I am because of that fact. Back in those days, there were very few tutorials online. You could find some Illustrator tutorials. Shockwave. I’m trying to think of some other Macromedia products. That ColdFusion. Fireworks. Yeah, you could find some really remedial tutorials out there, but that was about it. And so those early days, I had to go to a bookstore and look at design magazines. I think Computer Arts was a godsend coming from publishing [in] the UK. But yeah, that was it. It’s like you go to a bookstore and you get all these design books and then I would get some programming books just to see what’s going on. But like you said, maybe you found a website that was cool and you got to go view Source and like, okay, what’s going on here? And then you try to break it down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kevin Tufts:
So, yeah, all this stuff that we have, like, access to education and just these online schools and I love it. I’m here for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I remember back in the day I used what was it called? Dynamic Drive. Do you remember Dynamic Drive?

Kevin Tufts:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
So Dynamic Drive was the site that basically just had code snippets. Like, they didn’t really give tutorials. They kind of told you how to implement it, but say you wanted to make it so someone couldn’t right click on your website. Right? Yeah. You could go to Dynamic Drive and find the code. Snippet copy it, copy it, paste it between the head tags, and then all these different no one could right click. Yeah, they really tell you how it worked. You just were like, oh, this can do this. There was a lot of trust, I’ll put it that way, that you weren’t putting something malicious in your site. You would just, oh, copy, paste that and…oh, God, what’s the other one I used to use a lot that was sort of more educational based that’s still around now called…W3Schools. Yeah, that’s right. W3Schools. And I remember because I was also teaching design at the time, this was like, what was this, 2011, 2012, maybe? And I remember telling my students, like, don’t use W3Schools. They call themselves W3Schools because it was www. But I think folks also confused it with the W3C, which is the Worldwide Web Consortium. And I was a member of their Web Education group. And they would tell us, do not tell people to use W3Schools. It is not sanctioned by us. It is not our thing. But it was also still teaching people. It was teaching me how to use some of this stuff. But I would have to tell my students, don’t use W3Schools. Think of it as a reference, but don’t just copy and paste stuff from W3Schools and then turn it in as homework, because I’m going to know that you did that, because I do that, so don’t do that.

Kevin Tufts:
Oh, my goodness, man. Yes. Absolutely. We said dynamic drive. I wasn’t even like it didn’t even ring a bell. But I remember using them to get a script, to do the animated cursor. It had all the types of weird, just weird things. It was almost like the dollar store for scripts.

Maurice Cherry:
Not the dollar store! That’s a very accurate piece of comparison there. Back when HTML…I think it was called DHTML back then. Yeah. Oh, man, what a time. What a time.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to someone out there who’s they’re hearing your story, they want to follow in your footsteps. What advice would you give them?

Kevin Tufts:
You know, as you’re trying to figure out what aspect of design you may want to focus in? Experiment, try it all. And as we were just talking about, there’s so many resources online where you don’t even have to pay a penny to try something out, right. But really just be curious on how things are done, whether it’s processes related to product design or maybe how to run a design sprint. There’s so much, and you’ll kind of eventually find your way. Some people generally know, like, hey, I’m not a great visual designer, but they want to get more into the UX of things. Right. And that’s great too. So it’s all about kind of like, figuring out your career path and what your passions are, what your strong suits are.

For me, I love product design, but I’m also really heavily into micro-animation, so I lean towards these prototyping tools. But yeah, it’s like, sky’s the limit. It’s kind of like the advice that I would give them informal training. Like, if you are able to get into a good school that has a great product design program, that is awesome. I know Carnegie Mellon has one. Tufts University has, like, an HCI class. I think most big universities these days probably have some facet of, like, a product design class, but then don’t also have to go to a giant university for this type of an education. Like we already mentioned, it’s all right there online. Just use the resources that are available to you.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I noticed that the URL to your website is pathstraightforward.com. What does “path straight forward” mean to you, like, in terms of your life and your career?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So I was trying to have a domain name that sounded relatively cool. And at first, I’m like, this is not going to have any type of esoteric meaning or anything, but really, it just summarizes the journey that I took in order to get to where I am today. Because it was really long. It was hard, but I knew that I had a plan, and I just kind of stayed focused on the journey and the path moving forward, and that’s kind of what’s got me here. And I still have a long way to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I mean, you’ve mentioned this kind of tour of duty that you’ve had around the bay at these different companies and such. What does the future look like for you?

Kevin Tufts:
So there’s a couple of things. I think I want to start to move more towards design systems because I really do enjoy working with my design systems partners. And so over the years, I’ve had a number of contributions to different systems that are available. But between that and mentorship becoming, like, having a stronger influence in mentoring younger designers, I mentioned that I was involved in a program here in Oakland, but it’s really impactful when people can have someone that they can talk to and get directional advice for their career. So I want to have more of a stronger influence in mentorship circles.

