Reggie Perry Jr.

While the current creative industry tends to favor specialists, multidisciplinary creators like Reggie Perry Jr. know that being a generalist is what truly helps you stand out. He does it all — graphic design, photography, video and audio production, motion graphics and 3D, and a whole lot more!

Reggie told me about his work as a media experience designer at The Home Depot, and from there we talked about showcasing his skills through his own agency (Phox and Phoe) along with NYC-based creative and design studio The Future In Black. We also discussed some of his early career work for agencies, and he shared his tips on balancing creative work with family, as well as how he handles burnout and stays motivated to create so many self-initiated projects.

According to Reggie, with a plan and hard work, you can accomplish your creative goals. Now that’s some great advice!

Interview Transcript

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

Reggie Perry Jr.:
My name is Reggie Perry. My day job is Media Experience Designer at The Home Depot, and I also have a design agency that I do a lot of my freelance work through. That work includes a lot of motion graphics and animation work, video editing, photography, things of that nature. Pretty much across the board, creativity, even sometimes music production as well. Just a lot of different things that I do and have my hands in and kind of keeps it interesting for me.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s 2023 been treating you so far?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
2023 has been pretty good. A lot of good opportunities coming my way, which I’m grateful for and been working towards for several years now. So far so good and looking forward to seeing what the rest of the year brings.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have any plans for the upcoming Summer?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I do have some projects that are going to be released later in the Summer that I worked on earlier in the year. The people that I worked on those four, those should be coming out mid-Summer. I’m really excited to see where those go and what they do. Other than that, my day-to-day work and creating my own projects as well.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Let’s talk about your work at The Home Depot as a media experience designer. I’m not sure I’ve heard that title, but then again I feel like there’s a lot of titles these days that are, I guess they just represent different facets of design. When I came up, it was like you were a graphic designer, web designer, web developer, et cetera. Tell me, what is a media experience designer? What do you do at The Home Depot?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
In my role, I’m within the learning department, which is under the HR umbrella. Pretty much anytime someone joins the company, whether it’s in the store, whether it’s on the corporate side, supply chain, pretty much across the board, they have their training. It might be the orientations, it might be how to drive a forklift, it might be how to ring up a customer. Our responsibility is to work with the SMEs and the instructional designers to create the visual aspects of that. That’s photography, that can be shooting interviews, that can be motion graphics and animation, that could be creating job aids and just graphic design work. It pretty much touches on a lot of different aspects of design and just to basically support those associates across the organization.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. We just had someone on the show a few episodes ago, I don’t know if you might be familiar with them, but I think he also worked in education, Brandon Campbell-Kearns. Does that name sound familiar?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, the name sounds familiar for sure, but I’m not completely familiar.

Maurice Cherry:
Not that I expect all black designers at The Home Depot to know each other. I was like, “Well, he’s in Atlanta. He’s kind of worked in education.” But no, that sounds really, really interesting. So you’re kind of part of this overall education that’s responsible for, I guess, getting people onboarded and just learning about different parts and facets of working at Home Depot, it sounds like.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, that as well as just ongoing learning. Whether it’s compliance training or if it’s a new best practice that rolls out, whether it’s surveys, it could be pretty much anything. We just work with all these different aspects of the business to create the visual aspects for them.

Maurice Cherry:
What does the team look like? You mentioned there’s some subject matter experts, some content people. What does that team usually look like?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I’m a part of the media team, so basically there is four of us and we’re all responsible for creating those visual assets. Then, an instructional designer or SME will come to us and say, “Hey, we have this project, we want to have these deliverables. What do you think would be best? What can it look like? What’s possible?” Then we kind of work with them to figure that out. Then we’ll schedule the shoots, or if I’m doing a motion graphic, it’s like, okay, they’ll send me the script, we’ll go over the scripts, figure out what assets we need, and then I build out that motion graphic. It pretty much just depends on the ask that we get. Then once they ask us, we kind of interface with these different people to create the final deliverable.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like you probably have a steady stream of work that’s coming in because you’re doing it across the organization for a number of different initiatives or reasons or things like that,

Reggie Perry Jr.:
It also ebbs and flows. For instance, this time of the year when people start going on vacation and stuff around Christmas time, it’s a little slow, and then sometimes it’ll be just nonstop back to back projects. It does ebb and flow, but there’s always consistent work. It’s cool because we actually get to see the work that we do out in the field. If we go into a store and somebody’s like, “Oh, I just did this training, you did that? That’s pretty cool.” Or something like that. If we should an interview in a supply chain facility, and then that’s on the internal TV channel that’s on in up in all the facilities, that’s also cool as well. There’s a lot of different ways that our work gets out there and a lot of different aspects that we touch.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve been there for what, almost eight years now it looks like. How did you get started?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
2015. When I was working for this company called Digital Sherpa, they actually got bought out, I forget the name of the company. Yes, they’re actually in Atlanta, but oh, it’s CoStar. They got bought out by CoStar, so they closed down this whole section of the business. I was just looking for my next opportunity, and I had actually got into photography that Spring, so I was just shooting and shooting and shooting. Then actually my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, her coworkers uncle was at Home Depot and they were looking for a content creator. I applied and she kind of did the introduction and then the rest is history. That’s kind of how I got on board. And that was within Crown Bolt, which is a subsidiary of Home Depot. They do door hinges and handles and shelf brackets and things like that. That’s where I started. Then after two and a half years I transitioned over to the learning team.

Maurice Cherry:
As a content creator, were you doing pretty similar things to what you do now?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Basically, around that time was when there was a huge push for Home Depot to get all of their skews to have lifestyle photos and to have alternative angles for the images and to have videos on how to install these things. A lot of my work at that time was say if there was shelf brackets, here’s all the shelf brackets. We actually had a wall that was built with the drywall and everything, and we’d set everything up and then I would take pictures of it and then we’d change out the brackets and take pictures of that, and those will all be up on the website under the skew so you can see different angles and closeups and how to install it and things like that. That was more of the work I was doing at that time.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a lot of, I guess now is this instructional work, because you mentioned this is on the website, so it’s under different products as well. Right?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Especially if you go to any e-commerce site and you look and they have seven or eight different images. One might be a video, one might be some of the directions, and then two or three may be different angles or different color options. I was creating those images basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Okay. I think it’s good to sort of hear that this is a position that people actually do. I think when you look at different big box retail type sites, say maybe a Target or a Walmart, you might not think that all of those different photos and things like that are done in house. I think it’s good that people know that this is a type of position that you can do that’s still kind of in the realm of design at least.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
And even with Home Depot, there’s like a facility that’s south of Atlanta and pretty much most of the products that are sold in Home Depot, say it’s a Samsung refrigerator, they may send one of those refrigerators down there and they have this whole studio with cameras that’s going to capture images from 360 degrees. And then it’s like, have you ever seen those images of where the drawers would come out or the doors were open and you can kind of rotate it? They do that kind of stuff there as well. Even with that of building out a studio and shooting these products and then make turning them into 3D models and all that kind of stuff, there’s a lot of different positions and jobs around basically e-commerce and the imagery around it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Product imagery in general, I think in tech design, retail, et cetera, a lot of that is super important. And I think it’s good to know that one, it’s an in-house type of thing that you do, but it also sounds like it can be never ending because there’s probably always new products or like you said, the work you do now filters out into education within the organization, so there’s no shortage it sounds like, of work to do, which is a good thing, especially in this age of job security right now with layoffs and stuff. It sounds like you’re pretty set.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, it is never ending for sure. I remember in 2015-16, and I’m sure all the designers who are familiar with Photoshop will understand this, but it was like at that time I had to shoot every piece of plumbing hardware. If you go into Home Depot and there’s an aisle and it’ll have a thousand pieces of all these different just hoses and just all these different metal pieces and stuff, and I had to shoot all of those, and it was right before the AI got good enough to do the selection on its own without the pen tool. I had to go through and use the pen tool on like 2000 images/used the pen tool on 2000 images.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. Wow. It also kind of entails, I guess a bit of bit of production design too, because like you said, you’re doing this at a time before the tools really were sophisticated enough to be able to make this a easier type of task.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
If I did it now, I would probably just create an action or a script and just run it [inaudible 00:11:43] in an hour.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of which, what is the most challenging thing about what you do?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I would say just managing expectations, honestly, because there are limitations to some of the deliverables that we do because a lot of these things will go out to stores across the country. Some might be in more rural areas and may not have the fastest internet, so we have to make sure the files are a certain size or we have to make sure you want to shoot this, but this might require a budget. You don’t really have a budget, so we need to scale it back. It’s just kind of figuring out and problem solving, but that’s kind of what design is anyway, so we have to figure out what’s the best solution for the learner that’s going to get the point across in the most efficient way within the tool sets or the parameters that we have.

Maurice Cherry:
We just talked a little bit about how the tools have gotten more sophisticated. How do things say AI and machine learning and things like that, do those sorts of things factor into the work that you do?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
They do, yeah. Some of the stuff, I’m actually doing a shoot on next week that we’re basically recording someone who does product videos and stuff so that we can turn them into an AI avatar. We have to record them with certain specifications and we have to do 15 minutes of video, like HD and all those kind of stuff. We’re just now starting to get experimenting with it. Some of the videos that we do, they’ll have AI voiceovers, things like that. For the most part it’s still kind of low key right now. We’re just now starting to get into it as far as Home Depot goes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I know we’re recording this right now at a time where there’s this big writer strike going on. WGA Union is striking and a lot of writers are striking. One of the sort of things that they want to be addressed by the industry, and I think this kind of maybe spills over into design a bit as well, I just haven’t seen that many conversations about it, it’s how do AI tools, et cetera, how do they reshape the work that we’re doing? Is it replacing it in some way? Is it making it better? Is it making it worse? And just even what you’re mentioning with this AI avatar and things like that, do you see a future where AI is going to play a more pivotal role in the work that you do?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Honestly, it’s been around for a long time and it’s been in a lot of the programs that a lot of us designers are using. Anyway, a year ago I learned Unreal Engine and with the MetaHumans and doing a mesh to MetaHuman and all this stuff, that’s AI, machine learning that’s building all that out. You can take a picture of your face and turn yourself into a 3D avatar. There’s a program that I use called Cascadeur I believe it’s called, yeah. You basically set your key frames and then it will use AI to interpolate the motion in between it, but also to add the physics to it, realistic physics and things like that. Things like that to me are very, very useful. I think with as far as the image creation and everything, it’s great for coming up with ideas, but I can also see that it definitely has a look to it, so everything’s going to kind of start looking the same. You just got to figure out your own way to use it and make your workflow more efficient.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think certainly now with the fact that these tools are so commonplace to use a Midjourney or DALL-E or things like that, and you’re starting to see larger companies kind of dip their toe into it as well. Microsoft has a tool called Microsoft Designer where you can just sort of put in a prompt and it will generate some AI images. I tried it. Not that good, to be completely honest. It wasn’t that great. I was like, oh, this is trash. I wasn’t expecting Rembrandt level work, but I mean, interns could do better work than this. Adobe does something similar. They have Adobe, I think it’s called Adobe Firefly. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Adobe Firefly that does a similar thing. I agree with you about the look. A lot of the AI art and stuff I’ve seen has a specific look. Granted, I know that those looks have been cribbed off of actual artists and such, so it’s not even original in that respect.

It’ll be interesting to see how AI plays out with, I think things like say interface design and stuff like that, where there are more set patterns and things that you could probably create complete UI toolkits or something like that just based off of a prompt. I’m interested to see where this goes. I would love to see more of the digital design community talk about it. I haven’t seen a lot of talk about it. Maybe I’m not looking in the right place, but I would love to see more talk about how this sort of influences the work that we do because I’ve gotten some people that I’ve had on the show where freelancers, for example, they’ll say a client may come to them with an image or something that they created in AI and expect the human artist to change it or to make it better or to improve it in some sort of way, which is like, is that what the future’s going to be? I don’t know. It’s still, I think, a little early to tell kind of how this will really play into the work that we do.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, I did see a video last week, I think it might have been on Vox, and it was this AI artist, which he was doing it in a way that I thought was really cool because what he would do was he would create images, but he would do several different passes of these images and do the in painting and out painting and all this stuff. He was basically putting himself in all these different locations, like he was taking a selfie of himself. He would then take all of these images and put them in the Photoshop and he’d take different sections of them and mask stuff out and add stuff to it, and then do all the color grading. At the end of it looked like a totally different image, and I thought that was pretty cool and a very unique way to actually use it instead of just saying, “Here’s some prompts, here’s an image, I’m going to throw some text over it and I’m done.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Right now I think we’re seeing AI start to flood the workplace in different ways. I mean this will affect what we do as creatives ostensibly, but I’m just going to be interested to see how this plays out because I think the point of mainstream adoption is probably still a bit a ways away, but seeing what’s happened within the past nine months around the explosion of AI in layman type tools has been just astonishing to see. It reminds me a lot of the early, early web and how those early days in, I don’t know, early two thousands. Innovations were just happening left. Trying to keep up was wild. You might have been doing something now, but in two weeks that’s going to be obsolete because now there’s this new way to do it. It’s really amazing to see how it’s changing things now.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, along with this full-time work that you do at the Home Depot, you have this design agency called Phox and Phoe that you started right as the pandemic started in 2020. What brought that on?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, so basically I’ve always been doing some freelance work for the last 10 or 12 years, and I wanted to just create my own design agency and entity and build that up and build client lists and everything like that. Basically at the beginning of the pandemic, a few clients had hit me up. So that’s kind of when I started it, just so I can have everything, my paperwork right, my bank account, all that kind of stuff. I named it after two of my kids, Phox and Phoenix, so Phox and Phoe Agency. Basically when I was going into the office, I’d be getting up at 4:45 because I live a little bit North of Atlanta, and I had to drive all the way an hour to work. So I’d just get up, go to work, come back, I’d get home at 5:30, and then I would really wouldn’t really have any time.

Once the pandemic started and I was at home, I was like, oh, I’m getting back three or four hours of my day. Let me really dig into this and start to build up my portfolio and build up my client list. At the same time as well, literally probably a month before the pandemic started, I started getting into 3D design. I was like, oh, I got all this time. Let me really dig into it and build and build and build. Now, three years later, three and a half years later, there’s a lot of opportunities that have come my way. There’s stuff in the works that I’m working on right now that it’s pretty big and it’s pretty cool to see an idea that I had four or five years ago be a reality in current time. So it was just something I always wanted to do. I just wanted to have my agency and design and make music and shoot videos and photography. So I just made it happen.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s that been going so far?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
It’s been going pretty good. It’s pretty consistent for the most part. Of course, it ebbs and flows. It’s just kind of the nature of freelance. I also don’t take on work just to take on work. I’m kind of intentional about the work that I do. I worked really hard over the last 10 or 12 years to be able to ask for the rates that I ask for and all of these kind of things. It’s like I just don’t take on any work. For the most part, it’s pretty good. It’s an extra stream of income, it’s a good stream of income. So I have no complaints about it. I think that I’m about ownership, I’m about entrepreneurship. That’s just kind of how I grew up. A lot of the people I grew up around own businesses and things like that. It’s always just kind of been in me anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think it’s a great thing to have your own side business, especially when it’s not something that you’re 100% completely reliant on. You’ve got exactly your full-time gig, and so you can be a lot more, I guess picky is probably the best word, but you could probably be a lot more judicious with, as you mentioned, the projects you take on, the clients you work with, because you don’t have to have this in order to survive. You can pick and choose the type of work that you do.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah. I’ve definitely been in the position before of trying to grow business and it needed to support me and I needed to survive from it. That could be a very, very stressful. I’ve been in positions when I had a job and my side stuff started going well, and I quit my job, and then the side stuff wasn’t going so well. You know what I mean, I’ve done it. I’ve pretty much ran the gambit on all that kind of stuff. I could can pick and choose on what I work on. I still pretty much keep the same schedule when I wake up and go to sleep anyway. I don’t have to commute. I don’t have to get ready for work, I just walk downstairs. Instead of just sleeping in or doing whatever, I’ll just work out and then sit down at my computer and use that time where I would be sitting in the car to create and work on side projects and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve definitely been there with my studio before, so I know what it’s like when it has that kind of ebb and flow. In some years it’s good, some years it’s not. I think even with how the industry changes, I’ve recently kind of started getting back into doing more freelancing because I worked in tech roughly for about the past five years I’ve worked with different tech startups. After this last layoff, I was like, “You know what? Let me try to dip my toe back into freelancing and see what I can do.” I’m still taking on some projects kind of here and there. It’s a lot different now doing it in my 40s than when I did it in my twenties.

The good part about it is I can be a bit more, I guess, cautious about who I decide to work with, the types of projects I do, and really sort of what I put my name on. Because that’s another thing, especially I think with Black creatives is the work that we’re doing. What is it sort of speaking to in a larger sense? I’m there with you. I know exactly how you feel.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Definitely. Definitely. Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was poking around on your Instagram, and I saw this is fairly recently too. You’re also a part of a agency called The Future Is Black. Tell me about that.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
A lot of the stuff that I do that’s on my portfolio on my Instagram is self-initiated. I basically created a portfolio for the type of work that I want to attract and do in the future. A lot of that’s just around black culture, specifically around I like the sixties a lot, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, people like that. Just kind of focusing and building around that. Then Joy, who was the owner of The Future Is Black, actually reached out to me maybe about six months ago. She’s like, “Oh, I love this Malcolm X piece that you did. I would love to talk to you more. Let’s kind of stay in touch. I’m building something.”

She’s been building this and she’s actually a former makeup artist. She’s done a lot of different movies and TV shows and fashion design shoots and stuff like that. She’s kind of getting more into the design agency aspect of things. She reached out to me and was any clients that I have or bring on, would you want to partner with us and you do any of the 3D or motion graphic work? I’m like, yeah, sure, let’s do it. She just launched about a week and a half ago and started pushing it out there, and we’re going to see what’s going to happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Oh, I appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you balance all of this? You have the outside freelance work, you’ve got your 9:00 to 5:00, you also mentioned you have a family and kids. How are you balancing all of this?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
To be honest with you, I just really focus on learning the tools and being efficient, and then also just idea generation. James Altucher actually, I listen to his podcast a lot, just write down five ideas a day or 10 ideas a day. And the more you write them down, the better your ideas will get and the easier you’ll be able to come up with ideas. I don’t actually write them down, but I’m always kind of thinking of stuff, what 3D project can I do? What piece of music can I make? What graphic design or motion graphic project can I do? I’m always just kind of thinking about what would be cool to make and thinking through it. I kind of think through things in my head before I even sit down at the computer. When I sit down at the computer, because I do have limited time, because I do have a full-time job and I do have children and everything like that, it just kind of pours out.

I might be doing other things like cooking or cutting the grass and I’m thinking about it so I’m not thinking about it in front of the computer and getting frustrated. So that’s kind of how I approach most of my work, to be honest with you. Also, I’m not going to just take on work for the sake of taking on work. I do want to take on good projects that I’m excited about. I’m sure you’ve been there, you might have taken on a project that you’re not really excited about, but you just want the money or need the money. It’s like second day in you’re like, “God, I just want this to be over.” You know what I mean?

That’s another thing too. If I’m excited about the project, then the energy comes. Right? If I’m not, then it kind of drains me and I just don’t want to be drained. I want to keep my energy up. I want to be working on things that I really want to be working on. That’s another reason why when I mentioned about building up a portfolio of the kind of work that I want to do, that’s kind of the purpose behind that. So when opportunities come my way, most of the time there’ll be things that I’m actually excited about and want to do instead of things that I have to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I have a hundred percent been there. We can talk about it after the interview, but I have definitely had some projects where it’s like, look, I got to pay rent, I got to get these bills paid. I might not be excited about it and doing cartwheels in the street, but I’m like, it’s work. I’ll do it. Yeah, I’ve been there, totally. Let’s switch gears here a little bit because I want to learn more about your backstory. You mentioned to me before we started recording that you’re kind of right outside Atlanta. Are you from just the metro Atlanta area?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I grew up in Hall County, so in Flory Branch, Gainesville area.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
That’s where from the time I was three until my twenties I was there. I lived out in LA for about three years, but then I came back. Most of my background, most of my history is here in Georgia.

Maurice Cherry:
Growing up, were you sort of a really creative kid? I mean, you’re doing all this stuff now. I imagine that probably started at an early age.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, I mean, I was always drawing and stuff, and my dad actually was into computers and stuff when I was growing up. I was on the computer since I was six, and this was before Windows, so C prompts and all that kind of stuff, running MS DOS, putting in floppy discs. I’ve always been into technology, into art, drawing, taking art classes pretty much my entire life, to be honest with you.

Maurice Cherry:
You went to Georgia Southern, and then after that you went to the University of North Georgia. How were your college experiences? Did it sort of help prepare you for the work that you do now?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I would say not at all. Georgia Southern was cool. The reason why I transferred, because like you said, you’re in your 40s. I just turned 40 last year, so if you remember those early 2000s days, if anything about Georgia Southern, it was known for a party school.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I was just like, no, I got to try to focus. I was really into music back then and I was like, I just want to just focus on this and not flunk out of school. That’s why I kind of transferred out. I did learn a lot about networking and meeting people and I’m just by nature an introvert. So to be in an environment where everybody’s just like, Hey, what do you do? Or where are you from? And stuff, that was kind of helpful when you first go to school. Because everybody there doesn’t know anybody. Then I actually linked with a bunch of different people who had similar interests and within music and art and things of that nature. That was helpful. When I went to North Georgia, it was pretty much just go to school, go to work, come home and make music every day. That’s pretty much all I did.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you kind of more into music back then than design?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, I got out of design and creating for maybe about seven or eight years. I was just focused primarily on music. Then around I want to say 2009, 2010 is when I really kind of started getting back into design and digging more into Photoshop and Illustrator and just learning the tools and trying to become more efficient at those.

Maurice Cherry:
Prior to that, you were just kind of doing music production stuff?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Pretty much.

Maurice Cherry:
That was a, look, I was in Atlanta during that time. The music scene here was blowing up, really becoming known. I think Atlanta kind of has always been known as a big music city, particularly a big black music city. I just remember during that time there were so many artists coming out of Atlanta across all genres too. I could see how, shit I was actually a musician myself back then and I’m talking about it. I was a session musician, I played trombone, and so I would sometimes play in some clubs, play a gig here or there. I was doing this kind of alongside my day job. In 2005, I was working for the state of Georgia. Then from 2006 to 2008 I was working AT&T, but then at night I was either doing stuff for school, because I was in grad school or I was playing a gig somewhere. Just the energy in the city, I would say probably that extends out probably throughout the metro area, but certainly in the city. The energy around just the music scene here was so big back then.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, definitely. Definitely. The conferences and then it used to be Atlantis and then eventually A3C kind of stemmed from that. Just stuff going on at Apache Cafe and the beat battles and the showcases and stuff. Those were good times for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I played Apache a few times. Yeah, great times. I remember that. Yeah. You were kind of getting into music production, but then you said you got back into design around 2009, 2010. What sort of prompted that shift?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Well, I mean, throughout that time when I was making music, I would need some design work or need to make a flyer or something. I would dabble here and there, but I was never really serious about it. When I started, and I know you mentioned you wanted to speak about this, anyway, so when I started Project Generation D, I started creating all of my own marketing collateral and stuff because the reason why that whole project even came about and company came about was because of 2008, I had just graduated two years before, I had a young child needed some money.

It was almost like now, everybody’s getting laid off and jobs are hard to find. I had to do something so I created this company to teach kids music production, video production, graphic design, all this kind of stuff. I didn’t have money to pay anybody to make my logo or marketing collateral, and I had enough knowledge to do it myself. That’s how it started. Then I would start getting a few freelance clients here and there. I just kind of stuck with it and started building it. I was like, oh, this is going to be a good stream of income and a good way to build upon what I have going on with music. That’s just kind of how I got more serious about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’m looking at the website now for Project Generation D, which is dubbed an afterschool program for children and teens, ages 12 to 17, dedicated to providing students with a positive environment to flourish in the creative digital arts. Yeah, the 2008, I think that was right when the recession happened then. I remember that year vividly because I quit my job that year and started my studio. I was working AT&T, hated it, hated it to the point I thought I had Crohn’s disease or something because I would physically get sick going into that place to the point where I was like, I can’t do this anymore.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I’ve been there before too.

Maurice Cherry:
I quit and started. I started my studio in oh eight and we started picking up work in ’09. I continued it since then, but that time was really kind of an interesting time just in terms of opportunity as well as I think particularly I think if you were working in design, it was an interesting time because so much of what was happening in the country around one Obama getting elected, well, I’d say mainly with Obama getting elected is a lot of his work, I want to say, kind of played to the fact that that great design went into it. If you were a designer kind of working in that space, not even in the political space, but just in design during that time, so many people wanted that same type of polish or execution or diversity to be completely honest around the work that they were doing because they saw what Obama was doing. And this wasn’t just in politics, this was a cross design. I’m pretty sure the folks that made the Gotham font probably had dumped trucks of money because everybody wanted to use that damn thing everywhere.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Certainly. Yeah, it was definitely an interesting time. Yeah, when times get hard, you have to do what you have to do. If you have those skills, you got to kind of lean on those skills and build what you can to survive. That’s basically what I did and built upon that since that time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you mentioned earlier Digital Sherpa, which is where you worked in 2014. When you look back at that time, this is sort of after the Project Generation D time, what do you remember? What were you going through at that time?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
A lot. At that time, so yeah, we got laid off. It was very interesting time because I was producing music all throughout pretty much mainly until 2011, 2012. I actually had a song that blew up and it blew up overseas and had 50, 60 million views on YouTube and all this kind of stuff. it was like I had signed a publishing deal, but it’s like I didn’t see any checks yet or anything like that. The business basically shuttered, had $40,000 of debt, moved into an old department, was just looking for job all the time, couldn’t get a job. I actually ended up getting a job at Sherpa, and then I was also tutoring at the same time. I’d go to work 8:00 to 4:00, 8:00 to 5:00, and then I would go get a snack or something or a quick meal, and then I’d go tutor from 6:00 to 9:00 PM every day.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I was kind of just doing that, just trying to build. At that same time too, is when I started really digging into After Effects as well. It’s like, oh, I think this After Effects thing has some potential, if I can really figure it out and learn it, because it’s a little bit, it’s graphic design, but it’s like motion. I like the motion aspect of it. At that time, I ended up getting that job, and it was when blogs were really, really big still. Companies were like, “I need a blog. I need a blog. I need blog posts.” So basically the first position I had was, I think it was content manager. We contract out writers and then they would write blogs and I would proofread them and make sure they were good to go for all the clients that we had.

