Barney Abramson

It’s been amazing to see so many Black design communities pop up since I started Revision Path, which is how I found out about this week’s guest — Barney Abramson! Not only does he have years of experience leading design teams, but he’s also paying it forward by helping out the next generation of designers through mentorship and consulting.

We talked about how he’s adjusted to working through the pandemic, and spoke a little bit about his day job as the lead designer for an energy company. Barney also shared his story of growing up in the Dominican Republic, moving to the United States as a kid, and then making his way out to Vegas to kickstart his career not just as a designer, but a writer as well! Barney’s energy and passion for design is infectious, and it really shows that when you do good work, good things happen to you!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Barney Abramson:
Well, my name is Barney Abramson and I am a graphic designer and creative manager. I currently manage the creative team for an energy company here in Las Vegas. And prior to that, I worked at international game technology for about 10 years. IGT is a multinational gaming company that produces slot machines and other gaming technologies. That’s my official work.
Nowadays, everyone needs a side hustle. So I do some creative consulting work on the side. I work with organizations and entrepreneurs to solve creative problems, anything from brand development, personal branding, digital campaigns, photo, video shoots, and speaking engagements. So that’s my official work. The rest of the time I spend it doing a lot of writing. I write about my experience as an Afro Latino, creative in corporate America. And due to my writing, I’ve met hundreds of young black designers and creatives. I am now starting a mentorship program, which is kind of my next venture. So I stay pretty busy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I see. That’s a lot. Well, I feel like nowadays you have to have two or three things. One because inflation has raised the price on everything. I don’t know about you, but here in Atlanta, everything is 10… Not 10 times, at least 10% more expensive. So you kind have to have something on the side to bring more money in because everything just costs more money. So with everything that you’re working on, how’s this year been going so far, how’s the summer been going?

Barney Abramson:
It’s been very busy. I had maybe two or three weeks during the summer where things started to slow down, both on my day job and on my side work. And I thought, wow, look, everyone’s kind of taking a break. And I thought the economy not doing so well, that it was going to be as slow from now on, but the last two weeks, everything just kind of ramped up again. My company recently went through some sort of a proxy fight and that got cleared up. So everyone’s back to business. So quite busy with work, with side work, with writing. And also with just meeting with a lot of people. I enjoy having just one-on-one talk. So I do that quite a bit. So I keep myself pretty busy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about your day job work. I really want to get more into your writing and your mentoring. Because I think that’s probably more exciting to talk about, but we all got to pay the bills. So talk to me a little bit briefly about the work that you’re doing with this energy company.

Barney Abramson:
So the company that I work for, it’s a natural gas company. They service over 2 million customers in California, Nevada and Arizona. I am the kind of lead designer. They don’t have traditional titles like art director and creative director. So my title is kind of funky, but I am kind of the senior lead designer in the company. And I manage a very small creative team.
The majority of our creative work is typically outsourced. I would say probably 75% of our work gets outsourced to a whole bunch of creative agencies that we work with. So my typical day really starts with just going to meetings. I have huddles in the morning, typically at 8, 8:15. I meet with the marketing team, although they don’t call it marketing. Again, they have weird titles here. We meet with the marketing team, kind of get all my answers for the day, any kind of projects that are the standstill.
That’s kind of where I get all my answers and try to move things along. And then I go into other meetings throughout the day, the next kind of part of my day, it’s really around providing creative direction. So whether I’m providing creative direction to my video crew or my graphic designers or a particular agency, that’s working on a project. That’s really like a big chunk of my day. And then really the third part of my day, really around me doing actual creative work. So I still do a lot of graphic design work. So my day is kind of divided into three big chunks. It doesn’t all happen in that order. It’s kind of mixed in, but if I had to break it down, that’s kind of what a typical day for me looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like it’s pretty busy kind of going between those different parts of what you do, like management then you have some hands on work as well.

Barney Abramson:
Yeah. Making the leap from a graphic designer, which something that I did for many, many, many years, I’ve been a manager or in a kind of creative manager role, the last seven or eight years. And the big difference really is the amount of meetings that you have to go to. I go to meetings all of the time and it just really takes up most of your day. So it’s more about relationship building and making people feel comfortable coming to you with work, and then delivering that work to your team. That’s kind of what I spend most of my time doing. And then I get a little bit of time to be creative and work on creative projects, but it is quite busy.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been working remotely through the pandemic? Did you run into any challenges with that?

Barney Abramson:
I personally enjoy working from home. I thought of myself as, I wouldn’t say a social butterfly. I think that’s too much. But I don’t have an issue with people. I don’t have an issue making friends and things of that nature. So I always saw myself as a very social person, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. And then we all came home and I found myself very isolated at home, but I loved it. I like my setup at home. I like being close to my family. I feel like this is a true work life balance where I get to go to a meeting, deal with something at home, come back, do some design work and maybe do an errand real quick. And I just really enjoyed it. Some of the challenges that I think in the very beginning really was around my setup, not having the setup that I had at work at home.
That was one thing, making sure that I had all the tools that I needed to do my work. But I think my work at IGT kind of trained me to work remotely because at IGT I had a very remote team. I had six designers and a photographer, and some of them were in Reno, which is eight hours away. Others were in Moncton, Canada, others were in Peru, London, Germany. So it was a very broad, diverse team. I only really had two designers in Las Vegas with me. So I was used to the kind of remote aspect of it. When we all came home during the pandemic, it was nothing that I found difficult at all. So I enjoyed it. I am now back in the office three days a week, and I miss being at home all the time. I really do.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’d imagine there might be some advantages for getting in the office, if anything, just kind of a change of environment, but I know what you mean by liking that setup that you have at home. I’ve been working remotely actually. I’ve been working remotely since 2008, so I’ve been working remotely for a long time. One because I had my own studio and I had a distributed team. So I could work with people from all over.
But when I got back into working at companies, all the companies I’ve worked for over the past five years have been very remote first or remote friendly. I think the last time I was in an office for a job was… My goodness. Maybe 2019, I think, might have been the last time. Yeah, I think about it. That was the last time I was 2019. So it’s interesting now, because I’ve had folks on the show who have completely started their career now working remotely, because they might have just gotten out of school or something. And so this is all they know, it’s this kind of remote setup. So it’s interesting to see how companies are going to try to, I guess, change with this new environment and everything.

Barney Abramson:
I’ve seen this hybrid kind of approach with my work now three days in the office, two days at home, it’s kind of a setup and most people are kind of in and out, and you would think it’d be destructive, but it really isn’t. I think that the same, if not more work gets done this way that I’ve noticed.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s been the most challenging part about the work that you’re doing now.

Barney Abramson:
I think the difference for me from my previous job, just because I was there for so long, is that a lot of the work that I do now is work that’s being done through working with agencies. I love working with agencies. They bring just a different energy. They bring a lot of ideas. They tend to think way outside the box. So I do love working with agencies.
But previously I really enjoyed having a creative team, keeping everything in house and really being the sole owner of a project from beginning to end. I think what happens now is where I am involved in the beginning, conceptualizing the idea and providing it to the agency through a brief, but then they kind of go on their own and do their own thing. And then they come back and I’m the in between person providing creative guidance and kind of driving the idea the way that it needs to go. But it is a bit different. So I don’t know if it’s a challenge, it’s just a different format that I wasn’t used to doing so much work outsourced, but I do get to work with amazing talented people and I do learn a lot. So it’s kind of like a double edged sword of sorts.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You’re kind of being that intermediary in a way.

Barney Abramson:
Exactly, exactly. So before I thought we had… Obviously working internally, you have… Things can be done a lot quicker. You can control the pace and the direction of things on a daily, if not even a minute by minute pace. Typically working with an agency, there’s a process you have to follow and it tends to be drag along. Agencies love to drag you as long as they can possibly can. So you know how that goes.

Maurice Cherry:
That is so true. And I mean it’s for, I think a number of different reasons, but I definitely I’ve been on the agency end of it. And currently with where I work at now I’m on what you’re end is. You’re the vendor, so to speak, working with them. So I know what you mean.

Barney Abramson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. I know that you grew up in the Dominican Republic, so I’d really love to hear what was that like. Growing up there, did you get exposed to a lot of art and design and everything as a kid?

Barney Abramson:
That’s a great question. Because I never really thought about it that way. I feel like growing up in the Dominican Republic for me was very traditional to all the experiences that I’ve heard. I think that I was always a creative person and my dad was also creative. So he always helped me and provided all the tools that I needed to explore my creativity, but it’s not something that I saw around me. I didn’t see people around me drawing or sketching or painting. Although the island is completely full with amazing artwork, architecture and painters and you walk down the streets and you see all these paint vendors selling their amazing paintings. So in a way I did, well, I was exposed to that, but I think that my creativity, it was very internal. My sister’s not very creative. My brother’s not very creative. I don’t know anyone in my family that’s very creative.
So it really was a thing that maybe my dad just kind of passed down to me. Maybe. I don’t know. So yeah, I mean, growing up in the Dominican Republic was not the easiest. Obviously I had a really… As a child, you see things differently and I had a great childhood and I loved living there and just being outside and playing and doing all the things that kids do back in the day. We definitely grew up very poor. And so it was a struggle for sure, leaving there. I did not live in the nicest environment or have the nicest things. So when my dad saw an opportunity, my mom and dad saw an opportunity to bring us to the United States to provide better education, a safer environment. And I also was not a very healthy child. I had surgeries and heart issues and asthma eye issues.
So my dad’s like, I need to get this kid out of here. I feel like coming to the United States was kind of heaven set for me personally, but also for my family because it really provided all the opportunities that we have now. So I love my experience living in the DR. I miss it. And I go back when I can, but I do see what my father saw. Now that I’m a dad I see my kids. And I can only imagine living in an environment that wasn’t safe, at least where I was. I didn’t want to give the impression that the Dominican Republic, it’s an unsafe place, but I did grow up very poor. So it was not the best environment. So I could see how my dad kind of saw our situation and wanting to come to the United States and why we ended up here.

Maurice Cherry:
And so you moved here when you were 10 years old. Was that a really big culture shift in general?

Barney Abramson:
Oh God. Completely. So I moved here and I actually moved here during the wintertime. So it was like, end of February, April. And I remember getting out of the plane and my breath was everywhere and I was like, oh my God, I’m smoking. Look at this breath. But again, my parents, they came to the United States first, probably about a year before we all came. My brother and sister. Which is very typical, at least back then parents would come, kind of get situated, get a job, get an apartment. And then the kids would come later. So when we came to the United States, my parents kind of were somewhat settled. But again, it was a struggle. We were poor in the DR and poor in the US as well. So I recall my parents working multiple jobs. My dad literally worked every job imaginable.
He worked at a mill. He worked at McDonald’s. He worked at a nightclub. He was a bouncer. He did everything to keep our family afloat. And my mom did as well. I think my mom worked at McDonald’s for 19 years. So that part of it wasn’t easy. But what was easy was that we lived in a small town called Lawrence, Massachusetts, that at the time was literally 40% Dominican and 40% Puerto Rican. So living in Lawrence, Massachusetts and living in the Dominican Republic was essentially the same thing.
Everyone spoke Spanish. Everywhere you went was a Spanish store owner or vendor. So as long as you were within those four miles, you were kind of safe and protected and you felt like you could do or go anywhere. It wasn’t until I believe, college that I realized, oh my God, America’s really different. And I realized that there was quite a bit of a culture shock leaving my kind of safe environment of Lawrence. So really wasn’t until college where I realized how different the world was. And I struggled there as well for quite a while, until I was able to figure things out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, before you ended up going to college and we’ll jump into that. When did you know that design was something that you wanted to say. Because you said you kind of didn’t really see it back in the Dominican Republic? Did you have an experience or something while you were in the states that kind of put you onto it?

