Andrew Bass Jr.

By now, you’ve gotten acquainted with design educator and design strategist Andrew Bass Jr. In the second part of our interview, we explore Andrew’s calling as a design mentor, as well as his early advocacy work for diversity in the design industry. (If you missed the first part, check it out here.)

We start off talking about Black design leadership back in the day, and Andrew tells the story of how he learned about the Organization of Black Designers and how that led to his work leading AIGA’s first Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. From there, we discuss the current state of DEI with AIGA and the design industry, and he shares what gets him excited about design now at this stage of his career. It’s really an honor and a privilege to talk with Andrew about his longevity in design and about leaving a legacy for generations to come!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned when you were at Prats that you saw you had Black design professors and stuff like that. Once you got out there as a working designer, did you see a lot of Black folks in design leadership back then?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No. That was the unicorn. I was in the libraries. That was one of the things all through my years as a student to my beginning years as a practicing professional, I would hit all the design annuals, books to see who’s leading in the industry to kind of know names. And I kept coming across the same thing. It was always white men. It was always white men. Eventually it started opening up a little bit where you see the spattering of white women, but it was all predominantly white men. And I barely, barely ever saw anyone Black, Latino. Occasionally there may be a spot, a spot of an Asian. And again, usually it would be a guy, but it was very much pure white and that’s all I ever saw. And I was actively searching to find, okay, there’s got to be more folks out there.

And then eventually I did find some folks out there, not through any of the exposure through manuals. At that time there were not a lot of big design conferences. I had not heard of AIGA at that point yet. Definitely there was no HOW. There was no HOW design. And there was Communication Arts because there was a lot of design magazines out back then. Print, design, communication, arts. What was the other one?

Maurice Cherry:
Step.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Step was there. Yep. Step. This is a Canadian one, Applied Arts, I think it’s called. Some other stuff. And so it was not until somewhere in around ’93 in print when I saw Cheryl Miller’s article on, no, about Cheryl Miller, I should say. It wasn’t her article. Or was it her article? But it was in print about where are the Black designers.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And I read that article I don’t know how many times. Right now, these names. I’m like, who’s this person? Who’s that person? Oh wow. Because I had not seen that in any the quote general mainstream stuff. And that’s when I started learning that there were folks out there, and I started digging a little bit more into history. And that’s when I learned that there were a lot more that actually existed. And back in the day, just never given any exposure due to societal, the US view on race. So growing up I never saw any of the studios that I admired ever have any person of color in their leadership. And generally ones that I did find in leadership, they usually owned their own businesses. They had their own practices. I really am hard pressed to think of any leaders at any of these Fortune 500 companies throughout the nineties to even I’d say early 2000s. Nothing pops off in the top of my head. There’s always people doing their own thing.

And so a few years later, I think that was around ’95, ’96, that’s when I discovered HOW, HOW Magazine, which I sorely still miss today. That was a fantastic design magazine. Of all the other design magazines I had saw, they actually seemed to have tried to make an effort of showcasing designers of color and somewhat kind of touching the subject of diversity in the industry, because diversity didn’t exist back then in the nineties, that wasn’t a word. Some market chair came up with diversity. “Hey, I think this is going to be a good trend.” I was basically looking at it as like, fair is fair. It’s just not white folks out here. So I didn’t really started to see leadership until around then, around ’95, ’96 when I started seeing that and I started seeking them out. And then I learned Cheryl Miller was here in New York City, did actually meet her face to face. I think I did a freelance project with her.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Woo. She was tough too.

Maurice Cherry:
I believe it. I believe it. A hundred percent. A hundred percent I believe that. Without a doubt.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
She knew her stuff and I understand why she was very sort of stern, because the industry, it was a very different mentality. She had to fend for herself and stuff and she was doing some major work. I also met Cynthia Mackenzie, I believe. She has a studio in New York too. CM something, something. Oh man, I met her and I was like, oh wow, okay. And then I started meeting some others, especially like I said, my professor Dwight Johnson, he’s the one who really started giving me some opportunities where he was connected to NBC. He got me to meet some people at NBC. No, I didn’t meet any Black people at NBC, but he started putting me onto folks that are out there. And then I started learning about Archie Boston, started learning about Tony Gable, rest in peace, started learning about Richard Baker. I started learning about, oh, oh, Eli [inaudible 00:10:29].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Maurice Woods. And that was a little later in the nineties. Oh, how could I forget about the south? It was where I’ve met her, Cynthia Worley.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, here in Atlanta.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. And then also Turner. Turner. Illustrators where I first saw them in HOW, oh, I think the name is Turner, last name is Turner. I cannot remember their first name. They’re based in Atlanta. I think they’re still around. And I started learning about more folksm and I was like, whoa, how come they don’t get shined in these magazines? I just went into overdrive to try and find as much history as I could. That’s how I started finding it about Georg Olden. I’m still stuck on his story and the total disrespect I feel that the design industry has given him completely. And still, I wonder if I hadn’t brought up Georg Olden to Ric Grefé back then before there was Design Journeys and all that. Because I had mentioned an idea on that, and they named the Design Journeys that they honored Georg Olden, what, two years after when I was on the task force, it just dissolved and then, oh, now you decide to award Georg Olden the Medal?

I’m like, you… Okay. But at least he got it. I just feel like there needed to be more of an acknowledgement to it. Honestly, I’m sorry, an apology. Because I read that he also had won an art director’s medal, art director’s club medal. But I could not find any records of that. I did not see any of that leadership until I kind of found it on my own. And I like the fact that they were leaders on their own. They didn’t wait for other people because they couldn’t get certain opportunities they made their own. John Morning, that’s the other name, John Morning. And they did it for themselves. It wasn’t until honestly 21st century, early 2000s that I started seeing Black leadership. I still say it wasn’t like top tier Black leadership, I still think some of it was just, okay, not semantics, but perceptions, start putting some folks here. So I think they’re more middle leadership, not top leadership. So even today at 2022, I mean, yeah, you have a few that truly you can say top leadership, but it’s nearly not enough. So it was very, very barren in those early years that you had to find it and dig to see it.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember, and I want to talk about AIGA because that’s an important part of your story, but I remember when I first started doing Revision Path, I did a lot of research leading up to wanting to start this. And I came across those older magazines you mentioned like Step and Communication Arts is still around, but HOW, and I wonder actually for HOW, because HOW was based out of Cleveland I believe, or somewhere in Ohio, the Midwest.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Somewhere over there.

Maurice Cherry:
I wonder if that informed the perspective they had because so many of these other design publications were out of New York. And so maybe for them it was through a more New York lens. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I remember doing a lot of that research and I would see where people would write a letter to an editor at Step or something and be like, “Well where are more Black designers?” And the magazine would be like, “Oh well we don’t know where they are and we can’t find them,” and all this sort of stuff. And I’m like-

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I was one of those that wrote a letter.

Maurice Cherry:
I was like, they’re out there. But then granted, this is also a time before the… Well, I don’t want to say necessarily before the internet, but really more before the worldwide web when where people could create these destinations for people to go to. I discovered the internet, or the worldwide web I should say in high school in the mid nineties. I was in a lot of places I probably shouldn’t have been just in terms of the fact that the Web was just such a big place. So there were things like AOL Black Voices and Africana.net and NetNoir and all those places. So there were obviously places where people were trying to create these destinations for Black people. But I don’t think those social connections really became prevalent until of course the 2000s with the advent of social media and stuff.

So I was doing my research to try to start Revision Path and I would see that a lot of people were asking these questions, and the editorial boards would just shrug their shoulders. “I don’t know where they’re at. I don’t know where they are.” And I remember through that research also discovering, or finding out, I should say, about the organization of Black designers and how they kind of started out in the Midwest. I think it was either in Chicago or somewhere in Ohio, but starting out there and then building things out. Did you know about them back then?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh that’s a whole nother story.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, I did. I found out about them early nineties. Actually because I found out about them and that’s how I found out about Fo Wilson and Michele Washington. Yeah, see now these names are coming back. Michele, she’s a teacher at City Tech right now. Yeah, I know about OBD and I actually went to one of their conferences. I can talk about that after AIGA because that’s a whole nother thing. So I lose track of where we going with AIGA.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, let’s talk about that. So you mentioned Ric Grefé who was I think a longtime executive director.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, he was.

Maurice Cherry:
For AIGA, and you kind of worked with them back in the mid 2000s to-

Andrew Bass Jr.:
2016, 2017. [inaudible 00:16:38]. Yeah, actually, yeah, you’re right. Earlier.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve been a lot earlier. Yeah, because Ric, I think Ric retired or left or something.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Sorry, it was 2006, 2007, 2008.

Maurice Cherry:
So, okay. Yeah, right around that time. Because I think Ric left I want to say in 2013, 2014, something like that. But you had worked with AIGA to not only create the diversity and inclusion task force but also serve as chair. Tell me what that was like, because if diversity was not even in the conversation with regards to the design community, how much of a uphill battle was that?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Shoot, I don’t even think we even got the first step. Honestly looking back, it was all for show. It was all for show. How that all came about was Step in Design had an article based on women in design, very good article, very interesting. I was kind of starstruck that, not starstruck, I was kind of awestruck that out of all these listing of women designers, how come there weren’t any people of color in them? I think there was one, and I think it was Lucille, and I never really know how to pronounce her name, but Tenazas, Lucille Tenazas, she’s a name in the industry, [inaudible 00:18:01]. So I believe she might be either Filipino or-

Maurice Cherry:
She’s Filipino. I know who you’re talking about, Lucille Tenazas or something like that.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yes, yes. And I was like, you got one person on here. There’s a whole lot of other people out here. So I wrote a letter to Step in Design at that time just saying, “Hey, great article, cool and that, but hey, you’re kind of lacking X, Y, and Z.” And I rolled off some names that I knew of, such as Cheryl Miller, Of Wilson, Michele Washington. And just questioning, if you’re going to do a compilation like that, you really need to be a more thoughtful and full approach in doing these kind of compilations. And at the time the editor in chief there, Emily Potts, actually replied back to me via my email. I was like, ooh, I didn’t know I was going to get an actual response. And she actually struck up this conversation, I should say we struck up this conversation and she had told me she was having conversations with Bill Grant at the time who was AIGA president, right? Yeah, yeah. Board of director president.

And that was one of his issues. He wanted to expand AIGA’s reach, and so that it becomes more inclusive to people and stuff like that. And she told me, would I be interested in talking with him and that she’ll put me together with him. And I said, “Sure, I don’t mind talking. Talking’s free, not going to hurt nobody.” So within the span of I guess a day she got me in touch with him and he called me at home, because I think it was some sort of holiday because I know I was there with the kids because they were upstairs. I had to go in the basement because they were so loud. And we were just talking and he was telling me about his idea that he wanted to start up this task force about diversity for AIGA and would I be interested in helping out with it if I had any thoughts on it. And so I kind of told them some of my thoughts and what it is and stuff like that. That’s when the conversation started shifting to hard left that I did not anticipate, was that, “How about you serve as chair?” I’m like, “Wait, this ain’t even a real task force yet. You want me to be chair?”

“Yeah, because you have your ideas and what you’re thinking with something like that. How about you lead the task force?” I was like, “Okay.” Because I was kind of hesitant because I was not an official member of AIGA at this point. I’d always worked with AIGA, like some sort of ghost warrior on the end on the outside. But I never actually paid for a membership. But somehow I kept finding myself at AIGA events. And so I was like, all right, let’s talk. And he said there was a few people who are of like minds with this. And so we met, we talked, and I sincerely felt he actually wanted to do this. That he had a desire to see this happen and that to affect some sort of philosophical change within AIGA in the industry. And I was like, okay, that’s cool.

And that’s when I first met Ric. I went to a couple of their leadership meetings out in San Francisco to talk about the task force. I mean, I should have kind of seen it then when I gave that speech, I forgot who, it was with somebody else that we were talking. I can’t remember who it was. It was a last minute addition to the leadership summit. I kind of took that some kind of way. This was like, okay, it was last minute, but you’re president. Because he was in his last year. Now, I don’t know how much pushback he might have gotten, and having the experience I’ve had now I kind of understand maybe why he was trying to push it through his last year. Because I think he really did meet a lot of resistance. And so I think he just found a way to pigeonhole it in there and stuff.

Our presentation was sort of last. I really can’t remember who the other person was. But the response from the leaders there, these were chapter leaders about, well, in terms of this diversity task force and chapters looking at it, what if we don’t have any people of color here? Basically let’s put it straight. What if we don’t have any Black people? And I was like, “Okay, diversity does not mean just Black people.” I explained to them diversity means a group collection of different voices. And I said, “Just because there may not be any Black folks there, Latino folks, Asian folks there, you as white folks can still talk about diversity. There is different white folks too. There’s also the gay community, this disabled community. You can talk about diversity and how you can address practitioners of design who have been left out.”

You can be a participant and not some sort of like, well if you need help I’ll be over here but I’m not going to do anything until you ask me. The kind of snide blow back getting from that at that time kind of told me what we were headed for. But I was like, all right, fine. This is about education. Let’s school folks. Yes, I knew some chapters, they don’t have any Black people around. They probably not even been in the same room with a Black person, let alone anybody else. So back in New York, formulating these plans with the… Well actually, no, we were doing that in San Francisco. We started burgeoning a task force. It was, oh man, I’m so bad with names. I think Jose Nito out from Boston, Tracy Woods from St. Louis. There’s a brother down south, can’t think of his name. I see his site in my head. A white lady from DC, I can’t remember her name, and somebody else.

We were sort of like the initial pool. And so we started trying to put up strategies, what we’re going to do, what’s going to be the tenant of the task force, what are some of the things we’re going to try and achieve? How do we talk to chapters about this? And I was assured that the New York chapter, not New York chapter, because it’s always tricky because New York chapter is the headquarters. So it’s like, we were assured that headquarters would be a hundred percent behind this. Ric said, “Yeah, we’re going to do this.” I think Emily Woods is a name. I don’t know if she was on the board or if she was from DC, but there was some board members there or staff members from headquarters that were going to help coordinate this, set up some workshops, help supplement our plans. In meetings that I had with Ric, I talked about some of my ideas and some of the research that I had, which I still have a copy of that letter, where essentially I outlined the plan of what needs to be done with diversity task force in the infancy stage.

Because I knew, okay, I’m not going to hit you up with everything, because we got to convince you guys just to do a little bit first, and let’s test the waters to see how serious you are about this before wasting all of our time doing this. And I basically was telling him first and foremost, you can acknowledge now the invisible designers out here, the invisible pioneers both past and present. And that’s when I mentioned the idea that became Design Journeys. My plan was for that to be a roving exhibition going from chapter to chapter to chapter like they do with other stuff. Gave them a whole list of current, at that time current because this was a 2006, current and past design professionals that they could focus on and recognize for not only just AIGA and [inaudible 00:26:05] but just to make up for the, what’s the word I’m looking for? The blind eye that they existed and then set paths for people.

And again I was assured, yeah, we’re going to do this, we’re going to help put this through. And so as I tried to set up, oh that was Cooper, from Cooper Design in Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, I forgot her name, her first name. As we were beginning to do and set up these programs with the assurances that Ric, the headquarters was going to be behind us, started having as we tried to put these planning meetings together more and more of this initial task force, the participation wasn’t existing. Folks, some of them checked out. There was only about three of us who were actively meeting, confirming, talking and trying to set stuff up. As they sort of slid off to the back burner, like oh we’re engaging in the conversations or attending the meetings, as we try to put plans to Ric and the headquarters team as, okay, can we set this up? They’re like, “We’re going to pass it to the board and talk about stuff and see if we can get allocations and resources.” Nothing ever happened. It was always a talk, “We’ll get back to it.” Let’s talk about this. What can we do?

And that went on for about a year of just, okay, we’ll get back and talk about it. And I was really getting very frustrated and pissed off about it because I’m like, okay, it’s like this has been set up to fail from get go. Headquarters is not doing anything. And then I got half this task force team that is MIA. The three of us can’t do all this stuff. And I’m not going to say the three people that were there. I’ll keep that out.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh man. No, I’m kidding.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
But they were very active. And the funny thing is they were active because we all shared the same thing. We were all people of color. Those who were active members on this. With the exception of the lady from DC, the white lady from DC, I have to say she was actually very active too. So it was from a biased perspective so to speak. We had a vested interest in this happening. Did not get that same vested interest from headquarters and from some of the task force members. And so as those task force members started whittling away, tried to shift the focus on, all right, let’s just stick with the task force members that are here and try and get at least something jumped off from headquarters.

They tied the diversity task force into their mentoring program because it was high school art and design. Well, predominantly most of the students are Black, Latino and Asian. But I was like, but that’s already in place. I mean yeah we can kind of put that, but if you’re trying to set this as a standalone, we got to do something that puts us out first. How about we first move with, at the time I had The Invisible Designer, but it became Design Journeys. I said, “How about this exhibition? Now let’s start introducing folks to these names.” Then there was this whole thing about money, how would it be, would it be a roving thing? Who can we put together? And that’s what I learned about the bureaucracy. AIGA is ridiculous. Which I think is on purpose because they definitely can move stuff when they want to.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m holding my tongue so much. But yeah, go.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I mean the biggest, I’d say two of the biggest programs that they definitely move fast was women in leadership, women in design, I forgot that. And then the voting. Oh, they’re moving heaven and earth to do that. And granted, yes, the women in leadership, great. You still didn’t focus on anybody of color in there. Still a whole lot of white people. But you can move heaven and earth for that. You can’t do it for there, where there could be potential sponsorship opportunities here, where you can get Adobe into this. You can get vendors that this is a necessary need because this broadens the industry. And quite honestly, if you just want to go business wise, increases your sponsor’s customer base. Because we all use the products that they do. We have to, this is our industry. So through all that, my time spent there was, like I said, we barely got a foot because it was all meetings and back and forth and conversations, like okay, we’re going to set this up.

All these emails that would have back and forth, I’m like, can we do something? And because of that inaction, basically most of the members left because they were like, “Okay, nothing’s going to happen.” And then eventually I was told, you know what, this chairpersonship should be every year, which I agree it should be every year. But I’m like, look, we haven’t even done anything yet. Because the next chairperson after that was Jose Nito, who was part of the original task force. And they still didn’t do anything. They still didn’t do anything. But then it was, what was it, in 20… When was the first design studios thing? When they got their promos and everything, they held it at AIGA headquarters. That was in 20 something? Twenty…

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know when that might have been.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
2015, 2016. Maybe it was earlier than that. Maybe it was 20-

Maurice Cherry:
I think it might have been earlier than that.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Because the only thing I saw came out of it was that in 2008, a year after I just basically left and the new chairperson came on board for the D&I task force, they awarded Georg Olden the medal. And I was like, all right, so you took something out of the list. And then the subsequent years I noticed they started pulling more of the names off that list, giving them AIGA medals. So I’m like, all right, cool. Now in the beginning a lot of it was the older ones, some passed, some were old. I don’t have the polite word to say, but I’m like all right. So at least you’re recognizing them, you’re still not giving a context to it. So it’s like a half assed kind of thing. It’s like, oh, let’s just do this. Because it definitely was done just to say, “Yeah, this is what we’re doing. We are recognizing diversity, we are recognizing our past invisible pioneers in the industry, and that’s all you need to know.”

They gave no context to it, anything like that. And then a few years later they started recognizing some living folks, which I’m like, all right, you can do a mix of living and past. It doesn’t have to be one year’s all dead, now you start going to living. But I noticed that they used quite a few of the names that was on the list that I provided. And I was like, all right, fine. At least something happened. I was like, I still think it’s for show. And then I got the bomb dropped in my mail when I got the promo card for the exhibition of Design Journeys. To say I almost felt like going down the AIGA headquarters and lightening it up. I was pissed because they created, I really thought it was just a empty shell of what it could have been. It definitely felt like a lip service. Definitely. I mean, I wasn’t doing it for any acknowledgement or anything like that, but the way they did it where it just was born out of them pissed me off to no end.

Still pisses me off to no end. Because every conversation I have with them is like, oh, we didn’t know you brought this to them. And I’m like, you mofos, it’s right there in black and white. Emails, letters. It’s like, yeah, yeah, okay, whatever. When I went to the thing, because they gave me it like, “Oh come down, Design Journeys, blah blah blah, this little promo.” And I’m like, you didn’t even spend the money for the kind of promos you do for everything else. It’s this matte cardboard thing that looks like it came out my own printer. I was just ashamed to see that.

And I went down there, it was just basically a wall of some names, and I’m like, this is really not a true testament to folks’ legacies and their work. I mean, you’re not even showing the full showcasing of their space, not their space, but of their actual work and what they went into. I was not a fan of it. I thought the exhibition design, I didn’t particularly like. And then they turned it into this exercise of, “What is diversity to you?” And it turned out was AIGAs membership at that time, it was still predominantly white folks coming in. I’m reading some of this stuff and I just got offended by some of the stuff that I was reading there. “Diversity is having some Black people, some white people. It’s about listening to a different perspective you don’t necessarily have.” I’m like, okay, you’re not really getting to the root of what it’s supposed to be.

Whiteboard exercise they had. I’m like, that means absolutely nothing. Because people are going to go in there, they’re drinking their little wine. “Oh, let’s do this because I’m down for the cause,” and then next day what cause, what are you talking about? So that incensed me. And I was just kind of done with AIGA at that point because all the conversations I had with Ric, in the beginning it started pleasant and nice but towards the end he definitely could tell my frustration. And I did start getting a bit raw, which I don’t think anyone’s ever talked to him raw before, he’s high in academia and stuff. But I was like, at that time “I’m done with this bullshit. This is crap.” I was like, “You’re not doing anything.” And then he retires, and they give him a big send off and I’m like, all right. Yeah, you did great for AIGA, but you left a huge part of your membership underwhelmed.

And that’s how that came to be, this leadership. I never really felt like I got a chance to do anything with the task force because it was such a step. The thing is, while going through all this, I came to City Tech because I was now teaching there and I would talk to Dorothy Hayes and that’s when I bumped into her and I was like, “Hey, by the way, let me tell you about we’re doing this diversity task force for AIGA.” She was like, “Oh God.” I was like, “What do you mean oh God?” “You do know that’s not the first time they’d done that?”

Was like, “We tried to do that in the seventies. Me,” meaning her, Dorothy Hayes and a few others, “And we got nowhere.” She told me, “Don’t trust AIGA. They’re going to give you the runaround. They’re going to make you think they’re doing all this stuff. You’re going to do all this work and it’s going to leave you empty.” They will find an excuse why they can’t do stuff. Because she said they’re not interested, they’re really not interested. They don’t see the value in it.

And that I have to say came to fruition. To this day I still don’t think AIGA values what really D, E and I really means about, because at this point I’m even saying that diversity, get rid of that word. That’s becoming a trend word. It is very much about inclusion. It is more about being included in the conversation.

Diversity means, okay, I got a representative here, there, there, we’re good. Those representatives don’t mean nothing. It’s like you come here, you can’t say nothing, don’t be seen. Just look good. At this point it is about inclusion and equity. Giving me that same access to that power pie that you have and not the crumbs. I don’t want the crumbs, I want the pie. I don’t think they value that. I don’t think they understand the value of it or intentionally underplaying it. I don’t know.

So those early years to the subsequent later time that I came back onto the task force with AIGA under a different leadership, Julie, Julie Anixter, who I actually liked, I thought she was on point because it all comes down to leadership. Because at the time it was Bill Grant who was pushing this, but his term ended. The next president came in. He had a completely different agenda and it was not about D&I. No. I forgot what he was working on. And then subsequently every board president after that has not picked up the ball with diversity. Let me stop saying diversity. With inclusion and equity.

And then they brought in Julie. At that time, the task force leader then was Jacinda Walker.

Maurice Cherry:
Jacinda Walker, yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And Jacinda I had met years ago from an OBD conference, and she was pegging me all these questions about a AIGA and I was telling her, because at the time I didn’t really know why. I was like, “All right, cool. You want to know about AIGA? Let me tell you the good, bad, ugly so you making an informed decision.” And she becomes the chairperson, which Jacinda has got energy for days. Which is great. I’m not that kind of person.

I loved how she reinvigorated, and actually that version of the task force got more stuff done than I ever seen. And I think a lot of it had to do with Julie. They were in sync. That got more traction and things going on, which reinvigorated me, honestly. I got reinspired. I didn’t want to do anything with leadership or anything like that. I was like, look, I’ll just be in the back. I’ll be a worker. Just put me in the back. I’ll work with you. I will say that was probably the best time working with AIGA was that iteration of the task force. From, I think I rejoined 2017 till 2018, until after Julie left. That was great. There was things happening and I really felt people were committed. That actually members were committed and that Julie was committed to it.

Now the board is another thing. Which at this point I feel the board has more power than the actual executive director of AIGA. I did not feel the same energy from the board. So with that, as we kept going through stuff and doing things and even the offshoots emerge, which was very interesting, and actually enjoyed working with that too. It was all about emerging designers, and that definitely was a more inclusive kind of recognizing designers and stuff like that. But Julie left, AIGA has gone through a major, major transformation. Seemed like they no longer support any of these programs. I haven’t seen anything about emerge. I no longer am a member of AIGA and won’t go back as a member of AIGA because during that last part, once Julie was gone, they had the interim CEO or interim executive director.

Maurice Cherry:
Barry.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, Barry. Somehow they got wind, I forgot, it was the engagement director or membership director who reached out to me. Because I had posted a Medium story about my frustration with AIGA, and they reached out to me probably just to cover their ass and for prep. “Oh we didn’t know this was going on. Explain this to us.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll talk to you. I don’t know why I’m talking to you. You a membership person. What are you going to do?” Come to find out after I explain all this stuff, she left three days later, she had a new job.

Maurice Cherry:
So that went nowhere.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
That went nowhere. And I was like, okay, you guys are really wasting my damn time and you’re going to see Brooklyn come out with that if you keep going. So at that point I was like, I’m officially done. I’m officially done. Julie’s gone. I didn’t like how that went down. Definitely could see the support being pulled from the task force, left folks questioning what’s going on. So folks started peeling back and I was like, look, I’m not going through this road again. I’m like, I’m officially done. I ended my membership the end of 2018. I let it lapse, I said, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’ll join somebody else. I’ll go to SPD.” From that point on, I’ve just seen AIGA sort of disintegrate when they appointed the new executive director Bennie Johnson. Yeah, Bennie Johnson.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Bennie F. Johnson.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I was like, oh wow. They actually appointed a Black man. And I’m like, now is that for show or are they actually really serious? But I hadn’t seen anything with AIGA after that. I slowly started seeing all the initiatives being peeled away. And then to now, D, E and I task force is just a picture on the webpage. That’s it. They don’t do anything.

Maurice Cherry:
And now Benny’s no longer the executive director, which will be news by the time people listen to this. But yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I mean, what, three years, again, that’s crazy. So essentially that signals one or two things to me. That AIGA definitely may be in its death knell, or two it really is lost in what it’s trying to be. It definitely does not serve its membership anymore. Definitely doesn’t serve a segment of its membership. Even though I still keep an eye on what AIGA is doing and some of the things, the conferences, don’t get me started on AIGA in New York because they do nothing. I don’t see anything there. I will say I do see more faces of color on the speaker panels, which instinctually I’ll say when I read the bios and stuff, I’m like okay, you got folks of color here but they’re still not creative leads. They’re from other industries. If this is a design conference, show me the Black design leadership. Show me the Latino design leadership. Asian American, not Pacific Asian, basically darker skin Asians. They’re not represented. But you still have what I say, the Eastern Asian representation. That’s still there. But you don’t really have in terms of when it comes to a whole lot of brown folks up there, that it is more from some ancillary industry.

I’m like and that’s great, you may have some inspirational stuff, but I want to know about people in my own industry, how they’re leading, how they’re faring, how their experiences to get where they’re going. I can’t relate to somebody that’s speaking from, I don’t know, they just got a motivational speaking company, I could care less about them. Give me somebody who’s leading a top design company. I want to know the trials and tribulations with that. So to me, I still see AIGA’s doing this sort of face paint. They’re really not digging into it. I don’t even see them really digging into some of the major things that they always used to do. It’s dialed very back.

So I just wonder how long is AIGA going to be around, and who’s going to pick up that vacuum? Because to me it feels like there is a emptiness there of addressing this issue. Leading into OBD, which I thought would be a good variant to AIGA, they don’t do much either. Because I got aware of them both around the same time as AIGA and OBD. Because I learned about OBD back in the early nineties and I just stumbled on it. I forget how I found out about that. I think it might have been in HOW design, where they were talking about the conference that they put on OBD did in Philadelphia back in I think ’93, no, I think it was maybe ’96.

It was full blown. I mean, I saw so many design professionals that looked like me in these companies I never heard about doing this amazing work that I really thought that was going to do something, and it did nothing. It went nowhere after that. But that’s a whole of other reasons of internal fighting and the genders and what are they really after. Seemed like it was somebody’s method of supporting themselves. It was just a lot of, again, empty promises that kind of went nowhere. That didn’t really help the community at large and stuff. But it did, at least that conference showed me that I wasn’t alone, and that was just the one thing I wanted to do with AIGA so that beginning students or students coming in to design know that they’re not alone. That there’s other people out here that look like them that may have similar stories so that they can look up to and aspire to.

I still try to do that to this day to let people know that you’re not alone. That there are folks out here. They may not get the shine but it’s up to us to give the shine to them and stuff. But that was the experience with AIGA.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So much of what you described just now is point by point what my experience was like being on the D&I task force with AIGA, it almost felt like your hands were tied at some point. You couldn’t say anything, you couldn’t do anything. We had a large amount of members, most of them never said a word. They just weren’t out there. And it was clear that for the people that were people of color that were out there, we were sort of being elevated more as the main group to the point almost where the group was more so associated with us personally than it was with AIGA.

And so when people started leaving, because when I came on, which was in 2014, Antoinette Carroll was a co-chair with this woman Aidan O’Connor who worked at AIGA. Antoinette was positioning to have a full-time diversity and inclusion employee at AIGA headquarters because she was making the case that this affects everything. This affects membership, this affects other organizations, having it as the side thing along with women in design and voting and stuff, it sort of takes it off of the main plate. It doesn’t give it as much prominence as it should. I know she was lobbying for that to happen. It didn’t happen. AIGA eventually hired this diversity and inclusion fellow I think who worked with the task force for a while. This guy named Obed Figueroa, he left and then people just started dropping off the task force left and right.

I left in 2017, not too long after Julie left the organization. And it’s funny you mentioned Jacinda. I brought Jacinda in.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh okay.