It’s mostly small businesses from around the country. Then I moved over to account manager, which was just kind of interfacing with the clients and things like that. Pretty much most of my day to day was just kind of overseeing content, making sure the blogs were getting written, they were correct, and getting posted and dealing with any issues that the clients had. It was just 2014-15 was really just a time of hustle for me, to be honest with you. I had the job, but I was also tutoring and I was also trying to design more. I would come home if I wasn’t tutoring at night and be trying to make art pieces and stuff and figure out Illustrator more and Photoshop more. During that time, it was kind of like a blur, but it was a hard time. It was, in retrospect, kind of a good time because it really laid the foundation for my life now 9 or 10 years later. Man,

Maurice Cherry:
Much of what you are mentioning is my story as well. I had my studio back then, but I was also teaching and I was writing and I was consulting. I was doing multiple different things to try to keep the income coming in, keep myself creatively kind of satisfied and stuff. And it was also really coming at a time where the industry was changing. I would say roughly about 10 years ago might have been the start of when we started to see so much UX. I feel like that’s when we started to see UX and product really begin as a viable option for designers. Like you said, we’re roughly around the same age.

In the early two thousands, even say mid to late two thousands, you were either a graphic designer, a web designer, or a web developer. Then as the industry matured and changed, you have all these different type of design that pop up. Different titles go with it. There’s different titles with different companies. If I tell people I’m a designer now in 2023, they might automatically think I’m a product designer or UX designer as opposed to say a visual designer or something like that. So yeah, that time there was a lot about hustle, but the hustle came because there were just so many opportunities to do different things because that’s what the industry allowed you to do. It allowed you to wear a lot of different hats in that way.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
No, I remember 2015 or so going to the general assembly open house for the UX course, I was considering that at the time. It was a very interesting time. There was a lot of different avenues that you could take. Now a lot of these positions and jobs are commonplace, but at the time it was like, “Oh, what’s UX? What exactly does a product designer do?” That was where I was at at that time.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when you look at what you’re doing now compared to what you kind of did then, I’m curious how do you handle creative burnout or periods of low motivation? Because I would imagine all of this, like I said before, takes its toll. When you look back then and then you look at what you’re doing now, have you managed any sort of strategies or ways to pull yourself up during these times of burnout or low motivation?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, honestly I think that it’s okay to have low motivation. You’re not going to be going at a hundred percent all the time. Instead of forcing it in those moments, usually what I’ll do is just step away. If I don’t feel like making some 3D piece, I cook a lot. Cooking is a form of art. I’ll do that or exercise, or I’ll just catch up on a TV show or play some video games, and then I’ll see something in a TV show or a video game, or I’ll come across something and it will just spark some creativity and then I’ll go back and build off of that.

At this point, after creating for so long, I just try not to force it. It’s going to come in spurts. You’re going to have times of very high productivity. You’re going to have times where everything you make, you just want to just smash your computer because you hate it. It’s just part of the game. I think that’s just kind of how we are as humans. Everything we make isn’t going to be great, but you just have to learn how to manage what works for you and figure out some routines or steps that you take to get out of those funks to get back to creating again.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really good piece of advice I think for folks now that might be trying to figure out what is the best way to manage themselves through all of this. Because you know mentioned you started your agency at the beginning of the pandemic. I feel like that pandemic period, particularly with people working at home kind of unlocked something in them to say, “Oh, wait a minute, I could also do this.” I think so many folks started getting on TikTok really back then, and now they’re like, “Oh, well you know what? I was doing this nine to five, but I could be a content creator.” Which I kind of have beef with that term in general because I feel like it glosses over so many different skills and specialties within the realm of content creation. Sometimes it can even be used as a misnomer. If you tell someone you’re a content creator, they’re like, “Oh, wait, so do you do a podcast? Do you do OnlyFans?” What does that mean if you say I’m a content creator? It’s such a broad kind of term.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, I mean, I’m glad you said about a pandemic, because I viewed it that way since pretty much day one. And I mean, I’ve told my wife, and I’ve told a lot of my friends as well, I’m just like, I’ve been waiting for a time, not for people to be sick or to pass away or anything like that, don’t get me wrong, but as far as the opportunity to invest a massive amount of time into something to grow a skill, because you got to think when the pandemic started, you got to think of all the phases that people went through just on a broad level. There was GameStop and then there was Crypto, then there was the Metaverse. Now there’s AI. Know what I mean? It’s through all of that, I’m also, there’s time and the time is really our most valuable asset. What am I going to do with this time? So I took that time and added another skill. Cause I’m all, I’m really big on a unique skill set or a skill stack.

It’s just like if someone were to come to me and say, “I want to do a short animated music video or film, and they need the music for it, and I need to have the poster created and they need to cut a trailer of it and have all these different aspects.” I could do all of that. That’s because I utilized that time to really put in those hours. I do hear you about the content creation. It’s almost like it cheapens the value of people who’ve spent the time to learn the craft and the skills. Right? Because I just post videos on TikTok and I’ll make money off of that, whatever. It’s like, what if TikTok goes away? That’s not really a transferable skill, just posting on TikTok. If you can design, if you can create an application, if you can do all of these different things, you’re going to be able to figure out your next move from that. That’s what I wanted to use the pandemic for was I have this time, let me add more skills that’s going to future-proof me moving forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We’re using TikTok as an example here. I mean, I do think that there is a skill to that, but the problem that I see is that the skill is so closely tied to the platform that it’s hard, and I see this with some TikTok folks too. It’s hard for them to take success that they’ve made on one platform because the platform locks them into a specific way of maybe delivering content that doesn’t translate into a similar type of medium. For example, TikTok to Instagram or TikTok to YouTube, there are people that have millions of followers on TikTok and have 45 followers on YouTube because it just doesn’t translate. I don’t know if it’s them not being able to transfer the skill to the platform because the skill is so tied to what the TikTok app allows you to do within its creation tools.

I remember this was back when I started my studio, my friend John, who had started a business together and he had found me through Meetup. They were like these web design meetups in the city, and he had just graduated from UGA, this white boy just graduated from UGA. We had met at a Panera Bread up in Buckhead, and I remember one of the first questions he asked me because he was like, “I’m looking to get into web design. Should I learn HTML or should I learn Dreamweaver?” I’m like, well, the language itself is probably better than learning the tool because the tool is just a tool that’s like saying, should I learn carpentry or should I learn how to use a hammer? It’s a difference in that.

I think sometimes with the tools like TikTok for example or things like that, you can get so locked in creation within that particular toolbox that you can’t transfer it over into something else. You can’t take the success that the platform or the algorithm or whatever TikTok gives you and transfer that into a magazine article, a blog, a long form video, a podcast, et cetera. The tools and the algorithm I think can sometimes lock creators into a box that is hard for them to get out of.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I think that’s why even a few years back, if you look at Desus and Mero, they were actually able to translate from Twitter to a podcast into a TV show. There’s plenty of other people who were funny online or on their YouTube channels who try to make the jump to TV or the radio and just bombed. It’s kind of the same concept.

Maurice Cherry:
It can be tough to make that leap, to make that jump, especially if you’re just not able to transfer the skill that you have outside of the confines of the platform that you were kind of initially on.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I noticed that you refer to yourself as a creator over referring to yourself as a designer. Is there a specific reason behind that?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I just like to create. Right? I wouldn’t say there’s a specific reason behind it, but I do a lot of things. If I make a motion graphic, for instance, I’ll go create my own music for it. That’s kind of, I guess where that comes from. I create meals, I’ll have friends over, I have family over, and I’ll be on the smoker for five hours and create an experience in that way. That’s why I kind of look at it as more of a creator than just strictly a designer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you think it’s hard to, well, I don’t know what’s the best way to kind of frame this question, but I notice a lot of designers now are strict specialists. The work that they do is only within a specific type of design. They can only be a product designer or a UX designer or something like that. Not pick on product or UX folks, but they can only do what they do within that particular realm. I feel like designers like us, older designers, I think because we came up during this period where there was just so much opportunity because we were learning at the same time that the industry was learning and sort of discovering new things that we know how to do a lot of shit.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I was doing, ’97, ’98, I was making cash money websites on Geo City learning HTML.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember teaching myself HTML. I remember teaching myself Photoshop off of a cracked version of Photoshop, and then going to Barnes and Noble and looking at those $50 Photoshop tips and tricks books and just taking photos and bringing them home and using them on my cracked version of Photoshop to figure out how to make that sort of pixel and pin Diamante kind of cash money design or something like that. We know how to do a lot of things because the industry and just, I think the time period we were in allowed us the opportunity to do multiple things. It’s almost like now people want you to be more specialist.

Generalists and designers from our age group I would say we just know how to do a lot of stuff. You do audio editing, you do video, you do 3D, you’re a photographer. All of this is kind of wrapped up into what you do as a person and as a creator. I think sometimes in the industry, that can be hard for people to understand. “What do you do?” And you’re like, “I do a lot of stuff. What do you need?” You know?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Also too, from my perspective with starting the agency, if the agency continues on a good trajectory and it continues to grow, obviously I can’t do everything myself. Right? If I need to outsource, I want to know what to look for, and I want to be able to speak the language. If I’m talking to a photographer, I’m just going to be different from talking to a video editor than talking to a graphic designer. I want to be able to understand and explain and to lead and to coach and say, “Let’s try this instead of that, or let’s do this instead of that, or maybe we should use these file formats instead of these file formats.” That’s how I look at it having knowledge of all these different areas is because then in the future, when I’m working with my own team that I hope to build, I’ll be able to speak their language and to be able to break it down and to communicate with them on their same level, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, that makes sense. How would you say your creative style has evolved over the years?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
It’s kind of hard to say because even musically over the years, I’ve never really had a definitive style. If it moves me or if it feels good, I like it. But I feel like over the last three or four years that it’s definitely started to form into something more concrete. I just like clean design for one. Yeah, I just like clean, sophisticated, something that can draw emotion, especially with the 3D work, if it can take you into the world building those worlds and bringing the viewer into that. I would always say that the underlying aspect of all of that though, is really the storytelling. If you have the visual aspects of course, but the key parts for me is what’s the story that’s being told and does it evoke emotion? I think that’s what I focus on is more than what it looks like. Hopefully it always looks good and people like it and I like to experiment a lot, but my style I guess, would really be more of a storyteller just using all these different mediums to tell different stories.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you do a lot of self-initiated projects as you’ve mentioned. We can look on your website or your Instagram and see these little video vignettes and other things that you’ve done. Do you have a dream project that you would love to do one day?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Actually, I think I’m working on it right now. I can’t really discuss it right now, but yeah, I think I’m working on it right now actually.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. We’ll keep it vague so once it comes out it’ll be a big surprise, but no, that’s great.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Yeah, I got to keep it vague because the NDAs and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, I feel like the work that I’ve done over the last three years has been definitely, like I said, I’ve been very intentional about the work that I create for myself to attract the kind of clients that I want to work with. So I think that since I’ve done that, I have actually, even The Future Is Black, that comes from me creating work that I want to do in the future. It’s all been very intentional and I think that now a lot of that stuff that those dream projects and the type of people that I want to work with and the type of projects I want to work on are showing up in my inbox.

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

Reggie Perry Jr.:
Not to sound dark, but death, to be honest with you. We’re not going to be here forever, so we got to use our time wisely. Last year I actually lost my dad, so that kind of just lit an extra fire under me that was already under me. As we get older and you start seeing people that you’ve grown up on, even to see something like Jamie Fox having a medical emergency or something, you’re like, dang, we really are the middle age now. Half our life is done. It’s like we have to really figure out our legacy and what we want to leave behind and that kind of motivates me to keep going and to keep getting better and just try to be the best, not just creator but human I can be in the time that I have.

Maurice Cherry:
If you could go back and talk to your college age Reggie, if you could go back and talk to him, what advice would you give him about just being a creative?

Reggie Perry Jr.:
It’d probably be the same advice that I’ve given myself throughout the years anyway. It’s just keep going. It’s going to take time, and I’ve always knew it would take time. People always say it takes 10 years or whatever to be an overnight success, so I always knew whatever I wanted to do would take time and I would have to have the discipline and keep motivated to get to those goals, but also just be open to the possibilities and the opportunities that come your way. You might have a specific vision in your mind of how you want things to turn out or how you want things to be, and it might not turn out that way, and when it goes in a different direction, it might actually be better than what you thought it would be. You just have to be open and you just have to keep going and stay focused on what you want to do. For sure. You got to have a plan, you got to execute that plan, but don’t close yourself off to other opportunities that may open up even more doors for you.

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

Reggie Perry Jr.:
My goal right now, especially with the 3D, is to tell Black stories through a medium that is traditionally not Black.

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

Reggie Perry Jr.:
My website is reggieperryjr.com and then my Instagram is @nobodyfamous. That’s pretty much it. I don’t really mess with Twitter or anything else, but yeah, if you want to see some of my work, you want to connect, I guess the best place would be through my website, via email or my Instagram.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Reggie Perry, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, I think just thank you for just kind of detailing your creative journey. I had mentioned before so much of what you mentioned has been kind of neck and neck with things that I’ve experienced. I really kind of know exactly where you’re coming from with your thoughts on just content creation and just creation in general and using the skills that you have to put your mark on the world.

I think it’s important that people see that you can have a long career in design and creativity and whatever you want to call it, as long, like you said, you sort of put in the work, stick to the plan that you have, things will kind of work themselves out. Basically, from what I can see from your work, you definitely have put in the long hours, you’ve done the work, you’re continuing to do the work. I’m excited to see what you do next. I think certainly what you’re mentioning about telling Black stories like that through maybe kind of a non-traditional medium, I see that definitely in the future happening for you. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Reggie Perry Jr.:
I appreciate you having me. Thank you very much.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Rob Martin

Running your own design studio is no small feat, but design professionals like Rob Martin make it look easy. As the founder and creative principal of Majorminor, he and his team have done branding and digital work for a number of clients for over a decade, including ICA, Complex, and Sony. On top of that, Rob is a talented musician and producer who goes by the name RCA. That guitar you see in the photo ain’t just for show!

We started our conversation with a quick 2022 check-in, and from there Rob talked about the ins and outs of running Majorminor, working with clients, and the types of projects he wants to branch out and tackle. Rob also spoke about growing up in the Bay Area, attending Sacramento State University and working for a few companies before striking out on his own. We even chatted about his music and his upcoming gig at SXSW this year! Rob is proof that being true to yourself is the real key to success!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Rob Martin:
Hey, so my name is Rob Martin. I run a studio called Majorminor. We’re based out of San Francisco, California. I act as the principal owner and a creative director here. Yeah, we do branding agency work. We do brand strategy and graphic design identity systems for a different range of clients. B2B, small local bakery or some more enterprise-level international enterprise. But basically we work with clients and people that are really trying to do something good for people. So we try to do good work for these people at the organization to support them and their vision.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Rob Martin:
It’s been doing okay. Definitely not a banner year for us or me in person or anything, but it’s one of those years where we’re looking back so we can see how we can move forward, right? It’s a lot of reflection on how we’ve been running the company, our past clients, what we can learn from those experiences and start to implement things into our workflow, our processes to make it better for us to work, whether it’s a work-life balance kind of thing, or even just how we’re serving our clients. How can we get, “Better clients?” We just work less to do more.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because you just hit the 10-year mark not too long ago, right?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. I think 10 years was… I forget what year that was, but I think we’ll be turning 13 this year.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, it was 2019. So yeah, it should be 13 years. 2009, we started.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
And then yes, we should be 13 this year. July 20th is our birthday.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Congratulations.

Rob Martin:
Thank you. Yeah, it’s been a long ride.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the design studio Majorminor, which first off just for those that are listening and might be wondering, where did the name come from?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So the name actually goes back when I was in college in Sacramento State, our last class was a portfolio building class. We actually have a portfolio to use once we got out of school. I took it upon myself to actually treat it as if I was doing a studio for myself. Actually, since I started school at Sacramento State, one of my friends in school really put me on all the cool studios like Pentagram and Turner Duckworth out in San Francisco. That was my first real exposure to something like that. Even the idea of owning a business, something I’ve always wanted to do as a kid, but that was like I was a kid in the ’90s, so it was going to be a store, a 7-Eleven/import video game studio or a store/rollerblading store.

Rob Martin:
It was a very juvenile idea. That has always been inside of me. So once I had the idea like, “Hey, I can actually run a studio. I’m really passionate about graphic design. Here’s my chance to kind of get that idea realized.” So in this portfolio class, we start coming up with names and I’m really digging into myself about who I am, how that reflects my work. And it actually came from the parallels I see in design, in music and also even just myself. So I’ll kind of explain the names. I think it’s really interesting. This will help me make sure that it still makes sense years later. So basically when you have a visual, right? There’s a rhythm between light and that contrasting that creates the form, right? So you remember doing line studies in your first graphic design class. You’re doing these strips and then see how this black and white can make rhythm or how it can make a form.

Rob Martin:
And then even with sound wave, it’s a up and down wave. But the contrast between those ups and downs and the speed that they’re going at will make it sound. So those parallels are really interesting to me too. And then even thinking about myself. People thinking about different people like, “Oh, that person is X, that means they like Y.” I feel like I was in the middle of all these things like, “Oh, you’re a black dude, but you grew up around South Bay around a bunch of Asian folks. So you don’t fit that mold in that way.” So I always kind of saw myself in the middle.

Rob Martin:
And then bringing it back to the whole music thing, Majorminor the way I see it as being in the middle of these ups and downs and kind of existing there, even again with the whole balance between form and my shape and color, all kind of making these things. That’s kind of where I came up with the name Majorminor to then represent myself and the practice that we have at the studio.

Maurice Cherry:
So tell me about the Majorminor team.

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So the Majorminor team currently, our core team is there’s three people; myself, my producer, Vincent, and then my other project manager, account manager, Michelle. One of the cool things about Majorminor is that everyone at kind of the leadership-level, you want to call it, they’ve always been people that I considered my best friends in life. I’m very lucky to have people that I call my best friend or a best friend that I could then actually work with and work alongside with in a really healthy, non-toxic kind of a way.

Rob Martin:
And this current iteration they’ve been on the team for the last, two years now. During COVID I took a break. I had a really bad panic attack in 2020, I think it was right before COVID hit. So I took off pretty much that year from COVID or the year that we first had the shutdown. When we started to come back together or when I decided I was ready to get back to work, I brought them along to kind of reshape the team and move forward with a more healthier feel.

Rob Martin:
And it’s been great so far. They’re really, really sensitive to that kind of stuff. And just paying attention to that for even our clients. How are they feeling about this? How are we feeling about everything? Making sure we’re not working too much, but know that when we do need to pick up the pace or something, we’re doing that in a way that’s not toxic or berating of anyone. Really considering, “This is about the work and not the person, but the people here, they need to be in a certain place to able to do their best work.”

Maurice Cherry:
What are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Rob Martin:
I’d say our best type of client is and this is something that we’ve only recently started to identify maybe in the last year, maybe even two years, but really kind of taking a hypothesis and trying to see if that actually makes sense, which it has. But basically, it’s a company that has some kind of product they’ve been able to vet their business. They’re probably making at least a million dollars a year revenue, but they don’t have a real brand system or even a strategy. They’ve just been just doing their thing. And they want to become competitive on either a larger regional stage or a national stage.

Rob Martin:
And so usually that means most of our clients have never paid for a design or worked with a strategic design team before. So we already know there’s a lot of education that comes with that relationship and a lot of handholding, but not like… It’s just like, “Hey, this is the process. And it might feel unintuitive to you in certain ways, but let us walk you through it.” And we’ll explain why we’re doing all this stuff. So we kind of see ourselves as being the stepper for them to get up the mountain. Sometimes people climb mountains, but they never climbed ever. So they need someone that’s done it before, see how they move and then bring them up the mountain in a way that facilitates their best experience.

Maurice Cherry:
So when let’s say a company or an individual then contacts you about a new project, what does that process look like in terms of bringing them in, working with their idea? What does that look like?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So first off, I guess we get some kind of initial email from them, “Hey we’ve got this project we’re thinking about, we got referred to you by whomever.” We’ll just hop on a really casual conversation and just talk to them. They can say, “We need a new brand system. We like this and like that.” But again, this is their first time actually working with a strategic team. So we want to uncover what that really means for them. And then help them understand what that really is for them. They might need an identity system, but how agile are you expecting it to be? What places will the main touch points, the core brand expressions actually be? And then once we have those conversations, it enlightens them onto what they’re actually about to get from us, what they actually need. And just the whole thing, just more are detailed and articulated for them.

Rob Martin:
Then from there, we’ve kind of uncover all those things. We call it a discovery session. Once everything is uncovered during that discovery session, then we’ll actually go and write a proposal with a number in there for them, go back and forth. Maybe they can’t afford it, or maybe they have to get more money, but then we can cut things out of it, put things in there that might have been revealed to them during some kind of board review of the proposal. And then from there, everything is sign the dot line. And this is actually something we’re about to do, to have a second session after the contracts are signed, going through all the terms of the engagement with them very clear. So everyone’s on the same page on how the process will move and why we only want you to have six stakeholders and no one else can chime in, why we’re doing that because we don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen.

Rob Martin:
People giving feedback out of context, or even giving personal feedback that isn’t irrelevant, but it then messed up the flavor in the pot. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Rob Martin:
Really trying to get… And not to be strict, but just say, “Hey, if you want this to move efficiently, when you want to get done, then we have to move in this way.” It serves both of our parties, not just us, not wanting to deal with other people. But for us to get that product for them, we need to make sure we’re all in agreement with the way we all have to move. It’s like I sign a disclaimer for you to jump out of a plane or something like that, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
So aside from clients and everything you mentioned that’s been going on now for 13 years almost, what’s been the secret to keep the things going?

Rob Martin:
I don’t know if there’s a secret, if there is, I’m still trying to figure it out. So if anyone hears anything from the stuff I’m saying, please feel free to pull my coat. Let me know what the secret could be. I think if anything, it is really just building. I think the biggest part of it is building and maintaining relationships because people the best way word-of-mouth or word-of-mouth is the best way I think, to get new projects. And even I feel like people see your work, that’s not what they’re buying necessarily. So if they come to you like, “Oh, that was really cool that you did that.” And their whole traction leads off of your work. It’s usually, you got to turn that back around because they’re not really paying for the work.

Rob Martin:
While the work is obviously important as the product that they’re getting at the end of the day, the relationship and the way that you both move, how the designer leads you through this, I think is what really, the biggest thing is. If they’re efficient, they’re working right, they’re being professional, they’re hitting their timelines. Those are the things that I think you’re really paying for because you get anyone to do any kind of design work. That’s why I don’t get hire people like, “Oh, I can just go on Fiverr and get someone to do this.” I’m fine like, “Fine, if that’s what you want to do go, but it’s going to be a way different experience and end product than what you’re going to get from us.” And that’s fine. If you want to go there, I’m not mad at you because that’s probably stuff I don’t want to work with if they’re going to have that kind of mentality.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
Or maybe they don’t really know the difference. I have to educate them to show them the value of what they’re actually getting versus a different studio or even another designer or even a Fiverr guy.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean that education part is important. One, that’s kind of in a way what they’re paying for, hopefully they’re paying for the education because they’re paying you to do something that they can’t do. So the hope is that you’ll be able to kind of show them like, “This is how it should be done.” But then also, they’re also paying for just your expertise. If you’ve been doing it for this long, clearly you have a track record for knowing what you’re doing. So it would take, hopefully I’m thinking on the client end, it would take me less time to hire a professional than for me to hire someone on say Fiverr or some marketplace that I may have to do a whole bunch of explaining towards, I don’t know the verbiage or the terminology to really talk to them the way they did in order to do the work. It ends up becoming just a lot more work that way.

Rob Martin:
Yeah. And that part, especially with the clients that we have, where it is their first time paying for this large of an effort strategic with design, they don’t know what they’re getting into. And there’s actually even a moment I want to say it was about a year ago where this woman approached us for some work. We already knew we didn’t want to work with her because of her tone of voice. But we still took the time to let her know, “You have no idea where you’re about to get into and this is what it should look like. And that’s why it costs X hundred thousand dollars.” Just because you don’t think it’s worth that much. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth that much. If anything, you really need to understand what you’re about to get into because you’re going to have a world of hurt as you try and do everything you’re trying to say for $15,000.

Rob Martin:
And we’re not trying to be mean, it’s just like, “Yo, this is actually how it is.” If anything, it should probably cost more because you’re going to be one of those people that don’t get it and don’t want to get it and it’s going to make more work for everyone. So yeah, I’m sharing information because I want people to understand what we actually do and take the veer off because it’s kind of… If you’ve never done it before, it’s kind of nebulous, what it really is and you learn along the way. And that’s the kind of the fun part about it for our clients too, is them seeing and having those aha moments and say, “Oh, that’s why you guys wanted to.”

Rob Martin:
One thing that we do that we’ve been doing for the last few years and we do identity systems. We don’t just do the logo and then the colors and then the tie, we do the whole thing at once. So they see a very good representation of where we want to take this direction for the system. So they’ll see the logo, some colors, it’s a very detailed mood board. And we even mock up like, “Here’s a poster or a campaign idea within this.” So it might only get two directions, but these two directions are thought out and vetted all the way to the point where they can just say, “We like that one or we like this one or maybe can we try this one with the other colors?”

Rob Martin:
And we cut down a lot of the really big reviews because we’re not doing everything one at a time. We’re showing everything in context. So if you can see this image that we’re trying to create for them, what the system looks like and how agile it is, how it can scale, what other pieces we think might need to be invented. Maybe they didn’t think about, “Oh, we never thought about doing this thing because we never saw the need for it. But we do see the need for it in this image mock up that you’ve done for us.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like I said, that education is really important for them to kind of see what goes into it. Because oftentimes they don’t really know. Especially like you said, if they haven’t hired someone before, they don’t know what the creative process looks like. They just think you go in there and punch a few buttons and there you go. There’s the logo. But when you show them all the thought and the care and the psychology and everything that goes behind it, the hope is that they have that appreciation.