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

Kevin Tufts:
Yes, you can reach out to me on LinkedIn. So it’s LinkedIn.com, and it’s my first and last name, Kevin Tufts. So feel free to connect with me. I am always willing to have a coffee chat with anyone that’s curious about my background or just really general questions about design and my website since I’ve been employed for so long. I’ve kind of taken down a lot of the work there, but also there are some social links in there. You can reach out to me on my website and contact me directly.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Kevin Tufts, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mentioned this prior to us recording. We have a mutual colleague, Kim Hutchinson. Now she was Kim Williams when I first interviewed her, but Kim sang about your praises. She was like, “you got to get Kevin on the show. He’s such a cool guy. He’s such a good guy.” And I can tell just from this conversation, like, she’s 100% right. You’re down to earth. You know your stuff. And anybody that I talk to that has been around since the early days of the web that has built stuff from scratch is, like, automatically cool with me because, you know, the trenches that we’ve had to go through to still be…I would even say relevant. I want to say that. But to go through the trenches, to still be working and doing what we do now after 20 years is amazing. And I think you certainly built a fantastic career for yourself, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what you do along with the mentoring track and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
So thank you for coming on the show.

Maurice Cherry:
I appreciate it.

Kevin Tufts:
Maurice, thank you. And I really appreciate you having me on the show. And it is awesome that you’ve got a platform that you can expose different types of people from various backgrounds. So, yeah, man, kudos. I appreciate it.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Sloan Leo

If there’s one word I would use to describe Sloan Leo, it would be “dynamic”. As the CEO of NYC-based FLOX Studio, they bring over 15 years of facilitation and community strategy to bring the power of community design to clients from all over. Sloan is also an accomplished mixed media artist, and their exhibition “A Watermelon for Leo” is a beautiful assemblage of ephemera, rituals and video.

We started our conversation off with a quick 2020 review, and Sloan talked about their daily flow and the work they’re doing through FLOX Studio. Sloan also talked about the beginnings of their passion for art and community design, and spoke on how they’re making space for joy during this current time. Remember their name, because I have a hunch we’ll be hearing more of Sloan Leo for years to come!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Sloan Leo:
My name is Sloan Leo, and I’m the CEO and founder of FLOX Studio, and also a multi-disciplinary installation artist.

Maurice Cherry:
How is 2021 going for you so far?

Sloan Leo:
Oh, Maurice. You really start off with the hard questions. It’s funny you ask that. I’ll tell you, though.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Sloan Leo:
20 minutes ago, I decided to take a little walk on the rooftop of my apartment building, because I just was like, “I’ve got to get out of these eight walls or four walls.” I was thinking about how different this January is from last year. Because last year I had just lost my job, I had left a big relationship. I was feeling really like … There was about to be a pandemic, but I didn’t know that yet. I was really adrift last year. This year it’s like full steam ahead, so much clarity. I feel like last year was about building up, and this year is about letting go of it, in terms of FLOX has enough stickiness, and we’ve got great people around, and I have great art that I want to be making. I feel like it’s about un-clutching and releasing, and allowing things to be in their flow state. I feel more optimistic than I did last year, and that’s not even related to the pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I think a lot of people right now in the States are feeling more optimistic for a lot of reasons. One, just the change in leadership, but also the fact that with the vaccines coming out, it seems like we might start to get a handle on this pandemic, on this disease that has kind of stopped the world over the past year. I think there’s a lot of that going on, that’s good.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah it was interesting, because when I was sitting outside, I was just thinking to myself, I was like, “I guess it’s time to let go a little bit more, and let more people be a part of the work that I’m doing in a different way.” Just as I was thinking it, Maurice, I swear to you a hawk, out of nowhere, just flew up in the air, dove in circle, and left. I just started laughing hysterically. It’s like, I’m not one for too much woo woo. But it felt like some sort of sign.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a pretty powerful omen.

Sloan Leo:
I know. I was really [inaudible 00:05:54]. I was like, “Well, I’ll listen to that. Sure. Sure thing.”

Maurice Cherry:
Not to get too churchy or anything, but usually in the bible, when there’s a hawk sighting, that’s a message from God. So that’s a great thing that you saw that at that time.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, I got real chills. I was like, “This is cool. I’m okay. I guess the answer is let go.”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Sloan Leo:
Couldn’t ask for much clearer of a sign, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
I saw, at the beginning of the pandemic last year, that you bought a VR headset.

Sloan Leo:
I did. I was thinking about it, as I was making my pandemic purchases, I was in a fortunate enough position to be able to get the groceries and all the things. I also was like, “If I’m going to be trapped inside, I’ve got to find a way to get outside from inside.” I experienced VR at Sundance and thought it was amazing, and figured maybe it’d be a way to, I don’t know, be more active, but also connect with people and it’s become a big part of my relationship with my parents, some friends, really unexpectedly.

Maurice Cherry:
Which one did you get?

Sloan Leo:
I got the Oculus VR.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Sloan Leo:
I think I have the Quest. It’s interesting because I feel like I grew up playing Snood and all these MS Dos games. It makes me feel a little dated to think about all the video games I played on five inch floppy disks. Now I’m inside a portal. There was this time I was sitting on my couch, watching the Netflix in the VR, on a couch in VR, in front of my television. I was like, this is actually too meta for me. So I don’t do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, they have a Netflix VR?

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, it’s like a living room. So you go inside, I guess if you were a person who just had a room and you didn’t have a couch it’d be cool. But on your couch, it’s too strange.