Maurice Cherry:
So I had met Jacinda prior to AIGA through, I had heard about the work she was doing with the Organization of Black Designers and with this studio out in Cleveland called GoMedia. They were putting together this event called Weapons of Mass Creation Fest every year. And Jacinda was on their ass about how come you all do this every year in Black ass Cleveland and ain’t no Black people there, how is that? What is that? She was getting on them about it. That’s when I first learned about her, and then she knew about the stuff I was doing with AIGA, and I was like, “Well, you should join. I feel like you can take what you’re doing on this local level and really amplify it.” This is before I knew how much they would tie our hands to do anything. Everything had to go through a particular AIGA conduit. This woman that worked there…I’ll say it, she was racist. She was racist, hands down. I’m not going to say allegedly. She was racist.

We would mention stuff to her. And the thing was us, the people of color on the task force, put this together. We put two and two together and I was like, wait a minute, why is she telling you one thing and telling me another thing? And she’d send us these random emails that looked like a ransom note because she would copy and paste from all these different places, and it just pissed a lot of people off because it was like we can do more individually than being part of this task force with this organization, because you won’t let us say anything through AIGA. We can’t do anything. We couldn’t even get an Instagram profile. The Design Journeys and all that stuff, we would recommend people, they would never push that stuff through. A lot of us left after that.

I know Jacinda was chair for a while. I know she left. And I think the only person that might still be around, because after I left, I know Douglas Davis has been on the show before, he also teaches at City Tech. He was doing stuff with them. This woman out of DC, Phim Her was doing stuff. George Garrastegui who’s in New York was doing things, and Carlos Estrada who’s out of AIGA Detroit.

I want to say Carlos might be the last surviving member of the task force. Because I don’t think George is doing anything with them. I don’t think Pam is doing anything. I know Jacinda’s does not. I want to say Carlos is the last person standing. But the way that AIGA internally eroded that task force from within, I mean it was like an ulcer just eating away at everyone’s motivation. We were trying to do surveys and we were trying to do all sorts of things and everything would just get, nope, shot down, don’t want to do it, can’t do this, this, this, that and third.

And I was lucky to have Revision Path and still fall on that. And they did one or two features about Revision Path, but then people would say, “Well how come you have Maurice doing Revision Path and doing 28 Days of the Web and AIGA isn’t doing something like that?” And I was like, you got to talk to them about that. I don’t know nothing about how to get things on the website. It was a pain to get anything on the website because it had to go through another channel and it was a mess. It was an absolute mess. And what I left, and I rescinded my membership I want to say in 2017, 2018, I still sort of kept tabs with the organization, or rather I should say the organization kept tabs with me. Because they would would keep hitting me up about stuff and different chapters would hit me up and I’m like, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to mess with you.”

It got to the point, especially with my local chapter, with AIGA Atlanta, I literally had to go to them and say, “Keep my name out your mouth. I know you are using me, you’re dropping my name to get other people in here. You’re dropping my name about stuff. It’s coming back to me. Keep my name out your fucking mouth.” And to this day they don’t. I mean, it’s whatever. But I say all that to say Benny came on 2019, 2020 ish. And I had him on the show. We talked about the importance of him coming on as the first Black person in the organization’s hundred year history. I know there was a lot that he tried to do. The pandemic I think also just threw a wrench in a lot of things. And I’m not using that as an excuse, but I don’t know what AIGA is going to do now. Because like I said, by the time this airs, news would’ve went out that Benny is no longer the executive director. I don’t know who else they’re bringing in.

And as you’ve said, and as I know, D&I through AIGA is only as strong as whomever the executive director is that’s championing for it. Without them being the person at the top to say, “We’re doing X, Y, Z,” nothing really happens. And I’ve been on the nominating committee for the board. So I see how the board operates, I know how that operates. And they do hold a lot of power. They can oust an ED. They’ve done it before. So I don’t know. AIGA is, look, if you are a designer and you hear the sound of my voice and you are actively paying dues to AIGA, and I’m not saying don’t do this, but I’m saying really take a hard look at what the organization provides for you as a modern designer.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And I say modern because for a long time AIGA did not acknowledge UX. They didn’t acknowledge product design. And the reality is a lot of working designers now that work for tech companies or other places are UX designers. They are product designers. They’re experience designers. There are other designers that’s not just visual or web. I feel like the organization has started to acknowledge that a bit through some events. But what is the value of an AIGA membership to the modern designer? If you didn’t go to design school and picked up everything you know from YouTube or courses or a bootcamp or something and you’re working as a mid-level product designer at a tech company, what importance is AIGA going to be you? How is it really helping you as a career professional outside of just saying you’re a member?

I mean, I could be a member of the Subway Sub Club, but that don’t mean anything to the random, you know what I’m saying?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m comparing this to RGD in Canada. If you’re an RGD member and you’re an RGD registered designer, that means something to companies because they found a way to really get themselves a part of the business community. I don’t think being an AIGA designer, now saying you’re a member of AIGA really means anything when you try to get a job or you’re talking to clients as a freelancer, I don’t think that means anything. It probably means something on a more local level depending on the visibility of the chapter.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
But as a whole, what does it mean? So I’m not telling people to give up their memberships. I am asking them to take a hard look at the money that they’re paying and see, is it really worth it?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. I mean, Canada, I’ve been contemplating moving to Canada mainly because of how the design community is looked at up there. I actually like the idea of registering as a graphic designer. I like that classification that Canada does because it seems like it has a more of a value added perk to you as a working professional and signifies that, hey, you know what you’re doing and you’re the real deal and that we’re going to help you with that.

I mean, for a whole host of reasons it’ll be like pulling teeth through I don’t know what in the US to do something like that. I don’t look upon AIGA in the same light as I did 20 years ago. I don’t look at it as like, oh, they’re going to help me. Because honestly, in my career, has AIGA ever got me a job? No. Has AIGA ever really connected me to any of the superstars within AIGA? No. I’ve met some in passing through meetings and workshops, but no one’s ever really vested any interest in trying to talk to me more than just, “Hey, how you doing?”

I’ve actually been kind of shunned by some folks in AIGA. A lot of the events that I used to go to, every time I would kind of step in, I’d always get this look like, what are you doing here? Even when I went into the headquarters, last time I went to the headquarters for something, I forgot what it was. I mean, the staff there was looking at me, and they were younger than me, I mean, looking at me like who’s this Black man in here? What you doing?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I’m just like, ooh. So tell students that, I tell them AIGA is a good resource to find information. That’s what I look at AIGA as of right now. Just an information tool. I still think AIGA is very good in terms of the business information they have on there. It’s great. I don’t need to get in, I don’t need to talk to anybody about that. I can just pull off the information, look at the resources and stuff like that. Cool. You’re a great library for that. But for the true socialization and the true advancement for designers, as I’m seeing now as I guess I fall into the seasoned category now, I don’t see them doing anything about seasoned professionals. It’s more like you don’t exist. We’re only focused on designers up to 30.

I try to tell students it’s a good resource for that information. But as a member, really think about the value that you may get out of it. You go to some initial events to see how you think about it and see if you see any concrete pros and cons is going to help you personally from that experience. And being the fact that the national headquarters is the New York City chapter is a double edged sword, because the New York City chapter honestly to me is dead as a doornail. They don’t do much. They didn’t do much before Covid, they don’t do much now. And it’s like, so if you join that, what is it really helping? And I hate saying that to folks, but I don’t want them to go through the experience I’ve went through, especially when there’s other organizations that I see. Yeah, they’re more of a specific design orientation like Society of Publication Designers.

They seem a lot more active and a lot more forward thinking on what they’re trying to do and who they showcase and how they extend stuff. I’m really thinking about joining them. I’m kind of gun shy because I’m like, do I really want to join another organization at almost $300 a year? I don’t know. I don’t know. And then walk away feeling unsatisfied. I mean, because I could do something else with that money. It is tempting, at least what I see in the presence of what they do, they’re [inaudible 01:01:18] above more stuff than what AIGA does. AIGA’s big focus is their conference. And I think that’s just a money driver. I think it’s fair for folks to start questioning the value of it. And if it’s not of value, then it’s time to either create something brand new or maybe just dissolve it completely and rethink this whole process from scratch.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I mean it’s interesting because, yeah, you’re right. You’re right. I don’t have anything to add. No notes. 10 out of 10, right?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What gets you truly excited about what you do?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It’s different nowadays. I’m approaching I guess 30 some odd years, 32 years working. Because I started working as a sophomore in college. What gets me excited now about what I do is not so much, I’m not driven by the money anymore, which is kind of backwards to say. But I actually just like trying to educate people about what design really is in terms of a strategic path. I think too many people see design as just make me something pretty. And I’m like, no, it’s a lot more deeper than that. It’s about a strategic path on how you can make your company’s voice sing. And I like doing that. I get more excited about doing work for not-for-profits because they’re doing some really good work, a lot of them. But when you come across them you’re like, oh my god, what is this?

There’s no thought, no rhyme and reason. They look mismanaged when the organizations really aren’t. They have a plan, they know what they’re doing. It’s just the only thing is their front facing is not as organized as their internal specter. And that stuff is what gets me excited today is doing a lot of not-for-profit, dare I say pro bono work where taking away, I mean, yeah, I do non-profit work at a discounted rate, but pro bono stuff, you take away the money thing and you just focus on just creating to help them just for the altruistic nature. I don’t know, I just get a very different feeling. It just really inspires me because it’s like I’m helping you become better, to help you take yourself to another level that you deserve to be at.

And that I find in this aspect of my career is what truly motivates me today. If folks are willing, I like telling them about design and how it helps and what it can do, which is why I like teaching. And I think design education is paramount both for clients and students. Because I think as a designer, I think it’s our responsibility to also educate our clients about the power of design and what it truly is. But teaching, I feel like with all the experience and everything that I’ve gained over these 30 years, I feel I’ve been very fortunate and blessed. My career’s gone through so many different curves. It’s nowhere where I initially started seeing myself, where I envisioned there’s going to be some high powered VP of design at some mega billionaire company where I’m jetting from country to country and stuff like that. That doesn’t appeal to me and stuff. What appeals to me is just passing forward this design legacy to beginnings designers and so that they have a better experience than what I have had in my beginning journeys and stuff. And so that’s what excites me today.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like now? I mean, you’re at this point in your career where you have really seen design through all these different changes. Of course you mentioned being a design educator. What does success look like?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I would say immediately, right off the top of the head, some of the successes I like is when some of my former students have landed jobs that they really wanted and they come back and say they actually really value what I’ve done and help push them to be better than what they were when they were studying. They say, “Well yeah, you’re a little bit of a hard ass, but I get why you did that. It’s got me where I am today.” And we still keep in touch. They’ll contact me about industry advice, to just basically to have an air. That’s a success to me. But overall, I just find success in that, if I can actually just help someone, an organization, just put their message out a little more clearer. That they feel better about themselves, that I feel is a success to me. That’s how I’m counting that. Is how well does my knowledge or how does my help make them feel better about what they’re doing and stuff like that.

To me, I feel that’s more of a success I count today. I’m not discarding money. I still [inaudible 01:06:44] money, but I’m not driven by that, and that’s a fleeting success. Because I’ve been there when it’s been coming in like buckets and then when it’s dust, [inaudible 01:06:55] desert, it is more of the untangible successes that I think is great because that’s what’s lasting. So if I can help somebody else, they will remember that, and that just helps propel them. So while the name may not be there, the root of that help grows forever. I mean who doesn’t want that? That’s eternal. That’s great. And I find that success. Yeah, that’s how I’d answer that. If that’s clear. I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
I think so. Yeah. Now this might be a harder question to answer, but I’ll ask it.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Uh oh.

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I’m actually asking myself that now. I’ve been toying with the idea of in about five years, which I’ll be 60, which I still can’t get my head wrapped around. God, I got to take a breath on that one. In five years I still want to be a practicing designer, but I want to see myself pull back. I want to see where I’m doing design more at a leisurely pace. I see myself still teaching part-time but in a different scenario where I’m really seriously contemplating on starting my master’s next year to be able to teach at any institution. Because you need a master’s to move around outside of where I’m teaching at community college. And I’m 75% sure, I think I may actually move from being an in-house designer and going back to a full-time studio. I’m thinking in five years I may want to resurrect a physical entity of Straight Design, which it probably will not be called Straight Design because I’m thinking about rebranding myself completely.

But that’s sort of where I see, I don’t see myself ever retiring. Because people say, “Well okay, five years you’d be 60, then there’s 65. What about retirement?” I can’t do retirement. I have some friends who are retired early, they look bored as crap, and I can’t do that. And the thing is, I still feel design. I still get very much invigorated when I see great design. I still keep my nose to what’s happening in the industry as fast as it’s changing. And I’m also very interested in that, I’m hoping within the next five years that I can actually transition into a field that kind of peaks my curiosity, and that’s motion graphics. Whether or not to get a full-time gig for that, but to be able to offer that as a service. And to be honest, just to be selfish, I just think it looks cool.

I’ve done a little bit of motion graphics now and it’s intriguing, it’s fascinating and it’s fun. It’s fun doing that to take this static idea and bringing it into a motion life,, is something that I’d like to do more of, especially since I see that as the way design will start changing as we move from the platform of the basic augmented and virtual reality platforms we have now, which is clearly in its cell phase. I can’t even call it embryo, it’s still in the cell. That doing something, and I can’t say I’m a big fan of social media, it has its place, but I like the premise of how you, not necessarily the still aspect of social media, how Instagram originally started that it was all photos. Now it’s all videos. So you might as well just say TikTok.

That aspect of promoting stuff from a brand ad perspective is fascinating to me, because that’s where you can apply the motion graphics to that. It’s high hopes, but I kind of see myself doing more of that in five years. So like I said, I’m dabbling a little bit right now with it, that I’m trying to incorporate a little bit more into my full-time job. To feel comfortable enough to be able to offer that to clientele. That’s about as far as I can see what I think myself for five years, because in just the last five years I’ve gone through such a major transition professionally and personally that I’ve learned I’m not trying to forecast anymore, because tomorrow could be very different right then and there. So five years could be a very, very long way aways, and many different things go. But that’s kind of where I see my vision board for five years might be.

And that could change next week too. Because I have become very sort of transitory, I’ve been very flexible about, oh, where we’re going to go. I don’t know. Let’s see where the journey takes us kind of thing. Because at this point I don’t feel I need to prove anything to anybody. I don’t need to prove anything to myself. I actually just want to enjoy myself and I just want to contribute with, especially more so in terms of, wow, as I’m listening to myself in my head as I’m thinking about this, that Lord help me, do I want to actually become more of a social activist? I don’t know. I’d like to actually as these issues are popping up more and more in society, as a global society because you can’t really say we’re stuck in our own little neighborhoods anymore. But I want to do my part and help on that kind of scale.

In some part that also too is in that projection for the next five years. Maybe it’s a lofty idea, but it’s something that’s kind of sparking some initial interest now that I want to see how that, once I plant these seeds where it may grow within five years. But that’s where I see still doing the stuff and just hopefully still looking as young as I do now for five years. And just hoping my kids are, because they seem to, my son’s on this creative journey that I hope he’s successful in what he’s doing, and helping guide him as much as I can. As well as my daughter who is still trying to find herself. But she has a really strong creative base, even though she keeps trying to deny it. To make certain that they, like I said, my son makes certain that his career path is as solid as it can be, and to really try and guide my daughter because by that time she’ll be going to college. Kind of push her to be a creative too. So yeah, that’s what I see.

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
They can find me on my website str8tdesignllc.com. But the domain is not spelled as you would say straight, it’s S-T-R, the number eight, the letter T, designllc.com, had to play off of that because somebody took the domain Str8t Design. They could find me there. They could also find me on Instagram as Str8t Design spelled as you just say it on Instagram. That’s generally my main two points where you can find me, because my social media presence really is contained to just Instagram. I no longer use Twitter and I don’t really use anything else. I just use Instagram and my basic website.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Andrew Bass, wow. I mean, I knew that this was going to be a great conversation, but this was a conversation and a history lesson and a therapy session. This was so much wrapped into one. I mean, first of all, I just want to thank you for just the work that you’ve done. I mean a lot of what you’ve done in terms of just educating and then also even the work with AIGA has really kind of set the platform for me to even do what I do here with Revision Path. Like you were one of the first people that I interviewed back before this was all a podcast and everything. And to see that you’re still continuing to do this work throughout the years, that you can really speak truth to history about how things have went and how technology has changed design and everything. I hope folks get a chance to really listen to both parts of this episode, of these episodes, I should say, to really get the full breadth of what it is that you bring to the design community. And I hope to see you honored one day. I mean, through AIGA, maybe we’ll see, I don’t know, but I think what you’ve brought to the design industry is indispensable. And I just want to thank you so much for sharing that perspective here with our audience. So thank you for coming on. I appreciate it.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Well, I thank you for that and I thank you for interviewing me. It was a really cool talk, great to listen and listen to hearing myself talk. And actually it was very therapeutic to actually share some of the agony going through some of this and just trying to lay groundwork for future folks, trying to lessen the burdens that they’re going to have to face. And the fact that in 2022, coming into 2023, that this is still going to have to go on is sort of mind numbing to me. But it’s still very much the fight to happen. I may not have as much fire in this fight as I used to because I’ve taken a reprieve and taken a step back because it does kind of wear you down a bit. But I’m kind of been refreshing myself to like, you know what? Let’s throw my hat back in this one last time.

It won’t be with AIGA, it’ll be actually doing through some other things, because forget them. It’s time to go to other means out there, and actually just basically ourselves. Because I still have floating in my head, even though we’ve had OBD, no, yeah, OBD, which has had mixed results, I still feel very much that if this is going to change, that we have to do it for ourselves. Completely independent and self sustained.

Maurice Cherry:
A hundred percent, a hundred percent. I believe that. Again, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No problem. Thank you.

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Andrew Bass Jr.

We’re ending off the month talking to one of the unsung trailblazers for diversity in the design community — Andrew Bass Jr. Longtime fans of Revision Path will recognize Andrew as one of our early profiles back in 2013, and it was great to finally have him on the podcast to talk about his story and his work.

In the first part of this two-part interview, Andrew talks about his design consultancy Straight Design, and shared his story of growing up in Brooklyn and falling in love with graphic design. He also spoke about attending Pratt Institute, the battle scars he received working in print media and gave me a look at his career as a designer throughout the 90s.

Make sure you tune in next week for Part 2!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Well, I’m Andrew Bass and I am essentially design strategist, educator, art director, graphic designer. Day job I work as a art and production manager at an association called RIMS, handling their member publication. And I, on the side, I also have my freelance consultancy, Straight Design LLC, where I take on various different clients, focusing a little bit more on the small business side and not for profit as well as I’m an adjunct lecturer at City Tech or the full name New York City College of Technology where I teach Design Thinking, Design Studio.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far? We’re kind of near the end of the year. When you look back, how would you say the year has been?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It’s actually been, in perspective has been pretty good. I’m employed so that’s good.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I’m getting transitioning more from my basic print background into more digital design, which is actually good, where I also trying to kind of squeak my way into doing a little bit more motion graphics. But it’s actually been going pretty well as I’m been focused more on my full-time job in teaching and a little pulled back away from Straight Design due to family thing, personal issues. So I went through a divorce, had to sell the house and all this during COVID.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. But 2022, has been compared to 2021 and definitely 2020, it’s been great. In the grand scheme of things, I really can’t complain about stuff, but it’s been going pretty well and I’m just trying to gear myself up to get, for 2023 to get a little bit back into focusing a little bit more on Straight Design and what that next evolution’s going to be for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I feel like the last few years for a lot of people have been this sort of, I don’t know, period of trying to just gets get acclimated to the way of the world now and especially now that it seems like capitalism is trying to push us out of COVID in a way that everyone’s really trying to think, oh well for next year I need to try to get back out there more. I need to try to do more, try to resume what life was like prior to all of this, you know?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Well, I mean I will say for myself, and I’m still wrestling with quote, and I hate all these trend words that they keep coming out with, but quote “the new normal” because I now officially work from home and will be working from home for the next several years for my full-time job, saddle that with Straight Design, which is also still from home. The only time I actually go out for design is when I teach. Learning how to marry all that in one residence, basically my home without losing my mind and still maintaining that creative inspiration, is extremely hard and I’m still trying to formulate plans as to how to tackle it because I’m on what plan A.2 Now or something like that. Because I’ve gone through the 26 alphabet and gone through 1 through 10. So I’m on my third iteration of how to make this all go down seamlessly.

I think COVID just also put a pause on so many things that I think it is really hard to get, jumpstart ourselves back into, okay, this is how we did business, this is how we talk to each other, this is how we do stuff. And from the design aspect, I definitely have seen it become stagnated where I really feel that face to face has actually hurt a little bit of, at least my design process. In talking with both coworkers and clients that without that sort of personal face to face stuff, reading each other’s body language, playing off the vibes and stuff like that, that it has kind of stiffened a little bit of the creativity. I understand why everybody’s trying to say, “Okay, how do I get back into this normal life before COVID?”

Some of it I think is self-induced because for whole host of thing reasons 2020 was, I say from 2020, 2021 was a real big pot of let’s stir everybody, let’s scramble everybody’s brain with so much crazy misinformation about so many things. From the pandemic to politics to just how life is going to be to the state of the world and all that, that I think it really kind of, if I could say mind fucked us a bit that we still haven’t really kind of gotten out of it. But the thing is we need to, and the thing is, even during COVID, life doesn’t stop, you just have to adapt and figure a new way to do things.

And it’s slowly coming, it’s slowly coming. And I think as more and more folks get out that haze things will kind of lock back into place and pretty much kind of sync up as to how things were beforehand with just new processes, that’s all. It’s just going to be new processes. So it sort of forced the change for a lot of things. And we all know humans don’t like change very much. So it’s a shock to everyone’s system and I think it’s starting now to seep in and okay, this is what we’re going to do now.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, I mean you’re absolutely right. It’s been something I think a lot of us have just had to get comfortable with the constant pivots, whether it’s lockdowns or work from home or hybrid. And that’s we’re just talking about on a work kind of level. I mean personal level, there’s people that have lost loved ones, there’s people that have gotten COVID multiple times, they have long COVID, like there’s a lot that has really come out. And it’s continuing to happen, I would say even with the vaccines and such, there’s still just a lot that’s going on right now.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It’s something we just got to have to learn to live with and navigate that as anything else.

Maurice Cherry:
And we have to do it unfortunately on the individual level because I don’t think that structures have really been set up for us to do it on a societal level yet.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No, that it’s been misstep from day one and once it’s been misstepped, it’s very hard to start building that foundation and so that momentum is lost. So it is very much individually, which will be the success rate on that is going to be a wide range of stuff. Because some folks will do better, others will do worse. And the only thing is we just got to try and support one another when we can. I mean that’s lofty goals. Let’s hope that we all can do that and I think that’ll help things a little bit better. But yeah, it’s very much a matter of now it also kind of shows how fleeting life is and how, I mean a nanosecond, how things can shift and you have to either be ready to jump in and adapt or you just stay in that place and just cease to exist.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s lighten the conversation up because people probably tuned in didn’t expect us to be going all deep about COVID and stuff. Let’s lighten it up and talk about your design consultancy, Straight Design, which you’ve ran now for 15 years. Tell me about that. How did it start?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It wasn’t even planned, it just kind of happened because I will freely admit it started because of my arrogance. I was working in a time and a company and I was going to have the opportunity to start teaching as an adjunct and I just kind of took for granted that because we had such a relaxed work schedule there that oh I could teach classes during the day and come in four days a week and not just one day. This was before anyone ever did any sort of remote stuff. And I didn’t bother to tell my editor-in-chief that I had done this. And so basically I was tasked with, “Look, if you drop the teaching gig now or teach at night or you just got to leave the job,” it’s essentially you’re making, you accepted two jobs and this is your first job.

And I kind of refused. At that point, subconsciously I was kind of done with where I was working at. I had been there for a few years and there was a lot of changes. The company was going through a merger, I should say an acquisition. And things were changing in my department. My staff, they had had me actually cut my staff and so I was the only one working on the magazine at the time and through budget cuts. And I kind of just used that as an excuse subconsciously to of exit out. And so when I did that I realized, oh what am I going to do for money? So I was like, “Okay, we’re going to have to kind of freelance.” And I took some time to just kind of coast a little bit, get my head together and I was approached by a client to submit a proposal for developing a magazine prototype as well as what it would be to produce this magazine on a monthly basis.

And it was a magazine based in the Netherlands based on financial technology, which I had was completely unfamiliar with that subject. But I submitted my proposal and I was awarded the gig and that gave me the impetus to, okay, let me start Straight Design. Now at the time it was called AD Bass Designs until I changed the name later on. And that started the ball rolling for Straight Design and they were very good [inaudible 00:15:06] and it morphed from just doing the magazine and the production to doing event materials to promotional collateral and it spurred adding to my clientele roster.

And so I was running that in a physical studio in Manhattan for a good number of years, at least like five years in there. And then the recession of 2008 hit, as well as everybody else, I started losing some clients because they were cutting back on money, but I was still doing pretty well with that. But then once my big client sort of went away because the owner of that company didn’t realize what the financial investment was in starting up a magazine because a magazine doesn’t really break even for at least five to seven years. And the owner was like, “Whoa, this is taking too long.” And so they kind of pulled back on it, still kept all the event stuff and the event materials and stuff but just wasn’t doing the magazine.

I started losing clientele a bit because of the economic situation and at the time I was married and both my wife then and me were self-employed and with, we just had our daughter and I was like, “Okay, somebody’s going to have to go back inside because health insurance was as much as my mortgage.” And I was like this is killing my savings quick. And that’s when I had just made the transition to go back in-house. But I still kept Straight Design as my freelance consultancy so that I would basically do the projects that I still were very interested in on the side, but I didn’t have to worry about hunting down and bringing in clientele while maintaining my whole household. And I’ve kept that way from since 2012, I think. Yeah. From 2012 to now. Where I’m now thinking about eventually I might resurrect Straight Design in a more full-time capacity in the next several years. But that’s how I started it. It was really just a fluke.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s so interesting. Hearing you talk about how you started that reminds me of how I started my studio. It’s so funny that you said it was out of arrogance. Because I feel like I started in the same way. I was a senior designer working AT&T. I mean I was completely self-taught. I just felt like, oh I got this, I got this. And I mean I was working there in AT&T, for at least back then, I can’t speak to how it is now. This was 2008 when I quit. But it was very much a production house. It was all on the assembly line basically. You got packet with all your stuff that you needed to design and you did it in Photoshop and you sliced it up in Dreamweaver and coded. There was no love or soul into it because you had to crank it out and eight hours or less essentially.

And so you’re just doing this on a constant loop. And I was like I could do this better myself. And I just quit and started my own studio. I really felt like, yeah, I could do this, I got this. But yeah, it’s interesting because even when I started, I had a different name for my business. I started it out, it was called 318 Media because I wanted to, one, it was after my birthday and then two, I just wanted to have a cool kind of funky name. I ended up changing it later because there were other three blank blank media companies in Atlanta. There was a three, I know there was a 352 Media, there was a 360 Media and people were getting us confused and so we had to have a standoff, okay, somebody’s got to change.

And I was like, “I’ll change mine,” because I had a weird spelling for it too because I don’t know, I thought it was cool to have the number three, the word 18, but then I had to keep explaining it to people and then forms wouldn’t take a business thing that started with a number. It was a whole bunch of things.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I just changed it to Lunch in 2014, 2015 and completely rebranded the company. So it made more sense after I did all of that. And I even found business increased once that happened because one, people weren’t getting us confused with other companies. And then I had all these kind of gimmicks around lunch. My business card was one of those plastic key tag things where like CVS or whatever.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It was like that was what the business card was. And every time I met with a client I’d mark off a little circle on the back.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh that’s cool.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’d be like, “Oh, if you get a certain number, you get a free whatever.” I could play all these little gimmicks into it and it was fun.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
That’s cool.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve thought about going back to freelancing now, especially since I am not working and the job market is trash, I’m thinking about it. So I get what you mean about always having it in your back pocket in a way is something that’s just your own thing, you know?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, I mean it was great experience, still is a great experience. It was a great experience having the actual physical space, dealing with clients coming into the office, going to presentations and stuff like that. Contracting freelancers to work on projects and something like that. But it was also a good experience in understanding that New York City does not small business. They don’t like freelancers. Unless you are a huge company, the state is just going to rob you blind.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And it’s really hard. It was harder than I really imagined to run a business in New York City and New York state because New York City is its own entity and then you have to deal with New York state as well and then you got the feds so you get triple hit.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It was very, very interesting. And I would probably not open up a business in New York City again. I would go to a different state. I’m starting to understand some of the reasons why some companies open up in particular states. Just from the business point of view, it makes a lot of sense. But it was a good experience I have to say. And it actually did very well, even to my surprise because I didn’t expect to do so well starting off. I thought I was going to have to kind of struggle a bit, but things just rolled in really nicely and I was like oh. And I knew that wasn’t going to last. I just didn’t know it was going to hit sooner than it did. But it was a great experience and it just helped strengthen how I do my consultancy now when I freelance and stuff, that I got a little bit better practice with clientele because I really don’t like that side of doing a business. I really just want to create.

And I was always trying to find, I said if I was going to do Straight Design as a company company again where there’s just more than me, I need to find somebody who’s this, who’s good on the business side that doesn’t mind doing all the numbers and the paperwork and stuff like that. Because now that stuff really does consume a lot of time and it really showed being a creative takes a lot. We all know being a creative takes a lot of our energy. But when that’s split with doing this sort of the other side of our brain, the more logical side sometimes how that can disrupt things now and it’s hard to get back into that creative flow after you’ve been dealing with invoices and setting out proposals and responding to RFPs and tracking down those clients that are a little late in their paying and then taxes. That, yeah. We don’t like taxes but that, that’s woo those quarterlies.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
[inaudible 00:22:50] on that one.

Maurice Cherry:
You are preaching to the choir on that one. I know exactly what you mean.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. So it was a great experience and I try to pass that information to students now and always have incorporated a little bit of business sense in my teachings with students so that they’re better prepared for that. Because I never got that when I was in school. There was business not considered part of the curriculum. It was about technique and creating and stuff. Not like, “Okay now you got to make a living, how are you going to survive?” But it was a great experience. I mean it still is a great experience but what it is now is that I can pick and choose what I really want to work on.