Maurice Cherry:
I had someone contact me recently that was like, “Oh, I need a logo for my organization.” And usually the first question I’ll always ask is, “What’s your budget?” Because for me that can be the indicator as to whether this is going to be a good project or a bad project. I hate to say it, but that’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
And so they had a pretty low budget and I said, “Well, you probably would be better off going to a marketplace just based on what you are willing to spend on this.” And it was pretty much a full brand identity for a nonprofit organization. They’re like, “We need a logo and this and that and the third.” Because I was like, “If you really try to hire the services of a designer, it’s going to be much more expensive than that. And I don’t know how much more expensive, it’s definitely going to be more expensive than your budget.” So you kind of have to ask those qualifying questions and stuff too. And especially when you’re starting out on your own, you may not know that. You may take those low gigs at first just to kind of have some skin in the game and you realize years and years later, you don’t do that.

Rob Martin:
Yeah. You know what’s even kind of crazy about that. They’re not crazy, but another piece of that is like, this is what I learned a few years ago too, was you might bid the pie and the sky project for them. But really they might not even be able to support that. It might be just be too much. And they spend all this money after you’ve educated them on it and they can’t even support it, and the identity just falls apart. Sometimes you’ll see this new brand comes out there, they wouldn’t be on brand new or something like that. But you’ll see the whole, “Oh, this is really cool. This is really great.” The way it’s represented on the designer side looks awesome. Then you go back a year later and it looks nothing like that because the internal team on the client side could not support something like that. Either their designer that they had in staff was whack or the brand guidelines you made them were trash.

Rob Martin:
But you also have to be able to make something that people can actually use and support over the length of however long they need it for. So that’s part of it to consider too. So they might be able to get the money for, but if you don’t think they have the support system to use that work and make it of even more value for them, then it’s kind like that’s another place you got to pause and be like, “Hey, you know what? Maybe we can just do a smaller scale of this or you should just to go somewhere else and just do something basic until you have the infrastructure to do something more. Just do something bigger to get you to that level, but I don’t think you’re there yet.” That’s something we’ve had to do a couple of times, but it’s a good thing to be able to identify as we’re kind of going through the bidding process.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense, actually. I didn’t even think about that. You can do this big identity and things for them, but if they can’t support it moving forward, then it’s like, “Do they really need that? Are they going to contract you to do that work for them?” There’s all these other questions that end up coming into play.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. And because just me personally, I to do the most and that always nips me in the bud a lot. So I’ve had to temper myself with trying to do everything I want to and would like to for them to what they actually need, what can they actually use? So that’s been, I guess, more of a learning for myself but that has been for other people. But we’ve had multiple times where we’ve had to encounter that and make a decision.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve mentioned doing a lot of branding and identity projects. Are there other types of projects that you want to do in the future through the studio?

Rob Martin:
Retail stuff is always really interesting because even getting into the graphic design. I remember my mom, she worked at, I don’t know, some place. It was a big white building called Sintex or something and over by Stanford in California and she would go to work every day and then come back and tell me what she did, it was data research or something. But there’s never any physical thing to show for it. And I also thought it was weird, at least for me because even as a kid, I liked to make stuff. I was either drawing or arts and craft, lanyards kind of shit. Everything I did, I had something to show for. Even when I was playing video games if I beat the game, I then make a drawing of the game as a certificate for myself like, “Hey, I did this thing.”

Rob Martin:
So for me, having some kind of artifact of your accomplishments or things that you do has always been really important to me. So the retail kind of thing, having a product that we then get to design and then package and someone I can point to it on a shelf like, “Yeah, me and my team did that.” That’s always been a really important to me to do more stuff like that. But even with websites, “Yeah, we made that thing.” But the physical thing is actually really interesting too. So even with the music that I put out, I put that on vinyl. So I have a record, literally a record of it and-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Rob Martin:
… it’s like a piece I can look back on. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s pretty dope. I want to definitely talk more about your music. We’ll get to that I think later in the interview. But let’s switch gears and talk about your origin story. You mentioned, or you’ve alluded to that you’re from in and around the Bay Area, is that right?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So I grew up in Sunnyvale, California, and that’s in the South Bay Area of the Bay Area and that was really cool being out there. Again, it was a cool mix, melting pot being around all these different people, even the tech and stuff out there. I really would say, I am a product of Sunnyvale, really into video games. Nerdy kind of guy, but cool enough where I could still get around and not get punked or anything. It definitely had an impact on the person I am in good ways, I think. I’m very proud to be from there.

Maurice Cherry:
It definitely sounds like you got into art and design and stuff pretty early on. You mentioned sketching the video games after you beat them and stuff like that.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. Video games was one of the gateways into art and design. Skateboarding was another really big one too. I was never, ever good at skateboarding, but I always like the art on them, the culture and the way people dress. That was a really big part of it for me. And then even with skateboarding, getting into punk rock music, I played in punk bands and stuff when I was in high school, sky bands, metal bands. But all those things, they all kind of… One thing I got into took me into something else, took me into something else. But they all stemmed around the art and the music part of it and the culture too, just the people that built it, seeing how they operate.

Rob Martin:
And especially even thinking about, I won’t say there was a counter culture necessary, but there’s just alternative lifestyles, the way people get down in there. Some of the crusty punk dudes, I used to kick it with. I would never want to live like that, but I respected the fact that they wanted to live that way. That’s what they did. And there was very authenticism or authentic part about it. They’re being themselves, doing what they want to do and whatever you’re “supposed to do,” they weren’t really worried about that because that’s what they wanted to do.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you know that design was something that you wanted to study?

Rob Martin:
Well, so I’ll say this, I always wanted to do graphic design, but I didn’t really know what graphic design was from a theoretical kind of practice until I got to Sacramento State.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Rob Martin:
Before that, I really just wanted a job where I didn’t have to do any math and I got to sit in front of a computer all day. I guess I wanted to be a production designer at that point. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I just wanted to make stuff on the computer and not have to stand all day.

Rob Martin:
So once I got Sacramento State, the first class was all about theory again, how we’re seeing light becoming sense of the form and color. I was like, “Oh, this is actually kind of dope. There’s a whole science to it.” Even the degree that we got from Sacramento State was a Bachelor’s of Science, not an art degree. I really like that they fought to get that kind of definition around the program because this is all theory. Yeah, you are making something. You’re making a “beautiful thing,” at the end of the day. But there’s a lot of science, psychology, anthropology, even that goes into the foundation of the algorithm that we used to make whatever we make, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And now prior to Sacramento State though, you started out at a art school, right? At Academy of Art University.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. So I don’t know if you knew this, but in the Bay Area where Academy is based out of, back in 2000s, they would run commercials late at night when all the anime stuff was on.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Rob Martin:
Show, “Hey, if you want to draw anime, you can come over to art school over here and we’ll help get you a job and all this.” It was very romantic in that way. Trying to play up getting an art degree. That obviously looked very attractive to me. It was very expensive, but I like, “Mom, I really want to do this. Can you help me get there?” So we worked over the summer to get me signed up over there. It was a pain in the arse to get signed up there. And I was still living in my parents’ house in Sunnyvale. So getting up to San Francisco to be there for four days a week, a little bit of a stretch being… I don’t know how old I was, so I think I was maybe 20 or 19 then.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you driving or were you taking Caltrain?

Rob Martin:
So I’d stay at my friend’s house in Berkeley. He was going to UC Berkeley and I would stay up there for a day or two and then take BART across and then come back on the weekends.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha.

Rob Martin:
So I could work and just be home.

Maurice Cherry:
Because that’s a commute from South Bay to get up to San Francisco. I remember I interned out in San Francisco for a summer when I was in college and I was like, “It’s a trek.”

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. If I had a good car, it wouldn’t have been that much of a problem, but just the logistics. So I’d be there till 7:00. I had to get there 9:00 AM, be there till 7:00 and then have to do homework. My friend was like I could just stay with him for a little bit.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, so I started school there, just the whole commute thing, the amount of stuff I needed to buy, the work I needed to do. I wasn’t ready for it. I think I dropped out halfway through the first semester. It wasn’t what I thought I was going to be. I wasn’t ready for that. It wasn’t what I expected it to be, which it ended up being more or the theory stuff. They start you out with all these foundational drawing classes, which are important.

Rob Martin:
But in hindsight, I don’t think that was absolutely necessary for the type of designer that I ended up being. So I’m glad I didn’t stick with that, especially for the amount they were charging. It was incredibly expensive.

Rob Martin:
Oh, yeah. I was going to continue with the little bit, the origin stuff, right? So I dropped out of there and I went back to community college and I decided, “You know what? I’m going to go to a state school. I would like to get out of the Bay Area slightly.” So I started working towards going to Sacramento State, doing some painting and drawing classes at the end of community college and then went to Sac State. I think I started in 2003 there and I was at Academy, I think 2002. Yes, maybe like a year. I had an in between just because we had to sign up for the whole school transfer and everything to go to a state school from any other school.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It sounds like Sacramento State was just a much better environment for you overall.

Rob Martin:
Oh, across the board. I swear I’m so lucky that this worked out for me because it was like one of those things was like, I don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t do this, I have to do something like this because I actually got diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago. And in hindsight that explained my whole entire life up to that point. And because usually if I’m not in it, I’ve been saying this thing recently. If I don’t fuck with you, I don’t fuck with you. And that’s kind of, if I’m not into it, then I literally can’t do it. My brain won’t let me. It won’t be stimulating enough for me to engage with it at all. I didn’t know that was an ADHD thing until recently.

Rob Martin:
But looking back, I told myself, I was like, “Yo Rob, you got to make this work.” Luckily the program at Sac State is top-notch. I highly recommend it to anyone trying to save money, but still get a very solid design education. I think their education there is better than Academy’s. It’s all theoretical. Although the professors are super Swiss old school trained, but they’ve been able to be agile and keep up with the times in a way. That really shows how much the theory and the practice of the foundations like becoming sensitive to the way you’re looking at things and having a critical eye and not personal preference or anything like that. They’re able to shape someone that’s maybe not naturally good at design and get them to a place where they can’t be competitive in the workplace.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk about your early career. So you graduated from Sacramento State, you’re getting out there in the world, working as a designer. Tell me what your early career was like because you were kind of working at a few different places here and there, right?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. Actually, so maybe I should take a little step back. So before I graduated, I went to Dallas for a student design competition and I won my first award there, but I also met a lot of people. I met Armando Simmons out there. This guy, Matt George, I was working at VSA in Chicago. I almost actually ended up working at VCA a few months after that, but I wanted to graduate first and they were trying to get me to get over there before I graduated. I’m like, “I got to get the degree due. I’ve been working on this for three years. I can’t leave a month early and not get the degree.” So passed on that. And then I graduated and then I think immediately after that, I started sending out stuff for internships and I was able to land one at Chan Design in San Francisco, one of my favorite studios.

Rob Martin:
So back in the day, they were very influential on me. I was back again to commuting. So I’d be taking the train or driving to San Francisco from Sacramento at least three days a week for this internship. Super long commute.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
And eventually it was a pain, but for me it was worth it because that was a place I always admired and I really looked up to. So for me that was worth the commute. Plus I got to listen to podcasts and music all day on the way up and down. So those two and a half hour drives weren’t too bad back then.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Rob Martin:
And then from Chan, I was able to get a full-time designer spot at Volume. I was there for about a year, I think. For the first half of that, I was commuting every day now, but this time I take the train, which took longer, but at least I wasn’t driving so I could sleep on the way there and back. I did that get commute for a little bit then I moved back to my parents’ house in Sunnyvale. I just drove from San Francisco every day to back home. Then from there I got a spot at this place called Duarte Design. They’re the PowerPoint keynote specialists for Apple. They did Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth stuff. They’re a heavy player. They are the PowerPoint people. You there’s no one else that’s messing with them in any kind of way.

Rob Martin:
And I was there for a little bit and this is where my snobbery and the me thinking I was hot shit really came into play because I didn’t really… Cool. Working on PowerPoint stuff but I didn’t know I’d be working a Windows machine. I got really uppity about that. I think just culturally I wasn’t a good fit there and we all knew it, but they were trying their hardest to make it work just because they’re investing in the people and everything that they have. So I guess they kind of short, I am getting fired the day that Obama was elected.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Rob Martin:
But yeah, I saw it coming, but I get a little more symbolic on that day of all days. So I left there and I worked at Punchcut for a little bit and then I got laid off there because I was right when Obama got elected was when the recession started to hit. And it hit pretty hard right after that. So I got laid off there and then I was like you know what? I was going to start my studio. I’m living at my parents’ house. I said, “I need to make a little bit of money,” so they let me pay for food and gas and hang on the weekends. So I’ll be able to do that while I’m kind of getting my whole process together and actually figure out how I’m going to do this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to interject there for two things. One, when you were at Duarte, I’m curious. Do you know Jole Simmons? Does that name sound familiar?

Rob Martin:
It sounds familiar, but I don’t have a face.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s a presentation designer. I don’t know if you and he worked at Duarte at the same time, but you mentioned him. And that made me think of when I interviewed him a while back.

Rob Martin:
Oh, you mean Armando Simmons or Jole Simmons? I said Armando.

Maurice Cherry:
I know Armando Simmons, Jole Simmons, J-O-L-E Simmons, Hampton grad. I think Joel is still out there in the Bay now, but he does a lot of big presentations like Apple, Microsoft, et cetera. So you mentioned Duarte and I was thinking, “Oh, I think I know him. I don’t know if you all had crossed paths or not.” But it sounds one interesting parallel that kind of came up to me as you were mentioning that is you left right when Obama got elected, like you said, that was kind of symbolic. And I remember I was working at AT&T right at that time as a senior designer and I quit my job the day Obama got elected. I was going-

Rob Martin:
Because of that or just you got hyped up?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think I just got hyped up. It was all in the moment because I’m not going to get too much into it. Folks who have listened to the podcast have probably heard this story. But I was working at AT&T, I was a senior production designer. It was just a lot of work. And they were scaling things to the point where we were doing… All the work that we did had point values to it. And so they would lessen the point value of the work and increase the number of points you had to hit every week to make your goal or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
And then on top of that, I was also getting paid less than other senior designers there, despite the fact that I had more experience and I had sort of lobbied to not my manager because I was a contractor working there, but my contractor manager telling her what happened and she managed to get all of my back pay. There were six months of back pay that was owed to me and the back hit that morning because I remember I went to go vote. I came back to the office and my contractor manager pulled me into her office, told me that the money had hit and everything like that. So we should be all squared away and things like that. And it was like as soon as she said that, and then a little bit later on we were watching the votes and everything in the office and stuff like that. And we had a big team meeting near the end of the day and I just quit. I quit in the team meeting.

Rob Martin:
Yo, props for that, though. Even during the team meeting too, that’s a hard mic drop thing.

Maurice Cherry:
But I’m curious for you, you had kind of these short stints at these different design agencies and studios and stuff, what was going on during that time. Did you just feel like you weren’t fitting in anywhere or what was going through your mind then?

Rob Martin:
Yeah, this is actually kind of a personal thing for me, right? Again, with the ADHD thing, I didn’t know I had that until later in life. So first two spots to Chan and Volume just being contract designers out here, you kind of come in and out, that’s just how those worked out. At the same time, I think the person I was, my social skills were not where they are now. I’m way more socially inept or I’m better as a social person. I fit in with people. I can talk to people now more comfortable with doing that. Before I was really shy. I’m very awkward on top of me just not being into certain things. At Duarte, I just looked like an asshole pretty much I think to people. Not intentionally, but I was though.

Rob Martin:
Again, in hindsight I could see how the way I was behaving would look to someone for me outside in. And then even just starting Majorminor and having to now get in of people and sell myself, that really helped with all this being comfortable and being able to approach people, being able to talk to people in a certain way. All that really helped and it started to happen once I started getting my feet on the ground, started campaigning to get work and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
So that feeling was kind of what made you want to start the studio?

Rob Martin:
Well, I wouldn’t say that feeling necessarily, but I guess that was a part of it was just, I need to be able to do things in my own terms in order for me to do them at my highest level. Just like the personal investment. Do I really want to do this? Do I care about it versus kind of what you were saying with AT&T just throwing stuff in front of you and you’re just trying to churning it out. I can’t do that necessarily, at least for a sustained amount of time, after a while I just start to drift off and daydream in my head and think about other stuff I’d rather be doing. So I figured why did I just do that stuff in the first place so you never have to feel like that or make someone feel a certain kind of way about you because you’re treating their work in a certain way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What were those early years of Majorminor like?

Rob Martin:
Very interesting. I’ve ever encountered anyone else that had this kind of path, but I didn’t have any clients that I brought with me or anything like that when I left any of these places or even freelance clients. I literally just went on Craigslist every 20 minutes and refreshed a page and sent out my little cold email to all the people that were looking for stuff. Sometimes it’d be a little $150 logo. Sometimes it’d be like, “Hey, I need a magazine done or something like that.”

Rob Martin:
That experience was really critical because it helped me to build my process for any actual real work, getting my contracts together. Having that experience is where things go wrong, and I now learn not to do certain things. Understanding how to approach people and not just say yes to everything, but like, “Hey, I can do this, but I can do this. Well, you only have this amount of money. Well, I can’t do that then, but I can do this for you.” The negotiation thing, being able to meet people where they’re at with what they’re trying to do and really understanding and hearing them and what they’re trying to do and not just be a factory.

Rob Martin:
The beginning years of just chilling on Craigslist was pretty, pretty significant that way. I didn’t know that at the time, but looking back that was my master’s program was the first two years of Majorminor, just trolling on there. But the thing is once I was doing that because I started off solo, right? So I’m doing this just on Craigslist as often as I possibly can, looking for other avenues to get work without having any work to show or any other contacts that could put me in front of someone else. It really built me up in that way and got my process to a place where I can actually run a business.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad you said that because I think that way of starting out is a lot more common than people think. I know that-

Rob Martin:
Yeah, I hope so.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no, serious because that’s how I started out. My first year after I quit, I didn’t have… See, this was my thing. I thought I would have clients lined up. I had been telling friends of mine like, “I’m thinking about starting my own studio or something like that.” And they’re like, “Yeah, well you got such and such. I’ll have some work for you.” And I quit. And those first, I’d say probably those first three or four were lean. I mean they were rough. I wasn’t necessarily going on Craigslist, but I was definitely taking super low paying jobs, anything just to get something in the bank account.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to a lot of meetups because meetups were big. I’m in Atlanta to kind of give a context. But here at Atlanta, meetups were pretty big in 2009 or so. So I would go to all these web design meetups, which I quickly found out is the worst place for a designer to try to get a job because there’s other designers that are trying to get jobs. So you all are all competing for the same scraps essentially. Everybody’s trying to get something. It was rough those first few months.

Maurice Cherry:
I had went to one meetup and some guy had contacted me. He was a business graduate from UGA, this white dude. And he was like, “Yeah, I’d love to meet up with you. I have some questions about design because there’s this project that I might be working on and I’d like your help on.” And I was just like, “Okay, fine. If you buy me breakfast.” Because at the time I was like, I got $5 off to my MATA card. I can take the bus up there and then walk back to the station and take the trains, so I don’t have to pay twice or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
I went up there. It was a Panera Bread up in Buckhead for folks that know Atlanta. Went to Panera Bread, met this guy and he was telling me, “Me and this other friend were thinking of starting this business because we’re trying to… ” They were basically trying to cash in on the, it’s funny because Obama kind of ties into this, but trying to cash in on the trend of politicians now wanting to run their campaigns like Obama. So this is early 2009. Everything Obama did in his first run for presidency with social media and graphic design and stuff was really unprecedented.

Maurice Cherry:
And so this is one of the first slates of municipal races after that. It was like the mayor’s race essentially. And so everybody running wanted the Obama sheen to their campaign and it’s like, “Well you can’t hire the Obama folks because now they work for the administration or they’re going to be super expensive.” So he had knew this guy and they knew a candidate that was running and they were basically going to put a company together to pitch to that candidate. But they were like, “We need a designer.” And so he’s asking me to basically tell him how to design. He’s like, “Should I learn HTML or should I learn Dreamweaver? And I’m like [crosstalk 00:40:09]. I was like, “You know what? I’m sympathetic to your plight. I really need work. Let’s just kind of do this as a trio.”

Maurice Cherry:
And so the three of us had met up and we came up with a name for the business and we had ended up getting onto the campaign of this woman. She was the city council president and she had ran for mayor. She dropped out because her parents got sick and she was about to jump back into the race. So we’re talking to her campaign manager at this lavish mansion. And I was like, “This is the fanciest shit I have ever seen in my life.” I knew people in Atlanta were rich, but I was like, “I have never seen no shit like this.” Huge-

Rob Martin:
Yeah. Rich, rich.

Maurice Cherry:
… 10 foot round solid marble table that we’re meeting at like King Arthur. And we meet the candidate and she’s told us about we’re running for everything and she’s like, “I like the three of you all,” because two of us were black and one of us was white. And she’s like, “I like the three of you all. This is real diverse like Obama. You got you a white guy? This is real diverse.” Because she was black.

Rob Martin:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And so she kind of was, ask us about where we went to school and all this kind of stuff. And so is like, “Yeah, I’ll take a chance. I’ll take a chance on you.” So we ended up becoming the new media team for her campaign essentially. She got back in the race and ran from, I think April of 2009 to November. She didn’t win. She came in third place. But that whole experience set me up basically to continue running my studio for almost 10 years after that. Because if I didn’t have that experience of that campaign, I wouldn’t have been able to meet other people.

Maurice Cherry:
And honestly, like you said, get your process together. The crucible of working inside a political campaign is rough. It reminded me a lot of working as a production designer. You got to crank out stuff really fast. You got to respond to things quickly. There’s no time to kind of sit and iterate. You got to really come up with something super quick. It was a lot, it was a lot. And actually that’s where I first met Stacey Abrams because that was who our campaign manager was.

Rob Martin:
Oh, okay. Cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, so that was pretty cool.

Rob Martin:
That’s what I said. They all comes around full circle.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Those early years, I mean kind of to the point I was saying earlier, you kind of have to get out there and scrap. The hope is that you’re going to have these clients and people that come over. But the reality is, it’s a jungle out there. I’d say probably even more so now than that because the learning curve to design, I’m using air quotes around design, is so much shorter now because people can learn stuff on YouTube and they can take these courses and stuff. And there’s people half a world away that are doing this for pennies on the dollar. And how can you compete with that?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. It’s just all the bureaucracy that goes into that, everyone’s looking at it, everyone’s got something to say, but you still got to make it in two minutes just really quick. And did you even have a system that you were working with or were you just making stuff on the fly and [crosstalk 00:43:09]?

Maurice Cherry:
No, I was just making up stuff as I went along. I had no problem process, I had nothing. And like you said, it takes a few times you get burned by… I was fortunate that with the political campaign, everything worked out as it did. But even the clients I had after that, I didn’t have a contract. I eventually learned about AIGA’s design contract and I sort of used that.

Maurice Cherry:
I had a client that was a lawyer who used to work with the campaign. And so I bartered my service with him. I’m like, “I’ll do design work for you. If you write my contracts.” And so that’s how I got good contracts, proposals, templates and stuff. I started thinking like, “Who do I need to do work for to try to upgrade how I do my business?” But that process had to come along through a lot of trial and error. Nobody was sitting me, I didn’t have a business mentor or anybody that sat me down that was like, “You have to do this.” I was out here fucking up and just trying to recover from it.

Rob Martin:
The contract thing’s actually kind of funny. So we’ve always had problems with people running late or not paying us. Actually, we had a really bad one about a year ago. They’re still paying us. It’s been a year since the job was over. I’ve actually found the contracts to be kind of ineffective because if you don’t enforce them, whether it’s like, “Hey, this happened according to our terms, this is what’s supposed to happen.” If you don’t enforce them, they’re not going to.” If you do enforce them, you might not get anything. It’s kind of like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
So yeah, the whole contract thing, we’ve been trying to figure that out. Yeah, we have a good contract here. It is “legal” because they sign it. But, “Okay, cool. They’re not doing anything. Do we now want to spend the money that we don’t have to pursue the thing legally?” We can’t just flash the piece of paper in their face and like, “But you signed the contract.” “All right. I still don’t have any fucking money for you. What are you going to do?”

Maurice Cherry:
The one thing that I would do with clients is I would never let them sign the contract alone. So I would set up a contract meeting with them and we would go over each clause in the contract and make understood it and then we’d sign it together. And then they knew kind of moving forward, this is what you’re being held to.

Maurice Cherry:
And I was lucky that even with the lawyer that I had, he wrote the contract in pretty plain language. So it wasn’t a lot of PR24s and the party of the first part and all that kind of stuff. It was pretty straight forward. But I would always have a contract meeting. I would never let them sign it alone because one, the client’s never really going to read it. They’re just going to sign it so they can try to get the project started.

Maurice Cherry:
And the hope is that they read it. You hope that they read it. I’m like, “No, we’re going over this like you’re five years old. We are going over it clause by clause so you understand what this means. This is what scope creep means. This is what a termination fee means. This is what a kill fee means. I hope we never have to institute these things, but if it gets to that point you know because we’ve had this meeting.” I would sort of point back to that meeting if things started to go a little wonky during the process like, “Well, we had the meeting and you said this and we signed it together.” And they’re like, “Oh, okay.”

Rob Martin:
I think we are going to start doing something like that now. But I think even more so signing it in-person versus talking over the phone, which I think is what we’re about to do, but that was actually really good. I like hearing that. That was really smart.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, something that you had mentioned to me before we had started recording was the parallels in your design career and your music career. I’d love to hear more about that.

Rob Martin:
Oh, yeah. So I think more of that is just around the process of my approach. So I feel like all these things are kind of the same as far as the way that they’re made, right? You have layers in Photoshop and your music software, you have layers of instruments of tracks, right? The way you’re blending them, the way you’re using levels or curves or whatever. The same thing you do with mixing EQ, adding saturation to something, even the words, the semantics are similar in some cases.

Rob Martin:
So historically I’ve never done both of them at the same time up until maybe the last few years where I’ve really taken the design and my music career as seriously as I am. But even outside of the actual creative part, you got to start making relationships. The way you’re talking to people about your design work and trying to sell them is a similar kind of passion and trust is being built when you’re trying to get gigs or just talk to people about your music.

Rob Martin:
I’ve noticed as I do one more, I get better at the other one too. So they kind of lift each other up in separate ways. Well, separate ways, but they do the same thing. When do you do outreach or something like that, you’re campaigning yourself or your music stuff. When you start doing that in your design field, it’s a similar process. You’re running business, the concept of running a business is the same everywhere. You don’t need to know how to do that certain thing to operate the business so that you can scale it, right?

