Reese Fuller

Whether you like it or not, writing is an integral part of the design process these days, and no one knows this better than this week’s guest, Reese Fuller. As a senior writer for digital agency Work & Co, Reese works with visual designers and strategists to help “make the words sound good.”

Our conversation started off with Reese detailing how he works as a writer in a design agency, talked about his switch from STEM to writing, and cleared up some misconceptions designers may have about including writing in the design process. Reese also spoke about growing up in the DMV area, the difference for him between working in agencies vs. in-house at companies, and gives some great advice and resources for any designers looking to strengthen their writing. Don’t sleep on the written word — with examples like Reese, it’s clear that there’s more than one way to be in the design industry!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Reese Fuller:
I’m Reese Fuller, I’m a writer. I think that sort of manifested as being a brand copywriter in some instances, a verbal designer in other instances. But right now, I’m a senior writer at an agency called Work & Co.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Now, we’re in the second half of the year. By the time this interview airs will be in August, my goodness. How’s 2021 been for you so far?

Reese Fuller:
It’s been good. It’s been a lot better than 2020, I’ll say that much. But yeah, it’s been good. I think, the summer … I mean, I’m based in New York so the city now is sort of reactivating, as I’d like to say, in a lot of ways. It’s just been really good to reconnect with friends, really good to start going out again, just be outside more comfortably. I think work has been going really well, just excited to see what the future holds. Things has just been really positive. I’m trying to maintain that energy.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. And I guess along that vibrational frequency, since we’re talking about energy, do you have any plans or anything? Anything you’re manifesting for the rest of the year?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. I mean, I’m pretty excited. I got a wedding coming up next month in September, so I’m headed-

Maurice Cherry:
You’re wedding?

Reese Fuller:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Reese Fuller:
A wedding of a friend, wedding of a friend [crosstalk 00:04:49]-

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, okay.

Reese Fuller:
… seen in a while given we’ve all been hunkered down these past several months, 18 months or so. I’m looking forward to going home and reconnect with some friends that I haven’t seen in a while.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, professionally, I think there are a few really interesting opportunities on the horizon. Some work we’ve done with past clients over the past several months manifesting into more work, which we’re all super excited about. So, you’re to get started on those projects as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, yeah, just looking forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Was it kind of a big departure? I know Work & Co. has offices in a lot of different cities. They have one in New York as well. But was it a big shift when the pandemic started, shifting from working in office to now being remote?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, totally. I mean, I started at Work & Co. in April of 2020, just as the pandemic was sort of kicking into high gear. So, yeah, it was a really interesting experience, I’d say, getting to know people strictly through a Zoom screen, having not met most of the teams and people I’d be working with in the day-to-day in person yet. But I think, in a number of ways, it was better for me maybe as an individual and also as a writer.

Reese Fuller:
I found that in some places it can be hard to find the headspace or the quiet space to get really down into writing mode, like heads down kind of approach. So I’ve been able to work from home and just have more control over my space and my time, which really is an interesting and positive departure, I’d say. Definitely it had its challenges as well, but in a lot of ways it worked out for the better.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I think with any sort of thing like that, especially if you’ve been used to working in offices and now you start a completely new gig and it’s at the time 100% remote, there is a bit of an adjustment period to just kind of shifting into that different mind frame. Because, yeah, you have the conveniences of home, but you also have to be able to really, I think, compartmentalize the fact that you’re working from home and that you can’t do the same stuff at home that you would do if you weren’t working.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. No, totally. I started to miss the commute in a weird way, just to speak on compartmentalizing. Just like, be able to change from headspace to headspace, work life to home life. A lot of that happens, or at least happened, for me on the train going to and from the office. So, when your commute becomes walking to the kitchen table and taking a seat, it’s not too much of a transition.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, tell me more about the work that you’re doing at Work & Co.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. Like I said, I’m a senior writer at Work & Co. I think pretty largely that means UX writing, is how I would describe it otherwise, but it feels like it’s more than that. I’ll say, organizationally, we sit as part of the design team but the role itself is super cross functional. I work with designers or strategists or even sometimes the new business team. Generally, I just say what my goal is. The simplest way to put it is that I make the word sound good or as good as they can.

Reese Fuller:
If that’s a product, for example, it’s about making the user experience however we want it to be. That could mean maybe it’s simpler, or more educational, or more inspiring, or engaging or whatever. But ultimately, just having a goal in mind or a vision for how the product feels and sounds and what it’s all about, and trying to communicate that, translate that and express that through writing and shaping a design process. That’s a part of that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, anyone that has, I think, listened to this show for, I don’t know, maybe the last two or three years has definitely heard me really sort of beat the drum as it comes to why designers need to write more or they need to start getting into writing. It’s interesting because, to that end, with this being a design podcast, we haven’t had any writers on. You’re the first writer that we’ve had on the show which, congratulations, making Black history.

Reese Fuller:
Thank you. Truly an honor every day, making Black history.

Maurice Cherry:
As I’ve done this show and I’ve gotten to talk with design managers and product managers at a bunch of different places, I’ve seen design departments now start to include writers more as part of their teams. They may call it something different than writer. They may call it content designer, UX writer, et cetera, but they’re including writing as part of the team. Can you talk to me about the importance of writing in the design process? Because you said that you make the word sound good, but what does that process really entail in the design process?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. At Work & Co. specifically, I think I’ve had a really great opportunity to be on a few projects almost from end to end, starting in the concepting phase where we’re going broad, I would say. Just figuring out the best expressions, most interesting expressions or whatever.

Reese Fuller:
Sort of problem we’re trying to solve with the product, get it down in a detailed design where we’ve had a number of reviews with a client; or are more settled in on a more specific product vision and getting into the nitty gritty of like, what should this micro copy be? Or, what’s the best articulation of this ETA? Even down to some extent into engineering and development. We actually build and then ship the projects that we’re working on, to just sort of availing myself as a resource for any last-minute edits or thoughts from a writing perspective.

Reese Fuller:
But I think the biggest addition that a writer brings to a project, just a different perspective and a different approach. It’s like coming from other kinds of writing backgrounds. Just thinking about not just the words but the entire message and personality that is expressed through words in a project. It’s just a different approach. You hear so often that projects are often made stronger or the work made better by more diverse teams and a number of ways, whether that’s gender, race or religion. But I think discipline is another degree vector for that type of diversity as well. Just adding a writer to the mix is just a new way of looking at the work.

Reese Fuller:
Today, a lot of the conversations that I’ll have with PMs or designers might fall under the category of content strategy, others may be more brand expression but at the end of the day it’s always about just making the work as strong as it could be and do what it needs to do.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting you brought that up from a diversity standpoint because, yeah, in this case it’s diversity of discipline but also, I would imagine, it is just a diversity of perspective. I mean, if you’ve got a bunch of designers on the team, they may still all be looking at something through a specific design eye or a design lens or a design framework or something. You can come in not being, say, a visual designer and look at it in an entirely different fashion that they wouldn’t have even thought about. That input is super valuable because you don’t want to have homogenous teams that are just cranking out the same stuff without those sorts of considerations into play.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. Yeah, totally.

Maurice Cherry:
Like I say, writing gigs, like I mentioned, they have different titles or content designer, content specialists, content strategies. I think earlier you said verbal designer? You said that? I’ve never heard that one. That’s a new one to me. Do you think that it helps to have all these distinctions when it comes to that?

Reese Fuller:
I think so. I think in the same way people will sort of subdivide visual design, specialty or focus whether you’re a product designer, or a brand designer, or a motion designer. I think, although there’s a lot of overlap in those skill sets and the tools that you use and your approach to the work, you’re still approaching things from the same perspective either visual or verbal.

Reese Fuller:
On the verbal side of the writing side, we begin to make those distinctions as well, like I said, between content strategists or a UX writer, or a verbal designer even. I think those are just other ways of articulating what more specific perspective you might be approaching a project from and what skills you might bring to a conversation. It’s not to say that you can’t in a lot of moments contribute beyond that specific role or a specific title even, but it just helps to set expectations and level set on what you might be able to bring to the project.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what does your creative process look like when it comes to starting on a project? Where do come in the mix?

Reese Fuller:
Oh, it depends. I think my approach, it’ll vary project to project. But typically, what I want to do is find the person on the project who either is the most senior or is driving the conversation and kind of grab their ear a little bit.

Reese Fuller:
I think a lot of the time, whether you’re a writer or a designer, the experience can be getting brought on to a project in the middle of things. Like, we’ve gotten feedback from a client already and we’re just solving this specific ask or, alternatively, it’s a new project kickoff. It’s a brand-new onboarding experience for everybody.

Reese Fuller:
But typically, just trying to find the person or persons who feel like they’re leading the conversation and sort of getting a sense of place in geography around what the bigger goal of the project is at present and then, after figuring that out, seeing what problems I can be able to solve with words. It can be a very tactical thing like, “We are in our third set of design feedback on this specific purchase flow, and right now the client thinks that the copy is just too long and uninspiring. So, can you make it shorter and simpler and sparkle a little bit more?” That is one approach.

Reese Fuller:
Or it could be, on the other end of that spectrum, maybe there’s a bigger organizational issue almost where the product, or brand even, does not have a distinctive voice, there’s no documented set of brand guidelines for voice and tone, and maybe using that as an opportunity to contribute as a writer and produce an artifact and object that is super useful and helpful, and it can help put guard rails around design decisions for the future.

Reese Fuller:
So, it does vary from project to project, but ultimately it just goes back to trying to solve problems by using words, whatever those problems are.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I would imagine the stuff that you’re writing, it’s a lot of different stuff. It’s copy in terms of … I mean, I don’t know. It would depend on what the type of project is, but I would say like actual paragraphs of copy or you may be doing microcopy like alerts or statuses or things like that. Is that how it generally breaks down with the type of writing that you do on a project?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. I mean, that’s a pretty big portion of it. I think there are other opportunities as well where we can get in a little bit further upstream and, like I mentioned, be able to define the voice and tone for a brand or product and have that be a little bit more of a high-level output.

Reese Fuller:
But yeah, a lot of the time it is executions like that where it’s, here’s a moment where a user might be frustrated, a pain point. Can we insert a little bit of microcopy or a toast or notification to sort of lift their spirits and usher them in the right direction? And what is the expression of that verbally that feels right for their brand and also doesn’t take up too much time? That is in a lot of instances copy, executions like that.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s a gig that I worked at recently where I was doing some content strategy work. I was in a meeting … I forget who it was; I wasn’t at this gig very long. But I was in a meeting and I remember one of the designers … I don’t know. They just went off talking about how much they hated writing. It was because they had … I think they had started to create some copy and people were giving feedback on the copy. She just burst into this tantrum, like, “I just hate writing. Writing is not my thing. I hate writing. We really need to have someone else to do the writing so I don’t have to think about it. I’m not a writer, I’m a designer. I’m here to design. Why am I writing?” I was like, “Whoa,” especially because I was the content strategist for that particular project that she was writing about.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s interesting how … I mean, I don’t know if this is a sentiment shared by a lot of designers, but I would imagine being a design writer or being a writer on a design team like that. Those, I guess, help in terms of not giving the more visual designers or maybe the more front-end people stuff they have to worry about when it comes to, “Oh, does this sound right?”

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. No, totally. I mean, although I am a writer, there is a part of me that hates writing too. You know it is work, it is a craft. You know it is something you have to try hard to get better at. But also, a lot of the time, I hate trying to design too because I think … Maybe share somewhat of a similar experience to this designer you mentioned where it’s like you’re trying to express yourself or get something out that fulfills a purpose or solves a problem, but you just don’t necessarily have the tools or just doesn’t feel right. Like, when I’m trying to put frames together and move copy around in Figma and I’m just not learning the tool. I’m like, is this deep learning curve? That’s frustrating.

Reese Fuller:
So, definitely, I feel that sometimes too. But I think part of the beauty of, like you mentioned, this sort of shift in the makeup of design teams to include more writers is that recognition of this is balancing the expression a little bit more and making the product feel a little bit more whole and fully considered.

Reese Fuller:
I think about some of my earlier internships as advertising copywriter. I will describe it as those more traditional art director copywriter duos where there is a person who thinks and communicates and expresses themselves visually, that has a dedicated partner who is someone who thinks and communicates and expresses themselves with words, and being the dynamic that hopefully produces more balanced, better work at the end of the day because people, again, approach creativity differently.

Reese Fuller:
So, yeah, I think writing is a lot more, maybe debatably, a more democratic kind of expression. I feel like although a lot of people will say, “I’m not a writer,” everyone writes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
Well, not everybody, but most people in professional context have to write to some capacity.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you got to write an email.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, exactly, right? Or Slack message. So, when it comes to putting words in a product that hopefully millions of people are going to use and it’d be helpful or functional for them, there’s a lot of pressure on those words to be right; let alone, presenting those words in front of a slew of clients and stakeholders.

Reese Fuller:
So, yeah, it can be frustrating in a lot of instances, but I do think having writers on the team, again, just balances that out and gives someone the opportunity to own that part of a project as well and also help shape the design process too.

Maurice Cherry:
You know, it almost sounds like writing is a form of design.

Reese Fuller:
Who would’ve thunk? Yeah. Yeah, I think of … I can’t remember the name of the researcher but there was an experiment where people would see either rounded shapes or more angular shapes and be asked by the research team, “Would you describe this shape as more of a kiki or a bouba?” More often than not, people would name the angular shape a kiki and the rounded shape a bouba because I think there is some inherent connection between processing things visually and processing things verbally that we all just begin to understand in a very similar way.

Reese Fuller:
So I do think, to bring it back to your earlier point, that they’re just two different kinds of expressions, two different kinds of design at the end of the day.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think people misunderstand when it comes to what you do, being a writer in a design process? Is there other things that people just don’t get?

Reese Fuller:
I think one of the things that I’ve had some conversations around in the past just to sort of … I think setting people straight feels like a little bit too intense of a way to describe it but it is a lot more, sometimes it can be, hopefully, than, although I did use this phrase earlier, making the word sound good, that’s part of what we do, yes, as writers on design teams. But to the spirit of thinking of writing as a kind of design, it really is, in a more holistic way, shaping a project or a piece of design through writing in a way that is bigger than just, does this sentence fit on a CTA button and looked good? Does the type laid out on this headline for your welcome email looked too much?

Reese Fuller:
I think there’s a lot of moments where … I’ve experienced several moments where the design feels like it’s already set in place and they just want a writer to come in and line edit the copy. But we can really bring, I think, a lot more to a project than that by being brought on at an earlier phase. So, yeah, I think that’s one of the bigger misconceptions.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I see writing as being super important because good writing engages all your senses. Of course, you read something, you hear it. In a way it also kind of, I don’t know if I might be stretching this in terms of taste, but you know when you’ve read something that is difficult to read or it sounds cumbersome or something like that. It just doesn’t sound right or feel right in your mouth, right?

Maurice Cherry:
But then, even good words that you use can trigger certain memories. Good words can trigger a scent memory, it can trigger a taste memory, it could trigger a touch memory or anything like that. I mean, it’s really important because there’s so many words that you can use, there’s of course slang and jargon. That factors into depending on what kind of project that you have. Writing is just such a really important part of the design process. I’m glad to see that design teams are really starting to embrace that more and keep writers in the design fold because it is a really powerful part of what it is that we do.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, totally. And I think, to your point, it’s also just shaping and communicating the personality of a product or a brand. Like, if you got a welcome email from a new retailer that you just signed up for their newsletter, the difference between, “Yo, what’s up, Maurice?” or “Hello, welcome to,” so and so “Maurice,” feels very distinct, and that’s a writing decision to make at the outset.

Reese Fuller:
So, in every moment, in every screen where there are words, that is an opportunity, potentially, to communicate something about the product that a user is using. Or, I think more functionally, with more utility, what they can get from it and how to do that. So, yeah, I think writing is really important in that process and in a lot of ways.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit.

Reese Fuller:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I know we’ve gotten to know a bit about your work and what you do, but I’m curious to just learn more about your origin story, essentially. You say that you are in New York right now. Are you originally from there?

Reese Fuller:
No, I’m not. I’ve been in New York for maybe eight years or so, but I’m originally from Maryland.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Reese Fuller:
I grew up in the suburbs outside of DC. Actually, I went to high school at the same high school as one of your former guest, Ari Melenciano.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. We went to school in Maryland together. There, I was really into STEM. I was really interested in physics and engineering. I interned at NASA my junior year. I was at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
That was really fun. But that same year, I had a really awesome writing teacher and writing class. I just, all of a sudden, was really interested in writing as this structural craft. She broke down literally the formula, almost, of how to write a good essay. I didn’t know that writing could be so structural and formulaic in a way that I was already thinking about math and science and engineering and physics. I was like, “Oh, now I’m really interested in writing. Let’s pivot super hard.”

Reese Fuller:
So, coming out of high school, I went to school in Baltimore, Maryland, at UMBC. I had some personal life events happen that, in addition to the burgeoning interest in writing, really made me curious about why people behave, act the way they do; why they think what they think. So, I studied psychology and sociology. I did a double major, but I minored in writing and philosophy.

Reese Fuller:
While I was learning about behavior en masse, I was also doing all these extracurriculars. I was tutoring at the writing center on campus. We had a lit mag called the Bartleby, I was the fiction editor of. I was writing for this online magazine that was about fashion and music. It was like streetwear culture. So, always sort of complementing, or at least I thought, my academics into more research-oriented studies with this extracurricular creative thing on the side.

Reese Fuller:
Towards the end of undergrad, I was like, “Okay, I want to be in or around advertising in some capacity.” Maybe I’m a strategist, maybe I’m a copywriter. I’m not quite sure yet, but still really interested in why people think what they think and do what they do, like in groups.

Reese Fuller:
I found this really interesting grad program at NYU in social and consumer psychology, and that’s what brought me to New York. So, it was really research centric. We did psychology of branding, cognitive behavioral research, just very scientific. Through a lot of those classes my teachers would tell me, it seems like you really are most excited for the essays and those assignments versus the practice research.

Reese Fuller:
So, I did a couple internships, consulting and copywriting, just to start dabbling, I think, and trying to make it more professionally as a writer, so to speak. I interned at this digital first political strategy consultancy as a consultant one summer, and then the following summer switched gears to this full service creative digital agency as a copywriter. That was when things started to pick up.

Reese Fuller:
I was working on campaigns, digital campaigns and commercials. We’re doing a lot of scripts. It was just fun. I remember we did an ad for a quick service food chain where I, I don’t know, for whatever reason got super inspired and wrote almost like a rap song for their summer promo. Basically, the lyrics were like how to sign up for this promo and get a whole bunch of free burritos. It was just kind of quirky and funny and cool. I had a really good time doing it, and that’s what kind of let me know, like, okay, this is what I want to be doing, writing with a group of creative people and trying to put a visual expression around it or with it.

Reese Fuller:
After that internship, I was able to find a job on WeWork’s brand team. I was the second copywriter they hired. That was a really great experience because WeWork was just an already rapidly growing company with a whole bunch of different kinds of creatives. There were architectural designers, interior designers, product designers, illustrators. Everybody just making stuff to make these spaces and make the spaces really engaging and fun and cool to be in, so I just ran with that for a while. But then, there’s pretty big org shifts at the company and I started to feel I don’t really fit in as much as I would have liked to and wasn’t really getting as fulfilled by the work as I would have liked.

Reese Fuller:
I found an article online about this burgeoning discipline called verbal design at an agency called RGA and send a cold note to the head of verbal design there. We got to talk and I was really interested in this more strategic high-level approach to writing where, instead of writing the tagline or the script for the commercial, it’s we’re going to name the brand. We’re going to think very strategically about what this new sub brand or new product should be called and why, and build a visual brand around that. Or, we’re going to put together 50 pages of voice and tone guidelines with a really clear articulation of what you should always be trying to do when you’re writing for this brand, how to do that. Some voice principles, things you can incorporate into your writing to live up to that. I was just really interested in that approach to writing, that kind of writing. Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
And then, after that, I want to start working on more digital things. I want to start making websites and apps and chat bots. That’s what brought me to Work & Co. It feels like it’s been kind of a windy road and lots of different kinds of writing along the way, but I do, in some way, use all of my past experiences in the work that I do now, so it feels all worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I mean, when you summed it all up, we can wrap this interview up. No, I’m kidding.

Reese Fuller:
All right, see you later. This has been great.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s go back because you covered a lot of ground there. We’re going to go back a little bit here.

Reese Fuller:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like college was kind of where you first got the sense that you sort of wanted to be a writer for a living. It was interesting how you mentioned that you first were on the STEM track and then you got introduced to this writing teacher, and that showed you how writing can be very structural and that sort of way.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s very interesting because I also was on the … Well, I mean I was on the STEM track. My degree is in math but I’ve been writing, oh my god, since a little kid, maybe since four or five, all the way up to now at my big age. I wrote all through middle school, all through high school, all through college, et cetera and people always thought it was weird. It’s like, “Well, how was it that you’re studying math but then you’re also a writer. How does that make any sense?”

Maurice Cherry:
What I would tell people is that structuring a mathematical proof is very similar to structuring an essay. It’s also very similar to structuring a proposal for design services or web services. The certain aspects might be called different things, like what may be called, I don’t know, the brief inside of a proposal is the same thing as kind of setting up all of your assumptions and corollaries and such for a proof. It’s very much kind of the same thing.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting that you really sort of picked up on that structural building of writing. Because I think, probably when most folks think of writing, they think Shakespeare or, you know. They think flower prose or creative writing. I think even that has some elements of structure into it, but it sounds like you were able to really make that distinction between the structure of making something sound good and how that is very similar to a, I don’t know, maybe like an algorithm or something to that effect.

Maurice Cherry:
I also interned in NASA. Not in high school like you-

Reese Fuller:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
… genius. I interned in college. I worked at Ames Research Center for a summer, and I worked at-

Reese Fuller:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… Marshall Space Flight Center down in Huntsville.

Reese Fuller:
Oh, wow. I feel like the more we talk, the more we realize we have so much in common.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
That’s so funny. No, yeah, totally. I just felt like there was this lightbulb moment where I hadn’t been thinking of writing at all a structured kind of expression. I think that I’m hooked on phonics. You know, like in elementary school or pre K even, I don’t remember how old I was, just learn how to read and write. The basics, the grammar of it all. But even with those simple nuts and bolts, I hadn’t taken the next step of thinking about how to write at length with form and structure and some sort of, I don’t know, cohesive, sort of bodily shape to it or behind it even.

Reese Fuller:
So, yeah, when I realized that most, if not all, good pieces of writing follow similar tropes and patterns given that genre, whether it’s a novel or the different kinds of expressions of poems or even the product work that I do now, it’s like there are best practices, I would say, to use, I guess, a little bit of professional jargon. There are approaches that work. So, yeah, that was just a really big light bulb moment for me. And now, I’m just so interested in learning more of them and using them to make good work with writing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you mentioned also you interned at these agencies. You interned at, I think the first agency you’re referring to was [inaudible 00:35:48] and then after that you were at KARATs, I believe?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, yeah, KARAT Creative.

Maurice Cherry:
At KARAT Creative, but you also had the shift from working in these agencies to working in house, particularly once you worked at WeWork. And I would probably say, “Well, I don’t know, I guess working at Work & Co. was kind of …” Do you consider that more agency or more in-house?

Reese Fuller:
I think, I mean, we are a product design and development agency, so I think of it as an agency although it’s very different than, at least, my other agency experiences-

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Reese Fuller:
… have been.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there a big difference for you being a writer in an agency environment versus in an in-house environment?

Reese Fuller:
From my experience, yes. The biggest has been in an agency setting, being able, and encouraged to touch a much wider variety of types of businesses, types of projects. I just feel like, especially at this stage in my career, I just want to soak up as much information and experience as possible, and that’s why I feel more interested in working at an agency right now.

Reese Fuller:
I’ve worked on projects in industries like genomics or healthcare or retail or the nonprofit space. There’s such an array of exciting opportunities when you’re working at an agency. Versus when you’re in-house, you’re really dedicated to that one brand, that one set of products, that one mission. I mean, you really get to focus in, in a very specific way especially as a writer. Very deeply understand and appreciate the voice and tone behind the brand of the company that you’re working with and also mold it and shape and evolve it in a unique way too.

Reese Fuller:
But I think the biggest distinction, at least that I’ve experienced, has been choosing between breadth and depth. In my time at WeWork, I think I was there for almost two years, like I mentioned, the org shifted. The focus of the brand shifted more from small businesses and entrepreneurs to midsize businesses, and enterprise clients even.

Reese Fuller:
That was a big shift, I think, in the kinds of work that we were doing, the ways that we were articulating ourselves and the marketing materials and advertising and even the core product, the website and the coworking spaces themselves. To watch that happen from within was a really unique experience, but I also just wanted to change it up a little bit too, and I think you get that change of pace, which is great, at an agency.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, with Revision Path being the show that it is and the environment, we talk to black designers and developers and creatives and such. And so, I may never implicitly ask them what’s it like being a black blank or something like that in terms of what they do, but I’m curious for you since you are the first writer on the show. Being black in the industry, what have your experiences been like as you’ve furthered on in your career?

Reese Fuller:
I do feel blessed and highly favored. I think I’m very lucky to have a lot of positive experiences, but it certainly hasn’t been wholly positive either. I think part of what I’ve felt in various roles and moments throughout my career is this, like, Reese is here to make the word sound cool, like give it a little bit of flavor. Almost as kind of like the energy I’ve gotten in some context. Sometimes, and this is just me sort of trying to be honest about my own perceptions of those moments, sometimes that, I think, might be me interpreting that coming from people or just generally what they’re giving me, or sometimes even what the project needs. So, I think there’s that layer of like, “Are you just asking me to do this because I’m a black writer or is this really what needs to happen?”

Maurice Cherry:
Do people come to you expecting you to slang something up a bit or like, you know-

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Can you blacken this up a little bit?” Something like that?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. People might say, “Oh, I don’t have the cultural permission to do this, so can you do this for me?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. [inaudible 00:40:08] on it.

Reese Fuller:
Right. Exactly, [inaudible 00:40:10]. That has been something I felt at moments throughout my career. But I also think too, though, even other more senior black writers or other black professionals even in the design industry I’ve seen who, I think in some instances, very clearly have demonstrated a level of performance and excellence that is ridiculous. It’s like they’re just so good at what they do, they’re sort of being passed over for promotions or raises or even more junior people are making more money than them sometimes.