Barney Abramson:
Again, my creativity was something that I felt like I always had in me, but never something that I thought that could be something that I could do professionally, I guess. So even in high school, I remember taking art classes only because I wanted to be with my friends and things of that nature. It wasn’t something that I thought I could do professionally. I actually wanted to be a video producer. I wanted to be in video production and in high school and even in college, I studied video production because I thought that’s what I wanted to do.
And the reason for that is because my dad, again, one of his side jobs, my dad had a local TV show on the local network. And I used to go with him. I used to do the camera and stage setting and then I was doing switchboard and I did a little bit of everything. So that’s what I really thought I would end up doing. And it really wasn’t until college that I found my passion for graphic design. And I mean, I can get into that if you want, but it didn’t happen naturally for me it was almost like I was at my wits end and I said, okay, what’s easy for me? And I’m like, oh, designing is easy. So then I went that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we can get into it, but I’ll say before we get into it, there’s nothing wrong with leaning into your strengths? If that’s something that you’re good at, why not?

Barney Abramson:
So I didn’t know that. And sometimes we fight against the things that come easy to us. And also being from an immigrant family where you feel like you have to be something great, you have to be a doctor or lawyer, something amazing because you have this expectation on your shoulders. So I think that was my motivation to do something bigger or at least my perception of bigger at the time. So when I went to college again, it was a big experience for me, a culture shock that I didn’t expect. Literally speaking English all day long was so hard for me. I felt very isolated and I didn’t know anybody. And I really didn’t feel welcome. It was a obviously predominantly white school in some tiny town. Bridgewater is a very small town that when driving into Bridgewater State University, there’s like cows and farms and everything.
So it was very secluded. It wasn’t a city or anything like that. So I was very isolated. Didn’t feel like I belonged and it wasn’t… So of course my grades of were affected by that. And I believe my GPA in my freshman year was 1.7. I was on my way out. And it wasn’t until I found myself, I think my second semester I was really given the speech. If you don’t get your grades up, you’re going to lose your financial aid, you’re going to… So I knew that I had to figure something out and I joined one of those multicultural clubs and they had Latino club, and Afro M club and Cape Verdean club. So I literally joined every club imaginable and I started making friendships. And then I started finding my own tribe. But with my grades, I didn’t know how to get my grades up. I just couldn’t figure out what I could do to get my grades to be better.
So I thought, “Hey, I could take an art class and I know I’m going to get an A.” So I took painting and I took sculpture and literally took every single art course that was available to me. And by my sophomore, maybe mid sophomore year, I had an advisor basically approach me and say, “Hey, why are you wasting your time in a communications major?” Or I think I was still doing video production. So she was like, “Why are you wasting your time in a communications major when obviously your talent and your passion is in design?”
And I literally did every single thing this lady told me and I started working in the art studio. I started taking more graphic design courses. I changed my major to fine arts. And then eventually, obviously everything kind of made sense. So my grades started going up and I kind of found my passion. It didn’t come easy. I was kind of hardheaded. But I was glad to have someone kind of guide me in the right direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it’s good that you ended up going into that direction because like I said, leaning into your strengths, never a bad idea. And once you got it, that was sort of your ticket. So tell me about what the program was there. You mentioned this sort of taking all these different courses. What was it like?

Barney Abramson:
Yeah, so God, I really jumped all over the place. I think I started my college experience as a communications major because I wanted to be in video production. Then I went into psychology and then sociology. And then eventually into fine arts. So I have a fine arts degree. I actually ended up having a dual major in communications and fine arts because I literally had enough credits to do both. But I took the fine arts program at Bridgewater State University an amazing school. Great program. Had amazing experience there. I learned basically all the basics to be a fine arts student. And then I concentrated in graphic design because I like computers. And I also like to be creative and I thought graphic design just kind of made sense to me. And I had a great experience at Bridgewater and I ended up with a dual major in communications and fine arts, with a concentration in graphic design.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like it really helped prepare you once you got out there in the working world as a designer?

Barney Abramson:
Oh man. So I feel like in school I learned theory of design and maybe… Obviously I took a lot of painting and sculpture classes and drawing and pencil drawing. I took a bit of everything. So in a way I had a bit of knowledge of everything. So that was great. And then also the graphic design program was great. But it really wasn’t till… When I got my very first job, I didn’t feel like I knew all the things that I needed to know. I think what helped me was that one of my jobs, what I worked at in college, one of my jobs working for the art studio and I worked for the computer lab. And my job was to install Photoshop and install illustrator. And if anyone was having any technical issues, I’d be the tech guy fixing things. And then I also became a teacher’s assistant.
So during a graphic design class, if anyone had a technical issue with the software, I would come in and help. So I kind of self taught myself how to use Photoshop Illustrator and all that. And now this what 20 years ago. So programs back then are not as robust as they are now. I did feel like a lot of the technical stuff I had to learn myself, but using my creativity in a better way was kind of really taught by teachers. I really didn’t find myself learning practical stuff until I had my first job. And I realized, oh my God, now I know what I’m doing. And my first boss was great. He really knew that I was very green and really kind of eased my way into corporate America, I guess you could say. So I was prepared, but I felt like there was a lot to learn afterwards.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m trying to get a sense when this might have been. I’m guessing this was probably… And correct me if I’m wrong here. It sounds like this was maybe around the mid 2000s, maybe.

Barney Abramson:
So I graduated in 2002, so my first kind of real job.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I was trying to try to sync it up because I was like, we’re probably right around the same age. So I’m thinking during that early time in the internet and the web. You really have to kind of learn it yourself.

Barney Abramson:
There was no experts. There was no YouTube or 1 million videos and boot camps and other ways to learn.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there was no YouTube.

Barney Abramson:
There was none of that. I mean, we were still using exacto knives to cut things and glue them together and pasting things together. I mean, we were really encouraged to sketch everything we did, which some people still do that today. But we were forced to sketch first. Then bring that into the computer where now a lot of folks just start right on the computer. So you really did have to teach yourself what you were doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That early time was a lot of just self discovery, especially if you were doing stuff on the web, a lot of view source, and you’re just sort playing around kind of trying to figure it out, et cetera. So when did you end up making the move out west?

Barney Abramson:
Oh gosh, that’s a long story, but I moved to Las Vegas in 2004. So very quickly after my first kind of job out of school, I ended up moving here to Las Vegas. And I attribute that to my wife. So this is a long story. So I guess I’ll tell it. But I actually got fired from my first creative job. And a lot of it had to do with the fact that I wasn’t prepared to be in a corporate environment. I never had the experience from anyone else, working in an office environment, all the jobs that I had prior to working in an office I worked as a landscaper and I was a painter and I even worked at a nursing home washing dishes. I just didn’t have the experience from my people in my life or my parents, unfortunately. So going into a corporate environment was very different for me.
And I didn’t realize that for me, at least back then. I think now things are a little bit different. But I didn’t realize that I needed to what people call now code switch. I needed to be a different person at work than I was at home. And eventually that got me in trouble at work. And I ended up being fired from my first job. This is something that I was very embarrassed about my entire career. And now I find myself talking about it all the time because I simply just don’t care anymore. But I did have that experience. So when I left that job, I went into… I thought, what can I do to give back to my community? So I started working at a local, a youth counselor type of program. I can’t remember the name. It’s called Valley Works. And it was like, if you’re unemployed where you would go get a job.
So they had a youth program there and I worked with dropouts and high school dropouts or folks that wanted to get their GED or they wanted to get into college. I would find programs to help them. So that was the kind of job that I was doing. Obviously not something I was prepared for. Again, Lawrence, Massachusetts was a very… It’s a ghetto basically. So the problems that I was encountering were much bigger than something that I could handle. And I thought, okay, I’m going to need to find my way back to my passion.
So around that same time I met my wife. She lived here in Las Vegas. She had a family member that worked at a gaming company who was a graphic designer. He introduced me to my boss back then and she basically said, “Barney, if you move, I’ll give you a job.” And I literally came back to Massachusetts, packed my car and drove my ass back over here. And sorry for swearing.
But I drove across state, came to Las Vegas, got my second creative job working for Progressive Gaming. And that’s kind of my introduction to the gaming industry as well. It was great. I started working, I tried to repair some of the issues that I had in the beginning of my career, I guess. It was a great job. I worked there for about five years before the company eventually went out of business, but I had a great experience. And it’s really where I started to learn a bit about my skills and myself and becoming a bit more confident.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really glad that you’re telling this part of your story because I think it’s something that maybe designers now that might be ready to come out of college and start their first gigs need to know about. But I think it’s also something that is extremely unique for our generation. In that our parents, whether they were, I would say from this country or not, they have not had the same experiences when they were going on to the workforce than we have, because of technology. Going into technology and going into this environment where so much of what is being just uncovered is happening on such a rapid basis. It’s one thing about having to just learn on the job, what it is that you have to do. But also you sort of said, you weren’t trained for this or you weren’t prepared for this. None of us were. None of us were.
We were all kind of going into this blind, trying to figure out, especially for us that went to the web and went to design. What do we do? Because we don’t know. There’s no blueprint to follow. I remember my early career, it’s funny, you mentioned getting fired. I got fired from… So I graduated in 2002. I walked in oh three and I was working at the Woodroof Arts Center, which is this big arts facility here. The symphony there’s a art museum and stuff like that. I was working there selling tickets, got fired on my day off.
Because one of the other cashiers was stealing money. As she blamed it on me and I got fired, whatever. But then the job I worked after… Every job I worked after that was customer service. Because I couldn’t get a job with a math degree. I majored in math. I couldn’t get a job with a math degree. So I was telemarketing for the opera. I lasted there a day. I went there for an eight hour shift. They played Boyz to Men, I’ll Make Love to You on a loop for eight hours. Oh my God. And I just said, I can’t do this. I went home and mailed my stuff back to them. Y’all can have this. I’m not coming back. But after that I worked a customer service job at Autotrader for roughly about a year, got fired from that. And I remember my mom being like, “What are you going to do? You’re doing all this…”
Because she knew that I was into design and stuff. I would tell her that I went to Barnes and Noble and copied these books. And I found this cracked version of Photoshop. And I started playing around with designs, teaching myself how to use it. But it was always a hobby. And she’s like, “What are you going to do? You have a degree, but you’re playing around on the computer. You need to find a job, a real job.” And I did. A few months after that I got my first design gig. But I know what it’s like in your early career, trying to find your footing and just not feeling like you’re ready yet. I totally understand what that’s like.

Barney Abramson:
Absolutely. I can relate to that 100%. It really was like the wild west for a while. For us it was tough. It sure was.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean I think it’s one thing to not know because of just the industry and how it’s changing, but then you add race on top of that. That adds a whole, just other layer to it. Every place where I worked, I wasn’t like the only black person, but I was one of few black people there. And then it’s like, you can’t mess up because they looking at you crazy. And it’s a whole… I get it. I get it.

Barney Abramson:
Well you’re the example. It almost feels like they took a gamble on a black person. So here you are. And now you have to represent for everybody else, you have to be on your best behavior. So everything… I mean a lot of it is, but a lot of it is really true mean. Especially then did feel like they were taking a gamble on you. And you had to really do everything perfect so that weren’t embarrassing yourself and everyone else. So the pressure was, it was a lot. I mean obviously new England, not the most diverse place in some areas. So I definitely worked for a lot of jobs where I was the only black person in the team or the department. And at times I was the only black person in the entire building. So it was tough.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk about your work at this gaming company. That was sort of your first foray into all of this. Tell me how it was. How’d it go?