And I really tend to working on not for profits or trying to help businesses get their start and really understanding how important the strategy of design is. And not so much get sidetracked by all the nice shiny bells and whistles, but to really understand how this design strategy is going to help them propel their company’s message to ensure they are successful in interacting with their consumer, their customer base and stuff. And I kind of like that. And that working full time and doing the consultancy on the side, that enables me to do that a little bit more without having to worry about the slow times and stuff like that. So it has worked out pretty well for right now. Although like I said before, I’m thinking of the next evolution that’s probably going to happen within the next year.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean you mentioned nonprofits and sort of smaller businesses that you really like to work with. What does your creative process look like when you’re starting on a project?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Generally when I’m first starting on a project, this is assuming I’ve been awarded a project, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Okay. Because then there’s another process on trying to get that project. Once I’ve gotten a project, I really try to just hone in and identify what is the problem that they’re facing, what is it that they really need to happen? And in that, once I’ve kind of locked that solid, that kind of helps me figure out my focus on what I need to sort of really understand about them, their audience, what they’re actually trying to put out there. Whether it’s some sort of service, whether it’s about the face of their company. And I really try to learn as much as I can about them to sort of really put myself in their shoes and trying to put myself in the shoes of who they’re trying to reach so that way I can talk in the same tone, the same voice. And that usually that’s a lot of my discovery time.

I always tell my clients that I need a good, I give myself about four weeks of discovery time to go through stuff to understand, to talk to people, to be able to really understand the gist and the spirit of what this is and who they claim their audience is to see if it actually matches up before I ever begin thinking about creative solutions. And then once I’ve done that, that’s when I just go back to them and kind of confer my findings, where I sort of send back to them, for lack of, a creative brief, just letting them know, “Okay, this is of where I think this is at.” And just to get them the co-sign, “Yeah, this is what we see for ourselves, this is what we see our audience, this is where we definitely agree with this is what’s happening, this is the sentiment.” And then that’s when I start getting into my creative process where start trying to now understand the competitors, see what they’ve done, see what this company’s done and what works well.

Because sometimes companies don’t realize they have some good stuff, it’s just maybe not executed well or thought out correctly. And so I try to see what is good. Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel unless it’s necessary. And see, like I said, see what works, what doesn’t work and then start beginning to put those pieces together and start developing my own of creative point of view as to how I think the project should go and what’s going to be best for their purposes moving forward. Which again, that’s another big chunk of my time that depending on the scope of the project, definitely is at least a month for, I like telling folks weeks versus months because it seems shorter in weeks than months. Math. I tell them it’s usually about four to six weeks I’m going to start doing creative development if it’s a kind of small base project, small to medium side.

And that allows me to actually kind of run through a lot of my ideas because in all transparency, as a creative I also build in cushion time for myself with that. Because I’m not starting on that project right off the bat. I’m a procrastinator and I probably should not be putting this out on air, but I’m a procrastinator and sometimes it takes a while for me to jumpstart to get in things because deadlines really drive my juices. I don’t know why that is, but at least about a week or so I kind of just kind of float through the project in the development phase. Kind of looking at things inspiring myself before I realize, oh man, okay, I got to get my stuff going in into gear.

And then once I’m in gear though, I’m going through it. I’m flying through it to build up my mock so that way I can present to the clientele. And I walk them through the whole process and I explain, I kind of educate them about the aspect of design and why I have done exactly what I’ve done, the choices I’ve made from all the elements. So that they have a better understanding that this is not just about making things look nice and that colors, type, images just seems like random choices when no, there’s a calculated reason for the choices on this and what the desired result is expected from it because of these choices.

And then it’s a matter of, I don’t usually have not gotten from clients an extensive back and forth on things. It’s been a pretty quick, “Yeah, we like this choice, we’ve got these few little changes and then that’s it.” And then the end of the process is where I now start finalizing everything up. And that usually is the quickest part of the process because all the stuff I build up is to high fidelity in terms of the conceptuals. And so that way all I’m doing is just tweaking some things unless it completely requires a rethought and which we never want to do there. And luckily I’ve only had one or two of those and that’s an earlier part of my career because that’s embarrassing. Go back to the drawing board to because you completely did not catch what was going on. And then from there it’s just providing the materials to the clienteles and following up with them.

Now that’s one of the things that I think sometimes as designers, creators we don’t do is that we don’t follow up to say, “Okay, hey, how did things go six months out? How did everything happen? Are you satisfied? What’s going on?” To try and maintain and build those networks and those relationships so that it becomes a longstanding client base. But also I think it’s just good practiceship or businessmanship to follow up with your clients, make certain what you provided to them is doing what they needed to be done and that they’re satisfied and that it’s helping them. So, that actually tells you how well you’ve done yourself. But that’s [inaudible 00:30:48] my process. I hope I didn’t drone on that.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I mean I think that end part definitely is good because then it also means that you can possibly get repeat clients.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Repeat work from the same client. I mean that’s always good. I know back when I was doing my studio, I would have clients I do work for and then I would follow up and if they needed things on a more regular basis, eventually that graduated to becoming a retainer. And then that’s guaranteed monthly income, which we all love that. That’s great.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And referrals. Current clients can refer you to people, so you get new clients.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Let’s kind of dive a little bit into your personal story. I think folks now can kind of hear the New York accent.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh my god.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about growing up there.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
You mean my Brooklyn accent? Yeah. Well I mean I’m born and raised in New York, specifically Brooklyn. Because people ask me, oh where I’m from, I say, “I’m from Brooklyn. I’m Brooklynese.” Because yes, people from Brooklyn, we have Brooklyn is a culture. Other folks realizing, or at least old Brooklyn now, because yes, I’m going to say Brooklyn is not quite the same as it used to be. So old school Brooklyn. Yeah, I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, now during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Crack era and blackout from 1977. So Bed-Stuy was rough. It was not for the week of heart. And me growing up as the nerd, because I’ve always been a nerd, always been the tallest dude out of everybody, very quiet, reserved. So I was the art kid. And so naturally I was bullied growing up and for me to deal with that, I always used to just draw. Now I would just go into my notebooks and draw these fantasy worlds just to escape from all the crap that I was growing up with.

Because I also, my dad was an alcoholic. When I was younger it wasn’t as bad as it was when I got older, but when he did drink, it was not a pleasant environment. So coupled that with the knuckleheads in my neighborhood who were bugging me and my brother, I retreated to my drawing. Now I just went in there and I just started drawing worlds to just escape for a few hours and stuff. It was great therapy for me. Unfortunately, as I think back, a lot of the scenes that I would was drawing were conflicts. It was like war, space invasions, shooting. I was just blowing up shit. If you talk to a therapist, that means that’s a manifestation of what’s going on out there. And I’m like, but I had fun.

And with the drawing that actually got me interested in do people do this? And so I started looking deeper into cartoons cause I love cartoons and how they were drawn. I was like, oh people do this. When I found out as a kid, folks actually do. Because I don’t know what I was thinking as a kid, I just thought they magically appeared. I didn’t know you actually had to do that. And that fascinated me because I was like, “Ooh, maybe one day I can draw some cartoons.” And that shifted my invasion drawings into drawing characters and doing little mini cartoons. And to date myself, I used to do these little flip books where you draw them on the edge of the paper and you just flip them. And then-

Maurice Cherry:
I remember flip books. Yeah, yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
We all did that back then. It was just so cool. And people loved when I did it at my school and they’re like, “Ah, do one for me, do one for me.” And I started getting a little reputation for Andrew’s, “He’s the animator, he makes these cartoons that move,” and it was pretty cool. And I was like, oh, maybe one day I could do this for a living. But as I started growing up, I got into graffiti because the introverted kid started breaking out his shell a little bit. And I was fascinated with graffiti. Little did I know, that was my first introduction to design, specifically graphic design. Because what folks don’t seem to realize back then graffiti was just that was vandalism, got to get those kids. And I don’t advocate now at 55 to ever go paint up on people’s property. That is having been a property owner, I’m going to beat you up if you write on my property.

But it was beautiful work to see the letters, the formation of these characters and then the letters of the characters, and then actually the figurines you put into the pieces in the murals. Which all based off of the smurfs, Vaughn Bodē’s work, I forgot the character name with the mushroom head. Or at that time it was the, because that was the beginning of the hiphop culture. And I say hiphop purposely now because hip hop culture was the trifecta of MCing. Notice I say MCing and not rapping. MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Graffiti was the visual expression of all this, where breakdancing was the physical manifestation of the movement, and MCing was the verbalization of it. And there’s a distinct difference between MCing and rapping. Now, again, dating myself because we rappers today are not MCs.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh no, no. I would venture to say rappers today are barely rappers.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Bingo. But that’s got me into graffiti. And I just fell in love with how you create your own letters and create these characters into these stylized formations. And then the color, when I had my black book with the markers, it was Pantone markers. Little did I know Pantone would actually be so much a part of my life. But those Pantone markers with the smell, I love those smell of those markers. It was pure alcohol now. Yeah, pure alcohol. And they soaked through everything, but they left beautiful pieces. And that was actually my very first foray into being an artist and drawing and in design. And from that point on, I knew I wanted to do something creatively for the rest of my life. Now I just didn’t know what now.

And I went through different phases as I went from high school where I went to Brooklyn Tech, which was, and still is a very specialized high school that focuses on math and science. But they had an industrial design program in there and a little bit of arts. And so I took that because I suck at math, I love science, but I’m not a scientist. And so I did industrial design, which was very much equated to let’s say package design, product design and architecture, which did interest me. And for a time I was like, maybe I’ll do be an architect. But I really liked more the spontaneous creativity in design oriented projects.

So when I left Brooklyn Tech, I applied, was thinking about college and I applied to Pratt, I applied to City Tech. At the time, City Tech back then was called New York City Technical College. That’s what it was called back then. And those are the only two schools I applied to because I didn’t know of any other schools. And also because my mother told me I was either going to go to Pratt or City Tech because they’re in Brooklyn. And so that way I’m close to home. So my mother was very much the SuperMax warden growing up. So I looked at both. I applied to both. I got into both.

I went through, I first focused on going to Pratt, but I couldn’t afford that bill. I was like, “Ooh, that’s too much money.” And I didn’t really have a true portfolio back then. I just had my black book and some work from high school. Because like I said, Brooklyn Tech was not based, was not an art school. So I didn’t know anything about building a portfolio, what’s needed or anything like that. So I just had little trinkets. So I went to City Tech or New York City Technical College at that time.

And that’s where I really started learning what it is to be in the creative industry. And I knew right then and there, yeah, this is the choice I want to do. I definitely want to be in the creative industry. Now I got to decide, is it advertising, is it this thing called graphic design? Is it this thing being an illustrator? Because a couple of my professors were pushing me to be an illustrator now. And they were like, “You just have this natural tone. You should be an illustrator.” I just didn’t like sitting in those classes for six hours drawing stuff. I was like, are you kidding me? That’s like, this is boring me. It did. It wasn’t as fun to me. And I did a year at City Tech and then I transferred, especially at the encouragement of one of my professors because I was all A’s, I got 4.0 for that first year.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
All my projects just didn’t feel like it was a challenge to me. Even though at the professor who I’m revering right now, her name is Dorothy Hayes, she’s passed on.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, I’ve heard of her. She’s been mentioned on the shows by a lot of people. Yeah.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. Dorothy Hayes at the time when I was a student of hers, I could not stand her. She was too hard. I was like, she was always on my. Always, always Bass. Because she always called me Bass. Never call me Andrew. “Bass, Bass, you could do better. You could do better. Where’s your work, I want to see your work.” But looking back, I mean that really forged who I am and I’m forever thankful to her, and a few other professors I met. By the way, which they were all Black. I was lucky. I had quite a few Black professors in my design education.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Which was unheard of. That’s why I was saying that was destined to be and stuff. And so I transferred to Pratt and that’s where shit got real ,when I went to Pratt.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about it. How was it?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
It was challenging. I wanted the challenge. I got challenged. It was like I almost dropped out at my, what was it, sophomore year? Well actually not, it was my transfer year. Yeah. Because when I transferred over, some of my credits transferred over, some did. Because Pratt had a foundation year that they required everybody to take. So I had a mix of classes that were from the foundation class and then classes that were able to be transferred over. It was a completely different environment. And we’re talking about 1986. Pratt was intense. The workload was nothing I had experienced at any school. It was weekly. It was a lot to manage. I mean many projects very much about understanding and defending the basis of your projects, which I hadn’t understand before that. I thought it was just about, oh, how do you make this stuff pretty. And then that’s where I first learned, no, it’s about why are you doing this and for who is it for? Basically what is your thinking behind this?

And that tripped me up because I was like, “Oh that seemed like a lot.” As well as at that same time, there was a lot of things going into my, not childhood, but at my home with my focuses at that point now. My dad definitely was heavy into his alcoholism. And so going to Pratt was a good and a bad experience. Good in the fact is that the work was intense. It forced me to double down and really get involved in understanding the nature of the work that I’m building. Because the very coming from four A’s to where I just thought I automatically get that coming in the Pratt. And then the end of that first transfer year, I realized, now granted also too, I was doing a little more partying that transfer year. Because I was like, “Ah, I got this. This is easy.” That’s when my GPA went from 4.0, dropped down to 2.0.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dip.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh it’s a major dip. And couple of my teachers came to me, professors came to me and said, “Look, hey. You can do the work. What is going on? You’re not applying yourself.” And that’s when I woke up and said, “Okay Andrew, you forget this partying, you can party after you graduate. Let’s get on the ball.” And I worked my house off to try and get my grades back up. And it was never back to 4.0. I graduated what? 3.0. I worked it back up. But that one year did that much damage to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. And so the other good things with that was the, I’d have to say, with the intensity of the work, it was also the way the professors tried to instill some of the actual business dynamics into how you build a creative, but also how to be a creative. It wasn’t extensive, it was snippets. It was, what was her, it was my copywriting professor, Lorraine McNeil, who also happened to be Black. She was a Black woman. She would occasionally mention about the business aspect and what would be expected out of there. It wasn’t a full fledged business kind of introduction, that didn’t exist when I was going to school. But she did try to put some nuggets out there because I found out about business and stuff on my own.

Now that was the other good thing about Pratt is that they had an extensive library. And that’s where I really got a lot of my supplemental education was in that library. I was in the library too much. They had so many books I couldn’t keep my hands off those books. The bad aspects of Pratt was that I felt very isolated as a Black student. Pratt was predominantly white and there were students who basically came from more affluent families. There was a contingent of students of color on there. A lot of them stayed on the dorms because they were not basically from New York, they were from other states.

So I didn’t have that kind of connection because the folks who were in the dorms, they had their own clique. They focused more, a little too much more on partying than education. I always called the edutainment and I’m like, “I already saw the effect of partying on my grades. I was like, nah man, I got to get serious because we want to get a job. We got this is going to be our career.” The isolation was very detrimental to me in that aspect because I didn’t have a vacuum. I had, I didn’t really have folks I can confer with about how their education was going, how classes were, how projects were, to bounce off ideas with somebody else is to, what do you think about this? And something like that.

The other thing is too, I thought the teachers, the white teachers, I thought they were very sort of offhand with the students of color. They seemed very apt to help the white students but not so eager to help the Black and Latino students. It was kind of like, “You can figure this out on your own. I’ll just give you this little nugget and let’s see what’s going on.” But then you see them confer very regularly with the white students after class, off premises. They would extend numbers to them. I’m like, “Huh, how come we don’t get that?” The only professors actually did do that were the professors who happened to be of color. I had three of them. I had Richard Perry who was an English teacher, Dwight Johnson, who was one of my design teachers who also actually gave me my first freelance gig. Lorraine McNeil, who was my copywriter teacher.

Those were the three professors that I had through my years at Pratt that did offer me help, is particularly Dwight Johnson. Now he’s the one that really, in the beginning years, I modeled myself after him. Now he gave me first freelance job. I just personally and professionally, I styled myself after him because I just thought he was on point. I was like, “I want to be like him.” So Pratt overall, if I had to choose today, I would not necessarily go to Pratt. There’s so many other schools out here that are actually pretty good and cheaper that I probably would’ve went to. But that’s how Pratt was. There’s really not much to say about City Tech because at that time City Tech had a reputation of being a super high school. It was just a continuation. And then, I mean having worked at City Tech now and working at City Tech now I will say they definitely have changed that, which is for the better.

But back then it was really classified as just an extension of high school and folks acted the same way. So it was good to get that sort of foundation in City Tech. And actually meeting a few professors there, Dorothy Hayes, Joel Mason, Robert Holden, they were actually good teachers that kind of helped me build a real portfolio, so that when I, they applied to Pratt again to transfer over, my portfolio was much more readily accepted now that I had a portfolio. But yeah, that’s how my experiences, I don’t look too fondly on my college years. It was kind of rough on instances that I wish I had more camaraderie among some of my fellow classmates and a little bit more, actually not a little bit, a lot more help from my professors. It just wasn’t really there. May have changed now, I don’t know how Pratt is at this moment now, other than I know it’s highly expensive. But yeah, that’s how my experience was there.

Maurice Cherry:
So you graduate from Pratt. Tell me what your early career is like, because I want to also just kind of put this in a timeframe here. I mean you’re studying design at a time when personal computers were not really part of design.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No. No.

Maurice Cherry:
So I’d love to kind of hear what was your early career like once you graduated?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
I have to say, I think my early part of my career probably was the most fun part of my career. Where I think I chalk it up to youth where, I mean there was no holds barred. I thought I could do anything. I was like I was ready for every stuff and it was pre-computer. So I was pretty good with my hands in doing that. Because in the beginning, in my beginning career, we did everything by hand. So we did boards, type was done through a, we’d send it to our type setting department or you would send it out to type setting companies and they would run off, what was that called? A linograph, I think it was called linograph. Basically it was just a sheet of paper that had the type set on there and you would cut that up, paste it on the board, with rubber cement. It was very hands on. That was where you would get your-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Letraset is that what you mean? Letraset?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No, Letraset was for the, if you’re doing display type.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
But the actual body copy, the that text, if you tried putting that on Letraset, you would kill yourself. It would be tedious and oh so time consuming. So that was set by a machine that just ran off, sort of like photo paper you can kind of say it and you would just cut it down to size as you need.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s linotype.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah. Yeah, linotype. That’s it. Not linograph, linotype. The Letraset really is for display type. If you want to do custom things and stuff like that. Especially like logos. If you were going to do logo stuff. Oh yeah, that’s what I was going to say back then, that’s where you would actually get your battle scars because by cutting all that stuff with the X-Acto blade or an actual razor blade, it was no way you were not going to cut your hand. And getting cut with X-Acto blade is better than getting cut by a razor blade. Because hoo, those razors are deep. But that was just par for the course. Your hands, your fingers would be all scarred up. You don’t see them so much now in my hands, but there’s one or two spots that you still see where I have some heavy cuts.

But that’s how we actually did stuff by putting them on board, gluing down the type. The images we would actually have to send out to a stat house and they would take basically what was a full scale image or a film. It’d be like they would send you a negative and you would send that negative to the printer. You would put down sort of a for all intents and purposes, like a Xerox copy of what it is, just to get them in position, placing everything down with tracing paper to cover everything up, do some inking when you needed to do some things. And that was a lot of pen and ink work, which I think is solely missed from today’s work. Folks are so reliant on digital that they don’t know how to create stuff by hand anymore. And there is a beautiful nuance between hand created stuff and digital stuff.

Digital can be too clean. Even the stuff that try to simulate manmade stuff, it still has a cleanness about it that doesn’t exist in handmade stuff. And all that would take us some serious time. So if you wasted time, if say, “Okay, I’m not going to work on this today.” You lost 24 hours that can really impact your deadline. Now, unlike today where everything is like, “Okay, well I’m not going to work on this right now, I’ll do it tomorrow.” You don’t lose that kind of time because digital is so quick, it’s so instantaneous. But working there, my very first thought was I had gotten an internship at a small ad agency out of the result of, at that time I was the president of the Black Student Union at Pratt and I was all about business.

So I was looking at the Black Student Union as a way to start linking us up with job opportunities to various different agencies and studios in New York City so that we can get a head start on the other students, ie our white students who easily have these connections and get into stuff. But folks were not looking for us. So I was determined to try and get us a jump start. And one of the agencies who participated in that program, I was awarded the internship, which was a whole story because essentially folks didn’t participate. There was only a few folks that actually came out and participated, which really disappointed me on that. And I got it because my portfolio was the best out of it and folks had issues with that. But I’m like, “If you don’t apply, you can’t complain.”

And so I worked there for the summer of 1989. So once I graduated they offered me a full-time job. So I worked there for the summer and I was doing, it was an ad agency, but I was doing a lot more design work and I was the defacto art director because I was the art department because the agency was, it was a Black owned agency, it was just the principal and two other people in there. Excuse me. And it was a good experience because I was able to do my first photo shoots, meet these photographers, do [inaudible 00:55:03], set up model stuff. I had to battle folks because folks were like, “You sure you’re the art director? You seem a little young.” And I was like, “Well yeah, I am young but I am it.”

The only thing that kind of saved my grace a bit where people gave people a little pause at time was that, yeah, I towered everybody. I was six, was I 6’6 then when I graduated? I was either between 6’4 or 6’6, because I don’t think I reached my peak until around 23, 24. And so I towered over everybody. So my height kind of gave me some more credence and credibility and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
But I always had a baby face. I still sort of do have a baby face. I mean it’s getting a little older. And so folks questioned that. But once I started doing the work, they were like, “Okay, no, you seem to know what you’re doing.” Because I kind of learned it as I went because if I didn’t know something, I was determined to go find out how to do it. And that’s where, I mean, because that was pre-internet. So again, I hit up libraries now. I mean there was so much information out there that people just don’t realize if you just get up and look for it, there’s a world at your fingertips. And I would just find out information on the rare occasions that I’d actually just ask people in the industry, I’m like, “You don’t don’t know me, but can I just ask you a question?” And folks were surprisingly helpful. So I did that and I was pretty much given leeway to do stuff, which is not usually the case.

I don’t know why that actually occurred. I consider myself lucky in a lot of the places I was employed at, I was given a lot of leeway. I was given the autonomy to like, you are the leader, create your stuff. Now I don’t know if it was the aspect of how I carried myself, how I did my work, because I always felt I was nervous. I was a nervous wreck. I’m like, “Do I really know what I’m doing? I don’t know.” I was always doubting myself in my head, but I would not let that show, I would not let that be known to anybody. And so for those three months, everything was still done by hand. No, the only computers in there were for the administrative views. And I will freely admit I use that computer to play my video games. Because I’ve been on video games since Atari 2600. Even though Atari was crap, I had CalecoVision, but that’s a side note.

So we were still doing stuff by hand and I was doing some long hours. There was no, okay, it’s 5:00, everybody go home. No, I would stay until about 11:00 at night, 12:00 at night. And the owner would just give me the key to the place and say, “Just lock up when you need to.” Which I thought was, wow. Again, I seemed to endear confidence to people that they gave me this responsibility and I never broke that trust on that responsibility. So from there, after about three months, like I said, again, being a young creative, I was a little too cocky and I was like, “You know what? I’m tired of this. I can get me another job like that.” And so I quit. I was like, I wanted to do something else.

And that’s when I realized, no Andrew, that’s not how it works. It’s like I got a hard dose of reality. It was like that I need to get my ego in check. And I was out of work for a good number of months. Back then you found your jobs through the classified ads in the paper, which I know today everybody would be like, “What’s a newspaper? What’s a classified ad?” But it’s equivalent to a job listing online. And I found a listing for an associate art director at this publishing company. And I said, “Oh, okay, that’s a different genre. Let’s kind of see how that is.” Submitted my resume, they called me in for an interview and I got a surprise because when I came in for the interview, that’s when I learned that the magazine was for an adult. It was an adult magazine, it was an adult publishing.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
And I was like, okay, this is interesting. But then when they actually specified what market in the adult publishing, it was a gay lifestyle magazine, I was like, “Oh, this is 1989.” And that was in the height of the AIDS epidemic, the Black kid from Bed-Stuy, there was a lot of stigma to the gay community and stuff like that. My concern was like, “Well okay, this X-rated stuff, can I get a job after this if I take this?”

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
That was my main concern. And so did very well in the interview. It was interesting when they said this, I’ll share with everybody, in 1989, the starting salary at that position was $22,000. I thought that was a lot of money back then and it was a lot of money because it supported me very well. Went back home, had a conversation with my mom, like, “Hey I went to this job, it looked pretty good. What do you think?” And she was like, “Are you there to do what you earned your degree in?” I said, “Yes.” “What are they paying you?” I told her the salary. It’s like, “So what is the problem?” I said, “There’s no problem. It’s just if you’re doing what you’re supposed to be do not supposed to be doing, but if you’re doing what you’ve been, you’ve got your degree on and this is your career. What’s the issue? It’s your starting point. Now it doesn’t mean that’s your end point.” And with talking to my mom, I was like, “You know what, that makes sense.”

And so after that conversation, it again, coincidentally I got a call from the art director that I met. She offered me the job now and I was like, “Okay, yeah, I’ll take it, I’ll see you.” And I started working, I stayed there five years. And so I rose from associate art director to an art director for monthly magazines. And yes, they were all towards the gay market. I learned quite a lot. I learned that if you are a good designer, you can design for any market. It’s about understanding your market and understanding what you’re doing for, what are you doing in that project to address your market. And the benefit of doing that magazine was that it wasn’t a straight just pictorial kind of magazine. It had lifestyle. So they had editorial in there and it was, unless you know what the magazine was, it could have just been in any mainstream magazine.

At the time The Advocate and Out were two magazines in the gay market that just kind of came out and they were getting a lot of shine. They were the number ones and they were beautifully done magazines. They were beautifully designed. And I kind of used that as my inspiration to model, to sort do my lifestyle stuff as, which was very successful. And it helped me transition from there to my next gig, which was at Essence Communications. But in those five years, that’s when I started. We transitioned about a year. Yeah, I think it was about a year after I started transitioning into computers. The Mac.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
In 1991, I believe. Because that was the other premise I stayed with. Well I wanted to take the opportunity too is that they had said they were going to make that transition from doing stuff production wise with the mechanical boards to move into doing the work electronically. Now that they were going to use Mac. I’m sorry, that wasn’t in 1991. That was 1990.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, it was 1990 because I started in ’89 and then I think in the spring of 1990, that’s when they started introducing the Mac, gave us courses. We went out there and myself and my other coworker who was the other associate art director on the magazine I was working on, we just blew it out. We were at class and then we would come back to the office and take what we had in class to apply it and continue it. Learning and doing stuff and seeing how things work when we were back in the office. And our art director at the time was like, “That’s great because you’re going to help me learn this because I don’t get what’s going on.” And he was older than us and stuff like that. But it was fun. And it made things go so much faster. And now we are doing our own type setting.

We now scanning images so we now can place them into our documents. We actually have the live files where we actually start learning how to photo retouch, photo calibrate how to type, how to create special print techniques like masking, fit colors, all this stuff that. The bad side of that was it actually, with the advent of the Mac, it eliminated whole industries. We lost type houses. Those faded out because now people could do it themselves. We lost a lot of production folks who actually, if you didn’t actually do the boards yourself, you could hire people to do it. No, just create and then give the directions to them, to losing some of the business with the photostat houses, those closed out. And those closed out [inaudible 01:04:52] within one year after the Apple came onto the market. Changed the whole face of downtown Manhattan, which used to be all type setting printers and photostat houses. By 1991 it was virtually a ghost town from those businesses. They had gone.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
They had transitioned to something else. So some of the photostat houses turned into scanning places. So they could scan some original art now because illustration, especially big pieces. Because at that time a lot of the illustrators still did the work by hand. They didn’t do digital work and some of these pieces were pretty big. They couldn’t fit your normal day tabletop scan because all this stuff back then was pricey as heck. Tabletop scanner poly was like next to a $1,000. That was a lot of money. So it was cheaper just to send it out and get a $50 scan now and you just get that scan to you and you can put it on. But that changed the where you no longer now had your battle scars so your fingers were saved, you didn’t have to cut up your fingers anymore. And it also kept from getting blood on the boards. Because that was always interesting when we got blood on the boards. Because you had to wipe that out. Otherwise that’s in the actual, when they shoot it. Now it’s just clean.

And now at this point though, our role shifted as creatives because so much stuff relied on us. We actually had to know how to operate this Mac inside and out. Especially when if there was a problem with the Mac. Yeah, we had IT, quote “IT department”, but thankfully the Mac was and still is very sort of self-sufficient. So when things go down it’s kind of easy to figure out what’s going on to get it back up. But that usually relied to us. In the beginning we had a service that would come in and fix that stuff, but eventually the owner was like, “Look, you guys are working on this. Do you know how to do this because we’re cutting this.” But it actually opened up more doors on the creative side.

I mean, yes, we lost a lot of industry and a lot of people had to adapt, some folks didn’t because of the manual nature of design at that point. A lot of them were older generations. So they did not want to learn how to use the computers and learned these programs, very much today. It’s a generational thing. The older generation just was like, “I can’t change. I learned all this. How am I going to, I don’t want to sit down and learn this whole new program and this contraption to do this.” And that’s where a lot of folks didn’t make that transition. They either had to leave the industry and do something else or just completely retire.

And like I said, that changed the shape of downtown Manhattan because it also changed the printers. And a lot of those started consolidating and shrinking down to what we see today. But it also sped up our creative process. So if we had an idea, we could actually instantaneously see how it works. Where at that time it was QuarkXpress, that was the defacto thing. There was no creative cloud. Adobe was this brand new company battling with Macromedia, battling with, what was the other one? Oh, Publisher. Yes. QuarkXpress had to battle Microsoft Publisher back in the day.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember Microsoft Publisher.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, we had not Illustrator, but it was freehand and Photoshop was Photoshop. That never disappeared. And so you had to buy all these individually. So back then being a designer was expensive.

Maurice Cherry:
Expensive. Mm-hmm.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Because the Macs themselves were these god awful paper weights. Because the face of the Apple, I mean at the time it looks sleek, but looking at it now, it’s like, oh man, that’s [inaudible 01:09:16].

Maurice Cherry:
It was a big rectangle kind of thing, right?

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It was like the screen and the CPU were all in one.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yes, that version. Yes, they had that. The screen was probably no more than maybe 13 inches, which seemed big at the time. And then they transitioned to having the monitor separate from the tower because everything was a tower back then. And that’s where the screen started getting bigger and stuff. But it’s still, it cost a lot of money and everything was on a disc. Nothing was cloud-based. Because the internet didn’t come into play until 1985. Is that correct?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the cloud wasn’t a thing back then. Everything was-

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, the cloud didn’t exist.