Reese Fuller:
I do think that there is a sort of, maybe not an under appreciation of black talent everywhere, but it’s definitely an issue that I’ve felt and also talked, I think, very freely and openly frequently about with some of my friends who also work in the industry. But even with that in mind, I think, especially after last year, it feels almost to be like a turning point or a reckoning moment where the powers that be are at least more aware of, if not eager, to create a healthier culture and dynamic for all kinds of black professionals. That is something I’m really excited for and glad to be living through, anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Now, say we’ve got someone that’s listening to this and they want to follow what you do or they want to maybe become a writer in the design industry. Now, this might be a lofty question but I’m curious, what advice would you tell them? Are there any particular resources or anything they should check out? Anything like that?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. I mean, I’d say, I guess sort of related to some of the points we chatted about earlier. Like, there’s so many different kinds of writing and ways to be a writer in design and technology and make a living. I know people who just do naming, I know people who are really interested and focused on brand copywriting. They just want to do voice and tone guidelines or just want to do commercials, or just want to work in product. There are so many ways that writing becomes a part of the creative or design process.

Reese Fuller:
So, I think having as clear a vision of what sort of subdivision of writing you’re most interested in and building a portfolio around that or making connections with people who do that kind of work, seeing the kinds of projects that they work on and are excited by so you just get a better sense of what really jazz you up. Because I think that’s really like, the secret sauce is to, as often as possible, just do the things that get you the most excited even if that changes from month to month, quarter to quarter, year to year. Just follow.

Reese Fuller:
It’s going to be cliché, follow your passions. But I think that ultimately is what encourages anyone to show up more fully to a professional conversation. So, yeah, just figuring out what that looks like for you I think is the best advice I could give. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You said there are some people that just do naming and these are design writers, or there are some people that just do voice and tone work as it relates to style guides and thing like that. Okay, I’m curious for myself. I just wanted to know how do those work? I mean, I feel like that’s such a specific … I almost feel like that’s hyper specific to be a writer and only be able to focus on those small things like voice and tone or naming as opposed to what you have been doing with microcopy and things of that nature.

Reese Fuller:
I think when you’re that specialized, especially if you’re freelancing, you can command a little bit more compensation for the value that you would bring. There are examples, great examples of voice and tone guidelines. I think Adobe has a great one online I think MailChimp has online as well. There are examples online of great pieces of work like that, articles.

Reese Fuller:
There’s a brand blog. I think it’s like how to build a brand that has a series of great articles about different kinds of names, different approaches to naming, just like having your toolkit and your arsenal. But, yeah, there are ways to figure it out in a way. It doesn’t necessarily work or look the same for everybody, but just trying it out and figuring out what your own process could look like and how you might approach making something like that, if you’re interested in it, is an interesting way to go about it too. Because I think in a lot of those moments you get to make the rules, really.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
It’s like you get to brief yourself sometimes because a team typically who would be asking for help with naming might not know how that process really works. So, you get to leave the conversation. Although they’ll obviously be giving you feedback, you can sort of steer them in the way that you want to go.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. You and I are going to talk more about that after this interview because that really-

Reese Fuller:
All right.

Maurice Cherry:
… that extremely piqued my interest right now, so we may have to go more into that. Given where you are in your career, who were some of the mentors and people that have really helped you out along the way?

Reese Fuller:
You know, I think of all my old managers, really. When I was at WeWork [inaudible 00:45:40] I was the second copywriter that was hired to the brand team, but the first had come from Etsy prior.

Reese Fuller:
She kind of took me under her wing, showed me so much about product writing in that moment too because we’re building new micro sites and web activations for the company at the time. But I think really just taught me not only how to show up as a writer and collaborate with different kinds of designers, but how to navigate a company of that size, like a professional setting in a way that was really authentic and special. So, I appreciate that.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, even moving on throughout my career. A number of great thoughtful managers and team leaders even, that I think overall did a great job of being themselves in a way and having their own creative process. Inviting people to become a part of that and sharing what they knew to work for getting work approved or producing good work, like different prompts or writing techniques to generate ideas even. All of those experiences have just been helpful for me in some capacity throughout my career.

Reese Fuller:
So, yeah, literally everybody. Literally everybody. And, again, I say blessed and highly favored, because literally everybody I’ve worked with has helped me in some way. It’s just been so great to have that experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Is this where you saw your career going when you first started out as a writer? Or rather, when you first got into writing, this teacher introduced you to the mechanics of it, is this where you thought your career would end up?

Reese Fuller:
Not at all. I’ve veered off course. I’m somewhere in the middle of the woods and just eaten berries, I guess. I don’t know. Weird analogy.

Reese Fuller:
But, no. When I first had that teacher in high school who broke down how to write a good essay for me, I was like, “I’m going to go to New York and be a music journalist. I’m going to be on the tour bus with backstage writing down all these really hot takes and his experiences into a really interesting story for The FADER or SPIN Magazine.” That was the kind of approach that I had.

Reese Fuller:
But the more, I think, different kinds of writing that I started reading and the more that I started to see writing appear in advertising, or at least think more deeply about the writing that appears in advertising and marketing and on the apps that I was using, in the websites I was reading, I was like, “Oh, writing words are everywhere,” so I have so much jurisdiction. It’s such a wider playground, a magazine or a book.

Reese Fuller:
That was the turning point for me where I was just like, “Okay, if I’m interested in this medium and there are words there, let’s try and figure out how to be a part of that.” That was the journey for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there any advice about writing or about your career that is really stuck with you over the years?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. Read your work out loud is a big one, I think. It’s a lot easier for things to sound good in your head or look good on paper, but when you read it aloud in your voice, you might hear things that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Reese Fuller:
I think another one is to not be precious or not be a perfectionist. Again, writing is such a democratic, even, type of expression that I feel like when you’re a designer, you’re trying to solve a problem, produce the “right answer.” But a lot of times there is way more than one right answer, so be really open to other ideas and suggestions from the people that you’re collaborating with. Just don’t be precious about your work and your words because it could be better and it could be different. A lot of the time it’s better, even in a collaborative setting, to invite people into that process and let their voices be heard in a medium that they’re trying to express themselves in writing as well.

Reese Fuller:
So, yeah, don’t be precious and read your work. Yeah, I think those are the top two pieces of advice I would give.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you’d like to do in your career yet that you haven’t done?

Reese Fuller:
I have been thinking a lot more recently about submitting more creative writing to periodicals, lit mags, journals. I think that’s something I’ve kind of gotten away from. When I was in undergrad I was writing for this online magazine. I’m the fiction editor of the lit mag at school, so a lot of the writing that I do now is more solution oriented, just like making a project or product as whatever it needs to be as it can be. But I do want to get more into, or more back into, I should say to just more creative writing.

Maurice Cherry:
Man, we just had a design anthology called Recognize that we started back in 2019, where basically I would give a theme and then people can write essays, basically design essays or design-focused essays around that particular theme.

Maurice Cherry:
For example, this year’s theme was reboot. People would write essays to that, 3000 words or less. We publish them, we pay them. We stopped doing it this year because, honestly, there was a woeful lack of interest among designers.

Reese Fuller:
That’s the stick [inaudible 00:51:18], I feel like. At least my experience has been, and I think it’s why I’m trying to get the pendulum to swing back the other way is thinking of writing so much so as like a tool to solve a problem. It’s kind of hard to switch gears back into I’m just going to write more creatively, write in response to this prompt, write to express an idea that I just had. So yeah, I feel that pain. But, yeah, it’s a muscle that I haven’t used in a while and want to use more of. I would imagine, a lot of other design writers might feel the same too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, we did it for three years. We had … And honestly, the pandemic also kind of killed it. I don’t want to make it seem like it was totally just lack of interest from people. But once the pandemic happened, people were really more focused on surviving, which is fair. Like, please try to live. Don’t worry about trying to get 3,000 words [inaudible 00:52:13]. Don’t worry about that.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say even to this end, probably because things are still … I don’t know, information is still changing every day around this, it’s just not something that folks are super interested in.

Maurice Cherry:
I initially wanted to do the anthology because back in 2018, I had won the Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary from AIGA. It’s usually awarded to writers, and I received it as a podcaster. But it got me to thinking about just the power of writing as a designer because it’s something that I’ve always kind of proselytized to designers for years. I’m like, it makes your proposals better, it makes your case studies better, et cetera.

Maurice Cherry:
But the more that I started doing this podcast, and especially once I started really getting recognized for it, which is why we call the anthology Recognize, is that black designers writing ensures that we are in the design history too.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s very easy to go into a bookstore, to go on Amazon or something and you can go to the design section. There’s a lot of design books and very few are by people of color, let alone black people. It’s not to say that the writing that black designer should do should always be in a novel or in book form, but it could be writing on medium, it could be something where people can see your thoughts long form and get a sense of how you think and what’s your process is and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to see that because we’re the next generation, I feel, of design writers out there, and we need to cultivate that. There needs to be a way to let people know that, hey, the only writing you do doesn’t have to be an email. You can also write about a project, or a thought process or things like that. I’ve been fortunate to have a few designers on here who are pretty good writers. I don’t know if they would really consider continually doing the writing, but …

Maurice Cherry:
Most recently I had Jeffrey Henderson on, who is a footwear designer in New York, and he owns an agency called AndThem. He’s been writing on medium probably for a few years now. Just such great writing. I would read an entire book of Jeffrey’s writing because it’s about projects, it’s about his thought process. He weaves his own personal story into coming from Cleveland and everything. It’s just so good, and it’s not writing that you see from black designers, but it is ostensibly design writing.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. I mean, that’s so important. I mean, like I said earlier, so much of great work comes from passion and so much of writing becomes better when it’s grounded in intention.

Reese Fuller:
Those things overlap, right? It’s like if you have an idea that you just feel so jazzed up about, getting that out through writing is what, in my opinion, produces better writing.

Reese Fuller:
I mean, to your credit with having that won award, for me to think about writing as it extends from a novel or a poem to the writing in an ad or in a product even. I think of even podcasting as an auditory, a verbal expression, a kind of writing too. So, I don’t think that that’s too far off base. Maybe a departure from the people who’ve won the award previously, but it’s definitely all connected. It’s like that kiki and that bouba, to go back to what it’s like. These kinds of expression are all intertwined at the end of the day. So, yeah.

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

Reese Fuller:
Oh, wow. Hopefully, I think … I’ll have to say, doing what I’m doing now but on a bigger level, continuing to work on projects that I’m passionate about.

Reese Fuller:
I think one of the things I’ve been able to do more recently through Work & Co. actually is begin to work with a number of clients who are in the nonprofit space. We have the Work & Co. Fund, which is this allotment of a million dollars’ worth of work essentially invested in nonprofits that advance the Black community. It’s really the agency working to leverage this ability, that the agency has to build and design and develop and ship these digital products to enact positive social change.

Reese Fuller:
Those are the projects that I’ve worked on more recently that feel the most fulfilling and rewarding to me. I’m trying to think more about how I can do more stuff like that not only through Work & Co. but extracurricularly as well. I think in five years, hopefully, I’ll have more of my day-to-day time devoted to projects that fall in line with that.

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

Reese Fuller:
I’m on LinkedIn. Just Reese Fuller. It’s Reese, like the peanut butter filled chocolate cups; Fuller, F-U-L-L-E-R. I’m also on Instagram, which is @reesefuller with an underscore at the end, but I don’t really post all that much there. But, yeah, I try to keep a pretty quaint, minimal digital presence, but I am very responsive. If you shoot me a message on LinkedIn or Instagram, I’ll definitely hit you back.

Maurice Cherry:
A writer that’s not on Twitter? Wow.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. I have Twitter back in the day. We could talk about Twitter. I had a Twitter back in the day. I still will lurk on Twitter every so often. I still get my [inaudible 00:58:01] my info but, yeah, just trying to be a little bit more intentional and conscious, minimalize the web presence a little bit. I think only so much output to give and trying to focus it in different places.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good strategy to have, yeah. Wow, Reese Fuller, thank you so much for coming on the show, for being Revision Path’s first writer on the show.

Maurice Cherry:
I think a lot of what you said about your process and how you work on projects at Work & Co. I think is super important for designers and even developers and other creatives that are listening to hear, to kind of get a sense of what it’s like to be on … I almost want to say, the other side of the process. You know, there’s left brain, right brain, and writing seems to be different from maybe more visual type of work.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s also good to note that it’s clear that you’ve put a lot of thought into the work that you’re doing. I really get the sense you have a strong work ethic, and even just a strong ethical core as it relates to the type of work that you do. I’m glad that you’re able to just share that with us so other people who may be interested in becoming writers can do that as well. So, thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Reese Fuller:
No, thank you for having me, Maurice. You know, I’ve listened to this podcast for so long when I was getting ready and interested in getting into the industry. I listen to you and your guests chat about their experience. It taught me so much as well. So, yeah, it feels amazing to have that all come full circle and hopefully give some of that back to folks today. So, yeah, thank you for having me on. It’s really been an honor, and I’ve enjoyed it.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

Adobe MAX Logo

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 Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Jeffrey Henderson

Being confident with your creativity will take you far as a designer, and this week’s guest is a perfect example of that. Jeffrey Henderson is the founder of AndThem, an NYC-based creative collective that focuses on building creativity and business within Black and brown communities.

We started off talking about plans for the summer, and then Jeffrey spoke about his innovative agency model and how he uses it to help give back to the next generation of creatives. We also talked about his 15+ year career as a footwear designer for Nike, Yeezy, and Cole Haan, and how he brings that knowledge to his current work with creating his own footwear designs. Thank you Jeffrey for being a shining example of what it means to use your talent to bring the world to your feet — literally!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I’m Jeffrey Alan Henderson I’m a creative based in Harlem, New York, team of about 10. We take on, everything from product design to content creation.

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

Jeffrey Henderson:
Oh, the year’s actually been pretty good. And we actually had a nice growth year. Not in terms of state business, business has always been pretty standard even when we went through trials and tribulations of COVID. But I think I brought in some young folks for the first time and made it official kind of last year. And so we had some growing pains in terms of people just learning how to be creatives in sort of corporate settings and non corporate setting. That was very new to a lot of us. And having an agency built like that this year has been a, I think, an extension of that. But now that everything’s opening, the team is definitely more seasoned, so a lot more exciting because of the things I know we can take on. So it’s been pretty good.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m pretty sure people listening can hear the birds in the background. So, it sounds like you’re hit like some idealist spot right now, which is good, which is good. I think after the year. After, after the year, I think all of us have had a little bit of a mother nature’s is gladly welcome at this point. Do you have any plans for the summer with the agency?

Jeffrey Henderson:
Oh, this summer where we’re trying to get back together during, I guess January of this year, we had pretty much all 10 folks in Harlem, essentially, about five of them stayed in, we have a studio here and apartment that we actually rent out as an Airbnb, but when we don’t, it’s actually our studio. So everybody was sort of working together. And that was, I guess, when the world was still kind of closed. And so we’re going to try to do a little bit out of that again, since we can’t really travel to the places we need to travel to get work done, we’re going to just come back to New York, settle down and keep growing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now with And Them and sort of the changes that have happened over the past year. I mean, you said business has been pretty steady, and I know that you do a number of different services. Can you just talk a little bit about what And Them is and how did you come up with the name And Them?

Jeffrey Henderson:
And Them comes from when I was a Nike employee in Japan. I had a lot of free time in the mornings where I would have to work with the team that was in the U S. And so during those phone calls every now and again, I’d have an hour in between and there was a creative by the name of Kevin Carroll who’d just left Nike, he’d written a book, Rules of the Red Rubber Ball. So he became sort of internet famous at that point, hired a team, he had about six people doing everything from PR to creative, strategy. He had been working with them for about three, four months and it just wasn’t clicking. He ended up calling, I think, myself, Jason Mayden who’s now at Fear of God Athletics, D’Wayne Edwards who runs PENSOLE. And he’s like can you like, just sit on these meetings and help me out, but I don’t want to threaten my team. He started introducing us as you know, was just Jeff and him. It was just D’Wayne and him kind of nonchalantly. And so the joke was, we just became an them like this [inaudible 00:06:00].

Jeffrey Henderson:
I just kept it. Kept the name because it also represented the fact that when we work with, whether it’s Yeezy or FC Harlem or local restaurant around the corner, we’re not trying to showcase our brand we’re trying to showcase your brand. We were doing something with Revision Path, it would be Revision Path and them. It’s just us trying to help out folks who sort of need, I think, a boost. I live right down the street from Harlem Hospital so there’s always a siren now and then.

Jeffrey Henderson:
In the last year we definitely picked things up because what really happened was this is probably three years ago now I was working on a project, launching Everlane’s new footwear line that they put out the tread. And while I’m working on it, Michael Price with the CEO, he keep asking me like, how do you do X, Y, Z?

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I’d be like, oh, you just call this person. And it’s like, I just saw him asking questions. And he kept looking at me like you have all these people, why don’t you set up an agency? And I was like, yeah, nah, that’s too much responsibility. Like I did all that. Like at Nike you have a report. Like it was all just too much. But a year later it was like, okay, all these people who, and it sort of came by, honestly, in that people who were working on teams individually, when I got there, they just sort of were like, yo, can I do a project with you , you have anymore? So I just kind of brought them with me. So they kind of became my and them. So I just, if we want to call it, I’d be like, yo, why don’t you sit on this call and won’t you take this and if there’s money left on the table, we’ll split it. So that’s sort of just evolved to the fact that I just had a few really talented young folk who probably weren’t either seasoned in corporate or had already tried corporate and was like some just wasn’t feeling right about it so they were like, I’d rather hang out with you, work on projects. So I became normal. So we’ll be doing a lot of product design and graphic design. And then one of my best friends, creative director, who he taught himself to be sort of art director holding the camera. He was doing, working at a not-for-profit basically counseling kids and got a camera. And we were coaching his basketball team together and he said, you know, my dream is I want to shoot the NBA in the Olympics. And he’s like, that’s my longterm dream. That’s what, that’s what I want to do in life. Three years later, he ended up doing that. Like, it was all sort of like this whirlwind of like, he worked for the Nyx, he shot for FIBA in Brazil, the Olympic basketball games, like, oh, I should’ve made my dream a little bigger than that. And so he sort of come on with his team. So all together, we tackle soup to nuts, anything from product creation, manufacturing to content creation. So that’s kind of where we are and what we do.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like it all kind of came together pretty easily. I mean, since you had already this network of people and you had creatives that were drawn to you because of your work, it sounds like it didn’t take much to kind of build a team.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think it really goes back to one of the things that happened In my old Nike days, it was very much this thought of you kind of were put on a track or plan to be a design manager or design director. A lot of times people would be put in design manager roles so they could kind of learn the procedures, the processes, the operations part, so that when they became a design director, they at least know what those things were as we started looking at bigger picture in terms of product creation. So I kind of took a big tune to what the operation side was. I was, I think, I learned from some really great people who just knew how to grow and manage people because I needed a lot of that because I was literally making up as I went, I didn’t have a design degree. So anybody who could help me, I was in their office, left and, trying to figure out how I screwed up. I just took those lessons and while I was working on the creative side, building all those other kind of tools and components taught me how to get the most out of people and how to help them get the most out of themselves. When I ended up in random spots, I wasn’t just worried about is the color right, is the engineering proper is the functionality working, is the design modern. It was also how you doing as a person? Are you doing the right thing? And so it really like became, I didn’t realize it was that obvious until this young woman, Lauren Divine who’s great material designers, [inaudible 00:10:18] This is probably the early days we were over in some broken down office building And I was probably in and out of LA for maybe a year and then one day, I guess I didn’t show up for three months cause I was either doing something else I didn’t didn’t need to be there and I got there, she came and gave me a big hug and she’s like, finally, you’re back our manager I was like, your what? I was over here, drawing shoes what do you mean? She’s like, no, no, no, we need like this set up and this meeting organized and this, that and the other, and this is what you do. I was like, okay, honestly, didn’t sign up for that, but the reality was I did sign up for that. I mean, I just became a mentor to a few people who just sort of needed the ins and outs every now and again, it wasn’t like I was their manager manager, but I was, I don’t know, helpful in helping them get things straight when they needed it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Especially if you weren’t in a traditional corporate environment where people were set to be your manager or mentor. So that sort of turned into an easier way to then run this sort of organization that we just pick projects and started out really me just no one, some people who were like, yo, you want to do this project? Yeah, I got nothing better to do, but I mean, it’s real. Like I ended up falling in love with things that I know nothing about just because it’s different. Like we have a project now with a friend of mine, she’s CEO at this wellness brand, wellness and beauty called ASA there and it’s all about circularity, sustainability and reality is like, I walked to the conversation, going to look, I’m not like a big sustainability dude, that’s not my thing thing. I kind of know about it and I’m more interested in it because I have learned over the last, I think two years, how much it affects black and brown communities first.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so I have a little bit of interest in it, but I can’t say it’s like, I wake up everyday like, oh, I care about this. But ever since being in this project, like now I’m like forced to like, oh, this is real and I’m going to the grocery store I see tons of plastic and I’m like, oh, how do I fix, how do I help? How do I like live here to these compensations? So it just becomes a, I don’t know, we find ourselves in new conversations that are helpful because I think it’s, it helps us to become creative, but it also lends we have a skillset that we were using somewhere else that now we can apply it to something that we all care about.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s, especially when you have a, a collective like that that’s, what’s important is that you’re able to bring your expertise and the mind trust of the people that you’re working with to a project or to a brand it’s not necessarily that you’ve done it before, but the collective knowledge is enough where you can go into the project and still know what needs to be done.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think that’s very true. I think our, I don’t know, collective unit is hard enough. I don’t know questions, concerns. We’re not people. I think some of the more senior folks on our team, like we’ve heard it before. It’s very enlightening that we have sort of like these 22 year olds who chime in knowing that look, I don’t know everything, but here’s what I’m thinking and it sort of like it brightens up our eyes to go, oh, never would have occurred to the old crowd in the room as to think about things like that because like we’re not digital natives or we’re not focusing in certain places. We don’t go to certain parties. We don’t hang out in certain worlds and I think they ended up bringing something new to the table while absorbing what we offer them so when they get to touch base and go, oh, let’s see what Lowy Frames is like a place that does fine art restoration and gilded frames. That is a new conversation for all of us. But the young folk, they don’t realize it’s new to us they just, everything is new to them. It’s kind of eyeopening to watch them grow.

Maurice Cherry:
And you know, and one thing that is really important to note here for people that are listening too, is that , these are young creatives and you’re giving them the ample space to make these sorts of decisions or determinations or comments or observations. It sounds like in a safe environment, if they say something that may not go over well with the client or something, they’re not immediately asked, I would imagine like it’s sort of a, they have a space to, to fail, which I think as a young creative is probably important to have because there can be so much out sort of like outdo pressure placed on black and brown creatives to kind of be brilliant right out the gate and not make mistakes.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think it is sort of, I mean, the conversation we were having before we got on here about the, I think understanding of what it means to be black in any corporate environment to be brown in any corporate environment, the idea that this is like a second culture, a second language that you have to bring to the table and learn, I think often the idea of assimilation or the idea of fitting in or not making people uncomfortable. Like it was so ingrained and in the reality is I think I was trying to be part of that in the nineties, I was just, wasn’t really good at it because I was trying to go, okay, I know your music I noticed that. And I really didn’t because I really wasn’t listening to it. But I think there’s this innate need to sort of like, see if you could fit in and our group is like, we don’t really have that as much as like, you need to know this part of the culture in order to do the job. If you don’t, don’t sweat it. I mean, if you make a mistake as you’re going through, because it’s all different and it’s all new, pay attention. And I think that’s the part where I, from all my failures of walking into situations and not knowing my first days, going from Nike to cohort where it was like, I wasn’t making sports shoes and that’s all I knew to oh, now we’re making a small number. Like Nike, the minimum you could do in a shoe with like 30,000 pairs of shoes, I got the cohort and I was like, oh, we did 30,000 pair. They were like, we’ll like, I’ll be celebrating with 30,000 pair it’s just a different mindset. I didn’t know. And I think I kind of have this, I’m happy to open my mouth and sound dumb 10 times out of 10, just because let’s get it out the way cause I don’t want any assumptions of me walking out the room, not really knowing, I think having my team, watching me say stupid things all the time and I do it for almost for their entertainment. I still call it tic-tac, I still talk about things, old guy, just so they know, I’m not afraid to sound stupid in the meeting and you should be okay because as long as you know, which is supposed to know and you do your homework, you’ll be good. And I think that’s, it’s really, uplifting to see these young black and brown folk be able to hold their weight and going to conversations as well as watching whoever the client is kind of go, oh, y’all know what y’all doing. Like yes we do. That’s all good.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think that’s, I mean, honestly just for me as, a designer, as a self-taught designer, that’s just even great to hear. I mean, I’ve had other studio owners and such that have been on the show and I’ve even talked to like just studio owners through AIGA and other design organizations and it’s true. Sometimes if there is a leading creative at the head, like you would be with, with And Them, there’s almost this need for them to come off as the creative expert. Like they have to be the captain of the ship and you are the captain of your ship, but at least what you’re showing is that you’ve built enough camaraderie with your crew. So you all can come together and work on things and it’s not just you dispatching people to do work. You know what I mean?

Jeffrey Henderson:
No, it’s definitely I think, and you talked about it, getting people to come in and do podcasts I think there’s, on top of being black or brown in the industry, I think the conversation around being a creative also comes with a certain expectation. You may actually be an introvert or you might actually just get put in boxes and the sales team and marketing team be like, oh, well don’t talk to them till you want to have something creative and cool. But then when to drag the cool out of them. And I think to me, that’s what kind of puts folks in a box they’re afraid to talk there’s like a lot of this, that and the third. And I think I was lucky enough to be placed in environments where I like for real in the last two years, that’s when my friends laugh all the time. I don’t want to be on podcasts, I don’t want to talk, I never want to hear myself talk, but it’s just what it is. But I also know that folks are like, I learned something from you can you do that more often? It’s like, all right. It’s just easier if I can’t call everybody on the phone so here’s the podcast and I’m just going to ramble on, I think for hours at a time. But I think the idea that someone can offer you an opportunity to stand up in a meeting and give your options. And I was at Nike and I do believe I should have been like not fired, but somebody should have, could have reprimanded me over and over but they were like, yo, this is, this is how you grow and these are the bullets you take, you just come in and like, say something.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think there was quite a few people like who were Nike like, oh, didn’t say it but I kind of felt that like, oh, like Jeff’s getting run cause he’s black. Or he used to go in there. Like I could be completely wrong, but yo, that’s how I felt like thinking that. But I also know some people were like, yo he’s in the room cause he was bringing something different and all y’all had the same skillset so even if it’s not what you think is the right answer, we’re going to let them go and if it doesn’t work cool, but if it does work, it’s going to work in a much different way than you guys. And I think I was given enough room, like the fact that I went in to quit when I was at Nike, because I was feeling like this wasn’t going the right place and they sent me to basically run for [inaudible 00:19:29] in Japan. And I was like, okay, it was wild. But I think that it’s a case where there were the right people in the right rooms who were talking about this a lot, like the difference between mentorship and sponsorship and I’m kind of back in mentor mode, but I think having the idea and notion, I started understanding once I got at a higher clip at Nike that I didn’t have to be somebody who’s mental, I just need to go into rooms and be like, why aren’t you highlighting this person’s work. And basically looking at people like they were wrong, if they didn’t, I didn’t know whether they were doing good work or not I was just asking them and if they feel guilty about it, that should probably tell them something.