Barney Abramson:
Yeah. So my work in gaming started at Progressive Gaming. It was smaller gaming company, they developed games and also manufactured slot machines. That company eventually went out of business. And the company that bought that company, Progressive Gaming was IGT. So I didn’t transition from one company to the next, but when Progressive Gaming went out of business and IGT kind of bought some of their assets within six months, I was now working at IGT. So the two companies kind of blend into one in my mind, I guess. But my start at IGT and working for the gaming industry was very different. Obviously it was just a whole different world. Moving to Las Vegas was different as well. So I was experiencing a lot of things, but I was in my twenties. So I kind of enjoyed… Obviously living in Vegas I enjoyed that.
But enjoyed the challenge at the time. So I was your typical junior designer. I sat in a cube pretty much doing graphic design work all day long. I reported to the director of marketing. And a lot of my job was really creating sales sheets and things of that nature, very boring stuff. But one exciting part of my job was doing trade shows. So the gaming industry, the way that they sell their games and their slots and their new technologies is by going to this multitude of gaming shows all over the US. So I got to travel and really design for multimillion dollar sets. So we were doing from video design to designing walls and features for the booth, was something that I loved doing. And I did a lot of. I was almost like a designer, an event kind of planner person, because I would also work a lot of this trade shows.
As time went by, I moved from the events part of things, and I went more into the branding. Our company was going through a major rebrand after 30 years of having the same logo and brand, they decided to reinvent themselves. They wanted to go from a manufacturing company into a technology company, mostly because they were not just making slot machine and manufacturing them. They were also developing games and different technologies. So this company had three or five gaming studios that… So we had hundreds of game designers in our building. But I’ve always kind of worked in a marketing environment. So when games were being developed and this company was developing, I want to say 50 to 100 games a year, it was our job to then create assets, to make sure that those games were going to be sold. So whether it was assets for the web, for sales, for social media, we would create all those assets.
So that was kind… I did that for a while. And then eventually I became a manager and I started managing a creative team. And like I said earlier, I had a very diverse creative team. I think actually I had the most diverse team in the entire company. Something that I was very proud of having, something that I strived for and I was able to make it happen. I had a Japanese designer, had a Mexican designer, two or three Filipino designers. I had designers in Peru, in Germany and London and Canada. So it was a very diverse team. Even in age. My youngest designer was 24 and my photographer was like 55. So managing such a diverse team in age, in culture and also location was a big deal for me. And I really thrived at it. It was probably the best time of my life being in our director at IGT for that time. So yeah. I don’t know if I answered your question, but that’s kind of my experience in the gaming industry and in working for IGT.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you worked there for… I mean this time period is almost a decade, so you really got to work and also see how the design industry grew from where you started to where you are right now. When you look back at that time, what did that time there really teach you?

Barney Abramson:
Gosh, I mean, what I remember the most is the evolution of gaming. So some of this gaming… And the thing is gaming for slot machines have a lot of somewhat similar to other games that we play, obviously, on different platforms. But I remember how in the beginning, a lot of the games were developed with very poor graphics, very low end graphics. I think GIFs or very small JPEGs picks was the only thing that they could use at the time. And I remember the evolution from static graphics to animated graphics that just blew my mind. The first time I saw a slot machine that stopped and then the character started doing something, I thought that was kind of revolutionary. And it’s funny because the gaming industry has been at the forefront of that development of creating digital games with other companies. And it’s not seen that way, but if you think about it, gaming companies employ thousands if not millions of designers, game designers I mean.
So watching that evolution of going from static to animated, to then full blown graphics that we get now, and some of the animation that’s created looks like real life. And it’s amazing. So being part of that, seeing the change in the industry from using Quarkxpress to obviously now Creative Cloud, that was a big, huge evolution that I think a lot of us are thankful for. So there was quite a bit of things that changed during that time. And gosh, I don’t know. I can’t think of anything else at the moment.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny. You mentioned just that change with slot machines and stuff. I feel like mobile gaming has also really changed a lot over the years. I see some mobile games now that are pretty much graphically on par with what you would see from a console. And I think part of that is just the technology in the phone has increased greatly. I mean, I didn’t get my first cell… Well, I got my first cell phone when I was in college, but it was a Ericson GH 68. I had a Nokia too. I had a Nokia after that, but it was like a T9, you play Snake on it. You know what I mean? It wasn’t something that was as advanced as modern day smartphones are. It’s just amazing to see how technology has increased. And as technology has increased, design has kind of gotten better. So that’s been a kind of good path to follow.

Barney Abramson:
It sure has I think that design now, I mean, I see what some of this, even first year college graduates are doing, and it’s just mind blowing and it’s like, wow. I could never imagine having that skill back then when I graduated, it just blows me away.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Barney Abramson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious. What is the design community like for you in Vegas?

Barney Abramson:
To put it mildly it’s nonexistent. I can’t really say that there’s a graphic community here. There’s an art community that has been around for a while. And there’s an art district that has been growing quite significantly in the last couple years. But when it comes to tech or design, it lacks significantly. I mean, I’m not part of any graphic design or design or even creative teams or meetups or anything like that.
They’re far and few in between. And so there’s not very much of that. Vegas, it’s a transit city where people come, they try, they give it a shot and they leave. So folks don’t stick around very long. So that sense of community’s not really there. It’s funny, because I’ve been saying this since I’ve moved here like 17, 18 years ago, I’ve been saying that and it hasn’t really changed since. I feel like people here tend to be very isolated, thank God for the internet and Slack and other platforms that it’s kind of where I get to meet people and communicate and talk to other creatives.
But I don’t see that here. I was actually talking to someone recently about creating some sort of group. Because I’ve seen, and I’ve met a few designers that are moving into the city and they meet me through LinkedIn and some of my writing, they kind of reach out to me and through my mentorships and we all talk about creating something because definitely it’s missing.

Maurice Cherry:
You should. I mean, if that void is there and you’re looking for it definitely create it yourself. I mean, that’s what I did with Revision Path. There wasn’t any sort of design podcast I was talking to black designers and so I made it and almost 10 years later here we are. But no that’s interesting, because when I think of Las Vegas and I think of design, I don’t necessarily think of graphic design.
I would mostly think of maybe, I don’t know, interior design, I guess because there’s hotels and casinos. I mean, I just wouldn’t think of Vegas as a design city, but yet so much of Vegas is an experiment in design. The strip, the huge signs, the fake monuments and stuff there. Building an Oasis like that in the middle of a desert is a design experiment. So I would imagine that there has to be something there, but I would say if you haven’t found that community there and you’re looking for it, make it yourself, make it yourself.

Barney Abramson:
Well, you heard it first here. That might just happen. But you’re right. There should be a design community here. There is. I’m sure there is. They were just all kind of spread. And there’s really, again, not that sense of community doesn’t exist. So folks tend to stay on their own and seek out other places for their outlets. So yeah, it definitely is needed here. It’s funny you say that, that you wouldn’t think of Las Vegas as a big design place. Because part of the reason why I moved here was because the design industry in Boston, in New England was very competitive at the time. And I felt like, wow, I felt, again, it could have just been me, but I felt at the time that I really needed to sharpen my skills to compete for jobs and things of that nature. And when I moved to Vegas, I realized, “Oh my God, I’m the big deal here.”
Someone like me, I had so many options to work for… Whether it was casinos or gaming companies or other things. I really felt like I had choices to make. And there was so many choices out there. And I would encourage people all the time. I remember encouraging people, man, just come out here, you’ll get a job like this. It’ll be so easy, especially coming from somewhere else. So that was kind of part of the reason why I felt like, when I came here, everything was so much easier for me because there really wasn’t that competition.

Maurice Cherry:
I know there’s big college out there. UNLV is in Vegas and I believe there’s a AIGA chapter there. I want to say there’s been one there for a minute, but yep. Have you interacted with them?

Barney Abramson:
I have not. You’re actually the second person that brings that up to me and I feel ashamed that I haven’t been part of the AIGA a and I’m making plans to become a member and attend. I have not, seeked it. I can’t really tell you why. I just really haven’t hasn’t been in front of me for me to engage with them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I’m not mentioning it as you should seek them out. I’m not saying it in that way, but normally when I’m thinking of any big city in the US, my first thought for design community would be to think about, is there an AIGA chapter there or is there a big school there? Because I figure a big school would have an art department or a design department and maybe they’ve got a student chapter or something there. So I feel like that community’s probably there. You might just have to really either one seek it out in those places or just create your own or both. I mean, I think either of those options is pretty good. I mean, even with AIGA, I was a member for several years, I did stuff at the national level. I did stuff at the local level. I always say the chapters per city are always kind of different.
They’re never going to operate the same from city to city, the different chapters. But I’d say if you want to seek them out, see if it’s good for you, if it’s welcoming. I mean, I know that AIGA now is trying to do a lot more around building community now that it kind of seems like we’re coming out of the pandemic. And so people are starting to have events and stuff again. Also now for the first time in the organization’s history, there’s a black man that’s the executive director. And I know him personally, Benny F. Johnson. He’s been on the show before. So I know that he’s trying to do more things to really one bring in more diversity, but also just help with more community in other places. So I’d recommend seeking it out. I’m not a shilling for AIG here, because I am not a member, but I’m just saying it’s an option.

Barney Abramson:
No, thank you for bringing that up. Like I said, I think you’re the second or third person to bring that up to me. And I actually had their page open from a couple days ago because I was looking at some of their certificate programs. I kind of said to myself like, wow, I’m surprised that I have not joined or kind of seeked them out. But I think I will.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know the certificate programs I think are fairly new. I want to say those are fairly new. They’re really trying to, and this is to their credit. Because I’ve known the past few executive directors. To their credit they really are trying to become more of an agency for the modern designer. I think when a lot of people, maybe even 10 years or so ago thought of a AIGA, it was very much art school, art gallery, white gallery wall.
It was for a certain type of designer that got into design a certain type of way. And oftentimes that was not very diverse, just in terms of race or ethnicity. And I feel like now they really are trying to encompass the modern designer because now within the past 10 years, there’s UX design, there’s product design, there’s experiential design. Now even writers are considered designers and some organizational structures because you have a content designer or something. So design is so much more than just the visual or at least the visual in a artistically representational sort of way.

Barney Abramson:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And AIGA is old. AIGA is over 100 years old. They got to get with the program. They got to get with the time. So to their credit, they really are trying to modernize. But I think even something that big, especially with as many chapters as they have, it’s slow. The change is slow. But I think those certificate programs and I know they’ve done portfolio festivals and stuff. They’re starting to move in the right direction to their credit. I’ll give them that.

Barney Abramson:
I have to say the way that you articulated that makes so much sense to me because it’s exactly how I felt about them. And I just didn’t know that. And now that you say it that way, I think that was part of my hesitation. I remember going to their website years and years ago to look at contracts, or ways to handle being a freelancer and things of that nature, for resources. But that was the only way that I remember using them, but you’re right. I think that they are kind of reinventing themselves and I enjoy the change. So I’m going to have to look them up.

Maurice Cherry:
Outside of work you do a lot of mentoring. Talk to me about that.

Barney Abramson:
So the mentoring really came about due to my writing. So earlier this year, and I think the pandemic obviously gave all of us time to slow down and really rethink what you’re doing. And I really had epiphany, I guess you could say. But I started thinking about my experiences and a lot of the things that I never really talked about getting fired for my first job or being rejected by a mentor. These are things that I felt like maybe there are other people that are going through these experiences. And I remember also during the pandemic joining a lot of Slack channels. I think we’re part of some of the same channels for the black designers and Hugh and Techaria and things like that. So I started having more and more conversation with folks. And so then the beginning of this year, I kind of decided, hey you know what, I’m going to start writing more and I’m going to start telling a bit more about my story and I didn’t really have a plan.
I just thought I’m just going to make a post and see what happens. So I did and I started posting and the reaction was very… I got a very big reaction, mostly from young black and brown designers and creatives kind of reaching out to me, which encouraged me to write even more. So for the last four or five months I’ve been posting and writing almost like every single day, whether it is a Medium or LinkedIn or on all of the Slack channels that I’m part of.
And that like I said, I’ve met dozens, if not hundreds of young designers that relate to my story have gone through the same issues that I’ve gone through, either struggling or could use the guidance. So that’s where I then open up my calendar and say, I’ll just open on my calendar. I get a Calendly account and everyone that I would talk to, I say, “Hey, if you want to book me for 30 minutes, we can have a chat. It could be about design. It could be about any issues you’re having at work. I could review your portfolio. I could check your resume. I mean, whatever you want to talk about you can have me for 30 minutes.”
And that just kind of exploded. And before I knew it, I was having several meetings a week. If not several meetings a day, my wife is marriage and family therapist. So she actually sees clients from home. So because of the type of work she does, it became very natural to me to meet with people and talk to them about things. And I felt probably the last couple… The last month or so I felt like I should make this into something real and not just kind of a casual thing that I was doing online. So I started putting together this mentorship program it’s in its infancy.
I’m literally I’m… As I’m talking about it, I’m thinking of what I’m I’m going to do. But I do want to create a mentorship program. I do want to open up my story and myself to be able to guide and give advice. Again, I don’t know everything I don’t pretend to or everything. I usually start my sessions by just telling my story and using that as a vehicle to talk about the things that I was able to overcome and how I was able to overcome them. And it just really resonates with the people that I talk to. And then typically there’s a lot of Q&A going back and forth. And then we continue our chats online through Slack or LinkedIn or other channels. So that’s kind of how it started. And that’s where I’m at today. I have my website that I just started building and I’m piecing the program together. My wife is helping me with the program. So I hope to before the end of the year, have this mentorship program fully ready to go.