Maurice Cherry:
I was thinking about getting one. One of the other guests that we had on the show, Regine Gilbert, who’s a friend of mine and she also does some work with Revision Path here and there, too. She also bought a VR headset and just talked about how wonderful it is. One, I think just because it allows you to get up and just have a little motion. But it does, sort of like you said, take you from the inside outside, in a way.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. I haven’t seen my parents in two years. We’ve gotten really close in the pandemic, and part of that is because we started doing family bowling night, or this game called sports scramble. So you’re like, I’m in my apartment, my mom’s in her house, and you can hear each other, you can’t see each other, but you’re in the same VR game. There’s one game where you’re playing baseball but you have a hockey stick, and instead of a baseball it’s like a pineapple. My mom is 68 and considers herself very tech forward. She just laughs and laughs, and it feels like that kind of just hanging time you have with your family when you’re a kid, where it’s not really about anything but you’re kind of just around each other. That’s been really comforting.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, that’s nice. What are your days looking like now? What does a Sloan Leo day look like?

Sloan Leo:
Well it starts the night before by trying to go to bed on time, real hard. For me that’s like 10:00. I usually play video games at night and, and I talk on the phone, I don’t know, 80% of the day probably. Friends and stuff like that. So I go to bed early so I can get up early, my day starts usually around 5:30. 5:30 to 6:00 is kind of fake meditation where I putter around the house thinking eventually I’m going to sit down. Then from 5:30 to 8:00 I work, I do videos. But I do recordings of video-based internal communications, so that our team can just watch and get updated on things, and then we can have cool meetings. I’ll work on client stuff. I draw, I sketch a lot in the mornings. Then it’s pretty regimented from 5:30 to noon.

Sloan Leo:
I have a best friend all every day at 8:00 for the last year. So every single workday, all year, my best friend and I talk at 8:00 on FaceTime. We make coffee together, we have breakfast together. He’s kind of like my morning husband, but platonic, it’s been great. The afternoon, mid-morning afternoon, is a couple facilitations, time thinking about, I don’t know, what would be really cool to make, in terms of a big concept piece. Then evening times are things like this podcast, panels, community jams, which is our FLOX version of just hanging out and talking about fun ideas and design. I make a lot of playlists during the day, I listen to those, and I do my best to not order more takeout.

Sloan Leo:
That’s kind of the rhythm, is super structured 5:30 to noon, a little chiller between 12:00 and 4:00, and after 4:00 I’m just not productive, unless I’m just chatting like this.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s good that you sort of found a way to introduce some structure into the day, and sort of have these blocks where you can move from one mode to another.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. I grew up, I’m neuro atypical. I grew up needing a lot of self induced structure, kind of like swaddling. My mom was really big on just chunk it out. Do what you can what you can, when you can, how you can. I feel like between that and learning this framework, dialectical behavior therapy, it’s just a way of thinking about your own personal capacities. All of that has led to me being a person who has a fair amount of discipline, I would say. Not as much as I would want sometimes, but for structuring the day, it’s just gentler for me than just kind of letting it all randomly unfold.

Maurice Cherry:
No that makes sense. One thing that I sort of adopted a bit during the pandemic is … I mean I’m saying that we’re still in it. But I kind of talk to myself in these different states. There’s present Maurice and then there’s future Maurice. Present Maurice may be thinking about, well what do I need to do for future Maurice on Friday night?

Sloan Leo:
I love that.

Maurice Cherry:
Because it’s going to be the end of the work week, what do you want to do? I sort of think of my days in that way, or if I get to the end of the day, and I’m like, “I really need to finish this, but future Maurice will handle that.” Like, present Maurice will go to bed, and then future Maurice will wake up and handle it later. That’s allowed me to kind of let things go and just let things happen as they happen without trying to hold myself to too rigid of a schedule. I also time shift a lot of communication. I time shift probably 90% of my emails. They go out when I’m sleeping or when I’m working or something like that. Then when I come back to them, I’ve got an actionable list of things to do all at once, as opposed to it sort of pinging me throughout the day with like, “You’ve got to do this, you have to do this, you have to work on this.” I can sort of chunk it, in a way, and get to it later.

Sloan Leo:
I think I like that, I get that. When the pandemic first started, I wasn’t working. I had three months of what I would actually describe as some of the most precious time in my entire life, because I didn’t have a schedule, and I got a chance to see what my natural rhythms are. Which, it was nice to have that space to listen, despite how difficult it was to be in New York. I guess anywhere. But I feel like the shutdown in New York in March was just like, one of the most scary things I’ve ever experienced as a human. I let myself just be a bit shook, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Sloan Leo:
Without feeling like, figure it out, or be productive. Now that the pandemic has been a year this month in terms of shutdowns in New York, I’m pretty committed to reassessing things. It’s like it’s been a year, we’re going to live. So what does that look like moving forward?

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of moving forward through all this, let’s talk about your studio, FLOX Studio. Where did you get the idea to create your own studio?

Sloan Leo:
I should say the idea was not first to create a studio, it was to ask a question, if that gives you any insight about how the studio was formed.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Sloan Leo:
One of my best friends, Wesley Hall, he’s a graphic illustrator, designer, creative director, fabric maker. He’s a maker of many varieties. We’ve been friends for 10 years. It’s like, December 2018, and we spend most of our nights listening to ambient house music from Japan, talking about good design, and what does good mean, what does design mean? How does it connect to social justice? We met because he was making posters for the local black lesbian cabaret night in New York City. We started to say, “I wonder if anyone else wants to hang out and talk about design for community building, and what that means, both in terms of aesthetic and in terms of built environment and social technologies, how people spend time together.”