Rob Martin:
I never realized that until recently, but just all that stuff it’s very similar, even if you know how to use Final Cut, you probably know how to use Ableton or Logic or something like that. But the way they use softwares and the process, the workflow to use them are all very similar.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
The buttons might be a little bit different, but if you get the concept behind how to use it, you’ll be able to apply it elsewhere.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. The thing is for those graphic tools, a lot of them borrow their UI from music tools. So the layers [crosstalk 00:48:26] and all that sort of stuff. Yeah, it’s all the same. So what is it that keeps you motivated and inspired these days? What keeps you going?

Rob Martin:
I guess there’s a couple things, I guess first off, just my personal interest. I love what I’m doing. I love the fact that I can make money from my first two passions, even starting Majorminor and becoming successful with that. I feel blessed I’m able to do that because I need to be able to do something like this to wake up in the morning, and not become bored or anything like that. So I’m glad I’m able to be self-sufficient as a man, as a person in society doing the thing that I love.

Rob Martin:
So I used to tell people, “Oh, I got my second dream running the studio and we’re good.” But now I want to get my first dream and that’s to have a successful music career, at least doing music to a certain point. I don’t want to become famous or anything like that. But just being able to release music and work on it and have people make memories to it. I always have this idea where someone sees me on the street, “Oh, you’re that dude RCA. Hey, you made that beat. I met my girl that almost playing at the club or whatever. And we listen to it all the time, it’s a memory of ours now. I just want to say, thank you for that.” I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know, man.” But that makes my day. It makes my whole life right there, hearing stuff like that. That’s from a personal kind of place. So my personal drive, that’s where that motivation comes from.

Rob Martin:
I think the other part of it too specifically to design, and this is funny because this has changed a lot over the last, since I’ve been a student, but just having see another black person run a studio. I think a lot of times people just like the diversity and design. There’s people out there’s doing everything. But in certain places, I only know maybe three or four other studio heads that are black. And I know there’s more than that, but just personally know or have actually seen on the wild. It’s just good to see that because I’m always surprised when I’m on a company’s page and I see career director, black dude. Oh, cool. If we’re getting out there, not just as a team designer, but doing strategy or being the leadership part of the team.

Rob Martin:
When I was a kid, I saw none of that. I was always the only black kid in my class historically. So it’s cool seeing all that change, even just giving back to the community in that way. Just being, not like they need to be the face of anything, but just having people see me in certain ways always feels really good. So that’s a big motivator too. And just doing kind of talks for kid’s school or portfolio reviews. I always try to show up to those whenever I can just to give back in the first place, but also represent that we’re out here like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have any mentors or other peers that helped you along your design journey?

Rob Martin:
Not so much. I could call it mentors, but Armando Simmons, he was the first black student I had ever met. I was still in school and we talked a little bit after I met him when I was in school, but I wouldn’t call him mentor, but he definitely was a source of inspiration, just like, “Oh, shit. He’s doing and he’s been doing it for a minute too. And that stuff’s tight.” I don’t know, that was the first glimpse I got. And he was always really nice to just hang out and talk or whatever.

Rob Martin:
But as far as mentors, not really. Maybe my professor’s like Gwen Amos and John Forrest at Sacramento State, they were really positive to me in that way. I always tell them whenever I see them, “You guys changed my life. If I hadn’t met you, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I’d probably be working at Target or something like that.” They put the effort, they saw the effort I was trying to put it in, and they put the effort back into me and they knew there was something there. So I really appreciate them taking the chance on me like that and just pouring some of my extra effort into someone that they felt was deserving of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Is this how you imagined your life would look like when you were a kid?

Rob Martin:
Absolutely not. And I’m glad because when I was a kid, my later life, I was always very nervous to get older because I had no idea what I was going to do. And that’s even from being a small child. Like, “I don’t know what I want to do. I just want to make stuff, I don’t know what that means, making money, being a person in society and all that kind of stuff.” But then even as I got closer to becoming an adult, I’m like, “Oh, shit. I need to figure this out. I’m getting to a point where I’m going to be 20 years old. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Rob Martin:
So I’d say maybe actually in the first time in my life, in the last 10 years, I’ve actually felt like, “Cool. Things didn’t work out the way I thought they were as a kid.” I’m super glad I’ve been able to do that for myself. And now it’s just sustaining that. What’s going to keep me going? What’s going to keep me excited in the same kind of rhythm that I have now, be able to do the things I would like to, and then still be able to make money from it, but then also add to other people’s lives? I can’t do this all on my own, so I hope whatever people that do get on the ride with me, they’re getting something out of it and are doing it not for just money, but there’s personal investment. That’s why I usually end up hiring a lot of my friends that are really close to me because they seem to be into what we’re doing. Yeah, it just feels good being able to contribute to their lives because they’re contributing back to me in that way by team and up.

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

Rob Martin:
That’s a good one. That’s what we’ve been talking about internally with the team and just even me thinking about it myself. One thing I’ve actually been doing, this is kind of like I guess one of the parallels with the music and the design stuff is doing more concert visuals. So I’ve been working on my own personal show, learning how to do visuals whether it’s a video synthesizer or software synthesizer or with after effects and premier and integrating that along with the music, whether it’s programmed and able to live or it’s just a movie that plays in the background or something with Resolume. And I guess that’s kind of the marriage of my two passions, as I’m saying it out loud is how can I bring these things together? And then also now start to offer that as a service and be able to do it for myself as well, too.

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

Rob Martin:
Yeah. The best place to go. And we’re working on this now we’re on a new website, but you can find our stuff at majorminor.co. There’s a little bit of work on there, but if you’d like to see more, just feel free to email me, rob@majorminor.co. As far as the music stuff, you can go to rcawhatsgood.com. All the links are on there, IG, YouTube and just see what we’re all about and what I’m all about. The music stuff too. I think there’s a lot of parallels as far as the aesthetics and just how we approach design. You can see both those things on there. But yeah, if you have any other questions, feel free to hit me up on any of those platforms too. I’m always very responsive. I love talking to people.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Rob Martin. I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. We kind of had talked a bit before we had started recording, but it’s amazing how much our journeys as entrepreneurs and even kind of as musicians in a way have kind of paralleled each other. I think it’s great that you’ve really been able to carve your own way and find your own way in the design industry really through hard work, luck and determination and just doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
As a musician, it’s always about practice makes perfect. We always hear that. But with business, oftentimes you don’t have the opportunity to do that because especially for your own business, everything that you do has to be contributing hopefully towards progressing the business. But it really sounds like with Majorminor going for 13 years now, you’re doing something good. You’re putting out good things out there in the world. You’re supporting the community as well. And I’m just so glad to have had you on the show to tell your story. So thank you for coming on. I appreciate it.

Rob Martin:
Right on. Thanks, Maurice. And just for you too, thank you for doing all of your past stuff. I remember we talked a lot back on the Slack channel. I don’t know if this still exists or not, but that was really great for you to support or just put out there for the community and everything you do. I’ve always seen it from afar, but I really got a lot of appreciation of what you do and just the fact you’ve been doing it for this long too, so right off for having me. I really appreciate it. I’ve been waiting to be on this for a minute too, so it finally happened.

Chris Burnett

I think my conversation with this week’s guest — artist, musician, and designer Chris Burnett — is probably the most chill interview I’ve done this year. Don’t be fooled though — Chris is a creative dynamo, and someone you should definitely keep your eyes out for in the future.

We start off with a quick talk about the creative scene in Los Angeles, and from there he talks about being an artist at heart and how his current editorial design projects have been keeping him active. Chris also talked about growing up as a skate kid, attending Cal Arts, and scoring lucrative gigs including a stint with Nike, as well as designing for Odd Future. Chris calls himself a creative superhero, and if you trust your heart and spirit, so can you!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Chris Burnett:
Hi, my name is Chris Burnett. I’m an artist, designer, musician, pretty much all around creative soul. It’s hard to peg me down.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going for you so far?

Chris Burnett:
This year and probably for most people, it’s been a very much transition year, buckling down on the things that I really want to be focusing on and being more selective with my time and my energy and my creative focus. So, it’s been good to narrow down the path of where I’m headed. It also coincides with me turning 30 in two weeks.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it’s the beginning of a new decade, a new chapter. So, things have been shifting, but in a good way.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. What would you say you’ve learned about yourself since last year?

Chris Burnett:
I’ve learned that I’m an artist at heart. That’s ultimately what I really want to do with my life and my creativity. I’ve been doing graphic design at this point for maybe eight years professionally. As much as I enjoy working with clients and collaborating on projects, there’s this burning desire in me to just be the artist that I want to be, have gallery shows, release albums, have more maybe design collaborations with companies and do things like that. So, yeah, things are in the works, things are in the works. It feels good to head towards the ultimate dream.

Maurice Cherry:
Is L.A. a good city for that kind of creative collaboration? I feel like it is.

Chris Burnett:
Well, yeah, I mean, L.A. is such an interesting creative scene, because you get people who come here from all over the world to pursue what they want to pursue. So, I’m constantly meeting people from all different walks of life, different types of creatives, whether that be musicians, other designers, other artists. So, it is pretty good for that. Although a lot of my work does come from people just reaching out to me by email and the collaboration happens more in a digital space, but I’m opening myself up more to relationships that I’m developing in the city. So, I have people that I can actually meet with in person and maybe visit their studios and see what they’re doing. So, yeah, if you wanted to find it in L.A., you could, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. We just had a fine artist on the show a few weeks ago in L.A. His name is Gabe Gault. I don’t know if that name sounds familiar.

Chris Burnett:
I haven’t heard of him.

Maurice Cherry:
He painted the world’s largest mural in Toledo, Ohio. I think it’s like an ongoing project, but he does a lot of fine art work. I don’t know if you’re familiar with football, but his dad is Willie Gault-

Chris Burnett:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… who played for the Rams. Don’t get me talking about sports. I don’t know that much, but I do know that. It’s funny because I interviewed him and he kept throwing out like, “Yeah, my dad does sports. He’s in NFL and won a few Super Bowls.” I was like, “Okay.” It didn’t click to me after the interview to be like, “Wait a minute, who is his dad? Oh, it makes sense, because they have the same last name.” Yeah, I can imagine that L.A. is a really great place for that creative collaboration. We’ve been seeing so much Black creativity come out of L.A., I think largely, due to Issa Rae and Kendrick Lamar and folks like that. We’ve seen a lot of what feels like specifically Black L.A. creativity.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I’m loving every bit of it. I was just watching Insecure yesterday. I think I caught up on the latest episode, but just to see that creativity coming out of the neighborhoods that I grew up in feels like finally we’re getting the recognition that is well-deserved.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, talk to me about Colibri Studios. That’s a studio that you began last year. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, I started Colibri Studios in the middle of last year. It was right when everything went into lockdown, actually, which seems like it would be the least opportune moment to do it, but there’s an interesting story to how I went about it. I was in New York. I was visiting a friend of mine, and I’ve been working on a necklace design. I found this charm that I really liked to go in the end of the necklace, and it had a hummingbird in it. It was the first time I was designing a chain and I was really excited about it.

Chris Burnett:
The hummingbird has special significance to me, because of the way that the animal moves throughout its life. It’s not really in your face. It’s secretive. But when you do see a hummingbird, it’s like this moment for you to be present with it and admire it. That’s how I feel about myself. I’m not really in the public eye per se. I’m not too show-offy. But when I do come around people, I make my presence felt. Honestly, I always see them, which is the weirdest thing. I’ll just be walking down the street and one will fly right in front of me. I’m like, “All right, there’s some weird connection here.” So yeah, I was designing this necklace.

Chris Burnett:
I get back from New York and the necklace is ready to be picked up. I get it and I’m so happy with the design that I thought, “That’s the logo. That’s the logo for the studio.” This was before I even really conceived of starting a studio. But once I had the necklace done, that was the moment where it was like, “Okay, this is a step in a new direction that you need to take.”

Chris Burnett:
It became more clear to me over time that I wanted to create a studio that really just was an umbrella for all of my creative endeavors, whether that be music, fine art, design. I found an office space in West Hollywood. I woke up one morning. It was on Craigslist, found the space. The first one I clicked on was the one that I’m actually in now. It all came together step by step. So, there wasn’t really a big plan that I was conscious of. It was more these little moments that led to the establishment of the studio. So, that’s what it is right now at this point.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you mentioned it being this umbrella. I went on your website. You’re doing art direction, you’re doing graphic design, you’re doing collage and mixed media work. Again, you mentioned music being part of that as well. What made you decide to do such a broad range of services, as opposed to just graphic design?

Chris Burnett:
Well, I’ve always had this desire to really just be into one thing, but that’s just not how my life works. There’s so many creative outlets, and I’ve never felt limited to stick to just one. So, anything that I pursue, I want to do it to the best of my ability. If I can provide those services for other people, whether that’s producing music for people or working on an ad campaign for someone or just creating my own artwork that will eventually show in a gallery, I just wanted it to feel like it was a part of one family. So, that’s why I wanted to include all these different artistic mediums in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about how you approach a new project. What does your process look like?

Chris Burnett:
Well, it really depends on the context of the project. So, if we can start with a typical design project, I’ll get an email from a random person. I’m always amazed by how people find me because I’m not on Instagram or social media. I’m hidden, right? So, I’ll just get an email out of the blue. Someone’s saying, “Hey, we think you might be great for this project we’re working on.” We move forward with a brief, which is them giving me a document of what they’re looking for and maybe the end deliverables and the goals that they want to hit. And then I get to work.

Chris Burnett:
The process of me actually getting to work is not really standardized in the sense that I don’t have a list of things that I do every time I start a project. It’s really based on feeling and it’s more intuitive, because it allows me to be a bit more spontaneous with the end product. If I had the same process every time, I feel like it might be too stale for me and I might come up with the same thing too much. So, I allow for space in between projects for me to just sit and think about new directions or think about things I want to explore and then try to align those new things with what a client might be asking. Typically, it works out.

Chris Burnett:
For the most part, a client will ask for what I’m already good at. They don’t really ask for things that are completely outside of my wheelhouse. That allows me to use the skills that I already have, but then push it in a little bit of a new direction. Sometimes that creates a back and forth where there’s notes and there’s feedback, of course. And then sometimes I hit it right on the head and people are happy with what I create first try. So, it really depends on the project that I’m being asked to work on.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I would also imagine, because like you said, you’re not on social media and folks have to go to your website and look through your work. By the time they’ve done that, hopefully, that’s a pretty good metric for you to see that this is someone that you would possibly want to work with. I’m pretty sure you have, but I don’t know. Have you ever gotten the client that has just been completely not a fit?

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, yeah, yes. It’s funny, because me and one of my designer buddies, we always have this joke that what we show on our website is typically the type of work that we want to receive, which is why we put it there. But there definitely will be times where someone will hit me up and just be like, “Hey, I need you to design just a simple logo.” It’s not that I can’t design a logo, but that’s not really where my skillset lies and my strengths are.

Chris Burnett:
So, I can do it, but then the process becomes a little muddied when it’s not something that I’m too passionate about. They’re maybe expecting the crazy, colorful collage type stuff, but it’s a logo. So, I can’t really do that for a logo. Yeah, there have been moments where it doesn’t work, but I’m learning which projects to say yes and no to now that I’ve been doing this for so long.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What are some of the projects that you’re working on now?

Chris Burnett:
So, a lot of the things that I’ve been doing now is a lot of editorial illustration, which I’ve found that that really suits my strengths really well. It’s mostly image making, which is my favorite thing in the world to do is just create a compelling image to look at. So, when you pair that with an article for, say, The New York Times or the Guardian, that’s where I get to really flex my abilities. Over the past year, I’d probably gotten the most editorial illustration work than I ever have.

Chris Burnett:
There’s also a lot of merch design, merchandise design for artists in the music industry. That’s always ongoing. There’s always artists who need things to sell on the road or sell on their website. I help with a lot of that stuff. Some of its like under wraps because people don’t want to release info about music projects that they might be doing. But yeah, most stuff in the music industry and editorial illustration, I’d say, are my two big ones.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there a specific type of client that you prefer to work with?

Chris Burnett:
I’m always open to new types of clients, people that I haven’t worked with before just to be able to stretch myself and see, “What industries can I adapt my creativity towards?” But I think I do love working in the music industry. It’s fun to work with artists that you admire. It’s fun to work with artists that you’re playing their music in your car when you’re driving around and you get to work on something that’s for their project. It’s fun to be a part of things like that. I love editorial. I don’t know what it is about it. It’s just the pairing of an image with an article is like a dream project. It’s like they’re little, tiny dream projects, because they’re really quick and the turnaround time is super-fast, usually within a week or a couple days.

Chris Burnett:
It’s typically within those industries like editorial that there’s a little more room for creative freedom, because they’re trying to see how you would interpret the article and how that article maybe is reflected in your style and your own sensibility. So, that’s why I like it a lot, because there’s not too many notes. There’s not too much canceling of ideas. It’s very open ended, which I love.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I don’t know why for some reason, I would imagine working with musicians might be temperamental, but I guess like you said, if it’s an artist that you really like, it probably makes it a bit of an easier match.

Chris Burnett:
Well, that’s a good point. I mean, they’re definitely artists I’ve worked with in the past who are artists. An artist comes in mind a lot. There’s a certain temperament like you said that goes along with it. But I think the reason that I enjoy it and the reason I think I’m able to do it is because I am also an artist, so I understand that sensibility. It allows me to be as flexible as I need to be when working with them. It also informs my own practice of how I go about my music or my art as well. So, it’s fun. It’s a double-edged sword for sure, but I do like it.

Maurice Cherry:
I just want to say to the audience, I don’t know if Chris is being a little humble now, but his music is really good. It’s really good.

Chris Burnett:
Thank you, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
With your permission, I’d like to link to your SoundCloud because I was doing research for the interview and I just put the music on. I was like, “This is good. This is good.” I was like, “I can hear this on Insecure. I can hear this on Insecure. It’s pretty good.”

Chris Burnett:
Oh, man. I would love for that to happen, but this is their final season. I’m so sad. Yeah, but thank you. I really appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I guess to that end, talking about Black art and things like that, we started to see over the past few years that with this influx in Black television shows and movies and stuff, we’re really starting to see a much wider range of artists, not just musical artists, but visual artists and stuff portrayed through these works. We had Gabe Gault who I mentioned before on the show, and he’s mentioned that his work has been in a television show. We had Dawn Okoro, who’s an artist in Austin. Her work has been on a BT show.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m wondering, because we hear so much about this Black creative renaissance and you hear about it through these visual artists, does that exposure help you in any way? I don’t know. Has your work been out there in that way where you feel like you’ve got an exposure because it’s been amplified through, say, a musical artist or something like that?

Chris Burnett:
Not necessarily. I guess this is a little hard to explain and this is the whole point of the studio, which is funny, is that because I think the hummingbird is such a secretive animal and it’s very hidden, because it’s so small and it moves really fast, I’ve settled into the idea that my work doesn’t necessarily exist in a public space as much as it could and I’m okay with that. I think when the time comes, some more visibility might help. But in the meantime, I still get to work with the people I love working with. Whether I’m publicly associated with them or not is not really what I’m focusing on. It’s just, “How do we make the best possible thing for this person? Or if it’s for me, how do I make the best possible thing for myself and share it?”

Chris Burnett:
I mean, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had moments where my work was recognized and especially recognized for the culture. There was an article in The New York Times Magazine, I think this was last year, I’m not too sure, but by Isabel Wilkerson. She just wrote a book called Caste that explores the idea of racism, but not through a racist ideology. It’s through a caste system, which is a whole another way of looking at it. I did these two collage pieces for the article in The Times. It was heavily centered around Black imagery and police brutality. That was the first time that I actually incorporated imagery into my work.

Chris Burnett:
It was a very enlightening moment, because I did the collages by hand. I was cutting out images of MLK hanging out with Mahatma Gandhi. I was cutting out images of African American men on the floor with police pointing guns at their heads. It was the first time that I started to have my work speak in a way that was relevant to what was actually happening. That was really eye-opening for me and that led me down a whole new trajectory with my art. But in those instances, I really enjoy when I can speak to what’s happening in the now and speak to the culture.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve just always been really curious about that, because I want to make sure… I mean, I’m saying this like I’m the singular person that can make this happen, but I want to see that Black artists, visual artists, graphic artists, particularly with their work being featured in entertainment get just as much shine as the show that the artists featured on or the actor that might be in front of the art and the piece. I don’t know. Something like that, it’s making me think of… Are you familiar with Brent Rollins? Does that name sound familiar?

Chris Burnett:
No. Who’s Brent Rollins?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God. So, Brent Rollins, so he was on episode 400, but Brent Rollins is like… I forget the moniker that I saw when I was researching, but it was like your favorite hip-hop artist’s favorite designer or something like. He designed the logo for Boys in the Hood when he was, I think, 19. He designed the logo for Poetic Justice when he was 20. He was rolling in that crew with Ice Cube and John Singleton back in the day. He did a bunch of work in the ’90s and 2000s Ego Trip. God, I can’t remember the name of the magazine. It’s escaping me but it’s episode 400 if people are listening. Go back and listen to it.

Chris Burnett:
Hell yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There were these shows on VH1. One was called Race-O-Rama. One was called… I think it was White rapper showcase or something or a reality show or something like that. He had his hand in all these really interesting things around hip hop culture, but it was through his design and eye. So, a lot of stuff that you see in Vibe Magazine and stuff for the ’90s and 2000s was heavily influenced by him and his work. He is such a cool ass, behind-the-scenes dude.

Maurice Cherry:
Him and I were talking. He was like, “Yeah, man, I did this and did this. I exhibited here and there.” I was like, “Do you understand, I grew up on your work, watching your stuff, looking at your stuff at Vibe magazine, be like I want to design like that?”, and was just being so humble about it. I knew who he was because I ended up doing the research on it, but I don’t think the average hip hop fan knows who Brent Rollins is. That’s not to say that diminishes Brent’s work in any way, but why is he not as recognized as artists from that time?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, well, I think there’s a couple of levels to it. I think, on a larger scale, typically, designers are in the background, because the work is what speaks to the public, right? So, if I’m designing a logo for a company, my face isn’t going to be the face of the company, but the logo will, right? So, there’s never really been a need for the designer to be in the public eye as much as maybe the person who runs the company, or say, if you’re working for an artist, the artist is the one who is getting all the focus. So, the designer falls to the background.

Chris Burnett:
I think we’re starting to see a shift in that, especially in Black culture, with people like Virgil Abloh, who became almost like designer of the year for every year for a long time at this point. But he came from Kanye’s group, and he started to create the idea that designer can be the public figure also and not just be the one that sits in the background. So, I think that tide is starting to shift and we’re starting to see it. It also happens in music too. Back then, producers were always just behind the boards and you never really knew who was producing the music, but now, the producers are just as big as some of the artists. So, we’re seeing that shift take place and I think that’s really cool. I don’t know if it’ll happen to me, but it’s all right. I don’t mind being in the shadows.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s true. I do hope to see that day where the designers and the visual artists get that same level of recognition or at least name recognition, where folks know. They look at something. You’re like, “Oh, that’s a Chris Burnett,” if they see a collage or something like that, that thing.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, I’m definitely developing a visual language and a style that feels really specific to me. So, there are certain recognizable aspects of my work. As I’ve ventured more into music, I’m definitely going to be presenting myself and my person out there. So, maybe the moment where the tide turns and this all becomes more public is right around the corner.

Maurice Cherry:
There you go.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So, tell me what it was like growing up in L.A.

Chris Burnett:
Growing up in L.A., yeah, I grew up in South Central, specifically Manchester and Vermont for anyone who knows that area. It wasn’t really the best neighborhood at the time. There was a lot of gang violence, a lot of drugs. Police relations with the community were not great. Growing up, there definitely had an impact on me, although my parents were very, very careful in what they allowed me and my older brother to do. We weren’t really allowed to go outside after certain time. I didn’t really have many friends in the neighborhood, because that was the way that I could get caught up in some of the wrong stuff.

Chris Burnett:
So, a lot of my time was spent creating indoors, whether that was drawing or painting or my parents would put me in art classes at a pretty young age just to keep me occupied and doing something that I enjoyed versus running around my neighborhood, getting into trouble, like a lot of the kids who were there probably did. It wasn’t until I went to high school that I was taking the bus to high school to public transport. That was the first time I got a little taste of freedom. I started skateboarding at the same time. So, I would take the bus to skate parks and start to explore a little bit. That was when I really started to understand the neighborhood a little bit better.

Chris Burnett:
It wasn’t as dangerous as it was when I was a little kid, but yeah, it definitely influenced my practice and my behavior in terms of I like the area I grew up in, because to me, it feels real. It feels very honest. Where I live now is actually a completely different environment. At this point, I’m not sure that I want to stay there as much, because every time I go home to visit my folks, it’s like, “Oh, I actually really liked this neighborhood.”

Chris Burnett:
Maybe I was scared of it when I was a kid, but now I’m an adult and I know how to move. Certain things become illuminated when you’re in different stages of your life. So, back then, it was a little intimidating, but now it’s more enticing, especially they just built the big stadium in Inglewood. That’s 10 minutes from where I grew up. So, there are things that are happening in that area that wouldn’t necessarily happen. Resources are coming back down there, which I think is great. So, I might move down. Who knows? We’ll see.

Maurice Cherry:
L.A. is so big.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, man.

Maurice Cherry:
I was there actually, for the first time last year. We were set to do a live tour throughout 2020 last year. We started off in L.A. and did our first live show out there.

Chris Burnett:
Nice.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I live in Atlanta, which is pretty spread out, but L.A. is gargantuan in terms of scale. I was in the Korea Town neighborhood initially and then we did the live show. We did that down in Leimert Park, but I didn’t really get to see L.A. I saw a couple of neighborhoods.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, yeah, there’s always the pockets that people go to, but there’s a lot of hidden treasures in this city. It takes time. It takes time of living here or just having the time to explore. You got to have a car. You got to drive everywhere. But yeah, it’s massive. It’s massive, massive, massive, massive.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you grew up studying art. You were taking art classes and everything. Eventually, you went to college. You went to CalArts. What was that experience like?

Chris Burnett:
CalArts, for me, was extremely transformative. At this point, I was coming out of high school. I took a graphic design course in high school. So, that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to study in college. So, I applied to a couple different art schools in California. I didn’t really want to leave the state. The minute I stepped on the CalArts Campus for a tour is the minute that I knew that was the place I needed to be. I didn’t really even do that much research, I’ll be honest, but the feeling I got when I arrived there, it felt like I definitely made the right decision.