Maurice Cherry:
I really love that you’re doing that, by the way. I mean, using your story as a way to mentor and help out the current and the next generation of designers, that is so inspiring. And it’s really interesting to hear that it came from your writing. As you started writing about these different experiences that you’ve had, that it sort of opened up this new avenue to you.

Barney Abramson:
And you know who actually encouraged me to write. I think it was, I saw, we both know Cheryl D. Williams… Miller, sorry. She Dr. Cheryl D. Miller. I saw her talk. I can’t remember where I saw her speak, but I saw her speak once. And she talked about the importance of writing and documenting and telling your story. And she just really inspired me. And I’ve told her this many times that she just started something in me that I didn’t think I had.
I actually never thought I was a good writer. If I’m insecure about anything, it’s my writing. But I felt like if as long as I was telling it from my point of view and I was being honest and real that people could take it however they want. And if we want to talk about it, then let’s talk about it. Because at the end of the day, I want to create conversation and I want to engage and not… I’m not here to put anybody down or be controversial. I just want to, again, tell my story and allow folks to learn from it and engage me and let’s talk about it.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you’re the expert of your own story and of your own experience. And I love that Cheryl was an inspiration. I remember when I had her back on the show, this was years ago. And it’s funny about the writing, because I found her, I won’t say found. It wasn’t like I discovered her anything, but I found her or I discovered her, I should say through a book that she wrote. She had wrote a memoir on and it was for sale on Amazon. And that’s how I ended up reaching out to her to come on the show because I had been doing research about this thesis that she wrote back in the eighties and how that got turned into this article for Print magazine. And it spurred the symposium with AIGA and then there’s just this gap from 1990 to whenever, and I was like, okay, where did she go?
And then I found this book and I reached out to her and was like, I would love to just tell your story. Because I don’t think anyone has and it needs to be heard. And then it kind of has taken off from there. So I always stress the importance of writing to designers. I mean we had for a few years through Revision Path, we had a design anthology of writing called Recognize. We did it from 2019 to 2021. We didn’t do it for too much. The pandemic kind of killed it. I’ll be completely be completely honest there. But we had a different theme every year and then people would submit design writing towards that theme. So the first year’s theme was space. The second year’s theme was fresh. And then the final year of the theme was reboot. And so like I said, the pandemic killed it.
People I think were just so busy thinking of just survival honestly, that submitting to a writing anthology was the last thing on their minds. But we did manage to publish two volumes. One was through Envision and got published through their website. And then the second one, we published through A List Apart. So I always am stressing the importance of writing to designers because writing, I think just teaches you how to one structure your thoughts, but also to explain yourself and your process to other people so they can see your work as you see it.

Barney Abramson:
I couldn’t agree more. It’s something that I feel like I finally learned it recently. And when I talk to young designers, it’s literally the first thing that I tell them to do is start writing today, start expressing yourself, start telling your story, start articulating and becoming a better communicator, whether it is at work or for your personal. You need to start learning how to communicate better because it really it’s the only thing that’s going to take you from a designer to something else. So maybe you like to be a graphic designer, but if you want to be a manager, if you want to be a leader in any kind of way, you have to learn how to communicate better. And writing is a great way to start. So I’m glad that we think the same because I say that, I think almost every mentoring session that I’ve had, I’ve brought this up.

Maurice Cherry:
Start a blog, write case studies about your work. Anything just to open up that other part of your brain I think is just super important for designers in general.

Barney Abramson:
I see that a lot in when you see someone’s portfolio and it’s just like, oh great graphics. And it’s amazing. And I’m like, oh, that looks great, but it’s but what’s the backstory. What am I looking at? Why am I looking at this? Another thing is when you design something, practice articulating what you’re creating so that it can… It’ll make better sense to you, but it’ll also make better sense to the people watching it. So, I mean, some art is meant to be seen, but I feel like in our industry, or at least as a graphic designer, for me, it does help a lot to be able to articulate whether in writing or speaking your vision and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s this really great piece that you have on Medium called how to attract, hire and retain black creatives, a five step strategy. Just from the title alone I’m thinking, I know so many recruiters and hiring managers that need to read this because they’re always coming to Revision Path saying, “Oh, we’re trying to find black designers. We can’t find black designers. Where are they?” And it’s like, I should tell them, go read this piece by Barney Abramson about how to do it. Because you’ve laid out the strategy. And I think that comes from your experience too. The time you’re working in the gaming industry, even the stuff that you’re doing now with the energy company, you’ve done this, you’ve built teams. So you know how to do this.

Barney Abramson:
Exactly. And it’s funny that you say that because it’s exactly where this piece came from. It was because of the amount of people that were coming to me partially because of my writing, they were coming to me asking me the same question. Where do we find black designers? We’re trying to build our teams. How do we find more people of color? And I got that question over and over. And I remember one evening I was on Twitter. I made a post and I think it was a CEO of an agency wrote to me saying, “Oh my God, I would love to know more. Do you have any advice?” And I’m like advice and I never really thought about it. Maybe I have to put something together. So then I wrote this list.
Well, here’s 10 things you could do today. So I sent them the list and then I thought, okay, well maybe this list needs to be… Like, I wouldn’t even think about this, let me just throw it out there. So I kind of shot this list around in my Slack groups. I think Cheryl was one of the folks that gave me some guidance on it. And then I said, okay, well now I need to make it…. Now it can’t just be a list. Because I’m not providing enough information. So now I need to flush it out.
And so that’s kind of how it started. It started literally from folks asking me the same question they ask you. Conversation on Twitter, kind of sparked the initial list. And then I felt like I needed to flush that out. And I literally spent three months putting this together because I wanted it to be right. I did have some help with the writing because I’m not the best writer when it comes to long form like this, but I’m really happy with it. And I’m glad that you find it useful.

Maurice Cherry:
Right now with where you are in your life and in your career how do you define success?

Barney Abramson:
Man, you have the best questions. I am glad you said that because I had always had… In the past, I’ve always defined success with a money… A particular kind of a financial thing to it. I needed to make this much money work for this company to be successful. I mean, again, this is years ago. I had this idea that by the time I’m 30, I need to make $100,000. That was my big goal. It was a thing that was going to make me happy. And I feel like when I was able to reach that goal and when I was able to be at a position that to me felt I should have been happy. I had a creative team, I was highly regarded in my company. I was kind of making the money that I wanted to make, but I just was not happy. I felt like the stress of getting there and the stress of me trying to climb the ladder really got to me.
And I got to a point where even my health started to have effects. I just was not working out for me. And I realized that I needed to find success in other things. So for me, success is I find more success and more happiness in my writing and in my mentorship than I do in my paycheck. I love my paycheck. Don’t get me wrong, and I need it. But I find more happiness doing the things that I love and when I’m giving back. So I think for me, success is when I find myself in a place that I’m giving back and I am helping people, helping black and brown designers get out of rut or get out of a difficult situation at work. That really is what makes me happy more than anything else.

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

Barney Abramson:
The next five years, I definitely see myself. Well, I always had this vision of starting my own creative agency. Again, I do a lot of consulting work and freelance work for companies and entrepreneurs and other ventures that I do, on the side. But I do want to formalize that into something else. I would love to have an agency kind of like a boutique creative agency of my own, something that I’ve kind of started and stopped throughout my career.
And I feel like I’m getting to a place where I think five years from now, if I can launch a creative agency, I think it would be a success for me. The other thing that I would love to see come to fruition is my mentorship and my mentoring program. I would love to have that up and running with seeing and talking to hundreds of designers and also bring other senior folks like yourself and others to be part of something big like that. So that’s where I see myself in five years from now.

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

Barney Abramson:
Yeah, so the best… Really where I spent most of my time writing and communicating and meeting new folks, it’s on LinkedIn. I think LinkedIn, the last couple years had really kind of reinvented itself and I’ve seen just an influx of people coming to the platform, maybe I’m wrong. But I just noticed that during the last maybe year or two, just this influx of new young energy coming to the platform.
So I find myself on LinkedIn, quite a lot writing. I actually host a blog on LinkedIn, which it is identical to my blog on Medium. So Medium obviously is another place that you can find me. I have my website, Barneyabramson.com where you can… Again, my website’s on the construction, but if you want to reach out to me, send me an email. That’s really the one stop shop where you can find me, send me a note and then see all my other social channels. Another place where I’m very active is Slack, where are the black designers that’s I’m on there all the time. And Techaria is another group and Hugh’s another group that I spend a lot of time in. You can definitely find me there as well.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Barney Abramson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think one, just your story of coming to this country, getting interested in design and really finding your own way is something that I feel like a lot of our audience is going to be able to really empathize with and relate to. Because design is something that is for everyone. And even the ways that we get into it, whether that’s through formal ways like school or cultivating a hobby or something like that. I think what your story proves is that design is really something for everyone and that you were able to carve out your own path and really kind of define success for yourself and find a way to give back to the next generation, which is really great to see. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Barney Abramson:
Thank you, sir. It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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Agyei Archer

When I tell you I have wanted to have this week’s guest on the show for years? LISTEN. I’m so glad to bring you this conversation with the one and only Agyei Archer — typographer, design director, and all-around creative powerhouse.

We touched on a number of different topics, including his brilliant type design work, and how he built two businesses during the pandemic. He also shared how his motivation to succeed comes from his connection to the Caribbean, and talked about how he balances design, tech, his work with Unqueue, and exploring new type design projects. There are a lot of things to fix in this world, but if you’ve got skills like Agyei, then that just means your next project is right around the corner. Get on it!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Agyei Archer:
My name is Agyei Archer. I am a designer and entrepreneur currently based in Trinidad. My work extends in a few different branches, one of them is in making typefaces. So I work on typeface design, but primarily with a focus on typeface design, to support the cultures and spaces of the post-colonial slash new world and the global south. And I also, I’m an entrepreneur in my home country of Trinidad, where I run a design company called Unqueue, where we help small businesses sell online. And we also have a studio called the Unqueue Studio, where we help other startups and institutions, such as government bodies and large corporate entities build their own digital products, to move towards Trinidad’s digital transformation.

Maurice Cherry:
I believe your type design was how I first heard about you, like years and years ago. How’s the summer been going for you so far?

Agyei Archer:
In the type design world or just in general?

Maurice Cherry:
Just in general.

Agyei Archer:
It’s been good for me, I started off. I mean, I think it would’ve been probably in the start of the American summer at Facebook. So I did a talk for Meta’s OpenArts team. So I gave a talk as part of their visionary series and that was really good, but I think that kicked off my summer. And then I also gave another talk at a conference, called the Eyeo Festival in Minneapolis, that’s long ago. And those have been really good, I’ve been really enjoying this particular summer, because I’ve been so face down in dealing with Unqueue stuff, especially because Trinidad was so locked down for as long as it was. This summer feels like that I’m becoming an international person again.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. So with that in mind, what’s coming up for you for the next few months?

Agyei Archer:
Right now we have at Unqueue, which is my startup at home we are working, pretty hard and growing. So we’ve just started working on connecting a lot of our local population with our local farmers. So we have a massive food import bill in Trinidad, which is wild because we’re a tropical country that can grow fruits all year round. But we have a massive challenge with people on the ground in Trinidad, purchasing produce from people who are making it in Trinidad. And we have recently built in an addition to our software, that allows local farmers to connect with the general public. So we are currently helping people sell vegetables, and helping farmers direct more organic produce to their shoppers.