Sloan Leo:
We started FLOX Labs in January of 2019, and spent that whole year hosting 20 person design sprint dinners in my studio apartment on Madison and 28th in Manhattan. That’s where FLOX came from. We would have these sprints and sketch with 20 strangers in the room trying to figure out some idea. Like how do you create ways for seniors to take care of themselves during a heat wave? How do you create a equitable cannabis industry? Just having idea festivals for two hours with a meal that a friend would make. That’s where we came from.

Sloan Leo:
Since then, we incorporated as a studio in August of last year, after testing some products all early 2020. It really comes from a desire to make it easier, better, more enjoyable, more effective to do important work, to change, to make justice real for more people. While that means a lot of working with nonprofits, it doesn’t mean exclusively that. It means working with people who are like, “We can create pathways for change and bring people in. But it doesn’t feel good to work here, because all the structures are designed for centralized power.” Which doesn’t feel good for most people, besides the person who has the power. And even them, I don’t think it feels that good.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How has business sort of been going throughout all this?

Sloan Leo:
I mean honestly Maurice, if you would’ve come to me, if future Maurice would’ve come to pass me and said like, “Listen, the year is 2020 and you’re going to build a facilitation and strategy business on Zoom.” I would’ve been like, “What are you talking about? It sounds like you’ve been doing some real hardcore things with your brain.” Business is good. I’ve been thinking a lot about what scale means, because I don’t want to be … We’re not trying to be the scale of an IDO. But in terms of our ideology, we do want community design to be an understanding that’s everywhere. But we don’t have to have 800 people to do that. I think a lot of it just comes from wanting to have a dedicated crew of people to make magical things, like unexpected things happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Now as I was going through the FLOX Studio website, and we’ll have a link to that in the show notes. One of the projects from your studio, I guess you could all it a project. More like an exhibition almost.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Is called a Watermelon for Leo. Talk to me about that.

Sloan Leo:
I grew up with a dad who’s an artist. I’ve flirted with art most of my life. I believe that art is the stuff that really touches you in the soul. When the pandemic first started, and I had some months to just be at my house, I started thinking about a Watermelon for Leo, that came to life through the studio six or seven months later. It was an exhibition of objects that we called artifacts of blackness. Kind of just exploring the idea of how did I construct my own sense of race identity outside of just the hard things about being black? I didn’t want to just be like, “Being black is just about being afraid of the cops, and being afraid of judgment at work, and not getting paid enough.”

Sloan Leo:
For me, it was about all of the lessons around self discipline, all of the lessons about community building and food from my grandma, and trying to reclaim joy. Because the story of how Watermelon became black, that object is imbued with so much meaning, it’s such a heavy fruit, literally and figuratively. The idea was how to explore that heaviness of objects and race with this dash of kind of delight. It actually started with a video on Instagram of me eating watermelon in the sun on my balcony. Then the research happened, and I started thinking about the objects in the home and that’s how most things kind of come together. There’s a flash of an idea, I get a sketch out, I talk to some people about it. We start making some pieces.

Sloan Leo:
Then next thing you know it’s like 30 people have come together to produce this four month long exhibition.

Maurice Cherry:
For people that go to the website and they can see some of the images from here, there’s this quote, I think it’s probably a quote that frames the exhibit beautifully. It says, “I want to go someplace where I can have a piece of watermelon in the sun without any shame, without any worry, just presence, enjoying it, savoring it, relishing it. And letting it be just for me.” That is such a powerful, powerful quote.

Sloan Leo:
Thank you, Maurice. I appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
What has the reception been from the exhibit?

Sloan Leo:
I have cried touring it with people. And received with a lot of speechlessness, in a good way, you know? I’ve had some interesting conversations with white women who didn’t see the live exhibition, but saw the 13 minute point of view documentary that we shot of it, knowing people couldn’t come in person. That just really resonated with me because I grew up with my grandma’s recipe box, and never thought about how that was a tool for her to make community, at a really hard time in the world. For my mother, who is the daughter of Leo, my grandfather, for her it felt like we could finally see each other a bit. Because it was like we shared my grandparents, but had very different experiences with them. Then for folks who heard about the story of Watermelon, it was a lot of, “I didn’t know that story of watermelon being used as a smear campaign against black joy.”

Sloan Leo:
The opportunity to reclaim a simple act of eating a piece of fruit without shame for the black people in my life, it felt kind of like a ghastly story, but also such a simple and beautiful opportunity.

Maurice Cherry:
You also have opened it up where it looks like people can have virtual tours, I suppose? Or a virtual exhibition tour?

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. It’s a virtual exhibition tour and artist talk, where we screen the 13 minute documentary with a small group, then we talk about objects and community and if race comes up, race comes up. But there’s a lot of ways people can hold the concepts in the show.

Maurice Cherry:
Awesome. Awesome. We’ve been talking sort of a lot about family and origins and such. Let’s talk about where you grew up. Are you originally from New York state?