Chris Burnett:
The thing that I loved about that school was that there were so many disciplines in one roof. There was acting, there was costume design, there was character animation, there’s graphic design, there’s fine arts, there was music, there was set design. There was all kinds of creative people who come from all over the world to study and perfect their craft. So, that period of time really opened my eyes to all the things that maybe I didn’t get to experience growing up, especially because my parents were really careful about what I was exposed to. Once I got to CalArts, it was like, “Oh, I’m an individual now. I’m going to do it or what. I can explore. I can see what life really has to offer.”

Chris Burnett:
It was in a bubble of CalArts, but still, within that bubble, there were so many different pockets to explore. A lot of the friends I have now are people from that school. A lot of the people that I try to keep in touch with creatively are people from that school. It was just a really transformative time. I think it really allowed me to grow up. I’ve always been the youngest one in my friend circles. I have funny stories.

Chris Burnett:
When I got to CalArts, I still maybe looked like a 13-year-old or 14-year-old. It was very strange. People would walk up to me and say, “Do you go here? Are you lost?” I’m like, “No, man, I’m headed to the movie class right now.” It was really interesting. It was that time for me to grow up and grow into myself. I wouldn’t trade those four years for the world. Even though I picked up some student debt from it, we all have a little bit of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that where you met Bijan?

Chris Burnett:
That’s where I met Bijan, yeah. So, Bijan was my classmate all four years. What happens at CalArts in the design program is that you share a studio. In the graphic design program, you share a studio with your entire year level. So, there were about 19 to maybe 21 of us in our first year, which was pretty large for an incoming class. Bijan was in that class with me. We actually met the day we had a portfolio review. We didn’t know each other. We were just both coming from our high schools and trying to show our work to get accepted. He was literally standing in line right in front of me. Lo and behold, we both got accepted and ended up in the same class.

Chris Burnett:
Bijan was and still is one of my best friends. He became this creative rival, but in the best way possible, where if he was doing something, I would see what he’s doing and be like, “Oh, that’s really good. Okay, now I got to do something that’s really good.” And then he would see what I was doing and it would level him up and then he would level me up. We ping pong off each other like that until we graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s good to have that creative tension in a way, I guess.

Chris Burnett:
For sure. I’m really competitive. So, whether it’s in sports or in making a cool poster, I feel that edge or that desire to want to be the best and bring the best out of myself and others. So, we really thrived on that with each other.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. For folks that are listening, who are like, “Who is Bijan?” Bijan Berahimi founded… Actually, YouTube co-founded FISK together. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
A studio called FISK, like the HBCU but not the HBCU.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, not the college. Everybody knows. So, this came about in our first year. It’s actually a collaboration between a bunch of our classmates. We wanted to create a website where we could showcase student work and just have a digital space for us to talk about design as students. A lot of us contributed to the website. We had a thing called Things We’ve Stolen, which was posters that we stole from the walls of CalArts. We would feature them on the website. There’s a large poster culture at that school. We would interview other designers who were working professionally and ask them questions about the transition from student life to professional life.

Chris Burnett:
We would have zines, where we asked students in the program to submit artwork, and then we would throw a party for the zine release. It was a myriad of things when we were in school. After we all graduated, we settled into our own pockets and practices. Bijan decided to resurrect FISK in Portland, and that’s when it became the studio. I wasn’t a part of inauguration of the studio per se, but the initial idea was a very collaborative thing. It still is to this day. He runs it out of Portland and has a couple employees and they’re doing great.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Speaking of Portland, after you graduated, you did eventually head to Portland, because you had an opportunity with Nike, which we’ll get to, but you had another opportunity that happened to you senior year where you got to work with a pretty well-known music group. Can you talk about that?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it’s actually a crazy story about how that happens. So, my third year of college, we had a project that was to design a magazine of a subculture, any subculture of our choice. I decided at that point, I wanted to focus on Odd Future because they had just started to gain a little traction. I think they were doing most of their stuff independently. It was something that I really resonated with, because of that DIY spirit and because they were from where I was from. It was just cool to see kids like me doing cool stuff. So, I decided to make my magazine about Odd Future.

Chris Burnett:
I designed the whole thing, printed the whole thing. I gave it to my brother, who was friends with Travis, who used to go by Taco, just so they could see it and be aware of me. I don’t know if Travis ever got the magazine. I have no idea where the magazine was. I would love to see it because it’s been so long. But I did that in hopes that that would be my connection point with them. So, they can know that I’m over here doing my thing. They’re over there doing their thing. Nothing really came of that. So, by the time fourth year came around, I was setting my sights on other jobs and other opportunities.

Chris Burnett:
Randomly, on a trip to Joshua Tree with Bijan, I get an email in the car from a guy who’s running an agency that’s handling all of Odd Future’s merchandising and branding and things like that. He goes, “Hey, Chris, I saw your work. Would you love to come work for Odd Future?” I was like, “What, a year later, what?” It was so random and I was not expecting it, but immediately, I said yes. So, that was midway through the end of my time at CalArts. I started interning there. So, I would have class. After class, I would get in my car and drive all the way back down to L.A. to work with them for a couple of hours, come back to school, do my schoolwork.

Chris Burnett:
That was a balance that I struck at the end of my fourth year until I graduated and then I just started working for them full time. That was a crazy experience for me. It was one of those dream moments where these are artists that I really respect and admire. They’re doing really cool things musically, visually. Just the fact that I got to be a part of it for that span in my life was pretty amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dope story. I mean, when you think of Odd Future and of course, Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt and-

Chris Burnett:
Jasper Dolphin.

Maurice Cherry:
Jasper Dolphin.

Chris Burnett:
Hodgy Beats, Left Brain, yeah, all the OGs.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think of their whole persona, it’s so hard to pin down. I feel like you could just say, “Oh, Black Skater,” or whatever, but it’s so much more than that. I think particularly Tyler, I remember Tyler had this show on Vice a few years ago called Nuts and Bolts.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I love that show.

Maurice Cherry:
He was doing all these different design things. He’s like, “Oh, I’m designing apparel, I’m designing a shoe or something like that. I’m designing furniture.” He was doing all this interesting design stuff. This was going on, I think, right around the time there was also this reality show on YouTube that I’ve mentioned on the show before called Lace Up, which is basically, a sneaker design reality show contest thing. Because you know, there’s a PENSOLE Academy in Portland.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, yeah, definitely familiar.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, by the way, but he runs that school. He did this reality show on YouTube, where he was bringing in designers to design shoes and stuff. I remember, I would watch that and I would watch Nuts and Bolts and be like, “Why is nobody talking about these design shows?” I mean, their style is so hard for me to pinpoint. I think most people know Odd Future because of their donut logo. But what stuff were you doing? How did that creative process look like?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, that was definitely wild for sure. I mean, by the time I started helping with a lot of the merchandise and the clothing, there was definitely a visual aesthetic that was already established. That was primarily Tyler’s ideas and the group’s ideas. When I hopped on board, there was definitely a lane to work within. There was definitely visuals that I could reference, things that I knew they liked, things that I knew they didn’t like to stay away from. So, a lot of the times, what would happen is I’d be in the office with… There was me. There’s another designer named Aaron Martinez, shout out to Aaron.

Chris Burnett:
There’s another designer named Phil, who handled mostly the Golf Wang stuff, which was separate from the Odd Future stuff at the time. So, they were the two creative directors, for me, at least. They would pinpoint where I should take things and what directions I should go in. But a lot of the time, the guys, the group of artists and the music makers and the whole clique would just show up at the office. We would have these meetings where they would just pitch ideas to us. I remember Jasper one time saying, “I want a dolphin on the Empire State Building smoking a blunt.” I just graduated with a design degree. I was like, “How am I going to do this weird photo manipulated illustration and pull this off and then put it on a T-shirt? This is wild. It’s so weird.” But I ended up doing it.

Chris Burnett:
It actually became one of my favorite pieces, even those one of the strangest things in the world. Yeah, they would just come in. We would print everything out, have these just big jam sessions of getting everyone’s thoughts and ideas and opinions. If they liked what we did, they would rock with it. If not, they would exit immediately and say, “Do this differently,” or “Do a different thing over here and maybe change the color of this and tweak this a little bit.” So, it was a super, super collaborative process and really wild to just hang out with them, because this was really at the peak of their stardom as a group. Super interesting, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have an Odd Future name? Did they give you a name or something?

Chris Burnett:
No, this is another thing that contributes to me being in the shadows. I didn’t really try to infiltrate into the group like that. I knew that they were already so tight knit and close friends. I’ve never really been the type to try to eat off of someone else’s success. So, I purposefully was like, “It’s cool. I enjoy working with you guys. I enjoy creating these things for you, but I’m just going to take my place in the backseat and watch you guys do your thing.” It was so fun for me just to do that. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I can’t imagine how some of those design sessions might have went. Just the ideas and the crazy shit that they come up with I imagine is… I mean, I think for any really strong visual designer, that’s a dream to have a client or to have someone that has that creative capacity to just do whatever.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it was definitely really freeing, especially to come from CalArts, which was a similar environment in terms of the freedom of creativity that we had in school and to have that as my first full time gig, I couldn’t ask for anything better. It was great.

Maurice Cherry:
So, after working with them, you got an opportunity to work with Nike, which then eventually had you go to Portland. If you could sum up your time at Nike in one phrase, what would it be?

Chris Burnett:
Oh, man. One phrase, working at Nike, you put me on the spot. I would say high level hierarchy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Chris Burnett:
I mean, I might have to explain that a little bit. When I say high level, I guess I mean, the quality of work that was being produced and the scale of work, the amount of people that would see it, the amount of reach that it had, that’s what I mean by high level. When I say hierarchy, there’s such a system in play. It’s such a large corporate company like that, that sometimes creativity and new ideas are not necessarily accepted, because it doesn’t fall within the framework of what has been successful for them as a company. So, I’ve always understood that before I started working there, so I wasn’t going in thinking that it would be another Odd Future.

Chris Burnett:
I went in knowing that, okay, this is going to be a big place where there’s a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of things that I can’t control. There’s a lot of things that I don’t have any impact over. So, it was a humbling experience to be able to contribute my ideas to such a large and fast moving company, but then it also, for me, told me that that environment wasn’t necessarily the one that I wanted to be in for a long time in terms of work in the design world. But it was definitely a great learning experience to get my feet wet. Being a professional was cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we’ve had a few designers on the show before that have worked at Nike and I don’t know if they all liked it. In a way, it’s good, because it’s like, “Oh, this is Nike.” Like you said, there is this high level reach, but each person we’ve had on has said, it’s not a great place to work.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, there’s certain aspects of it that are really difficult to stomach if you’re not capable of grinding it out. I think one of the bigger things that I had to do when I was there was just work a lot. When we needed to get a project done, we were up very late working on it on campus until it was done. It really instilled a good work ethic for me, but as far as being a sane human being, it did not contribute to that at all. So, yeah, that was a really difficult part of it, especially coming in as a young designer, who had new ideas and maybe I wanted to bring new innovations to the way they were thinking about design. It’s not that they didn’t want to listen. It’s that they already understood what works for them.

Chris Burnett:
So, for a group of young designers to come in and just shake everything up and try all these new things, it’s not really something they were looking for at the time. Now that Virgil cracked open the door with his initial The Ten collaboration, the shoes, where he was messing with the swoosh and change the game, putting it in different locations where they would never do that, it’s really opened the door for them to expand their creativity to a whole new level, which we’ve been seeing lately. But when I was there, it was still very much you play by the book, because this is the recipe that has worked for them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, if they know that it’s going to work all these different times, we’re not really looking for any variations on that. They just need you to do the same thing.

Chris Burnett:
Right. At the end of the day, if we’re being honest, they’re a company, they’re a business, and they need to make money. So, if they’re experimenting too much and it messes with their stock price or some of the shareholders get upset, it’s going to trickle down. That’s what I mean by hierarchy is that there’s so many layers to it, that it’s really impossible as one designer to go in there and really have your voice heard, but to each their own.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But I mean, like you say, because of the crucible that that design environment is, like you say, it’s strengthened your work ethic and I’m sure probably has helped you out in some way now as a designer, just having that experience working there.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, for sure. So, there were two stints that I did at Nike. The first one was in brand design for sportswear and that was my first experience there. Honestly, all of my co-workers were amazing people. I had a great time working with them. It was, like I said, grinding out a lot, just working hard on campaigns. We were doing the overarching branding system that would then be sent out to all the different categories around the world. They would apply what we designed to whatever product was being released. So, that was really cool to see that.

Chris Burnett:
And then the second stint was for the Olympics, for Rio ’16. That was wow. If I thought the first stint was crazy, the second one was… I don’t even know how I lasted, but it definitely helped put a work ethic into my brain. So, if I need to work on something, I will get it done. There’s no excuses. They always said at Nike, there’s no finish line. That’s one of the taglines. The reason I say that is work just keeps on going and innovation keeps on happening. Things don’t really stop. Even though we’re running, we’re putting our all in, things just keep moving and keep going and keep evolving. It’s a tough environment to be in if you’re not used to that type of pace of work. But if you’re down for it, it can really instill a good work ethic in you.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s how I was when I worked at AT&T. AT&T was one of these places, you walk in and they have this huge banner over their big marble reception desk that says, “Shaping human capital,” or something. You’d go and there would be this never-ending firehose of work. I think when we go in, we were always six months behind on something. Salespeople just kept selling and the work just kept coming in. So, you’re never caught up. We had, I think, roughly about 36 designers that were working there in teams of 12. They had this floor to ceiling LED board. So, everything that you design had a point value to it.

Chris Burnett:
No way.

Maurice Cherry:
As a designer, I think when I started, you have to hit 36 points at the end of the week and then eventually up to the 40. But everything you design had a point value. So, if you design a banner, that’s point nine points. If you design a three-page website, that’s five points. If you design a 10-pager, that’s nine points. So, you could hit your total pretty easily if you just design four websites in a week or something like that. I mean, this was 2006. You would pull the order from the system.

Maurice Cherry:
They have this system called Ice Blue. I don’t work there anymore. So, even if all this stuff is proprietary, I don’t care, but they have this thing called Ice Blue and you pull your rec. So, you have to go to a file cabinet, fish out the envelopes, this is my paper, fish out the envelopes that had all the assets in it. It was usually printed out Word files, scraps that the salespeople got from the company of their logo drawn on a napkin or something. You have to go to the scanner. I’m dating myself, you have to go to the scanner. There was one computer with the scanner for 36 designers.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, my God.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you had to go to the scanner, scan your stuff in, mail it to yourself, because we didn’t have Dropbox because it didn’t exist then. You mail it to yourself, you get back to your station, and then you have to trace it out. We were using Dreamweaver because it’s 2006. You basically had to build a website, retype all the information and everything. Eventually, you got faster because it’s one thing to do the actual coding and the design work and Photoshop and Illustrator, whatever, but then you’ve got all this other operational stuff you have to do like pull the rec and scan and do this and return the folder and walk it over to QA, physically walk it over to QA and all this stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Eventually, you get better just in terms of speed. So, I could knock out four or five websites in a week. If I got the packet in the morning, I could finish it by lunch. And then I could pick up on that lunch and then finish it by the time I was ready to go home. Again, this was 2006. So, this was right around the time when table-based layout was being phased out and CSS layouts were being phased in. I mean, we fired some people because they couldn’t get it. They did not know how to convert the tables to CSS, so they weren’t getting it. We fired people.

Maurice Cherry:
God, this was a long, long time ago. But eventually, I like made a little CSS work template or something that I could easily just plop in and change the value so I could get quicker with it. I still use that to this day, principles from that. But it’s one of those things where if I wasn’t in that type of design environment, would I even know to do something like that? You know what I mean?

Chris Burnett:
Exactly, exactly. So, do you think that having the point system actually helped people stay on track in terms of what they needed to get done? Because I mean, that’s almost public accountability for the work that you have to do.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, yes and no. For some people, it really freaked them out. Because if you didn’t hit your number, because you could see how everyone on the team was doing at any given point in time. So, you could see what your number was and who was above you and who was below you. So, it was one thing for you to know the number but now everyone else knows your number. So, you’ll be sitting at lunch and someone will come and be like, “You got to get the numbers up.” Keep in mind, we only could take a 15-minute lunch. So, you have to wolf down your sandwich or whatever that you brought from home.

Maurice Cherry:
And there would just be random people, random supervisors that don’t even work on your team will just come by you. Points look a little low this week. I don’t need that kind of pressure. I’m trying to try to get the work done. I don’t know if it helped. I mean, certainly, it’s one of those things where you either cut it or you don’t, but you definitely knew at any given point in time where you stood. Eventually, it got to the point where they upped the amount of points you have to get and then they lowered the point value of the items. So, you have to crank out more work to get to a higher target. It was a mess. I left there and said, “I have to do my own thing.” I didn’t want to work for another place after that. I think similarly, when you left Nike, you started freelancing too. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Yes. So, between those two stints that I just mentioned, after the first one was when I decided to leave. I just had a nine-month contract, so I never actually took full time at Nike. I was what was called ETW, it’s like a temporary worker. My contract was up after nine months. I decided that I wanted to try my hand at freelancing, which is something I had never done before. The funny thing is even coming off of the new work ethic that I just developed, all the skills and connections that I had made, freelancing did not really work for me. I think it was because I lacked motivation to do so just because I was coming off of nine months of very, very grueling work. Having this time to set hours for myself, it made me not really want to do that much work and almost like take a vacation.

Chris Burnett:
So, in that period of time, I was focusing a lot on my music and a lot of my artwork, but I wasn’t really successful at the freelance thing. So, by the time the Rio Olympics had come around, the guy who wanted me to work with him on his team, Ibrahim Hassan, shout out to Ibrahim, he became my mentor in that moment. He wanted me to come back and work on the Olympics. So, that’s when I went back. That was even more grueling than the first time, but I learned so much more by working with him and working with our team that it was very much worth it for me to do it.

Chris Burnett:
But after that, I knew that that was it, that I couldn’t keep doing it. That’s when I went freelance. The second time around it, it clicked for me. I’m not necessarily sure what I changed. I think I was just more hungry to make it work, because it didn’t work the first time.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I mean, I think, with freelancing, for me, when I first started out, I left in late 2008, I just quit my job. I was like, “I can’t do this anymore,” and started my studio. I’d say maybe those first three or four months were rough, because even though I was like, “I got all the skills, I know people XYZ,” finding the work ended up being difficult. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t do it. It was just finding the right clients.

Maurice Cherry:
And then eventually, I did end up working for a client. It was a political client. And then working on that campaign kickstarted my studio and kept me going. If I wouldn’t have gotten into that, I don’t know if I would have continued freelancing. I don’t want to say I have to link up with someone. But once you got the right client and it clicked, then you’re like, “Okay, I can keep doing this.” It makes sense. You had worked with an agency called Ceremony of Roses when you were freelancing, right?

Chris Burnett:
Right. So, after I left Nike the second time, I think there was a stint in between where I went overseas, just to travel around for a little bit. That was maybe three months in Southeast Asia, which was really fun. By the time I came back, I did another short contract at Jordan, which was still on Nike campus, so in that world, but just for the Jordan Brand instead. And then after that, it was like, “All right, I think I’m going to move home to L.A.” At the time, that agency, Ceremony of Roses had reached out to me and was like, “We have a position open at our agency down in L.A.” It was literally perfect timing because I was already moving back home.

Chris Burnett:
That’s when I decided that I was going to take that job down in L.A. when I got back. They were heavily focused on music, so a completely different world than sports and branding. They had a lot of clients in the music industry. Their main bread and butter was merchandising and creating the brand that surrounded the artists, whether that’s from tour announcements and flyers and posters to actual merchandising to websites to things for them to post on social media. So, in a similar way to the agency that I worked with for Odd Future, who was just handling a lot of the creativity, that’s what Ceremony of Roses was, but in a updated and more efficient way, I’d like to say. I stayed there for about two years.

Chris Burnett:
My timelines are always a little foggy, but I stayed there for around two years in L.A., just doing a lot of work with artists in the music industry. Janelle Monáe had released her album, Dirty Computer. That was one of the bigger projects that I got to work on. Her and her team were fantastic just because they really trusted me and they gave me a lot of creative freedom to create pieces that worked with her album and with the whole concept of what she was doing. That was one of the highlights of that job for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wonderland Studios has a great team.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, yeah, fantastic people to work with. So, I made a lot of good connections from that, from working with that agency. Yeah, we still work together today.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, cool. I know George 2.0. We went to Morehouse together.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, nice. Yeah, 2.0.

Maurice Cherry:
We went to Morehouse together. Now, this was back before she was doing the whole Android thing. She had the CD called The Audition, I think. I remember buying it off The Strip one day in the late 2000s, not late 2000s, way earlier than that. This was early 2000s. I’m not that young. But I remember getting her CD and being like, “Oh, this is really good.” Of course, they have the Atlanta connection, because she’s lived and worked here before and stuff. But their whole crew, their whole studio is doing great work.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I’ve always admired them because they operate in a way that’s different to a lot of artists. I think just their tight knit community of people that they work with, it was a real family vibe when I would connect with their team and we would talk and discuss work. It just felt really good to be around them, great people.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that have really helped you out as mentors throughout the years?

Chris Burnett:
I wouldn’t say that I’ve had specific mentors, where their role was to mentor me through the stage of life that I was in, but I think a lot of the times, the supervisors that I had at the companies I worked with took on that role in maybe a subconscious way. The first being a guy named Michael Spoljaric, who was the… I think, he was brand director or creative director. There’s so many titles at Nike that I forget what he was doing, but he was the head of sportswear brand design when I was there.

Chris Burnett:
So, when I got hired to work with them, he was the introduction into that world of professional corporate design. So, really, in terms of design and creativity, he really helped me to understand good typography, good layouts, how to design a book properly, what images to choose for a campaign, stuff like that.

Chris Burnett:
The next when I was working on the Rio Olympics, I already mentioned Ibrahim. He really became that mentor figure for me. He already saw that I had potential, but he fine-tuned it. That’s what I really appreciated about him was that he really got down to the nitty gritty and the specifics of things, the details of things, because every little detail counts if you’re trying to make something that is impactful. If you leave one little thing out, then it might ruin the whole trajectory of the story. So, he was really a figure like that for me.

Chris Burnett:
When I came to Ceremony of Roses, the two people who really stuck out to me was Brad Scoffern, who’s the owner of the company. He’s the one who brought me on board. I met him when I was working at Odd Future. He always remembered me. So, by the time he started his own agency, he immediately reached out to me and wanted to work with me. And then another guy at that company named Jared Hankey, who became my pseudo mentor at that time when I was working there, too. So, I haven’t really had specific people outside of work environments that have done that for me, but it’s always been supervisors or bosses or those who are in higher positions than me who can show me the ropes and keep me on track.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you call yourself a creative superhero. What does that mean to you?

Chris Burnett:
It means that I have a lot of superpowers. It’s always been really difficult for me specifically to classify what I am or who I am in terms of my creativity, because I can say one day that I’m an artist and then another day, I can say I’m a musician. One day, I can say I’m a designer. I can wear all these hats, and I try to wear them really well. I was always thinking of, “What’s just a cool umbrella term that I could use that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but does speak to the idea that I can do all of these different things?” I came up with that when I was designing the website for Colibri and it just stuck. So, that’s the moniker that I like to use if it’ll be on business cards or any little bios, but yeah, that’s what that means.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, I’ve read where you talked about your ultimate dream project, which was back when you were working with Odd Future. It was this collaboration with their brand, with Golf Wang and Hello Kitty. That was years and years ago. Is that still your ultimate dream project or do you have another dream project you want to do one day?

Chris Burnett:
I think I have a bunch of dream projects. That one specifically came about, my older brother, who’s also a designer, artist, musician, just like me, his name is Jordan. He was really into A Bathing Ape. This was before I was really knowledgeable about these brands at this time. He had this one shirt, which featured a character named Baby Milo, which was a very cute drawing of a little monkey. It was really simple and it had really thick lines. I was just obsessed with that illustration style for the longest time. I remember when I was working for Odd Future, Tyler had created a character called Shark Cat. He was really into cats. We used them a lot, a lot of the merchandise. I decided that I wanted to create a Shark Cat version of almost a Baby Milo-like character.

Chris Burnett:
So, I took this cat head that Tyler had come up with, and I placed it onto a very simplified body with the bold strokes and just really a cute little character. I wanted to use it for something but I didn’t really know what we would use it for. And then my boss at the time told me that Sanrio, which is the company that owns Hello Kitty, they were looking to do a collaboration with Odd Future. That was the moment that I was like, “Okay, Hello kitty is definitely in the same style of Baby Milo, and this is the moment where I can combine those two worlds. So, I can take this little Shark Cat character and I can take the Hello Kitty character. I can put them in one.” I must have created an entire capsule collection for them.

Chris Burnett:
And then I don’t really know what happened. I was told that the executives at Sanrio saw some of our futures videos and were like, “Maybe not, it’s not really in line with our brand aesthetic.” So, it never went through, but that was definitely just a dream project because I really was into the aesthetic of Hello Kitty and Baby Milo and wish that I could have combined those two worlds, but that never really came to fruition.

Chris Burnett:
But fast forward to now, my biggest dream project is more self-focused. I want to have a gallery show with… I’m working on a new body of work right now, some of the biggest canvases I’ve ever worked on. I want to have a gallery show where all of that new work is there. I want to create a couple of sculptures to go in there. I also want to perform my music at the gallery show. So, then it can be a full representation of my artistic abilities. That’s really what I’ve been spending a lot of my time in the past couple of months. So, that’s where my brain goes when you ask, “What would a dream project be?”

Chris Burnett:
If I could work with a client, it might be Tame Impala. He’s my favorite band. Kevin Parker, the guy who writes and records all the music, is the reason that I started making music. That happened at the end of CalArts, but we can get into that a little later. So, if I could work on some album packaging for him or do some tour visuals or just anything, even if I could just meet them and have a conversation, I’d be happy. But yeah, he’s a big influence on me.

Chris Burnett:
And then I also love the brand Fucking Awesome. It’s a skate brand. Here out of Hollywood, they have a store here. Jason Dill is the creative genius behind that brand. The reason I love it is because his artwork as an artist, as an individual artist, is the aesthetic of the brand. So, I don’t know if it’s still like this, but at a certain point, he was designing all the graphics. He was making all the skateboards that people would ride. That’s always just been a huge dream of mine is to either work with him or create a brand that follows in his footsteps, because I love skateboarding, too. I’ve been skateboarding for 15 years at this point. So, combining those worlds would be amazing to me.