Jeffrey Henderson:
But I think that level of sponsorship became important and even though the mentoring was there, but I think having, and I know people who did that for me, it was either told them he asked her or I sort of knew, or I know that I would get no, no, no, no, no, then it get quiet for about a month and then next thing, Hey, we think you should do this opportunity. When somebody says something, clearly somebody says something so that I think is a part that seeing more of that from folks in or outside of corporate work, it’s just kind of important.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, And Them does a lot of different things. It’s hard to, I guess sort of pinpoint exactly what you do. Like if you go to the website for example, and click on FAQ it’s questions that sort of allude to the services that you could provide, like developing products, designing products, shooting actions, shooting commercial, shooting style, making logos, these are all services that we can do as long as you’re asking the question on what is it that we can do for you for your project.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Yo, I love you. You do all your homework. So reality is our main strengths, if we have people who help build Nike product, Yeezy product, Everlane, especially footwear, that’s our main bag. Then I kind of went out of my way, when projects and apparel came out, I was like, I need people who know how to do this. And I just saw that I literally went on LinkedIn and was like black and brown people who do apparel, please check here. The funniest joke about a member of our team, Shauna K is I was in the line at FedEx on 125th, and in walks behind me, Dapper Dan’s assistant Ashley. I look at her, she looks at me and she’s like, what do you want Jeff? I was just looking at her, like I wanted some, I was like, I need a black woman and she was like, I know who you need.

Jeffrey Henderson:
We didn’t discuss exactly what I meant by that. That could have gone a thousand different ways. But I was like, I want a black woman creative who is just starting out because we need to round out this team and we didn’t have that on a team. And she was like, you need to meet Shauna K, just finish FIT, she’s looking for work, getting a bone that was probably on a Friday. Miss Shauna came on a Tuesday, W]we had our first meeting to work on a Friday. That’s how quickly it went. But I think that’s the part where we knew we had product creation folks. I wanted more folks to kind of round that out. Then John Lopez on his side, again, shooting the Olympics, work for the NYX’s he’s dragging me around like, I just rented this $70,000 camera for a day Jeff let’s go out and have some fun, like, okay, I don’t know what that means. So being able to do those big, specific things were important, but we had both worked at meaningful places. Then we brought in Brie La Bossier who is sort of like, keeps us all saying as a kind of design manager, project manager, kind of everything. So what ends up happening people like, can you do this, can you do that and it’s like, well, I remember when I first left Cole high, I was sort of like free to do anything. I was like, I am not designing shoes ever again. That was my thing I wanted to do since high school, I was going to design shoes. So I had a good 15 year ride of doing that. I was like, yo, I’m going to do everything else I’m done to wear shoes, like start my new life.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Like I’m going to do branding, graphics, marketing, whatever it is, I’m not going to do shoes anymore. Two months after that, I was on a plane to go do Yeezy, it was just ingrained in me. But in those two months I started writing more. I started this random e-comm site with a bunch of my friends just to sell t-shirts, basically to ourselves, called Good Things. I was learning how econ works. I was learning a little bit about SEO and digital and all these other pieces that just started to round out. As I started getting deeper into conversations, I was like, oh, once you get through that first layer, you kind of know enough to be dangerous. Then we thought I’d taken on projects. And like our learning path really came with working with kind of nonprofits and small businesses because I didn’t know how to make a website or do anything.

Jeffrey Henderson:
But there was a restaurant that I ate at pretty much, three times a month, 4 times a month. He was like, yo, I need a website. Okay. Let’s build it. Let’s figure out what that looks like. Let’s figure out all the pieces behind it. And so working with people to kind of figure out and small businesses and nonprofits to kind of learn at least the lingo, how it works, sort of brought us to the stage of, oh, now with our knowledge of, anything from Nike to the New York NYX and NBA and Yeezy, oh, okay. We can start taking this to more people in different ways and definitely either being the conversation we were having before, intentionally this is going to be a black and brown group of people working on stuff. And so you can hire us intentionally cause you want black and brown.

Jeffrey Henderson:
You can hire us intentionally because you want a diversity where you’re just hiring us because we are good, we don’t really care. We’re going to come in and it’s going to have like we jokingly laugh, we had to do a photo shoot and we’re like, who knows somebody, wait. Like we can’t just because it was for a brand. It was this wasn’t a, like we’re trying to cross over, it was like, it was literally for a brand that has, I mean, all the founders are white and it’s like, yo, we don’t want them to look like they’re doing black face by, oh, everybody in their ad is black, a brown, like this should be pretty diverse. But in order to be diverse we can through some white folks in there, like we look across the room like who do we know? But it was this funny game of like, we don’t know, no white folks, but.

Maurice Cherry:
I just have to pause there. That is, to me, that is hilarious because the inverse of that probably happens in every creative studio at least once a week. Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So we are like the exact opposite. And one of the things that’s like amazing is we had a basketball shoot and this happens pretty much with every client, especially in color. And some say it like, and they even say a day one, or they say it, at least when they get to a photo shoot a week or product on the table is that one of the models came out. We had a shoot that was supposed to go from 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM in the park. We had some gears set up or got to shoot when it got dark. We all showed up one time at two o’clock we’re getting shots in and eight o’clock it was pitch dark. This was fall. That was probably like nine o’clock. We’re still out there still shooting good night shots. One of the models, like he was leaving on a bike.

Jeffrey Henderson:
He was like, yo. And I had to record him saying, he’s like, yo, like I’ve been in shoots before. And sometimes it’s your homeboy and it’s cool. We all hang out in the end product is like, okay. Sometimes I’m at like these professional shoots and it’s all good, we all know each other and we’re good but you know, in and I’m out cause work to do. He was like, this was like the party with real work. He was like, y’all onto something. And it’s that vibe that again, we’re doing things like in ways cause we don’t know any better. We’ll do it professionally, we’ll have the call sheets up, we’ll have all the emails and testing codes, all the protocol, new we’ll look up at Brie because she’s worked at like startups and stuff.

Jeffrey Henderson:
You will look up and Brie, because she’s worked at like startups and set up organization, things like, oh, you got to sign your paperwork. They don’t do the insurance. You want to showing up. At the same time, we’ll be out there enjoying each other’s company in a way that’s relaxed and a barbecue sort of atmosphere, which a lot of folks look at, like, I don’t know, but then what ends up happening? Like we laugh, cause it’s like the young crew, they’re like, yo, they go get an internship somewhere else. And they’re like, this is not we doing over here. And I’m like, okay, well we get some more projects and we can tackle some more work for you. So we’re doing something to have a little fun, but it’s definitely, it’s definitely the other side of the coin in terms of it’s just black and brown and it’s kind of what it looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean what it really sort of boils down to, I think is two things. One you’re introducing to these creatives, at sort of the beginning stages of their career, a new possibility for what work can be, which is, or for what creative work can be, which is that it’s infused with play. We’ve had a lot of people on the show that are in the advertising industry and such, and they always talk about the long hours and the shoots and none of it sounds fun. They’re able to be creative, but it doesn’t sound like they’re really enjoying the job, you know? I think the second thing is that you’re inviting in this new tradition of this is what creative work can look like. So you’re saying yes, you can do this and also it can be fun. It doesn’t have to be stuffy or bureaucratic or anything like that. Yes, there are certain protocols that have to get done, but the magic and the environment that you’re able create is how you get your best work.

Jeffrey Henderson:
This was probably midway through dependent. It was maybe three months in and the team was feeling a certain way cause we had just, well, we had set up, I was looking for a full studio for us to work out of. This was probably end of 2019. Because I wasn’t finding exactly the space I wanted I sort of was feeling a little grumpy about it, at the same time I was working with the spot on 118th Milbank Children’s Aid Society. And it’s a afterschool program set up in Harlem basketball courts and swimming pools kind of have everything. When Zion Williamson lost his shoe, he did it on the algebra courts of Milbank, but it also has these classrooms, they actually have a onsite nursing office. So it’s pretty well-developed. And so the classrooms needed a little update. So I went to the folks there I’m like, look, tell you what, instead of me paying for a regular lease, I’m just going to update one of these classrooms.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And we’re going to work here in the mornings until two, when kids show up. Would that work and they, before I could even finish, they’re like done show up whenever. So we put some big screen TVs in, we put some tables, chairs, we were getting prepared, then COVID hit. So we kind of got locked out like everybody else. So the team was still in a certain way cause they had gone to two or three meetings and would just get to know each other and they were liking the vibe, but we shut it down from soon. Brie, our project manager, also runs a community kind of center for creatives. So she was like, we gonna have book club. So Saturday mornings from nine to 11, like one Saturday morning, Saturday mornings, we started meeting and having book clubs. What was happening was there were elements that were going over the young folks head just in terms of here’s things you ought to know whether it was in design or government or sales or e-commerce, whatever things that need to be had, or we need to discuss we’d discuss it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so she set up these meetings and buy a book. It was more like here’s an article to read or a the Netflix video to watch. And so we discuss it and three or four in, I was like, we’re taking away from their Saturdays. I was like, maybe we should turn it down a little. So we took a week off. They complained like nobody’s business. And were like, yo, why are we doing book club? Okay. And some of this was because everybody was sort of quarantined. Everybody was locked away. And so I thought, okay, we’ll do this bit because everybody’s locked away. Once we all get to go out and see the world, we’ll slow it down, did not stop. It just became this thing that everybody did together had conversations that were sort of like, this is serious and this is a safe space.

Jeffrey Henderson:
By then, we all got to know each other. So we give each other grief like nonstop, but it’s sort of a safe space for creatives to kind of, we show our work on Wednesday, Wednesday afternoon. That’s when we talked about work, work, work. But on Saturdays, and it’s not mandatory. Some people want a squad, like they’re like, no, I don’t need that. Cool. But the other half they show up religiously and the other place they go, well, let me see what the topic is. And then I’ll drop off. There was definitely this added piece of like, there’s just a conversation that, especially for creatives, especially for black and brown folks, being able to, I think, chop it up in that that sense is special. I mean, you kind of have to make space for that.

Maurice Cherry:
I liked it. There’s a section it’s not on the And Them side. I think it’s on the good thing site. That’s called book club where you sort of have some writings and things. I want to talk about that later. And I know we spent a lot of time talking about And Them, but let’s kind of shift the focus here because really this interview is about you. You’re originally from Ohio. So where you grew up, what was it like there?

Jeffrey Henderson:
That’s funny cause my wife and I laugh about this all the time is that my, wife went to stolen. So it’s a big deal. She’s from Philly. She went to Spelman. So she definitely talks about HBCU and what it meant. And it was never like my sister went to Wilberforce, going to HBCU was never anything that felt like I needed to do because, and I credit, this is like, we’re looking at 30 year anniversary. Or what is it? Yeah, 30. I graduated from high school, 30 years ago and 91. And I graduated with, out of the hundred kids in my class. It was 96, black folk, just black. Like one side of Baden was, is black, black, black, black, black, like just all black. And so, and I would joke with people like, I didn’t know, white people until I got to college, like literally, like I knew white people from the folks that went to our school weren’t that many or I saw them on TV.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I would joke like white people were kind of imaginary. Like, it wasn’t a real thing. I learned about cultural and all that, it just didn’t really exist. And I never met anybody who was really like that. And so there’s a certain confidence that I had of being… Only having to worry about my culture. And so when I got to college, when I got to Purdue, it was very much like, oh, here’s another culture. I was like, okay, cool. But now I just care about engineering. Like, all I want to do is get into design and Nike and I’m supposed to study this so I’ve never worried about embracing anything of them, I’m just going to focus on school. And so after two years of that, I actually, at the one year I was like, yeah, I’m done would be in the middle of nowhere. Let’s go have some fun.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I moved to Atlanta, nothing but black folk. And so that became a thing. And I think when I left and went to Nike, it was a strange sort of weird balance of me trying to figure out what was, what, and I honestly try to, and I don’t even know how to put it, I was trying to fit in, but I guess I wasn’t really trying that hard cause like everybody I knew was basketball, sports, marketing, brand Jordan. Like it was just all the black and brown people like it was. And I kind of hung out with whoever, but that’s just where I’ve found myself, other people who, I don’t even know if it was like, I found them as much as they were like, yo, we’re doing these things. You want to come hang out. And they were the normal things, like whatever, if it’s a barbecue or whatever.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it was like, cool. I don’t know that I went out of my way, but it was this confidence that none of us really settled in until I moved to Harlem like three years ago. And when I got to Harlem, I was like, yo, this feels just like, they know how this feels just like being in Atlanta. And one of the things that kind of brought it up. So we did this project with the Apollo and it was about sneakers. And about education and someone had, was like we have to tell people why we’re doing something at the Apollo around sneakers. And I was like, no, we don’t, we don’t have to tell anybody. Like, if you ask somebody about sneakers and they’re black, the culture kind of says, they’re going to tell you something about it. They will tell you they couldn’t afford something.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And they going to tell you that knew somebody who had it. They going to tell you their own personal story, but we don’t have to have a conversation about why. Cause you’re the Apollo like is blackity black, black, black, black, like it’s just there. And I think that part, going back to Jefferson township, they know high aware, like our Italian immigrant history teacher went out of his way to make sure we understood that Lincoln didn’t free the slaves because he liked black people. He went out of his way to make sure like, nah, like this is what you need to hear. And that was just a school we grew up in. So like when I got to other places, like really that’s what y’all are. Whether they were black schools, white schools, like we learned it a hundred percent the way I think is discussed now. It was never a question for me or any of my friends going up.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I would say it’s a wild ride for me. It was the best place to be from, a little too small for me. Definitely getting out to the rest of the world was meaningful, but I would not replace. Oh, by the way, they know how it has its own sort of history with crime, drugs, sneakers, and everything else to where the most prominent sneaker mall in all of America was the little mall on the west side of Dayton that had the best foot locker sales, period. When I got to Nike, sales people were like, Salem mall. They did a lot of business. If you track east St. Louis, Dayton, Ohio or Memphis, it’s where underground railroad, there were a lot of stops, three major ones. So it’s why Wilberforce the central state are there. It was a lot of black folk who work there. When drug money started coming and drugs started working their way north, those were the same three places that folks stopped. They know how it kind of grew, music and drugs. It was a big thing especially in the late seventies, early eighties.

Maurice Cherry:
We had one other person on the show from Dayton. hannah Beachler she was episode 300 back in 2019. You said that initially you kind of like said it really quickly. I was like, wait a minute, what else do I know I’m going to show has been from Dayton. Cause I remember at least one or two other people. But her specifically, I remember because of that episode, but were your parents really supportive of you going into design? I’m curious, you know, you said before, if you ask any black person about sneakers are kind of, they’re going to kind of already have a cultural connection to it. So I won’t ask you that specifically, but were your parents kind of behind you going this route with your career?

Jeffrey Henderson:
In no way, shape or form based on this. My mother was a teacher and the reality is she didn’t care what I did as long as I tried my best and did my best, she was a person who, no matter what it was, she put that art on the refrigerator because you did it and you worked really hard and she was a middle school teacher. So she kind of had that in her, you can do whatever you want. I believe in you, yada, yada, yada, to the point where you almost didn’t believe whether she meant it or not. Cause she said it like everyday at all times, but you always had someone who was in your corner. So I think my mother wanted it to happen because I wanted it to happen. But you have to realize like this was 1991, sneakers weren’t a real thing.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it was sort of a side conversation to the point where it wasn’t till I got to Cole Haan where the question is why does Nike own Cole Haan? Because it wasn’t making any money for Nike, the brand. And it was because an ADA still Knight knew that the industry common thought was if you wanted to make money and sneakers, you had to sell brown shoes, sneakers didn’t make money. And so he bought Cole Haan in order to make money. Well, fast forward, he and a few other people made sneakers like the regular topic. So sneakers weren’t a real thing and the reality is my father, who I didn’t have like the best relationship with, he didn’t say anything, he watched because I was getting this engineering degree from some prestigious schools and I had a co-op, I had an internship with AT&T and he was like, oh, Jeff is set.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So he didn’t say a word. He just let me be yada, yada yada. And so I graduated with a degree in engineering with three years of internships with AT&T. And at that time AT&T was one of the biggest design engineering companies in the U.S. And I did not pursue going to AT&T. I took a job doing blueprints in Beaverton, Oregon, and my father didn’t say a word. He didn’t say a word. The only reason I know, I mean, I know he didn’t say a word, but maybe three and a half- four years later, my parents come out to Oregon. I think by that time we had maybe had like a first kid Draymond was like a year old and they’re watching Draymond. So I come home after work and my father had come to, I don’t know if you know anything about that campus, but the Michael Jordan building is, that it’s not center of campus, but it’s middle of campus.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And right next to it is this track under the trees and there’s basketball courts right next door. And so my father ran track for university of Michigan. So I was like, you can go work out and on the track, just pull up the car and tell the guard you’re there. And no one will care. And so I guess he did that. And then when I get home, after that day, my mother’s laughing and I was like, what’s so funny. It’s your father finally gets it. And I was like, what do you mean? He gets it now? He had never said anything to me. He never complained about me working at Nike, nothing. I would sit there and shoot.

Maurice Cherry:
that’s probably why he wasn’t complaining.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I mean, he, I kind of saw it, but again, he was like, my son has an engineering degree, took his first job blueprints at Nike. And then he got a job drawing, kids, shoes at Nike, and now he’s doing basketball shoes in that, he just, it just seemed add up in his mind of what engineering degree and get like a real job in his mind, which was, being from Ohio, you can go work at a car company and do like, what are you doing out here in the Pacific Northwest? And I guess he started talking to other runners who on the track and my father was a runner and I didn’t care anything for that. So he was bonding with the people on the truck. Oh yeah. My son works over in design, like over, like in that building. Now we all know at this point, like designers at Nike are treated like they can walk on water. So when he started saying, my son works over in design, two things happened.

Jeffrey Henderson:
One, I was one of four, I don’t know, black designers in Nike, all men. So they either knew who I was or they were just Ooh, your sons at the time. And so they started talking to him and he started realizing, oh, maybe this is a thing. And so he started asking him what they do. And they were riding up, rattling off things like I just signed a deal for the NBA or I did this and all that, big that he actually understood. And at that point, that’s when he was like, oh, now because my father and I didn’t have the tightest relationships, he never said anything to me for or against. But from that point on, I knew that at least he knew that this wasn’t a mistake that I had made. He knew that like, oh, this was something that was real. So then he wore the shoes with a little more pride. Meanwhile, my brothers are walking around like, oh yeah, that’s yours. My brother designer. It didn’t matter what shoe it was. My brother did that. You know, my brother, my brother, he did everything pretty much. He did that.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me what it was like living in Atlanta when you went to Georgia tech, because you went, you lived in Atlanta during, I think it’s peak Atlanta. It is Freaknik. It’s the Olympics and I think also the burgeoning hip hop scene there with so-so Def and stuff. What was it like being in Atlanta during that time?

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I as the biggest nerd who didn’t care, just [crosstalk 00:42:56] . I’m merely to go, I’m coming down here. I’m going to find a wife. It’s chocolate city. We’re all good hanging out. And I hung out hard for three years. As the biggest nerd, not even cool whatsoever. And it was everything you just named. It was pre Olympics. Everybody was gassed up. It was… What is it? My buddy’s roommate was a bouncer at the gold club and magic city. So we would just go sit at the bar with no money, just try and pretend like we fit in like, knowing we had zero money and we just sit at the bar and order water.

Maurice Cherry:
That can still happen today in Atlanta.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And we go in cause I get bored or whatever, and it’s like nothing but rich folk in here and its like, wow, and we would just leave after like 10 minutes. We were just like, making sure everything was good. But that was the level of everybody was sort of chilling. And yeah, we went back to Atlanta maybe three years after like, yes, not the same, my boys, were still living in like, it’s different now, but it was one of those. We were also in college. There’s nothing that will compare like as an adult to those three years when we were in college with no real responsibilities, other than staying alive and making sure you took some classes. Between going to school in Atlanta and moving to Tokyo was an ex-pat life is good. But those were big time.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel you, man. Last week, actually this past weekend, I was talking to my best friend from college. So I went to Morehouse here. He and I were just talking cause his 40th birthday was last week. And my 40th birthday was a couple of months ago. And we were reminiscing on the past. We were looking at old pictures from back then and stuff. It was wild. So I was in the AUC, right near the turn of the century. I came in 99, 99 going into 2000 and stuff. And I worked for this website. I worked for this website called College Club. That was sort of a precursor to Facebook and I was one of the campus representatives. So what that entailed was that you went around and you basically captured campus life. We had these big Sony Marika, digital cameras that you had to put a three and a quarter inch floppy disc into and take pictures and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
So we were just looking at old pictures and stuff like that from the past, like, man, it’s such a trip how Atlanta has changed since then, because yeah, when you’re here in college, I mean, and I don’t know if it was like this at Georgia tech, but certainly at Morehouse in the AUC, the clubs would send charter buses to the campus to pick you up, take you to the club, you go and do whatever you want at the club and they’ll bring you right back to campus. So you, ain’t got to worry about trying to catch Marta, trying to catch a cab or trying to bum a ride from, from somebody to get back.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that’s come down during [inaudible 00:45:49] and they’d be like, oh, this is amazing. And I was like, no, this is terrible. Everybody’s life is traffic jam. And it’s all these people from everywhere, hanging out and it’s like, yo, I can go on a random Tuesday to Fitz Plaza and it’d be bought out like, we’re good. And it’s just the mall, like it’s just the mall.

Maurice Cherry:
So I missed that Atlanta.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I mean, I can’t tell you whether it’s changed. All I know is I’m old now

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, it’s changed. It’s changed ain’t that shame. So, I mean, there, there might still be that same liveness depending on what the event is, and this is probably pre pandemic, but now we’re probably in the gunshots. There’ll probably be some kind of violence that breaks out. So it’s yeah, it’s definitely not the same.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Harlem is tying to trying to figure out where it’s going to be in that level. Which again, when I moved here it was like, oh, I’m not sure. We’ll figure it out. Yada, yada, yada. What I really loved about being in Atlanta and I think it was a combination of the immigrant culture that was there that I didn’t know was going to be there. The Atlanta population that was like, it was Atlanta. And then it was the rest of Georgia. And if you don’t know, if you just moved it, you don’t know the immigrant population, I lived off of Buford highway.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow. Okay. Okay. All right. Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
The food was amazing. And so, that had sort of, like, if you don’t know Atlanta, those things don’t mean anything to you. Harlem is kind of the same way. And so being able to pick up those pieces of going from oh yeah, I miss it. And I didn’t really realize it until I got to Harlem and started walking around. I was like, yo, this feels like swats. I feel like there’s a mall here that’s Greenberg. I feel like there’s something here and I think that goes to the creative conversations that I’m having unapologetically. It’s kind of black folk. And then I encourage what designers, Sarah she’s from Columbia. And I’m like, yo, bring Columbia to the projects that we work on, please just bring them all in there. I want to see that. I want to feel like your home is there because folks kind of want that from a creative vision at this point. And if they don’t, I don’t know what to do with them. Like maybe they’re my clients.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So what I’m hearing is correct me if I’m wrong here, because I’m coming up to a question with this, but you grew up in Dayton, you went to Purdue, which is right across the way in Indiana and you come down to Atlanta and then after that, you’re sort of in Tokyo, what were you searching for during that time

Jeffrey Henderson:
Being in Tokyo or?

Maurice Cherry:
Talking about like the entire journey? Was there a feeling that you were chasing or what was your drive throughout that period of time?

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s this unadulterated push for something different, something new. There was a Twitter post a while ago with like when somebody go invent some new animals. Cause I want some new meats. I’m tired of eating the same meats and I’m kind of like that guy of growing up. Like I always wanted the new music, but I thought everybody else did. And then as I got older, I still wanted the new music. I wanted the new shoe. And it’s like, this is definitely like a knee of all things. Like I see somebody wearing a pair of shoes that I have. I’m like, yep. I got to put those shoes away. Everybody’s on this Jordan one thing. And I’m like, oh, I just put those away. I can’t walk out the house and it’s not because I’m a sneaker dude is because I just feel a certain way.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So going to Purdue, middle of nowhere, west Lafayette, they had what I thought I wanted, but it was also something different. Tokyo was like, yo, this is the wildest place on earth in terms of the visuals and the culture and the class and the people, language, everything was like, yo, I want to do this. And then I got done doing. I was like, yeah, we’re good. Let’s go to the next place. It just became this constant hunt for something new, which I still kind of have. But I think as I’ve gotten older, the combination of new plus know, I just like home, I like walking out the house, totally feeling like I’m at home and think all those other times it was me going what’s the next thing? When I got to Nike, the first thing I said was, I think this was a conversation with tinker.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And he was like, what do you want to do? And my first words were not basketball. Cause I grew up playing basketball. I knew basketball. It was just a second social life for me. And I was like, I want to do soccer. I want to do something I have no business doing so I can be in a whole nother world to see something totally new and meet new people or sweat up or the kids, the first place they told me the basketball, but even then I was trying to do something that I don’t know. I drove everybody crazy because I was trying to do something different. And I think what’s interesting is that question also pretty much pegs was my creative kind of processes was like. It was interesting cause Nike figured that out before I did. And so to fast-forward through all the headaches of my first five, six years at Nike, before I got to Japan was what they taught me was that if you put me in a functioning business where everything is great design is great and everything’s working, I will jack it up basically.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Cause I asked all the questions, why are we doing this? Why aren’t we doing it? What else could we be doing? Almost getting just to the point of start over. And so they figured out, yo, let’s go to places we know should be big, that need changing. But the people there aren’t ready to change it. So basically I became one of the people that Nike would throw into a situation that needed to be changed, but they didn’t know how to get the people in the business changing. And so I always say my first conversation of solving any problem is why? Why are we here? What are we supposed to be doing? What problem are we trying to solve? If we don’t get to the original why then we’re just putting band-aids on things. Just cover it out and go about, let it go to the next day.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so I have this underlying question knowing at me like, yo, it could be better. It could be like better, better. It could be really better. So let’s get to the wire matter. And so I think going to new places, whether it was going to Purdue or going to Georgia tech or going to Beaverton or going to Tokyo or coming to New York City, it was always like, yo, I want to get to something new with something different. Then eventually it came to like, I’m ready to chill now. I get me. And so how can I provide opportunities for my young team? And I tell them all the time, I don’t want you here. I want you to go to your Japan. I want you to go to your mind. I want you to go to your, whatever that might be. And then you can come back if this is the right place, but go see the world. Cause it’ll make you stronger and give you new points of view that you won’t get if you just stay home.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s something about footwear or just footwear design that the average consumer doesn’t understand?