Sloan Leo:
I am a New York stater forever. I’ve lived other places, but I’ve always considered New York state home, and for the most part, it’s always been where the IRS believes I have lived. But I grew up in the suburbs of upstate New York, around Albany. It was 98% white. It was very small. It was the ’90s. We used to call Albany Small-Bany. But the public education system there was extraordinary. My mom, right after I was four or five when we moved there, from near Ithaca, New York. She chose it because she knew … There’s a lot of reasons she chose it. She had a good job at the State Education Department. She mostly, though, knew I could get a good education at K through college, that wasn’t going to be expensive but was going to be really high quality. I really appreciate her doing that.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you a very artistic child? Did your family help cultivate that sense of artistness within you?

Sloan Leo:
Completely. My mother can barely draw a clown. She’s more creative in policy design than I would say anything in the traditional senses of design. But my stepdad, who’s my dad, Scott, he’s an artist. And was a welder, worked in sculpture. Both of them, my whole life, were like, “It’s okay if you’re different.” Not even it’s okay, but my mom’s thing was like, “Be able to take care of yourself and be self sufficient, but be yourself.” My dad’s like, “Even if it’s difficult your creativity is something that you’ll figure out over time.” He always saw me as an artist and still does. Even though I spent a long time as a nonprofit administrator.

Sloan Leo:
I always felt though, I went to puppet making camp as a kit, and architecture camp. And was in modern dance and gymnastics and took up watercolor and played clarinet. I bought a Dictaphone when I was like 11, and I would write songs, and I would take notes to self and write little plays. I’ve always, I feel like, been fortunate that when I’m in the decent space in my brain, I have a lot more generation energy, I think, than is typical.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you went to the State University of New York at Albany. What was your time like there?

Sloan Leo:
I was a child. I went to college when I was 16, and I went to graduate school when I was 19.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Sloan Leo:
I then dropped out of graduate school when I was 21, because I was real tired. So I didn’t finish it ever. I’ve come this far, at 36, with a bachelor’s from a state school in sociology and Africana studies. Which is a field I’m not even sure totally exists, or is politically correct to call it that anymore. I loved U Albany, because the very first week of college, I met my best friend Ashley, who I know 20 plus years later. I met Barbara Smith in the library. I don’t know if you know who that is, but she’s like the founding black lesbian feminist figure in social justice circles. And she was a member of the Combahee River Collective, which is named after the Combahee River Raid, and was all about intersectional feminism.

Sloan Leo:
I met her in the library, and I was reading her book the first week of college, and she changed my entire life. Really saw me as a political being, not just as a smart person. Which was a real difference for me. Albany, the school, became a place of activism and energy. I did, not just, we did the Vagina Monologues. We did Fred Hampton, Junior, the son of a Black Panther, came to speak at my school.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Sloan Leo:
U Albany was like a hot bed of politically activated people in the early 2000s. I loved it. I loved going to school there.

Maurice Cherry:
But you said later on though, you ended up dropping out. Did it just become too much at the time?

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, I burned out. I burned out, basically. I mean, not basically. I burned out. As much as it was really difficult to go from being 16 year old college phenom, youngest person yadda yadda, I think that really understanding burnout at that age was a gift. Because now, I know that burnout isn’t just about the volume of work, it’s about what is it that actually sustains you. For me, that’s always been my relationships with other people. If I can only work, but I can’t be in community, if I can’t struggle to figure out how to take care of myself with other people, and just be connected, that kind of deep loneliness I think is what burned me out. Now that I know that, I don’t live that way anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to go back to something you mentioned there about going to college at such a young age, and being this phenom. I’m curious, just curious, were you in any sort of gifted courses or anything in school leading up to that?

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, I did AP classes. I did learning in the gifted programs. But the big thing for me is that I graduated from high school early. We moved to Long Island very briefly, to East Northport on Long Island. It was a really difficult experience for me. I was really aggressively bullied, called the N word, spit on, people threw things at me. It was hard. I was out and gay at 15, which is not easy. Didn’t know I was trans, yadda yadda. My guidance counselor, though, Ms. Goldberg was amazing. She was like, “You’re really smart, and let’s keep you in classes. Let’s double up on gym, double up on history.” I took a feminist studies course at SUNY Stony Brook when I was 15, as an advanced college course, I could graduate from college early.

Sloan Leo:
Basically, Ms. Goldberg showed me the path to graduate from high school a year early. That was a big part of how I got to school early. I felt a lot of pressure to be living up to my potential. When I got to college I was like, “I’m going to get my PhD by the time I’m 30.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Sloan Leo:
Again, building your entire identity in one bucket of the smart, young, brown person. At some point, you’re going to get older.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Sloan Leo:
It’s good to understand yourself outside of being the youngest.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I wanted to go back to that briefly. Because it actually kind of reminded me of how it was when I grew up. I’m from Selma, Alabama. So from the deep south. Was sort of considered, growing up, kind of the same way. Oh, he’s super smart and knows all these things. There is this burden of expectation that can be put upon you when you’re that age that is largely community driven, which I find to be interesting. I mean, for my family, for example, they knew that I was smart, but they didn’t make a big deal out of it. I still had to do things like a regular kid had to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Like for example, me and my mom would go to, oh God I hated this. I don’t know why I’m telling this story.