Maurice Cherry:
Everything was floppy discs. And then the floppy discs gave way to those smaller hard discs.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Floppy to the ZIP to actually floppy to the Quest, to the ZIP to the dat. Thank God we didn’t have to do the dat much. And then there was something in between. It was a hybrid of a ZIP and the Quest, is that right? I forgot the technology in it. But it went through some iterations in the span of five years. Now each year was something new, which was expensive. It was crap. I mean it didn’t come out of my pocket, but it was expensive. But you had to adapt to each of those technologies and stuff.

Basically if you kind of damaged your CDs, there was no way to get a backup. If your machines got corrupted, the disc got corrupted and corrupted meaning by, just scratched the back of that disc because somebody did not put it up properly. It’s done. That would mean you have to spend another $1,000 to go buy some brand new disc of one program. Same with type, you have to do same with type, all that stuff. But it did enable to have more creative tools at hand. So if you had an idea, you could still do it by hand, but now you could translate it, do your sketch and translate it onto the computer where you can actually do different variations in the same day where it may have taken us a few days to do iterations of one idea.

And that sped up a lot of stuff and it was kind of cool. It expanded our imaginations. It put more responsibility on us, which I liked because I liked being in control and knowing what’s going on with the Mac and the program so that way I could troubleshoot myself. Because at that time I was thinking, okay, this is going to be helpful for one day when I want to start freelancing and get my own materials or when one day I have my own studio. Because back then I thought about my end goals. I had this studio, get this whole staff and become a small to midsize kind of well known studio. And that’s pretty much the early days. It was very much unexplored. So anything and everything was open and it was just, if you were into adventure, it was an adventure. You were so curious to see what the next thing was going to be.

Whereas today I’m like, “Look, slow down. Yeah, there’s too much stuff coming out. I just learned this, now you got something new. No, no, no, no, that’s not happening. That’s too fast.” As well as I think today, technology’s great, but I think it also makes people stupider, people put more faith on the tech versus their thinking and they’re not sort of, they’re relying too much on the machine and not relying on themselves. Because the machine is just a tool. And in the early days we did see that. It was just a tool. That’s all we looked at. It was like, unless we had our thoughts together before we went to the machine, we’d be wasting our time. Because you’re just fiddling around just getting lost in this virtual world. Today it seems to be the reverse. People don’t mind fiddling on there and they spend so many hours that basically are futile, they just waste stuff.

But that’s how the early days were. It was a really a fun exploratory, I don’t want to say Wild, Wild West, but it kind of was a Wild, Wild West. And then when the net came on board, because I remember fully using the internet in ’95, but we actually did have the internet. The company was called a Mavety Media. I think that came, we had that online around 1993 because I left Mavety Media in 1995. So yeah, I think it had just started. And at that time I think it was all, everything was AOL or Netscape. And the net just was, oh, we just went bonkers with that. It was just like, oh, I can get this right now. Even though that was on dial up. So that was taking a long time. Dial up, I don’t miss at all. You could not do any high files with that or anything like that. It just was too slow. But that’s what the early days were like. It was kind of cool.

Maurice Cherry:
When I give presentations sometimes I’ll tell people how in the early days of the web you had a fast lane and a slow lane. The fast lane was like if you had 56K and the slow lane was 28.8. I love that you’re talking about all of this because I feel like this is something which is definitely not talked about in this current age of design. Everything is done in the cloud, on the web, on a PC or a Mac so quickly. Sometimes even just on mobile devices. I see what people do designing on just mobile devices. And I’m like, “This blows my mind.” Because I was in high school in the ’90s when a lot of this technology was coming out. And to your point, as you were mentioning, these things were changing rapidly, as the technology was changing, there were no sort of monopolies like an Adobe, like we’re talking about now. But there was Adobe, there was Macromedia, there were other sorts of products. There was Quark. You had to try to figure out which one you wanted to do.

It was all extremely expensive and there really was no, I want to say there was no learning curve, but you learned by having to actually get in there and work it or go through those huge big, thick instruction manuals. Because there’s no-

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s no YouTube video, there’s no class you can go to that’s going to teach you how to do this. You got to read that 1,000 page manual and figure out how to type set these columns and how to do all this stuff. I mean, to your point about the Wild, Wild West, it really was a time when I think innovation was happening at a speed where people were really just trying to catch up.

You had these different options. Like you said, you could do Quark, you could do Adobe, you could do Macromedia. And a lot of jobs sometimes even when you applied to them wanted you to know one more than the other. It wasn’t so much about whether or not I think you had the skill, but more so whether you knew the program. And I think that’s something which technology has definitely changed a lot. It’s less about the skills and more about, “Do you know how to use Figma? Do you know how to use Sketch?” And it’s like, “But I’m a designer.” And they’re like, “Well we really well we use Figma. So do you know how to use that?” It’s so different now.

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Well, I mean back then when I was looking at stuff, when I was doing job searches, when I was moving from space to space, the thing that did start happening was that they wanted you to know this insane amount of programs. I think they just listed these programs because that’s what was out. And they were like, we want you to know everything. And it’s like, “Okay, that’s impossible. You can’t know all this stuff.” And it was very much, I don’t think they really wanted skill set, but just to say, “Okay, well we have somebody who knows this,” regardless of whether or not they actually know how to use it. I could have just went into the program one time just to look at it, oh, I know this program now.

That kind of impeded some people as they looked for jobs back then because it was like, “Look, I don’t know this stuff. I’m not going to put this down and then get busted when they give me this.” And like, “Hey, we need this full fledged project done in this, by this time,” and you don’t even know what you’re doing with it. I mean, granted, there were some people who did do that and coasted by until they got found out later on. But by then they could kind of sweet talk it through and then others shamelessly got blasted. I remember that back then. But yeah, it’s where it went from it was like more, “Okay, what is your true skill set and experience that you’ve actually shown a pattern of this,” versus, “Here’s our laundry list. Just let us know you’ve done this.”

I still kind of see that today though. And whenever there’s some new tech out, I do see some of these listings out here. It’s like, “Hey, do you know this?” I’m like, “Okay, that just came out last week. How are people going to know this?” But I mean I think that’s going to stick forever that’s going to be there. Because any new tech that comes out, I think people in the who post these jobs, I don’t think they’re really the ones that, and we all know it’s HR departments, and so the HR departments don’t really know what people do in their day to day stuff. So I think they just put all the trendy stuff in there just to cover their bases.

But I do miss some of that from back in the day. And it was kind of cool. And I mean, there is some new stuff like that today, particularly in terms of web and video that I see some parallels that I’m like, “Ooh, that’s intriguing.” But now with a seasoned book, I’m like, “Wow, that’s kind overwhelming.” I kind of feel overwhelmed at times. Like, oh, I don’t know if I’m going to learn all that. Yeah. But it would be cool. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right. Yeah.

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TTK

We all know there are several ways to achieve success as a creative, but sometimes it takes inspiration from others to set you on the right path. That’s definitely the case with the multitalented TTK. His work as an art director, painter, designer and illustrator have taken him far, and now he can add another title to his roster — filmmaker!

Our conversation began with a quick year-end check-in, and then TTK talked about “Just Like Me”, a short documentary he created with Havas to educate and inspire the next generation of Black creatives. TTK also shared more details of his life story, including growing up in Florida, serving in the Navy for 10 years after going to art school, and more. Hopefully TTK’s story and documentary can help inspire you to rise to greater heights!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

TTK:
My name is TTK. What I do, I’m an artist, I’m a designer. Currently, I work in advertising. I’m a director, I’m a painter. I wear a few hats.

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

TTK:
The year’s been good for me so far, man, the year’s been very, very good. How I measure if the year is doing good, I measure if I’m doing something this year that I didn’t do the previous year or if I accomplished something this year that I didn’t in the previous year, that determines for me whether it’s good or not. We’re going into the fourth quarter right now, so the accomplishments and what I’ve accomplished so far in this year, I’m really proud of myself. I took a few punches, but that’s life right there. I hop back up and take it on the chin and take it as a lesson learned. But all in all, this year’s good for me. It’s been going great.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you still want to try to do before the year ends?

TTK:
Paint more. A friend of mine jokes and it says once I learned how to do digital work, it made me lazy with painting. And I don’t want to admit it, but he is right because painting is a process. Well, everything is a process, but whenever you’re painting, you got to wait for the paint to dry, come back to it and work into it some more, then work into it some more. It takes much longer.

And you would think with me being traditionally trained before I even learn how to do anything in Photoshop or any software, I was doing this first years before I knew how to use any software. You would think I would be conditioned for it. But learning how to work in digital just made me just work faster and have less patience maybe because working in the industry, working the agency, working the companies, I’m on a timeline where I got to turn this stuff around fast. It can be very competitive, whereas with painting, this can take… Because I’m so meticulous with the details and everything when I’m painting, it can take anywhere from weeks to a month. Depends on how much time. Well, I try not to take breaks in between, but I wind up doing that. Anyway.

All that to say I just want to paint more, knock out more pieces. Because I got a solo show coming out in 2023, a solo art show. It’s the first solo show that I’ve done in, oh my god, probably 12 or 13 years with all original pieces, so I’m on the clock right now. It’s next year in the spring, but time catches up real quick so I got to start really cranking out pieces. Teah, all that to say I want to paint more.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I find when visual creators, particularly when they get further along in their career, they often want to go back to some sort of physical, tangible way of creating. Like you said, doing it digitally does make you faster, but there’s a craft in the visual art that gets lost I think sometimes when you’re relying too much on digital tools.

TTK:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. People will ask me, “Can I get this? Can I commission you for this piece?” And I’m like, “Truthfully, it’ll be probably easier for you on your budget to commission me to do something digitally.” Because paintings, it takes a while. Well, for me it takes a while because there’s a certain level of quality that I want to put out. And there’s no command Z to go back when I make a mistake or it doesn’t come out the way I want it to look. I got to wait for it to dry and then I got to go back and rework it, or I’m mixing these colors, and the tubes of paint ain’t cheap. You know what I’m saying? You can buy the cheap stuff, but you going to get cheap results. It really adds up. But all in all, this is always my first love right here. And I always go back to that.

I was just working on this piece that I’m currently working on. I’ve been working on it about two months now. I just think working in it, I forget about how I used to feel painting before I was doing anything digitally. How I would just put a album on, put a CD on, put a record on, just rock out for hours on. And I miss that feeling of seclusion and just painting.

I was watching something, one of those shows that come on Sunday, one of the Sunday weekly news shows or whatever, but they were talking about… This is a few months back. They were talking about George Bush, how he put out a book, maybe it was last year. It was a book about people across the nation or people in this community or something like that. But it was his paintings and these people. And it was like, we don’t really rock with George Bush. You know what I’m saying? We don’t rock with George Bush, but his paintings weren’t bad. You know what I’m saying? Man, this dude actually isn’t that bad. He was on his ranch just painting or whatever and everything. I was like, I never would’ve guessed that from this guy. But I’m like, man, I would love that life just to be in a loft somewhere just, I don’t know, in the middle of nowhere, just painting. I don’t know, man. One day, one day. I’m going to speak into existence.

Maurice Cherry:
I think you’ll get there. You’ll get there, absolutely. Let’s talk about your day job, what you do. You’re a senior art director at Havas, which is ad and PR company. Talk to me about that.

TTK:
Yeah, so I’ve been at Havas for about three years now. It’s been good, you know what I’m saying? A lot of opportunities have come from me being there. What I do, I work on clients. The main client that I’ve worked on since I’ve been there is Michelin and doing stuff for Michelin social. And I got a chance to kind of be… Not kind of be, I got a chance to be very creative with their brand. I worked on stuff for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, worked on a few other projects, but… My mind is blank right now, but Michelin is probably the main one that comes to mind because I’ve been on the brand pretty much 80% of the time I’ve been there.

One thing I can say about working on stuff for Michelin is that I’m blessed it. Everything I touch, I’ve been able to add my own personal touch or flare to it that they probably wouldn’t have done, whereas I push the limits where I can bring my personality and my style of creativity to a brand like that that has so much rich history and it’s been doing something a certain way for so long. But I’ve been able to bring my look and feel to it and explain to them why this works. And they’ve been open and they’ve been receptive to it. Sometimes we get pushback, of course, that’s just how it goes. But for the most part, I think with me working on the brand for so long, I know the do’s and don’ts and know where I can push it and where I can’t. But the areas where I can push it, I really try to flex and really do something where if someone’s scrolling, if they’re scrolling on their phone or whatever and they see this graphic like, “Oh, this is pretty dope right here,” it would make me as a consumer want to check out more about this product right here. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, you started there in October of 2019, which it feels like… With this pandemic, that feels like a lifetime ago. But how did the pandemic change up how you work?

TTK:
It’s funny you say that because I was doing… Right now I worked out of the Chicago office. And prior to me working out of the Chicago office, I was in New York, I was in Brooklyn. I was doing freelance work for them, and then they gave me a full-time… offered me a full-time role. And I was like, “Hey, I’m already doing freelance for you guys out here and I’m delivering what you’re asking me for. Can I just stay out here in New York?” It was like, “Yeah, we want to have you in the office.”

I move cross country, and then a couple months later everybody’s working from home. You know what I’m saying? My partner, Chevon, she was working remote as well at the time for a nonprofit, and she had been telling me, yo, everybody in her nonprofit is all over the country. You know what I’m saying? Working. You’re doing the same thing.

Working from home thing, it definitely… I always say as messed up as the pandemic has been and COVID and all of that, it was a big reset to show some of these jobs that we do the way we do them is outdated. And this is just my opinion. And going into office every day, five days a week, sometimes six, and sitting there for eight, 10 hours just to say that you’re here, we can do the work everywhere. You look at people on… What’s the site? Fiverr. You know what I’m saying? You don’t know where these people are at, but they’re still delivering stuff for you or whatever. And that’s what this pandemic showed. In my opinion, what it showed is thankfully the type of work that we do, the digital creative stuff, we can do it from anywhere. It definitely opened up my eyes and everything because I feel like I was… Like a lot of us, we were programmed to just come and to go into the office, just sit there and just look watching the clock waiting for 5:30, 6:30 to come, paying $15 for lunch every day, all of that right there.

I don’t mind working remotely at all, man. You know what I’m saying? I don’t mind it, truthfully. I know me personally, I can be extrovert, I can be reclusive as well. When I’m creating, sometimes I just like to be alone. We can collaborate, but I like to be alone. I’m able to execute the way I really want to execute and execute my best way sometimes when I’m alone. I don’t mind working remote. I actually love it.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a typical day look like for you?

TTK:
I juggle a few things, man. It depends on the workload sometimes, man. A lot of times, like when I was working heavy on Michelin, when we had a lot of deliverables for the brand, it would be coming up with all these different creative pillars of ways to how the brand incorporates into travel or how they incorporate with food, how they incorporate it in their heritage, coming up with creative ways to display this stuff right here, like getting things ready for a client meeting.

Basically, the day starts, we get briefed on what’s due, what everyone’s working on. And that’s pretty much it, thankfully for me. I’m in a space where I can just do what I need to do and no one really bothers me, I guess because maybe they know that’s how I operate best. That’s pretty much my work day.

As far as doing side projects or painting… Well, the paintings more so of recent things. I take breaks in between that. But sometimes I might work on little side project here, do little brush strokes on the painting for maybe about, I don’t know, 15 minutes, come back to it a couple hours later. My day is basically just me being creative. I’m thankful to say that. I enjoy what I do, and I have fun doing what I do. And it’s how I envision my life. No stress. I’m not working in the cold. I’ve been there before. I’ve done a lot of things, man.

I’m thankful that right now every day when I wake up, no two days are the same, but every day when I wake up, man, I can honestly say I’m not stressed about what I’m doing. And I’m doing what I love to do. It may not be the exact project that I want to work on, but at least I can say that my day consists of me being creative. And I’m getting paid to be creative. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, that’s a good thing. I think especially agencies tend to get the reputation… I don’t know if they get the best reputation, I’ll put it that way, sometimes because you’re often working from client to client so you don’t have a lot of time to spend with maybe a particular brand to do something before you’re put on another project or put on another campaign or something like that. But it sounds like with what you’re doing, especially because you mentioned earlier you’ve been on the Michelin brand for so long, you’ve had time to grow into it in a way.

TTK:
It’s cool because I’ve had access to all of their assets and their personal login site where it’s so many assets, so much history. And that’s a cool thing about working on a brand like this right here that’s been around for over 100 years; there’s so much that you can pull from. A.And not to sound cliche, but a lot of times with working on this brand, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Everything is there already, you just got to figure out how to repurpose it. I’ve worked on… What’s the faucet brand MOEN. I worked on MOEN briefly. I worked on Yellowstone National Park.

I don’t know if I said it before, but Mike’s Hard Lemonade. That was cool working on that. This was pre-pandemic. We had a cool, very, very dope idea and campaign for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, but didn’t see the light of day because the pandemic happened at the time. The pandemic happened and everything shut down so we had to redirect the direction of where we wanted to go. And it was a much, much, much more scaled down version of… It wasn’t even scaled down, it was a whole new direction. Everything that we created, the hours that we spent, no one really will ever see this out into the world. But that’s the nature of the game, you take it how it comes, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you’ve worked before as a graphic designer, and we’ll talk about that a little later, and now you’re an art director at an agency. How would you describe the difference in those two?

TTK:
I don’t think there is any difference, man. Personally, I don’t. Maybe on paper where it says what the roles are, what the responsibilities are. On paper, it probably says certain things, but from my personal experience, I was doing the same thing coming up with ideas, coming up with ideas, coming up with ways to execute this thing, thinking of ways where we can… places where we can place these ideas so people can see it and engage with it.

It’s similar to what I’m doing now. I worked in music, working at Mass Appeal. I worked on the record label side of the house. And sometimes I would work on the agency side as well. But it is the same thing, just one’s more culturally hip hop based, the other one’s more very American and reaches a broader audience and selling products.

But selling music is like selling products as well, man, so it’s the same thing. The way I see it, I think the only thing probably change is the company that you’re getting to check from. I always joke and I say this to people, and not to sound like a Debbie Downer or nothing like that, but you pick your poison. What are you able to accept and what are you able to deal with and whatever role or company or agency that you’re with? But I don’t find it any different at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that the most challenging part about what you do? What you just mentioned?

TTK:
I think the most challenging part about this right here, that working in design and advertising, from my experience, it’s a revolving door. I don’t know too many people that’s been in one spot for over five years. I just don’t.

Early on, it was shocking. Not necessarily shocking to me, but it affected me emotionally. Damn, am I good enough? Or what could I have done differently? But then I understand it’s never personal, it’s business. And sometime business is up, sometime business is down. And when business is down, you might get cut. And that’s just the nature of the game.

And I think that’s where it just comes in. In trying to figure out too what do you love? You know, could work on one thing where the money is great, but you don’t really care about the work that you’re putting out. You’re not really in love with the brand or product or whatever that you’re working on. And then it could be something where you’re all about the mission that this one company or agency has, or you love what you’re working on but the pay isn’t the greatest. It’s all about trying, well, for me, trying to find that middle, that medium where, okay, I can get the best of both worlds.

But in all, back to what I was saying it’s a revolving door from, just from my experience, and a lot of my peers, not too many people I know stick around for a long time. And I don’t know whether it is because us being creative, you want to do your own thing eventually, or… I don’t know. I don’t want to make it a race thing or whatever, but it goes back to how do we see ourself? Well, for me personally, how do I see myself in a place where there aren’t many of people that look like me, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And cannot coexist and naturally be myself in these spaces, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you think it might just be burnout or something?

TTK:
Yeah. It’s a few things. I feel like with junior people, when they don’t have the support or support from senior leadership, you got somebody might be fresh out of college and they got all these dreams of, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this award-winning stuff.” Of course everybody’s got those thoughts in their heads or whatever. But I feel like you take someone junior and you put them in a position and you don’t give them the support that they need to grow, it can be discouraging. And people will, “Yo, this ain’t for me right here.” You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
Or resourcing or whoever, they may not know a person’s… What’s their skillset? What’s that person’s strength? And the only thing they see is the person’s name and a title. And then, “Okay, well let’s put this person on this right here.” They might not even be the person that’s equipped for that. It’s like playing basketball; you can’t have the center playing the point guard position. You know what I’m saying? It don’t work out like that. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

TTK:
Well, you could, but you’re not going to get the optimum results.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit and talk more about you, talk about your personal life. Tell me about where you grew up.

TTK:
I’m originally from Jacksonville, Florida. That’s where I’m originally from. That’s where my early years were based out of. I moved away years ago, years ago. But I went to high school down there. And I was thankful to be in an art program going to an art school, Douglas Henderson School of the Arts, which at the time when I was going there, it was prestigious art school and everything.

But my father, when he went there, my father went there back in the ’50s or the ’60s or something like that. And at the time when he was going to that school, I think it was a school for Black students. You know what I’m saying? This is when segregation and all that stuff was going on. He went to that school decades before me. I just think it’s ironic that I ended up going there, but it’s a whole little different school at the time when I went.

But yeah, I got introduced to the arts there. Well, what’s the old TV show from back in the day? Fame?

Maurice Cherry:
Fame. Yeah.

TTK:
It was like that, you know what I’m saying? Yeah, so it was a school like that and everything, man. Shortly after I graduated high school, a couple years went by, I tried to dabble in fashion for a little bit, but I couldn’t so I realized there wasn’t for me. I could design the stuff, but I couldn’t sew. And then going to college for… I went to Artist Studio Ft. Lauderdale only for one semester. I’m like, “Yeah, I can’t sew then.” But it was cool though, it was cool though. I’m like, it’s more than just drawing, illustrations and everything.

Some years went by in between me having a child. After graduating high school, I just joined a Navy. I joined a navy cold turkey one day. I went to a recruiter and I was like, “Yo, I need a job.” You know what I’m saying? I need a job I can’t get fired from, maybe because the jobs I had at the time, life put me on a path where I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do creatively, creatively, I was just working jobs. I’m like, “Damn, this ain’t it right here, this really ain’t it.” I’m 21, 22 trying to figure life out. I went to a recruiter one day and I was like, “Yo, let me just hear what you got to say.” I didn’t even think I was going to sign up, but they hustled me like a car salesman, like a used car salesman.

Maurice Cherry:
Of course.

TTK:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And at the time, they told me, “Yeah, you can get a sign on bonus for $7,000.” At the time when they told me that, $7,000, I had never seen $7,000 before. When they said $7,000, I’m seeing a million dollars in my head. You know what I’m saying? I was like, “Yo, yeah, let’s do it.” I joined the Navy in September 2001.

Yo, it’s crazy. I went to a recruiter station on a Friday. September 11th happened that Tuesday. Two weeks later, I was in bootcamp. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

TTK:
I was in bootcamp. Yeah. And I was in the Navy for 10 years. I’m a ex sub mariner. I was on submarines. There’s not many brothers on subs. At the time when I was on in the early 2000 and everything. And with me being in the Navy and being mostly in the north or whatever, the bulk of the time I was in the Navy, I started planting my roots in New York and in Brooklyn. A lot of people think I’m originally from Brooklyn, you know what I’m saying? That’s my second home. But I’m originally from Florida, from Jacksonville, man. I got roots down there as well. We’re all over the place right now. What else you want to know?

Maurice Cherry:
I’m just curious about this 10 years in the Navy. First of all, my dad’s a Navy man, so I understand what that’s about. But the whole time that you’re doing this, were you also still pursuing creative things during this time?

TTK:
Yes. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Or how did that happen?

TTK:
No. Mind you, at the time in my early 20s, man. I look back on it now, I was a kid doing adult shit, you know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
I was trying to figure it out, man. And I was a parent as well, you know what I’m saying? I was a parent trying to take care of a kid. I’m like, I don’t really know myself just yet. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
But I just know I need to provide some kind of way. And so the first couple of years of just me being in, it was just me just trying to figure out this thing, figure out this system, figure out what I got to do to not get in trouble and still keep some funds in my bank account and still perform and learn all the things that I need to learn, man.

Like I said, I was on submarines, and that’s… Aw man, that’s a whole nother world within itself and so much stuff that we have to know, from physics to… It’s so many things that I had to remember, being around top secret stuff, having a security clearance, working around nuclear weapons and things like that, man. It was a lot.

I was always doing drawing or whatever the whole time during those early years, drawing little tattoos for people and stuff like that. But it wasn’t until probably around 2004, the end of 2004, the sub that I was on, we left Norfolk, Virginia and we went up to Kittery, Maine. Kittery, Maine is on the border of New Hampshire, so Maine/New Hampshire. It wasn’t until I got up there that I wasn’t going out to sea, I’m just going to work for a couple of hours every day then going back to my barracks room. That gave me time to really do my art the way I really wanted to do it because I hadn’t done any art for so many years outside of high school. And by this time, I’m out of school for maybe seven years now, so I wasn’t really doing anything besides maybe sketching in my sketchbook. Seven years of not producing any work, it was really eating away at me. You know what I’m saying? I’m like, I know it’s more to life than this right here, there’s more to life right here. People tell you like, “Oh man, you do your 20 years, you’re going to get your retirement or whatever, and you still get out. You be young, you still be able to pursue other things.” But I knew deep down inside that that wasn’t me, that wasn’t for me.

But going back to, like I was saying, in 2004, a good friend of mine, he was from the Bronx. And around this time in early 2000, he was like, “Yo.” He knew that I like sneakers a lot. This is the early days before everybody… The sneaker app and all this other stuff like that. I was always one of those guys that had mad sneakers, you know what I’m saying? Before everybody knew me for my clothes and my sneakers and stuff, and he knew I could draw as well. A good friend of mine at the time, he was like… I guess he had went home for the weekend. He was from the Bronx. He went home for the weekend one time or something. He comes back, he was like, “I see these dudes customizing sneakers and everything. Why don’t you start doing that?” And I was like, “Yeah.” I’ve always thought about it, but I never really tried to pursue it.

And I started searching on lunch, trying to figure out what paints and stuff I need to get. And once I figured out the right paints and everything, I think that’s when it really, really took off, where it really began for me as being an artist and putting my work out into the world through sneakers. This is the early days too. This is around ’05, ’06, going a little forward, the MySpace days, me just putting my stuff upon MySpace at the time and people checking for it. And it was like I was running a business out of my barracks room up in Maine. Nobody knew who I was, you know what I’m saying? No one knew who I was, they just knew the name TTK. That was my tag that I went by. My real name is Michael Harris. It’s a very generic name. There’s always another Michael Harris everywhere I go, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
I was like, I got to do something that makes me stand down or whatever, so TTK. I was always into graffiti and stuff, man, so TTK was the initials that I like to tag. And I just like just it looks, the two T’s together and the K from a design point, I just like the way it looks.

Yeah, so everybody just knew, “Yo, this guy named TTK is customizing sneakers.” And this is the early days so there wasn’t a lot of people doing it how it is now almost 20 years later. That really opened my eyes. While I’m doing what I love to do and I’m getting paid to do what I want to do, this is what I want to do right here. I don’t know whether it’s going to be customizing sneakers or working for Nike or whoever one day, but I’m being creative and I’m getting paid to be creative. This Navy thing, this right here is going to be my way out.

Maurice Cherry:
I was just asking were you still doing design and stuff or interested in design this whole time while you were in the Navy? And it sounds like you turned it into a profitable side business almost.

TTK:
Yeah. That led to me doing a bunch of other things. I went to high school for visual arts, traditional means in the ’90s, man, like painting and things like that. I knew I wanted to paint, but I knew I couldn’t carry a big canvas with me everywhere. And I know not everybody has an appreciation for, I don’t know, fine art or the graphic design. Even though graphic design is isn’t everything that we see and interact with, most people don’t even realize that. But I was like, “Wow, how can I get my skillset, show what I want to bring out to the world and how people buy it?” Put them on sneakers. You know what I’m saying?

The first year of me customizing sneakers, I wind up being featured in a book, I can’t even think of the name of it right now, but it was a book about custom sneakers or sneaker art from the early 2000s. But I was featured in this book. I wind up winning some contest with Finish Line at the time. I wind up having my two solo art shows at the time, and I wind up doing some freelance work for Timberland, the brand. And this is within the first year of me doing this. And I was like, “Wow, you know what? I got something right here. I’m onto something.” You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And what I was doing then, it’s very… I don’t know, I call it maybe it’s… It wasn’t on the skill level that I’m at right now, but I saw, you know what? I got something right here. You know what I’m saying? I got something right here.

And then shortly after that, I wind up meeting a good friend of mine who’s like a brother to me, Justice Hall. He was a designer at Timberland at the time. Because Timberland’s headquarters is in New Hampshire. I forget the town that it’s in in New Hampshire. But Justice saw my work on display at this skateboard shop. He saw my custom sneakers. And when Justice saw my work, he reached out to me. And he didn’t know who I was, he just saw the name TTK and he saw the work that I was doing. And it was like, “Yo, this person’s dope. I need to find them.” And he found me and we connected.

And he calls me up. It’s funny, I tell this story all the time. But when Justice, he got my information from the guys at the skateboard shop in New Hampshire. And they didn’t tell him who I was or anything like that. He was like, “Yo, this is this guy, this is TTK. Call him up, man. He’s dope.” When Justice calls me up and I answer the phone, I said, “Hello,” the first thing he says is, “Oh shit, you’re Black.” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “What you thought I was?’ I was thinking the same thing too because when they said designer, I didn’t think it was going to be another brother, someone the same age as me. You know what I’m saying? That’s into the same things that I’m into. It was like we were shocked to meet each other. And it was crazy because up there in New Hampshire/Maine, there aren’t many brothers up there. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
At the time, whenever it was like you see another Black person up there, you were like, “Oh man, you’re from up here? Oh man, where you from?” Or whatever. “Man, we should hang out or whatever.” You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
Because I really didn’t see many of us up there or whatever, man. But anyway, so whenever me and Justice connected, it was like he put me onto so much. And I talk about it all the time. He showed me that everything that I wanted to be, I could be it. This guy’s the same age as me, similar interest and everything, come from similar backgrounds, and this guy is doing all the things that I wanted to do in life at that point. He just encouraged me.And at the time, I didn’t own computer, I didn’t own anything. The only thing I knew how to do was to paint and just hustle and just do art. And he told me, he was like, “Bro, you’re a brand and you don’t even realize it. You created a brand in a barracks room and people are buying your work from all over the world.” He’s like, “You’re special, man.” He was like, “Yo, you really need to get out the Navy, man.” He’s like, “Yo, I can get you a job right now.” I’m like, “Well, I’m under contract.” He’s like, “You can’t break it?” I’m like, “Nah, I can’t break this contract. I get out in…: At the time, I think I had five more years left because I had just reenlisted.