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s funny. We just had a conversation about why I do shoes and it’s always this funny business thing is that I [inaudible 00:52:46] . I will measure people from the ground up. They’d be like, what shoes you got on? And it’s not always the measurement that people think, oh, you have expensive. Like, no, no, I can kind of take you. My stereotype is nothing based on anything else you have other than look, I see what shoes you have on right now and how you’re wearing them. And I’m going to make some calls about you whether I’m right or wrong. And I think that is probably been one of the best articles I always point to for people is Tressie, McMillan, cat, and room for Zuora. I can’t remember the exact title. Cause every time I look it up, I get lost.

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s the reason poor people can’t afford to dress poor. And it talks about how the world expects you to, if you go into apply for a job that’s like at Walmart that pays nothing. If you’re black, you have to dress better than the job. You have to show up with something that you just have to otherwise, you’re not really right. That’s something that other folks don’t have to worry about. And I think to some degree that’s been sort of ingrained into my thinking, stems from Dayton, Ohio, like, this is kind of what I see. And I think working on shoes, whether it was one of the things we approached it easy with, it was like, it should be like the most democratic shoe that anybody can wear with colors that don’t distract or compliment or fight or cause fear. And then the project like I’m doing now like…

Jeffrey Henderson:
I don’t cause fear. The project I’m doing now, for personal, 99 products, it’s a basic running shoe that is meant for anybody to pull it off. Whether you’re a teacher, either student, or head of the class, in the back of the class, it’s for everybody. I think that sort of thinking goes into product that most people write off or they don’t even think about, they just go, “oh, I’ll just buy whatever shoe and I’ll wear it.” Maybe 15 years ago, you could have said that about most of America with cars; that their car really represented what they were doing or where they would going. They put a lot of effort and energy into the point where people stopped caring about cars so much.

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’d be like, “oh, I’ll just get a used car.” That still says something, it means something that people would put a lot of energy into cars. Today, people still put a lot of energy into the shoes they wear, even when they play them down.”Oh, you know, this is just like throwaway shit.” I laugh because people say, oh, I don’t really care what kind of shoes I wear.” I was like, “okay, then why don’t you wear some bright red clown shoes?” And they go, “well, that’s stupid.” I go, “oh, so you do care.” You do have a uniform. You do have an opinion of what you wear, so it’s not that you don’t care.

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s just that you don’t care to keep up with the people who you think care too much about Smith. So I think in the design process, it’s sort of identifying what people want for function, want to say about themselves and how it fits into their overall wardrobe. Shoes is something else, that you may wear a different shirt every day in a different pair of pants every day. But you might wear the same shoes every day. That’s going to say something about you, like your haircut. It’s going to say something about you and you choose to be there. When you’re designing for people, you kind of have to want to be on their person, like every day, because that’s what they might use it for.

Maurice Cherry:
So earlier you were talking about how you were working for Nike and you were sending home shoes to your dad, shoes to your brothers, how your brothers were saying, “oh yeah, my brother designed this shoe.” All these different kinds of shoes. Can you name some of the shoes you have designed? Some of the more well-known footwear designs that you’ve done?

Jeffrey Henderson:
The big ones are probably the Yeezy three 50 V2, to go on the Grand Max Plus 2009, those are probably the bigger ones. Then there’s 1,000,000,001 other shoes that made it or didn’t make it. The shoes that I’ve made that sold 10 times more that were like the shoes called the Nike Basketball Air Glide. Not to be confused with the Zoom Glide that came out 15 years later, but the basketball Glide was a $55 white leather basketball shoe that sold for three years more than anybody could count, just because it was at a price point. It’s interesting, I think less about those shoes. People always go, “you’re missing the lead, like talk about those shoes.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it’s more like, “nah,” I’m more. And maybe it’s because I’m old, I’m more interested in the people who I’ve helped become designers for them about their path and remembering when they didn’t know any better, just like I didn’t know any better and Ray Butts and Andre Doxy.”You need to work on this, and you need to work on that.” They took me under their wing and made sure I did the right thing. That’s my biggest high, I probably did that for my mother, but it’s more about the folks who I could teach and seeing what they do with it. And also them calling me back, I remember when somebody at Denver was like, “yo, I used to be mad at you when you told me to do things and now I’ve got an intern and I’m like, yo, I’m so sorry.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
It just comes full circle at some point.

Maurice Cherry:
So after Nike, you went to Cole Haan for a couple of years, but you said Nike had bought Cole Haan, correct?

Jeffrey Henderson:
Nike bought Cole Haan in 88 and then they sold Cole Haan in 2013.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Was it a big shift design-wise going from athletic footwear to a wider range of footwear that Cole Haan would offer?

Jeffrey Henderson:
I wanted it to be. It’s crazy because I went from Japan to Nike running, which was probably the biggest leap I made in terms of learning skill set of being in design and design leadership. Then I did sportswear for not even a year before, we just need to get out of Oregon and go to New York city and with Cole Haan. I was so excited to get the Cole Haan and learn more about dress shoes, and how the last word and how you all the technical benefits and leathers. And like that was like, it was a whole thing. I was going through women’s dress shoes. Like this is again me chasing something like new and different, like, so one day and probably a week in Mark Parker shows up and I had just probably no more than like a month before that we had presented like a line that kind of for at least five years changed, like the direction Nike sportswear that was received really well.

Jeffrey Henderson:
We got high fives, lots of praise, yada, yada, yada. And he was in that meeting. It was like, this is really good. So about two weeks of me being at Cole Haan and I was just visiting for like a month, I was like, yo, I’m going to learn all this figure out what’s going on. It’s going to be good. Parker shows up. And he comes into like, I had this makeshift office and I had like all these pictures plastered on the wall of like Tom Ford and Gucci and churches, like wind tips. And I was trying to learn like dress shoes. And he was like, what’s this? And I’m like, yo, I’m trying to learn like dress shoes. This is new to me. Like I’m excited. He was like, yeah, yeah, that’s cool. Why don’t you do what you did in sportswear? And I looked at him like, okay.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I knew exactly what he meant. He was like, I need you to do something different that like learn dress shoes. And he meant I should learn dress shoes. And he was also like, don’t show up and give me a wing to show up and give me something different. And so immediately we did the lunar ran light in kind of an hour because it was a marketing guy and a engineering guy were like, “yo, what if we did this? And I was like, yeah, we, I did loner for like three years in running and sportswear. Like we can do this in 10 minutes.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so me learning everything about dress shoes and fashion, in the three years, it was all good, but it was literally like let’s do something to their credit. Everybody was right, because it became the hallmark shoe, it was the coolest shoe for all of three months. And then it just became every IT, lawyer, everybody who wanted to wear a sneaker group had to wear a dress. You wear that shoe to this day. Right. It’s still like, oh no, it’s not the coolest shoe in the world. But it’s definitely something that I don’t know. Every insurance guy has a pair.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you seen footwear design change over your career?

Jeffrey Henderson:
What’s been both. Probably. It’s kind of annoying to like some overhead to solve for where design is. One way, you go to this design school, you learned these rules, you make something and you draw it, you go into the factory and you build it. Now, to me, it’s really encouraging to watch folks who basically just Photoshop some colors together and throw some shoes together. And like it equates to, they may take the Jordan One and flip it in colors. That’s new. And the purist will be like, well, that’s not design it. Just the color. And I’m like, yeah, but at the end of the day, if somebody puts it on and gets value out of it and they feel a certain way, I think that’s valuable. Even if the shoe was already designed and someone added their own touch to it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I don’t necessarily think negatively about it. I do know that if you want somebody to make a new shoe, you probably should pay someone who knows how to make new shoes. But also I’ve seen plenty of designers and it was true at Nike people who would draw the most amazing shoe. And then they were colors that were terrible, like completely unwearable. And you’d be like, “yeah, yeah. Just, just send that over to my guy over here, let her do it. Let, let her put some materials on it.” You did your job, you made an amazingly functional, beautiful, physical thing. Now let somebody else add the color and whatever else that makes it wearable. And that’s a whole other job. That’s a whole other skillset that just because you drew a shoe, doesn’t mean you’ve actually had that skillset. So I think seeing that become a more regular part of the industry of people being elevated, I think is very worthwhile.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve done work with Allbirds before and there’s a lot of these kinds of, I thought they came about in the last few years, a lot of these minimalists kind of shoe designs, there’s Allbirds, Greats, Vesey. There’s probably a dozen or so of them. What do you think about those kinds of shoe companies?

Jeffrey Henderson:
I love the energy they bring in, my work with Allbirds is literally, they kind of thought they might want to do something. So they hired me for one small project and I was like, you guys will be big. Can I hang out with you on it? They said “We don’t want that much. We don’t want that bigger relationship.”

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow! Okay.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I don’t need to do that. Well, and it was one of those to their credit. I think they focused on doing something that no one in the industry thought was the right thing to do. If you ask everybody in the industry, “Hey, would you make a wool shoe?” The first thing I got is it gets dirty. It gets like, don’t do that. Dave leaned in heavy and the way they did it through DTC through a community built on starting with Silicon valley and working his way to wall street.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think they chose a community that traditional sneaker folks didn’t have an idea about. I think to the credit of a lot of those companies, a lot of them have been people who follow in those footsteps, no pun intended to do the same thing as with like, I loved like what great submission was like, just to bring something that was quality and simple. I think they may have lost track of that along the way. I think you do, you try to run with the sneakerheads, like you get lost in like the energy and the same and the cool kid and they stock X and all the other stuff, instead of just like, it’s a business, make a dish that people want. And I think there’s credit in doing that without having to follow.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think a lot of the brands that are making stuff now, I kind of liked them. They also give people the benefit of they can walk out their house without having the same shoe. If you walk up, do you want me to house with a pair of SES on and no, one’s going to be like, oh, y’all got the same shoe. And if you do, there’s a bonding moment. But if you tried to bond with everybody who had on a pair of air max, you wouldn’t go that far.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I can see that. I think one thing with those sorts of shoes, I don’t know if they are sitting in warehouses or if they’re made to order. But of course, I think with the rise of these are certainly an increased public perception of easy to obtain footwear that wouldn’t necessarily be through Adidas or Nike or something like that.I’ve seen shoes on Instagram that were clearly just, I don’t know if it’s a drop shipping sort of thing, but you’ll see some shoes on Instagram. They clearly are just parts glued onto a sock that they’re selling as a shoe. And you think, “oh, this might be good in these sort of still shots,” but then you actually get the shoes and they smell like industrial strength adhesive and you have to air out your apartment that may have happened to me. I’m not saying it did or didn’t, but [crosstalk 01:05:30] that may or may not have happened. I plead the fifth, it’s my show. But, I think what it does is that at least democratizes the aspect of footwear design, where you have these independent companies designing shoes that are also able to appeal to people that are different from before, the bigger brands that are well-known for designing shoes, like a Nike or Adidas.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it forces the bigger brands to innovate when they really may not have had the catalyst to do so. I would equate what Allbirds did for sneakers is exactly what Tesla did for electric vehicles. Toilet had been sitting on electric vehicles forever and they weren’t trying to make it the cool kid car. It was just an electric vehicle. We make it so what, and Tesla was like, no, we make the electric vehicle. And I think there’s going to be the evolution of anything else, you’re going to find some companies that make something that’s not all that great. And hey, if you’re going to go out there and try everything, you got to be willing to be like, if you’re the one who’s not going on the open, you’re trying every restaurant. Sometimes you go fast in here, your food, but if you’re the person who wants to be that person, who’s like, yeah. Before anybody else sees it, I’m going to try it. You may stumble upon the next thing. I’m curious, what are you wearing? What is your go-to shoe at this point?

Maurice Cherry:
My oh Jesus, oh boy. It does get personal because I hate shoe shopping. I absolutely hate it. It is up there with going to the dentist. It’s shopping for shoes. I do not like it. [crosstalk 01:07:06] I have sort of wide Flintstone, ish feet. And so as a kid, going with my mom to the store to get shoes was always a hassle because one of my feet is decidedly about a half size, bigger than the other one. And also because my feet are wide, most shoes that come in like a medium are way too small for me. Like I can’t even get my foot in it. So I’d have to get a larger size because that would then kind of widen the width of the shoe a bit. But then now I’ve got all this like floppy toe room at the end. And my mom’s like, just put a sock in it, like just stuff a sock in it.

Maurice Cherry:
So it doesn’t get the crease or whatever. But then that [crosstalk 01:07:50] hurts while you’re walking and you’re trying to run. It’s a, it’s a whole thing. So I’m not a big, [crosstalk 01:07:56] I’m not a, I’m not a big shoe shopping person. It wasn’t until I know that was well into adulthood that I saw a podiatrist and actually got like my feet measured and all this sort of stuff. And I had been wearing the wrong size for well over a decade, wrong size shoe. [crosstalk 01:08:13].

Maurice Cherry:
I wear about a size 10 extra, extra, extra, extra wide, like a 10 40. And usually what I was getting was, and I mean, you know, growing up, of course it would change as my foot change. But like right now I usually rock about an 11 is pretty good. But like if one was an 11 and the other was an 11 and a half, that would be perfect because even on the other foot, which is bigger, it’s still like very constricting and most wide shoes are hideous. You’re a footwear designer. Even talking about this, the desire for like medium shoes. I mean, the sky is the limit. You get to watch shoes and everything looks like orthopedic shoes. Why is that?

Jeffrey Henderson:
So there’s a little bit of like the bell curve. And so quite typically the design goes to, and you’ll notice that most things, when they’re in a smaller size, they can be more cute, more appealing. And so,

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’re dope. Like I can, like, you can get them in different colors and they look nice and then you get to the wide shoes. And it’s just like, it’s like what I call the PE teachers, which are the monarchs from Nike. Like that’s all you get. [crosstalk 01:09:27] I know, I know that’s probably,

Jeffrey Henderson:
That’d be the cool kid shoe.

Jeffrey Henderson:
But a lot of it is definitely built on again. If you’re making your money in one area, a lot of brands don’t then spend a lot of time in other areas. And so you get some brands who may find that’s a niche customer. So my guess is you bought more than your fair share of New Balance.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. Yes. How did you know you’re reading my mind? Yes. There was a time in my twenties where I had not a lot of different colorways of New Balance, but the new balance, not the nine nineties, those were ones I ended up getting before. But like the, I forget the number. It’s like new balance five somethings. I had those in probably every color.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it kind of becomes your uniform and it’s time to, okay. But then when is that? What ends up happening? Two things happen. Everybody who has that same point is wearing the same thing. And then you get lumped in a box.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And then it’s one of those, oh, you have wide feet. So you have to wear new balance and then there’s not enough, let’s do something different. [crosstalk 01:10:37] And so you have to refine the brands that sort of, I don’t know, care, or we’ll show you something different and it’s not easy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s the new balance Five, seven fours. I had them in so many different color ways. Cause they, I mean, and on 11 they still fit. They still were pretty wide, but I had those for a long time and yeah, there was that association, which is actually why I stopped wearing them. Well, that in my podiatrist was like, you need to stop wearing these. They’re not doing any favors, like stop wear these shoes. Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So it was funny as it was a podcast or was a clubhouse and my friend Simone runs it and she had the president of Rihanna’s brand owner [crosstalk 01:11:18] and hear her talk about inclusivity and design that what Rihanna wanted. She was like, look, there were two things that quickly and easily made, making intimate wear for a diverse population of women. Important one was really easy. And that was just shades of nude. Like just what colors you chose. She was like, that was really easy. Every brain could flip that switch immediately and go from like two shades of nude to 20 shades of nude because there are different colors of people. And she was like, that was actually, it’s more of like a decision you have to make. And then it’s a supply chain thing and some operational, the blah, blah, blah. It’s pretty easy. The really difficult one is when it comes to physical shape and sizing, because one, you have to have people in the building who can relate and understand.

Jeffrey Henderson:
She was like, not everybody in intimates is the same size 16. Sometimes you’re 16 up top. Sometimes you’re 16 on bottom. Like it’s just different shapes. And if you can’t have a real conversation about it, cause the right diversity is in the room is not in the room. Then you just end up making, like, we just took the same thing and made it bigger. And then you don’t write answers and then you get what she put it. You’ve been with skinny people think that people want, and she was like, it’s not that blunt, but you also get what skinny people think super skinny people want. And she used those words. She was sort of getting like, yo, like it just doesn’t help. And they don’t know. So until you bring people in the room who have wider feet or like our last version of the, and that was one of the things Rihanna said is like, no, when you make the larger sizes, it better be just as beautiful when a person is when you make the medium size.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Like that’s just what it should, what should be done. And so when we were making the next versions of the point, I had a lot of flat, cause I know a few football players who were like a size 15 and I shoe only went up to a 14 and it was like, Jeff, Jeff, Jeff. Yeah. Like what are you doing this next batch? And it costs money. Like we had to make molds, we’ve gone up to a size 17 with these things shoes and we’ll try to go up more, but like it costs money to get there and you need people to actually support like, so I sent you a link, you’ll see it, the jokes, John. But that shoe comes in like four E in terms of width [crosstalk 01:13:34] so there, and you’ll try more and it’ll be different. And whether is your cup of tea or not? The idea is that when you wear them, you’ll notice some wind here and you’ll see like, oh, it doesn’t have to look hideous. It doesn’t have to look [inaudible 01:13:50] And it’s kind of, okay. So I think design can bring that to people, especially in shoes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, So, so to answer your earlier question about what I’m rocking. So I do have kind of my two that I tend to sort of vary between one is like a, all black, like Reebok walking shoe. I don’t know what the name of it is, but it has like this air bubble in the sole. So like it’s very bouncing. Like I wanted some just like straight up like black minimalists sneakers that I could just throw on with anything. And then I do have a pair of monarchs and I actually had to stop wearing because the cushioning was too much. Like it was like, my foot was in like a spaceship and it’s funny. Cause I remember when I first got those shoes, I would get so many compliments on them and I’m like, thanks. And I didn’t know if it was for real, cause I honestly got them because they came in a wide with my podiatrist’s had recommended it.

Maurice Cherry:
And when I first put it on, I was like, oh, so this is what it feels like to walk without foot pain. Like now the shoe actually like, but I still have that one for every now and then, but I just bought three pairs of shoes recently.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if this is because I got the vaccine and I feel like I need to go out in the world, but I got three new pairs of shoes recently and they’re different in different ways. So one is a Fila shoe.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s the Oakmont mid and my, my podiatrist, I recommended it cause it had a thick sole and he’s like, you kind of need more of like a, almost like a boot type of shoe as opposed to maybe like a low sneaker type or something. And so I have those and those are great. Those are ass-kicking shoes. Like I love those shoes. And then I got a pair of Hoka, Bondi seven. I just got those a couple of days ago actually. And I might send them back. They’re too bouncy. They feel like I’m wearing moons shoes. Like if I needed to jump and reach high things, I would probably keep them. But like I’m walking and I’m like, whoa, like I’m literally, like I literally have a spring in my step is what it feels like

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s meant to be. It’s meant to do that. So it’s good in terms of the functionality. It’s not the functionality you’re looking for.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And then I got another like honestly I got a card in the mail from DSW that was like $25 off a shoe. I’m like, let me just get some more like knock around shoes. And I got some Sketchers, like slip ons there, the ultra flex 2.0 Mercon slip on sneaker and they’re okay. But like one of the shoes fits and the other one is too small because it’s not wide enough for the other foot so I can still wear them. But they’re just like, they’re okay. And I mean, after the discount, they were like 25 bucks. So I’m like, yeah, this is, this is just something I can just throw on and like check the mail or something like that.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So we’re going to get you into some Johns. You’re going be to, you know, say nothing but good things. We gonna see you on the gram And then you had to give all praise if you like it. And if you don’t, you never heard of it. So its all good.

Maurice Cherry:
Ill Put a link to this in the show notes so people can see it. Like I’m looking at it now, the Jackson YC, John, they come in like this lemon ice, yellow, like ch like classroom, chalk yellow, which is an interesting color way. I like it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
They also come in gray suede, I think there’s a gray suede

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, I see I’m scrolling down. I see now

Jeffrey Henderson:
Scroll down.

Maurice Cherry:
The yellow was interesting though!

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that was based on, so my brother, his kidneys started failing his feet, started swelling and he needed wider shoes. And so I put them in some Birkenstocks, which he was good with, but he needed like some actual real shoes to get around in. Cause he’s in Ohio and it was winter. And so I was working with his brand in China and they made the shoe for seniors. The name of the brand is Zulee’s and so, and the shoe was like, I don’t know, it’s kind of the way they created. It was very much like old people shoes.` It’s like, it just had this diet to this sort of function first and it just didn’t look cool. And I was like, yo, can we make these in first suede? And then can we make them in like some monotone colors that I don’t know, you think you like, look good?

Jeffrey Henderson:
And they were like, well, that’s not what old people want. I was like, well, how do you know? Like, and they were like, all right. So they blessed us with some pairs just to try out. [crosstalk 01:18:04] And people were like, yo, I can look good. Like, and we kept getting hit with, I don’t want to wear them out. And it was like,

Maurice Cherry:
oh, interesting.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Because they were all suede. And they were like, I don’t want to get them dirty. Cause they look so nice. It was like, like stop wearing the shoes that you hate because you can get them dirty and wear these. And it was interesting because we made our conservative desks that, you know, we’ll make them in gray and we’ll make them in yellow thinking that, you know what? People will want the gray because that’s normal. But you know, we’ll get some daring people to wear the yellow and it kept going back. Like I think we sold out of the yellows in most sizes. So you have your side, it’ll be lucky. But for the most part we have grays left cause people wanted like they wanted to stand out in the way that wasn’t like clown, but also they didn’t want to look like I am the old person I am. And I think that, again, it goes to, wasn’t so much about the design, the design should work, but sometimes it’s color and materials [crosstalk 01:19:00] that kind of plays into how people feel.

Maurice Cherry:
It is an appropriate amount of swag. Like I’m looking at the photos, like there’s this one where this dude is getting into like a rag top convertible and like his, the color of the car and his shoes are pretty much the same. I’m like, that’s kind of dope. And he’s cause he’s wearing a black jacket. It has on yellow shoes. And then you see like the black rag top in the yellow paint, like okay. Bet. All right, cool. Well, we will definitely talk about that after we stop recording. Cause I would definitely be in the market for these look, these look great. And it’s interesting that there’s this personal story behind the design too. What I get, you know, from just talking with you and learning about your history and everything is that eventually you always bring it back to the work, which I think is something that is indicative of people that really have a passion behind what it is that they do.

Maurice Cherry:
Like even with the name of your studio being “And Them” like you’re taking the onus and the focus like off of you, it’s really about how the work is being received in the world and how people are using it. Which I think is super, not just, I think super important, but also super inspirational for people to see, because I think especially for younger designers there.

Maurice Cherry:
can be this, want to kind of do the biggest flashiest stuff all the time. Or like, like that’s the stuff that they want to do that they feel like may point out the thing in their career or like put them on the map or something like that. And really if the work that you’re able to do is like really changing people’s lives and affected them. That’s hopefully just as, as good as a takeaway from the work that you do.

Jeffrey Henderson:
No, I think that’s well said. I think even the work that you’re doing, like you talked about, like it took you a number of podcasts and a number of like folks in the outside, like co-sign for credibility to be there with other people. But the reality is you are going to do it because you thought it needed to be there. And I think that’s very important. So people don’t understand that sometimes people won’t come out to you first show people won’t come out and see like the first game you play in cars may not be great. But if you know why you’re there and you keep working on your craft, you get better.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that’d be great, but if you know why you’re there and you keep working on your craft and you get better, I think it then pays off, and it doesn’t always have to be, “Did I have the biggest show on the planet?” Sometimes it’s just about, “Did I do really good work and were people happy?”

Jeffrey Henderson:
So, no, it’s definitely whenever we can use our skills to make friends and family happier, and when they bring us new friends and family that we can work with, we’re happy to use our skillset to make other lives better.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I don’t know that we technically announced it. I guess they announced it. We’re working with this Reinvention Lab out of Texas, this group out of Teach for America to kind of… We ran a shoe contest, and they got to actually find organizations within their group to design shoes and they got to work on it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And what’s interesting is there’s going to be a winner, and we’re actually going to sell some of the shoes that they made. And they were like, “Oh yeah, we don’t care if we won any more.” Just going through the presentation process, how designers look at things, how they have conversations about things… Just the design process was new to them. And that helped them understand what they bring to education and what they bring to laying out curriculum, which I sort of, I don’t know, I hang out with Chris Emdin, whose HipHopEd, and the way he talks about pedagogy. Those are things that I take internally as normal, but they had to go through this class. They had to do this competition to take in and be like, “Oh, design thinking is not just for designers. It helps us.” And so that was really gratifying to see. Or even just our approach and our process could bring, I don’t know, something to other people.

Maurice Cherry:
And speaking of school, I mean, you’re on the advisory board for a school in New York, the Business of Sports School. And most recently you became a board member at Knoll. For you, what’s the importance of sitting on boards like this?