Sloan Leo:
Tell the story.

Maurice Cherry:
Me and my mom would go to Walmart, you know, maybe bump into people that she knew or something like that, this is when I was at a younger age. They were always sort of quizzing me. Like, “Spell woodpecker.” Or, “Sing that song that you know.” Or something like that.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, do a dance, smart kid. Do a dance.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like after a while it’s like you’re treated like this performance object and not like a person. In a way, I think when I got to high school I was just rebelling. Not really rebelling, but just doing things in stupid ways because I could. I knew that I could pass my courses. So why not cause a little mischief in school? Because what are people going to do about it? I’m the smartest kid in school, what’re you going to do? That kind of thing.

Sloan Leo:
Like, kick me out of school? Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I wish more parents knew this, and I really kind of wish that communities knew this, putting that much pressure on a young, smart, black child, it’s such a fragile time when all of that stuff happens and how it can really form and shape who you are in the future, and what you do, and how you look at really just life and people and humanity.

Sloan Leo:
[crosstalk 00:30:32].

Maurice Cherry:
It’s such an interesting time. I look back at that time, and think about how I was talked to. Similar to kind of what you were saying, you’d go to these different sorts of things and people are calling you names and bullying you and stuff like that. It’s just so … I don’t know. Because by the time I got out into the world, none of that mattered.

Sloan Leo:
Right, right.

Maurice Cherry:
By the time I graduated college, I got into the world. No one was like, “You could read at a young age, so?” None of that mattered.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. [crosstalk 00:31:00]. Yeah. You don’t go to job interviews saying, “I was in a gifted and talented program when I was 12.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah but when you’re a child, or when you’re in that age up to 18, there’s so much undue pressure that’s put on you to just … I don’t know. Perform, over perform, I don’t know. It’s such a, oh God, I don’t know.

Sloan Leo:
It’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
You said that, it triggered something in me, like I remember that time so, so vividly.

Sloan Leo:
You’ve got to have, I feel like also it can mess with your … What did they call it when I was a kid? Delusions of grandeur. I definitely was always like, “You’ll see, ha ha ha.” I still kind of feel that. I can definitely have a little bit of … Because all the praise came from people who were a lot older than I was. My peers just sucked. They’d be like, “You’re going to have a nervous breakdown when you grow up.” All this stuff. I definitely am that person who really wants to go to my high school reunion so I can be like, “Sucka sucka. Actually I turned out just great.” Because my mom and my dad were always, again, they didn’t actually push me to … They wanted me to be financially independent.

Sloan Leo:
But my mom is really smart, too, and so is my dad. We’re just kind of three smart, weird people living in a house together with a pretty big age gap, and a lot of love, and a lot of curiosity about how things work together.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it makes a difference. Especially when you start to grow out of that, and you go out into the world and you’re able to still come back home in a way that you know that you’re a changed person from being out in the world and experiencing things. But yeah, I don’t know, that’s such an interesting kind of time.

Sloan Leo:
It’s hard, we need to talk about it a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you mentioned, you worked in nonprofits, you have this super extensive background in facilitation and community strategy. Where does that come from? Where does that passion come from?

Sloan Leo:
The Women’s Building in Albany, New York. And Holding Our Own Women’s Foundation. Holding our own, so when I met Barbara Smith my first week of college, she helped me get involved with the Albany Social Justice Center, then she got me involved with Holding Our Own and the Women’s Building. The Women’s Building, when you walk down Central Avenue, which is a major street in Albany, New York, this living room storefront. They had a back with offices and a conference space and multipurpose spaces. But it was just a big living room with every feminist social justice book that you could ever imagine, all donated by women and social justice luminaries in the area.

Sloan Leo:
On campus, I hadn’t really found my groove yet, and in my peer group I never found my groove. But there, again, I had a political voice. I felt like I discovered my own political agency and the understanding of what’s possible when you have collective political power. That was incredibly addictive. I’m really always aching for making things possible by working together, even though it’s not always more pleasant. But the outcome is better. But it can be pleasant. But it’s like, I don’t know. I feel like it was the Women’s Building that got me kind of hooked. Then the identity-based groups on campus, and activism. I’m black and trans and fat. If I’m not activist oriented, I’ve swallowed a pill of assimilation, which I know happens. But the reality is, I would like to make the world, I’d like to make my little pocket of community as strong as it can be.

Maurice Cherry:
Was there a moment that marked a shift more into art and visualization around community strategy and facilitation? What happened to make that sort of change happen?

Sloan Leo:
I would love to say it was like, ‘I went to the MoMA and I saw this thing, or I went to this IDO class, which I did, which also really changed my life.” I really found all of the courses online from the IDOs, the SOI Partners, all these big social design firms, put a lot of stuff out online and that was all really cool. But I didn’t really understand the power of design in my life, as a nonprofit person, until I started to really understand how much time was wasted with text-based documents. I work specifically with board management and these really big nonprofits. You have a board of 45 people, and they meet every four months and they have to get ready for those meetings, right?