Yeah man, I owe a lot to Justice, man. He credits me for giving him a breath of fresh air and inspiring him as well, but I thank him all the time, man, because if I never met him, I think I would’ve got to where I needed to go eventually, but it would’ve probably taken a little bit longer. Like I said, at the time when I met Just, this is 2006. He’s showing me his portfolio. I didn’t even have a portfolio at the time, I just had some photos of my work that I took. And I took him to the pharmacy at the time to get the photos developed [inaudible 00:37:03] or whatever, man. Like I said, I didn’t know, I was very, very green. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t know. I knew I got a good product and I just know how to hustle. That’s the only thing I knew.

He’s showing me all his credentials and everything, he’s telling me about, “Yo, I work with Kanye.” This is during the Touch the Sky era and all of that, man. He’s showing me this. He’s showing the brands he’s worked on. I’m like, “I did this cool sneaker for my man right here.” You know what I’m saying? He was like, “Don’t even worry about the credentials. It’s going to come, man. You trust me. You got it.” Once I met him and I saw what I wanted to be, it was no turning back after that. I was like, “Yo, I’m getting out. I’m getting out. I’m going to figure it out one way or another.”

Fast forward, I don’t know, I can’t do the math right now, 15 so years later I’m here talking to you, bro. There’s a lot of stuff in between that I’m jumping over, but, yeah, I’m here, I’m here. And I think I’ve done a lot of great stuff. My name is in places where I only dreamed about, or I’ve worked on things where when I was a teenager only dreamed about working on or thought it would be cool if I got to work on this or connect with this person and work on this project. And I did it. I’m still doing it. Sorry for the long rant, yo.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, it’s all good. Let’s hop forward to 2011. That’s when you got out of the Navy. You had been in the Navy for roughly about a decade. And then right afterwards, you enrolled in City Tech, which is a university in New York city. Talk to me about that time.

TTK:
It was interesting, man, because I was so hyped to get out and just be a civilian again because… In fact, most people didn’t even know that I was in the Navy because I was doing so much my artwork, putting my work out there. By this time, I’m not really even doing sneakers anymore, I’m painting, and people know me for my paintings. It was an interesting time. But I knew just from my first time going to college in the late ’90s, I’m like, “All right, things are getting… It’s digital now.” I just can’t see myself going to school to pay to be a fine artist. Nothing against people who do. You know what I’m saying? But for me, like I said, I had bills. You know what I’m saying? I still had some kids to support. I’m like, “All right, how can I be creative and get paid to be creative?”I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew the process of applying for art colleges just from the past, but I’m like, damn, I don’t really have any work that represents what people are looking for in this current state of the world, 2011. And I was like, “Man, I know I got the skills, but I don’t necessarily have the work to show it.”

A good friend of mine, he told me, he was like, “Yo, why don’t you go to City Tech?” I’m like, “What’s City Tech?” He was like, “You can get the same education there at a fraction of a price.” He was like, “A lot of the teachers that teach there, they teach you the big name schools as well.” And he’s like, “Yo, dude, you don’t even got to do a portfolio, you just go and you show up. Just apply.”

I went to City Tech, I applied, I got in. And within maybe, I don’t know, two weeks of me getting out the Navy, it’s my first day of class. And the first year or so I’m trying to figure out, all right, what do I want to do? I didn’t feel like I was being challenged. And then maybe almost around the first year of me being there, I was in a class with this professor named Douglas Davis. Whether he knows it or not, he’s the person that really inspired me to stay at City Tech because I met him in the first day of his class. I saw he was speaking in a language that I understood. And I just liked the way he just came across in the room. You know what I’m saying?I’ll never forget this. This is over 10 years ago, but the first day of class, he comes in, he looks… He’s not much older than me so he looks young, he looks like he could possibly be a student at the time. He comes in and he says, “My name is Douglas Davis.” He’s like, “What I do, I get money.” He said, “You listen to me, you’ll get money too.” And he says something, I think he says, “I’m surprised. I remember it was yesterday.” He said, “My wife, she don’t got to work. I bring home enough money to support my family doing what I love.” He’s like, “You listen to me, I’m going to give you everything that I got. But when I ask for it back, you better give me 100%. I’m going to run this class like it’s an agency. If this ain’t going to be for you, I’m not going to judge you. I’ll help you get to where you need to be. But if you here for the ride, let’s work.”

And I was like, oh, man. I never heard no professor in the classroom talk like that. And I was like, wow. His whole presence. He’s saying what I want to hear. Yeah, man, and that really put me on the path of going the route of learning about advertising and the stuff that I’ve been seeing for my whole entire life and just wondering why, wow, I like the way this ad looks, but I can’t explain why I like it. Being around him and other professors as well, but that really… I guess I feel like it cemented me in at City Tech where it’s like, all right, I’m not going anywhere because I like studying under this guy right here, I like studying under this other professor right here. They’re talking in the language that I want to, you know what I’m saying? That I want to hear. And they’re telling me the things that I need to know to apply to what I do already. Yeah man, that’s how I ended up at City Tech.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, shout out to Douglas Davidson who we’ve had on the show twice now. That’s the first time I’ve heard his classroom style, though. But as you described it, I was like, “Yeah, that’s 100% him.”

TTK:
Yo man, I tell you, he’s a great guy. No joke, man, when I was in his class, I felt like I was on… What’s the one show? Making the Band or something like that, you know what I’m saying? Because I didn’t want to mess up, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t want to mess up.

The nights leading up to the days when we had to present, he was like, “Yo, when the door is shut, the door is shut. If you not in, you not in.” I would make sure I’m on the train early, that way I’m not late to class that day and everything. I have everything set up, staying up all night just trying to get it right and just going up there. Because he didn’t hold any punches or whatever like that, he really ran it, his classroom… He didn’t run it like a classroom, he ran it like it was an agency, like it was a business. He’s a great guy, man. You can tell he really cared about what the people that… The students that he was working with. And he was there. He’s a real special person, man, he’s a real special person. And he’s someone that I’m very happy that I was blessed to meet in my journey along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of that journey, you documented a lot of this in a recent project that you released called Just Like Me. You directed it, you put the whole thing together. Douglas was in it as well. Talk to me about the documentary. First of all, why did you decide to do a documentary?

TTK:
With the documentary, that came about… Well, actually it’s a idea I’ve had in my head for many, many years but I just never really talked about it. I didn’t really talk about it to anyone; maybe one person. But it’s just something that I had in the back of my head. I was like, if the opportunity presents itself, it’d be cool to make this thing. It’s just something like a passion project.

And the opportunity came sooner than what I thought it was going to come in life. But around the time… In 2020, summer 2020, everybody’s in the house, the pandemic, COVID, all that stuff, and then the incident with George Floyd, all these agencies and companies having, I don’t know, a coming of age moment. We didn’t know. You know what I’m saying? What can we do to support Black people? Or whatever like that, man.

That was a moment in time where someone said to me… A real good friend of mine, a mentor as well, he said to me, “This is a moment in time where you need to use this opportunity to make what you want to make and do what you want to do, because I know you can do it.” And when he said it to me, I’m just thinking from a point of having anxiety and just fear of what’s the worst thing that could happen? This could happen, this could happen. And I just brushed it off.

And he came to me, he was like, “Yo, look man, make what you want to make.” I’m paraphrasing right now, but he said to me, “Your story is a very, very special story. How does someone go from working on nuclear submarines to knowing all the people that you know and working on the stuff that you worked on? You really have an interesting story.” And he said, “I’m not telling you what you should make or whatever, but you got something.” And I was like, all right. He was like, “I’ll help you get to a certain point with putting the pieces together, but after that, you running the show.” Because I’m like, “I’ve never directed a documentary. I’ve been around when documentaries are being made from my time working at Mass Appeal and I saw how much work goes into making a documentary. I know it’s a lot of work. He was like, “Don’t worry, you have what it takes.”

And I was like, “All right, I’ll put some days aside.” I wrote up three paragraphs, three, four paragraphs. I talk about basically the moment, this particular moment in time about how people were talking about the state of Black people in America with all the whole George Floyd’s things and the police incidents. It’s nothing new, it always happens, but the spotlight was on it in that moment in time.

Like I said, plus these companies are talking about, “Yo, we need to bring in more diversity,” and all this other things like that. I thought about why is it that there aren’t many Black people and there aren’t many brown people in these spaces of creativity?| And I’m like, “Why is that?” And I start thinking about my own personal experiences, about how we don’t really hear about them. And it’s like, I know a lot of Black creators, but the average person don’t know who these people are. But they’ve done a lot of great things and they’ve contributed to a lot of things that are historic now. And I’m sure you know, with you doing your podcast, you know we create a lot of great things that everyone knows and a lot of people benefit from, but a lot of times people don’t know who the wizard was behind the curtain that created this thing.

And I thought about too about why there aren’t many of us in these spaces. And I thought about a lot of us don’t know that this path exists until maybe much later in life when people got bills, they got families to support and they give up on being a creative. They give up on it because there’s always this narrative of being a starving artist. And that’s not true.

Going back to something Douglas David said to me once, and I always quote it, he says, “This thing called design is like the Matrix.” You know what I’m saying? “It affects all of us. We all work, operate in the Matrix and everything, but you’ll never know the Matrix exists until someone points it out to you.” And that’s like how design is. Everything is designed, everything, but most people don’t think about the whole process of that and how it interacts with us. And I thought about, wow, more of us, more Black people knew about this at an early age and were aware that you can make a living off of this, you’re not going to be a starving artist, I felt like you could see more of us in these spaces. And in order for me to try to educate more people on it, I wanted to show people who were influential to me. There are many people who are influential to me, but I wanted to show a few Black men and women who I’m blessed to cross paths with them in my journey and what they meant to me.

And not only just show who these people are, show their work because a lot of times I feel like when it comes to designers and things like that, or just anything… I’m losing my train of thought. But I feel like we will show a person and we’ll have the title, but a lot of times you don’t know the work that they’ve done.

I think about if I was 16 or 17 years old, I might not know what a creative director is. I might not even understand what a ad agency is, but I know this Nike shoe right here, I know this commercial right here, and now I can connect the dots like, oh man, this is the person to help put this thing together right here. You know what I’m saying? Show the work. That’s what I wanted to do with the project. I wanted to show some people who that were like me and the work that they’ve done and the work that have had impact on so many other people. And I pretty much wanted to make something that I would’ve loved to have seen when I was younger.

Sorry for the long spiel, but I wrote up a short paragraph explaining that, about how representation is very important, representation is very important. You need to see examples of a roadmap of people that have done things before you that can hopefully inspire you to want to go down that path.

And I also told a story in the pitch about when me and Justice met each other, when mt man Justice hall, when me and him met each other in the early 2000s, why were we surprised that we were both Black? We were surprised because we don’t see many of us so it’s a shock whenever we do find it, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
At that time. And I pitched it and I got the green light, you know what I’m saying? I got the green light. And I reached out to everyone from St. Adams to Douglas Davis to Julian Alexander, Aleesha Smalls Worthington, Dana Gibbons, John Petty III, and Justice, Justice Hall. I reached out to them, and they were all on board.

I connected with my man… He’s a creative director, he’s a director as well, my man, Ben Hype. And me and him came up with the whole creative look and vision, and we put it together. I just knew working on this right here, I knew that I wanted to make something visually appealing, visually, visually dope. The message is dope, but I want the visuals to be engaging as well where when someone’s watching it, they’re not going to want to look away because it’s just a beautiful piece. And I thought about what’s the series on Netflix? Abstract.

Maurice Cherry:
Abstract. Yeah.

TTK:
You know what I’m saying? Out of what two seasons, they may feature one Black woman or person of color.

Maurice Cherry:
They had Ralph Gilles in the first season, and then in the second season they had… Oh God, they had Ian Spalter, who’s head of Instagram in Japan, and they had Ruth E. Carter, the costumer. They had her.

TTK:
Right, right. This is just my opinion. I feel like that just an afterthought, like, “Oh, we got to check a box,” or whatever. You know what I’m saying? And Abstract is a great series, but if you go off of that, you would think Black designers don’t exist. You know what I’m saying? Don’t get me wrong, we’re rare, but it’s not as rare as how that series made it seem. You know what I’m saying? There’s a lot of us. But that’s what I wanted to show. Yo, we’re walking in plain sight every day, and we put a lot of things out into the world that you seen but you probably didn’t know that, hey, I’m the person behind this right here because…

And not even to sound the cliche or stereotypical, but whenever you… A lot of times when they think of basketball courts or sports, you think of a Black man. You know what I’m saying? When you think of entertainment or whatever, you think of Black people. But what about all these other roles and titles out there that we’ve contributed a part of, been a part? And I wanted to show this right here. But not show it in a preachy way or like I’m giving a lecture, I wanted to do it in a way that’s conversational.

And I credit my man, Brandon Coleman. He’s a designer. He’s another one of the first Black designers I ever met when I met Justice at the time. But he gave me the inspiration to go that route because like I said, I never done this before, I never directed anything before. I know what I wanted to see and I know that I want it to look good, I want it to be visually appealing. But he asked me a question early on. He said, “How do you want tell your message? Do you want to have a lecture or do you want it to be conversational?” And I was like, “I don’t know, a lecture?” He was like, “No, you want to have a conversation. Put yourself back into the 16, 17 year old version of you, TTK. Did you like when people were preaching to you? Or did you like when when people were having a conversation back and forth?” He said, “I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but think about that whenever you’re trying to put this story together.

And that helped me with the whole creative direction. Whenever Ben Hype was filming it, I told him, I was like, “Yo, I want you to show the people, show their hands, show them moving around, show closeups of them.” I want you to feel like you’re in the room with these people. I want you to feel like you know them. And even though if you may not know them or whatever, but you konw their work. But I want the people, when they view this, I want them to feel like it’s an intimate moment, like you’re close with these people, like you’re talking to a cousin or someone who’s a part of your family or a friend that you’ve known for years. And I think I was able to accomplish that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the documentary is really great. And we’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. We’ve had Julian on the show too. Julian is episode 250, I believe.

TTK:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But no, it’s a great documentary. I hope everybody will get a chance to check it out. When you had the idea and you put it all together, like what we talked about I think before we started recording about you never know how it’s going to be received. What has the reception been like since the documentary’s aired?

TTK:
It’s been good, it’s been very, very good. It’s slow, you know what I’m saying? It’s slow or whatever. But so far I haven’t had anyone say anything, “I wish you could have done it this way or whatever, this and that.” The response is always the same, “This is amazing. I never seen anything quite like this before. And it’s very real, and I feel inspired.” I did it. That’s what I wanted to do.
Like I said, when I initially pitched the idea, I said I wanted to make something that’s meant to educate and inspire. Whatever comes after that is just a extra benefit. I wanted to make something that lives beyond this particular moment in time where if you watch it a year from now, two years, five years, whatever, it’s the educational piece. And I want people to be inspired by… I want to hopefully inspire the next generation of Black creatives out there to show, hey, these are people that are alive right now and they’re doing it versus I’m hearing about somebody who did some great things back in 1970. I’m like, wow, I’m hearing about it from someone else’s perspective versus hearing it from the person when they’re alive right now.

I’m going off on a rant right now or whatever, but I think about how Cey adams that’s featured in a documentary, why isn’t he taught about in schools? You pay this money to go to school for design and everything, you learn about all these other designers, and they’re great people and they’ve done great things, man, I love the work, but Cey is on that level of, in my opinion, the Paula Schers and all those other people out there because he’s done so much stuff that people know. They know his work but unless you’re into this thing called design, you probably wouldn’t even know who Cey is. And I feel like he’s someone who should’ve probably been on the Abstract series. This man was around in the ’70s, New York, going from graffiti on trains to his work in the ’80s to the ’90s, to being in, what, the National African American Smithsonian Museum. Come on. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And I’m skipping over 40 years worth of work right here because it is too much to talk about that he’s accomplished in his lifetime. Why isn’t he taught about in school? And it goes back to what I was saying, when you think of design, they don’t think of us. And I was like, “Yo, I’m not making this to ask for a seat at the table, I want to make this to just educate us and show us, tell these stories from a real perspective versus someone years later to tell the narrative a certain way.” I’m like, “I want you to hear from the people while they’re alive, people who are heroes to me, people who, whether they know it or not…” I took a little bit from all of them to get to this point right here. I want other people to be inspired as well to accomplish things that I didn’t accomplish or we didn’t accomplish, but a lot sooner.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel you 100%. I can liken it to what I do with Revision Path, with having folks on here. I’ve been able to have people on here at different parts of their career journey. There’s folks who I’ve had on maybe in 2014 that now I can bring back seven or eight years later and be like, “Let’s talk about how things have changed,” or something. You know?

TTK:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I totally get that. Actually, I have a funny story. Well, I don’t know if it’s funny, but I have a story about Abstract. This was in 2019 I think was when the second season was about to come out. And I had watched the first season. Well, I’m not going to lie, I watched Ralph Gilles’ episode on Abstract for the first season and that’s it because I was like, I don’t want to hear about everybody else. I was like, I’m going to watch his.

And the place I was working at the startup at the time, and we were looking for design firms for a project that we were going to do, this lifestyle vertical. And so one of the agencies we reached out to was Godfrey Dadich, which is in San Francisco. The Abstract series came from Godfrey being Scott Dadich, who was the former co-founder of Wired. And I didn’t talk to him directly, but I talked to someone at the agency because I was like,” Yeah, my name is Maurice Cherry,” blah blah, blah, yada, yada, yada. And they were like, “Oh, we know who you are.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” I wasn’t coming to them in a personal capacity, it was a professional capacity. And not even for the show, it was for my employer at the time.

They were talking to me about the second season of Abstract. They’re like, “Oh yeah, the second season of Abstract is coming out.” And they were like, “I bet you’re really going to be excited about this because we got two Black designers for this season.” And I’m like, “Why would I be excited about that?” Yay, you found two, but I’ve found hundreds. I mean, I don’t know if they were saying it to be solidarity or something. I don’t know, I just thought that was weird that they brought it up in that way. We ended up not going with them, not for that reason. But I was like, “Okay, I’ll check it out when it airs on Netflix.” They’re like, “Yeah, we managed to find two great Black designers. I’m like-

TTK:
We managed to find.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we managed to find, which is funny that they said that, because I was like, one, I’ve known Ian. Actually, I did an event here in 2017 back when he was… Well, he still works for Meta and everything with Instagram. But I met him at a live event here in Atlanta for Revision Path. And then Ruth, I don’t know Ruth, but I’ve had Ruth’s goddaughter on the show, Courtney Pinter. She lives in Switzerland. I think at the time she was doing flavor design for this company called Givaudan. Now she works for Fifa. But I’ve also had Hannah Beachler to give the Black Panther connection. I had her on the show for episode 300.

Your overarching point around the importance of being able to have people give their own history in their own words is super important because when I started Revision Path, and this was almost 10 years ago, that’s not to say that these stories weren’t out there, but they were really hard to find. And one of the few places that I found them was at AIGA when I started volunteering there with the diversity and inclusion task force. Because they would do these design journeys things and they would talk about folks. But even the way that they… The imagery and everything almost memorialized them. And keep in mind, these people are not dead, but they memorialize them in this way like they’ve gone on to greater things. And I’m like, these folks are still alive. What are you talking about?

TTK:
And they’re active, too. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and active. Michelle Washington’s one of the first people that I had met through that. Her and I are working on the book together. Maurice Woods, who’s been on the show before, Maurice Woods of the Interact Project. I think he’s episode 12 or 13. Emery Douglas from the famous former Minister of Culture from the Black Panther Party, AIGA medalist, he’s been on the show. That was episode 15. But I didn’t find out about those folks until I volunteered and did that. And the way that even they just put it out there made it seem like these are not living people still doing work, it was almost like in memoriam. Nah.

TTK:
Yeah, that’s like when we was putting the pieces together for Lust Like Me, Douglas Davis, he connected me with Cheryl D. Miller. I don’t know if you know her.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

TTK:
Yeah, oh man.

Maurice Cherry:
She’s episode 248.

TTK:
I felt like I was sitting with royalty talking to her. You know what I’m saying? Me and Davis had some questions to ask her. Man, once she started talking, man, the questions just went out the window. She was just dropping so many jewels and so much history and stuff, man. And it’s like, wow, how come I didn’t know this woman’s story? I’m happy that I spoke to her while she’s alive saying, you know what I’m saying? Hear it straight from… It’s from the source.

And she said something. Well, I don’t know if you remember, but at the very end of the documentary, Just Like Me, there’s a quote from her at the very, very end before the credits. When we were talking, she said something, “It’s sad that your generation has to experience the same thing I experienced 50 something years ago around the time when Dr. King died.” She was like, “Yo, all these companies had an awakening moment for about a year or two, maybe less than that.” And she was like, “And this is what’s happening right now because of George Floyd. These companies are having an awakening moment, but it’s going to fizzle out,” unfortunately, man.

When you say we can have all the different programs, DEI, all this, whatever, if you want to change it, change it. And she said something too. She was like, “Yo, if they try to tell you that we didn’t exist, that’s a lie.” She’s like, “I’m fortunate that I got all of this stuff because I was alive and I archived it.”

Like a magician, she pulls out a issue of Communication Arts from 1970. And I ordered it because of her. She was like, “This is one of the first…” This is what from 50 years ago, she just pulls this magazine out. She was like, “This right here on page whatever, 90 something or whatever, you see the Black designers right here? This is 1970 right here, so if they try to tell you that the only person that was out doing things is Milton Glazer and all those guys like that,” she was like, “nah, he was just the only person that was getting the work. That’s why you knew about him. But these other people were out here as well. And here, this is their work right here on.” And she said, “I got it in the archives right here, so nobody can ever try to pull the wool over my eye.”

And when I got that issue, I was able to back order it online, and I saw Ms. Dorothy Hayes, she was a Black designer as well. And I used to see she was a professor at City Tech. And I never knew that this woman was one of the first Black designers ever published. You know what I’m saying? I had no clue. I never had any of her classes, but I would just see her in passing. And I’m like, wow, there’s so much history that we have. And that’s why I feel like we got to tell our stories before… Tell them in real time and tell them authentic and speak to the people who needs to hear it because you already know how it goes, man, years later, the narrative, it gets switched up and it gets watered down. That’s not how it really was. Yeah, man, salute to you for what you do, man. I’m honored to be a part of this right here.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you. And yeah, Cheryl is 100% right about that. When I ran across Cheryl, this was in 20… Now you got me here telling stories. This was 2014, and I had just started doing volunteer stuff with Revision… Not Revision Path, with AIGA, started doing volunteer stuff. And that’s when I learned about her thesis that she did in 1985 when she was at Pratt about Black designers and their viability in the industry and how that became this 1987 print article, and then there was this AIGA symposium.

And I’m doing all this research trying to find… Well, one, doing the research on what happened from that thesis, but then secondly, I wanted to put it into this presentation that I was putting together that I was going to present called Where Are the Black Designers? And I was like, is Cheryl still alive? And I remember asking folks at AIG, and they were like, “Well, we don’t know what happened to her.” I was like, “Let me find her.”And I found her. How did I find Cheryl? Oh, I know, I found her on Amazon. Wow. She had written a book about her mother. It wasn’t even about design, it was about her mother and the relationship she had with her mother and everything growing up. I just found her book, eventually did some more searching, found a website, reached out on a whim and was like, “I’m Maurice Cherry. I’m doing this research. I’m putting this stuff together. I’d love to talk to you about this kind of stuff.”

When I first encountered Cheryl, like I said back in 2014, she had put design behind her. She had had her design work and stuff. She had, I wouldn’t say retired, but she raised a family, became a theologian. She was living a totally different life. And then since then, of course, doing the presentation and then more people finding out about her work, now she’s Dr. Cheryl Miller and has given lectures across the country and doing all amazing stuff and is still here doing this stuff.

TTK:
That’s beautiful.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. And so with Provision Path, I’m certainly fortunate to be able to share that story and to bring more awareness to people in general about what Black folks are doing in design everywhere. I just had this year my first Black designer in South America, which is something I wanted to have for a long time. I was like, I’m going to hit every continent. Couldn’t hit Antarctica, but I done talked to a Black designer on every continent so far start with 2022 this year with someone in South America. Yeah, I just want to keep going and keep telling more stories and getting more folks on here to tell their stories so folks know that we did exist.

To that end about the whole black squares thing, in 2020, that summer, I was looking up a bunch of old Ebony and Jet magazines and stuff. I think Google has the full archive, the full digital archive of Ebony Magazine, and so I was looking at issues from when Dr. King was assassinated. And when I tell you it was the exact same thing about companies posting black squares, exact same thing people were doing back then when King died, sometimes even the same verbiage. I’m like, this is wild, this is wild.

TTK:
And that’s one thing Ms. Miller was saying, she was like, “Just change it. You want to make change? Do it.” These people that have positions to do it, they don’t want to do it. This right here is a moment in time. Like she said, I’ve seen it before. I’m not even thrilled by it. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
I’m not thrilled by it at all. Just from her telling me… Hearing stories that I’ve never heard before. One day, thankfully, you’re doing what you’re doing so people will have,… We’re able to control our own narrative more so now. It was great, but at the same time, it’s bittersweet as well, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

TTK:
Because wow, man, I’m experiencing the same thing my elders experienced. How come I don’t know about Cheryl Miller, the woman who created the original BET logo? You know what I’m saying? Something that’s a part of my childhood. Why more people don’t know about who this woman is right here?

I’m honored that I was able to speak with her and basically just sit and listen to her talk, you know what I’m saying? Just sit and listen to her talk. And to have a quote from her in the documentary, I was like, man, that was a great book end on it. It was a real book end to the project. Like I said, when you watch it, in the very beginning it says how it started, and at the end it says how it’s going. And you see her quote at the end, someone who’s been around that predates all of us. She predates even Cey, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
Who has 40 something years of work. She predates him. To have someone like a OG basically, a vet, to have her to be a part of the project, man, I’m thankful. I’m thankful for everybody that was a part of helping me put this project together, Just Like Me. Man, I’m thankful for everybody, man. But yeah, Cheryl Miller’s amazing.

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

TTK:
I want to be known as a painter more. I want to be known as that. I want to do gallery shows, more of them. Because in the past where I was just doing art shows myself, and I was just happy if I was able to fill the room with friends and stuff like that and create a memory. I want to sell my work on a high level. I want to work with more brands, but I want to be working with brands because they want to work with me, not because I need a job. I want to bring my personal creativity and my expertise to the table. “Yo, we want to collab with you. We love your story.”

And I want another opportunity to make a project, another project like Just Like Me but bigger. I know when you watch the documentary, it looks like it was… Yeah, it’s put together very, very well, but oh man, we were building the car while we were driving it, making this thing right here. We were really making something out of nothing, but it looks like it’s on a high level so I would really like to have a chance to make something maybe… I don’t know if it’s the same type of topic or something completely different. I wouldn’t mind directing another project.

All in all, I just want to continue to be creative, continue to make a living, and live comfortable using my imagination, man. I don’t know where it’s going to go in the next five years, but I’m speaking into existence right now what I want. And truthfully, I feel like I can’t even fathom what’s going to be for me because it’s going to be something that I’m not even expecting. You know what I’m saying? Just this documentary, just like…

We didn’t mention it, but working on a project for Nas, you know what I’m saying? Well, I worked on a few project for Nas but having my name and the credits next to Nas and Kanye, you know what I’m saying? Wow, you can’t erase my name from this project. You know what I’m saying? I’ve worked on this right here. You know what I’m saying? If you would’ve told me at the time 15 years ago that, “Hey, you’re going to work on this project. You’re going to be the person who designs and put this thing together,” I’m like, “How is that going to happen?” I couldn’t… I’d imagine it, but I was like, wow, it seemed like a fairytale. But the have, I did it, and it’s a thing of the past now, I’m onto something new, wow, that’s great.

And if you would’ve told me three years ago that I would direct a documentary, I’m like, “How would I do that?” And that’s going back to what I was initially saying, five years from now, I just want to be doing something great and making a living and just putting the best stuff out into the world, man.

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

TTK:
Multiple ways. You can check out my site artbyttk.com. That’s A-R-T-B-Y-T-T-K.com. You can check my IG as well. It’s instagram.com/gottkgo. You can pretty much find me anywhere online with that, Go TTK Go.

And if you want to watch the documentary, Just Like Me, it’s on my site as well, man, but it’s also you can go to the actual micro site. The site is justlikeme-havas, that’s H-A-V-A-S, .com. jsutlikeme-havas.com. And you can read a little bit about the project, a short description of it and the creation of it. And you can watch the documentary. The documentary’s only… It’s just in the 30 minutes, but it’s strong. It’s a very powerful piece that I’m really proud of. I always say that project is my magnum opus project at the moment. Yeah, that’s where you can find me at.

Maurice Cherry:
TTK, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, for sharing your story, which again, I hope people will check out the documentary so they can get a chance to see it for themselves, but also just your whole story about perseverance and pursuing your creative passion. I think that’s something that hopefully a lot of people can get inspired by. And I’m excited to see what you do next. If this documentary is any indication, I’m pretty sure what’s coming up next is going to be great. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

TTK:
No, brother, thank you for having me on here. Thank you. Also want to thank my partner, Chevon, because she was very vigilant about trying to get me on your show. Thank you to Chevon as well, man. And she’s @chevonmedia on IG and on Twitter. Yeah, thank you to Chevon. I’m honored to be a part of this. And maybe, I don’t know, five years from now, maybe you’ll reach out to me to revisit what’s going on in my life for whatever project I got going on, man.

Maurice Cherry:
There you go. All right.

TTK:
Yeah.

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Vida Cornelious

When you think of people who are masters of their craft, there’s no doubt that Vida Cornelious would be part of that list. Her 25+ year career in the advertising industry reads like a who’s who of agency titans — GlobalHue, DDB, Burrell Communications, Walter Isaccson…the list goes on. Now, Vida’s latest role as VP of Creative for New York Times Advertising will allow her work to reach a global audience.

After a quick end-of-year check-in, Vida spoke about her work at the Times and the launch of their first ever creative franchise called “Soul of Us.” From there, she talked about growing up in New Jersey and being surrounded by the arts, attending the venerable Hampton University, and dove deep into some of the campaigns she created over the years before landing her current role. For Vida, the importance of mastery is key to her success, and it’s definitely paid off in a big way!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Vida Cornelious:
Hi, my name is Vida Cornelious. I am the Vice President of Creative for New York Times Advertising. I oversee all the custom creative and the operations of our content studio, T Brand.

Maurice Cherry:
What has this year been like for you so far?