And that for me has been my hugest kick, it’s not as great as writing a massive Python script or anything. But I think that I’ve been really appreciating recently, especially with Unqueue how much technology can help people on the ground. So that’s been what I’ve been mostly excited about, I’ve been working on that, and I’ve been working on a new typeface project with Darden Studio.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. Can you talk about that typeface project?

Agyei Archer:
Sure. Oh, I forgot, it’s not recent anymore. So a few years ago, I started working on a typeface that was based on and inspired by the writing styles, that signed to be pervasive across post-colonial spaces. So there was this energy that sign painting and post-colonial spaces came with, that I was trying to see if I could capture into a typeface. And when I say post-colonial spaces, I’m not just talking about the Caribbean, but I’m also talking about post-colonial spaces like Ghana, and Nigeria, and India. And the really ferocious energy that a lot of those sign painting designs have come with, have been really inspiring to me for a lot of years. I’ve been obsessed with sign painting in Trinidad, and then beyond Trinidad for a lot of my life.

And I think that the project that I’m working on with Darden Studio right now is, trying to distill that hand painted sign energy into something that we could use for text, which has been a really interesting, challenging, not interesting challenge, but also really fulfilling. I’ve been really enjoying it, I’m working with Darden Studios designer [inaudible 00:07:59] on creating it, but it’s been really nice. It’s also frankly, nice to be building work for a studio that was founded by a Black typeface designer of whom there are so few.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. I mean, I know that you were known as Trinidad’s first typeface designer.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I mean, I’m not even sure that I’m… I think that there was a typeface that was designed before me in Trinidad. I think, that what I meant was that I am Trinidad first typeface designer, who is doing it for a living. But I think that even the idea of being the first, for me, is a lot less important, than it is the idea of being somebody who is making things that are culturally specific. I do think that there is a distance between who is making the work and who is the work for. And I think that who is the work for, is always a more interesting question, but who is making the work tends to be the question we ask. Which is something that I’m navigating, because I think that as a Black person who is making type in the world, I feel like that’s, yes, that’s a momentous occasion. Because up to 20 years ago, Black people were not making type.

But I also think that the reality is that, it’s far more about for whom the type that I’m making is than it is what I look like. Because to be frank, if there were a white man who were making typefaces that was inspired by post-colonial creativity, I would be as excited. But I do think that, that’s also because a lot of the work that I’m making right now, I am hoping that it does well commercially, but it’s not that it’s not for commercial consumption. But for example, with the typeface that we’re working on at Darden Studio, that typeface has a language support that is relatively rare among the type world. So it supports every single African tribal language in Latin, which is a rarity. But for me it was a little bit weird or inappropriate, to be developing a typeface that was inspired by these spaces, and not let that type face support the languages of the people by whom it was inspired.

Maurice Cherry:
I had Tré Seals on the show, goodness, that was years. I think there might have been 2017, 2018 before his typeface design, really started blowing up. And I see his typefaces everywhere, and it’s interesting that you say like, “Who it’s for.” Because granted, there’s a historical context in which Tré bases all of his designs, but I’ve seen them used in movie trailers, in yogurt commercials, I’ve seen them used everywhere.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah, for sure. I think that Tré’s work is really important, and I mean, I’m saying this as a non-American, right? So I don’t have the same relationships that Americans may have even to oppression. But I do think that Tré’s work is, I feel like you can make work that is really on the pulse of the moment that you’re in, and his work feels really responsive to the moments that we’re living through. And I feel like there’s a particular beauty to that for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Totally. Let’s talk about Unqueue, which you started a little over two years ago. Tell me about that.

Agyei Archer:
Well, I had just come back home from, I think maybe New York, and I had in a way closed my design studio. So I had a design studio for about 10 years in Trinidad, and we were doing a lot of work in the web, we were doing a lot of work in the branding space. But it wasn’t that I didn’t love that work, but it was that I loved making type a lot more. And I was starting to phase that phasing, branding, and web work out of my career, and basically trending toward being a full-time typeface designer. But when COVID hit in New York, I had just left New York, and then I came to Trinidad. And when I was in Trinidad, because we used to have this studio that provided design services, we ended up in this place where a lot of my old clients would call and say, “Hey, Agyei, are you still working. We need a website, we need to sell stuff online. We can’t keep the business open, we can’t have people in the store or whatever.” And this was a massive influx for me.

And there was this decision that I had to make of, okay, well I can take on this business, and it’ll be probably good money or whatever, but it’s not necessarily scalable. And also there was this problem that was really clear to me. Because I grew up as a very, I would say, proudly working class person from a working class background. And the amount of money that it would’ve taken people to get online, in that time would’ve been prohibitive to the working class. And I wanted to be part of making something that can help people who didn’t have the, how much of a thousands of dollars it was going to cost to hire us.
I wanted to give them the same ability to get online, do business, sell their stuff, as my other clients who would’ve been supporting my career however long, and I felt like the pandemic was a good opportunity. So I was working then with my studios lead developer, his name is Andal. And I called Andal, what do you think? And I was like, “Andal, do you want to make an app?” And he thought I was joking, and three months later we released Unqueue’s first version to the App Store. And since then it’s been something that has changed a lot, about how I see the value of the work that I’m making. But it’s also something that I’m really quite proud of it, because in a space with relatively low tech adoption, in which it’s a big circumstance in Trinidad, that we don’t have a huge amount of trust in technology.

So we do have one of the highest mobile penetrations probably globally, like relatively. So in the Americas, we have 110% mobile penetration, in Trinidad we have 142%. So we’re very online, very mobile society, but that transition of doing business digitally, didn’t really happen until we got forced into it by the pandemic. And something that I’ve been really happy about, is being able to be part of that transition and part of that change. So a lot of the work that I’m looking at with NQ is, not just about helping people sell things online, but there’s this movement of digital transformation that’s happening throughout the Caribbean. Yes, triggered by COVID, but also very necessary to help meet our sustainable development goals, necessary to reduce food import bills, et cetera. And as soon as I was able to realize, wow, we are building this thing, and not only is it’s a cool product to work on sure.

And I think that there aren’t product development studios in the Caribbean. So it’s not I think that a lot of the methodologies that we would’ve been importing, maybe even from Silicon Valley, we had to retrofit to work in our space, et cetera. So it was really exciting, but I think that for me, when Unqueue got kicked off, I started it as this thing that I thought would be able to help some people. And now I think that there’s this larger vision around, being able to guide the direction of the Caribbean. Because a lot of technology in the Caribbean isn’t made here, a lot of it is made for example, in Russia or in China. And angel investors bring software into the country, and try to retrofit it to the cultures. And we are the only people that are making the software that we’re using on the ground.

And there’s a particular magic to that because we are able to be responsive, but we’re also able to develop solutions that are tailored to our experiences. We have 80% cash dependency in our country, where 80% of the transactions happen on cash, and that’s not going to change anytime soon, our banks aren’t going to facilitate that. So we, for example, had to build an e-commerce software that was also able to facilitate cash payments. But things like that I’ve been really, really exciting, and I think that Unqueue has probably been one of the most fulfilling professional experiences on my life. But it’s also been something that in a material way, we’re able to help 200 plus vendors, we’ve connected them with 20,000 plus shoppers. And I mean, it’s a small country, so that’s like those actually important numbers. But I think that for us, and I say us now, because Unqueue is way more than just me. But for us Unqueue has been this very transformative project that we’ve all worked on, and discovered a lot more value than we initially wanted. Well, initially we’re expecting to.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like it really came about at a very opportune time. I mean, you have this quote unquote perfect storm of a pandemic and things getting locked down, and people not being able to have that regular access to places that they usually had. And now you’ve got this app, that now facilitates a lot of that.

Agyei Archer:
100%. Yeah. That was really huge for us. So because that looked in people’s eyes of, I didn’t know we could do this. I feel it’s part of that mentality, has a lot to do with being from a traditionally disadvantaged post-colonial space like the Caribbean, and not really not seeing a potential for yourself that is better. And I think that, what our work has been able to do is to show people, “Hey, you deserve technology.” This idea of design and technology, have been classically relegated to large business in the Caribbean. And what I have been able or wanted to be able to do, is to create something that could be democratizing and something that could be accessible across the board.
So I mean, Unqueue Studio, our tagline or motto or pedal driving principle is, design and technology for everybody. But that for everybody really is our big key thing, because the amount of change that we can make in one particular sliver or society, maybe a lot. But the reality is that if all I’m doing is helping rich people get richer, I probably would just go to work on Apple or something.

Maurice Cherry:
Fair enough. That makes sense. So let’s talk about Unqueue Studio, because that is something different from the app itself, right?

Agyei Archer:
It was. Yeah. So I started on Unqueue two years or two years plus ago. And something that really stood out to us maybe about, I would say less than a year ago, was the fact that we had won a bunch of awards. So that’s one thing, so we’ve won awards every year for design and user experience since we’ve launched. So we’ve won a total of five Addy Awards, which are the American Advertising Association Awards, we’ve won five of those over the past two years. And the reason that we’ve won them is, largely because we’ve been making good design. But I think that’s something that we had to acknowledge is that, we are one of the few providers that are able to do this in the space that we’re in, but we’re also the only people that are building the products that we design as well.
So I saw it as an opportunity for us to not just, yes, diversify how we build income at the company. But I also saw it as a real need, because this idea of design and tech being for everybody and this idea of design, I feel like it’s almost technology should be a fundamental, right? Just the ability to write or access to water. And I feel like companies like Unqueue Studio are there to help facilitate that, because there needs to be somebody between the general public and business interest. That can rip business interests, and their objectives into something that the public wants. And I think that I started the Unqueue Studio so that we could address that, but also so that we can make our contribution to the Caribbean technology sector and industry. Because we have so much in our tech world and industry, that is really good business man like a lot of pitch decks, hell of pitch decks.

But the reality is that, when it comes to materials substances products, getting made products, getting put into the world, we actually don’t have a huge legacy of doing that well. And I wanted to create a company that could change that narrative, among people in power in the Caribbean but also on the ground. And I do think that it has to do with a lot of post-colonial self hate. But I do think that there is this belief that we can’t do things properly on our own. So it has to get imported if it’s good, and I’m trying to make this case that actually it can be just as good as the imported stuff, if not better, if you make it here.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Walk me through what a typical day is like. Because I mean, it sounds like a lot to balance between the app work and the studio.

Agyei Archer:
It’s a lot. Yeah. But I mean, unfortunately they have a synergistic relationship, or they can because it’s the same teams. So the app for us is our social impact project and, yes, we do work with larger businesses to help facilitate their e-commerce. But the large part of our business is this idea of small entrepreneurs, and say small in terms of following of money that they’re making, but small businesses moving through and helping their businesses grow. But the studio is doing that, but for other businesses essentially. So I think that in a day typically, I try to wake up and start work by 8:00, 9:00. And I would say, I spend about, let’s say 40% of my day Unqueue App, and then another 40% of my day on the Unqueue studio, and then another 20% of my day working on type stuff.

But the Unqueue App and the Unqueue Studio work are really synergistic, because a lot of the methodologies that we’ve developed at the studio, are the things that we use to run the app. But also a lot of the success that we’ve been able to have professionally, is because of how well the app has done. And also because we’ve spent so much time and money building this app, we also now have a lot of software infrastructure that other startups are using. So a lot of the work that we’re doing now is in diversifying the work that we’re doing. So a lot of my days are half entrepreneur, where I’m writing a pitch deck for somebody. And then I stopped doing that and I’m reviewing someone’s design. And then I stopped doing that and I’m reviewing someone’s performance for example. But I think that in a way I feel more comfortable doing as much as I can, than I would feel like I’m not doing enough, which is probably something to talk about with my therapist.

But for me, that is a really huge thing. I think, that I have spent a lot of time wanting my work to be meaningful and purpose driven, and the Unqueue Studio and the Unqueue App have given me that capacity to do it here. Because I do think that the work that I do in typography and in language support, especially since a lot of the work that I’m doing, is for people who have classically been ignored by the type world. A lot of that work is really important, but they are all along the same vein of, I want to use the abilities that I have to make an effective positive change in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It sounds like that’s been a new discovery for you. Would that be accurate to say?