Maurice Cherry:
I could really see that gallery show. I could even see a gallery show that combines all of this. You’ve got that, you’ve got the music. I don’t know. Maybe you have a small halfpipe in there doing some skateboard or something. I could see all of this taking place. It’s interesting now even looking at exhibitions and stuff like that, because we’ve had a few Black artists on the show, exhibitions now are so much more than just a painting on a wall. They’re really these immersive 360 creative experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
I mentioned Dawn Okoro before, and she did a show that had a punk band in it. So, she’s doing her art and has her art on the wall, but then also has a punk man performing. Wow. So, it’s like a whole environment that’s being created with exhibitions. Especially in L.A., I could see all of that really coming together.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, that would definitely be a dream of mine to have this multi-hyphenate experience for people to enjoy. A big thing for me is the more that I look at art, the more that I want it to not exist in just a white walled space.

Chris Burnett:
I understand that that allows the art to speak volumes when there’s nothing else to look at except the piece that’s on the wall, but I’ve also had this dream of having a gallery that’s outside and maybe an old, abandoned warehouse and seeing how the art that’s on the wall in the warehouse communicates with the actual aesthetic of a rusted-out building. I think that could create an interesting tension too, but a lot of these things that I feel like I’ll pursue once I established my footing in the art world and then I can maybe expand on some of these ideas. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, are you still pursuing your music?

Chris Burnett:
So, music for me has been really interesting in terms of my dedication to it. Honestly, this happens with a lot of the facets of my creativity. There are moments where I’m really into making music, and I’ll write a new song every day. And then there are moments where I just want to collage and I don’t even pick up the guitar or play the piano at all. Right now, I’m in a down on the music and I’m really focused on the artwork. So, it tends to fluctuate and I like that. Because if I was too obsessed over one thing all the time, then I think all my other things would suffer. I just can’t let anything go.

Chris Burnett:
So, I can’t ever stop collaging. I can’t ever stop making music, but they ebb and flow in ways that support each other, whether I know it or not. That’s how I feel about it. So, I am planning to release a project next year, but there’s not much in my mind that’s happening with it yet. But I know that it’s going to be released early next year. I’m sitting on a lot of music that no one’s heard. So, it was definitely enough to create a project and give it to the world.

Maurice Cherry:
All in due time.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like you’re living your life’s purpose or do you think you’re still figuring it out?

Chris Burnett:
Wow. It’s funny that you asked that, because I would say that I learned what that was this year, specifically. It’s been a long journey to get to this point. I’ve always known that I wanted to do art. I’ve always known that I wanted to be creative. I’ve always known that I wanted to do music. But for some reason, recently within the past couple months, the specific focus has been on I’m an artist and telling myself that and believing it and moving towards it. As I moved towards it, the more it feels natural to me, which also tells me that hey, this is probably what you’re supposed to be doing. Because for a long time, I was in the design world. I was a graphic designer, and I would call myself that.

Chris Burnett:
I think the artist’s part of me was really sad that I wasn’t allowing myself to embrace that. I think at heart, I’m an artist. I can do graphic design, but I think at heart, my purpose is to create art and share it with the world. So, yeah, I think I’m getting there. It’s baby steps for me in terms of establishing who I am as an artist and sharing that with the world and being a bit more open with what I’m doing creatively, because I tend to sequester myself a little bit, but that’s all starting to change. So, I’m pretty happy about it.

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

Chris Burnett:
Next five years, definitely doing more art shows. I think the ultimate goal for me is to have a bunch of solo shows and really focus in on creating work that challenges the way we think about life, that challenges the way that we interact with each other. Yeah, I see myself really settling into the art world and becoming the artists that I know I can be. It’s been so long, because when I graduated with a degree in graphic design, to me, that felt like, “This is who I am now, and this is what I have to do.” After working so long and reaching a certain amount of success that I am satisfied with, I realized that there was just something missing.

Chris Burnett:
So, this year really marks that transition that I mentioned earlier into me fully embracing me as an artist and maybe moving away from a lot of the client work and focusing in on the work that I want to be doing for myself. So, in five years, I’ll be 35. So, hopefully, by then, I’ll have a couple solo shows under my belt. I’m definitely getting better at playing guitar. That’s one of the things I’m focusing on too. I want to put a band together so that I can play shows in Los Angeles, eventually tour around the world if that’s a reality that presents itself. Yeah, but really focusing in on the artist’s aspects of me and myself. That’s where I see myself in five years.

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

Chris Burnett:
So, you can go to colibristudios.com to pretty much see everything that I’m doing. I’m not on social media, and I don’t really like Instagram. We could have a whole another conversation about social media. As much as I understand that it’s something that allows you to connect with people that may have never seen your work before, something about it just doesn’t feel right with me.

Chris Burnett:
Especially given the past couple years that we’ve all experienced in America, we’re starting to realize and understand the effects that these platforms can have on our mental health and our well-being as individuals and our relationships with other people. I’ve decided to remove myself from it. So, I can have a different type of perspective. I think it served me pretty well. So, I only have a website. That’s why I’m saying that. It’s colibristudios.com. That’s where all my music is, photography, artwork, design work, everything. That’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Chris Burnett, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, for just telling your story and really given some insight into the work that you’ve done, but I think also, it’s important when we hear your story and hear you talk about the passion behind your work to know that creativity is something that we all in some way can tap into.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s one of those things where as a kid, we have finger painting and all this stuff. But then as you get older, doing things in art design tend to be looked at as more of a hobby and less of a profession. It really seems like you were able to really lean into a lot of creative work, work with a lot of really interesting and creative companies and people. I’m excited to see what you’re going to do in the next five years, because I think it’s definitely going to be something worth talking about. So, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Chris Burnett:
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

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Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Brian A. Thompson

When Dian Holton told me that a Black designer was behind the new $100 bill, I had to reach out and have him on Revision Path. I mean, how often are you able to talk to someone who’s design work is literally seen all around the world? (You might even have it in your wallet right now!)

While we couldn’t go into specifics about the whole US banknote process. Brian and I had a great conversation about his inspiration as a banknote designer, and he talked about how he got into the field right out of college. He also spoke on how having Asperger’s is a design superpower for him, and shared information on the latest project he just finished called “Colors That Heal.” Brian is true living design history, and I’m so glad to have the opportunity to share his story with you all!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Brian A. Thompson:
My name is Brian Thompson. I’m a senior journeyman banknote designer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. I’ve been there 32 years. Yeah, 32 years, but now I’m the old guy. I used to be the young guy at 19. I think I was the second youngest to be employed there but now I’m the old guy.

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

Brian A. Thompson:
It’s been different because of the pandemic but the work is still intense, and it still requires the same focus.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you changed over the past year? Have there been any lessons that you’ve learned? And this can be work-wise or personal, anything like that.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yes. It’s not that I never took life seriously, but you have a better time looking at yourself in the mirror and looking at what you need to change. I think this is probably the most relaxed time I’ve ever had while working because I’m able to balance out the different stresses and things, and the anxieties that come with work of this nature. It’s very intense. I’ve said this through interviews before that doing banknote design is like putting together the most difficult puzzle you can put together in your life, and I’m finding that I had an opportunity to look at every piece for a chance while working from home, and evaluating each piece, and knowing that each piece of that puzzle was more significant than ever before.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, to that end I know that you can’t talk directly about the work you’re doing because that whole bank note design process is super top secret but can you give just a broad overview for our audience about the work that you do?

Brian A. Thompson:
Banknote design is an art form that I don’t think people pay attention to. They’re look at the Mona Lisa, they’ll look at different pieces of artwork that have been deemed as art, and say yeah that’s a piece of artwork, but when it comes down to currency they look at it as a value or something that is used for spending or commerce, a vehicle of commerce to buy and sell. It’s currency. That’s what it’s for. It’s to buy things with.

Brian A. Thompson:
But if they ever stopped, and when they get it in their pocket and look at the art form that’s on there they would be blown away. There’s so many intricate details that are put into currency design that needs to be paid attention to from the sculpture or the portrait, the line work that’s in it, the different colors, the micro text, all of those different things it takes time to do. It’s not only just for security but it’s also for aesthetic points of view.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember being a kid and I wouldn’t necessarily say be into money design, but really looking and studying a bill and seeing how it’s designed and put together, but you’re right it has so many intricate little details. Of course, you’ve got signatures and you’ve got serial numbers on there. Some larger bills have a bit of a plastic strip that goes through it, and even as banknote design has changed here in the US I’ve just always found it really fascinating how much goes into the design of a bill. That’s really interesting.

Brian A. Thompson:
Studying different currencies all over the world I see how they’ve actually approached currency as well to get the attention of the user, and it’s amazing how they place certain things in the location of the banknotes to get people’s attention, be it color, or be it texture, even being substrates. Some countries are using plastic substrate versus paper, and that’s done so that people will pay attention to it, and not only pay attention to it, and not only pay attention to it but utilize the technologies within the banknote for their own security for something that’s authentic versus what’s counterfeit, and I think that’s pretty cool to watch how banknote design has evolved in the technological aspect as well as the aesthetical aspect and how it mergers together and becomes a piece of artwork when you first see it, but it’s also a piece of artwork that is being utilized for commerce.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned being a banknote designer for 32 years. How have your responsibilities changed over the years?

Brian A. Thompson:
I would say my first seven years I was training. I was training for the job, so I served a seven year apprenticeship while also going to school at the same time. I went to the University of District of Columbia and while I was there I was also doing the apprenticeship, and the apprenticeship was designed where it was six month increments and every six months you were evaluated to move to the next stop, but when I was there, when I first started there it was actually six months whether you were going to complete the apprenticeship or be dismissed from the apprenticeship, so you had to hit the marks that you were asked to by your journeyman and I was able to hit every mark, and I did all seven years, not one day was skipped.

Brian A. Thompson:
I really am happy I did not skip any years because everything I learned was apply-able and [inaudible 00:08:33] right now. It actually gave me an opportunity to have longevity within this career because of everything I learned within that seven years. I felt like if I missed something or if I would’ve skipped a year I would’ve missed something very important and vital for the current conditions that we’re in, in dealing with the coronavirus and just this pandemic, because I’m able to work without a computer. I’m able to work with just processing and thinking about designs in my mind and doing doodles and just shaping out different things I need to shape out to problem solve, and that’s something you learn in the apprenticeship is that it’s a lot of thinking versus drawing. You have to think about the entire banknote front and back and the different layers of it, and think about the counterfeiters that are going to try to counterfeit the banknote.

Brian A. Thompson:
You have to be four to five steps ahead of them mentally while you’re designing and I think that’s a very, very important thing for people to know it’s that we’re not just throwing anything out there. We’re really calculating and thinking about every single piece and where it’s put.

Maurice Cherry:
That is both fascinating and extremely rigorous. So, you had these six month check ins over your seven year apprenticeship and at any point in time for one instance you didn’t come up to a certain point in the check in you could be dismissed, right? That could be it.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. You can be dismissed out of the apprenticeship immediately, if they didn’t think you could cut it you were gone. It was pretty simple. But you couldn’t really go into it thinking that because if you went in with fear you would pretty much fail.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Brian A. Thompson:
That’s one thing I would never allow myself to do is walk in fear. I said, you know what? I’m confident, and I gave it 110% every single day to the point where I remember my journeyman telling me, this was so funny, the first day at work I came there at 6:00am on time because I worked from 6:00 to 4:00 10 hours a day four days a week.

Brian A. Thompson:
And he would say, “It’s 6:00. You’re late.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” He says, “Well, if you show up on time you’re late. Always be here 10 minutes before schedule. You have to condition your mind to be always ahead of the curve.” That’s one thing Mr. Sharpe used to always tell me. Always be 10 minutes, or always be ahead of the curve no matter what, and he was right, and I actually live by that.

Maurice Cherry:
And the Mr. Sharpe that you’re referring to is Ronald Sharpe who’s the first black journeyman banknote designer in the history of the country.

Brian A. Thompson:
Absolutely. Yeah, Ronald C. Sharpe, and Clarence Hilbert was the second, and I’m the third.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So, has it always had this black lineage.

Brian A. Thompson:
I don’t think the hiring was based on color. It was always based on ability, whether you could do the job or not, and Ron he was a police officer first, but his whole emphasis of becoming a police officer is so he could become a banknote designer, and one thing about being at that time when he was there, and I remember him telling me, is that hey I wanted to be a banknote designer so I started as a police officer and I waited for the apprenticeship to open.

Brian A. Thompson:
When it came open he applied, and that’s how Ron got in. That’s also how Clarence got in too. Both of them technically were police officers when they first got in. I came in right out of high school.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to ask how did you first learn about banknote design?

Brian A. Thompson:
I learned about that particular job from my father. My father actually was a cylinder maker for the actual printing presses at the bureau and I was in high school when he told me, and at Suitland Visual and Performing Arts School under Dr. Thompson at the time, and Ms. [Dodi 00:12:09], they really pushed us for four years to develop a portfolio, so our portfolios when we graduated were equal to anyone that went to any art school. It didn’t matter where, SCAD, or any Pratt institute, our portfolios pretty much were just as equal as any college portfolio, and that was their push is when we graduated from high school that we could get into any college we wanted to, or we could pretty much cut it wherever job we were going to and they were correct. My portfolio was ready to go and I applied.

Brian A. Thompson:
And clearly, at that time the bureau liked what they saw and I got hired in the apprenticeship.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Right out of high school you went into the apprenticeship. So, when you went to the University of the District of Columbia you were doing these both at the same time.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. And I’ll tell you what’s interesting about that story is I was actually … When I went there I was under Dr. Yvonne Carter, and Dr. Yvonne Carter, she was an African-American woman and her artwork was unbelievable. She was a contemporary artist, pretty well known. From our research from her she was from the Carolinas and she actually started teaching at the University of District of Columbia and then she was the chair person of the art department, and I remember her sitting me down. She never yelled or raised her voice. Dr. Thompson had a very calm voice, but she had a way of talking to you to really line you up real quick.

Brian A. Thompson:
And I was right out of high school, just got this hot job, and I came in her office pretty cocky. And she sat me down, and she said, “Son, no matter how good you are you always have to be ready to learn, because if you go in cocky in life you’re going to miss a whole lot,” and that stung me, but she was so calm at all times, and she was the one that pretty much tightened me up, her and Dr. Smith. And they took me under their wing when I was in college and really, really made sure that the skills that I had from high school were honed for this particular job and just as an artist in general. They always taught me, yes, that’s a great job but we want to develop you as an artist that works there, not someone that’s developing the art to work there, which I thought was amazing, and very right. That was very true.

Brian A. Thompson:
They wanted me to be an outstanding artist outside of the platform of where I was working.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Outside of those two professors, what else do you really remember from your time going to the University of the District of Columbia?

Brian A. Thompson:
One thing I do remember, and I remember Ron and Clarence telling me when I first got there to learn my history. Please learn your black history because you’re going to have to be two steps ahead. In reality, you just have to be two steps ahead as an African-American because we know about the racism within our country, and they were just getting me ready. And being at an HBCU it got me ready.

Brian A. Thompson:
We had so many people that came up there to give speeches such as Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, Chancellor Welsing, even Louis Farrakhan came up there, and we would hear all these different lectures from these black intellects that were really giving us knowledge on how to survive in the world that was stacked up against us as African-Americans or minorities. And I took all of those things, and those different principles, and just honed them to the point where if I felt like I was in a racist situation I knew what to do. I didn’t just be quick to react and get all upset. I would reflect back on those particular stories and the history that I learned about African-Americans and how we evolved above it, and that’s something I always stand by. There’s no point in getting upset. The point is understand how to evolve around it and to defeat it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s something about an HBCU education. They really try to drive home of course knowing about your history but then making sure that you contextualize it in your current place in the world and what that means. You know?

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m telling you. I’m so happy that I went to an HBCU to the point where I didn’t push my son, I just asked him if he will go to an HBCU. He is now at Bowie State University now.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Okay.

Brian A. Thompson:
As a senior, so he’s enjoying that. I wanted him to get that same kind of background like I said to understand how to deal with just the world as an African-American, or just a minority, and just understand how to posture himself.

Maurice Cherry:
Is he interested in art and design too?

Brian A. Thompson:
No. He’s an athlete, but he actually went the ROTC route, and he’s doing very well. He’s actually going to be going into the military as an officer when he graduates.

Maurice Cherry:
Very nice. Very nice. Bowie State also has a pretty good design program. We had on the show, I think it was, not last year, about two years ago I think, Jen White Johnson who teaches there at Bowie State, but they have a really great program that they’re doing some great stuff. I met a couple of the students there. Gosh, when was this? 2019 I think. There’s this conference that goes on at Harvard called Black in Design. They have it every other year. They started in 2015.

Maurice Cherry:
And I think it was 2019 there were a group of students and educators from Bowie State that were there, so they do a really good job in their design program.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. I’ve actually visited there, and I actually have a … I can’t think of his name right now, but he actually invited me to come over there to speak, but because of the coronavirus just really shutting down last year I didn’t have an opportunity to go up there to speak to them. But I try to keep my pulse on pretty much art programs within the HBCUs that are locally around here such as UDC I’ve not spoken at, but I have spoken at Coppin State probably three or four times mainly in their sociology department. I’ve spoken at Howard University at their sociology department as well, mainly coming from the aspect of being a person that has Asperger’s and going and speaking to their seniors about a person that’s living with it, and understanding what they’re going to come up against when they run up against somebody like me, and just understanding you can’t just throw a textbook at these individuals.

Brian A. Thompson:
There’s a certain type of love and respect you have to have for a person that flows like I do, that’s wired like I am. It was a great honor to speak to those two HBCUs and the seniors loved it. I actually enjoyed talking about my life with them and they got a lot out of it. I’ve actually gotten emails from students saying “Thank you for your lecture. It really helped me. It gave me a sense of focus and purpose. I knew I wanted to be a social worker, but thank you for doing so, for showing me a person in real life that I would come up against.” So, that was a pretty cool experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you just give a primer to our audience on what Asperger’s is and how it works for you as a designer?

Brian A. Thompson:
Asperger’s is a form of autism. There are two types. There’s a high functioning form which is Asperger’s and there is a lower functioning form. Where I’ve always locked in with Asperger’s is socially you have social issues. Some people have social issues where if they go in a crowd they get nervous. There’s so many layers to it, but for me personally I don’t drive. It’s very difficult for me to drive a car because of the anxiety and high anxiety with it, and my wife will tell you that. I’ll be sitting on the passenger side and she’ll make a sudden move in the car and I freak out.

Brian A. Thompson:
But I realize those are my triggers. You know? There’re certain triggers I have. I’m another person where everything has to be really in order for me. My house is immaculate. Everything has to have a place, which gives off vibes of a person that has OCD but that’s actually an Asperger’s type of thing. So, with me having Asperger’s has given me a sense of focus where if I lock into something such as being an artist I’m going to go very far with it. I’m going to search, research, draw. There isn’t a medium I haven’t tried, and I just want to master it, because it’s such a sense of focus, and that’s one thing I can say about the person that has Asperger’s. It’s actually a superpower to me. It’s not a disability, because I can really lock into a subject matter and try to master it as much as possible.

Brian A. Thompson:
Pretty much as a banknote designer it gave me an opportunity during those seven years because I was laser focused, so I had no intentions of ever messing up because of how I’m wired. But one thing when sudden changes hit me it does throw me through a loop sometimes but I have to lean on my foundation of what I know and I stick with that and just figure out what those sudden changes are where it doesn’t throw me off too much.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine the superpower part you mentioned. With banknote design being as meticulous as it is the fact that you can really hone down and focus on those details that is a real superpower. That’s a real benefit.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. Through high school I was totally engulfed with knowing who MC Escher was. Escher was a really, really detailed illustrator. I’m telling you, from high school even till this day I still look at Escher drawings and just blown away to the point that I was focusing so much on Escher I had to learn Georgia O’Keeffe’s stuff as well to balance myself out, because O’Keeffe works so loosely and big and broad with colors, even though her colors are very muted, and her colors also had a lot of desert thematic to it because that’s pretty much where she did a lot of her art.

Brian A. Thompson:
I work in that world, so I’m in the middle of those two particular artists, and I zero in on those things to the point where if I feel like I’m working on something too tightly I will actually do a contemporary art form just to loosen my mind up to just keep going to make sure I’m balanced, because I can become very technical and when it’s time to work loosely it’s hard for me to gauge back into that, so that’s why I’m constantly doing contemporary art as well as very tight illustrations just to keep a balance so that I can just function as an artist.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to go back to your time at the University of the District of Columbia. Once you graduated because you were doing this and your apprenticeship at the same time, what were those early days of you being a journeyman designer like? Can you give us a sense of what that was like?

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. I was actually in college as well as doing an apprenticeship and I was a father and a husband.

Maurice Cherry:
You were juggling a lot.

Brian A. Thompson:
It was a lot happening. My day would start with me leaving with a heavy portfolio headed straight to the school, and I think I would finish up on campus around maybe 3:00 or 4:00. That was the early years, because I would actually work six months, and then I would actually go to the job for six months, the apprenticeship, and my apprenticeship would freeze until I return back.

Brian A. Thompson:
Later on, what I would do was go to school at night, so I would work my day and then go to school at night, and that was just tough because I would only spend time with my kids when I got in the door, which was pretty late. I would get in maybe about 6:30, 7:00 coming in from school. I think at that time I just had maybe two kids, which was my oldest two boys, [Tayvon 00:23:52] and BJ. Those were some tough days, but I pushed through it. I pushed through it.

Brian A. Thompson:
But it was a lot on my shoulders, but like I said me being laser focused it didn’t really rock me and I came off kind of rigid at times because I was so focused in on the art that the perception was that I was arrogant, and that’s just one of those Asperger things. People would look at me, “Oh, he’s so arrogant. He doesn’t talk.” I was just focused. I was just laser focused on what I had to achieve and I had to finish that apprenticeship. I had to graduate from college.

Brian A. Thompson:
And once I achieved that goal, on to the next task.

Maurice Cherry:
What are some of the highlights of your career as a journeyman designer? You’ve had over 30 years of work in this industry designing banknotes. What are some of the highlights?

Brian A. Thompson:
I think the major highlight right now for me was designing the new $100 bill because I watched how pop culture gravitated towards it and it was embraced very quickly with pop culture. And not just pop culture, the hip hop culture. If anybody knows me they know I’m a hip hop head. I just love old school hip hop.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Brian A. Thompson:
The Tribe Called Quest. The Goodie Mob. The Wu-Tangs. That’s my era of hip hop and it always has been, and I even go further back than that to the Boogie Down Productions to the Public Enemy. I just love hip hop and I watched how hip hop embraced it and actually gave the 100 a nickname, and the nickname they’ve given it was called The Blue Face.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, I’m like, wow. And I’ve watched how it evolved in pop culture where it became clothing, where it became artwork, or pop art. And I’m like, wow, look at how this design just blew up around the world. My daughter sent me something where they had taken this design and made it a purse.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Brian A. Thompson:
I have a niece that works in a museum where she sends me stuff all the time. She says, “Look at this. They made this product out of it. They made this product.” I’m like, this is crazy. So, to see that design just go out into the world and become a part of pop culture is huge. I was designing it for a purpose and I’ve actually watched it become pretty much a very iconic piece.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s even a rapper called Blue Face.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. That’s right. That’s the part I’m talking about. It’s like it evolved. It went further. I was just doing my job. That’s the focus. I’m trying to make sure I’m creating a banknote that can be utilized in circulation and not fail. I had no idea it was going to become this artistic phenomenon, which is unbelievable, and it still blows my mind today. And you know the crazy thing, a lot of people don’t even know who I am, which is okay, which is fine.

Brian A. Thompson:
People will find out who I am and they’re like, “Oh my god. I met the guy that designed the 100,” and that thing came out 2013.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brian A. Thompson:
And people are still finding out about me. And actually, if you look on IG I only have 1,700 friends, but I see other people that do art and they have 1.5 million. You know? And it’s cool. I just sit back like, wow. People really just don’t know what I do, and I really stay away from the lime light for that very reason.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, I have very good artist friends that have reached out to me that I’m really good friends with and they respect what I’ve done, and they’re like, “Dude, you made history. When you designed that 100, dude, you made not only American history you made African-American history as well.” You know? Which was unreal. It’s still an unreal experience and when I look at it I’m like, wow. I cannot believe this one thing I did, and I was just doing my job, I actually made Clarence and Ron proud, because they didn’t have an opportunity to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say more than history. You have contributed to the culture. I know there’s this saying among … I’m saying millennials. I’m an elder millennial myself. But in millennials and Gen Z about how people are doing things like quote unquote for the culture. What you’ve done has been such a contributor to the culture in general. You need to be in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That’s major.

Brian A. Thompson:
What’s a trip is that I’ve heard that so many times, and I’ve not gotten a phone call from them yet. I don’t know if they’re waiting for me to retire. I don’t know what that’s about, but it’s okay. It’s okay. I’ll wait. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it’s all good. My focus is I just want to be the best artist I can be for me, and for the general public. I just want to always be a creator where I don’t get boxed in with one job that I’ve done. I want to be known as a great artist one day, just a guy that has done multiple things with his art, and that’s really my goal is just to be a great artist and leave a legacy which I’ve already done. I’ve already achieved that.

Brian A. Thompson:
And one thing I tell students when I do go to those … I do a lot of … What do you call them? Where they call people in to do their professions. I do a lot of those kind of things where I’ll go to high schools.

Maurice Cherry:
Like career day or something like that.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. I do a lot of career days, and I tell those kids, I say when you hear about African-American history it’s always within the pages of a book, but you’ve never actually met someone that actually made African-American history that’s right here in living color that you can ask questions. And that’s one of the biggest things I will say about the 100 that has been so rewarding is that I’m able to speak to students while living, and they can talk to me and ask me any questions because I’m living history. I’m living African-American history, and just to see their eyes light up is the most rewarding thing. That’s the most rewarding thing is actually seeing a kid’s eyes light up and just like, wow, I’m speaking to history. I’m not just reading about it, or reading about this person because he’s dead. This guy’s standing right in front of me. That’s huge.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I really appreciate your humility. You and I will talk offline about seeing what we can do to get you in touch with someone at the museum because I think the work that you’re doing … Wait, actually, have you been to the museum yet?