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s… Another thing that I sort of got dragged into, and some of it’s because I’m old, I hang around old people and they are on boards and they say, “You’d be good at this.” I didn’t really know what a board did or what it meant. Now that I’m on two, I can sort of surmise that it’s definitely one of the, for most businesses, the biggest form of sponsorship you can get. Because as much as mentorship and execution are good, if the people who are sort of guiding the people who are in charge understand the entire, I think, operation and process, the better it is for the people who are doing work and the more diverse of an angle you get. And so at BOSS, this a sports school, it was…

Jeffrey Henderson:
And one of my best friends on the board, we were having this discussion around college visits. And so BOSS is a school in Hell’s Kitchen, most of the kids come from the Bronx and Harlem. In terms of who could attend, they’re changing up a little bit how who gets into the school, but it’s definitely an open enrollment. It’s not based on higher test scores and they don’t pick who they get into the school. It’s just kind of an open free-for-all in terms of kids that get to the school.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So it’s not built on kids who are automatically going to Harvard who have family history and education and college background. And so one of the things that they’ve promoted, I think for good reason, is they want to make sure that kids have an understanding of what college is, and so they go on college tours. And so the college tours were happening around junior year, and I said, “No, it’s too late.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And my friend Marie, who works for SMY, her son at the same time… I think both of our sons were in college, were in high school and around junior year at the same time. And she chimed in and was like, “No, you have to understand. My son, this is the biggest time of his life. He’s visiting all these colleges. And it’s really important. It’s shaping who they are.” And I was like, “Yeah, but your son has heard about college since he was five years old. Some of these kids, none of their family is going or has gone to college. And so this is a new concept. They’re expecting them to go work. Some of these kids, their family is wondering why they’re finishing high school, literally wondering why they’re finishing high school, when they could go work and put food on the table. It’s a different conversation. So can we please take them freshman year, even just to one college campus? Normalize the idea of college in their brains before they’re taking an ACT, before they’re taking a prep test. Can we do that?”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And what’s funny is she saw that, and she was like, “Oh.” And because this was happening at the board level, this is well before the teachers had to choose where they were spending money or where they were scheduling time, and so offering a more diversity of voice, at a school like that, I think was powerful. But there’s quite a bit of diversity on that board. When I got to Knoll, there wasn’t that much of diversity of thought on the board. And it was interesting, because when it first came up, I was like, “Are you inviting me on the board because I’m Black?” And they were like, “Well, that’s helpful.” And I was like, “Oh [crosstalk 01:26:00].

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I was like, “Well, are you inviting me on the board because I’m creative?” And they were like, “Yeah, it’s a design company, and we don’t have creative people on the board. There’s a misstep there.” And I was like, “Oh.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And then later on, someone was like, “Yeah, scary enough. You’re also young.” I was like, “Oh, I haven’t been young in a while.” But I was the youngest person on the board. And I think, again, being able to have diverse levels of thought at a board level where it’s really only about sponsorship, it’s really about giving direction to the real leaders and responsible folks who run something, being able to give them a sounding board and holding them to task on, “Are you getting the most out of your people? And by the most, are you just even listening and can you hear their voices?”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think when boards start to diversify, I think… And I mean, the same is true in C-suite. I have a whole thing about, “I love all my friends who are D and I experts at every company, but you wouldn’t need them so much if the C-suite was diverse. You’d have other problems to fix because then those folks would make sure that there was a diverse hiring thing.” Maybe not all the time, but there’d be more folks to sort of like, “Let’s get after diversity in bigger ways.” And I think to me, the board level helps usher and push along those movements. So I’m very, very happy that folks sort of tapped me on the shoulder. One, I didn’t look like the average board person. I also went in saying I wasn’t going to act like the normal board person. And I think they were actually quite excited that I wouldn’t be. So I was blessed to end up in conversations that they wanted me there, as opposed to they felt like their hands were tied about having me.

Maurice Cherry:
So I mentioned before we started recording that I had done my research. I read through a lot of articles that you had written up on the GwoodThin.gs blog, and they’re also syndicated on Medium.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I apologize for [crosstalk 01:27:58].

Maurice Cherry:
No, no. I actually want to talk about that. What does writing do for you as a designer?

Jeffrey Henderson:
Writing is probably, and this plays into, I don’t know, the background of introversion of I stumble across my words. If I’m having a conversation, I’m one of those people who goes, “Oh, I wish I would have thought about that when we’re talking” because I can’t think on my feet like that. And so being able to write, a skill that my sister made sure I… She saw that I had a little bit of a talent. My sister’s 13 years older than me. So she saw I had a little talent and made sure my teachers knew and forced me to write more and more when I was in high school. And that just became a way for me to, almost in a journal way, sort of write down what my thoughts were when I knew I couldn’t finish them in other ways, or I really didn’t feel comfortable talking to other people.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And also allowed me to… And when you get old and have kids, you sort of see that, well, your kids aren’t always listening to you. And I, for sure, didn’t always listen to my parents or my elders, but if you write it down and leave it so that when they’re ready to take any of the information, it’s there for them. And so for me to write it down like this… And people bring up some of those Medium posts all the time like, “Oh, I read such and such.” I don’t even remember writing it. It’s from 2016. And I might’ve just copied and pasted it from a Tumblr post from 2012. But it’s more of my journal, this was kind of going on or a thought that popped up in my head that I may have wanted… or someone asked a question that I wanted to answer for that person, but also wanted to answer for multiple people.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So being able to write, to me… And it’s funny because people often talk like, “Oh, you write the same way you talk.” And it’s like, “Well, that should be the same way with everybody, I would think.” And so I don’t use complete sentences, and I’ll stop in the middle of a sentence and just go into the next thing because it’s really just my thought… And my kids hate it. They’ll read and be like, “You have no focus.” Because they took real writing classes and I’m like, [crosstalk 01:29:57]. “You’re smarter than me because I can send you to a school that you can be smarter than me, so leave me alone.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
But for me, it’s sort of this unfiltered way of throwing down whatever is in my head. And I might evolve six months past whatever I wrote, but my journal is sort of me documenting my thoughts so that if it’s helpful to somebody at a time, it’s good. And also there might be hope that there’s some things that I’m sort of fighting against or don’t want that one day it’ll be sort of useless because they’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, we don’t have those problems anymore. We’ve moved onto new problems.” But hopefully that becomes the case.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I have to say I could not stop reading. I think you’re a fantastic writer. I think you should keep it up.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Thank you. No one knows that I’m paying you in shoes to say that, right? Okay. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, I was going to say that before the shoes. No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding. No seriously, though, I mean, as I read through it, I think it’s important not just as you’re talking about to push your thoughts down, but as you also said, for other people to see, and not just your kids, but for other designers to stumble upon, “This is what it’s like for an agency owner when they’re working on projects,” or, “How do you think about the work that you do in your creative process?” That kind of stuff tends to not really get shared, certainly not from other black designers in that way.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I was listening to, I think one of the interviews you had before, and I think you brought up that you could throw something in a Tweet and how deep does it go, but how long does it actually stick? It kind of gets lost in the universe.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think when you actually write a book, there’s a little bit more staying power. And I think those long reads that challenge you to follow a story that imparts information, I think, are very powerful. And I think there’s also just… Some people would rather have the 300-page book about a topic and some people want a TikTok version of the same thing. And I think everything’s not for everyone. So how I communicate may not be for everybody. I apologize that you had to read through all those, but for some people they enjoy reading them and some people are like, “Yeah, I read the first three lines, and I was good. Way to go.” And that’s okay. [crosstalk 01:32:05].

Maurice Cherry:
No, I read through all of them because some of them you’re talking about different projects that you’ve worked on. There was one even about the recent board appointment that you had mentioned. So it was just good to sort of see it, see how you perceive the world through your eyes and your words and how that all… Because for someone like me, I wouldn’t know what that’s like, but to read your words on it, it’s like, “Oh, so that’s what it’s like.” Just to kind of see that perspective is important.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it’s really powerful when you don’t have enough voices in jobs from people who look like you who might be able to say things and sound like you, not only for you to hear and go, “Oh, okay. This is what it’s like when I get there.” But also I think I wrote one article about of the nicest guys I know on the planet. He posted on his Instagram a photo of the Nike design offsite. It was a picture of all the Nike designers and pretty much all white folk with… You can pick out the three or four people who aren’t white.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Henderson:
And when I saw that, I had anxiety just looking at the picture. Because I remember going to those offsites going like, “This is weird,” and not knowing who to tell or who to say it to except for people who were there.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And we were all kind of looking at each other like, “Yeah. But it is what it is.” Someone just posted the phrase, “It is what it is” on Twitter. And I was sort of like, “That’s a very dark expression for Black folk because it’s almost like you’re giving up, like a loss of hope.” But “it is what it is.” It’s not what I think other people might think it means. It’s definitely like, “We’re done here. There’s nothing we can do. It is what it is.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think changing that at Nike became something so many of us focused on that, I don’t know… I don’t know if we were able to put a dent in it as much as we wanted to, but it definitely some days felt it is what it is.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that picture brought out all that anxiety. And I told him. I was like, “Yo, are you okay? I’m going to actually use the article. I’m going to write your name and say what a good dude you are but also explain this is the truth.” And it’s funny how many people who reached out to me after, on both sides who were like, “Yo, I thought this and I didn’t know how to feel, and I didn’t know what to say.” Depending on, like, on each side, which is kind of interesting. And there were some people were like, “Yo, you never acted this way when you were there.” And it’s like, “Maybe I did and you didn’t notice.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Or, “Maybe when you knew me, I was going with ‘it is what it is.’ So what’s the point in telling you about it?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So writing is a way to sort of, I don’t know, let people see what it really was, even if you couldn’t do it in real time.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think it can also sort of serve as a mirror back to you, particularly in terms of colloquial language. You have one post on here called Who All Gone Be There, which is so common, I think, for any person of color they’re going somewhere that’s mixed company.

Jeffrey Henderson:
[crosstalk 01:35:12] talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You’re like, “Who all gone be there? I need to know what I’m stepping into,” or something like that. Or even there’ll be posts that are named after song titles. There’s one called Shook Ones or something like that. Or even one where you’re breaking down the cost of a shoe, you know, or the materials and everything that go into it because people will, I think, certainly with the inflated sneaker economy now, people will look at a shoe and wonder why it costs that much, but not thinking of everything that has to go into it with research and materials and all that sort of stuff.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Right. And what’s funny is, I think… And I watch what’s happened in the last 20 years with journalism is that, I don’t know, maybe 20 years ago there would be, especially sports journalists, I think that’s kind of where it started with like, “Oh, this is the hip hop journalist, and he speaks in a vernacular that connects to the people and uses hip hop slang,” and yada, yada, yada. It’s one of those. Or “Y’all just letting him write and just write what he would write to his friends.” And so for me, I think that connection point of calling it Shook Ones is not… I’m not trying to connect with you. I’m not apologizing. It’s just like, “You know where it’s from. I know where it’s from. So that’s how we communicate. That’s how communication works. I don’t know any Billy Joel songs to impart to you how I’m feeling about it, so I can’t do that. And if I could, then I would connect with… Are there Billy Joel people listening?” No shade to Billy Joel, but that’s sort of… I’m just talking the way I talk in the group chats with folk.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah,

Jeffrey Henderson:
So it’s sort of… And I think that was… And writing helped me… I talk about this a lot. I grew up swearing like nobody’s business, and I don’t know if we cool. We know what you like. I could swear left or right. Writing helps me like, “All right, let’s change some of those words. Sometimes it bes what it bes.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And to your point, it also, you know, even, I think, as it reflected through the makeup of your team, it shows them that being able to express themselves authentically doesn’t make them any less of a professional.

Jeffrey Henderson:
You know what’s wild is… And I talk about this a lot with folks who are of my age group, who are in this weird late forties, early fifties, where we sort of went through a history of trying to code switch. And like I said, I don’t know if I’m necessarily good at it. I think I tried it enough, but I don’t know that anybody bought it. But the idea that young folks don’t care to code switch.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
They just show up how they show up and talking to folks who are my age. It’s like, “Yo, don’t get caught out there code switching because the young folks would call you out on it and they ain’t listening. They don’t have time for you to be worrying about what you got a bonnet on at the airport. It’s just not [crosstalk 01:38:08].

Jeffrey Henderson:
It should just be you every day. And it’s difficult because we came from an age group where we were taught when you show up, you’re in their space. You need to respect [crosstalk 01:38:18].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, respectability politics.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Exactly. And it’s sort of… I was lucky enough to… And I say this all the time. I have amazing credit only because when I got my Discover Card in college, it was like, “Yo, you can either pay this much or you can pay this little bit and all these other numbers about what you pay for the next six months.” And I was like, “I’m too lazy to do that. I’m just going to pay the big number.” So I never had debt because I just paid the big number. So it’s not because I was smart and knew, “Ooh, I want to get good credit.” It was I just don’t want to deal with the headache.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Same is true about… I was just like, “I don’t want to wear a tie to work ever. I don’t want one of those jobs. I’m not going to go work there. I just want to wear sneakers to work.” I just chose that, not knowing it was going to be… I didn’t choose this because it would make me money. I didn’t choose it because it would provide me money to buy a house and not have to assimilate so much. I did it because I just liked sneakers and I liked the culture. And I think young folks are more and more for the technology to exist, they get to do the same. They’re just trying to figure out what it all means because they’re being told by older people, “Oh, it’s adulthood time. So now you have to follow in line and you’ve got to wear your hair a certain way.” And they’re like, “No, thank you. But [crosstalk 01:39:33].” So I think it’s cool that people can be who they’re going to be and old people like me get to help them do that.

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

Jeffrey Henderson:
Yo, this drives me and everyone else crazy that I want to be able to just walk down the street and not have to go anywhere and everything comes to Harlem because we made it possible. I went from, I don’t know, doing product design a few years back to ad and content creation. And now I’m missing a call right now about NFTs, which I had no idea about, but, “Okay, let’s go learn about NFTs and the process and the drops and all this other stuff.” And it’s one of those… I think the strategy mindset, the creative mindset, and a little bit of, I think, luck along the way of having some wins, folks invite us to parties, whether it’s just me or my entire team. I think people trusting my team as they get better. And the team’s starting to have their own sort of mentees below them to kind of grow the business for all of us.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And even if they go run and create their own agency, it’s all good. I kind of want this fun growth to keep, I think… I used to say making stuff was cool, and now I’m to the point where making stuff has taken a different personality, given my thoughts on sustainability. And sometimes it’s not making stuff is the answer, but figuring out how…

Jeffrey Henderson:
My biggest thing in terms of conversations in the last probably three months has been on housing justice here in New York City. And I think that’s not the standard conversation for maybe a creative, but I think the thought process and the connections and the ideation that myself and my team, the folks I hang out with and bring to the table just, I don’t know, open up the vision on some of those things. And I think that’s what I mean when I say putting things… And I’ve always said this. If you can create, I don’t know, some systemic change in Harlem and Atlanta and Oakland, in places like Detroit, I think if that starts to stick and ownership becomes a big piece of it, I think there’s some conversations that are really going to be had.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And then their less talking about, “Oh, well, I don’t know if we’ll give them a chance, but we’re good. We did this. We’re good.” And I think that’s where I’d want to be. Even if it’s not me, I’m just hanging around people who are doing those things. That’s my five years from now.

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

Jeffrey Henderson:
So definitely come hang out… For the most part, if you want to find out about all the fun we’re having, find us at GoodThin.gs, G-O-O-D-T-H-I-N.gs. I’m sure it’ll be in the bio and byline. That’s where we have our fun. That’s where we give back to the community. That’s where we show how we hang out. You want to book us for business? Definitely come to andthem.com. We keep it professional. You can write us checks and we’re all good. Ready to do stuff. And then definitely, I don’t know, we’re making some shoes. We’re doing apparel next. You can see NinetyNineProducts and Jackson YC. my guy [Royce 01:42:42] is doing Silk City. We got a few hustles going on, some fun. So please, you don’t have to read all the reading [inaudible 01:42:49] is doing. Greatly appreciate it, but you can come check out and see some of the creative stuff we’re doing.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s good reading, y’all. Don’t listen to him. It’s good reading. Jeffrey Henderson, thank you so much for coming on the show. I think, you know, from hearing your story, from looking at your work and, again, even from the research that I’ve done, to me, there is a certain deep sense of thoughtfulness that you bring to your work that perhaps I don’t know if you even recognize how thoughtful it is in terms of doing work for the community and making sure that you’re creating this nurturing space for young creatives and everything. I think it’s something that more of us need to see in the industry. We need to see, of course, I think just more Black agency owners, but also more Black agency owners that are kind of bucking the trend or changing the paradigm or showing that it’s okay to be thoughtful and do great work like this and not have to stick to, you know, any sort of archaic or a draconian style of running a business, that you can do great work and have fun and it can be a nurturing space.

Maurice Cherry:
And I definitely see that care and thoughtfulness that you bring to your work, and I’m appreciative of it. I’m sure that folks listening think that way as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Thank you so much. I’m glad to be on that list of hundreds of people who you bring in, I think. Visibility too. I love what you’re doing. So however I can be a part of this, I’m happy to help. Thank you.

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.

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Adekunle Oduye

One of the benefits of hosting this podcast for the past eight years is that I get to see how guests progress in their career. Such is the case with this week’s guest, Adekunle Oduye! He was one of our first podcast guests way back in 2014, and I recently asked him to come back on the podcast and give everyone an update!

We talked a bit about his current role at Mailchimp, and he went into the importance of design systems in his work. Adekunle also spoke on how his career has shifted over the years, the power of mentorship, and we revisit his 2014 interview to see if his motivations and goals are still on track with where he is now. It’s rare that we get a chance to do this type of self-reflection, but it’s definitely clear that Adekunle has grown and evolved by defining his career on his own terms!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Adekunle Oduye:
Hello. My name is Adekunle Oduye. I am a UX engineer based out of Brooklyn, New York. Currently right now I am working at MailChimp building design systems.

Maurice Cherry:
Although I heard that MailChimp had expanded out into New York. How long ago you’ve been there?

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ve been there, it’s going to be two years. So they actually have a Brooklyn office. It’s smaller than the one in Atlanta, but it’s a pretty good amount of people.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Did you get a chance to come to the office?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I went to Ponce City Market, which I think, I compare it to Chelsea Markets for people that are from New York. But yeah, it’s pretty cool. The people are pretty good. The food is pretty amazing. I, I think every time I left, I felt full and also wanting to come back.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that office space that they have in Ponce City Market, although I think the last I heard, they were about to move out of it because the company’s gotten bigger. So they’re moving to a different space, I think in another part of town.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, that’s correct. I’m not too familiar, but from what I’ve heard from the people that are down there, it seems like they have to walk down the BeltLine. I don’t know if it’s 10 minutes or whatever, but yeah, they’re going to be moving. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s probably in the near features.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How’s your year been going so far?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. My year has been pretty good. I’ve been taking the easy since last year. I think last year was hectic for everyone. But I think for me, what I was trying to do is stay busy. So I was doing a bunch of stuff, side projects, and doing some freelancing, and reading a lot, and whatnot. So, this year is just like, I’m just taking it easy and establishing some of my hobbies that I haven’t been doing in a while, so it’s been pretty good.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing I remember from our last interview is that you’re a painter. Did you take that up last year?

Adekunle Oduye:
I did one painting, but I did drawing because it’s … I think with me the painting, I feel like I’ve lost a lot of my skills because I feel like a lot of my work recently is mostly on the computer. So I’ve been doing a lot of drawing. In 2019, I did a couple of drawing classes. So I went to the museum and was drawing. Also, we had critique sessions. Yeah, I’m trying to do baby steps where I try to draw something every day and get back into it. But hopefully this summer, I’m going to have dedicated time where I just get lost in that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Nice. What else did you learn about yourself over the past year? I feel like everyone is starting to come out of this with some new personal revelation about themselves.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think for me, there was a lot going on last year, and I was like, it was making me very anxious and worrisome. I got into a lot of stoicism. For those who don’t know, stoicism is basically ancient philosophy, and it gives you a way of living. I think one of the most common things they have talked about is that how you want to focus on things you can control. I think that was helpful because I think not only in life, but at work, there’s some stuff that bothers you whatnot, but you have to really focus on, what can you control? If you can’t control it, then you shouldn’t really worry about it, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. I think it’s a really helpful tactic in general. Certainly it’s actually a piece of advice I’ve given a lot of people this year that have started working remotely is to focus on the stuff that you can control. Because you’re thrust back home and it’s not exactly the work environment and you have to adjust to that, just focus on the things you can control. You can control how you respond to things. You can control your reactions, things of that nature.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, exactly. I think that actually helped me with a lot of being more proactive rather than reactive because a lot of the stuff is like, if something happens or let’s say someone says something to you, you can’t really control that, but you can control how you response to it or how you’re going to move forward. I think that’s been my response and my mentality since last year. I think it has been very helpful because things always happen, especially with work where sometimes you can go through reorg, and people are not seeing eye to eye, but I think always look back and say, all right, what can I do better? What can I do to help people? I think that’s been very helpful, but also it keeps me grounded.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of work, what does a regular day look like for you at MailChimp?

Adekunle Oduye:
A lot of it revolves around maintaining current designed system that’s being used in the product. So, some days I could be responding to people that have questions around like the design system, other days I could be building components. Currently right now, I’m mostly focusing on prototyping. So prototyping patterns, and seeing how we can establish these pre-built guidelines and patterns that designers and engineers can use when they’re building out features.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I want to talk a little bit about design systems. I feel like that’s something that personally, I’ve really only heard fairly recently. Can you talk about what a design system is, and how it’s different from say, a style guide or a brand guide or something like that?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. A design system is basically a collection of components, patterns, and guidelines for a product. So, any product you see from Facebook to Google or whatever like that, they have a specific set of design systems. The whole idea is that you create these peed built Lego blocks for UI so that people can take certain pieces and start building the whole user experience or application of natural product. The difference between design system and style guy is that I would say the design system is the umbrella, and it includes the style guy and the style guy would define the more atomic levels of the design systems. So, your type holography, how your buttons are going to look, where are the colors, and whatnot. Basically from those foundation styles you go build to your components, or you build your patterns and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
Now is a design system important when it comes to a product like MailChimp?

Adekunle Oduye:
Well, it’s important because as your product grows, there’s supposed to be a lot of tech debt, but also in some cases, there might not be a cohesive UI experience overall. So the whole idea of design system is to making sure that the product is scalable, it’s accessible, and is performing. One case scenario would be like if I am a product engineer and I want to build a feature, rather than building it from scratch, they could use a design system that will help them build the actual user flow much quickly and faster.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So it’s almost like a, I was going to say like a kit or a tool box or something. It makes the development a lot easier because you’re pulling from all these pre-designed elements that you can slot into place, or use to quickly prototype or make something.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, pretty much. It’s not only specific to engineers, but it could be useful for designers. There’s even more in the case where they do for contractors. There are many ways you could use the actual design system. I think the best design systems are the ones that are inclusive and are be able to use by many different people.

Maurice Cherry:
Even for content strategists, that would be … I guess I could see that, if there certain tone or certain passages, like error messages or something like that, like microcopy, that kind of thing.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, pretty much. We actually have one content style guide that we have, and I think it’s super important because I look at it as like, people are not visiting your product because of the UI, they’re visiting because of the content, and whatnot. So, having a consistent way of doing content is super important.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. Gotcha. I was curious about that because at the startup that I’m currently at, they’re focusing pretty heavily on design systems, but we don’t have a brand guide, or a style guide. There are certain types of things that they want to do branching out with content and other media and stuff, but we don’t have that sort of structure in place to make sure that the things we’re creating are cohesive to the rest of the brand or something. I’m glad that you mentioned that, it’s sort of an umbrella for these other things because I know when I’ve tried to explain it, they look at me like I’ve got an arm growing out of my forehead or something. So, I feel like I know I’m on the right track here, is not the same thing, but it’s similar. Okay, gotcha.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I would also add that, I always compare it to building a house, you don’t want to start making your own screws and all this other stuff. So, usually you have some case where you’re like, all right, we have all these different pieces, and you can put them together to fit or solve any problem that you want to face. It just makes your life easier. You don’t have to focus on two things at once.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember when we first talked on Revision Path, which for those listening was seven years ago, Adekunle was episode 21. At that time, you were just about to start at NASDAQ. I think it was maybe the day before your first day or something like that. Do you remember what your time was like there?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. It was definitely an interesting experience. I would say that was probably my first real corporate job, so I didn’t know what to expect. I can say I definitely learned a lot. I encountered with a lot of great people and different people. I think it’s something that I use to this day because I was part of a large product design team is one of 30 of us. I’ve learned a lot. I learned a lot about front end development. I learned a lot about research. I learned about how to talk to executives. So, it was definitely a good experience there. I think I was there for three and a half years, which is the longest-

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Adekunle Oduye:
… time I spent with one employer. So, it was a fulfilling experience.

Maurice Cherry:
After that, you were at Justworks for a minute. Actually we just had someone on the show, Sabrina Hall, well, she’s at Justworks now. But you were at Justworks for a minute. And then after that you were at Sloan Kettering. When you think back on those two experiences, what do you remember?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think those two experience was probably how I learned what I wanted to do. When I was at Justworks, I was really figuring out what I want to do because it was like, I think a lot of times like, company want to put you in a box. I remember when I was doing an interview, they were like, “Are you more of a designer or developer?” I was like, I wanted to get the job, so I was like, “I’m a designer,” but I was like, “I’m doing both.” I think that’s where I really learned what I wanted to do because I think even when I was there, I was probably one of the more technical product designers. It was hard to do both when you’re working on three different squads, so it was a good learning lesson.

Adekunle Oduye:
I think what I’ve taken away from there was that I want to be in a place where I was able to use both my design and development skills. Another was I really wanted to focus more on design systems. And then at Sloan Kettering, that was probably the second time I was more of a lead for a project. So I was leading the design system efforts there, which I really enjoyed starting from the ground up. I did a lot of user interviews, and was able to work with people and build it from the ground up and creating that foundation. Yeah, it was definitely hard work because people that I’ve worked in design centers tend to know there’s so many things you have to do. There was just me by myself working on it and getting some part-time help from some of the engineers. So I realized when I was there, it was understanding that you have to have a team to build something great because it’s so much work has to go into it.