Vida Cornelious:
It’s funny how to answer that because as we all know, 2020 was definitely a challenge, and I would say 2021 has been a year of recovery in many ways, like coming off of that year, a year of reckoning so to speak. I just feel like there was a lot of emotions. It felt like 2021 was a time to heal, so to speak. Personally, I feel like I’ve definitely learned the meaning of resilience over the course of this year. And staying the course, staying focused has been my personal mantra in the workplace. As a leader, for one, I’ve really been trying to be as empathetic to my team as possible. I’ve really had to dig in and think about everyone is processing this whole upheaval in so many different ways, and in some cases loss. So I want to be mindful of that when I’m still trying to manage to the demands of the business. So yeah, that’s what the year has been for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you already back in the office or are you still working from home?

Vida Cornelious:
No, we’re working from home still, but we can go into the office as we choose. We haven’t officially returned, but I go in probably two days a week now.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah. And so do some of the other people on the team.

Maurice Cherry:
How was it adjusting to that work from home life with being over, I would imagine, a pretty large creative team?

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, it was a challenge at first to really think about the ebb and flow of how to make sure people stayed motivated. I also think there were fears that people may have had on the team thinking that their currency of not being able to walk the halls and talk to people and be seen was going to somehow affect their work and the perception of their work. But I think once we all settled into a groove of what needed to get done, just putting our heads down and understanding that, hey, this collaborative work style, being on Zoom calls, we can still brainstorm. We can still utilize one another to get inspired creatively. The work didn’t suffer. We set a path and then drove full steam ahead towards it. So I would say that actually people found their own ways to be productive working from home and still maintaining a level of integrity and excellence with the work that I was personally looking for.

Maurice Cherry:
I talked to so many folks, I guess, right at the beginning of the pandemic, like spring going into the summer, and it was interesting because you’d have folks that were definitely seasoned creatives that were like, “Oh, I’m trying to adjust to how do I work from home?” Some people, for example, got a new job, moved across country, and then they may have worked in the office for two days and now you have to work from home in this new place that you just moved to. But then I also talked to graduates who had just started new jobs, and this is all they know, is working from home. This is their normal as it relates to doing a creative job is working from home and being a part of a distributed team, which I think is a really interesting shift.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, It’s interesting you say that because I don’t want to necessarily say it’s generational, but for sure like myself coming up in the industry where it was very much about brainstorming and sitting in a room and hashing out ideas, you get very accustomed to the tactile nature of working with people face to face and sharing ideas back and forth, bantering back and forth with a partner and all that kind of thing. So the working from home could feel very isolating for some and feel like there becomes a little bit more writer’s block, you feel a little bit more stuck because you want someone to bounce ideas off of or you want to be able to just have someone to dialogue with or talk through ideas. It doesn’t feel as natural if you have to do that over a Zoom call.

Vida Cornelious:
But you’re 100% right. I mean, there were people who obviously started new jobs during the pandemic where they never met anyone. So it is interesting to see you get a different perception of the value of the connection you make personally with people when you’ve had an opportunity to work with them versus just meeting them for the first time in the square on the screen.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I think for all of us it illustrates just how my much we have to do during the day, especially if you’re just at home working by yourself and you don’t have those moments of comradery of just talking to someone for a few minutes and then getting back to work. You realize just how much you have to be focused on getting the work done. Not saying people slack off at work, but people slack off at work. But that’s also part of the creative process in a way.

Vida Cornelious:
Right. Exactly. I used to make a joke that everybody… For folks who were smokers, it used to be a thing those people to go downstairs, have a cigarette break. If we add up those breaks, that was like an extra hour [crosstalk 00:08:39]. But now it’s funny because working from home, I’ll be honest, hey, in between a meeting or two, of course I’m going to go throw some clothes in the laundry, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Vida Cornelious:
And I’m going to clean up my kitchen or something that I neglected doing. So there do become these moments in the day where you can woosah, I guess, take the pressure off slightly for a moment and take your mind away from it and then come back. But I still find that for the most part, my experience with my team has been that people are very productive and responsive, which is great.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it also sounds like you allowed them just the grace to just acclimate themselves to the situation, you know?

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, I mean, the hardest part about the pandemic for everybody was just trying to figure out, and I hate using the term new normal, but what was going to just be their way of operating. I don’t have children, but I felt for people who had kids at home who were trying to figure out how to homeschool and still be attentive at work but having very restless children at home that didn’t understand the whole scenario of not being able to go to school or see friends or having their own emotional meltdowns of sorts. And that was a lot. That was a lot for people to process and deal with and also just trying to deal with how out of work and be productive. For sure, we saw it in the real estate boom where people just literally realized, especially living in New York, raising a family in a one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment just wasn’t the move anymore. [inaudible 00:10:11] ran to the suburbs. Of course, we saw that.

Vida Cornelious:
So that, I think, is also a manifestation of how the pandemic just changed all of our perception around the value of work and how that balance between work and personal has to be reevaluated.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk some more about your work at the New York Times. What’s an average day like for you?

Vida Cornelious:
The day is, well as we just said, I mean, it’s definitely full of Zoom calls, I would say a pretty steady stream of them from 9:00 to probably about 6:00 PM. But for the most part, I feel like right now the majority of what I’m doing is a tremendous amount of work around new initiatives, product development, working with our newsroom on any types of brand collaborations where appropriate or alignments. But the team has really been delivering some imaginative custom content. I oversee all of our creatives, so working with the team on what those creative franchises are or brand stories and collaborations we’re doing. So I’m really excited about that.

Vida Cornelious:
I mean, an average day definitely is meeting with my direct reports, tending to operations type needs, making sure that there’s a full outline of what we’re trying to accomplish with regards to a certain number of RFPs or making sure that a program is launching or we are doing recruiting. So it varies in the course of a day what I have to turn my attention to, but I always try and make sure there’s a very nice chunk of my day committed to creative endeavors. I would say if I had to break it down, probably 65% of my time is something creatively motivated, and the other 35% of my time is operational.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of projects, there’s a project from the Times that you were a part of or oversaw called Soul of Us. Can you tell me some more about that?

Vida Cornelious:
Sure. I’ll start by saying as an overall philosophy of the creative team and T Brand, we adhere to what we call our storytelling commitment, and it’s how we really keep diverse perspectives at the forefront and pursue representative storytelling in everything that we do. There’s been a few programs that actually are great manifestations of this passion for diversity and inclusion, Soul of Us being one of them and probably the primary one. And it is a creative franchise that was created by T Brand really to expand the narrative around all aspects of the black life in America that are rarely portrayed in the media. What I mean by that is it really is a franchise that we are crafting and collaboration with brand partners to give voice to black creators to tell stories of black love and joy and success and beauty and pride and wealth and empowerment and progress. The more brands that join us, the more chapters of this story we will unfold.

Vida Cornelious:
The reason we do it is because at the time that Soul of Us was concepted, there was so much narrative around Black Lives Matter and the opposite side of that coin of like, “Why should a black life matter? All lives matter.” We saw a lot of that. Soul of Us was a way of saying, “You know what? The only way to help people understand why a black life matters is to really show them what a black life is.” And more of black life is it’s beyond the narrative that we’ve seen which is the narrative around disenfranchisement and struggle and the fight for equality. There’s so many other aspects of black life that media doesn’t really portray. So Soul of Us was an opportunity to expose some of those more nuanced, beautiful stories in a way that shows that black life really is rich and full and robust and worthy of a narrative larger than just what the media has currently shared. So that was the impetus behind that franchise.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that it’s called Soul of Us. Well, I think if someone were looking at it and not really thinking about it as us, it could also be seen as like Soul of US, like Soul of the United States. I remember reading through the press release and it was mentioned that it’s about helping brands elevate the conversation of representation in America. I know that’s during that last summer when there was so much going on in the streets and, of course, that spilled over into the board rooms and such, theoretically speaking, because nobody really was in board rooms because of the pandemic. But companies were now starting to get in on this conversation around racial equity and what does that mean for us and this individual business. Like, yes, there’s what’s happening out in the streets in terms of protesting police brutality, but our black employees, unfortunately, they suffer from that as well. They have to inherit all of that trauma and that pain, and they have to bring that to work.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it was really good that companies were starting to try to, at least in some small way, get in on the conversation even if it seems like it was just a fleeting thing. I remember seeing now how a lot of companies have faded back from that initial talk about it, but I think it was good to see it when it happened, certainly.

Vida Cornelious:
Right. Yeah, I mean, there were a few brands that misstepped, and it felt as if it was a passing fancy for them or something that was a trend to get in on at the time. The things that we really wanted to make sure, as we put this franchise out in the universe, it was to make sure we were letting brands know, “Hey, this is an opportunity for you to join us in telling these stories on a narrative. It’s not for the purpose of you being able to rectify any wrongs that has been done in the past by your brand, but rather to support what should be a part of your mission. So if your mission is, say, to put out products for the betterment of families, then let’s tell stories of why black family is important. You can support that, that’s already in your DNA.”

Vida Cornelious:
We were very specific about the type of brand partners and collaborators we were looking for as a way of helping us bring these individual chapters or narratives, if you will, to life. It wasn’t as if we were looking for inauthentic connections. We legitimate connections to the black community, to black storytelling, and we wanted brands that supported that because it’s work that they’re already doing.

Maurice Cherry:
One of the most interesting parts I noticed throughout the project is that even the typeface that was used, the halyard typeface, was done by a black designer. That was done by a black typography designer, Joshua Darden.

Vida Cornelious:
Yes. Yep. Absolutely. Every contributor we’ve used on the project and was very intentional, and that was part of it, was to elevate not just in the storytelling but elevate black voices and creators. All of our illustrators, typographers, photographers, designers, writers are all black contributors to the project. We have a hub, which is where you can see the work, and within that hub, there is a page of contributors. So it’s very clear. You can read each of those persons’ bio and have a better understanding of why we wanted to partner with them, why we work with them, the passion that they have for what they do. And that was important to us as well, to make sure that those were the voices that were elevating these stories.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the project been received so far?

Vida Cornelious:
It’s been fantastic. I mean, we have had quite a bit of press around it. Our inaugural partner in the effort is Starz, the network, and they told with us stories of black leadership. What we explored there was the journey and the pathway to how leaders are made in the black community when it starts from childhood, those moments of affirmation where you’re basically told or you’ve been taught things like, “I am somebody,” all the way through college where you maybe are a part of your first taste of being a part of a black student union or a fraternity or sorority, all the way to the boardroom, where you could find yourself being the only person of color in an organization but you have to walk into the room with the same premise that Maya Angelus taught us, which is, “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000,” right? So knowing you have to bring your ancestral strength with you in order to be effective. We explored this journey of leadership in partnership with Starz because they have an amazing program called Take The Lead, which is all about creating space for black leadership and creators to emerge in the entertainment space. So it was a perfect alignment in that way for us to tell these stories together.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have a favorite story from the project?

Vida Cornelious:
Yes. From this first go-round, I think one of my favorite stories was about a teacher in Philadelphia who has taught her students a mantra called Push Through, and it was really great. We used some of the actual soundbite of her doing the affirmation with her little second grade and third grade class, which they do every morning. That was a part of the pay post, so it was wonderful to be able to actually use the actual audio of her doing the affirmation.

Vida Cornelious:
But I also remember myself as a child, your own parents telling you things like, “You have to be smarter. You have to be better. You are somebody.” There were so many ways that your family would teach you these little affirmations basically to help you know that you were going into the room strong and that you had a right to be there. And whether you knew it or not, in first, second, third grade, that’s essentially what was being instilled in you. So seeing someone, a young woman doing that today for this generation of children, it just kind of warmed my heart and the writer’s heart that worked on it when we discovered her.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see the initiative going next? I know you mentioned Starz being the initial partner. Are there other companies lined up that are going to talk about other stories as well?

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, we do. We have quite a few partners out there, collaborators, brand collaborators that are looking at proposals right now and how we can align with them on their efforts. I think if we’re successful, we’ll have a chapter about black progress and wealth. That gives us an opportunity to talk about things like the black elite or how people have created whole communities around going to the vineyard and what that whole lifestyle is like and the bonds that tie those individuals together. It gives us an opportunity to talk about home ownership and some of the famous neighborhoods that were inhabited by or created by black wealth, things like Striver’s Row in Harlem and how that was a bustling place of economic development and empowerment for blacks. So that could be an angle that we have. Another brand that we’re talking to would allow us to explore stories of black beauty. And last one would be about black family. Hopefully, if those brand partners come on board, that becomes three more chapters right there that we would be really happy to see come to fruition.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s awesome. I’d have to say it’s especially awesome seeing it come through such a large imprint like the New York Times. That’s really great.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, it’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look at your work, not necessarily with this project, but at the New York Times in general, what would you say is the hardest part about what you do?

Vida Cornelious:
I really don’t find there’s necessarily a hard part, but I do feel as though one of the things that, I don’t know, I’m always just so fascinated by is there’s just so much richness of storytelling at the New York Times. In my world, I feel like my responsibility is to just make sure that the work that the team is doing on our side, on the business side of the house, if you will, is befitting of sitting alongside that superior journalism. We want to make sure that we are continually rising and upholding the standards that we know that the Times is so famous for and so respected for. So we want to make sure that the way we do our custom creative work and supporter brands is indeed living up to that same standard and expectation. So I would say that’s probably the hardest part because there’s so much amazing journalism and innovation that comes out of the newsroom every day. It’s just a matter of our team just keeping up with it, if you will.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit because I want to know more about your origin story, how Vida became Vida. Tell me about where you grew up.

Vida Cornelious:
I’m a Jersey girl. I grew up in Neptune, New Jersey, which is a town on Jersey Shore. One of five girls, no brothers. Mom and dad both professional people. My mother, she sang at the Met when I was a kid. She took opera. She’s sang in college and took opera lessons and developed her voice and sang as part of the chorus at the Met when we were kids. So I got introduced to the arts and the fine arts early in life. I had an older sister who was amazing painter and just as part of just a hobby, I guess you could say. But there was always some artistic pursuit going on in my house when I was growing up. My dad was an engineer, so he was a solid, science, math person, so I guess that gave us a certain amount of well-roundedness. It wasn’t all artsy-fartsy in the house, so to speak.

Vida Cornelious:
But growing up, it was fun. I mean, I felt like my family was very supportive heavily into seeing us be comfortable with our education, pursuing our passions. So I never felt like I wasn’t able to explore what an artistic endeavor would look like. I had no idea that it would turn into a career in advertising. I was just a kid that just loved drawing and painting and doing things that felt creative me, right? As I got older, going off to college was about having an opportunity to pursue art as a major in college. My parents weren’t so fond of me going to somewhere like Parsons or Pratt. We went up to those schools, I got in, and they saw one moment in a dorm where the kids were running around and was like co-ed, they were like, “Forget it.” It didn’t seem strict enough or whatever you want to call it. So they didn’t like that as a pursuit for me.

Vida Cornelious:
But I was able to go to Hampton because that’s where my sisters had gone. So there was a little bit of legacy there. So I went to Hampton, but I was still able to pursue art. At Hampton, I got a great background in education in… at the time, it was called commercial art or graphic design. I thought I was going to eventually come back to New York, come back to the East Coast, and go work in New York and design album covers. That was my big plan. But I had a professor who basically told me, “No, you need to pursue advertising. You have ideas like an art director.” I was like, “What is this mystery career?” I’d never even heard of being an art director. I didn’t know what that was. He explained to me, you know, “You make commercials. You make print ads. You take great trips. You go and stay in hotel for weeks at a time while you shoot a commercial.” I was like, “This sounds like a dream job.” I had no idea.

Vida Cornelious:
He was like, “Yeah, you need to go to graduate school, really work on your portfolio because right now your portfolio is strictly design. They need to see you can think about ideas. You need to be able to craft ideas.” So I pursued going to graduate school. At the time, University of Illinois was one of the better schools for an advertising degree. Now, it wasn’t advertising creative like what we now know of, say, schools like The Creative Circus or Portfolio Center or VCU Ad Center, those schools came much later. But at the time, University of Illinois had a very solid program in terms of you getting a master’s in advertising, so that’s what I did.

Vida Cornelious:
I was able to go there on a scholarship, which was great for me. I had a wonderful batch of teachers who I was kind of the guinea pig of the kid who wanted to do creative, but there wasn’t necessarily a specific creative track in the graduate program. So they kind of mashed up a few classes for me in addition to the required classes in order for me to get my master’s but still get a creative portfolio coming out of it, so it was really good. Did some internships while I was there. But I definitely feel like probably the biggest thing I learned at University of Illinois that as a black woman in this industry I would later come to find out was pivotal for me, was my scholarship required that I teach undergraduate students. I taught two days a week, and it was brutal because I had to teach myself the class before I could teach them. I had to teach myself the material and then teach the class.

Vida Cornelious:
But what it forced was me basically presenting a couple of times a week, like getting up in front of a lecture class and talking and presenting. So what later on in my career I would realize is that that the groundwork for me being able to really feel comfortable presenting. And as a creative person, that is one of the things that will make or break your career, is your ability to present your ideas and be confident in presenting your ideas and being a storyteller. I really, really value that experience for that reason more than anything you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s go back a bit to Hampton, because I know you mentioned you had sisters that went there, so there was some sort of form of legacy for you going there. What was it like going to Hampton during that time? Because I’m imagining this is around the early nineties when there was so much… And maybe I’m just remembering this from back then. I felt like there was a lot of, not hype, that’s not the right word, excitement, I guess, around attending HBCUs. You had the AACA sweatshirts. It felt like there was this really big push on graduate and go to a black college because it’s lit.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah. Yeah, I would agree with that. I mean, you used to have all the bootleg shirts like, “Hampton, just do it,” with the swoosh. I’m sure that the licensing department at Nike would’ve been very upset to know that there was a whole string of t-shirts that you could buy in a variety of colors with their logo on it, but we had all that stuff going on. You’re absolutely right because at the time that I was at Hampton, A Different World was on television. It was literally like we would all run back to the dorm and watch A Different World, and it was almost as if the writers of that show had been on campus. It was like they were writing about our lives literally, and we were looking at it in real time.

Vida Cornelious:
We had a munchy shop where everybody went and hung out, a little campus grill. We had the step shows, we had the Greek life. I don’t want to call it a golden time, but it was definitely a fun, vibrant time to be at a HBCU. For me personally, I did pledge Delta Sigma Theta-

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Vida Cornelious:
… and very proud of that. And so that also gave another layer of texture to my college experience because, of course, pledging a Greek letter organization on a HBCU campus is probably as HBCU as it gets. That is like the quintessential experience. But yeah, having sisters there, my mother went to Hampton, it was definitely a school that I was very familiar with. So I felt like I was in very familiar territory in going to school there. The school itself in terms of how it was run, everything you’ve probably heard about HBCUs is fairly true. There was curfew. You weren’t able to be out if you were a freshman after a certain time at night. There were all kinds of superstitions and things like if you walk across Ogden Circle you won’t graduate. Those are all parts of the culture and just the narrative of what made the school so great.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I went to Morehouse. I mean, I was a teenager during that time sort of watching… Well, I was a kid becoming a teenager during the time when A Different World was on. And then there certainly was this big push to go to a black college because, one, at the time, my mom worked at a black college, she taught biology at a black college, and she graduated from black college, she went to Talladega University. So there was no really other choice. I applied to other places, but the huge implication was that, “You’re going to a black college.”

Vida Cornelious:
Right. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
End of story. So I know what you mean about you get on campus and you learn all these mythologies and superstitions and things like that, but I mean, it’s such a magical place. And then the fact that you were studying design there, back when we had a blog on Revision Path, I remember we did a whole thing about Hampton’s Design department and how many people they’ve graduated that went on to do great things in the industry. So Hampton has a really rich legacy of generating black designers and artists and folks like you. Really, that’s amazing.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah. I mean, I’m very proud of the fact that we got some exposure to some amazing artists at Hampton. I mean, John Biggers painted the mural in the library and all of us that were students at the time got to assist him because he was the artist in residence. And Hampton’s museum has some of the most… They have an amazing collection of black artists that’s been curated. I feel like the art program, the arts has always been something that Hampton respected. I just remember it was like people would look at the art students because we all walked around with our little plastic cases, our little art bin cases. Our classes were over in Armstrong Hall, which was sort of out of the cut, but it was where the… What do you call it? The pottery studio was, and that’s where the architecture students were. And that’s where all the open loft live drawing classes were. So it was such a mystery to all the rest of the student body because we were like the kids that were in there creating. It was a good time though. It was definitely a good time to be at a school like that.

Vida Cornelious:
I feel you 100% because I went to a summer program at Princeton, they pursued me coming there, but I don’t know, there was just something… I mean, it was Ivy League, I probably should have differently about that, but I really felt like Hampton was home in some way, so that’s where I ended up.

Maurice Cherry:
Going back to University of Illinois, you graduated in ’94, you left grad school, what was the next step? What were those early post grad years like for you?

Vida Cornelious:
When I was in grad school, I ended up having an internship at Uniworld in New York, which was a great experience, worked with some amazing people there, learned from some wonderful people. Valerie Graves, who is a legend in advertising was my boss at the time when I was an intern, so I learned a ton from her. They offered me a job after school, but I really wanted to go somewhere else because I felt like I would be forever the intern, just that psychology. I ended up getting an offer from their competitor at the time, which was Burrell Communications Group.

Vida Cornelious:
So I got very fortunate in that coming right out of graduate school I was able to land a job pretty easily. I had it in my mind that I was going to be like Angela from Who’s The Boss? I had a suit, I had the big portfolio case. I had no idea what the ad world actually looked like. My whole impression of the ad world was what I had seen on television for wearing suits and being frazzled all the time. I was offered the job at Burrell. I went to Chicago to pursue that. It was a great training ground. I worked with amazing people there. At the time, Burrell was on the top of their game. They had all the major accounts, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Sears, BellSouth, which was pretty much like the Verizon of that time. What other clients did we have? We didn’t do too much. I mean, Tom Burrell had a pretty strong feeling about things like cigarettes and malt liquor advertising to black people, so he didn’t really accept too much work like that. But it was a great experience being able to cut my teeth, if you will, at Burrell. I was able to do some pretty big commercials that still are cult classics for some people in the hip hop community.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you did the Obey Your Thirst campaign, that’s right.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, some Sprite work. That’s funny to see young people that are playing it on YouTube and consider it as a classic, and that’s your first piece of creative out of college. But there were so many fun things about just learning back then. You just felt like you were a sponge, you’re just learning so much. So that was a great experience. I was at Burrell for a good… I want to say I was at Burrell almost 10… no, maybe five or six years, I can’t remember. I think I left there in ’99 and then went to DDB.

Vida Cornelious:
DDB Chicago was a general market agency. At the time, it’s like you start in multicultural, but the bigger pond to be in was general market. Everybody wanted to get to a big general market agency. That was the stamp of approval that you were a real creative if you were able to get to a general market agency. So getting into DDB Chicago was a big stepping stone to be able to work on national accounts, accounts that were not meant to be just for the black audience but the general market audience, bigger budgets, things like that. But what came with that was a sense of loneliness and isolation. Being one of 120 or so creatives and you’re the only black, maybe one of three, is hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Vida Cornelious:
Incredibly hard when you’re not even 30 years old and you’re trying to figure out, okay, how do you navigate this? How do you know if you have people who are really in your corner or people who want to sabotage you? And even though DDB’s culture wasn’t like some other agencies at that time, it was definitely a norm to know that creative departments were incredibly competitive. People would steal each other’s work. People would shred their work at night because they didn’t want their work stolen, things like that. All of those myths were somewhat true in some places. Fortunately, I didn’t run across much of that, but I did still feel like I had to be really, really good in terms of my talent and feeling very secure in my talent in order to survive that.

Maurice Cherry:
People were shredding their at work at night?

Vida Cornelious:
Uh-huh (affirmative). Not at DDB, but other agencies. There were some other agencies where that was notorious. That was well known that the culture was very competitive in that way.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s cutthroat.

Vida Cornelious:
Very much.

Maurice Cherry:
Goodness. So you were at DDB for almost a decade. Aside from the cutthroatness of it, what do you remember the most from that time?

Vida Cornelious:
I mean, DDB, it taught me a ton, besides for the fact that I worked with some good people there. I worked with some people who really were interested in seeing me develop, and they were really interested in seeing my career take off. There was one real defining moment that I can always play in my brain because it was one of those type of things where someone is mentoring you and they’re kind of preparing you for a moment, but you don’t even really know it at the time.

Vida Cornelious:
I had a boss that I was like the sidekick, right? Whenever he needed somebody to prepare the bag for the presentation or get the work together, it was always like, “Vida, I need you to do that.” Right? Initially, I felt like, “Am I being asked to do this because I’m the lackey, because I’m the only girl on the team, because I’m the responsible one?” I had no idea, but ultimately what it allowed me to do was be able to always see all of the work. I had an opportunity to see all of the work, and he would ask my opinion of the work once I had put the bag together, made sure all the scripts were there, made sure all the boards were there, made sure there was no typos. It was almost like I knew the work better than he did because I was spending more time with it.

Vida Cornelious:
I would prepare the bag. I would go with him to the meeting. I would sit in the back of the room because he was doing the presenting, and I got to see firsthand how he presented, how the client responded to his presentation, how the work went over, what ideas landed, what ideas fell flat. I didn’t know it was a training at the time, but it was a training. I was getting to see it firsthand. My colleagues weren’t. My peers weren’t. So that was the trade-off for me being the person that always had to stay the latest to make sure the bag was ready for the meeting and all that kind of thing.

Vida Cornelious:
One day, that training kicked in because I was going to a meeting at McDonald’s. He happened to have the bag, but I always kept copies. I always made sure I had Xerox copies of everything that was in the bag so we had a way of making sure nothing got left behind. And so, I had my copies with me, like I always did, and we got a call that he had been in a car accident, so he wasn’t going to make it to the meeting. The whole old team, obviously, was panicking, meaning myself, the account people. I was just a sidekick. He basically was like, “Well, Vida’s there, so she can do it. She knows the work, she can present it.” I was like, “OMG. What?” I think at that point the account people were losing it too because I wasn’t seen as someone who was a stand-in for the boss. You know what I mean? But it was my shot. That was my shot, right? As they say in Hamilton, “I’m not going to lose my shot.” That was it. I didn’t know it.

Vida Cornelious:
But I went in, I had my little Xeroxes. We quickly rallied and got the Xeroxes distributed, like printed more copies and got them distributed. Yeah, I did what I saw him do, and we ended up selling the campaign. The client was very happy, told my boss that I was amazing and all that. The account team thought I was amazing. And shortly thereafter I got promoted. And it became upward trajectory from there. So those kind of moments, I think, were defining for me at DDB. It definitely changed the trajectory of my career. Being a person of color, being a black woman or a black young person in an environment like that, you’re not given that many people who want to really groom you per se. So you have to either absorb it on your own or figure out ways to just be in the right place at the right time. There’s a lot you have to do to rely on yourself. I got pretty comfortable with the idea that I may never have anyone who is going to choose me, right? So I need to just make sure that whenever I am chosen, I’m ready. I think that’s the philosophy I took on from there.

Vida Cornelious:
Then I got paired with a really, really great partner. We worked together for a long time, a young guy named Skip Tramontana. The two of us did a gazillion TV spots together and slept on the floor of our office and banged out ideas and had the quintessential young creative experience at DDB. But the two of us kind of rose up in the ranks together because we were a good team. We understood our clients. We understood how to sell work. And that was a really fun experience. And then we went our separate ways because he took a different job and I ended up getting promoted again and started managing more people and having more responsibility, and my career just went forward from there.

Vida Cornelious:
Most of my time spent at DDB towards the end of my time there, I was doing a lot of new business, a lot of big new business pitches, working across the agency as a whole. Probably one of the things I was most proud of there was working on a project for Budweiser because it was so outside of the norm of what they were trying to do. They were trying to reach young adults, multicultural, millennial adults. So it gave us an opportunity to really do something very different for them, which turned out to be highly successful. Working on beer was nothing that I was aspiring to do, but at the time at DDB, the beer accounts were like the Holy Grail. So being able to work on something there, pitch it, win it, successfully launch it was a big feather in the cap for this little black girl from the 35th floor.

Maurice Cherry:
By the time you left DDB, you got 15 years in the game working at two well-known agencies doing a lot of really big accounts. And then from there you worked at several other agencies and companies. You did a stint at GlobalHue. You did a stint at Walton Isaacson. You were at the Walt Disney Company even for a while. And of course, now you’re at the New York Times. When you look back at those past experiences after leaving DDB, what would you say are the most valuable things that you learned about yourself?

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, I think each of those positions or moves, if you will, taught me something different. I mean, for sure when I went to GlobalHue, it was right after the Obama election, and I was hellbent on like, “Black agencies are going to take the world by storm, and I want to lead the charge.” I was fired up. I was fired up to do something to really prove that black agencies were not subpar, and going to GlobalHue was almost like a perfect storm of events that allowed us to win the Jeep account while I was there. That was the first time a black agency was helming a massive general market account and one that was a truly beloved brand, American brand, Jeep. We really, really dug our heels in and flip turned it around. I had some incredible wins on that business, helped grow that business.

Vida Cornelious:
But I learned there that you don’t always get the credit that you’re due, no matter how hard you work on something. That was the hard lesson there. Even though I made some incredible friends not just in the agency itself, but in the client space and vendor space, there were so many people that were rallying around us to just see us win because we were trying to do great things and great work, but in the end sometimes the world at large, the industry at large doesn’t give you the credit that you deserve. When I moved over to Walton Isaacson, it was, again, an opportunity to try and build something, to try and bring a point of view. But again, you have to learn that sometimes if your name is not on the door, it’s not your dream to really try and bring to reality. You have to sometimes understand that your aims or your ambitions as a creative person and what you see is not necessarily in line with the person whose name is on the door, so you have to be okay with that and find a way to be diplomatic about how you do exercise your leadership and authority.

Vida Cornelious:
And then in going to places like Disney, that was an opportunity for me to learn about a brand from the inside out. That was an opportunity to pivot away from agency life where you’re in a more service role, in service to your clients that is, to be in on the brand side of the table where you’re literally setting the aims and mission that you need brought to life by your agency partner, right? Being on that side of the table gave me a more deep purview into what makes for sustainable creative ideas, what makes for building loyalty amongst an audience, and also building loyalty amongst the people that work in an environment with you. If there’s one thing I’ll say about the culture of Disney is that I love the fact that it is one where they’re very loyal to their employees in terms of people love the brand. People who work there love the brand, and they’re loyal to it. That was something that really helped me see the value of how much more passionate people are when they believe in what you’re doing. It made me see that you can’t fake the funk sometimes, right? You have to believe in what you’re doing too, and if you don’t, move on. And also being at Disney, it gave me an opportunity to really see the value of storytelling because Disney as an entity is really about storytelling.