Agyei Archer:
I think so. Yeah. I think that when I got into type, and maybe it was just I had finally become a real adult or something. But I do think that there was this realization that I had, because getting into type can be a really, really fun experience, maybe if you’re not Black. But I think 10 minutes and when you’re Black, you start realizing, hold up, firstly, nobody here looks like me. Secondly, every single language that I am being taught to value, and all of the little accents that I’m taught to pay super close attention to. And respect everybody’s language, only language respect that are being taught is about European languages, right? So they’ll tell me, “Hey, you need to make sure if you’re supporting Polish, you need to have Polish diacritics.” Or maybe you should just lean on the side of drawing a diacritics to support Polish, but it’s like, “Okay, I get it. I get it. I get it. But who’s going to be supporting Twi or Fante, right?”

And the reality is that those languages aren’t thought of, and it’s not because of their population sizes, it’s just because the people who are making type are from Europe. And I think for as unfortunate as it is, it’s understandable to be able to see why you won’t want to look past these spaces that you’re in, when you’re meeting the work that you’re making. But I do think that if I’m not from these spaces that you’re in and I can see a gap, then I can either rail against the system and get mad at you for not doing something about it, which I have done to relatively negligible effect. Or I can choose to acknowledge that, “Hey, your limitations are around, how much you can see in the world, and your whiteness your privilege insulates you, from having to see a certain side of the world that may not be as comfortable to you.”

But the reality is that I don’t have a choice. People in Africa look like me, how could I be making type and not supporting their languages, it’s really basic stuff. And in the same way, I grew up really working class, people like me after the pandemic were mostly unable to make a living. Like this service industries were shutdown, hospitality industries are shutdown. There were a lot of people who looked like me that couldn’t do anything, but a lot of them probably had the little side hustle, that they could have advanced to a full-time hustle if they had the right infrastructure. So for me it was, well, let’s see if we can make the infrastructure, but it’s really about what can I do? And if I can do it, I should do it.
And I’ll figure out how I’ll get paid for it, getting paid has been always a thing that I think about secondly, but fortunately I’ve always made that work. But I think that for me, I think maybe for the past few years, a lot of the work that I’ve been making has been around, not necessarily a settlement or writing of any wrong. But I do think that the work is about seeing where I can fill a gap, and placing my energy there instead of wherever else. Because I don’t not acknowledge, that I could probably go and make type for a large company somewhere. Or I also don’t acknowledge that I could spend most of my type design work building brands, for example.

But I do think that if we think about what people need in the type world right now, it’s probably greater accessibility. Africa is one of the most exploding economies in the world, in 10 years that’s actually going to be really necessary that you support continental African managers. And while that opportunity is there, I also would be doing the work, if that wasn’t the case. Because I feel like there is a certain amount of accessibility, that people will get written out of in the design can, just because of how white it is.

Maurice Cherry:
You know, even as you say that they’re reminds me of some conversations I’ve had, over the years on revision path with other type designers. I think one of the first type designers I had on was episode 24, was this young guy named Kevin Karanja out of Nairobi, who had designed a typeface called Charvet. I don’t know if he kept it up, I remember when he designed it, I remember he got a good bit of international news for it. I don’t recall if he had kept it up, because he really was, I mean, when I was talking to him, he was 21. He was like, “I was just messing around and made this typeface.” And it wasn’t really, I guess, for a utility, he just did it to see if he could do it. But also I think he was leaning more into doing fine art, so I don’t know if Kevin is still even doing type design.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I have not actually heard of him. You said, episode 24?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Agyei Archer:
Have to check that out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The other person and I haven’t had him on the show yet, I would love to. But he’s got me thinking about the work of [inaudible 00:26:22] out of Zimbabwe.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. He’s a huge influence. But yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. His book African alphabets, which took me forever to try to find.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. It’s like [inaudible 00:26:35].

Maurice Cherry:
It is. Because it’s out of print and everything. But it’s such a great work in terms of just the anthropological, just meaning of showing what African alphabets are. And how different that is from what we would know as Roman alphabets or something.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. One of my first type design projects on the project, that I gave my pep talk on was Surinamese language, that he had actually documented in his book. And if he hadn’t documented that I wouldn’t have found it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you talked a little bit about growing up. Tell me more about your origin story, you were born and raised in Trinidad?

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I was born in Trinidad, I grew up with my dad alone. And I think I had a relatively traditional growing up experience, which is that my father wanted me to be something, I’m not an artist. And what that means, is that I think I was quite good at all of these things in school, but I was just really unfulfilled. So I was a good student but a bad teenager, if that makes any sense. And I think that by the time I was ready to graduate out of what Americans would call high school. By that time I was so determined to do my own thing, that I already decided this is going to be tough but I’ll do it. When I got out of school, I had walked away from engineering path that I was focusing on, and I decided to be a bartender.

And while I was a bartender, I was also making software. I had learned a few programming languages in school, and my first job was actually as a software developer. And while I was making software, I learned I like making these layouts for these interfaces a lot. And I started getting into interface design, and this would’ve been old school, this is pre-cloud, pre-material. And I realized, I quite liked that, and then I realized, “Oh wow.” I was looking on a website one day and it needed a logo, and I just told the client, “Look, let me just take a stab at that for few you birds.” And I did. And as soon as it was done, I was like, “Oh my fucking God, I love this shit.” And I decided to be a graphic designer essentially.

So I got out of software and became a graphic designer. And I think that I basically got into software, became a graphic designer and was freelancing for a couple years, and then decided to go to school at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, because I wanted to get better. And I did okay slash great in school, but I was living with parents, who just didn’t understand a lot around why anybody would want to do design, which he would call art. And in his head it’s like, “I don’t want my child to be an artist, they stop.” So there was a relatively unsupportive environment at home then. And during that I decided, well, I want to be a designer and I don’t want to have to quit studying design. So I’m just going to move out and I moved out, and studying and living on my own was a difficult thing to navigate. So I just decided I would just start working, and I was always working while I was in school, just because I had a culture of getting classwork before.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. And so, I mean, going to the University of Trinidad and you’re studying and working at the same time, did you end up finishing up or no?

Agyei Archer:
I didn’t graduate out of UTT, I got into the program and dropped out almost at the end twice.

Maurice Cherry:
Twice?

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. The first time was really just because I didn’t have a choice. And then the second time was because I went to school to finish my associates, and my lecturer at the time was like, “Hey Agyei, happy you want to be in school, love that for you. But you’re working toward where you already are.” Not necessarily in terms of my skill but in terms of professionally. And a lot of these schools in Trinidad are there to help you get a job, far less than they are to actually educate. And I think that it just felt like a right time for me to get out on my own. And I started working at an agency after, which I was fired from that agency a couple months after, but that was where I got my start, basically. That was when I decided I was really going to do this for the rest of my life.

Because when I dropped out to school the second time I decided… Well, but I could do a bunch of things, I could probably go learn how to do math or something. But I think that for me, it was way more important than at the time, that I do something that was passion driven. And all of the things around my life had coalesced around me doing design for a living. And it was the first time that I did something and, yes, it paid my bills, but it was also the first time that I was able to do something. And look at the effects of it, and look at the effects that it had on other people and be like, “This is a good thing that I’m doing.”
And I feel like that feeling has been in a way, what I’ve been chasing, but chasing is the wrong thing, because it implies more satisfaction than there is. But I do think that what I’ve been doing is working toward working, in pursuit of my understanding of the fact that design can actually positively affect people’s lives. And if you know that it can then let it, and the only way to let it is to do design.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I would say that your points, if you were already working, I mean, why stay in school? And I’m not saying this for people listening is like, you should drop out, but-

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. No, stay in school kids.

Maurice Cherry:
… based on the environment that you said you were in, if you were already working, what is the degree really helping you for at this point, you’re already making a living?

Agyei Archer:
That was it like, I was paying my rent, but I was paying my rent and barely sleeping, because I have a career where I’m on the laptop and I’m building identities, and then I’m going to school. And I’m having to cut out pay stops.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Agyei Archer:
It was something where it is like dissonant. I feel like I’m getting prepared for the thing I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
So what was your early career like, you mentioned this agency, was that Abovegroup that you were working at?

Agyei Archer:
It wasn’t, it was not Abovegroup at first, Abovegroup was my dream agency. I applied to work at Abovegroup six times.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. They will admit for me being in the Caribbean and being a lover of design, and seeing the work that they put out for me was massively influential. Because Abovegroup it was founded by these two men, Alex Mills and Gareth Jenkins. Well, both had Trinidadian roots, but weren’t necessarily squarely based in Trinidad, but they were in Trinidad during the Abovegroup era. And something that really stood out to me was this, I mean, I don’t like this term, but it’s the best one that I have right now. But this internationalized approach to making design, which felt like it could stand up anywhere in the world. And for me, I was so inspired by that work that I told myself, I’m going to make work this for a company, or I’m going to make work this on my own, or I’m going to starve to death. But I’m not doing bullshit, you know what I mean?

And I think that after school, a lot of the work was struggling, but struggling, not necessarily because of any reason other than not wanting to produce, what felt to me the role to mechanicalized output that people are. I think in Trinidad, we have a culture of advertising is all big thing, so that’s what designers make most of their money doing. But the advertising culture in Trinidad has really flattened expression, and I think that for me, looking at that work was always really demoralizing. So I was telling myself, I don’t want to work for these people, while also needed to make a living. So my employment history has been shaky at best, I think I maybe was employed for my longest stint, my longest job lasted eight months. Everything else was freelance in the middle of that.
But I worked at a few agencies in Trinidad, and I think I would say that unhappy is a good way to describe how I felt. Just because I unhappy not necessarily because, I mean, the bosses were assholes, but bosses could be assholes everywhere. But it was more so I know that I’m not doing what I want to do, you know what I mean? I’m getting up, I’m making this artwork for these people, but I know that at the end of the day this isn’t how I want to… I don’t want to be known for this, I don’t wanted this to be what I’m carrying through in the future. So it was always in the back of my head, and then after many attempts I actually just got a job offer from it from Abovegroup. And Abovegroup was the first time that I was able to work as part of a team, and make the work that I wanted to make.

And I worked on Abovegroup for, I would say maybe a year or a little bit less than a year, but it was the most formative job experience that I’ve had, because here I was on a team of people attempting to make world class work, with world class, in my opinion, intentions and objectives. And eventually the company like design as a business internal that is hard to do, and it’s hard to make sustainable. And at some point in time, they had to realize that, “Hey, this isn’t going to work.” And they had to shutter their doors.

And when Abovegroup closed down for me, it was really demoralizing because I know I could have my own freelance career and stuff like that. But I think that what I learned from Abovegroup, is one how much you can do with people, as opposed to just yourself. But also I learned how much I enjoyed being part of a thing. And it’s only now that I’m able to look at the empty studio, and reflect on how much of the Unqueue Studio experience that I’m having, I took away from Abovegroup.

Maurice Cherry:
I know exactly what you mean about working at a place, and feeling like you know that you’re… And maybe I’m saying this wrong, but you feel like the work that you can do is better than this, like I’m better than this place in terms of-

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. [inaudible 00:35:59].

Maurice Cherry:
… the work that you know that you can do, but you’re still stuck in this. I know what you mean, I know exactly what you mean.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. And I feel like it’s also… And I don’t say from a place of ego either, it’s almost from a place of desperate frustration. It’s like, “Guys, why don’t we care about our clients?” Those kinds of things are those were always questions that remained so unanswered, that it was hard to feel comfortable in a space, where I shouldn’t feel more concerned about my clients than my boss did, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Agyei Archer:
And it felt like a lot of the timely work was this act of compromise, and lot of active compromise because we have to get it out, or because the clients is on a deadline. It’s always the compromise comes from, well, we don’t want to have another conversation with our client. And I was always in my head, well, okay, clients actually hire us to be the experts, they hiring us because they need somebody to tell them, when they’re fancy full ideas might not work.