Sloan Leo:
You would send them a 200 page … I would spend months pulling together from every department, getting everything ready, making it all work with the agenda, blah blah blah. A 200 page text-based PDF. All text.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Sloan Leo:
You’d send it two weeks in advance, and the expectation in the whole sector, this is still true, this is true right now, for all 1.7 million nonprofits in this country that have four board meetings a year, they’re all sending out these 15 to 200 page PDFs. Then they’re expecting the boards to read them, digest them, make meaning of them, then come to the meeting and make some decisions. I was like, “This doesn’t make any sense.” Then the boards aren’t engaged, they don’t really understand what’s happening. This feels like a real obvious issue. So we started playing with presentation decks, and iconography.

Sloan Leo:
I’ve always had an eye, just I like making things look cool and interesting. So I realized basically in the nonprofit landscape, what you don’t have is time. You don’t have money, so time is super special and this hyper precious resource. In the private sector, people spend so much energy figuring out how to save more time. And building way finding systems and onboarding systems and all these designed systems and assets. Then in the social sector, none of that innovation comes. It doesn’t show up there.

Sloan Leo:
We’re seeing the nonprofits are doing the most important work in the world, and they’re only 10% of the economy, but we’re not equipping them with any design fluency in any sense of design. From community design to illustration to systems design, communication design. It’s a tragedy, and it’s not necessary.

Maurice Cherry:
Is this kind of where you came upon the concept of community design?

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. Because community design to me, well it comes from the land of urban planning. It was about building engagement over a system. Building community ownership and voice in a process to design a community neighborhood. It’s like, this is your thing, people. So it should be your thing. And you should be part of, well not just part of, you should be leading the design of what you need. I started thinking a lot about, growing up, reading a lot of management books. Because before my dad was an artist, he worked for Kodak, when Kodak was Google. So I grew up with a mom working in education justice, a dad who was a learning and development specialist, and a knack for creativity. I started to say, how can you actually take design and community design and apply it to organizations.

Sloan Leo:
Because nonprofits are communities of people trying to make the world better. I want that to be easier and more likely, honestly, and faster.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say community design is different from other types of human-centered design?

Sloan Leo:
Well, I don’t look at community design as human centered design. Because I find that human centered design … If traditional design is one to one, right? I, Sloan, design a pen for Maurice, one to one to one. Human centered design is like, “Maurice, I’m designing a pen, do you write mostly in black ink or in blue ink?” And you’ll tell me, and I’ll go back and finish the pen. And community design is sitting down to say, “Do we want to write a story together?” That is more many to many, making a decision about, what are we doing here? What tools do we need to do what we’re doing here? Who’s going to do what when? It’s actually shared. It’s like relocating power and decision making to the many instead of the few.

Sloan Leo:
I think nothing could be more urgent right now, because clearly we don’t know how to handle working in collective and in commons, or we wouldn’t have so many collective crises.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was just about to ask, why do you feel it’s important to do this type of work right now? But as you mentioned, being able to work together in that way is something that, especially now that I think about the coordinated responses that have to happen around not even just with vaccines.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, I was like, “Like vaccines?”

Maurice Cherry:
But fundraising for healthcare, and the storms that just happened in Texas and everything like that. People trying to rally together for resources and stuff. It’s super important right now.

Sloan Leo:
There’s a breakdown somewhere. There’s been a limited coordinated response from our institutions. What’s happened is that people show up for each other. It’s like, if your neighbor needs food, and you realize all your neighbors need food, and how many of your neighbors have the food? How do you move the food? I’m constantly in awe of what emerges in community. In New York people are like, “New York City is dead.” But New York seems more alive to me than the whole 12 years I’ve been here. It’s more dynamic and people rooted and community rooted. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to make it work better for us overall. There’s obviously nuance to that, in terms of resource hoarding and all that kind of stuff.

Sloan Leo:
But the energy of the city feels much more like, “How do I help a neighbor?” As opposed to just how do I help myself?

Maurice Cherry:
I would say that’s one of the good things that has come out of all of this, is really realizing the power of community and that really we have to help each other.

Sloan Leo:
That’s what we got.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that’s all we’ve got. I mean in a way, it did kind of come because of the lack of support from federal leaders and such like that, that we kind of were fending for ourselves out here.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. When you feel like a system, like democracy, doesn’t care about, you want to find that care. I think that we are finding that now. Re-understanding what democracy means, and civic participation. Just community nets. Not every community thing is going to happen because there was a nonprofit or a government entity or a business. A lot of things have to happen because they have to happen. If I’ve learned anything from some of our clients it’s like, when I ask them how did you survive 2020, as an organization? These are groups who are working on anything from economic justice, climate justice, but justice. They were like, “It’s not an option. It’s not like this year was like, do we need each other? I don’t know, it’s a luxury to have each other.” Now it’s like, “Because we can’t have each other in the same way and care for each other and work together in the same way, we realize just how much we need that in a different way.”

Sloan Leo:
We’ve all been on community time out, and I think now people are like, “Okay, now I’m ready for the contact sport that is being in community with all these other humans that I live near, work with, share an interest group with.” Or whatever. A shared need.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How are you making space for yourself these days?

Sloan Leo:
It feels timely. I got more notepads, like more big sketchbooks. Because I realized so much of my life is just on my phone or the computer. I’ve been trying to de-digitize a bit, and spend more time with a piece of paper and a pencil. Which, that’s felt kind of kind and gentle with myself. That’s felt good. I hold space for myself with a pretty firm boundary around I don’t work Saturdays ever, I don’t have meetings on Wednesdays ever. Those things literally hold space for me. I also made my apartment a little more comfortable, because I was definitely living that bachelor entrepreneur life. I was like, “You should really get a bed frame, you’re 36.”