Adekunle Oduye:
Another was around alignment because I think when I was there, I was working on design systems, but there was other departments that are working on design systems. I think it was harder because I don’t think we were aligned on what the design system should be. So, that was one of the takeaways I learned where it’s like making sure you’re aligned, and making sure that your design system is inclusive, and people can see it, use it, and also provide some feedback was super important. Yeah, I think those experience definitely shaped me and understand what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
It looks like your career focus has really shifted over time. You started out back when you were about to start at NASDAQ, you started out with front-end. From there as you went to other places, you shifted to UX, then to product. Now you’re, at least what it sounds like from the work of doing a MailChimp, back to front-end. Talk to me about that. What caused those shifts as you progressed in your career?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think it’s more a case of what I’m curious on. I think one of the things I promised myself when I was starting out was that I wanted to take any idea from start to finish. So, that means from the design standpoint, I want to be able to do the research and understand who our users are, also understand the business, and what would be beneficial to the business. How do they make money? And then from the UI standpoint, it was to really understand what makes good product UI, and how we can make it cohesive, and whatnot. And then midway through my career, I learned that, all right, you could design the best mock up, but if you can’t build it or if it’s hard to build, then it’s probably not going to look exactly like it would look when you’re designing it. So that’s where I started really understanding the technical side, even how the internet works and how the browser works, and what is possible, and how to make performance applications and websites.

Adekunle Oduye:
I would say it was a curious from the start to the end of building something out. I enjoy it. I think often times, you look at the stuff I’ve done, even you look at the actual job titles I had in the past, which stand from print designer, web designer, front-end developer, product designer, design technologist, UX engineer, front engineer. It’s a lot, but I feel like for me, it’s I’m curious in learning how to build products from start to finish. I think over each of those job titles, I’ve learned so much, and it’s helped me to really understand what I want to do and how I want to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, back also when we did your first interview, I remember you told me a piece of career advice that you give to other designers. You said to always study your craft, do you still stand by that?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. I think it’s something that never ends. I double down to the case where you have to study the basics before you start to do anything that’s more complex. It reminds me of when I was in an art school, where I was like, I want to do a painting. But I think one of my teachers was like, “You have to learn how to draw first because that’s the foundation.” I think it’s the same with design and engineering, whereas with design, you have to really understand typography, color theory, spacing, line, and et cetera. With engineering, it’s more in the case of understanding design patterns, and variables, and functions, and whatnot. If you understand that core, then you pretty much could do anything. It’s similar case of programming. You understand one programming language, you could probably program anything else, you just have to figure out the syntax. I think that’s what I always communicate to people often.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there any other advice that you would add to that just based off your experience over the past seven years?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. I think one thing I mentioned before is, don’t allow people to put you in a box. Oftentimes, I hear people go like, you’re just a designer, so you only should focus on design, or you’re a developer, you only should focus on developer. But I think the people that are going to stand out and be great teammates are the ones that have experience in multiple disciplines. I’ve seen people, like designers that are very good with writing copy, and I think that’s a skill that I wish I had, but it’s something that’s great to have when you’re being part of a team. I think it just helps with overall personal growth and always pushing yourself to do something different because I think oftentimes, you can get very comfortable with, I been doing design for 20 years, I’m just going to keep on doing it.

Adekunle Oduye:
I feel my design career has helped me become a better developer, and I would say vice versa too. Yeah, I would say don’t let people put in a box and always explore different disciplines and whatnot. The second thing I would add would be to making sure that people are very proactive with how they want their career to go because I think oftentimes, people think about, I’m at this job and I’m only doing this, and I’m going to do this. But I think how I envisioned it was, I want to be able to do this and this. This was when I first started out. I wanted to always make sure that my current job or role is pushing me forward to that actual goal I had. I think going in that way, maybe right where the focus on like, all right, what I’m doing today is this helpful. If it’s not pushing you forward, then I had to talk to my manager, or I figure out, what were some ways I could build on those skills and whatnot? So, I would say those are the two additions I had.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I want to go into mentoring. I noticed from looking at your LinkedIn that you’ve been working with this organization called Springboard as a UX mentor. You’ve been doing that for almost three years now. Talk to me about that.

Adekunle Oduye:
Springboard is basically a bootcamp that’s run online where anyone that is interested in becoming a product designer, and I think they expand it to software engineering, but I work on the UX side of things, but anyone can take this course. It’s about say six to eight months long. You basically are learning a lot about the foundations of UX and UI, and you get paired with a mentor. So, each week you talk with your mentor about the stuff you’ve done, and if you have any questions or whatnot. Yeah, I’ve been doing it for three years and I probably had 10 plus mentees. One of my ways of teaching them is always using experiences from my past, which I feel like that’s a better way of telling a story rather than just saying like, you need to do this because X, Y, and Z. Yeah.

Adekunle Oduye:
I would say it helped me to really get good at explaining my process because usually the mentees were always ask like, “Why should I do this over that?” Probably four or five years ago, I’d have been like, “Well, because that’s how I learned it.” But now I’m better at explaining why should you use one technique over the other and what makes good design. Also, I think be able to critique is a skill that I needed to improve on. Yeah, it’s been overall a good experience.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so interesting hearing you talk about mentoring and then just juxtaposing that with our interview from so long ago on how you were just starting out. It’s great to hear your growth in that area. What do you really gain from being a mentor? What does it give you?

Adekunle Oduye:
I would say that the first thing is just giving back, paying it forward because even what you said is, from when I was seven years ago, I was pretty much into anything, I was more a designer, and I wanted to get into product and whatnot. The reason how I got to this point was like, I had a lot of people that allowed me to ask questions, and allow me to pick their brain in order for me to get better. So my idea would be to paint that forward. So I think that would be the first thing. The second thing as I mentioned is that, it’s more in the case of learning how to communicate and talk about your process. I realized that as you spend more time in this industry, you’re going to work with a lot of designers, technical folks, non-technical folks.

Adekunle Oduye:
I think one of the key things is to be able to communicate your ideas and thoughts to multiple people. I think mentorship is definitely one of them because I definitely had specific cases where people ask me questions about color theory, or design systems, or whatnot, and I always had to make sure that I was able to explain in a way where they could understand. Yeah, I think overall, it’s been pretty good. I feel like it’s something that I’m able to empower people, and hopefully they can accomplish their goals and dreams and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
I keep referencing our interview just because I’m struck as you talk just how different things have changed just, even hearing in how you carry yourself has changed. You mentioned back then you really wanted to speak at conferences, which you’ve done since then. What are some of the events that you’ve spoken at?

Adekunle Oduye:
From our conversation, the year after that was my first conference talk, which was CSS Conference, which was probably one of the most terrifying, but best things I’ve done. The reason why I say that is because I did my talk and I re-wrote my talk the night before because I was so nervous and whatnot. But I think, again, that was like, I probably would never do that again, but it’s a learning lesson and whatnot. But yeah, it’s been pretty good. I’ve been able to speak at some of the conference that I always wanted to go to. So, some of them has been clarity. I did an event part, did smashing magazine, and went to a smashing meets and whatnot. I’m around at 30 40, which is wild.

Adekunle Oduye:
I think last year I spoke at the most conferences I’d done ever because I think everything was remote, so it was pretty good stuff. But yeah, it’s something that I’m glad I did because I think, even back then when I was looking at it, I was very fearful of public speaking. I think usually a lot of people are scared of public speaking. For me, I decided to, I got to face this fear head on. So the best way to do was to get up on stage and talk about something. But yeah, it’s been a great experience. I’ve met so many great people along the way that’s helped me become a better speaker, better developer, better designer, overall good person. But yeah, I hope to continue doing that in the future. I don’t know when in-person is going to come back, but it’s going to come back probably next year or something like that. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It feels like some places are even trying to bring stuff back this year. Maybe they’re waiting until the fall and the winter. I know I’ve gotten some invites to actually San Francisco Design Week. As we’re recording the San Francisco Design Week, I got invited for that. They were like, you can come in-person if you want. I’m like, that’s next month. I don’t think I’m going to be there for that, but I appreciate the invite. They’ll allow it virtually. To your point about so many events going virtual last year, I spoke a ton last year for that same reason. I could just log on here at the house and be on a panel or give a talk or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
I wonder if that’s going to really continue as we move forward because I went to a lot of new events that honestly just took advantage of the current situation to be able to put an event on, doing it online means you don’t have to worry about a venue, or insurance costs, or things of that nature. You can just set up a series of Zoom calls or whatever. I hope that continues in the future because I think that’s made these types of conferences a lot more accessible for more people.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. I think that was one thing I’ve learned when I was attending [inaudible 00:28:51] last year. They had a thing where we were doing networking, speed, dating sort of. I remember I was talking to a bunch of people. Some people were from Russia, they were like, yeah, I was always wanted to go to one, but I can never go because I couldn’t afford it. So, I agree that it … I think hopefully they have some hybrid where they can do both. But I like it. I feel like I spoke to more people in virtual conferences, or network with more people in virtual conferences than real life because-

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Adekunle Oduye:
… it actually forced me to speak to new people, which is interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. I don’t know what the first in-person conference is going to be that I attend. If they have it in-person this year, I may go to Black in Design in Boston. Well, actually it’s a Cambridge, but close enough in Boston. I may go to that, if they do it in-person this year. I’ve missed that kind of in-person camaraderie. I don’t know, we are able to network with people after talks. You could talk to people in the hall and stuff like that. I’ve missed those kinds of spontaneous connections because I did a bunch of talks last year, and the one thing was, once my talk was over, that was it. I closed the laptop and I’m like, okay, now what? Wait for the honorarium to come in and print, which is not bad, but that sort of in-person networking thing.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s still going to take a while, but I’ve started already seeing some events. Actually funny enough last year, our design live, I think was going to have an event here in Atlanta. They were asking me about, not about speaking, I think they wanted me to help out as a media partner or something. I was like, it is very irresponsible for you to have an in-person conference in Atlanta in the middle of a pandemic. They ended up doing it online. I don’t know if they’re going to come back down here or not, but we’ll see. I just hope that more of these virtual events stick around, and that some of these events that had to go virtual at least offer that up as an option moving forward because I got to go to so many things that I otherwise would not have been able to go to. But because it was online, I could just pay my money, get a ticket, log on, boom, boom, boom. It was pretty easy.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, I agree. I think speaking wise, I think I was doing, at one point, it was three weeks. In a month, I was having three talks. Most, it was same talk. But I would never have done that if it was after traveling, whatnot. So I think it made it easy for me to do those talks and also improve on them because usually what I do is each time I do the talk, I’ve changed a specific thing and figure out what works and what doesn’t work. I get feedback from the actual conference. Yeah, I think it was pretty good. I would like to do more in the future. I also be about the actual in-person ones because I think some of the best memories is talking with people, and just chatting, and grabbing dinner, and just meeting new people, and whatnot.

Adekunle Oduye:
But yeah, I think hopefully we go back to something that’s more like, you have hybrid model where some conferences are virtual and other conferences are more of hybrid model. So I think hopefully … But yeah, I’m excited for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. One thing that I usually will ask guests on the show is where they see themselves in five years. I’m curious, when you think back to when we did our interview, when you think back to that, what did you think you were going to be doing in five years?

Adekunle Oduye:
Wow. I think when I was looking back, I think I actually wanted to be some of sort of director, or product design director, or whatnot and just leading a team and whatnot. But yeah, that’s definitely not going to happen. I think things I learned that it was like, I think at one job … Yeah. I think when I was at NASDAQ, I was managing a person, and also doing icy work. I think managing is important role, but it’s probably not right for me because it’s … I like the craft of it. I think you also feel like, not manage, but I like leading. I think there’s a difference between those two. You can be a leader and not be a manager, which I was like, okay, I could do that. Even in the more technical fields, you have some ICS that are more managers, you have ICS that are more of directors and directing projects and what not. So I think it allows for more flexibility and whatnot. You said five years, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Adekunle Oduye:
I mean, I wouldn’t even know because if you told me seven years ago I’ll be where I am today, I’d be like, you’re lying. Yeah, I think my goal is to definitely do more mentorship. I would like to have some mentorship program. It’s for people that would like to get into more of the design engineering, which is both basically a designer engineer, in that roam because I know there’s not a lot of resources around that. You have to be a designer or the engineer. So I’m trying to create this community that’s more of a case of these hybrid thinkers and whatnot. I think doing more teaching, mentorship, and whatnot, I think that would be my goal.

Adekunle Oduye:
But yeah, that’s hard because like I said, back in the day, I had a whole list, and even prior to that, I wanted to be an art director for a magazine publishing company, and things have changed a lot. So, I try not to make too much of a long-term goal, but hopefully I’m doing more teaching and mentorship.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that the idea of doing a design engineer hybrid community because I think we’re starting to see, at least I know, I’m starting to see a lot more of that in tech. The place where I’m at currently, for example, is largely, I think it’s mostly engineers. But a lot of the engineers are operating in a hybrid sort of thing. So they’re an engineer, but they’re also on our growth team, or they’re an engineer and they might also be doing maybe something more like DevOps or infrastructure. That’s not so much front-end type stuff. I think that’s something that you’re starting to see more of this melding of skills, particularly with startups that try to stay small and lean. They usually want to have a bunch of hybrids that can do multiple roles as opposed to a particular specialist that can come in and only does one thing, and that’s it.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think you’re right. It’s becoming more of a thing. I think 10 years ago, was the case of we only want you to do one thing, but I think organizations are starting to see the benefits of having these hybrids because they not only could do two things, but they could also collaborate with different people, and also take ideas from concept to completion in a timely fashion. So, it’s definitely going to be more in the future. Again, there’s not many resources dedicated for these individuals because I think how we communicate is like, you have to pick one over the other. I always though, it was like, you don’t have to pick one or the other, you could do both.

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ve been doing it for 10 years. Even if they hire me for one thing, I always end up doing the other thing. So, it’s definitely going to take off and hopefully it becomes a thing where people, not only in career, but also in school are like, I could become a design engineer and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you spend time on when you’re not working?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I’ve been spending a lot of time, either drawing and picking random hobbies. So actually for some reason, I bought a lock picking set and I enjoy doing that. Again, I’m not going to do it to rob anyone. Yeah, trying to do more stuff that’s doesn’t require a computer. So hopefully in the future, I could do pick up like woodworking and some other things. But yeah, I enjoy more tangible, actual building stuff because I think definitely last year told me where I was like, I need to spend less time on a computer, especially with all the Zoom meetings and whatnot. I used to do when I was younger around art painting and even doing something that was sculptures, but again, I’m trying to do a baby step, so I’m going to start with drawing and then hopefully graduate to the more complex ones.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember seeing something, I think it was a study or something, it was talking about the rise in video conferencing and how it’s increasing carbon emissions overall because of the, I guess the carbon footprint of doing video conferencing versus, say meeting up in-person or something like that, which is honestly something that I didn’t really think about at all. If anything, I was like, well, if we’re not traveling, then yes, carbon emissions would go down because you’re not in planes or trains or automobiles or something like that. But I was reading this study and it was saying that one hour of video conferencing, puts out, I think up to 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, and it requires up to 12 liters of water. But if you turn your camera off, you reduce that footprint by 90 something percent, which is ridiculous.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. It’s amazing because I think a lot of people think like, I’m not really increasing my footprint because it’s all digital, but you have to understand there’s servers, and those servers require power. So the more you do, the more energy is on use and whatnot. Yeah, I think hopefully you figure out how to decrease that because I think, especially moving forward, there’s going to be cases where a lot of companies and whatnot are going to be more of a hybrid model and it’s going to be more video conferencing and whatnot. So hopefully, we figure out ways to optimize it overall.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s an interesting thing because I know I’ve heard that around like cryptocurrency because I’ve heard folks talk about how Bitcoin is actually really bad for the environment. When I first heard that, I said, well, how is a digital currency bad for the environment? Then I looked into it in terms of the data processing that’s used to mine for Bitcoin uses a lot of electricity, and any production of electricity has a carbon footprint, a water footprint, a land footprint. So, all of that can cause environmental damage overall. And then when you look at, how many gigabytes of data are we using between YouTube, and Zoom, and Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter, and TikTok. Lord knows how many other platforms and stuff. I don’t know how this veered off into environmentalism, but I just … I don’t know, it’s something that you’ve mentioned that had me think about that particular study. So maybe somebody that’s listening, they can look into that if they want to.

Adekunle Oduye:
No, I think it’s important because I think a lot of people thought, I’m not really doing much because I’m at home and I’m watching videos or doing this, but there’s always straight offs, and there’s always some sort of footprint. Even me, I had to learn about this. I was like, that doesn’t really make sense. But if you think about it, the more technology you use, the more servers we need, and also the more metals we need. So it’s just, there’s a compound effect to all this stuff we do. I think it’s good and more people are aware of it. Hopefully that awareness translates to people creating products that are quicker, faster performance and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, hopefully so. The next video meeting I have, I’m going to turn the camera off and tell them I’m saving the environment. See if that works. I think it’ll work. I’m going to try it out.

Adekunle Oduye:
You’re like, I’m trying to save the planet, so I will keep it off.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you wish you would have been told about this industry when you first started?

Adekunle Oduye:
I think the first one had been around burnout because I think earlier in my career, I was like, I’m going to work all the time. I’m going to use every framework, every tool, and whatnot. I would say I probably been burnt out a lot of times because I wanted to learn it all and use it all. So I wish someone told me, was like, don’t focus your time on learning new things, focus your time on building. Let’s say, if I wanted to learn Python, I would say early in my career, I probably would read a book and go through a bunch of video courses on it. But me now, I would be like, all right, what project am I building? Is Python the right tool for it? Somebody [inaudible 00:42:24] it was like, all these technologies and whatever like that, think of them as building tools, so like a screwdriver, a hammer and whatnot.

Adekunle Oduye:
The best way to learn how to use a hammer is that, if you’re feeling like, say building a house, and you always have to ask the question is like, am I using the right tool? Because if I’m building a house, then do I need a flame thrower? Again, a flame thrower is probably not a tool, but it’s one of the tools in your tool sets. You have to figure out which tool is best for the job. I think that would have been super helpful because I definitely burned myself out with learning random things and whatnot.

Adekunle Oduye:
The second thing is that, because I think a lot of times people look at the tech industry as, it must have been so great, and all these companies are perfect. I was like, yeah, none of these companies are perfect. All of them have their problems. They’re basically same as like humans. There’s no perfect human, is the case of has everyone has their own problems and you have to figure out which company is worth your time and effort because I think a lot of times, I see it where I hear people that are coming to school like, my dream company is working at this company. And then there’s always some news that comes out about a company and their bad practices and whatnot. So, I would always say there’s no one great company. Also, don’t put these companies on a pedestal because I think a lot of times, you say like, you work at Google or Facebook. I think a lot of times, people put those people that work there above everyone else.

Adekunle Oduye:
But I wouldn’t say that’s the case because I think there’s a lot of companies that are not as big and are not located in SF or New York that are doing some great work. So I think that’s the thing I’ve learned being in this industry for 10 years.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that’s the truth, there is no such thing as a perfect tech company. They all are culpable in some way. I think we’ve certainly seen that, Jesus, over the past five years, look at some of the really big tech companies like Facebook and Google and Twitter, and how they’ve managed to now be wrapped up into our everyday politics, and even the democracy of this country, and everything. Aside from the fact that their tools are being used as these platforms for misinformation, then you look at the hiring practices or the management practices, or … It’s so weird.

Maurice Cherry:
I guess I could give this as an example, I’m not under NDA. My last employer, for example, was very woke. It’s what you would call a woke employer. I will not name this employer, you know the name of the employer, Adekunle, the folks who are listening probably know the name of it. I will not mention the name of it, however, this place really prided itself on being very open and transparent and things of that nature. I can tell you, it could not have been further from the truth behind the scenes. I mean, lying, gaslighting, all sorts of stuff, it was a mess. I mean, it’s been reported in the news. I don’t have to name the company, you all know which company I’m talking about, but it’s a mess.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, it’s a like shell of its former self, which is really unfortunate. I want to see the company succeed, but there no perfect tech companies, we’re all humans at the end of the day.

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ve heard so many things that I’ve been part of, especially last year when there was a lot of talk about the black experience in tech and how companies are like, no, we’re inclusive and whatnot. And then there’s individual saying, no, because they’ve done X, Y, and Z and blah, blah, blah. So it’s always making sure that, again, you don’t put these companies in pedestals and understand the fact. I would add this to where it’s safe, making sure that you produce your own content, and have your own side hustle, just in case, because again, I see some messed up things that changed the way I think about working at a company.

Adekunle Oduye:
The one scenario I was going to, I’m going to use, I’m not going to name the company. But I was working at this company and this person was at, she’s worked there for 10 years and whatnot, and I remember going through a rotation, they were like, here, we’re a family. Everyone loves us. We’re here for you. And then one day they basically fired her on … They told her on a Wednesday that her last day would be Friday and she was crying. She was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do and whatnot.” That was a wake-up call because I was like, I never want to be in that position where a company fires me and I have no game plan after that. Yeah, that would be another advice I’ll give people is, always have some sort of side hustle.

Adekunle Oduye:
I wouldn’t say having a million of them, but like for me, I do the mentorship, I do conquer speaking, write articles and books and whatnot. So, even if I get fired from my day job, I’ll be able to survive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Always have a plan B, absolutely. At this point in your career, how do you define success?

Adekunle Oduye:
I define success with two things. The first thing would be freedom. The idea of being able to work on what I want to work on, or work the way I want to work and whatnot, and also work with the people I want to work with. The second thing would be around happiness because I think an idea is, you have to be happy. I think there’s been a change with how people think about success because people sometimes think like, I could have all this money, but if you don’t have your health and you have no one to share with, then you’re not going to be happy. So I think I always focus on making sure that I’m free to do whatever I want to do, and I’m happy.

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ll add a third thing where is like, I am pushing myself to best level possible because I always think about, can I be better? Can I do different things and whatnot? The one thing I want to do is I want to have no regrets when I get older because I was scared of whatnot. What I was mentioning before was like, doing speaking engagements, I was terrified. I was like, I’m tired of feeling scared, let me just face this fear head on. So I would say those three things are probably how I define success.

Maurice Cherry:
Given that definition of success, what do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Adekunle Oduye:
The first thing is I’m healthy. I know we went through a pandemic and current still in one, and I would say health is probably one of the top thing because you’re able to do so many things, if you have some good health. So, that would be the first thing. I think the second thing is understanding what I want to do out of life, or how I want to do it. I think, as I mentioned before, during the time I was between those two jobs, I really figured out what I want to do, how I want to do it. I think that made it easy because now any other opportunity comes my way, I know if it’s right for me or not night for me from the moment I hear about it.

Adekunle Oduye:
There’s a lot of people that are older than me, they’re like, don’t know what they want to do and whatnot. But I think for me, that’s been something that helps me push forward. But also I know when to say no and when to say yes to certain things because it has to fall under those criteria. But yeah.

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

Adekunle Oduye:
The one thing I wanted to do is hopefully do a startup, start my own startup in the future. I know this is probably a cliche answer from someone that’s working in tech, but I think that’s something that I want to just try out and see if I could do it and whatnot, and see if it’s something feasible but for me. But I think that’s the thing I probably want to do within the next 10 years. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, it’d be a learning lesson. But I think overall looking back at what I’ve learned in the past 10 years, the idea of taking the idea from concept to completion, I was like, well, I think I’m set up to be a CEO one day, not for a big company, but just do my own thing and providing some sort of product. So, I don’t know if it’s going to be tech related or shoot. It might be something that’s physical, but-

Maurice Cherry:
It could be lock picking.

Adekunle Oduye:
That’s my thing. I’m trying to think of, how can I turn this into a product? But yeah, hopefully something comes along my way that I’m super passionate about, and I can use my skills. Also, there’s a group of people that I can provide a service to. Yeah, hopefully-

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Adekunle Oduye:
That happens.

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

Adekunle Oduye:
You can follow me at adekunleoduye.com. My site is really old, but it’s going to be updated in the next couple of weeks. You’ll find me in any social media, specifically my first name and last name. So, it shouldn’t be that hard. I don’t know if I’m the only Adekunle Oduye, but I’m the only one online, so I’m going to market it. Yeah, just that find me on those channels.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Adekunle Oduye, thank you so much for coming back on Revision Path, and for giving us an update. As I said to you before we started recording, I listened back to our first interview, and the change in just how you are talking about your work, how you’re carrying yourself as a person from that interview to this interview is like night and day. I can really tell that you’ve grown up and matured in this industry. You’ve learned some things, and you’re taking that out into the work that you’re doing, and out into the world by mentoring other people and really paying it forward. So, it’s really been a pleasure for me to see your development over these past few years. I’m glad to see that you’re mentoring and helping out the next generation while still working in this industry and trying to make a difference. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. Thanks again for having me. I am hopeful that anyone that’s listening to this one and also the past interview I did, motivates them, they’re like, you don’t have to be perfect, and anyone can do it. Yeah, I appreciate it. Keep on doing this.

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Sabrina Hall

Summer is here, and we’re closing out the month with a conversation with designer and design educator Sabrina Hall. As a senior product design manager at Justworks, Sabrina oversees a creative team dedicated to helping improve the payroll, benefits, and other human resources tasks for a number of businesses.

We started off with Sabrina sharing starting at a new company during a pandemic, as well as some of the intricacies of her role (such as the overlap with strategy). She also talked about growing up in New York City, attending SVA, and her shift from editorial and print design into product. We also discussed teaching, as well as the importance of writing as a designer, and spoke on how she views success at this stage in her career. Thank you Sabrina for helping to usher in the next generation of designers!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Sabrina Hall:
Hi, I am Sabrina Hall. I’m a senior product design manager at Justworks here in New York City.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has 2021 been for you so far?

Sabrina Hall:
2021 has been a year of challenges and gratefulness. It’s truly been a year with so many new opportunities, but also just one filled with collective and community grief and finding a balance between that and self care for the past year. So, it’s been complicated.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What lessons did you learn this past year? How would you say you’ve grown and improved over the last year or so?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. Over the last year, a few of the lessons that have really stayed with me is community care and how it’s so important during a time like this in the pandemic, particularly I was able to really actively advocate and be a part of mutual aid funds and understanding how to give directly to the community and support that. Some of the lessons for me were also identifying where I needed to set boundaries for my own self care, with the idea of putting my oxygen mask on first and being able to then care for others, really continuing to be grateful for my space and for safety and for help, and really seeing how the pandemic impacted so many marginalized communities.

Sabrina Hall:
Then also, really just making space for deeper understanding and deeper compassion for folks’s experiences, as there’s just been so much collective grief, and so many folks that I know have really gone through a lot of loss in the past year.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s so interesting how, with this past year being as honestly as traumatic as it’s, how much of a rush there is now to almost forget the last year. Not memorialize it or remember it in a way that sort of holds all the loss that we’ve held, that we’ve experienced in a sacred place, but just to “get back to normal.” I’m not comfortable with how quickly the push is to make that happen without recognizing what we’ve been through.