Brian A. Thompson:
Yes. Me and my wife went there. We went from the basement all the way to the top and I was floored. I’m like, wow, this is so great, and she looked over at me and said, “Why are you not in here?” I’m like, “Look, babe, you already know my …” She knows me. I’m very humble. I’m not going to push myself. I’m not going to push it. But that is something that I would love to do is make sure that not only I’m there I want to make sure that Ron, Sharpe, and Clarence are there that are a part of my story. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian A. Thompson:
Because when they hear my story they’re going to hear theirs as well, because like I said these guys deserve honor big time for what they instilled in me. What they gave me … And I’ll never forget what they told me in the backroom my second day there. They said, “Come to the back room. We want to talk to you. We know you’re at an HBCU. We know you’re at UDC. We want to give you everything that we know about this job and about our art ability and put it in you,” and a key thing they said is, “We want to leave this world a gift in you,” and they weren’t wrong. They said, “You’re going to be able to achieve stuff that we never had the opportunity to do.”

Brian A. Thompson:
Now, it’s not that they weren’t able to design currency. At that time, currency wasn’t being changed. It just wasn’t being changed at that time while they were there. They were later in their careers, so a lot of times they were just doing other projects, but they knew that I would have an opportunity, and those guys worked. They made it hard for a reason because they knew it would be tough sometimes when they weren’t there. So, I want to be able to give that honor to them.

Brian A. Thompson:
And I’m still in touch with Ron Sharpe’s daughter. We’re friends on IG, as well as Facebook, and she checks in on me just to see how I’m doing and also see how she’s doing. But Ron and Clarence have both passed.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, you are the one that’s holding the torch now for this particular kind of type of design which is very specialized.

Brian A. Thompson:
It’s very specialized, and like I said it’s only been us three as African-Americans to ever do it, and their story has never been told. And I’m telling you I’m going to tell their story along with mine, because they’re a part of my story. If it wasn’t for them I would not know what I know. I just wouldn’t. So, I understand how that works.

Brian A. Thompson:
And that’s something that most artists need to be humble about as well is that it took someone to pour into you for you to pour out. For you to pour out it took someone to pour into you and to labor with you and show you how to get your craft to a certain point of expertise. Don’t forget those individuals. You just didn’t birth out great. It took somebody to make you great, and that’s something that I will never forget.

Brian A. Thompson:
I remember Dr. Thompson from high school who pushed me. I remember Dr. Smith and I remember Dr. Carter in college who pushed me, and I remember Ron and Clarence who actually trained me on my job as a journeyman who pushed me. All of them made me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We’ve got to see what we can do to get you in the museum. We’ll talk offline about this because I think even just that part that you said right there and learning about the history of how you had other black banknote designers that helped you out that’s a story that everyone needs to know. I think that’s something everyone needs to know.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of projects. You are an artist outside of being a banknote designer, so I want to talk about that. There’s a project that you finished just recently called Colors That Heal. Can you talk about that?

Brian A. Thompson:
Man, that right there was one of the most rewarding projects. I had just started teaching at PG College last year as an adjunct professor, and I taught a class called Art as Therapy, and what it was designed to do was to get people to slow down in their life and just pick up a paintbrush or a pencil and just relax. So, I actually taught that class to teach people how to use art as a therapeutical thing for their own life because it’s always been therapy for me, and I turned it into a course.

Brian A. Thompson:
And they did so well where PG College actually called me back to actually do it again this year where I’m going to be teaching families which is going to be children and their parents on how to just connect together as parent and son or daughter where I’m going to be teaching them how to do art to just relax and actually tighten up their bond as parents and children. But my point is I flipped it again because it’s the same principle but Colors That Heal was a project that I thought about when my cousin called me, and he says, “Hey man, do you have any artwork laying around the house? I need like 25 pieces.”

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m like, “No. I don’t have 25 pieces hanging around. If I did they would probably be sold or I’m trying to sell them.” So, I said “I’ll tell you what I do, because I’ve been doing all this research on art therapy I have an idea.” I said, “I’m going to create pieces that have colors in them that help people heal and relax when they see them.” So, I created 25 pieces that when people see those pieces they immediately will relax. They will immediately calm down.

Brian A. Thompson:
And these pieces are actually in the lobby of a hospital, where this hospital was switching from one … One organization bought them out, and now … It’s called Luminous Health actually bought them out. It’s Luminous Health Doctors Hospital. And he said, “Man, can you come up with some pieces.” I said, “Sure, I got it.” So, I came up with 25 pieces for them and they literally just hung those pieces up this past week, and they look amazing. They look absolutely amazing.

Brian A. Thompson:
And like I said, they’re designed for people when they walk in that lobby to immediately just calm down and just have a sense of peace. That was the whole point of that project, is because people don’t realize how art is impactful. Art can change how you feel immediately when you see it. Colors can make you react a certain way. And I picked colors, and I did research, on what colors heal people and I used all those colors within those pieces, different shapes, different forms, where when folks see them they immediately calm down. It’s not an aggressive type of a picture.

Brian A. Thompson:
Everything’s very laid back. I used watercolor by the way because I wanted to have translucent imagery in it. I used air brush as well where you have different colors fading into another color. The project was beautiful. I’m very, very happy with that project. It is a brand new project. It’s like a month old technically, but it just got hung up. And I got a phone call from my cousin and said, “Man, thank you for this outstanding job. Thank you so much.” I’m very proud of that project, and plan to do more of that kind of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was just going to ask do you plan on expanding that out, maybe doing that with more hospitals, or with a health system, or something like that?

Brian A. Thompson:
I would love for it to go in that direction because I just think there needs to be more of it. My wife noticed that when she goes to the hospital, because she’s a nurse, when she goes to the hospital she notices that there are pieces like that, that look similar to mine, but they’re very generic and they just kind of throw them up there. And they pay millions of dollars for these type of exhibitions to be up on their walls.

Brian A. Thompson:
And she was like, “You did this for your cousin.” She said, “I’m blown away.” She said, “You did this because you really wanted to help people heal.” I’m like, “Yeah.” So, I just believe in giving bach, man. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brian A. Thompson:
I just believe in giving back and art has been such a vehicle for me to express myself. I just want to see it become more of a tool to heal people and to make people feel good when they see it, not to be an impulsive spender where they’re like I got to buy this because it’s going to have value later on in life, but when they look at this piece that it’s a reflection of themselves and it hits them in their core, their heart, saying you know what? I like this piece because it’s a reflection of myself.

Brian A. Thompson:
I think if more artists looked at it that way instead of trying to make a dollar then I think you would probably have more artists that really were humble and would create more because when you start grinding to try to produce art just to make sales you kind of lose your edge, but if you’re creating art to help people, man, that’s a different level. It’s a totally different level.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We’ve had a few fine artists on the show before that have said pretty much very similar things to that, like being able to create without … I forget who it was. I think it might have been Fahamu Pecou who said this, or maybe someone else we interviewed, but it was along the lines of how the art just seems to be better when it’s not tied to money, like when you don’t have to tie it to some financial goal or something the art just tends to be better.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. Yeah. I agree with that 100%, because as artists we’re always looking for inspiration and when I get inspired I start painting, or I start drawing, and I’m doing it because I want to do it. I’m not doing it for a dollar. You know? Or commerce. I’m doing it because I want to get an expression out and I want to get a reaction from people that is healing. My background is I’m also a pastor too, and I have a ministry called Easel Outreach that it’s for creatives. It’s for creatives to have a spiritual balance within their life. That’s one of the other projects I’m working on, and that’s going very well.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m not really obsessed with anything. My main focus right now honestly is to evolve myself as a fine artist. That’s my push. I really want folks to know me as a creative, as a person that is extremely creative and can go in several different directions from either art or music, because I compose music too. I create music that has no lyrics so it’s pretty much in the realm of ambient music. I have two projects on pretty much any music platform, and it’s called Instrumental Witness.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, I don’t use my name particularly. I have an artist name, which is called Instrumental Witness, and I have two projects out there and both of them reflect healing. The second project was geared towards people that do yoga and meditation. It didn’t get a lot of sales, but that wasn’t the point. Just like art I want to put something out there to help people heal, or to help people feel good, and that’s what’s out there. And it sounds pretty good. I get emails sometimes saying “Thank you for creating this piece. It gets me through my day. When I’m cleaning the house, or if I want to relax and chill I put your piece on.” So, I love just that kind of background, or should I say response from the music that they’re listening to that I created.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice has stuck with you the longest? It can be personal advice, professional advice. What do you find yourself coming back to time and time again?

Brian A. Thompson:
One thing my grandmother told me as a kid, and I stick by this, she said, “If somebody can upset you they can control you.” I’ve always stuck with that. So, what I do is when some people come at me trying to get a reaction out of me of anger I just remain peaceful. There’s a scripture in the Bible that says, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak.” I walk with that. So, when she said that to me that’s the first scripture that came to my attention, and I actually flow like that. I’m very quick to listen to people and I’m slow to respond, because I want to make sure that they may be speaking in anger but I’m always going to speak back at love regardless of the situation, and that’s how I posture myself.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s say somebody is listening to this interview, they’ve heard about of course your work as a journeyman designer, but also as an artist that wants to help people and help heal people. What advice would you tell them if they want to follow in your footsteps?

Brian A. Thompson:
Honestly, man, just follow their heart. If you want to help people follow your heart. There’s something that I talk about where there’s a certain rhythm that everybody has within their life. You have to follow that rhythm. If that rhythm is fast then you produce fast, you create fast. If that rhythm is very, very laid back ten you produce that way because that’s what you’re going to get in response. There’s something about the rhythm, and like I said that’s why I like hip hop. Hip hop has an aggressive rhythm with it, and I technically listen to it when I’m working out, but when I want to listen to stuff that’s laid back I’ll listen to piano chill where I can reflect and meditate.

Brian A. Thompson:
Pay attention to the rhythm in your heart and that will help you produce the art or creative abilities that you’re trying to produce. You’re heart will tell you what you need to produce. Don’t go off what everybody else’s doing. Don’t go off of what’s hot and what’s not. Produce from your heart.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want this next chapter of your story to really involve?

Brian A. Thompson:
I will probably be producing different pieces, or shall I say different collaborative pieces, not even collaborative pieces. I’ll probably be producing collections of different things, pretty much like the Colors That Heal project I’m going to be doing more of those kind of things. And the way I really focus on that I look at what’s happening in the world and I’ll look for something to help heal it. If there’s chaos happening, which there’s a lot of it going on right now, I’m going to try to produce pieces that cause people to relax and heal and be at peace.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, those are the kinds of projects that I’m going to be working on just so when people see it they just have a sense of peace, and that’s very important to me. But you’ll see different collections that will come out, maybe a collection of six, maybe a collection of 20, but they’re going to be a collection of pieces that give off a certain rhythm of peace.

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

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m on IG. I’m at Brian_TheArtist. I’m not saying it right. It’s Brian_The_Artist_Thompson on IG.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And of course, people can go to any bank and get a $100 bill and see your work there also.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. That’s the universal piece of artwork that’s there. Yes, it is. If they actually want to see the pieces that I did, the Colors That Heal, that’s actually at like I said Luminous Health Doctors Hospital in Lanta, Maryland or maybe Greenbelt, Maryland and they can actually see those pieces hanging up in the lobby. It’s like 25 pieces.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Nice.

Brian A. Thompson:
When I looked at the project it was like I’m going to look at it like I’m producing for a gallery, and that’s the way I’m looking at it. When you walk in there you’re going to feel like you’re in an art gallery.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Sounds good. Brian Thompson I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think the thing that probably strikes me the most aside from just the historic nature of the work that you do and the reach that it has globally is just how humble you are. You are super humble and to me that reads as someone that is really doing this for the love of the work, and the passion, and really reflecting on how it makes people feel, like the fact that you’re also an artist that does this work that wants to heal people is a good balance with the meticulous-ness of the work that you do as a banknote designer, so I think it’s good to one show that balance, but two also to illustrate to people that there’s a person behind this kind of work that does this sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate it.

Brian A. Thompson:
Thank you for having me.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

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Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

Adobe MAX is the annual global creativity conference and it’s going online this year — October 26th through the 28th. This is sure to be a creative experience like no other. Plus, it’s all free. Yep – 100% free!

With over 25 hours of keynotes, luminary speakers, breakout sessions, workshops, musical performances and even a few celebrity appearances, it’s going to be one-stop shopping for your inspiration, goals and creative tune-ups.

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Explore over 300 sessions across 11 tracks, hear from amazing speakers and learn new creative skills…all totally free and online this October.

To register, head to max.adobe.com.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Cedric Wilson

Sometimes you cross paths with people, and you never know if or how you will reconnect in the future. I have wanted to have a sound designer on the podcast for years, and through a series of conversations, now I have one — one that I’ve worked with in the past!

Meet Cedric Wilson, lead producer at Lantigua Williams & Co. We talk about some of Cedric’s most well-known audio projects, and he shared how he got into music theory in high school, which evolved into studying sound design and becoming a producer. Cedric also gives some basics on sound design, and shares why it’s such an important part of the world now. There are a lot of avenues for getting into sound design, and I’m glad Cedric is here to help introduce some of them to the Revision Path audience!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Cedric Wilson:
Hi, I’m Cedric Wilson. I am the lead producer at Lantigua Williams & Co. What I mainly do is sound design.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going for you so far?

Cedric Wilson:
Lot of iPhone recordings. It’s been good. It’s been interesting. My current position actually was remote, and I started like a month right before the pandemic started. It’s been a wild ride for sure but a good year. Good year.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I’m curious, how has it been working in audio since the pandemic started? You mentioned those iPhone recordings, but has it changed in any other ways?

Cedric Wilson:
I would say that a lot of the projects that we work on definitely have sort of expanded in geography. A lot of the projects we work on would be, “Okay everyone, come to the studio,” or, “Hey everyone, come to this one spot where we’re going to record.” Now, because everything has to be remote anyway, it’s given us a great opportunity to be like, “All right, let’s just record this person in LA,” that we wouldn’t have access to beforehand. So a lot more just open. Yeah. Open, I’ll say open.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I would imagine when you’re recording you’re doing all this digitally. I know for some shows, for some podcasts that I’ve talked to for example, some producers, it actually has been pretty easy to kind switch to a more mobile type of a platform in terms of recording and stuff and not having to be in a physical studio. They say it’s been a lot easier because you can record over Zoom, or you can do like you mentioned, record on an iPhone or something like that. Have you found that to be the case?

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah. I was really nervous at first, because a lot of the stuff we were doing in person I’d be running around, putting microphones in people’s faces. I think the biggest thing I was worried about was that people can understand, “Oh, I’m going to take a selfie video,” and understand, “Okay, I have to be in the frame, and I have to have good lighting.” But I don’t think we have, culturally, that sort of same education around sound, so I was very, very nervous being like, “All right.” So for the remote recordings, the power is in your hands completely, so like, “Ahh!”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah. I mean, I think it’s definitely turned around. At first, it was a bit bumpy, but it’s worked out. Quite honestly, when all of this is eventually said and done, I think a lot of it’s going to stick.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I can see that being the case. Earlier this year, I actually recorded two podcasts, I produced two podcasts, and we did it… I mean, it was completely remote, but the main producer we worked in was in Los Angeles. I was in Atlanta, and then the host of the show was in Berlin. So we were working across like a huge timezone, and the majority of the guests were in Europe, so we were working across these timezones to try to get things working. There’s no way that would’ve been able to work if we had to do it in person. You know what I mean, it would’ve been impossible.

Cedric Wilson:
Lot of transatlantic flights on that one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, it’s been great. Like I said, I was really nervous about it at first and was trying to build a system of like, “All right, let’s have this recording. Let’s have this backup so just in case something happens, we have this.” We still had weird things happen throughout the course of all of our productions, but it’s worked out, which is great. I guess it’s the staying power of audio.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Flexible.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about sort what a typical day has been for you recently. You mentioned being at Lantigua Williams & Co. What’s a regular day for Cedric?

Cedric Wilson:
So I started that right at the beginning of the pandemic, January of 2020. And it varies, some days are pretty mix heavy, where I’m still leading all the technical, audio engineer-y type of things on certain projects. Let’s see, sometimes I do just more listening and note-giving on a technical and production level for other projects. Way more emails than what I was doing when I was a freelancer. That was definitely an adjustment.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
Sort of like a lot of systems building, figuring out what tech needs we have as the year goes along and as things change. Moral support for producers on their projects, sort of workshopping and figuring out what sort of techniques they should be using or can use when they’re putting the pie together. So yeah, I would say about 50% of my day is hardcore in the Pro Tools sessions, making things sound good, and then the other 50% is just working with producers and other engineers and sound designers to make sure they have what they need to get their shows made.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is a big misconception around production like that, that you think most people just don’t know?

Cedric Wilson:
Mainly that it’s low-lift or easy. I always make the joke that making media and audio is not rocket science, but there is a certain skillset that you have to have, or should have, and I know it gets a little bit tricky because some of the tools can sort of be a barrier to creating the things we want to create, working with the people you want to with, but work goes into this kind of stuff. I usually say that as much time as people use and need in the video world probably is a comparable amount of time in the audio world too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s a good thing for people to note, sort of going back to that show, those two shows that I mentioned earlier. We would record maybe for about an hour or so, like for each episode, but then there’s so much time behind the scenes of listening back through it and editing and everything like that. Even then, the final result ended up being maybe like 10 or 15 minutes long.

Cedric Wilson:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
That can happen sometimes. It’s not as simple as just sitting down, pressing record, and then that goes right out. Hopefully, there’s something, some level of finesse that you do to the audio.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
One of the big projects that you’ve done over the past year is this audio series called Driving the Green Book. Can you talk to me about that?

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, so that was one of the first big projects that I got involved with as soon as I started the job. So yeah, I would go in and record our host, Alvin Hall, at Macmillan Studios. At Macmillan, like the publishing, and they had a little studio for us to record in. He and Juleyka did all the editing for all this tape that they gathered in the field, and so then it just all got to me. Parsed it all out, made the edits they wanted, and just put it all together, just a lot of cutting in Pro Tools and picking out the music. I wrote some original music for that one too, so that was definitely like a big project to start off with, but I’m really proud with how that one came out.

Maurice Cherry:
When did that come out? That was some time last year, right?

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, it started publishing August, September.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Cedric Wilson:
So it’s almost a year old now.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, so it ran… Now that I’m thinking about what was going on at the time of year, it sort of ran concurrently with Lovecraft Country, that debuted on HBO.

Cedric Wilson:
Oh you know what, yeah I think so.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m guessing that wasn’t on purpose.

Cedric Wilson:
No. No. Oh man, it was just funny, I didn’t watch the full season. I did watch the first few episodes. It wasn’t for me. Yeah, that’s kind of… They were going on around the same time. Geez. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, if you’ve seen it or any of the listeners have seen it, it’s on HBO Max, go check it out. They did get a second season, so you can watch the whole thing. There’s an element of it that sort of deals with… I think it sort of deals either with the actual Green Book or a Green-Book-like publication that one of the main characters is writing, and that sort of ends up being sort of the vehicle that moves the plot along, at least in the early part of the season.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, now I’m thinking back on it, I remember one of the first conflicts that they got into was because they were out on the road super late in a sundown town, and I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s why the Green Book existed.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting, I mean, there’s sort of the case now where you’ll have these shows come out and then they also have a companion audio podcast or something that goes along with it. I think that’s both a blessing and a curse, in a way. I think it’s a blessing because sometimes, especially for more shall we say niche kind of shows, i.e. not for white people, but like more niche kind of shows. That sort of extra explanation that would come through a podcast can be helpful to understand the source material. But then I also feel like it’s too much. It’s too much. Let folks watch the show and gain their opinions about the show from the show. Like does the show need to also have a corresponding podcast and a syllabus and, “Oh yeah, read this before the next episode.” Then it becomes homework.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It feels like there’s a fine line to draw.

Cedric Wilson:
I think for TV, I feel similarly, where I just kind of like want to watch it and not critically think about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Sometimes, depending on what the show is. But then I think I love sitting down and watching mix breakdowns. A lot of my music production is hip-hop-based, and it’s sort of frowned upon, but when people break down the samples that people use and how they flip them.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
It’s a little bit like sample snitching. It’s just something you don’t really do, but I enjoy it because I’m like, “Oh, cool, I would’ve never thought to break up a sample like that in that way.” So yeah, I’m kind of half-and-half on them.

Maurice Cherry:
Sample snitching. I’ve never heard of that, but as you’ve articulated it, that makes a lot of sense. I’ve started seeing some videos on TikTok where people do that.

Cedric Wilson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Like they’ll have a song, then they’ll sort of break it down and show how the sample ended up becoming a part of this more popular song.

Cedric Wilson:
What was it, it was a Rihanna song… I can’t remember the song, but they broke down the… And I was like, “Oh my God, who would’ve thought of that? I would’ve never thought of that. That’s so cool.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Like just watch someone’s train of thought when they’re making music. I think it’s just so interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I mean, I think you have to be listening to something almost in like a multidimensional sort of way to be able to pick and isolate that part and think, “Well, what if I change the tempo, or I change the pitch in how I could possibly use it in something else.” But a lot of older music, particularly from the ’80s and before, is ripe for sampling, which of course is what a lot of people end up using it for. There’s this, I don’t know if it’s a fairly new genre, but I certainly discovered it fairly recently, but there’s this genre called future funk that is basically just re-sampled music from like the ’70s and ’80s, but they’ve maybe changed the tempo or sped it up or they added a beat to it or something like that. It’s interesting, because it has that nostalgic sound, but it’s clearly been transformed into something completely new.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, I love it. I mean, I think the art of sampling is just top-tier, honestly. Just even thinking about how it started, like with scratching and someone just accidentally did that, and people were like, “Oh wait, but what if you do this instead? What if you take that recording and make new music with it?” And it’s just an infinite amount of possibilities, I think it’s so cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of taking older stuff and kind of breathing new life into it, there’s a project that you did a few years ago called The Weeksville Project. You and I actually had first… Well, we “met,” I’m using air quotes here. We “met” through one of that shows producers, TK Dutes, who is a brilliant audio producer in New York City. She and I worked together at Glitch for a good little while. How did you-

Cedric Wilson:
Keisha.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, how did you get involved with The Weeksville Project?

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, well, let’s see at that point I was already doing some stuff in the podcast space and actually already had met Keisha through, I’ll call my music mentor, Willie Green, Paul “Willie Green” Womack. And we met at the Audio Engineering Society Convention. I think it was 2015. I think, it was a while ago. So I met her through all the music stuff, and then once I started doing more podcasts and radio things, I was like, “Oh wait, TK does this stuff, let’s talk.” So she’s definitely been a mentor in that space for me. She knew that I was really interested in sort of expanding the work that I was doing and wanting to do more podcasts, radio things. She’s like, “Hey, you want to sound design this project for us,” and I was like, “Sure, why not? This sounds dope.”

Maurice Cherry:
And now that was also… I mean not like Driving the Green Book, but it was sort of a similar project that’s kind of talking about history, right? Like talking about the Weeks… I forget the name of the neighborhood, but it’s like right around, or what the old neighborhood of Brooklyn used to be. Is that what it is?

Cedric Wilson:
Right. So it used to… Oh man, I can’t remember the location where it exists now. But yeah, it was the first free black community in New York, and it existed in Brooklyn. Yeah, it was like a fictionalized version, so the writer’s elements are from history. Historical fiction, oh my God, that’s what it’s called. And I actually never connected the two like that, but yeah, they both did have that historical element to it. That was kind of fun, too, because a lot of picking the music for it we’re like, “All right, what would exist during this time? What would a car sound like at this time?” But then also it wasn’t the type of project where it was like, “Oh, we’re in the past.” We wanted it to sound like it was actually happening, and it’s happening around you.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
So yeah, that was a lot of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to say that show came out right around the time there was another show. Bronzeville, that’s the name of it. There was a podcast called Bronzeville, and I think it was based off of fictionalized… Not a fictionalized, it was a fiction-based podcast, but it was based around, I think, a neighborhood in Chicago, if I’m not mistaken.

Cedric Wilson:
I’ll have to check that out. I had not heard of it.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s called Bronzeville, and it was all celebrity actors, Larenz Tate, Tika Sumpter was in it, Laurence Fishburne. Pretty good show, I think they only had two seasons, and then they kind of faded away. But I like those kind of period piece sort of shows, because I always love how they do the sound design, especially when they sort of switch to the radio and it has that old-timey radio voice that I love how with audio you can make subtle tweaks like that, and it kind of takes you… It mentally takes you back to a certain time like that.

Cedric Wilson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Now, right now you’re the lead producer, as you mentioned earlier, at Lantigua Williams & Co. But prior to that, how do you end up working on projects? Is it mostly like a word-of-mouth kind of thing?

Cedric Wilson:
Towards the end of me freelancing it was, but at first, it was just a lot of trying to figure out who needed things to get mixed and could I mix them.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
At the time, so really what started it was working on The Nod. I was freelancing for Gimlet. I actually found out about that job through Twitter. I’m only laughing because I was supposed to be working at the time that I saw this tweet, but I was at my old campus job. They had a media production company, and I was like helping out with lectures and guest speakers, and I was like, “Oh great, no one recorded this correctly, now I have to fix this audio,” so that was the job that I had over the summer. I didn’t have a lot of hours, and I kind of was like, “I need to be making more money.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
I just happened to stumble upon, it was James T. Green’s tweet, and it was like “Hey, we’re looking for an engineer for this project for a podcast. Bonus points for any person that’s black and queer, this and that.” I was like, “All right, I fill a couple of those boxes, let me see. I’m an engineer. I’m black, let’s go.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
So I applied, or emailed. I emailed him and then was in touch with Gimlet’s head engineer to do a mix test, and it was very funny. I started the mix test for what would become The Nod, and then I was on a trip back… So I was taking a trip, and we were listening to For Colored Nerds. My partner was For Colored Nerds, and I was like, “Oh wait, I know these people, how do you know these people?” He was like, “Oh well, I listen to this podcast, I’m a big fan.” I was like, “Oh.” I couldn’t say, “Oh, that mix test that I’ve been talking about, this is actually their thing, so don’t tell anybody.” But that was really cool.

Cedric Wilson:
And yeah, I think once after doing that show for two-and-a-half years, then I just started to meet people and gigs would… Not like role in, like I wasn’t turning people away. I was still pretty new to the industry, but that’s when I got to meet really great people and got to work on other really cool projects, like that’s how I met CC Paschal and I did a project with them in Endeavor, and Mass Appeal. Let’s see, I’m trying to think of what other… There was a lot of just small things I did for Gimlet while I was still freelancing for them. And yeah, it just was a lot of just getting out there and meeting people, different On Air Fests, podcast meets, people’s houses. Yeah, it just was a lot of just doing really good work and figuring out where the people were to be like, “Hey, do you need me to mix something?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. As you go from project to project in that way, do you find that they tend to be wholly different as you go to each one?