Vida Cornelious:
Coming to New York Times is telling a different type of story, right? Is getting to see the stories of truth, of life, of journalistic integrity, and being able to bring that philosophy to the work that we do with brands. But for myself, it’s always about learning. It’s always about expanding my own capability and getting back to that notion of mastery, being able to master something. Your voice, your creative process, your ability to ideate, all those things are, in my opinion, very important being a creative person and how you formulate your own way of working.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the advertising industry like for you at this stage of your career? It sounds like you’ve done it all, pretty much, except run your own agency.

Vida Cornelious:
Oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
You’ve managed to start as an intern, and you’ve worked your way up to being Vice President of Creative at the New York Times. When you look out at the landscape of the ad industry now, what do you see?

Vida Cornelious:
I’ll be honest, what I miss is, and it’ll sound old school, I’m sure, to anyone that’s listening, but there was a certain kind of beauty and real magic in finding an idea that a client would want to stay with for a while and replicate and build their brand around. Now we live in a space where it’s a lot more immediate. We’re living in a space that’s social, it’s faster, it’s a much quicker connection that that needs to be made because of people’s attention span or just what we’ve become accustomed to, how much time we really spend absorbing something. To that end, it feels a little bit at times like advertising is chasing the horse, is chasing something, whether it’s a new platform or how to capture an audience with a very short attention span or battling for our attention on a variety of devices.

Vida Cornelious:
Sometimes I miss the notion that you can build a brand through an idea, you can build an idea over time. Because a lot of times, time is not something that people are willing to give you anymore. But what I do look at in terms of how advertising is different in this landscape is I love fact that video and connecting through video and photography and storytelling formats that are visually-driven are something that is very appealing to me personally. I love film. I always have loved film and video, so anytime we can create things in that kind of format, whether it’s short form, whether it’s documentary style, I still find that probably to be the most appealing and satisfying for myself personally.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you excited about at the moment?

Vida Cornelious:
I’m excited about seeing more diverse voices actually be brought to the forefront. I mean, even though it’s not directly related to advertising, I love the fact that there’s so many more black storytellers writing shows, TV shows, episodic, television, film, that more voices are coming to the forefront. Because it does have a trickle-down effect. That representative storytelling is real. When we can see that there are audiences that are craving more than just the narratives that have been previously being fed to them, it gives us an opportunity on the advertising space to really find legitimate connections to audiences and bring new ways of telling stories to brands. I think that’s really important. So I’m loving seeing all the different types of creators that are out there whether it’s people on TikTok who are making a name for themselves on TikTok in some way, shape, or form, all the way up to creators like Rolonda Watts and Issa Rae’s and now James Samuel. I love the new movie that has just come out, the spaghetti western, and seeing people of color in a variety of types of storytelling formats, and those voices coming forward.

Maurice Cherry:
I still need to see that movie. You’re talking about The Harder They Fall, right? It just came out fairly recently.

Vida Cornelious:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I need to see that. So funny you mentioned TikTok. I don’t want to say obsessed with TikTok, because that sounds a bit too much, but I am really enjoying TikTok. I’ve actually even found some guests for the show on TikTok, just I’m randomly going through my For You page, and I’m like, “Oh, who is this? Oh, it’s a black person that painted the world’s largest mural. Let me talk to them and get them on the show,” or something like that. But it’s been really interesting seeing how people have come up on these new mediums. I mean, before TikTok, it was what? It was YouTube. It was podcasting. It was blogging. That part kind of blows my mind a little bit. A lot of people now who maybe are thought leaders or really progressive journalists now, I remember when they started out on BlogSpot. And they worked their way up now to book deals and television shows and podcasts and all this sort of stuff. It’s amazing to see.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, and they have these… I mean, I know it’s not a new thing anymore, but the influencer houses where they’re influencers coming together, living together, creating their own collective.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Vida Cornelious:
[crosstalk 00:52:48] create content. I know there’s one in Atlanta that is all young black creators. I’m missing the name right now, but-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, the Collab Crib.

Vida Cornelious:
The Collab Crib, yes. Yes. I mean, I think that kind of stuff is really inventive for young people finding a way to basically monetize what they know about culture and the stories that they want to tell. So it is fascinating to see how these platforms have enabled so many young people to kind of find themselves, find their way, find their audiences.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of Collab Crib, New York Times plug, for folks that are listening, go to Hulu. The New York Times presented a whole documentary on the Collab Crib called Who Gets to Be an Influencer. Definitely go check it out.

Vida Cornelious:
Correct. They sure did.

Maurice Cherry:
If there’s someone that’s out there listening, they are hearing the Vida Cornelious story and they want to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

Vida Cornelious:
Oh, wow. I mean, it’s like, let’s see, what things should they do? No. Real talk, I would say some of the things I wish I had known then that I know now is that the ability to really listen and not get so deep into what you think something should be that you can’t or another point of view or a critique or a criticism is something I wish I had learned very, very early on. It took me banging my head against the wall a few times in the very early stages of my career before I fully understood that and the value of that. So I would definitely say that’s important.

Vida Cornelious:
The other thing that I would also say is important is your integrity, your character is all you have. Don’t ever let anyone force you to sacrifice that or put you in a position where you feel like you need to sacrifice that. Because at some point in your career and life, it will come back to haunt. I’ve seen it happen to other people. It hasn’t happened to me, but I have seen it happen to other people where they literally have to eat those words. They’ve treated someone a certain way, and then they find out later on in life that that person is in a position to either hire them or they’re the client now or whatever. And I’ve literally seen that. So always know that being kind, being gracious is important, that that’s more powerful than being someone who wants to lead by fear or bring fear into an equation, that never works.

Vida Cornelious:
I would definitely say to someone, “Try and understand and appreciate your worth early on. What makes you different? What makes you someone that has something to say, that has a voice?” I mean, at one point when I was Chief Creative Officer GlobalHue, I would interview people, maybe this isn’t appropriate to ask now, but I would interview people by saying, “When you come to the interview, wear at least one piece of clothing or an item that has some meaning to you. I’d love to know the story of it.” One of the reasons I asked people that was because I wanted to, number one, get a sense of who they were outside of the work that they do, the things that were in their portfolio. But I also wanted to know what had meaning to them.

Vida Cornelious:
I’ll never forget, a guy came in the middle of winter wearing a white linen suit. I said, “Wow.” I said, “Well, why did you choose to wear that?” And he said, “Well, this is the suit that I got married in. Besides for the fact that my wife was my best friend, I mean, this suit reminds me so much of how happy and how joyous I felt on that day, and how complete I felt on that day. And whenever I need that feeling, I remember this suit. I remember this day.” And so that just told me a lot about him and who he was. So I really liked doing that because it gave me a way of having a better understanding of people’s unique value and what’s important to them and the things that are never going to show up in their resume but can become very value as part of their experience in the work environment and in the place of work.

Vida Cornelious:
So I guess a short story for someone listening to this would be, be true to yourself. Be kind, be generous. Know that the people that you’re working alongside right now could be people that you need to reach up to or reach back for in the future. And those are probably the things that I think have sustained me.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that have influenced you? I know you mentioned a couple of coworkers, you mentioned this professor at Hampton. Were there other people that have really influenced and mentored you throughout your career?

Vida Cornelious:
I would say I never had any direct mentors, anything that was a formal, per se, mentor relationship, but I definitely had people who I felt like invested a lot in me or poured in me. Rather it was family friends, personal friends, people who had nothing to do with advertising at all. Probably one person that I can definitely speak to or speak about is someone named Bob Sayles. He was a very, very good friend at Burrell, and he was our Head of Print Production. But besides for him just being an amazing person at work, I mean, he was just the most generous, gracious person. He had the most full life. He could make a friend anywhere he went. He was just that person. I mean, he had that hearty, big laugh that you can hear ringing in your ears well after he’s left the room.

Vida Cornelious:
I just learned so much from him about people and about what makes people feel important to you, how to connect with people, not just when you work with them but in just understanding them and really being able to look inside and see the truth that people have and what value they can bring to a situation. To me, he taught me more about human nature, I think, because of his personality and the way he was and the type of person that he was and the amount of time that we spent together as friends, and that became something that I actually use as part of my creative process. When I’m not fully clear on who is this audience I’m speaking to, or who is this person I’m trying to write this ad for or connect with, in some way, shape, or form, I have to figure out what is the truth that connects that person to whatever it is I’m trying to promote to them, right? I have to figure out what is the truth that they would believe.

Vida Cornelious:
So I kind of lean back on my time with him as a way of doing my research and digging around to better understand what motivates people, what makes them tick, and how that makes them feel seen. He was excellent at making people feel seen.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you think your life would’ve gone if you didn’t go into advertising?

Vida Cornelious:
Oh, if I hadn’t gone into advertising, probably when I was at that summer program at Princeton, I would’ve solidly moved into being some type of lawyer. Because I was definitely interested in writing. I was definitely interested in… not necessarily justice like criminal justice or anything like that, but just the pursuit of fairness in some way, shape, or form. I was always intrigued by that. So I probably would’ve ended up being a lawyer. Many, many years, now we’re going to fast forward 30-something years, I mean now, I picked up a love of flowers and floral arranging when I lived in Chicago and had a little side hustle business of doing flowers, which ended up, long story short, landing me doing flowers for Obama for one of his presidential election dinners like [inaudible 01:00:24] dinners. That bug right there, I never shook it.

Vida Cornelious:
I mean now in hindsight, plan B… I mean, if I fast forward, my plan B going forward after advertising, I would love to just own an amazing flower shop somewhere when it’s not about earning money but it’s just about being able to get up and go somewhere every day that you just really, really love. But yeah, if I hadn’t found advertising, I’d probably be a lawyer. Now that I’ve found advertising, been there, and I could say I’ve done that, I would love to probably pursue something a lot gentler on the soul like being a florist.

Maurice Cherry:
I could see it. Oh God, what was the show? I was watching Project Runway, and they just had a designer on there, this guy, Lewis Miller, that does these huge gorilla flower installations in New York City. Have you heard of this?

Vida Cornelious:
Oh yeah, yeah, uh-huh (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
He’ll take a phone booth or something and just into this explosion of flowers and stuff. That could be pretty cool. What do you want your legacy to be? Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Vida Cornelious:
Ooh, in the next five years… Honestly, I really would love to do more… Hopefully, I will continue to be with the Times. I’m going to say that, put that in the universe. But I would love to continue pursuing how can we do more film. I’d love to get into things like documentaries, more episodic film franchises, really expanding on the notion of how a brand can show up and be relevant in culture and be of service to culture. So finding innovative ways to do that. But I also think that it’s really important from a legacy standpoint to just continue to pave away for young people, particularly young black people, and making them feel like they deserve to be in these spaces, that when they come in these spaces that they’re prepared, they know how they want to show up as their best self, their whole self, not feeling like they have to be something that they’re not in order to fit into these environments, but know that their voices need to be here and need to be heard. But also how to be effective in doing that.

Vida Cornelious:
So if I’m able to leave a legacy of being able to help another young person be the next Vida or be the next other ad person who’s climbed up in the ranks here and there, then I’m happy to do that. I feel like it’s important for me to teach at this point and pave the way for others. I’m very proud of a mentee that I had at the New York Times who, although he chose not to stay at the Times, is doing very, very well in his new role. It makes me super proud to know that all the conversations that we had, all the plans that we laid, he put it in motion and it worked. So my goal is to just leave a legacy of the literal each one, teach one, if I can.

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

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I’m always available on LinkedIn. That’s the fastest and easiest method. I do have a website, vidacornelious.com. I can’t say it’s updated at the moment. I hate to say that, but I’ve been doing so much work as of late, I haven’t had a chance to update it in a little while, but I will. But those are, yeah, for sure, two spaces that you can find me. If you just want to peek in on my dog, my French bulldog, which I love a lot, his name is Leo, you’re more than welcome to find me on Instagram as well. But I don’t do too much work talk on there.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What’s the dog Instagram?

Vida Cornelious:
He’s just on my page, vida.c. But my dog’s name is Leo. Yeah, he’s very cute, and he’s going to be featured in one of our upcoming articles on departures, which is one of the big projects I do with our special projects team.

Maurice Cherry:
All right.

Vida Cornelious:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Vida Cornelious, thank you so much for coming on the show. One, just for sharing the rich career that you’ve had in the advertising industry. I think certainly for people that are listening to this, I always try to get people that are at all stages of their career, whether they’re just starting out or whether they’re captains of industry like you are. So it was great to just hear about your journey as a black woman in this industry, but also to hear about how you’re really about making sure that you pave the way for the next generation. I mean, it’s one of those things where certainly we walk the road to make sure that the next gen has a much easier path. So I certainly think that with the work that you’ve done and that you’re continuing to do that you’re helping to make that happen. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Vida Cornelious:
Thank you. Thank you for having me. I love what you’re doing, I think it’s so important, so I’m happy to be an installment in what I would say is your legacy, observing all of our stories.

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.

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Keni Thacker

If you’ve been keeping up with the advertising world over the past couple of years, then this week’s guest hardly needs an introduction. Meet chief diversity creative Keni Thacker, founder and chief creative officer of 100 Roses from Concrete. Keni uses his decades of experience in the industry to challenge norms while also advocating for diversity and inclusion for the current and next generation of creatives.

Keni and I spoke about 100 Roses from Concrete, including how the agency began and its current group of fellows that have come through the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative. Keni also talked about growing up in the DMV area, and how his family and environment help shaped him into the force for change that he is today.

Catch Keni next during Adobe MAX, October 26-28!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Keni Thacker:
Hey. I’m Keni Thacker, Chief Diversity Creative at Keni Thacker, and also the founder of 100 Roses From Concrete, the premier network for people of color in advertising, marketing media and public relations. What I do during the day, and I can’t say during the night, but during the day, and during the day, I work with advertising agencies, big and small to help them build out their diversity and inclusion platforms and partnerships and programs, and just overall policies and practices as well.

Keni Thacker:
I feel like that’s super, super important. That’s where my passion has been for like the last 10 years, I would say being in advertising, even though I’ve been in advertising for 15 years. Then on the 100 Roses side, as the founder and chief creative officer, I’ve run an organization of about 100, maybe 130 people plus from around the country and it’s basically a professional development kind of network for people of color and women throughout those industries.

Keni Thacker:
We stand on the principles of connect, collaborating and growing together because that’s something that I’ve learned throughout my journeys, is something that’s so very, very important to have as talented creative people, whether it’s strategy people, project management, people, whatever the role is within advertising. I think it’s so very, very important to have a community where you can do those three things, connect, collaborate, and grow.

Keni Thacker:
As André 3000 would say, “Creating a community for opportunity.” That’s what I’ve been doing with 100 Roses From Concrete. That’s what I do.

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

Keni Thacker:
Man, this year has been a whirlwind. I would say the last two years have been a whirlwind, but like the whirlwind just continues to happen. Despite our country and society kind of being on a fire, whether it’s from the police stuff, or the government stuff, or the health stuff, I’ve been kind of been like the Phoenix that’s been rising, or better yet, like the roads that grew from concrete. So it’s been good needless to say, there’s been a lot of opportunity, a lot of meeting a lot of great people, a lot of partnering with great people and things of that nature.

Keni Thacker:
I look at the world outside of my window kind of being on flames, inside, we’ve been lucky, my family and I have been lucky to be extremely safe and not gotten sick and anything like that. So I’m doing okay, they’re doing okay. But as career-wise, it’s definitely been one for the history books, needless to say, as someone who… Oh, and I’ll probably talk about this a little later, but as someone who was always in the room where it happened, but never had a seat at the table, I’ve definitely gained my seat at the table by creating my own opportunities over the last, going on two years.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I certainly know what that feels like, being able to make year away from something that you’ve created. How have things changed for you since the start of last year?

Keni Thacker:
How they’ve changed is I guess by creating my own… Well, I guess I’ve always had a brand, but by having the opportunity to really let my brand just do what it’s going to do without any restriction or without having my hand slapped, needless to say has been absolutely great. It has been absolutely great because I get to choose who I want to work with and who I don’t want to work with, and basically dictate my own path. It’s something that I may have thought of maybe when I first got out of school, like “Yeah, one day I’m going to start my own company.”

Keni Thacker:
But as of last year I was even more thrown into the wild and I was like, “Yeah, it’s just time to pull that plug and really just start my own thing.” So I have to say that I’ve been extremely blessed that a lot of the people that I work with are people that I used to work with, but at a different place. But being able to see them in positions of power and then seeing me doing the work that I’m doing, and then them supporting me and the work that I’m doing to also make their agencies better. It’s been an absolute blessing.

Keni Thacker:
There’s too many names to shout out, because it would take more than the hour and a half of this podcast. But yeah, just shout out to all my people, y’all know who y’all are. They definitely been able to look out. Because in full transparency, when COVID hit, I got let go from where I was working. Because I was a consultant and I got let go, and for about a week or so, I was like, “What am I going to do? I’m used to like always ever since like high school, like always used to having a job, so I had never really been let go before.

Keni Thacker:
When that happened, it really hit me in a different way psychologically, but then it was like, “Maybe this is the boost that I need to really just say, “Keni, start your own thing.” That’s exactly what I did and I remember it even after I got out of my funk, I remember tweeting and even, I think maybe in my Instagram stories, I just put like free agent. And after that happened, my inbox started blowing up.

Keni Thacker:
That’s when I knew I was like, “Yep, it’s time to really… All these great ideas that I had and things that I wanted to do within the space of D&I, I was like, “This is the time to do it and things of that nature,” just due to the fact that the industry had renewed its interest in it, even though I’ve been doing this stuff for like 10 years. But being able to do it on my own rather than under the auspices of a huge company just makes it easier because I’m able to get things done in three months that I couldn’t get done in like 10 years or eight years.

Keni Thacker:
Being able to have these like very direct honest conversations with these CEOs and different leadership people within the companies that I work with is great because before, I would have to wait weeks to get on somebody’s calendar. Now, when it’s like, “Oh, Keni needs to talk to the CEO.” It’s not even a matter of me going through an assistant, it’s just me hitting up whoever my friend is, who’s the CEO or the head of talent like, “Hey, I got to talk to you about this. We should do this.” And they’re like, “Of course.”

Keni Thacker:
So it’s just so much better and so much fun, but also impactful in a way that I want things to stay. I want to keep the heat on in regards to this conversation, because so many times it’ll get hot and then it’ll go cold. My job is to keep the heat on as much as I possibly can with the companies that I work with, but also just in the work with the roses well as making sure that our talent knows what they’re getting into by walking into this industry where a lot of other faces don’t really look like theirs.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you have to keep that momentum going, especially, I think last year when as you alluded to, so many companies and organizations and stuff really started to look at what they were doing around showcasing black voices and black talent. Unfortunately this happened in the shadow of the murder of George Floyd, but companies started to come to and say, “Oh, well, there’s more that we need to do for our black workforces in particular.” But yeah, you have to keep that momentum going because I think as probably most working black professionals know, whenever these kinds of things spark up, they can very easily fade away.

Maurice Cherry:
For lack of a better term, you have to keep your foot on their neck to make sure that things will still happen, to make sure that the [crosstalk 00:11:14] pledges that they have put forth will actually bear fruit and not just be a good PR opportunity.

Keni Thacker:
And to borrow a word from you. I just don’t want them to be pledges, I want this to be practice, I want this to be policy. Because anybody can pledge $5,000 to the NAACP or to whatever, but that’s a one time thing and you’re not really being held to the fire. Because it’s like, oh, well we did that and we can say, “Oh, in 2021, we gave $5,000 to the NAACP or United Negro College Fund,” or whatever you want to call it. But what about in the next year? Just because you donated a certain dollar amount doesn’t make the problem go away.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. A lot of these bigger companies will do that, they’ll just write a check and think that-

Keni Thacker:
Oh yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… will solve everything.

Keni Thacker:
Last year, probably last July, so just a little bit over a year ago, so last July I wrote an article for The Drum or an op-ed, better yet for The Drum, and I said, “advertising, you’re late.” Because the way I was seeing different brands and huge agencies respond to the George Floyd murder, let’s call it what it is, I was just like, “You’re late, bro. Police have been killing black people for 100s of years.” And not even the one time that it’s caught on television, but the one time that it blew everything up, then, Ooh, we care so much about black lives.”

Keni Thacker:
But no one was really saying that when our babies were being murdered, When Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, no one was raising arms saying, “Oh my God, this is horrible.” It took for a guy that’s literally, I think George Floyd, if he was still alive would be a few years older than me for them to care. But when our babies were getting murdered, nobody gave… Excuse my language, but nobody gave a you know what.

Keni Thacker:
So to me during that period and seeing all these really big chest-beating moments for different agencies, I was like, “Wow. So now you care and now you going to allocate millions of dollars towards diversity.” But in my days coming up, I had to beg for money for my budget to do the projects that I was doing. Literally, and I’m talking about, not millions, I’m talking about like little bit of thousands of dollars for my projects. Beg literally like, “Please I need this.”

Keni Thacker:
Walking up to leadership’s face and be like, “Hey, why was my budget cut and why didn’t nobody tell me?” Those were the things that I had to do back when I was doing it on the agency side. But after the murder of someone that looks like me, it could have been my cousin, my brother, my neighbor, whatever, all of a sudden we’ve got millions. We’ve got millions also in the middle of a pandemic.

Keni Thacker:
I’m sorry, I don’t understand that math because I don’t understand that… Those agencies had millions of dollars in the middle of the pandemic while also laying off people at the same time. That’s why when a lot of interviews I was in last year, people like, “How do you think this is going to go and everything like that?” I was like, “Talk to me in five years, because by next year, ain’t nothing going to be different. Ain’t nothing going to be different.”

Keni Thacker:
Yes, has the great, I call it the black gold kind of situation right now where brothers and sisters are finally getting the opportunities that they deserve? Yeah, it’s great right now, or as another friend of mine calls it, the great black mining or the great resignation of talent of color, because now they’re actually going to places that are giving them a proper bag. Yeah, that’s what we’re in right now, but do I believe that this is going to be something that’s going to last long? I just don’t know. I just don’t know.

Keni Thacker:
Because what happens after everyone gets these jobs and things of that nature, but then like as we said earlier, the foot comes off the gas because these agencies are like, “Oh, well, we’ve gotten close to our goals and now we do have a brother or sister or two in leadership, but it’s still not like 50% BIPOC, 50 that white people in leadership.” That’s not going to happen until I’m dead in the grave to be totally honest with you.

Keni Thacker:
So it’s just like, when people ask me like, “Do you think like this is going to change something?” I was like, “I hope it changes something.” But from talking to OGs like Tom Barrell, he says, “This happens every 10 to 20 years, something happens and then everyone cares. And then after a while, it just dies down.” And I would say, even now, as we’re having this conversation, the wind behind the diversity and inclusion’s backs the way it was like last summer, it’s a softer wind right now. It’s not as hard as it was like pushing our boats in whatever it is up the stream.

Keni Thacker:
No, no, no. The wind is a whole lot lighter now. It’s a whole lot lighter now because they build some of these roles and things of that nature, and now every time I hear about a big agency doing something, it’s like, “Oh, well, we’re planning this and we’re planning that,” but I never really see anything come to fruition. They’re like, “Oh wow, I’m impressed,” because all I ever hear is dollar amounts.

Keni Thacker:
I don’t hear about practices, policies, partnerships, and programs that are actually going to really shift the needle. I don’t see that, I just hear talking. Like I said, you put a quarter in me, bruh, you got to wait till the song goes out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, speaking of these programs and opportunities and such, 100 Roses From Concrete grew out of this environment last year, is that right? You founded it last year and one of the things that you have going on in the program is something that’s called the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative. Can you talk about that?

Keni Thacker:
Yeah. 100 Roses I actually found it in 2019.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Keni Thacker:
Back when diversity wasn’t cool, that’s when I founded it. I founded it in 2019, but we didn’t have our big bang until COVID hit. It was crazy. At the beginning, March last year, Adweek, shout out to ad week, I’ll shout out to Adweek all day. Adweek wrote an article about 100 Roses from Concrete and immediately like our membership tripled in like two weeks. But then by the second week of March, here comes the lockdown. Here comes the lockdown, the organization was only running for probably about six months or so, and then everything is locked down, nobody can go nowhere, et cetera, et cetera.

Keni Thacker:
But one of the many thoughts that I had in regards to going onto a virtual platform, 100 Roses, because we used to actually meet in-person was that I have been working with young people, trying to get into the industry for the last 10 years, black and brown, white, whatever, it doesn’t matter what you are. As long as you want to be in this industry, I would mentor you, talk to you, things of that nature. So immediately I thought about young people’s internships for the summer of 2020.

Keni Thacker:
And how I was hearing right before I got let go from the agency where I was you that, “Oh, we’re killing the summer internships, layoffs are coming,” et cetera, et cetera. And I was like, “Well, damn.” I was like, “Well, that’s not fair,” because when you think about the summer internship, that’s that experience in your career, especially if you’re still in college, that’s that experience that either makes or breaks you. You either know that, oh, this is for me or no, it’s not.

Keni Thacker:
Thinking about how many young people were going to lose that opportunity last summer, immediately, I was like, “No, no, no, no, no, no. I’m not going to let this happen. I’m not going to let this happen.” So immediately I brought together my team from 100 Roses and I was like, “Look,” I was like, “This is happening, this is about to start happening any day now.” And it did. And I was like, “I want to create a program that’s going to be virtual and it’s going to be for multicultural college kids from around the country, but it’s going to have them actually doing real work in real time virtually.”

Keni Thacker:
And I was like, ‘Look, I know it’s a tall ask. Y’all don’t want to do it, cool, but I’m going to do it.” Because I was already doing programs like this back at two agencies before I got let go, so I already knew how to do this, but I used to do it in-person. So I was like, “Look, this is what I want to do.” And I was like, I want to call it G.R.O.W.T.H.? And they were like, “Cool.” I was like, “I want to call it The G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative obviously because I’m a Marvel fan.”

Keni Thacker:
And then I had given the word G.R.O.W.T.H. to my creative team at 100 Roses From Concrete. I was like, “Somebody come up with a acronym,” and everything they sent me back was… It wasn’t trash, I just didn’t like it. And they were having a hard time with it and I was like, “Okay.” I was like, “Give me about an hour.” And then I came back to them, I was like, “Look, this is what I want it to be, Giving Real Opportunity With Talent and Heart.” And that’s what G.R.O.W.T.H. stands for.

Keni Thacker:
That’s literally like, it should be the name of my autobiography because that’s all I’ve been trying to do my entire career, is Give Real Opportunity With Talent and Heart. I’m not trying to build advertising or creative robot here. No, I’m not trying to do that. We give out awards, especially this year in particularly we gave out four financial awards. Actually we gave out eight financial awards at the end of this summer and we call them The Life After G.R.O.W.T.H. Awards.

Keni Thacker:
For each award, we give out two of them, so each award starts with a H. We give award for hustle, we give award for being human, we give award for being humble, and we also give an award for being human. That’s what we’re looking for when we’re working with these young people and we see it come out of them throughout the program as they work for nonprofit clients across the country. Hell bruh, like this year, The G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative was international and this is only our second year.

Keni Thacker:
So by keeping our foot on the gas and giving real opportunity with talent and heart, we’re able to actually see the change happen in real time. And then also work with agency partners that understand the value that this type of talent brings to the table at the end of the day. Shout out to R\West, shout out to Dego, shout out to Adobe, shout out to Samuels for being really, really great partners and realizing their value. And 21GRAMS/Real Chemistry, shout out to them too for really pulling up and saying, “We believe in what you’re doing and we definitely want to bring these young people in to make our agencies better at the end of the day.”

Keni Thacker:
And that’s just this year, last year we had absolutely no partners. The only partner we had was Advertising Club of New York who we’re still partnering with, but Advertising Club of New York helped get us more students to be in the program. So it’s not like they were giving us internships or full-time jobs or whatever the case may be. But shout out to Advertising Club of New York because they saw what we were doing and they approached us and we were like, “Hey, the more the merrier, let’s do it.”

Keni Thacker:
Also shout out to Save The Internships NY from last year that partnered with us as well. Because they saw what we were doing, they saw that we were grassroots. We’re not about trying to… I don’t even know what we were trying to do last year, but somehow we were like literally building the plane when we were flying it. But it worked out, because most of the fellows from last year, majority of them, especially that were career-ready already have jobs within the industry.

Keni Thacker:
And now even as I speak to you today, six of my fellows that just graduated back in the middle of August already have job opportunities. They’re not full-time job opportunities, they’re internships for the fall already.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Keni Thacker:
When I tell you that I’m keeping my foot on the gas, I’m keeping my foot on the gas and I’m going fast as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
And now one of the other opportunities that has arose and it’s also part of why you’re on the show right now is that you’re going to be speaking at Adobe Max this year. Can you give a little sneak peek about what your talk’s going to be about?

Keni Thacker:
Yeah, man. Adobe Max is like the cherry on the cake this year in regard… You asked me how my year was going and I was like, “Yo, it’s been super wild and everything like that.” When I got the email to participate in Adobe Max, I was like, “What?” I was like, “You sure you got the right person?” Because Adobe has been extremely generous to 100 Roses From Concrete and I’m beyond appreciative for everyone at Adobe that were able to hook us up with the technology resources for the young people in the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative.

Keni Thacker:
Shout out to Harvey, shout out to Meg, shout out to everybody at Adobe that was doing it. But my talk at the Adobe Max Conference will be actually me and I’ll be hosted by my friend, Meg, who’s just awesome. We were like instant friends. Meg and I are basically going to be talking about how to level the playing field in the creative industries. How do you do that? Throughout our conversation, we don’t have as much time as you and I do on this podcast. Meg and I are going to be talking about the four things that I feel are most important to leveling this playing field.

Keni Thacker:
So we’re going to get into access, we’re going to get into opportunity, we’re going to get into experience and exposure. Because those four things right there are what talent of color needs, just talent, period, needs in order to really figure out ways to really level this playing field and making it fair for everyone. But I’m not only going to talk about the first part, but it all starts, Maurice with access. It all starts with access. If you want to understand why there’s such a disparity between of people of color and our white brothers and sisters, it all starts with access.