And I think that the culture that we’ve had in Trinidad around business in general, and around the customer is always right quote, unquote, just didn’t allow for that kind of thinking. So when I wasn’t about group, it was the first time that I heard my boss say, “Yeah, I told our client, they could go fuck themselves, dude, they asked us to do some bullshit.” And for me that was huge because I didn’t even know we had that power in Trinidad. I knew we had that power elsewhere and it was nice to look at designers elsewhere, but at home it was wild for me to see that. So now even at the studio, we are probably one of the few studios that tells clients, “Hey, we’re not sure that your business model is really aligned, to what the kind of work that we’re trying to make.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s a more gentle way of saying that.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I had to think that they may have not been able to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know for me, I mean, I’m not going to lie, there was some ego in it. I was working at AT&T, essentially a production designer, just working on an assembly line with a team of other designers, just cranking out these boring websites for small businesses. And I just knew that I was better than this, I was like, “I can do better than this.” And it pained me how the other designers who I worked with, a lot of them who happened to be Black designers were just okay with this very sort of… To me, it felt like this is boring pedestrian station in life. I’m like, “You like this. You like these 15 minute lunch breaks, and then we have to go back to work for six hours, don’t you want better for yourself than this?” And for me, it was 100% ego. I get what you’re saying about kind of, especially with an agency, you would think that agencies would hopefully be more, I guess, appreciative of clients. And maybe, I mean, it sounds like this was your first agency type experience, and maybe that’s why it was so jarring.

Agyei Archer:
Well, I’ve had a few agency experience, and I think that one of the realities in Trinidad, is that we have what you would call like franchised ad agencies. So a local business interest would get into a partnership with, let’s say Saatchi & Saatchi, and they would bring a Saatchi & Saatchi to Trinidad, but the only parts of the Saatchi & Saatchi brand that they’re using on the name. So there’s nothing that’s going to be reflected in terms of the work ethos, or the creativity or anything like that. And that industry of design being production, and I think maybe just how they built the industry in Trinidad. I think it’s way more about getting the work done, so that we can get a new client in than it is about making work that gets us our next client.

So a lot of these agencies have 10 year, 15 year relationships with clients. And yes, they’re making underwhelming work every year, but they’re making underwhelming work at a understandable unexpected budget. So it’s not going to be a huge problem for the client. And I think that I was always really wary of ending up in that trap, because I felt like the reason that those companies were successful, is that same post-colonial shame of where from. So we’ll work with the Saatchi & Saatchi because they can guarantee that it won’t be shipped, because it says Saatchi & Saatchi in their name.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay. I see what you’re saying.

Agyei Archer:
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is going to be good, it just means that there’s a implied client confidence. And I think that I knew that, I mean, in Trinidad we may have white people are a minority here, but they’re still the powerful group. So I was never under this illusion that I could start my own company, and just run it on the name of it, it would have to be about work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, it sounds like you’ve always done your own thing, whether it’s Unqueue, whether it’s your earlier entrepreneurial ventures that you touched on. For you, what have been some of the pros and cons of working like this?

Agyei Archer:
Yes, I have done my own thing for better always, but I think that as far as pros, I can really settle on the biggest pro of being. This idea of working on what you want to work on, is huge because if you can work on what you want to work on, and you can get paid doing it, and you can get paid enough to pay your bills. And buy some Prosecco on the weekend, in my world, that’s the literal best your life can be, right? So for me, my biggest pros is that I get to live a purpose driven life. And that doesn’t mean that my work is my life, but that does mean that if I am going to be spending eight to 10 hours a day doing something. That it doesn’t feel like I’m just doing something to help someone else achieve some random goal around the money.

So in terms of, I think that I can make a way bigger impact way things by myself, because are the obvious cons, but not just security, huge fucking terrible, like now I’m fine until recently it was tricky. I think also in these spaces that I live in, there is a particular challenge with going on your own when you look like I do, even though most of the people from Trinidad Black or extended descent. I think that the challenge comes with believability. So I walk into my room, I have free-form dreadlocks, I don’t wear socks, I walk into the room and I’m like, “Hey guys, this is the design.” And while I’m saying that, I know I need to fight against all of the perceptions that are coming with me in the room. And in a way, the career that I was able to establish for myself in the states, was the thing that helped me to get past that here. Because when I tell people, “Oh, Google is one of my clients.” There’s a lot of shit that gets smoothed over, you know what I mean?

A lot of skepticism that leaves you room, they’re like, “Oh, okay, cool. We thought you were a fraud because of the hair, but you said Google so it’s fine.” And I think that for me, one of the biggest cons is that idea of, for me, and I mean, I’m seeing specifically, if you are a sole trader Black entrepreneur. Doing the things that I do in Trinidad, one of the cons is definitely going to be, walking around and through that pervasive doubt that your potential clients and payers will have of you. Just because they are in a way programmed to doubt you and to doubt your capacity to do things, I think that’s one of the hugest challenges.
One of the huge challenges is just, having the best product in the room, but screaming, please somebody, listen to me. And in this invisibility, just because of where I’m from and what I look like, that again, I’m being really clear about, is way less now than it was back then. But I think that you’re a young Black boy in a Caribbean, and you want to start to design business. One of your biggest challenges is going to be credibility, and how do you get people convinced of your talent. Because it’s not going to be on how good your layouts are, it’s going to be about something else.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel that, I mean that respectability politics kind of thing is so pervasive. I mean, it’s something that I’ve had to deal with. Also I mean, I’m a big dark skinned Black dude with an Afro from the south, I walk in the most places, especially with some of the places that I’ve spoken at, some of the places I’ve done work for and everything. And I know how unassuming I come off and I play into that a little bit, like I went to Morehouse College.

And so Morehouse has its own reputation of suit and tie, and you’re this well red, well traveled person, blah, blah, blah, all this kind of stuff, that actively buck against. I’m not a suit and tie wearing person at all. And so I come up in most spaces and I tend to be pretty unassuming and I play into that a little bit, because I like people to be surprised like, “Oh, wow.” But I know what you mean about having to fight against that. Because oftentimes those perceptions will come from people who look just like you.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. It’s mostly to be honest, most of the middle management is people who look like me, and middle management is who I need to get through. But I think that a lot of the people who look like me are really wanting to hire, and make connections, and relationships with a white man with an accent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Agyei Archer:
And I am not like, I don’t provide them the opportunity for growth that they’re looking for, because you can’t grow unless you have connections with white businessmen.

Maurice Cherry:
Whoo man. That’s…

Agyei Archer:
That’s heavy.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s real. I want to shift a little bit, and talk more a little bit about your type design work. We touched on a little bit earlier, but in 2017 you were part of the Type@Cooper Design program. Tell me how that experience was.

Agyei Archer:
It was well. Because I didn’t know I was going to get in, and I sent my application and then I got in, and then I had to take a loan, because I didn’t know I was going to pay for it and I got. And I remember really clearly, I’m saying all of this because I remember on my first day, I got into class and I got in there, and there were like three white kids, and I got into the class and none of them said anything to me. And then another white kid came into the class, and then a couple Asian kids came into the class. And at some point in time we were getting close to 9:00, and I had to acknowledge, okay, it’s not going to be another Black people here and that’s fine. That’s okay, don’t trip out, it’s fine, you’re in a place where Black people are minority, that’s, okay, right?
And then my professor at the time whose name is Hannes Famira, one of my biggest influences as a designer. Came into the room and he looked at me, and I knew he looked at me with this look of, huh, all right. And I looked at him for the same look of, okay, this is what we’re going to do, huh. And for me, a lot of it was on one hand being in a classroom of people, who were from a space, and I’m saying a space, not necessarily America.

But they’re all from what I would say, larger more cosmopolitan spaces, that actually have some history around type design, or some understanding around type design, or some typographic history. And here I’m from the Caribbean where we don’t have any of that. And I’m staying, I think that for me, my type of group journey academically was a struggle, because I just wasn’t as quote unquote good as a lot of my peers, but I was a hard worker. So moving through the program for me was really fulfilling, because I mean, I would basically go to class, I would spend 12 hours a day at the Cooper Union, and then I would go to my shitty Brooklyn Airbnb and spend three hours of drawing again.

And I think that one of the things that I had to leave with was, I kept waiting for the experience that would help me validate my Blackness inside of all of that, and that never happened. And I had to acknowledge that the reason that it didn’t happen and wasn’t going to happen was, because I was getting ready to work in a space where there weren’t any other Black people. Because it was only when I was at the Cooper Union and I asked, “Wait, where the fucking, where the Black guys at, where’s somebody Black at.” And they had to be like, “Okay, sorry to break this to you, but we have one guy, Josh Darden, that’s it.” That’s the whole type industry Black people is Josh Darden. And I don’t know how much you know about Josh, but he’s a massive recruit. So while I was at Type@Cooper, I’m emailing Josh and Josh is like, obviously not fucking replied to my email. And I’m like…

Maurice Cherry:
I’m only laughing because I have tried to get Josh on the show for a while. And I think one of his white business partners stepped in, and just put the stop sign down, like “stop messaging us.” And I was like, “Okay.”

Agyei Archer:
Yeah, that sounds about right. I mean to all of their credit, that’s Josh’s instruction and Josh’s desire. But, but Darden Studio is currently now run by a white woman. Her name is Joyce. I mean, great, she’s one of Josh’s best friends, but on…

Maurice Cherry:
That’s the person who told me that.

Agyei Archer:
Probably, yeah. She told me the same thing, [inaudible 00:48:37] we’re friends though I love her. So I can say that, I emailed and I was like, “Hey,” with so much milk in my fucking eyes like, “Hey, [inaudible 00:48:44].” I’m really hoping to get to this [inaudible 00:48:48], she’s like, “Listen, she’s not seeing anyone, good luck.” She’s like good luck with Type@Cooper, that’s it. But, no, we’re good friends now and, unfortunately publishing with them. But a lot of the experience for me was jarring, because I had to acknowledge where Black people were any type design spectrum. But I also had to acknowledge that gentle Eurasia of your experiences so that can happen, when you’re in white dominated spaces. It is an active thing, it isn’t like there’s normal malice, but there’s just a casual, not understanding, not relating to your circumstances that can feel really targeted after enough time.

That was how I would probably summarize my experience. I would summarize my experience as one that was really fulfilling in terms of how much I got to learn. But one that was also in a way, a little traumatizing in terms of how much I learned about the rest of it. So not the drawing part, not the Python part, not the understanding white space part, but just the cultural implication. And who’s making type, and who’s making type for whom, and where the type come from, type the whole. Like type design is the thing that facilitated commerce in the 15th, 16th, 17th century, that means slavery you know what I mean? So I think about that and I was like, okay, I’m also learning type in the Dutch fashion, from people who learned Dutch style type design. Which would’ve also been exploding in terms of its theoretical output, as a offshoot of the Dutch benefit from slavery.

Because I think that one of the greatest markers of a society’s progress, is if they started drawing type of art. You can tell a society’s appetite for conquest when they start printing their own letters, because you need to print their own letters to take over a space. And I feel like those things are the things that really… I think I could have learned a lot about drawing type on the internet, but I could never have learned about types place in the world and cultural context if I didn’t go to a school for it, because part of the curriculum was also learning about types history. So there was a lecturer called [inaudible 00:50:51], and he was exceptional in terms of his understanding of type and the evolution of type, obviously in a European context. But I learned so much about how… Because you go to enough history classes and you realize, okay, we’re not talking about Black people ever, that make you ask other questions around why we’re not talking about Black people.

So for me, Type@Cooper was culture shocking, but it was also really necessary because I learned a lot theoretically about making type, but I also was able to make amazing connections. I mean, Hannes who was my lecturers, one of my favorite people in the world, I was also able to from that lecture, or from that education experience, get in touch with people like my mentor DJR or my mentor Darden. Those were the entry points to get into a lot of where my life is right now with type. So I’m not mad at it, but it was really traumatizing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yikes. I hate to hear that. I mean, but it sounds like you were able to at least extract some good things from it.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I mean, good traumatizing is weird, but what I do mean it was, is not traumatizing because anybody was out to get me or anything like that. I think it was traumatizing because everybody they’ve been building this curriculum and I don’t mean just type of group. I mean, white people have been building type design curriculum for a hundred years now. And this idea of, “Hey, Black people use language too.” Like that question didn’t come up. And I think that’s not the fault of your school, that’s the fault of the society that we’re in. And in a way, the education system can only ever be a strong reflection of the society that you’re in. And I think that you can learn a lot about the society and the culture, around type design might be part of its education system.