Cedric Wilson:
I would say so. I think people’s techniques sort of vary and sort of like where the engineer or sound designer or composer would sort of fit into the equation. So for a lot of projects, I was like the last person to touch the things, like the last line of defense to a really great sounding show. There were also certain instances of Nod or Weeksville where I was super involved a lot sooner, so that way I had a really good idea of what needed to be done and what direction I wanted to go into as the thing was being put together. So it was not, I don’t want to say projects that have the engineer come in at the end as an afterthought, but it is definitely a much different experience to be involved mid-production as opposed to like at the end.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to kind of switch gears here a little bit. We talked about, now, the work that you’re doing, but I’m curious to kind of learn about sort of like your origin story, like how you first got into all of this now. So you’re originally from New York City, right?

Cedric Wilson:
No, I’m from Long Island, so close enough.

Maurice Cherry:
Is Long Island not?

Cedric Wilson:
I wouldn’t.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, look. Okay, I’m from the south. I’m from Alabama, so forgive my geography faux pas, because I was just fixing to be like, “Is Long Island not New York?” But that’s Staten Island, my bad. Sorry.

Cedric Wilson:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
Sorry, don’t kill me New York folks, don’t kill me.

Cedric Wilson:
Queens and Brooklyn do exist on the tip of the other end of Long Island, but it’s different and I grew up in Long Island proper. I do not ever claim that I was born in or grew up in the city. I just want to put that.

Maurice Cherry:
Got you, got you. My bad. Sorry, sorry. So you grew up in Long Island?

Cedric Wilson:
Grew up on Long Island.

Maurice Cherry:
Grew up on Long Island.

Cedric Wilson:
Based here in New York, and what really got me into the sound stuff was music. I’m a saxophonist.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Cedric Wilson:
It was my first instrument. I started in fourth grade and stuck with it all the way up until college.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Cedric Wilson:
And started learning music production through music theory in high school, so that was a new program that the school was piloting. Based on the zip code I was in, I had got afforded a really good education, and a really good music education with really great music educators, which I know is not the norm. Looking back at all that stuff now, it’s like something that I’m immensely lucky to have experienced and grateful for.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
But yeah, so like when they were piloting music theory in my high school, my teacher, Ed Schaefer shout-out, taught it through composition. That’s when I started learning how to use a DAW and this is how a microphone gets plugged in and all that stuff, so like we were producing music but then learning the terms of the music as we were making it. That’s probably what definitely got me started into all this. So I did that a lot of times in the lab after school, it was great. It was like my second home.

Cedric Wilson:
And then that led to me going to Fredonia for their Sound Recording Technology program. It’s actually kind of funny, I was going to do music education for a very long time. I made the decision, I think it was senior year. Yeah, like before I stared applying, I was like, “You know what, actually I think I just want to do music production.” Not that I don’t like teaching. I love to teach, and it’s something that I still do. But I was like, “You know what, I want to make some music.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
So Fredonia was the school that I ended up going to for undergrad, and it was on the list because my high school teacher went there and was like, “Hey, you should go. They have a really great program for education.” And then when I swapped, it stayed on the list, because they had really good sound recording program, which actually I didn’t get in at first. Their program was like a music/science recording hybrid. You had to get into school academically, which was fine. You also had to get into the music program, and my audition was okay. I was a good musician in high school, but it’s like when you leave… Big fish, small pond kind of thing. You leave the pond, you’re like, “Oh wow, these people are GOOD good.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
I remember, so the first day… Oh, I went to still try to get into an ensemble, because I was like, “All right, I’m not going to be able to start the sound recording program or the music program, I’ll try again in the spring, but I still want to play in an ensemble.” So I went through that process, and it was also a mess because I didn’t realize that you had to get material weeks ahead. That’s neither here nor there, that audition was terrible. But the saxophone professor knew who I was, and apparently a seat opened up in the studio on the very first day. So I get this email from him, he’s like, “Hey, so I remember you from the blah, blah, blah. Here’s the thing. We had a seat open up, do you still want to do the sound recording thing?” Because I learned later that I got into the sound recording program fine, it was that my music audition wasn’t good enough to get in.

Cedric Wilson:
I was like, “Oh, well, yes.” He’s like, “Go email this person and run around and do all these things and figure it out, because I’m not going to help you do that.” I was like, “That’s fine.” So yeah, it was a hectic first day of class.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like it.

Cedric Wilson:
Ten hours away from home. But yeah, so I did that for four years. It was a really cool program. Got to work on musicianship skills and learned how to record, mix and edit, all that kind of stuff. And then I left spring of 2015.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Cedric Wilson:
Went back home and was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” At that point, I already had met my music mentor and was coming in and assisting on sessions, just watching him work, but it just was hard. It was just going back-and-forth from his place in Brooklyn to my place in Long Island. And then I was like, “Well, I kind of want to get down to the city. How am I going to do it?” I still don’t know if this was the right choice, but I was like, “All right, I guess it’s time for grad school.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
I decided, I was like, “Well, I could go continue and do more of what I’ve been doing in music,” and I was like, “Nah.” Not that I was like, “Oh, I’m great at what I do. I’m the best,” but I just was like, “I kind of want to learn a couple of different other applications for sound or get into something new.” So then I stumbled on the New School’s Media Studies program. It was like, “Cool, I can work on sound, and they have like a really cool film program.” I was really interested, at the time, in making documentary stuff.

Cedric Wilson:
So I started that program, and I remember there was a media design course where they walked you through all the different things that you could do in the program, so it was like video, sound, graphic design, all of that kind of stuff. It was like a sample course, and at the end of the semester, we had to make an EPK for an artist. We had the artist in, and all the video people are hovering over a camera talking about apertures and lighting and this, that and the third. I’m sitting here like, “Oh man, no.” I was like, “But I can put that microphone in the right spot and make sure that this guy’s going to sound real crispy.” At that point, I was like, “Oh, there’s so many other things I could do with sound instead.”

Cedric Wilson:
So for a long time, it was a lot of video work, helping on friends’ films, doing stuff like that for the school, and just took more classes in that vein instead of doing video stuff, and that’s how I started really learning about, “Okay, this is what sound design is, and this is what sound designers do. This is how music gets incorporated into things like this.” I took a very beginner radio course, too, and learned a bit about that world specifically. But yeah, so it was a lot of just being like, “Look, I need to work, and I want to get out of my house.” So I had to figure it out, what other things are people doing in sound, and it worked out I guess. But you know, that’s how I got to here.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like you just sort of had this momentum that just kept going, and you just kept along with it. I mean, that’s what I’m sort of getting from your story here is that it was sort of one thing. You went to SUNY Fredonia, and then you… Did you have some audio jobs between there and going to grad school?

Cedric Wilson:
Just with my mentor. I would come home from breaks, or be home for the summer, and just help out with either sessions, like recording sessions, or building mix sessions for him, watching him work. That was really the main thing. I got really plugged into the indie, pop scene down in Brooklyn for a while. I mean, just doing music has sort of always been the connective tissue between everything that I’ve done. Yeah, it actually wasn’t all audio either. I mean, in that six to nine months that I was home, I was also working at Forever 21 for a little bit.

Cedric Wilson:
And then I got an internship through a friend of mine from the same Fredonia program that was a manager at a post house in Manhattan, Big Yellow Duck. Interned there for a while, and then it eventually turned into a job that I started… It turned into a job that eventually conflicted with school, so I ended up… That post house was the first place I was like, “Okay, this is what sound designers do.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
They were doing a lot of stuff for animated projects, and I was like, “Okay.” When I was doing that job, it was like a lot of studio management, but then it was like, “Hey, we’re working on this show, can you put all the footsteps in for this cartoon?” So yeah, someone has to like-

Maurice Cherry:
So kind of like some Foley work, too, it sounds like.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, a lot of Foley work. It was really cool. One of the shows that, while I was there, they were working on was Doc McStuffins, so the lead engineer over there would just have a three, four, five crates of toys to add the sounds in. It was really cool to watch him work. It was dope.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice. Why is sound design important? And I’m asking this because I’m assuming that we have, for people that are listening to this show, a large amount of visual designers, probably coders or technologists, et cetera. Why is sound design an important thing to know?

Cedric Wilson:
It’s important because when the sound is off, you know it. You might not know why, or you might even watch something and be like, “Wow, something’s off,” and might not even realize that it is the sound. But it just carries the whole… I don’t want to say carries everything. That’s a little grandiose. But if you have this amazing film, and it’s shot so beautifully and the actors are doing their thing and everything’s great, but it sounds like garbage, you’re going to know. You’re going to be like, “Oh wow, something was not great about that.” And I think that permeates so much of what we interact with, be it like film, video games, YouTube videos, all kinds of stuff. It’s literally everywhere.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I tell people that will tell me or they’ll tell other people how they’re not creative, for example, or they don’t have any sort of design language or whatever. I tell folks that everything that we’ve been using since birth has passed through some lens of design, and so because of that we may have intrinsic knowledge about what good design and bad design is. We may not always be able to articulate it, and I feel like sound design kind of fills that gap a little bit, because we tend to associate sounds with memories, sounds with objects, sounds with other types of things, so being able to design something with sound to elicit that response. I feel like that’s a powerful bit of sorcery to be able to do something like that.

Cedric Wilson:
It is. I’m only laughing because you said the word sorcery. I get called a magician all the time. But yeah, I mean doing a little bit of like even studying sound art or just those certain projects that just hit you. You’re just like, “Wow.” Sound is a really powerful medium, almost taps into a base part of the human brain, or something, to me. It’s just like when something gives you goosebumps, but you don’t know why, it’s because it just is.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
It’s so cool. It’s really cool.

Maurice Cherry:
What specifically do you enjoy about sound design? Like I know you’re kind of working as a producer now, but you still do sound design on the side.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, I would say I like the challenge of sort of figuring out how to really immerse someone in something. Because sometimes it’s like not apparent or easy to figure that out, and it can be a real challenge to be like, “Wait, something is off, but what is it?” I remember for The Nod, they did an episode for a homegoing for Madea, so we made it sound like it was in a church the whole time. I mixed it, and we did a first pass, and I was like, “There’s something off, and I can’t figure it out.” People were like, “Yeah, everyone kind of sounds almost empty or they’re speaking ghost-ish.” I put all this reverb and things like that to make it sound like they’re in this big church space, but something was just off.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
And so I finally sat down with the head engineer, I’m like, “I don’t know, I can’t figure this one out.” And so we’re going back-and-forth, and he just… We had like this church room tone recording just playing underneath the whole thing, and he turns it up, like way up. And I was like, “Oh, that’s it.” That’s it, it just needed more of that room tone recording.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
It was just like, “Oh yeah, duh.” I don’t make that mistake anymore, but I couldn’t figure it out at first, I was like, “Oh.” So I like that, I like that sort of like, “Here’s this weird thing we’re going to do,” or, “Here’s just this thing we’re going to do, how do we best convey it in sound?” Just the challenge of figuring that kind of stuff out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was thinking of a show… What’s a show that I heard recently that had really good sound design? Two shows, actually, one is a bit of a shameless plug, because I… I didn’t help work on it, but I did greenlight the idea initially when we worked at Glitch, but there was this speculative fiction podcast called Open World that has really great, phenomenal sound design. And there’s another show, it’s actually a historical kind of a documentary series, but it’s called In Vogue, like the magazine, I-N-V-O-G-U-E, the 1990s. It’s talking about basically fashion in the ’90s and all that sort of stuff. They get the ’90s so right. I would imagine it’s because they have access to the licenses for music and stuff, but they’ve got the music down and the sounds, and it’s so immersive.

Maurice Cherry:
And also, I think part of it, when we talk about sound design, we talk about the created sound, but the other part of it is the authenticity of the host. So like, for this particular podcast, they have this sort of like haggard British guy named Hamish Bowles, who’s a well-known fashion stylist. And so his sort of kind of posh British accent kind of lends credence to that time. It all sort of flows together very well. I have to actually give it to a lot of limited edition… Not limited edition, but limited series podcasts. They do such a great job with sound design.

Cedric Wilson:
They really do.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s some others. There’s Anime in America from Crunchyroll, did a great job with it. There’s a series on Freaknik that did a really great job with sound design and just like encapsulating that time period or that moment with sound. That’s a really sort of powerful thing, because sound is… We talk about, or I’ve heard the notion about how things can’t be created or destroyed, but sound is literally something that we can make ourselves, and to be able to manipulate that sound and use that sound to bring about memories or immerse someone in a particular time period. I don’t know, it’s really powerful. That sort of is what interests me about sound design, is how you’re able to kind of do that sort of stuff.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, it’s great. If I had to guess why I love it so much, I could’ve just stayed in music, but I think there’s just something about just getting the right waves to come out of the right speaker at the right time that just does something. I don’t know, it’s just endlessly fascinating and cool to work with.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m curious were you in marching band in high school?

Cedric Wilson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Cedric Wilson:
I hated marching band.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Cedric Wilson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Why did you hate it?

Cedric Wilson:
I was the type of music kid to like… I wanted to be in the ensemble room, air-conditioned.

Maurice Cherry:
Ah, okay.

Cedric Wilson:
Making music that way. I had a lot of fun in marching band, don’t get me wrong. I just never really… It just wasn’t for me.

Maurice Cherry:
I was bringing up marching band largely because of talking about sort of timing and everything. Like I was in marching band in high school too, and I played trombone. I had the opportunity through my… And I have to give it to my band director in high school, shout-out to Mr. McDonald, who like really introduced me to a lot of ’70s music that I didn’t know about, that I might’ve heard, like I might’ve heard my parents playing it or something like that, or heard my grandmother playing it or something.

Maurice Cherry:
But once I joined the marching band, he was a big Earth, Wind and Fire fan. And so I got immersed, really, in like a lot of their discography, because we would arrange that music and end up playing it on the field. That’s sort of how I sort of taught myself piano, at least I know my way around a piano. I’m not a virtuoso by any means, but I know my way around a piano to listen to something and arrange it for different instruments. I learned that in marching band, that we take that out and take it onto the field.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, would they always be perfect, one-to-one, note-for-note transpositions? Not in the slightest, especially when we tried to remix popular music. God. If I never hear Montell Jordan’s This is How We Do It ever again in life, I will be perfectly fine, because we played that song to death in marching band. It wasn’t even a great transposition either, or a great arrangement I should say. But then we’d get some of those… And I think the reason that we used Earth, Wind and Fire was because they had their band kind of mapped over to what you would have in a marching band. It has a strong brass section, and you could take the vocals and use that with woodwinds, or something like that, so it made sense in that way.

Cedric Wilson:
I loved Earth, Wind and Fire. Oh my God. I remember, my dad… When I was young, I was big on taking the CDs and getting them on the computer or the iPod and burning them. I’d be like, “All right, I have to burn them. I have to burn them with these settings and this is the best.” And I remember it was like this huge three-CD collection of all of Earth, Wind and Fire.

Maurice Cherry:
I had that. It was like this tall, brown like with Egyptian.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I got that for my 16th birthday. Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Oh, man. So I used to listen to that all the time. Oh, man. Whew. Yeah no, that kind of stuff, my dad loves Earth, Wind and Fire. He was like the Motown, that kind of stuff, the funk, the soul, R&B. And then my mom was like the Anita Baker, Rachelle Ferrell, India Arie person.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
Actually, no, it’s funny. They definitely instilled a love of music, and I remember it was… I actually don’t remember which song it was, but it was off India Arie’s, I think, second… One of hers, the second album?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
I don’t remember, but I remember like that deciding to be like, “Oh, okay, I think I want to make music with my life.” In making that decision, I remember she was just playing one of her CDs in the car, and I was listening to one of the songs and I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to make some music.”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Cedric Wilson:
Oh yeah, it was always stuff playing in the house. Not on Sundays, when it was time to clean, it was always music playing in the house.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s so funny. This was years ago, but I had her graphic designer on the show, India Arie’s graphic designer.

Cedric Wilson:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Denise Francis. Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
That’s dope.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The one that I remember distinctly that we would play from Earth, Wind and Fire is Star, because it had a solo at the beginning, and it would be a trombone solo that I would write in for myself, naturally. But it would have a solo in the beginning, and then like once it broke out into the verse, it was very easy for marching, because it was like, “Dun dun, dun dun, dun dun dun-dun-dun!”

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And so we would play like a mix… I’ll say it like this, on the field, we would play a mix of like oldies and then stuff that’s on the radio. So like we would play My Boo, this is ’96, I’m old. We would play that on the field and get people hype, but then like when you were in stands and you were in your sections, your sections could do whatever you wanted to, as long as you were the section leader. And so I was the section leader for the trombones, and my nerdy, video game-playing ass had taught my section how to play the winning battle fanfare from Final Fantasy.

Maurice Cherry:
So when the team would score a touchdown, you’d hear, “Bum-bum-bum-bum, bum bum, bum-bum-bum! Dun dun dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun!” And people thought it was just like some John Philip Sousa, all-American kind of fanfare thing. I’m like, “No, no.” Listen, because I played Final Fantasy Two to death, Final Fantasy Four in Japan, but I recorded that and then I had a keyboard at home, and I would translate… Yeah, that’s what I would do. I would do dirty shit like that. I can’t imagine songs now, like modern songs, being done… I mean, not to say that it’s not done, because marching bands do it, but I don’t know if today’s music lends to that level of instrumentality.

Cedric Wilson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
I think the latest song that I heard that actually think would do really good in a marching band is Silk Sonic’s Leave the Door Open.

Cedric Wilson:
Actually, Anderson .Paak is where my mind first went.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Just generally, but yeah, ooh that’s a good… What are the kids playing in marching band these days? That’s a good question.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know, because I can’t imagine any of this mumble rap stuff going over well on the field. “Nana, nana, nanananananana.” I can’t, I don’t know what that would sound like, probably would sound like a swarm of bees or something. I don’t know.

Cedric Wilson:
Some of that stuff hits, I’m sure the drummers really enjoy that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s honestly probably the stuff that has old school samples in it.

Cedric Wilson:
Probably. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
I’m curious.

Maurice Cherry:
So like, what’s the difference between a sound designer and an audio engineer, like in your eyes? Is there a difference between those two?

Cedric Wilson:
There is. I think you’ll probably get a different answer from different people, but for me, I would say an audio engineer is someone who is just doing the technical stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
Like record this well, clean this up, put this thing here. Even to like a certain extent, editing, for quality not necessarily for content. And I would say a sound designer is someone who may or may not have those technical skills. I always try to say that you don’t have to get into sound design through engineering. There are a lot of great people who came in as “producers,” quote-unquote, and just do really great sound design. But I would say a sound designer is someone who is able to make those creative choices and say, “Okay, we want this to sound like it’s in a church or in a cave or in space or wherever,” and then has the tools at their disposal to make that happen.

Maurice Cherry:
So one kind of is more creative, and the other’s more technical, I guess, just kind of broadly saying.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, super broadly, because I’ve definitely seen some engineers, especially in the music world, who can just mix their butts off and do things that I’m just like, “Why in God’s name would you ever think to do something like that?” But it sounds amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
It’s like that thing where at any job, when you’re at a really high level, is creative. But yeah, I would say the distinction there is I would say more technical to like more production-y.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I’d imagine there’s probably even… Well, I know for a fact that there’s business/branding elements that go to it, because you did some sound design work back when both TK and I worked at Glitch, you came on and worked as a sound designer for a project that we had, where you sort of made an audio jingle, or like an audio brand, for the company.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, I think they’re called audio identities.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, audio identity. Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, that was really cool. That was the first time I did something like that, because TK was like, “Hey, we have this thing, can you do this?” I was like, “Yeah, sure.” So I did some research, and then listened to all the episodes of Twenty Thousand Hertz that dealt with the specific topic, and I was like, “All right, let’s go make some audio IDs.” Yeah, that was super fun. That was cool. I mean, that one was cool because the way that I just had to do it was I came at the group with three very different ideas for it. I sat down with everyone and was like, “This is what I think you all want, here’s what I think my interpretation would be, like if I were to personally do it, this is how I would do it.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
And then I did one that was really abstract and just weird, because you’ve got to have one like that just to be like, “Maybe there’s something there, I don’t know.” And yeah, that was a really cool process, just kind of like going back and forth and figuring out, “Okay, this is the sound that we want, and how do we get to work?” There was like a visual element that it needed to sync up with too. Yeah, that was a lot of fun, and definitely was the first time I ever did it. I think it worked out well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would say for people that probably… I think a lot of folks have heard audio identities but may not necessarily really know what it is, but like just to kind of give a broad example. For when you watch a new movie on Netflix, and you hear that sort of opening, “Dun dun!” Or Intel has “Bum bum, bum bum!”

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Or something like that. Those little types of, I don’t know what they’re called, like zingers or whatever. I’m just making up words, but those little audio blurbs can often be indicative of an entire brand, and what I think we’re starting to see now is a lot more companies are leaning into that, with the advent of smart speakers and things of that nature, you’re starting to hear a lot more audio identities. One that surprised me recently was YouTube.

Cedric Wilson:
They have one now?

Maurice Cherry:
YouTube is completely visual, but YouTube has an audio identity if you’re watching… If I cast YouTube to television, or like if I watch YouTube on Apple TV or Chromecast TV or something, there’s like an opening whoosh sound or something with YouTube, like it goes, “Shhhhwuummm, shwum!” Like it’s new, and I just recently started paying attention to it. I would imagine it’s probably to get people’s attention if they’re not looking at the screen, but it also is to just sort of signify like, “Hey, if you’re across the room and you hear this, you already know exactly what it is.” Like when you hear the Netflix sound, you know that’s Netflix. Or like if you hear a certain app or something chime or chirp, you know that’s that app, because the app has a specific sound to it or something like that.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s a lot more tech companies and design companies, or at least design-focused tech companies, that are leaning into audio identities as ways to kind of brand themselves, which I think is pretty cool.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, I mean, it’s a powerful, powerful tool. I get it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, as I sort of alluded to earlier, I’m pretty sure most of our audience are probably visual designers in practice, or they’re software designers or something like that. What would you tell someone that wants to know about sound design, like what should they know when it comes to sound design?

Cedric Wilson:
I would say it’s bigger than you think it is. So like when I was doing a lot of the indie film stuff in school, and would work with filmmakers, people just didn’t fully know how much goes into it. If you’re making something that’s like a huge budget, I don’t think people realize the actors don’t just say their lines on set, or in front of a green screen. They go back into a studio afterwards and dub everything afterwards.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
But you know, depending on the budget, not everyone can do that. But it just is to say that the work that goes into the sound is about the same that you’ll have to put into a visual thing, so like if you have the means, a really good friend, or the budget, get you a sound person. Get you someone who can really do that work.

Maurice Cherry:
Are there certain resources or tools that you would recommend for someone that wants to get into sound design, like they’ve listened to this episode, they think this is cool, this is something that I want to maybe pick up as a skill or something like that. What resources would you recommend?

Cedric Wilson:
I would say YouTube is your best friend. I learned probably too many things on that site, which is a little annoying to say to someone that also went to grad school. There are so many people just doing the work of just being like, “Hey, this is what we do, and this is how it works.” It’s always been a great resource. A lot of plugin companies are now also really into the content creation game. So like usually like with waves… If you find the good tools, usually there’s good videos and things like that to go along with it. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What haven’t you done yet that you want to do?

Cedric Wilson:
I would love to start getting into the more experimental stuff. I would love to do more fiction stuff. I think for a while I was afraid of fiction, just because I knew how much work needs to go into it, just like time-wise. And maybe some of the first sound design experiences I had… Not scared me off from it, but I just was like, “Uh, how do people actually do this all the time for work?” But I would love to do that kind of stuff more. I guess get less into the literal space and more in the metaphoric stuff and how does this weird sound or experience or whatever represent something, as opposed to this quote-unquote “interview.” I’m not trying to place a value judgment on narrative audio and things like that, but I would love to start getting into making more weirder things and just figuring out what, I guess, being an artist might look like more in the sound design realm. I know who I am as an artist from music, but for sound design it’s just like, “Oh, what do I really want to be making here?”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
I’m just like sort of figuring that kind of stuff out.

Maurice Cherry:
So I’d say to that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years or so? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Cedric Wilson:
I would love to be doing more things in collaboration with musicians and things like that. Song Exploder is a huge inspiration for me. I absolutely love that podcast, like listening to shows like Twenty Thousand Hertz is amazing, and even podcasts that are narrative but use music in really interesting ways.

Maurice Cherry:
Like Dissect?

Cedric Wilson:
Like Dissect. I need to listen to the new season of Mogul. They’re doing a season on chopped and screwed.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Cedric Wilson:
I mean, there’s so much really, really cool storytelling that can happen just around the realm of sound, and not just because you can use sound in cool ways, but just because it’s also just genuinely interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
But yeah, it’s just like more immersion, more risk-taking, that kind of stuff.

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

Cedric Wilson:
You can find out more about me on my website is probably the best spot, cedricwilsonmedia.com. I am also on Twitter, @cedricwilson64, but I will give the warning that I don’t tweet very often. But like, if anyone ever had a question, you can feel free to hit up the DMs, but I’m not a big social media person. I’m sorry for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, no. Hey look, you’re in the studio, you’re mixing audio and stuff. That makes sense, I get it. I get it.

Cedric Wilson:
I host a gaming podcast. I really love video games. We should talk more about video games after this, but I do that. It’s called Gamer Friends. You can find that on any podcast platform.

Maurice Cherry:
I was about to say, you work a podcast and you’re like, “I have a podcast, it’s on… Oh man, I can’t think of the name.”

Cedric Wilson:
I just can’t remember the… I think the phrase that I like is whatever platform you’re listening to this on, you can find it there as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
But you know, I’m not behind the mic that often.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s all good. It’s all good. Cedric Wilson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really kind of demystifying sound design, not just for me, but I think for the audience as well. Being able to hear is one of our five vital senses. And as designers, of course, we look at visual things, we touch things, so the work that we do is mostly around those two senses. But sound is something I think, for those of us that have hearing, we sort of take it for granted in terms of how important it is and how useful it is. And so, it’s good to have someone on the show to talk about how they got into sound design, how it’s important, and you’ve been able to use it to be a creative person. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, thank you so much for having me. This was great. I had a very good time.

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