Keni Thacker:
It’s the allocation of resources. So when you think about the huge gap between financial resources, educational resources, housing resources, all those things, it starts with access. So I’m going to talk about that, and then I’m going to go down this like ski slope of talking about the three other things as well and how they’re all actually interconnected, and how if we view our diversity problems through that lens, we can actually get to…

Keni Thacker:
I’m not going to say there’s a definitive answer because the answer is going to be different for everybody, but at least to a solution, and to a solution that we can continue to grow and build and evolve over time. That’s where that access, opportunity, experience and exposure all are very, very important.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I’ve done Revision Path for what? Eight and a half? Oh my God, eight and a half years now, and I’ve had a number of conversations just around diversity in advertising, diversity in design, diversity in tech, et cetera. These conversations, aside from them running in tandem with each others for years, these have also been perennial conversations. If I were even to just pinpoint it for design, this is a conversation that has been going on at least since the ’80s, for example.

Maurice Cherry:
So you got these different industries, but they have the same goals as it relates to diversity and inclusion, diversifying the workforce, opportunities, things of that nature. A lot of what you’re mentioning to me sounds very similar to what I’ve heard from AIGA and what that they’ve tried to accomplish through their working groups and symposiums in the ’90s and stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:
From your perspective, what do you think it would look like if these different initiatives work together? Say, what you’re doing with 100 Roses works with, I don’t know, I’m just pulling stuff out of my head, like say, diversity and design or design to divest or other types of things. What do you think it would look like if [crosstalk 00:26:52] these groups from different industries, yeah, if they work together?

Keni Thacker:
If they work together, that’s how the foot stays on the gas, because then it doesn’t become, oh, we only talk about this during this time of year. 200 Roses, I have this thing called, that I just created not too long ago, but I guess it’s always been in the back of my mind when I think about me mentoring and counseling. I have this thing called a cadence of care, and when you create a cadence of care, that’s how you know that there’s certain times when you have to discuss this, and then the conversation does not go stale and it doesn’t grow old.

Keni Thacker:
Because we find new ways to keep it relevant at all times. So if we were to bring all these different resources and movements and things like that together into some type of Voltron-ish type of being, then every single part, whether it’s the legs, whether it’s the arms, whether it’s the legs, whether it’s the chest, we would know that we have to keep moving. Because Voltron don’t do jack if it’s just standing still, so it has to keep moving. So by bringing…

Keni Thacker:
Because I know people that run their own entities, good friends of mine that run their own different entities, I got the one school, we got Marcus Graham Project, we got The One Club, all these other different things. But we all run separately, but we’re actually all going in the same direction, is that we’re just all in different lane. So it’s a matter of that, knowing we all have the same destination, but I don’t even look at it as a destination because I feel like we need to keep just going, it needs to keep going.

Keni Thacker:
But that’s the way I would probably have to answer that question, is that if we were to build something like that, we will all know that we have to hold each other responsible order to keep that blood flowing and keep our foot on the gas to keep it going at all times.

Keni Thacker:
Because the moment we stall is the moment things will go back to the way they used to be. You said this conversation and design is going back to the ’80s, the conversation about diversity and advertising goes back to the ’60s, goes back to ’60s. An individual that I have to always shout out during all my interviews is, goes back to the late great Bill Sharp. He was the first group copy supervisor at JWT where I used to work like two years ago.

Keni Thacker:
And he passed away sadly in 2013, but he’s technically considered the godfather of diversity in advertising, because he was talking about it back in like the ’60s, back in the ’60s, he was talking about it. Once I learned about Bill’s work and what bill did with the basic advertising course, which is similar to like the Marcus Graham Project or the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative or the OneSchool. Once I found out about his work, I was like, “There’s no way I can work at the same agency as this great black man used to work,” not the same office, but the same agency where I used to work, “and me not give two damns about this topic and not put my days and nights, and weekends, whatever into this work.”

Keni Thacker:
Once I was properly informed about Bill, and Bill’s not taught about in ad school. A lot of times you bring up the word, Bill Sharp, people are like, “Who?” But he even wrote a book back in the ’60s that I assign to my G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative fellows called How To Get A Job in the Advertising Business and Be Black Anyway. I may have got a word or two wrong, but it’s an amazing book, and it’s only like 19 pages. But even if you read that book today, it sounds like bill is talking to you right now. That’s how important it’s.

Keni Thacker:
Yeah man. Bill keeps me inspired and last year I was honored enough to receive his award for the future of advertising and I keep it right here above my desk lit up all the time. But yeah, Bill is the man and I’m very close to his family and everything like that. I keep them informed of everything that I’m doing and they always be like, “Yo, Bill would be proud if he was still around.”

Keni Thacker:
Having that co-sign from the Sharp family is something that keeps me going, but also if there’s opportunities to pull, whether it’s agencies or small movements like myself with me, that’s what I’m going to do. But that’s what it’s going to take. The Voltron cannot stand still, because if it does, we’re going to lose time and we’re going to lose space to gain that leverage within the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
And I have to say, I’m pretty sure, in terms of those conversations that you mentioned taking place since the ’60s, that’s where I think the genesis of it for design has also come from too. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that. I feel like Cheryl Miller and many other luminaries of this issue will probably get at beyond that. But certainly I think these conversations have originated from a similar place because of course advertising really well known back then.

Maurice Cherry:
Even if you think about design as we look at it now, it grew out of that creative field, so that makes sense there.

Maurice Cherry:
Switching gears because I know we spent a lot of time talking about what you’re doing now with 100 Roses, your Adobe Max talk. I see from looking at your Instagram that you’re a huge Marvel fan. I want to get [crosstalk 00:32:03] the Keni Thacker origin story. Talk to me about where you grew up.

Keni Thacker:
Yeah man. I grew up in Washington, D.C. in Maryland, like the DMV area. DMV was Maryland, D.C., Virginia. That’s where I grew up. That’s where before moving to New York, senior year of high school, even though I still finished my senior year of high school, my mother-in-law moved to New York. I finished high school and then when college came, when Lincoln University came into the play, I was already living in New York. I’ve been living in New York literally now more than half of my life to be totally honest with you.

Keni Thacker:
That’s where I grew up, so days and nights in the DMV, and then early adult years, just been here in New York ever since. That’s like my origin story. In regards to just like getting into the industry, I always say my origin story is nothing fabulous. I don’t have like these great stories to be like, “Oh, well, I was in Marple or I was in Marcus Graham Project or I was in the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative or whatever the case may be.” That’s not how I got into advertising.

Keni Thacker:
I would say, my first couple years after college, I worked in, I guess, the hospitality industry, so like conference centers, and hotels and things that nature, doing a lot of technology work and things that nature. Like sound systems, projectors, lighting, audio, things of that nature. Eight audio visual, event technology, whatever you want to call it, but that’s actually what landed me into advertising.

Keni Thacker:
As a freelancer, doing that work, I landed into Ogilvy and the first day I was in Ogilvy, I didn’t even know what Ogilvy really was until I was looking at the walls of the old Ogilvy office and seeing these different ads like the Superman, American Express ads and things of that nature and I was like, “Do they make commercials here?” And sure enough, they did. And spent a little bit of time at Ogilvy, but then while I was at Ogilvy, I got a call from, at least the agency formally known JWT at the time. Asked me if I was interested in a job and I was like, “I don’t even know what JWT is.”

Keni Thacker:
So I asked one of the people at Ogilvy. I was like, “Hey, this place called JWT.” They’re like, “Oh, it’s just like here, except they’re a little bit older.” I was like, “Oh, cool.” Went to JWT on like a lunch break or whatever, knocked out that interview, went for another interview and I had the job. And I spent 13 years at JWT and I would say, 2011 is when I actually started the D&I work that I’ve been doing, and then I left there on a high note doing the D&I work, but still doing the technical work as well.

Keni Thacker:
The technical work was always like the stuff that paid the bills, but the D&I work was something that I just did because I was passionate about it. Luckily, I had a few resources that let me do the D&I work. And even when I was at JWT in particular, I created a program called The Young Commodores, which is very similar to the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative, except it was in-person. It was definitely not over 50 young people from around the country.

Keni Thacker:
It was actually the first high school, college mashed up of multicultural students that learned about the business and worked on real life clients. I created The Young Commodores and ran that for about three years. And then at the end of those three years is when I decided to leave JWT. And that’s when I left it for PR for a little bit. Then after PR that’s when I created my own company, Keni Thacker, but also before that departure from JWT is when I created 100 Roses From Concrete.

Keni Thacker:
Nothing too fabulous, but more just like falling into opportunities per se, but also making the most out of those opportunities when I had them.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s bring it back because you definitely put the foot on the gas there in regards to the origin story, but let’s bring it back to those DMV years now. I heard that your mom was a copywriter, so your mom was in the ad industry as well. Is that where you got your spark for this kind of work?

Keni Thacker:
Well, my mom was a copywriter very, very, very, very, very, very, very briefly. I didn’t realize that she was a copywriter until I was at JWT. Because I was like, “Is that what mom was doing?” Because I remember like going with her to the studio and someone was reading the words that she wrote. So I didn’t really understand it until I was actually in the advertising industry to understand. But my mom has lived like a million lives of needless to say, and copywriter was like one of those.

Keni Thacker:
She’s been a teacher, she still is a teacher, but as far as like educating people, that’s been like, I would say a really big bulk of her career, but she did do a brief stint as a copywriter. What agency? I have no clue because I was a little kid. I don’t even think she remembers, but she had a brief stint. And then when I was actually in ad school, shout out to the Adhouse, I was like, “I think this is what mom used to do back when I was like,” I could barely remember needless to say, but yeah.

Keni Thacker:
So the creative arts per se has always been in me somewhat. Don’t get it messed up. I can’t draw to save my life, so let’s not even go there. Any artists out there grab GDs as I call them, respect to you all. I can’t draw to save my life, but I can write a line or two, needless to say and I know good copy when I see it. So on the writing side, that’s something that I’ve always done. I’ve always written stories or back in the high school days in the DMV, I used to write a couple raps, did a couple rap showcases, things of that nature.

Keni Thacker:
But unfortunately during those days in the ’90s, there was two great artists that came on the scene that kind of made me feel like, “You know what, you can’t do this?” And one goes by the name of the late great Christopher Wallace and the other Tupac Shakur. I was like, “Oh, okay, these dudes are really good at this. I’m not that great.” So I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to go to college. I’m not going to make it as a rapper.”

Maurice Cherry:
And speaking of college, what made you decide to go to Lincoln? Because you’re in the DMV, there’s Howard, there’s other HBCU. Not saying that going to an HBCU was… I don’t know if that was the goal or not, but what made you decide to go to Lincoln?

Keni Thacker:
What made me go to Lincoln was that my high school was in the burbs of Maryland, so it was in this suburb called Germantown, Maryland. I would say, “Shout out to Germantown,” but I have nobody live there anymore. But my high school was like in the burb, so Germantown was maybe 30 minutes outside of D.C. My high school was pretty diverse, but I would say it was still majority white. It was probably about 30% kids of color, 70% white kids.

Keni Thacker:
During that time in particular in going to high school, it wasn’t like being in D.C. where my elementary school was like all just black and brown kids, pretty much all day, every day. But due to the fact that I spent this time at this very mixed high school per se, I knew that I needed like four years of unadulterated blackness, needless to say. So I only applied to actually HBCUs, I didn’t apply to any PWCs at all, because that’s just what I wanted to do.

Keni Thacker:
But also shout out to one of my high school teachers, actually two of my high school teachers, Ms. Smith and Ms. Wilder was from ninth grade to 10th grade… No, from ninth grade to 12th grade, we always had field trips to historically black colleges. And maybe one [inaudible 00:39:34] there, once in a blue moon, we go to William and Mary, but we always went to Hampton. We were supposed to go to Lincoln once, but we never did, but we did stop by Temple and there was always like different organizations would sponsor these black college tours.

Keni Thacker:
So I was able to visit Morehouse and Morris Brown. Obviously, I couldn’t go to Spelman, but like North Carolina A&T, I think I went there like twice when I was in high school. Those are the only kind of schools that I actually visited when I was in high school and I just knew that this was the kind of atmosphere that I would thrive in. Now, when it came to Lincoln, in particular, two friends of mine from high school actually went to Lincoln and they just raved about. They’re like, “Oh my God, it’s the…” And I was like, “Okay, cool.”

Keni Thacker:
So I applied, actually got in. And when I went there for like an open house, I guess, per se, even though I was already accepted, something about just the campus made me feel… Because Lincoln is not a big school. Lincoln is far from the size of Howard or even Hampton. It’s a really, really small school, but something about like the feel of the yard just made me feel like, by the time I leave here, everybody’s going to know my name. And that’s exactly what I did in four years.

Keni Thacker:
I did not major in business, I did not major in advertising. I majored in education because I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but there was just something about the experience from Lincoln. And I get this question a lot when people ask me about like my historically black college experience and I tell them, “You know what, It was bittersweet.” And I was like, “There was times when it was super sweet because I’m around my folks and everything like that, but also there was times when it was extremely bitter.”

Keni Thacker:
There was times when I didn’t want to go back to be totally honest with you. There was times when I definitely did not want to go back. But my mom, always being in my corner, she was like, “Hey, you’re going back.” She’s like, “When you graduate, we graduate.” And when she said that alone, that touched my heart and I was like, “Wow, this means so much to her that when I graduate, she graduates.” And not that to say that my mother doesn’t have degrees, now she has multiple degrees, but just that alone made me like, “Okay, I’ll go back and finish out.”

Keni Thacker:
I did it in a straight four years. Did two summer schools, but finished it in the exact four years that I was allotted to be there. And I’ve made some of my closest friends there like my roommates and everything like that. I’m still very close to one of my roommates, in particular, but still… Love to my other roommate as well, but still close to my friends there and it’s just something that can never be taken away from me, but even the rough times, I appreciate those rough times.

Keni Thacker:
Because when you think about how we interact with other races, especially the white race in particular, there’s certain things that we expect because it’s just systemic, it’s just systemic. That systemic hate is just something that the system creates. But when some of those bad times that you have with your own people, it almost feels like it’s your family hurting you. When people ask me about my historically black college experience, I’m like, “Well, it was great, but it also…” And this is kind of crazy math, but going to historically black college actually helped me deal with white people better.

Keni Thacker:
Because the rough times that I went through at a historically black college will always surpass my roughest day with a white person. Because with a white person, I know it’s something that it’s systemic and that’s just the world that we live in. Whereas when your own people do you dirty, it’s like… You feel like we’re neighbors, why you slap my mom? So it’s something that even those bad times, I still embrace them because they gave me such a tougher skin.

Keni Thacker:
Because when it’s your own people, it’s not a systemic type of player hating or whatever the case may be. It just hate at the end of the day and that hurts. But when it’s systemic, you kind of know like, “Oh, well this is just the system being the system and there’s not much I can really do to change this, because this was the system that person was also born into and that’s why they look at me this way.”

Keni Thacker:
That’s my whole HBCU thing till I die. Lincoln’s the first historically black college and a lot of the things that I try to do, just whether it’s in life or within my career is always trying to be the first. I went to the first historically black college, JWT was actually the first advertising agency per se. Bill Sharp, first group copy supervisor. I have one child, I’m an only child, my wife is an only child.

Keni Thacker:
There’s a whole lot of ones that follow my origin story and that’s just how I operate. Even when I think about The Young Commodores program, it was the first high school, college mashup program to develop talent of color and white kids as well in the whole advertising business period. So it’s just something that I constantly try to do, I just try to… There’s a lot of ones along my story.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. Lincoln is a very well known HBCU. Like you said, it’s the first HBCU, Langston Hughes is an alumni, Thurgood Marshall is an alumni.

Keni Thacker:
Yeah. Albert Einstein visited there.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. Okay.

Keni Thacker:
There’s a photo of Albert Einstein at Lincoln, like back in the black and white photo days. I don’t know when exactly it was, but even Albert Einstein visited Lincoln University. And the campus hasn’t moved, it’s still exactly where it is, in Southern Chester County, Pennsylvania, right off of route one, it’s an hour away from Philly. It’s still there and it’s even better now, because actually they do have an advertising program at that school now. So that’s always good to hear of the school growing and things of that nature.

Maurice Cherry:
I first heard about Lincoln… When did I first hear about Lincoln? I think it was when I was in college. So I went to Morehouse and-

Keni Thacker:
Okay. My best friend went there.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice. The summer before I started, there was like the summer program that I was a part of and our math professor was a math professor from Lincoln, Dr. Shaba. Unfortunately has passed away rest in peace, but that’s where I first heard about Lincoln and he gave us the history of Lincoln. And Dr. Shaba is like one of the most well known black mathematicians in the world. That’s how I first heard about the school and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
As you mentioned, you graduated from Lincoln, you were out there in the world, you were doing this work in tech, you kind of said for ad agencies and stuff like that. And then you started out later at JWT, which is where you spent the bulk of your career. When you look back at that time, what are some of the highlights that you remember from that?

Keni Thacker:
The highlights were-

Maurice Cherry:
Are there highlights? I would imagine so. I’m just.

Keni Thacker:
It’s all a highlight reel. No, some of it’s not. Some of the highlights was being able to executive produce… The first documentary I ever executive produced was for a Black History Month as a part of the diversity platforms that we were creating. But being able to executive produce my first documentary, that was when I was like, “Yeah, this is what I’m going to do.” Needless to say, it was a great experience. That very first one that I executive produced was actually directed by my man, Pete Chapman. He’s moved on and directed a bunch of great stuff for television, for Black-ish, for Grown-ish, for Atypical, Grey’s Anatomy.

Keni Thacker:
He’s just killing it basically right now in the game, but it was a great opportunity to work with him. I won’t say those were his early days, but definitely his day getting into the game and things of that nature. But not only did I executive produce that documentary, but I also made that documentary another four times after that. And then I started directing and producing those documentaries after I couldn’t afford Pete after the first time because he’s too good.

Keni Thacker:
But me getting into the production field and whether it was camera work and directing at the same time, being able to do all of that, then create these programs for young people. I would say two years after starting this kind of work, that’s when the accolades started coming in slowly but surely, but they were definitely coming in and it was all just mind blowing for me at the end of the day. So it’s been like one experience to the other, but I will say, creating Young Commodores, creating 100 Roses From Concrete, creating the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative, I would say, those have been like the steady, just like it never gets old, but also like ain’t no stopping now.

Keni Thacker:
But I also feel like I’m only getting started. Even doing this work for 10 years, to be totally honest with you, Maurice, I feel like I’m only getting started.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking to that, I’m curious, you mentioned all these firsts. You mentioned first for your program, things of that nature, where does that drive come from? Why do you have the ambitions that you have?

Keni Thacker:
I think the ambition comes from my family. One, I’m surrounded by the strongest, smartest women, period. When I think about my wife, when I think about my mom, when I think about my kid, they’re all just way smarter than me. They’re smarter and they’re stronger than me. So by being surrounded… And shout out to all my nieces too, but they’re all so strong and also very focused that it’s like, I have got to pull my weight, dog. To be totally honest with you, I have got to pull my weight.

Keni Thacker:
So when it comes to the things that I want to do, I’m also thinking about the future for my daughter. When I say that I’ve been doing this work for 10 years, she’s only 11 years old, so literally-

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Keni Thacker:
… it was after like a year after her birth that I was like, “You know what?” I just wasn’t feeling like I was being challenged, I wasn’t being fulfilled, and I didn’t even know that I could actually make a difference in this industry. But when she came along, I was like, “If there’s anything I can do to make sure that maybe the job role is just 5% easier for her than the 100% how hard it was for my wife and myself, and Lord knows my mom. She’s been working in industry… She’s still working and she’s about to be 80 years old.

Keni Thacker:
But if there’s any way that I can do to just make it 5% easier for her, then that’s what I’m going to do. And that’s what I have done. Even if you scroll back to some of my older Instagram photos, you’ll see that I brought her on set when she was like three, four years old making spots.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Keni Thacker:
With the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative this summer, when one of the teams was making a commercial for her spot, I brought her with me so she could see what we were doing as like a ragtag kind of production crew and things of that nature. So I constantly try to bring her along for the journey, as much as I possibly can. Whether she’s super interested or not interested, still try to make her a part of it so she can understand and see how it works. But then also see like, “Oh, so these young people are 20, 22 years old,” or whatever the case may be, “and they’re trying to do this, and my dad is actually helping them.” You know what I mean?

Keni Thacker:
Even when I do… Back when we could do things in-person, any award that I would receive, I would bring her up on stage with me so she could be a part of that experience as well. So she’s seen me win award from award to magazine… Now, she’s just numb to it all, so she [crosstalk 00:51:03]. She’s like, “Oh, dad, oh, you were in Business Insider. Oh, okay. Who cares?” But she’s kind of gotten numb to it all and it’s kind of a running joke around my house, because my wife always makes fun of me because “Oh, you think you’re famous?”

Keni Thacker:
And then my kid said, “Dad, you’re like semi famous,” something like that. And that’s the running joke around the house that I’m not famous, I’m kind of semi famous. But needless to say, the accolades, when they do come through, I’m still blown away by any one of them. And I’m super grateful when they do come, because, one, I don’t do it for the accolades in the first place. You know what I mean? I’m doing it here to literally change the culture and doing it for the people that look like me and definitely, for the ones that are coming behind us at the end of the day.

Keni Thacker:
Because when I think about my early days and just how, as I said, I think in the beginning of our talk is how I always in the room, but I didn’t have a seat at the table. I was in the rooms with our CEOs and our top leaders, going around the country, helping them with their technology as they’re meeting with these multi-billion dollar clients and things of that nature. I was there, but I didn’t have any power.

Keni Thacker:
But now, 15 years later in the advertising business, here I am doing a podcast with Maurice and about to be on the Adobe Max stage. And I can say that Adobe with more money than God is one of the partners for my organization that I started myself. You know what I mean? So it’s all just like… I can’t even call it a dream come true because I didn’t even dream this to be totally honest with you, Maurice. I didn’t even dream this.

Keni Thacker:
It was just more like being on the grind, doing what I do, trying to do it the best way I know how, bringing in the right people, because the Lord knows I can’t do it by myself. But that’s all it’s been bruh, to be 100% honest with you. That’s all it’s been, but I didn’t even dream of an Adobe partnership. But now thinking back to the days when I didn’t have a seat at the table and even though I was in the room. But now I can be like, “Yeah, I partner with Adobe, multi-billion dollar company and I did it from my living room, dog.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Mentioning your daughter, does she want to follow in your footsteps? Since she’s kind of been shadowing you, it sounds like for a very long time.

Keni Thacker:
She’s more into the theatrical arts, so she’s a little actress, needless to say, and she’s done multiple productions with her theater camp. She currently attends Harlem School of the Arts, shout out to Harlem School of the Arts, so she’s killing it there right now. But she more in front of the camera, needless to say. But she’s also a great writer in her own right and she writes about things that are important to her, even stuff that in regards to our country and things of that nature.

Keni Thacker:
So she definitely has her own opinion about things, because it’s sad to say, since 2017, she’s had her front row seat to everything that’s been going wrong. And I was telling a friend of mine from the UK, I was like… And this is back in 2017. I was telling him, I was like, “The worst part about what was then about to happen was that our kids will not be able to unsee this.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s very true.

Keni Thacker:
There’s just no going to what was. We as adults would be forever changed, but our kids even more so. And especially when you even think of just as of last year, being like stuck on the screen all day and that’s their form of school. We didn’t have to go through that when we were in school. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Keni Thacker:
But like the resilience, I would say of these young people these days, even all the way down to my daughter’s age, the ones that are handling it well, like yo. I give them all the respect. I’m like, “Y’all are way stronger than us,” because I would’ve probably quit school. I could probably sit street on the street all day. My attention span just wasn’t like that back then. Hell, it’s probably not like that now. But needless to say, the resilience of these young people, and shout out to my guests, the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative fellows, to pull together campaigns all virtually over these last two years.

Keni Thacker:
That alone, I tell them, I was like, “Y’all are special. You don’t understand how special you are that you’re able to pull together campaigns for these nonprofit organizations and most of y’all aren’t even in the same state. Hell, same continent.” Shout out to my nephew Sandip in New Delhi and then one of my other fellows in Singapore. They were joining like 5:00 AM their time our sessions.

Keni Thacker:
You know what I mean? 5:00 AM, 12:00 PM their time, literally oceans and oceans away. But they were joining and they got the most out of the experience, and they were doing their thing. It’s crazy.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you where you wanted to be at the stage in your life? When you think back to like the early days of what you were working on, is this where you saw yourself ending up?

Keni Thacker:
No, I didn’t. I thought I’d constantly be working for like a company all my life. Obviously, I’m not a millennial, so I don’t bounce around every two to three years or whatever the case may be. As you see, I spent a long time at JWT. Was I planning on retiring from JWT? No, that I was never in the cards for me. I always wanted a way out and I always wanted to find just a way to still actively be involved in the industry, but maybe just not there.

Keni Thacker:
And I can’t honestly say, this is where I want to be, because then that’s me saying I’m comfortable where I am. And since I’m constantly on the move, it’s just like, yeah, this is good, but I feel like I could always do better at the end of the day. I’m not a sedentary type of person when it comes to my career and what I want to do, and especially, with like shout out Fast & Furious kind of reference, but like with the nitrous boost that my career got, I would say over the last, going on the last two years, actually, I don’t ever want to just say, “I’m happy where I am.”

Keni Thacker:
There’s one piece of advice I give young people all the time is like, don’t chase the checkered flag because there shouldn’t be an end to what you want to do. You should constantly be evolving and growing all the time.

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

Keni Thacker:
Five years, hopefully, the Roses is on more solid footing. Not that we’re not right now, but even on more solid footing, more great partners, things of that nature, bringing, making this a reality, getting these right. Bringing this black BIPOC talent into these industries that don’t really have a lot of them. Keni Thacker LLC definitely, working with agencies on a longer basis, but also being able to really ignite sustainable and perpetual change within these organizations. That’s where I’d like to see myself.

Keni Thacker:
If we’re having this conversation in three to five years, that’s where I want to see myself. Just basically more growth at the end of the day, giving real opportunity with talent and heart on both ends. Whether it’s through the agency side, or through the work that I do with the young people, or the professional development that we do through 100 Roses from Concrete, that’s where I want to be like in five years. But even five years from now, I’m still not going to be comfortable where I’m at because I’m going to be like, “I know I need to do more.”

Maurice Cherry:
And honestly, who knows what this world is going to look like in five years with the way things are going right now.

Keni Thacker:
Oh yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It kind of feels like the smart thing to still stick with what you’re working on, so it sounds good.

Keni Thacker:
I hope to be alive.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, floods in one part of the country, fires in another part as we’re recording this, I should mention. But yeah, I totally get what you’re saying.

Keni Thacker:
I hope to be alive. But if I am alive, I’m going to tell you this, Maurice, I’m be fucking… Excuse my language, sorry. I’ma be put my foot in people’s behinds and making sure like these things come to fruition, one way or the other. One way or the other, who’s to say, five years from now, maybe I’m working for one of these places, I don’t know. But if I am, it’s not going to be this soft-shoe dancing around the topic of diversity, it’s going to be like, “No.” It’s going to be Timberland boots.

Keni Thacker:
And we’re going to be like in town stomping, making this stuff happen at the end of the day. Because the days of like the soft-shoe tap dancing around has got us nowhere. It has got us absolutely nowhere. It’s got us absolutely nowhere, but it’s also made a lot of people extremely wealthy.

Maurice Cherry:
This is true.

Keni Thacker:
So it’s a matter of thinking about, okay, obviously, there’s a worry from a certain group of people that, “Oh, well, there’s not enough room at the table.” That’s okay, because you know what? You, me, a bunch of other people, we can go to Home Depot to get some plywood, build some chairs, build extensions to that table and make the table bigger. Because it’s not about taking away from anyone, it’s about just making more room at the end of the day.

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

Keni Thacker:
Obviously, kenithacker.com, look pretty easy place to find about work with Keni Thacker LLC. But then also, 100 Roses from Concrete, it’s 100rosesfromconcrete.com. On Twitter, we’re 100RFC. Yeah, 100RFC on Twitter, but 100 Roses from Concrete on Instagram. And me, just same way on Instagram and Twitter, just K-E-N-I-T-H-A-C-K-E-R on both. No secret cool handles or whatever the case may be. That’s the easiest way to find out what we’re doing and what I’m doing, and things coming up, and things of that nature.

Keni Thacker:
We’re working on some new stuff for the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative that will probably launch in January. It’s to have secrets, so I can’t really talk about it right now. I am going to say that, with the G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative, we have mastered helping young people, so now it’s a matter of thinking about how do we help other people through the umbrella of growth and 100 Roses from Concrete. So that’s going to be something that people are going to need to look for.

Keni Thacker:
Probably in the next couple months, We’re definitely going to start grinding down that idea that I have for the organization to help more people at the end of the day. Because I always tell people, I was like, “The one thing whenever this COVID stuff is done, a couple things that will still be around is going to be racism, ageism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, and all those other isms are going to outlive COVID whenever COVID it’s over.”

Keni Thacker:
So it’s really about not taking our foot off the gas about those things that are important to us, but also those things that are going to make our creativity better, make our pockets better equitably, but also make people feel like they belong and feel like they’re a part and they can be successful within these organizations, where lot of faces don’t look like theirs at the end of the day.

Keni Thacker:
So if there’s anything that I can do to teach people how to show up in these challenging spaces where creativity and commerce often meet and humility falls short, that’s what I’m going to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good, man. Well, Keni Thacker, I want to thank you so much, so, so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really, putting yourself out there and stepping out on your own and being a voice in the advertising, and creative industries, as it relates to pulling together opportunities for really diverse talent. It’s certainly something that throughout the time I’ve done this show, I’ve been trying to beat that drum to let companies know.

Maurice Cherry:
So it’s good to tell off to somebody out there that’s also really putting his foot on the gas and making sure that this happens so the next generation can really come up and have the opportunities that they need to succeed. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keni Thacker:
As one of my professors, Dr. T, actually at Lincoln used to say, it’s been a privilege and a pleasure.

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.

Did I mention it’s free?

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 Black in Design 2021 Conference

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On the weekend of October 8-10th, join the Harvard Graduate School of Design virtually for the Black in Design 2021 Conference!

This year’s theme, Black Matter, is a celebration of Black space and creativity from the magical to the mundane. Our speakers, performers, and panelists will bring nuance to the trope of Black excellence and acknowledge the urgent political, spatial, and ecological crises facing Black communities across the diaspora. You don’t want to miss out on this weekend of learning, community, and connection!

Visit them online at blackmatter.tv to learn more and be a part of the event.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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

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.