Maurice Cherry:
So knowing all of this, and I guess also the fact that you really pull a lot of inspiration from the Caribbean as a whole, how do you bring all of this to your work?

Agyei Archer:
Well, I mean, I think that a lot of the work now for me is, I think that I’ve given up on making beautiful typefaces, and I don’t mean aesthetically beautiful, I mean, the idea of aesthetically beautiful. I think that there are things that be dominant culture has taught us that type design needs to have, we need to have super tight joins. And a lot of the trendiness is left my palette in terms of what I want to make, I want to make work that is so deeply accessible and utilitarian and basic, because we’re not in a space where if we’re supporting Pan-African Latin languages, that we have expressionism.

The languages that support these… Sorry, the sponsor support these languages are what you would call the most white bread, boring, vanilla, Arial, Helvetica, type things. And that’s because most of the time you’ve needed supporters languages, is because you’re releasing it on a OS, or you’re releasing it on a… There’s these context where you almost have to support everybody, and that’s when it gets done. But it’s not getting done by the commercial types of the world or shop types of the world. And again, that’s not a hit out against either Christian, or Lucas who run commercial and shop type perspectively, but that is a reflection of the industry that we’re in.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. Let’s talk about Design Objectives. That’s something that you co-founded, I should say, with one of our past guests, Ayrïd Chandler, who we had on a couple of months back. Talk to me about that.

Agyei Archer:
Well, Design Objectives started off as, it was this plan that we had while I was working at Abovegroup. So I was working at Abovegroup at the time, and myself, Ayrïd Chandler, and another designer, to whom I’m not related, but I’m good friends with named Melanie Archer. We started Design Objectives because there’s that same idea of not being a very nutrient culture, or not having a very nutrient culture around design was there. So we didn’t feel facilitated, we didn’t feel like designers were encouraged to do anything other than make ads. And I think that for all of us, it was the same deep desire to affect a positive change. So for us design objective was helping designers be better, but not necessarily from new perspective of giving them lessons about the stout or about color competition. Because you can make your way through that, but we wanted to give designers empowerment tools. So we wanted to show you how to make a contract, here’s how negotiation should work, this is how you should probably price your work.
So a lot of the efforts that we were putting in were around, empowering designers to do their jobs better. Unfortunately, the pandemic pushed, because so much of Design Objectives was meeting oriented and socially rooted. We lost a lot of our traction during the pandemic, and I think since then we’ve released a slowed down the operation. For as much as we’re still doing things to connect design to people, I think that for each of us individually, we’ve moved past Design Objective as a nonprofit that we were founding, that we were running ourselves on.

I’m hoping that there’s a future evolution of that, that can probably be in the same space that we started it, in terms of supporting people and allowing them to really improve their practices. And again, not from the perspective of the aesthetics of the work that they’re making, because Caribbean people are very creative and very talented. But I think that there has been a culture of designers not being respected, and then thus not respecting themselves that we start to Design Objectives to try to fix for. I don’t think we’ve met up in a couple of years now, even though Melanie is also one of Unqueue’s showrunners by the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I mean you should probably interview her off the record. But she’s one of the more influential designers, not just in our space, but in terms of the contemporary art world in the Caribbean as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I mean, it’s pretty clear to me that you like to stay busy. You’re doing a lot between the studio, the app, and other things like, what are you doing for you? What are you doing for self-care with all of this?

Agyei Archer:
Unfortunately, I used to party really hard when I was younger. So I would say maybe between 17 and 25, I was just piles of drugs, just a lots of booze, I’m saying that all of those things are now boring to me. And what I do now for fun is I have an orchid collection, so I take care of about a hundred plus orchids at my apartment. Wow, I can’t believe I said that out loud. I do a lot of baking and cooking, I’m such a Saturday stay at home guy, I am Mr. Yogurt on a Saturday morning. And that’s what [inaudible 00:57:13], I try my best to just enjoy the life that I built for myself, because I think that there is so much in the work that I’m doing now, that can be in a way I’m busier than I’ve ever been. And if I don’t make sure to separate myself, my whole life can be about the work that I’m doing.

And I think that there was a period in time when I was really comfortable with that, with making my life about what I’m doing. But I think that now I want to make my life about how much I’m enjoying my life, and I do enjoy my life in making the work that I’m doing. So there’s that, but that’s just part of my enjoyment. So I take care of my plants, I have a beautiful dog, his name is Baxter and I spend as much time with him as I can. And I’m trying new fried chicken recipes, I’m trying new bread recipes. I wish I would say that ice skating or going surfing and stuff, but I’m not, I am a bridge to the water, I live in the Caribbean, but I’ll go look at the beach.

But I just feel like, a lot of what I’m doing for myself right now, is stepping away from work being my everything. Because it was my everything for a serious period of time, and I think that a lot of my substance abuse was driven by mitigating against that. So work is taken over my life, I’m just do some drugs so I can make it through, and now work is taken over my life, I need this weekend.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project or something that you would love to do one day?

Agyei Archer:
I think that if I think about dream projects, I think about… A lot of my current drive is around the Caribbean and facilitating entrepreneurship, and development in the Caribbean using the software that we made, but also the methodologies that we developed. So if I think of dream project, we are currently right now working with the government at Trinidad and Tobago, to help with the same farming project. We’re trying to scale it across the nation, but we’re also working with them on building software tools for financial inclusion. In my opinion, being able to help people on the ground in that way from the space that I’m in. It couldn’t get more dreamy than that.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the mentors that have really helped you out throughout your career?

Agyei Archer:
Definitely Gareth Jenkins and Alex Mills from Abovegroup, huge influences. I think that they were the first people to teach me that, you could stand up for design and people won’t hate you as much as you think. DJR, David Jonathan Ross, who is a American typeface designer has been one of my rocks, and one of the most encouraging designers that I’ve ever met. He was the first person that I sent my work, who didn’t just tell me something patronizing. So I would share work with people and they’d be like, “Oh, this is amazing.” But he was the first person to be like, “Hey, got your font, here’s a PDF for all of the mistakes.” It sent it back to me, which I think it was one of the best things from my career as a designer, because I think that there is a lot of white guilt that can get in the way of productivity, when it comes to giving people feedback on my work.

Especially, you see a young Black guy making type and its like, “Well, I don’t want to break a spur.” But actually I was far more concerned in positive feedback than I was in validation, and he was really good. I think he saw that and he was really good at that. And I think I feel the same way, what Eben Sorkin, who is a designer, who works for Darden Studio, and has also made the Merriweather font, which is pretty popular on the internet. But I think that those two typeface designers have been really influential to me. There’s also Hannes Famira and Just van Rossum, who are German and Dutch type designers, respectively, and used to work in programming really changed my outlook on whether or not programming had a place in my design practice.

And Hannes outlook on typeface design, really helped me and still helps me now when I’m making work, remind myself that it’s as good as you want it to be and you can make it better, but the reality is that some of the decisions that you make will have to be personal ones. And I think that in a world that has so much rigidity like typeface design, those two people who are… I would say typeface designers with a very strong [traditional 01:01:15] sense of output, the ethos that they’ve been making that work with has been in a way radical, and I am really inspired by that.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want the next chapter of your legacy to be?

Agyei Archer:
Oof, legacy, yikes. I think that in five years I hope that Unqueue’s infrastructure is more pervasive in Caribbean, and we’re helping facilitate even more lives being built and transformed. I’m hoping that for my type design practice, that I’m able to find even more time to draw and even more time to produce. And I’m hoping that by in five years my first font with Darden Studio would’ve done relatively well, because it would’ve been out for a few years. But I think that what I want for myself, I mean this is not just in five years but also in five years, I would like the work that I’m making to see its potential through in terms of the impact that it can make in other people’s lives.

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

Agyei Archer:
My best place to find me online is on Twitter. But I also have a website at agyei.design. The Unqueue Studio has a website, it’s unqueue.studio check that out for sure, especially if you’re interested in tech in the Caribbean. And we have the Unqueue marketplace, which is unqueue.app, which is what we use to help small businesses right now. If you can get on any of those platforms and you can’t find me, then I just didn’t want to be found.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Agyei Archer, I want to thank you just so much for coming on the show. Like I said, this is been a long time coming, I really wanted to have you on the show for a while and you didn’t disappoint. I mean, I think first of all, just hearing about your work ethic and how you’ve built Unqueue I think is super inspiring, particularly in this weird flux state we’ve all been in since the beginning of 2020. But I think also just the fact that you are someone who looked and found a void in the market or a void in the world, and you’ve actively worked to use your skills and your talents to fix that. I think that’s something that all of us can walk away from learning just about you, but also just about the best ways that we can use the skills that we have to create a more equitable world. So thank you so much for coming on the show, I appreciate it.

Agyei Archer:
Thank you, Maurice. I’m really grateful as well for your patience, and waiting as long as you have to get me on. But also I feel like the work that you’re doing is really valuable, and I hope you get to keep it up.

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Jamil Bonnick isn’t just an experienced product designer with a keen eye for design, but he’s also a storyteller. While we discussed his background and career journey, and his new job at Etsy, our conversation was so much more! Our chat spanned a number of interesting and surprising topics from design all the way to Eastern philosophy and to effective business strategy. He truly is a renaissance man and his vast knowledge shines through during this conversation.


This episode is sponsored by Sappi North America’s Ideas that Matter program. Sappi, a maker of high-quality printing, packaging and release papers as well as dissolving wood pulp, is now celebrating the 20th year of this unique grant competition.

Since it began, the program has given more than $13 million in grants, and supported more than 500 projects to benefit social causes. Ideas That Matter has also worked with amazing designers, many of whom we’ve also featured on Revision Path including; De Nichols, Rich Hollant, Dori Tunstall, Silas Munro, Jacinda Walker, Maurice Woods, Bobby Martin Jr., and Antionette Carroll (who will be a judge this year).

If you are a designer who cares about social issues — whether you’re a professional designer, a student, or a design team — the 2019 deadline to apply for a grant in this program is July 19.

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


Shani Sandy is a real mover and a shaker in this industry. As a design executive for IBM, she combines business leadership and creative concepts to help advance design thinking for clients all over the world. But how did she go from freelance work to being a lead at one of the top tech companies in the world? Find out in this week’s interview!

Shani and I spoke about design thinking and what IBM looks for from designers, and she gave some great advice for designers who are looking to take their career to the next level and advance into bigger and greater roles. We also talked about building teams, diversity in tech and design, hiring and recruiting, and a lot more. The key to Shani’s success has been carving out your own lane, and I think this week’s interview really shows she’s done a phenomenal job doing just that!


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Our look at the Capital One Digital team continues this month with the talented multidisciplinary designer Arneice Hart. She works as a senior product designer at Capital One, and her work involves reducing people’s financial anxiety and helping change banking for good.

Arneice talked about how she approaches new creative projects, and shared insights she learned from early in her career, advice she would have given herself as a young designer, and spoke about how her passions helped drive and inspire her to where she is today. According to Arneice, there is no linear path to becoming a designer, and her journey as a designer proves that!

Get your tickets today for “The State of the Internet 2019”, live on February 28!


Big thanks to Capital One for sponsoring this month of Revision Path.

The Capital One Digital team is a diverse group of people who work together to build great products for the enterprise and to disrupt how people interact with their money, their bank, and their financial lives.

Curious about what they’re working on and how they’re growing?

Check them out at capitalonecareers.com or at their Medium community at medium.com/capitalonedesign.


Revision Path is sponsored by Facebook Design. No one designs at scale quite like Facebook does, and that scale is only matched by their commitment to giving back to the design community.
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Revision Path is brought to you by Mailchimp. Huge thanks to them for their support of the show! Visit them today and say thanks!
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