Sabrina Hall:
I really think the concept of getting back to normal is for me, one that I don’t identify with, because normal was already, in some ways, quite challenging and possibly problematic with just some of the systems, not possibly, but problematic with some of the systems we had in place already, particularly around healthcare, particularly around flexibility from work and working remotely. I don’t want to go back to a normal. I would like to look forward on creating new futures in new ideas of what a normal even means, and whether that’s more flexibility, whether that’s continuing to think inclusively about how we work together and the experiences there for myself.

Sabrina Hall:
I was able to get together with folks who normally I might not have been able to, because it was only in-person activities. I was able to grow a community in a way that I would not have been able to if we were in a normal time and would love to continue doing that work. I think that well, for some folks, they may find comfort in normal. Their normal really just doesn’t acknowledge or make the space for addressing a lot of the issues of why we were in this space with our work schedules, with health, and I think going back to normal is not really the way I want to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Normal, I think, as we’ve all seen and experienced through this time, is highly subjective. One person’s normal is another person’s, I don’t know, paradise in some ways, because we’ve all had to deal with some level of loss or just a curtailing of our regular activities through all of this.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes, absolutely. Yes, exactly. That is quite subjective, and really understanding, how do we look to a new normal versus a past normal?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, one of the things you kind of talk about creating new futures, you kind of created your own new future. You started a new job during all of this. How has that been?

Sabrina Hall:
It’s been such an exciting time. I got a new job in the midst of the pandemic, so last year I started in August. It was quite a different process, starting remotely, getting to know the team remotely, as there not a remote based company, and understanding, how do I set boundaries as well with working at home? How do I get comfortable and have a space where I can really be productive on a day-to-day basis? Then just building partnerships and relationships remotely, which takes a different type of effort versus running into someone in sort of the, in the kitchen or different communal workspaces, where now it’s like, okay, intentionally setting up that 20 minute Zoom call to introduce myself to folks.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting with the way companies are still, I think, adjusting to it. You mentioned, like with Justworks, it sort of not being a remote-first company. Is it changing now that I guess we’re sort of starting to emerge from the pandemic, even in just a small way?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. There’ve been several changes. I would say that around the onboarding and hiring process, we come on as a cohort. So, everyone starts on one day to really make it a streamlined process, thinking about how we share documentation and artifacts and really distributing that in a way that’s easier and more accessible remotely. Then, also going into the future, how can we be flexible? I believe that currently, they’re looking at a way to keep partial work from home while still having folks back in the office as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s nice. That’s good to hear. What is a typical day like for you?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes, a typical day ranges throughout the week. My day on a Monday, like today, is really focused on kicking off our weekly sprint with various groups. I focus on, and I’m the design, senior design manager for the benefits cluster, which is a large group that focuses on the benefits part of our product and then the growth part as well. My day begins with weekly’s and kicking off with our sprints meeting with my design team and having those one-on-ones to really identify the unblocked hours for the week and how to best set them up for success. Right now, we’re in the middle of fiscal year and planning, and attending that with some of my partners, senior product managers, group product managers, working with engineering managers.

Sabrina Hall:
My day is a combination of relationship building, mostly meetings around our next product steps, and then also connecting with the design team through feedback workshops and with my fellow managers and our director as well, looking at our goals for the design team as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me a little bit more about your team. You mentioned designers. Do you have other types of people that are working under you, like researchers or strategists or anything like that?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. Currently, we have a larger design team. I have three direct reports, one senior designer and two product designers. Currently, their skill sets are really expanding and we focus on, not only the user research, which they lead, but also the visual design and the UI work involved with that as well. So, our designers are very closely working on research, also working on the user experience and partnering with engineers along the way, too.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the best part about what you do now?

Sabrina Hall:
The best part about what I do now is partnering with the designers to continue unlocking and advocating for them to reach their highest potential. That is so important because it’s something that impacts everything, the business, the future of a product, their career growth, their ability to focus as designers, and it really is something that I enjoy and I learn so much from every week.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember back when I was leading teams at … This was another place I used to work at. I mean, I just remember, first of all, there was always meetings. There were so many meetings, whether there were one-on-ones or leadership meetings, or this, that, and the other, and it never felt like I really got to work on stuff. It was more like I was working, I mean, I don’t want to say stuff, but I wasn’t working on the product. It felt like I was just more working with people. It was very much a people management kind of thing. Do you still sort of have the opportunity to work hands-on with the product in any way?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, there are opportunities to. While I enjoy it, I definitely rely on the experts of our product design team. I believe that the way I work with the product now just differs from the angle of the approach. While I may not be necessarily working very closely on a user flow, I am thinking about it strategically and how best to set our product up for success, thinking of approaches to research, trying to identify inter-department connections that we have, interdependencies. So, it’s definitely still working on the product, but yes, a little differently than before.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. So, you’re sort of making sure that the team is in the right place to do the actual hands-on work on the product, but you’re shepherding the team. You’re, like you said, removing barriers and making sure that they can do the best work that they can do without any sort of obstructions or interruptions.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Gotcha. Now, before this, you were an art director at Scholastic. How is this role at Justworks different from that one?

Sabrina Hall:
My role at Scholastic was quite similar. At Scholastic, the structure of titles was very different there as a company that was focused in the print space and then expanded to digital. So, there are many overlapping part, whether it was managing our team, focusing on the lead of a product, really doing a lot more hands-on work. That was definitely one of the big differences with regards to day-to-day being in the design process. Some of the other differences have been really getting more time and space to be focused on the strategy while not having to also do the IC work.

Sabrina Hall:
But so much of it was also really focused on, what are the two sides of an experience? So, at Scholastic, it was really thinking about the students using the product and the teachers using the product while the school is making the purchase of the product, and similar to some of the work I do now, we think about the admins who are working with Justworks and the employees who use the product as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, just to kind of switch gears here a little bit, I saw when I was looking at your website, you mentioned that you were born and raised in New York City.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about kind of your early intro to design.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. I was born and raised in the Bronx. My intro to design started in high school. I went to the Bronx High School of Science. I really enjoyed writing. I was convinced I was going to go to Fordham and study journalism. That was one of the first things I wanted to focus on, but I loved art, I’ve always loved art. Probably just, yeah, as far as I can remember, when I was applying to go to junior high school, I went to Eastside Middle School, I had to take off my shoe and draw it as part of an entry for that school, so I’ve always loved art. Yeah, I was like, this has got to get me in, and it was such a good experience.

Sabrina Hall:
Then, at Bronx Science, I recall enrolling in AP art, and the teacher at the time, Ms. Ash, I remember enjoying it so much. I was doing collage work and I was just enjoying every part of AP art. And she was like, “This is something you can do as a career.” I was like, “What do you mean? I don’t understand this at all.” At the time I remember also loving things like Write On, Word Up magazine, and that was the space that I was just really in. And she was like, “All these magazines that you enjoy, there is a graphic designer doing this and it is something that you can have a career from.” I was completely shook. I was like, “What do you mean? How do I do this?” That shifted everything.

Sabrina Hall:
I made portfolios, I gathered work. I was really fortunate to have parents who supported me at the time. They were not aware of graphic design as a career, and regardless, they were like, okay, if you believe you can do this, we’re supporting you, and applied to several schools and ended up going to the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting that it’s magazines that were kind of an entry point. That was like that for me as well. I grew up in the deep south. Getting Vibe Magazine and YSP, I’m dating myself now, but YSB and Emerge and seeing all of this, and one, these positive representations of blackness, but then two, to know that there were black people behind it that were designing it, was really something that brought me more into the space. Although it was much later, I don’t want to say much later in my career, but certainly it wasn’t something I went to school for. Now, you did go to school for design. You went to SVA. What was your time like there?

Sabrina Hall:
My time there was an overall positive experience. I was exposed to just so many different things in the art industry, understanding the challenges within being in that space, understanding being one of few in that space, but I learned so much. I graduated with a bachelor’s in fine arts with a focus in graphic design, and really understood that this was something that I enjoyed doing and could really thrive at and would be able to … At the time, really was thinking about how I can put my own mark on design and using it. So, that was one of the biggest learning experiences from it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, SVA, of course, is a well-known school. We’ve had several SVA alum here on the show. If you could sort of just, I don’t know, give an endorsement for the school in a way, in what ways did SVA sort of really prepare you for a career as a designer?

Sabrina Hall:
I would say that SVA prepared me for some of the challenges in design around it being a very homogenous industry, but also realistically, it exposed me in the same hand to folks in the industry who had certain networks were able to really identify what the industry is looking for and really empowered me to begin, just the beginning stages of understanding how I could use this as a career. I think, even throughout the process, it was very clear that this was something that I could do as a job, was really important to me with then graduating from any college.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, at first, your design career dealt with a lot of print work. When did you sort of make this transition more into digital design?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. I joke sometimes, possibly aging myself here, that I feel like I’m one of the last folks who graduated with a print portfolio that sort of like flew in [inaudible 00:20:50] one of these larger pieces. What I find for myself, as I started to enter the industry, was I loved editorial, gravitated towards that space. Was doing a lot of print work and branding and corporate, but found that things were changing, and things were changing rapidly. From being in a print space, I’ve always been someone who loves learning and I’m excited by change. I realized, okay, print is changing, particularly within the editorial space.

Sabrina Hall:
Things started moving towards e-publications and understanding how to design for that, and I think at the time, in-design had an add on, I don’t know what it’s called now, that was made specifically for EPUB, and I went in and tried to learn that as much as I could and experimented there. From there, I then also started to teach myself to code, because I felt like so much was moving in that direction with regards to creating blog. There was a specific time where everything was about blogs and wanting to understand that and engage in that space.

Sabrina Hall:
I would say that probably came maybe around 2010, was when that shift started to happen, so I had always begun to like dabble in that space, but then really focused in earnest when I was at the end parts of focusing on editorial and then moving into digital spaces. So, I started building websites in WordPress, started doing my own little front-end work here and there, and then really learning to expand upon that and moving into a focused lens with product design.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, with all of this sort of change in focus, I’m trying to remember, I know back then on the web, certainly there was this big shift from more, almost print-based design, I guess that’s the sort of the best way I can put it, because we were designing with tables, and then there was the shift from tables to CSS. Then even with CSS, there were shifts into pre-processors, into Flexbox, and all that stuff that sort of came later on. It felt like that change really shifted a lot more people into design. I just remember how hard it was to design around tables back in the day.

Maurice Cherry:
Largely, it was just based off a print. I mean, even some of the terms that we use for some of the tags are from print terms, like break lines and anchors and things like that. So, it’s really interesting how those shifts sort of precipitate kind of changes in the industry. Now, sort of in this time, right around then you also started your own design studio kind of alongside your full-time work. What inspired you to sort of branch out in that way?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. I was in a space where I really wanted to continue learning and do a wider breadth of work. I felt like, while I was focused on editorial, I really wanted to try new things, and I started moonlighting with a few folks after hours and on the weekends, working on projects from like, okay, I’ll build out your WordPress site with a full branding to logo design, to your setting up an app. How can I just help you with the first stage of low fidelity? What I’ve found during that time was that slowly, it went from my own moonlighting schedule to then word of mouth, that I then realized, I could do this full time.

Sabrina Hall:
It was quite a process. I learned so much in making and working for myself with regards to everything from taxes, hiring folks, partnering, distributing work, and then really understanding how to pitch the work that I do, the value of what I could bring to individuals and companies, and understanding that I was really enjoying the process of solving a business problem together with a small business, or one person who was like, I’m starting my own website for a book I’m coming out with, how can you help? That was what really drew me to doing that for so long.

Maurice Cherry:
I love how with studios, you really get to have that flexibility, not just on like, who you may decide to take on, but also just the kind of work that you do, and even the level of specificity that you want to take on with the project. It’s funny that you call it moonlighting. I haven’t heard someone say that in so long, but I get what you mean, just in terms of doing stuff. Now, what? Side projects is the new moonlighting, I guess?

Sabrina Hall:
I think so. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:25:24].

Maurice Cherry:
I get what you mean. You’re kind of working on other stuff during off hours that you probably should be relaxing or whatever, but it’s such a good way when you have your studio to do that, because you can really dabble in different things, and you can decide sort of the direction you want to go into. You can really be a specialist at stuff if you want to, as opposed to maybe being more of a generalist with things. Studio stuff is great, but yeah, the part about getting really the nuts and bolts stuff down with taxes and accounting and all of that.

Maurice Cherry:
I tell entrepreneurs all the time or designers that want to be entrepreneurs like, get an accountant. That’s the first thing you should do is try to get somebody that’s going to handle the money so you can focus more on the creative stuff, because that other stuff just bogs you down.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. I did not get an accountant for quite a long time. It was definitely lessons learned there and so many other things, even with regards to setting up proposals, understanding how to reply to RFPs, the competition in the market, and then just also understanding the industry where there were years that while I was working on various projects, that I made significant gains and significant losses as well and just really understanding that holistically for running a business and what it meant in my own work-life balance as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, like a few other people that we’ve had here on the show before, you’re also a teacher at City Tech, you’re an adjunct professor there. What made you decide to start teaching?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes, so I’m going to give a very explicit shout out to Douglas. I had always had an interest in teaching. It is connected for me through, for several years, I was a mentor in the AIGA mentoring program, and for several years after that, co-chaired it with one of my closest friends Anjali Menon. Throughout that time, I had always enjoyed partnering with folks who were interested in design community, equity, and really enjoy that space. I had been invited by Douglas to join for a panel event. In having those conversations, he was like, “There’s an opportunity here at City Tech. I really think this would be something that would be fantastic.”

Sabrina Hall:
I was like, “Well, I don’t know.” I had only done a couple of lectures at that point in time and hadn’t been fully situated. I was very nervous. How can I teach? In reflecting and saying on this now, I know that it was possibly ingrained, because my mom’s a teacher, my husband’s a teacher, so I’m surrounded by teachers. True to form, I was like, okay, sink or swim. This is the opportunity. Douglas had mentioned it, then a few months later, he was like, “Here’s the role?” And I was like, “Well, Douglas, I don’t know about the hours.” “Here’s the perfect hours.” “I don’t know about the day.” “Here’s the perfect day.”

Sabrina Hall:
Everything lined up, and I was like, “All right, let’s do it.” It has been such a humbling experience, a wonderful experience, and an opportunity to really, I think, disrupt the design industry from a perspective I hadn’t always considered.

Maurice Cherry:
What do your students teach you?

Sabrina Hall:
My students teach me how compassion is important. My students remind me that kindness is important and that you can learn with this as a structure. My students teach me that the industry is very subjective in so many ways and very challenging and continues to be challenging for folks to enter into. My students teach me that sometimes, and many times I don’t know the answer, and my role is to help them figure it out and for myself to learn alongside with them. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that with, I guess the pandemic and how that may have distanced you from it, has that changed the way that you teach?

Sabrina Hall:
The pandemic really impacted the way I taught, I believe for the better. One of the things that I felt very strongly about in supporting my students throughout the pandemic is removing the requirement for cameras. City Tech has always been really great about that, but in various educational circles, I’ve been reading and seeing how some professors are making it mandatory and really just understanding what true engagement means, and that doesn’t mean someone having a camera on in Zoom. Another thing it has really identified is clarity around teaching, specifically with increased documentation, increased expectations, and then also identifying the boundaries of that as well, particularly with being home and understanding, do I need to be engaged on this email right now after having taught for three hours or can it wait till tomorrow? And resetting the time I need to reset as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say that you’re obsessed with lately?

Sabrina Hall:
Oh, this is such a delightful question. Okay, I’m currently obsessed with the natural sciences. I have been in this really particular space. I had just finished rereading Emergent Strategy, and just am so intrigued by how the natural sciences and plants and birds and the biomimicry of things and how we can learn from that. I particularly I’m really into how certain trees grow together and support one another, and how that could be paralleled into team structures. I’m also really into birds right now. I’m just enjoying seeing documentaries about birds and how they build things, and just again, learning from the natural sciences is my like head space currently.

Maurice Cherry:
We had a designer, oh God, when was he on the show? We had a designer on the show last year. I think it was right around April or May, or so, but it’s episode 340 with Billy Almon. Billy is … He called himself a biology inspired storyteller and designer. I mean, a lot of the work that he does is around the natural sciences, like a lot of his design work and such. I first met Billy at Harvard. This was at the Black and Design Conference in 2019. He was on one of the panels there, and he was really talking about how, like you mentioned biomimicry, and that’s what sort of stuck out to me, is that he really sort of does a lot of what you’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
He looks at how the natural sciences work in other ways and other applications, and he gave this really great example about ants and how the way that ants build their anthills and stuff, how that social structure can go forth in societies. It was super fascinating, episode 340, if anyone’s listening and want to check it out with Billy Almon, but it was a really, really great interview. It just sort of got me to thinking about that when you said natural sciences and biomimicry.

Sabrina Hall:
I just made a note of it, and I too will be listening to 340, so I will be following up and anyone else who cares to listen, happy to have that Twitter conversation in regards.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Because the theme, so to go back to, I guess that conference, the whole theme was around creating more equitable futures. Now that I think about it, it’s the last conference I went to in person prior to the whole pandemic, but the conversations there were around, how can designers use all sorts of things to create more equitable futures? With Billy, it was about like using nature for design and for technology to make equitable futures, like looking at nature and seeing how nature heals and fixes itself and structures itself and think, how can we take that and just apply it to design or apply it to tech, or apply it to social issues or things of that nature. It’s really, really interesting stuff.

Sabrina Hall:
I am so intrigued. This sounds like really in alignment with what I’m interested in right now, and I definitely cannot wait to check this out.

Maurice Cherry:
Now. I love that you have, in your bio, that you are a writer. What does writing do for you as a designer? What does that sort of tap into?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. Ooh, writing for me as a designer taps into so many different things. For me, it’s accountability in a way that I hadn’t expected, and where I find I’m able to share information and hold myself accountable for some of the processes that I’m thinking through for documenting and finding ways to explain myself and continue to practice that as a skillset overall. Also, writing has been really helpful for me with regards to understanding how to build connections and relationships. What I mean by that is something like introducing yourself to a client, writing a proposal, understanding the perspective to take there.

Sabrina Hall:
Additionally, writing has been a space also where I’ve learned so much about my own process with regards to how write out the stories for my portfolio to reflecting on growing as a designer who is introverted and what that meant for social media and understanding that I can write these things down, look at them, reflect, learn from them, and sometimes I almost think of writing as just another version of design in terms of like getting all of the information put into a space that I can then use for reference or share, or just document for my own journey.

Maurice Cherry:
Writing as another version of design. I like that. I like that. I was explaining to someone recently about, they had asked me when was the last time that I had designed something, because I mean, people know that I do this show, and then like for my actual day job, I also do some work dabbling in audio, even though I’m a creative strategist, and they just sort of asked me like, when’s the last time you designed something? I got what they meant. They meant, when was the last time you sort of, I guess, sat down in Illustrator or Photoshop and visually designed something. But I told them that a lot of what I do now, these days is more along sort of designing processes and designing systems, and I do a fair amount of writing as well. I don’t know how many designers would consider writing as an element of design, but it totally is. It absolutely is.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. Even now, this show has designed the organization of how this is put together, the outcome, the way that work has been set up in terms of the research that’s done. I think of design is now moving out of a space of just like being just that artifact of a product or something in Photoshop or Figma, but more how we can also just apply it to various things with regards to that problem-solving lens and experimenting lens as well.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you think we can encourage more designers, specifically more black designers or designers of color? How can we encourage them to write more?

Sabrina Hall:
What I have found that encourages me to write as a black designer is the importance and impact of my voice to everything else that is also out there. What I mean by that is, as an industry, there are always articles that tend to be very popular and are written from specifically, which tends to be the case, the majority, a cis white hetero male perspective, and that is one perspective. I have found that in many situations, I’m unable to find that material fully helpful because of the inability to just relate. By adding my own voice. It really gives a different perspective. I hold myself accountable to that perspective to say, here is my approach to it, and here are the things that I would consider.

Sabrina Hall:
I encourage other folk to share their voice in a way that they feel best identify with their goals and the outcomes that they are looking towards, and really just saying design has many folks and many perspectives and many faces.

Maurice Cherry:
I usually also try to, I mean, when I’m talking to designers and trying to impart the importance of writing, I try to show it to them in a historical sense. Like, say you go into a bookstore, like a Barnes & Noble or something, and you go to the design section, I guess there’s … I haven’t been in a bookstore in like a year or so because of the pandemic, so I don’t really remember, but I’m sure there is a arts and design section. I sound like an old person, but I’m sure that section exists, and you go there and you’re looking for books, and you’ll probably notice that most of the books there are not by or from people of color. The importance I see to writing is to put your own words out there to be a part of the historical design corporates.

Maurice Cherry:
That may not necessarily be a book. It could be an article, a series of articles. It could be, and even I’m saying writing in terms of the physical act, but it could be a podcast, it could be videos, it could be Instagram live videos, whatever, but finding another outlet to sort of transmute your thoughts from your head into a medium that other people can enjoy it. I think writing certainly is one way to do that and I think a big way to really spread your words out there more so people can know what it is that you think and what you feel, and the thoughts behind the work that you do, or even just the thoughts about this industry.

Maurice Cherry:
I see so many people writing up a storm about stuff on Twitter. I am a very sporadic Twitter user. I really kind of only use it as a highlight reel, and I try to save all the stuff that I really want to sort of get out there. Either I make it into a presentation. I’ll talk about it in the show or I’ll write about it. I feel like that way, my words can sort of live longer, because tweets are such an ephemeral thing. No matter how many prolific tweet threads you might have, is that really going to like be around in a week or a month or a year or five years.

Maurice Cherry:
Thinking about it in the historical sense of that, your words carry weight, your words are your thoughts in this other form, and it’s a way that it can sort of live on past whatever experiences you might have or anything of that nature. It can be just sort of a historical reference in many ways.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. I even found that, I forgot, probably a few years ago, I was just looking to write about black designers and found such limited material on the surface level. There was definitely material, but on the surface level of like a half-hour Google search. There was not much. What the impact of that was, was like, okay, so this is not something that is easily accessible, how can it become more accessible and part of the entire canon or design history as well? So, I absolutely hear you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Who are some of the design mentors or anyone that have really helped you out along your way.

Sabrina Hall:
I have been really fortunate to have some great folks along the way. When I was doing a lot of consultancy work, there was a creative director named John Herr, who really, at the time, continued to create space for me to just grow and advocated for me to lead on different projects. When I was much younger and working in an agency space, there was a professor of mine who was then also our creative director, Terry Koppel, who influenced and impacted my career trajectory. Then a lot of the non-design folk, and what I mean by that are community members with regards to folks who work within the community of design, and that can be folks in research, folks really in creating community spaces, and then a lot of my peers, I would say, have been mentors, probably not actively.

Sabrina Hall:
I don’t know if they would give themselves those titles, but a lot of my peers have pushed the way I’ve thought have provided so much advice, insights, clarity, and just space for me to ask questions as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Going back to the writing again, if you had to write a book, what would you write about?

Sabrina Hall:
I have been thinking about writing a book and maybe piecing together the concept of writing a book. A couple of topics that come to mind are that connection between the natural sciences and design organizations. I’m also very interested in sharing about the experiences, my own experiences within the design industry when there is, I feel the time and space to put that together. I’m also really interested in writing about design education as well and the design of that industry in terms of the funnel of that and how we think about entry points of design and think about design education overall.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you, I don’t know, dive into that a little more about design education? Because you are a design educator yourself, like what would you want to sort of explore there?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. I believe that a lot of our design education in New York and my own experience that I’ve had, I can’t speak to other experiences, but to my own experience, has been very Eurocentric. And there has been so much erasure of the work of other folks who are not Eurocentric, without the Eurocentric lens. What that means is that a lot of work and a lot of the things that I experienced coming into the industry was, I used to really be someone who focused on Swiss design, and that was the aesthetic I went towards. And learning later on that, was that really nature or nurture, from the perspective of like, that was all I was told, yet when I brought about a different design style, that was much more colorful and focused on patterns. It was like that wasn’t graphic design at the time, that wasn’t qualified by my teachers in some cases as being like a strong enough graphic design.

Sabrina Hall:
I realized part of that education is because we’re so limited with regards to only learning about certain names and only learning about certain folks as like the most important folks within this design, and that just continues to perpetuate those norms into the industry, into how we consider what “good versus bad” work is. I put those in quotes because that, it’s just a simple binary of good versus bad, but it’s not … The nuances and the gray area. Then also really understanding how that impacts all the way up to who gets hired, who gets access to design education, why is it that design school is so expensive and that the cost for entry is so high? What happens to folks who don’t have the access, but have every interest in skillset? And just yeah, wanting to dig into that a little deeper.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that sounds fascinating. I would love to read a book about that. Certainly, it’s an interesting reflection on sort of where we’re seeing, at least what I’m seeing from black design educators, how now they’re really starting to bring in other sources to, I want to use the word decolonize, only because that’s the word that sort of has been attached to these conversations, but they’re really, I think diversifying their sources of just like, where other students can learn about design and it’s not just from, like you said, the Bauhaus or Swiss style, or German style, and a lot of these are like events, there are conferences, there’s so much stuff now.

Maurice Cherry:
Honestly, even from, before when I started this podcast, there were so many more events and opportunities and ways to learn about the history of black people in design now than there were 10 years ago. It’s amazing. I really want to see where it goes from here.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. I think it’s an exciting time. I believe that it’s really beginning to open up just so many different perspectives with regards to also who teaches design, also, to your point, how we learn about design. So, from your podcast to events where all the black designers, to various slack groups that have come up, to just how there are these micro communities, even through social media as well, where folks are asking one another questions, having conversations about the industry and their employer. And really, I believe also, there is the business side of it. We’re hand in hand with all of the civic unrest and the specificity of the murder of George Floyd. How that, how all of a sudden, everyone’s like, oh, we’re being held accountable as companies, and everyone’s looking at your board of directors and looking at your staff, at least I am.