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like a lot of people, now that they’ve been at home so much, and that their home has been so many different spaces, or has had to accommodate so many different functions, everyone’s trying to find ways to make things more comfortable, more cozy. I totally feel that.

Sloan Leo:
To the tune of 15 … It’s funny you say that, Maurice. I read a paper this morning, I read a lot of papers, but I read a lot of articles but also reports and papers. Then this morning’s came out and said that, “While employers are trying to figure out if everyone should go back to the office, they’re also like, we saved all this money.” They saved it, but the employees did not. Employees spent $15 billion on home improvements this year. Some bananas number, is this increase in how much money people have been putting into home sound systems, furniture, lighting systems, ring lights, all of this stuff to be working from home. Which continues to push the cost of being employed off of employers and onto employees. That’s a conversation for a whole different day.

Maurice Cherry:
What does home mean to you, then, now?

Sloan Leo:
It feels like my answer is, it feels like a command center. Yeah. I think about it as if I’m sitting in front of one of those Star Trek dashboards, where everything kind of lights up, and I can move things around. It does feel like a central post of everything, in a way that it hasn’t before. I traveled almost a million miles in the last 10 years. 80% of that was domestic. This has been the first year of my life in eight years where I wasn’t traveling twice a week. It feels really like a grounded place, a power source for me.

Maurice Cherry:
If you look back at your life, and look back at your career, if you could go back in time and talk to teenage Sloan, talk to 16 year old Sloan, that’s about to enter college, what advice would you tell them? What advice would you give them?

Sloan Leo:
You don’t want to be a doctor. Just don’t waste the first six years, or the first six months of college figuring out if you want to be a doctor, you don’t want to be a doctor. And I would say that be careful of the desire for fame. Because it should never be the goal.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Have you taken time to think about future sort of work that you’d like to be doing?

Sloan Leo:
When I moved to New York 12 years ago, I really wanted to be a music director. I thought it’d be the best job for me ever. It’s multi-dimensional, it’s creative, and it’s big, and it’s a whole room that people experience. Like you create this whole shared experience. I don’t exactly know what I’ll be doing in five years. But I know I want myself and the studio, I want us to be creating incredible, immersive experiences and installations that make people see how, again, just how intentional and wonderful and complicated but effective and meaningful community can be. That’s all I want. South by Southwest, but for community building. And cooler than that.

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

Sloan Leo:
The best thing to do is to follow me on Instagram, is where I do a lot of fun things. I’m @theRealSloanLeo. My website is SloanLeo.com. If you have questions about the studio and consulting projects and stuff, it’s just FLOXStudio.com. But the best source to get to all of the things is Sloan Leo, S-L-O-A-N L-E-O, dot com.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. That sounds good. Well, Sloan Leo, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I have to admit, I was doing my research and I was like, “I am so excited to talk to Sloan.” I have to say, this has been such a great conversation. I feel like you have this nuclear engine inside you, when it comes to the passion that you have for your work. Even for just the brief things that I saw on your website around the exhibitions you’ve done and the work that you’re doing, I’m excited to see what comes next out of FLOX Studio and what you do in the future. I’m just so glad to have had this time to talk with you today. Thank you for coming on the show, I appreciate it.

Sloan Leo:
I appreciate that too, Maurice. I forgot to say that the best place to follow a lot of stuff in terms of our projects, and when you can hang out, and what events are happening, is really on my LinkedIn. But regardless, it has been … This is the first interview I’ve ever had where it was like, “If you could reflect on your career.” And I was like, “That feels good. It feels like good aging.” So thanks for giving me a change to have just some perspective on the last 15 years that went really fast.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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Lafiya Watson Ramirez

It’s still pretty early in 2021, so if the year hasn’t quite gotten off to a good start, then let this week’s conversation with Lafiya Watson Ramirez be the permission you need to turn things around! Lafiya dabbles in several media — web, photography, augmented reality, mixed reality — and creates new projects for herself and for her clients through her company, Bad Chick Studios.

We talked about how she started her studio, and from there she shared the resources and programs she used to teach herself AR and XR. (Spoiler alert: a lot of these tools are free!) Lafiya also spoke on how her love for photography led her to web design and learning Flash, and how embracing becoming a generalist has changed her work and how she perceives herself as a creative.

Get a bit of inspiration from Lafiya and learn what you can!

Jarrett Key creates works that transcend multiple boundaries. As a fine artist, Jarrett uses hair — like, literally painting with their entire head of hair — to make pieces that are full of life, passion, and tension. Speaking of tension, I just happened to have the chance to talk to Jarrett during a particularly tense time in life right now — graduate school!

We started off talking about what it’s like adjusting to being back in Providence, Rhode Island, and Jarrett spoke about the decision to return and what they hope to gain from this experience. Jarrett also listed their artistic influences, remembered life growing up in the South, explained what people tend to get wrong about art, and more. According to Jarrett, everyone has a story to share if they take the time to dig deep and discover what it is. Hopefully this interview inspires you to do just that!

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