Sabrina Hall:
I can’t speak for everyone, but starting to look at that even closer than I was previously and understanding and seeing, okay, how are these companies defining for or working around it? Because it’s also aligning with what a lot of folks are asking for, too, for themselves in the industry, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know when, unfortunately, when his murder occurred last year, and how that one really drove people out into the streets to protest, but it was amazing how so many people were calling on companies, because companies were doing this thing, where they’re like posting the black squares and saying they stand for racial justice, and everyone else was like, uh-uh, but what about in your industry? Or like, what about this industry? You had so many people that were starting to turn it around and say, well, if you’re really committed, then why does the industry look like this?

Maurice Cherry:
Why does the industry function in this way? What are the real steps that you’re taking besides just posting a black square? I have been telling folks this year, I was like, Juneteenth is going to be crazy this year, which is on a Saturday. I know last year there were a lot of companies that were saying, yes, we’re going to make this a day off and we’re going to start to observe it. I guess maybe they’ll observe it on Friday now, so three-day weekend in June, I guess. I don’t know. I’m assuming that’s going to pick up.

Sabrina Hall:
I guess we’ll see. I think that, for myself, these are some questions I had been asking before, but probably just more so in private. I think that with these conversations happening, there’s much more room for conversations publicly, not always, but just a little bit more and really understanding and also learning what’s best for folks. There’s pros and cons for so many aspects to it, but what are the ways in which it can help folks?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When you look at where you’re at now, is this how you imagined yourself when you were a kid?

Sabrina Hall:
Oh, no, I don’t think so. I feel like I would not have imagined this per se. Likely, I thought of myself in some way of doing something creative, but I would not have imagined the ability to, or just the immediate, yeah, the immediate ability to lead a team, to work through teams, to run my own business. I don’t think I would’ve necessarily imagined this, but probably felt like I could try different things. I think I’ve always just had that curiosity, but yeah, I don’t think I would have imagined this to this, and I wouldn’t, yeah, I wouldn’t change it anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
At this point, like where you’re at in your career with teaching, with what you’re doing at Justworks, with your writing and everything, how do you now define success?

Sabrina Hall:
I would define success as a few things. The ability to make decisions that I feel much more confident about. I would define success as the impact of continuing to advocate for others and continuing to make space for community work. I would define success as the recognition and understanding of my time and value, and not settling as well. I define success as being able to set boundaries and be able to say no to things as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s a very layered definition of success.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in five years, like it’s 2026, what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Sabrina Hall:
I would like to be working on projects that care, just continues to care about people in the future, whether that’s through AR, VR, sound design and interactions there. I think in five years, the mediums and tools that we use will continue to change and being able to be a strategic partner for those things. I could see myself going back to running my own business as it’s something that I do enjoy and/or continuing to just partnering in the education space as well, and always being able to make a bridge to continue to increase access.

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?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. You can find me at sabrinahalldesigns.com, or on Twitter @SabrinaHallNYC.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Sabrina Hall, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, for just sharing your story and talking about the work that you’re doing, but also really impressing upon, I think, not just me, but also to the audience, the importance of writing, the importance of really also just like checking in with yourself. Like you said, being able to set those boundaries and using that work to, of course, make yourself better and to make your community better. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Sabrina Hall:
Thank you, Maurice. Thank you for having me.

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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It’s time for our annual audience survey! Tell us what you think about Revision Path, and you could win a $100 Amazon.com gift card! Visit revisionpath.com/survey to give us your feedback. Survey ends on May 31.

Brent Rollins

This week’s guest is a true creative changemaker. If you’re a hip-hop fan, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen his work somewhere over the past 30 years. He’s your favorite designer’s favorite designer. For our monumental 400th episode, meet the one and only Brent Rollins.

We have a wide-ranging conversation where Brent goes into some of his current projects and collaborations, and shares a bit about his creative process when starting on something new. Brent also talked about growing up in Los Angeles around the entertainment industry, how he helped co-found Ego Trip, and we have a great discussion around Black design aesthetics and defining success. Brent is someone who has been a huge inspiration to me as a designer and a creator, and having him share his story for this milestone episode is truly awesome.

Thank you all for supporting Revision Path!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Brent Rollins:
My name is Brent Rollins, and the short answer is that I’m a multi disciplinary designer, the long answer would be that I’m a creative who collaborates with people, organizations that are passionate and sort of driven in their mission to kind of spread their ideas and positivity to the world and to sort of create guiding paths for people.

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

Brent Rollins:
You know what, man? 2021, I’m ready to go. 2020 was actually the year that I was like, “Let’s do this. Weird. I’m ready to make some stuff happen.” Well, we know how that sort of ended up. So I think it’s been… I think a lot of people, including myself have been kind of bubbling and if you’re driven and if you have ideas and you’re creative, you’ve been using this sort of sabbatical or this time or this kind of slower period to think about things and formulate things and come up with ideas and plan. Like the people that have passed unfortunately, I know a few people that have been affected by the virus and stuff. So my heart goes out to them, but for those of us who are alive, this is a moment for us to be alive and to embrace that, and to really like… This is a blessing in that sense, if we haven’t been devastatingly affected. This has been a blessing to have this moment, to think about what we want to do and what we want to accomplish into what’s a forced introspection.

Brent Rollins:
And I hope rather that people kind of use it to better themselves. So, that’s what I’m about, man, I can’t wait for this year, unlike I’m ready to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I have talked to a lot of people that are saying that this is going to be like the new roaring 20s in a way?

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man. Is it ever? This is going to be yo, roaring 20s, baby boom, it’s going to be crazy. I think, come June, July, this is going to be wild, bro.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, No. And I think even now, there’s this sort of like, I can feel this renewed energy in the air, especially as people are starting to get the vaccine. And even as some places are starting to relax restrictions, things are starting to open up again. So, people are anxious to get back out there and experience the world, whatever that may look like.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Some people unfortunately continue to experience the world and they didn’t really care, no shots, no judgment. But for the rest of us hopefully like I said, we’re sensible enough to kind of use it to our advantage and kind of make plans and sort of think about things. And it’s really funny because at the top of 2020, I distinctly remember thinking, I can’t tell you where it was, but I can distinctly remember thinking. I was like, “Man, the world is moving really fast. This thing needs to slow down.” It was like I felt just how much stuff was going on. Because I live in New York City, and I see construction going on everywhere. And I see all this stuff happening. And it just felt like things were kind of out of control. And so it was… Like I said, it’s been a weird, mixed, I guess, [inaudible 00:07:08] and kind of blessing that this thing sort of forced everyone to slow down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does a typical day look like for you now?

Brent Rollins:
It’s funny, because I was never a very structured person, and I’ve become a little bit more regimented. And I actually really enjoy it. Or I feel like I need that. So, typical day for me right now is I’m in this kind of like new cycle. So, I’m actually implementing kind of new sort of regimens that I didn’t really do. So, I don’t know how typical it is. It’s only like maybe four months old. It seems like this has been Rollins’s day. But I typically go to sleep late, just because I’m a night owl. And I don’t get much sleep. So, I sort of wake up maybe about five or six hours later. And kind of like I want to read and sort of see what’s going on in the world and fix myself a little pot of coffee, and maybe take a little walk, get some air, get out the house, kind of just sort of take in what the environment has to offer, and start working on one of the multiple sort of projects that I got going on.

Maurice Cherry:
And what are some of those projects? I mean, as much of them as you can sort of talk about at liberty.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. It’s really funny like… Because I was thinking about before this interview, I was like, “Man, you know what? I can’t really talk about the things that I’m working on right now.” Not because they’re secret, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. A few of the things that are maybe like projects for people, again, like people that are doing sort of very interesting, sort of passion projects, or things that have sort of a larger good, I think that’s the kind of stuff that I can maybe talk about, as far as there’s this brother Waajeed, who is a DJ based in Detroit, who is pretty well known. And Detroit as you know, has amazing music history. And so, Waajeed has got this fantastic opportunity to open. I don’t want to call it a school, but he is spearheading this project to create a… I think it’s called underground music academy. It’s sort of a place for people to sort of engage in musical creativity. And it’s on this Boulevard in Detroit, that has a lot of insane Detroit musical history. So, I’m working on the identity for that. And I’m very excited about that.

Brent Rollins:
Some of the other projects that I’m working on, are really entrepreneurial projects that have been in the works for the past year. One of them, I had to put the brakes on because of COVID, but is still moving and I’m super excited about it. And I really can’t wait to sort of show the world what that’s about. But the short story is that it’ll be a sort of a restaurant or cafe or something. And then the other project, there’s another entrepreneurial project that I kind of don’t want to talk about. But I’m also very excited about. Other than that, yeah, everything else is really working on stuff for people for short films and some album covers and things that… Or people that I’ve creative history with, people that really want to kind of put something out into the world that’s a little bit different. I’m at the point in my sort of life or career, or however you want to talk about it, or however you want to think about it, where I just want to be a little bit selective, and I’m okay.

Brent Rollins:
I need to figure out… Everything has to… You have to make a living. But I can be a little bit selective about things because I don’t want to depend on those projects for the things to make a living, I’d rather have the entrepreneurial things be the things that I use to make a living.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Brent Rollins:
And that way, I have more control over the creativity, because it’s my projects. And then if I’m working with anybody, it’s going to be because I really believe in what they’re doing. There are people that have hit me up via social media. Man, people are like, “Yo, I’m doing this, would you do an album cover for me?” And I’m like, “Number one, you don’t talk to people like that.” You know what I mean? I also am like, “I’m not getting your hustle, but I’m also… I want to lend myself to projects that I feel that I understand and I feel have some sort of worth and value, and prove it to me.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how Twitter… And I guess you could say social media as a whole. But it’s amazing how Twitter has kind of almost flattened the… Like it’s flattened the hustle in a way. People will talk to you on Twitter in any kind of way. They don’t know who you are, and to that respect, I guess it’s that way with social media in general, they’ll just approach you on like some, “Hey, can you do this for me?” I get so many people that will… I wouldn’t even say that they write to the show, they tell the show, “I don’t know why you haven’t interviewed me yet.” Who are you? Person with no website and I can’t tell what kind of work that you do and you have 100 followers?

Brent Rollins:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how social media kind of flattens out in a way. People just don’t approach you with the same kind of not necessarily gravitas, but just the same sort of urgency. It’s just like, “Hey, do this for me.”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Well, I mean, people don’t… I can get into my old man, I’m going to put my old man pants on right now. It’s a little bit of number one, you should just learn if you’re going to… Like I said, if you’re going to approach people, show some respect, if you really like their work, at least be like, “Hey, I really like your work, this is what I’m trying to do,” and come with some humility and be like, “I’m doing this thing, would you be interested in it?” Yes, no, if not, I understand. I don’t really appreciate this sort of informality. I think social media enables people to be in contact, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
But it doesn’t mean that you should abandon sort of what has been traditional decorum and sort of like, just respect in terms of like how you approach people. I wouldn’t talk to any of these kind of design heroes that I have, as though they were my peers, they’re not my peers. Those are people that I look up to, and they’re deserving of that respect. And you’re right, yeah, as far as flattening, I think most of the people or a large amount of people that are using social media, it is flat, because they’re all peers. So, they can sort of approach people like that, but then there are other people that are within that space that are old like myself, that are like, “No, man, this is not how you run up on folks.” I didn’t run up on people like that. I was very-

Maurice Cherry:
Respectful?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, respectful. But whenever I’d meet people that were in a particular state, I would just approach them [inaudible 00:13:57]. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Brent Rollins:
I think that that’s… Not that I’m suggesting, “Yo, I’m better than you,” but I’m just kind of like, “Come on, man, I’m a grown man. Don’t talk to me like that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And also, it’s clearly when someone’s approaching in that way, it’s one way transactional. Like, “What can I get?”

Brent Rollins:
Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
“Can you do something for me?” Not like, “How do we help each other out in that kind of way?”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, yeah. But you know what? I mean, if you’ve been doing anything for a moment, and you’re worth, you’re like us all, you can filter out who’s real and who’s not.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s true.

Brent Rollins:
And even the people that are not, maybe they haven’t found their tribe yet, but you can tell that, “Oh, you’re looking.” If you can identify the people that are like the junior use.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
Like, “Oh, yeah, no, I get it. Yeah, this person, they’re definitely on that vibe. And you know what? I’m going to put you under my wing because I can see that in you, and come along for the ride homie.” So, yeah. Oh, man, people hacked up on social media.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you’ve mentioned all these different kind of projects. First of all, I have to say I love the way you kind of just slowly was like, “Yeah, this is DJ in Detroit Waajeed.” You’re not talking about what Waajeed from slum village.

Brent Rollins:
No, no, no. Not at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Just like, “Yeah, this guy, he’s starting a school.” Doing the thing like, okay, all right. But when it comes to all these different projects that you do, what does your creative process look like when you’re starting a project?

Brent Rollins:
That is depending on the project, but I think that… I do a little research depending on what it is, one of the things that I try to tap into where… It’s really funny, because I have a great appreciation for sort of like, very learned kind of design approaches. But I think I’m really like a designer that came from an art background, I think, or more so just the act of creativity itself. And so I approach things in a way that’s more about emotion. And oftentimes, what is the feeling that I got when I encountered X? And so that’s what I’m trying to tap into in terms of like that sort of intuitive sort of feeling. I’m sure there have been moments in your life where there’s been some baby… I’m going to just use music, because it’s such a common denominator. When you… There was like maybe a club that you were just like, “Oh, man, that club was just… That was it. Because the DJ, the music was just right, and the vibe was right and the crowd, and the this and the that, and the…” All those kind of things.

Brent Rollins:
That’s a feeling. And if it’s done right, there’s a visual component to it as well. And so what I look towards is tapping into that visual trigger. That’s the thing because that’s my language. So, that’s the thing that whenever I was in any of these kind of environments, that’s what I latched on to, as my sort of like, this is my flotation device, this is what’s going to keep me up in this space. And I’m going to use this design thing or this visual thing and I’m going to sit back on my floaty and chill, while I’m observing the rest of the stuff that’s going on. That’s kind of like how I go. The creative process is about tapping into that vibe, that thing, that emotion that people get that is very subconscious. If you’ve been to the Caribbean, or certain countries, I don’t want to say third world countries, but just developing countries or something. There’s like the smell of like gasoline and burning jungle foilage. I was exposed to it as a young age.

Brent Rollins:
And then as an adult, I go back to those places and I’m like, “Oh, whoa!” It’s like automatically, it’s something that I totally forgot about, like, boom, it just triggered me. And I was like, “Oh, I’m back here. I’m ready to roll.” So, that’s what I’m trying to try to reach for, is to think about those kinds of things.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So yeah, you try to tap into a certain… You said like a visual trigger or a vibe, or a feeling and then you kind of build out from their sounds like?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s really funny man, the emotions and the memories. Like I said, people don’t necessarily… Sometimes people don’t remember them. But when they see them, they get excited. Like, I love remembering things that I’ve totally forgot. Sometimes there’s a thing that maybe happened to me as a child, or that maybe I went to, and someone else will bring it up and I’m like, “Oh, whoa! Oh, man, I totally remember.” I love that. That’s like the best feeling ever, because you’re taken back to something that you had kind of pushed in the… It’s like in the back of the storage room. It’s like if you have stuff in storage, and you kind of go through things, and you rediscover them. Like recently, I was going through my parent’s garage sort of cleaning things out. And kind of came across two boxes of old comics that I had left behind when I left Los Angeles from New York. And I hadn’t thought about those comic books in 20 plus years, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
It’s not that I… I knew that I had comics, but I had got to the point where I just sort of disassociated and attached myself to those as possessions. Comic books are really important to me, the stories and the illustrations were… Some of the artists were very significant to me, and rediscovering those comic books in the back of my dad’s garage, and kind of going through it, man, I got a little teary eyed because I was like, “Oh man, a few comics.” I was just like, “Oh, man.” Because I decided to sell them because I haven’t looked at these things in so long. What’s the point of keeping these things? I just sort of resolved to sell them. I was going through some of the comments, I was like, “Man, do I really get rid of this? Oh, this is so awesome.” And it was like, yeah, I reconnected with something that I completely forgot about.

Brent Rollins:
So yeah, when I do… So, take it full circle. So, when I do design, there’s a tinge of nostalgia I guess, in some of the things because I think that’s what people are relating to, in some cases. And then other cases it’s like, “Well, I want to do something completely new.” And how do you do that? Even when you make something new, it’s rooted in something because if you do something that’s too new, you lose people. So, you want to put a little bit of something familiar in it.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting you mentioned that sort of tinge of nostalgia, because I feel like there’s… We’ll get into the work that you’ve done with Ego Trip and Rap Pages, et cetera. But there’s a very temporal quality to your work that is kind of evocative of the 60s and the 70s in different ways. I think one, there’s this sort of like collage, mixed media kind of thing that I see you do sometimes. But then there’s also… And maybe I’m thinking of the more visual stuff that I see on television, but it’s also like a nod back to projectors. And there’s an audio element of a film reel, or noise grain that you see on film and stuff like that. And then just even the playful way that you use typography, it’s almost like you see those old school horror movie title cards or something. I get what you mean about that kind of tinge of nostalgia. But I think that’s a pretty big theme in your work though.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. The thing about using that as a device, it’s funny, because I don’t know what… I really want to talk to some younger designers now and kind of get where their head is at, because when I would resort to those options, it’s because that’s what I know is familiar to people. And the idea of design, in my world design meaning kind of visual communications, graphics, that type of design. It’s really about I want to communicate with you. What’s our shared language? What are our shared memories? What is our shared sort of commonalities? And when I pull from those kinds of things, this is very conscious. Those are things that I want to trigger you. I want you to be like, “Oh, I get it.”

Brent Rollins:
I think there’s the idea of design as ornament and sort of fireworks, where it’s like, “Yo, I’m doing something new and this is [inaudible 00:22:39].” And you’re going to get about five people that understand what you’re doing, which is cool. I’m not against that. I love that kind of stuff. But the idea of design, my foundation, or my understanding of design is rooted in the old idea of what a graphic artist was, which was communication design. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
So the idea of, I’m trying to reach you, I’m trying to talk with you. And for me, the shortcut is shared experiences. For me, the shortcut is what I’d surmise as being the things that we grew up with. And that’s how we begin to talk to each other. That’s kind of where I’m coming from. When I was doing that kind of stuff, it was based off of… It’s not the nostalgia because it looks… Sometimes that nostalgia can be about the kitsch factor or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm, okay.

Brent Rollins:
I could… Man, I can go [inaudible 00:23:33].

Maurice Cherry:
I was actually careful not to use the word kitsch. So, I’m surprised you brought that up.

Brent Rollins:
Well, it’s sort of like the idea of… Well, when I say kitsch, I think… Let’s talk about the 70s for instance.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Brent Rollins:
And when you see things that are about the 70s and particularly black culture, it’s always expressed in these very kind of superficial, simple… It’s like the lettering is groovy, whatever that means.

Maurice Cherry:
Hobo standard kind of… I know what you mean. Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. You think of afros as kitsch. It’s a little bit kitsch, right? People don’t look at afros as… They don’t look at afros as what it was, which was like this assertion of black identity and being sort of proud of kinky hair and all this other kind of stuff. They look at it as being a style. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
And how big it was, or how large your afro was. And sometimes there’s this sort of… There’s definitely like a silliness to some stuff from the 70s. I think that’s the sort of kitsch thing and it becomes like this kind of joke. I think about that movie, Black Dynamite, which avoided it because it was… That movie wasn’t… It took place in the 70s, but it wasn’t about afro jokes.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
It was, but it wasn’t. It was really like a very loving, sort of understanding about that sort of aesthetic. But it was deeper than an afro jokes. I don’t like afro jokes. I don’t like afro jokes… [inaudible 00:25:10] my fist on the table. Yeah, it’s not about the kitsch today, kitsch isn’t about… It’s about like, “Oh, I remember that vibe.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to tap into.

Maurice Cherry:
So you mentioned Los Angeles, where you’re originally from. Tell me what it was like growing up there.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man, what a weird place! I have a love and hate relationship with Los Angeles, because it made me who I am. So, I can’t hate on it. And there’re some really beautiful things about the city. There are some other things that I didn’t like, because I grew up around the entertainment industry. And so it was just sort of like a preoccupation that… Yes, it generates money and it generates attention. But sometimes I have to wonder why people sort of got into that world. But the world that I grew up in, was a middle class, black neighborhood called Windsor Hills, which I love to say, the Issa Rae’s character on Insecure, she’s from the neighborhood that I grew up. So-

Maurice Cherry:
Uh-huh (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
They got to her and when that show came out, I was just like, I just couldn’t believe that anything was shot in my neighborhood. I’m like, “Oh, my God, they’re shooting there, they’re doing a scene there or some other place.” And it just blows my mind. So, I have to admit, it’s like a place that I’m very proud to come from, even though ironically, when I was growing up, I wasn’t. It was very conflicting because it was a neighborhood that in the 60s, I would say was probably… It was… I think my understanding was predominantly white, predominantly… A lot of maybe Jewish people who lived also in the neighborhood of Windsor Hills, View Park, Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, that area. And I think as black people started… I like to say or not like to say, but I kind of refer to the 60s as being like when black people actually arrived in the United States.

Brent Rollins:
That was when actual opportunities started opening up in the same way that other immigrants sort of arrived in the United States and they have to kind of scrapped their way, they’re at the bottom, but they still have this sort of legitimate way to sort of move on. In some ways, the 60s was kind of like that, finally being able to participate. And so a lot of folks who had been able to get like civil service jobs, or other types of sort of middle class jobs started buying into the neighborhood that I grew up in. And so, I think that was great to see. Some things I didn’t necessarily like, because I don’t… I had problems with sort of the kind of class segregation that was apparent and less about money, but more about social segregation. And the idea that… The idea society was something that I kind of struggled with. I grew up around people that… I want to make it very clear, I’m not knocking something like Jack and Jill or those kinds of organizations.

Brent Rollins:
I think at the time, I wasn’t part of those things and I didn’t understand them at the time. So, my limited understanding was, this was just a weird, boujee, kind of whatever, I understand it, or have a better appreciation of it now in the sense of… The way I like to think about it, is if your parents, regardless of the situation that they come from, they want something better for you. And so, that sort of situation exists because they want their children to succeed, or they want their children to have a guaranteed better life. But I didn’t understand that at the time. And so even though my father worked in or rather was trying to make his way in entertainment during that time, we ourselves were not probably as well off as maybe the people that were around me. So, that kind of gave me a different sort of perspective on things.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I remember Jack and Jill growing up, but I didn’t think it was just some boujee black people. Like, seriously. But then I grew up as folks who listen to the show know. I grew up in Selma, Alabama, and it’s like at the end of the day, we’re all poor black people in the country. I think when I was looking at it from sort of as like from a teenage perspective, and I don’t know if it’s this way for all of Jack and Jill, but it certainly was this way back then in Alabama. It was by sort of social class of course, but then also by skin color. Pretty much everyone in Jack and Jill was light skinned and I am not. And it’s like I would have people say, “Well, you would be so good at Jack and Jill, but you know.” So, if you were just a few shades lighter maybe and this other thing that we had, we’re like…

Maurice Cherry:
And this was in high school, I don’t know if this is even a thing or if this was just a thing endemic to our high school, but we had these high school fraternities and sororities that were based off of black fraternities and sororities. So, you had the mini Alpha Phi Alpha, we’re the African Knights, and like the mini AKAs, Alpha Kappa Alphas we’re culture Rama, and the mini Delta Sigma Theta, were delta teams. And I never understood any of it. My mother was in a sorority, my mother’s a delta, but I didn’t get it. Like, “Why are we doing this? This doesn’t make any sense. You’re just sort of lording this imaginary social position over someone else for what?”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. It’s funny, I don’t… Again, I don’t really understand the motivation for that. I could say that as I’ve grown older, I don’t want to say I’ve grown more boujee. I’m not going to say that though. I’m not going to say that I don’t like nice things. Let’s put it that way. But I don’t really quite understand that point of view. An interesting thing that… And I don’t know how this connects, really. But what comes to mind is, I got the opportunity to work with Don Cornelius.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow!

Brent Rollins:
And one of the things that he said to me was, black people don’t recognize class.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Brent Rollins:
And which sort of defies what we’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
But in some ways, I understand what he’s saying because at the end of the day, in the United States, we’re all black people. We’re all structurally, socially, second class. And so, that’s our commonality. And I don’t know, I just thought it was a really interesting statement from him. I think we are people in general, I don’t know. Sort of seek to separate ourselves. But at least in the United States, there’s still this thread, that we’re all on the same boat.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think in the south, certainly there was probably just an additional… There may have just been an additional element of wanting to… I don’t know, maybe have what white people had in some way?

Brent Rollins:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I wonder if that’s part of it. For example, like I mentioned the high school fraternities, we had both a cotillion and a beautillion. I had a beautillion that was stupid. But like you-

Brent Rollins:
Congratulations.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you. But you’re like-

Brent Rollins:
Black tie.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s like, “Oh, you’re a distinguished man of a certain age.” And it’s a whole thing with like, they do a cakewalk and you have to be in a suit. A tux actually, be in a tux and you do the waltz. It’s so stupid, I don’t know if any other… I hope they don’t still do that. Because when I think back on, I’m like, “This is like some midnight in the garden of good and evil kind of shit. This is weird.”

Brent Rollins:
I’m going to offer the inverse of that. I think that there’s an opportunity to create expressions that are highly developed. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I think that, to your point, when it becomes about emulating the surface aspects of white culture, then that’s where it becomes problematic. But if you’re celebrating the things that are great about your culture, I think that’s a different point of view. And maybe that’s not the way we’re going to solve this problem, or be able to put a suggestion box to Jack and Jill, but maybe that’s how it transforms, or maybe there’s some other organizations or people who are less about that sort of take on things. And more about, “This is what’s beautiful about black culture.” And we should celebrate those things. And we should aspire to those things. I think that that’s the thing.

Brent Rollins:
There should be a quality and execution and decorum level that a lot of cultures have that are had been sort of codified and sort of expected like we were talking earlier about like, I go to Japan or something like that. I expect Japanese design to be kick ass. Or even like Scandinavian design. I expect it to be pretty damn good. And so that’s okay to me to be like, “Are you at that level?” No. And when you reach that level, dope, we’re going to knight you. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, you did it. We have a sense of that with music in terms of it doesn’t matter necessarily what genre it is. And even if you don’t like it, you might be like, “Okay, I’m not really necessarily feeling this particular take, but I can tell that it’s the person behind it, they put a lot into it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah

Brent Rollins:
I think music is like one of the things that black Americans do very well, and is worldwide considered to be of excellence. And we have grown up and been exposed to something of excellence, that when it’s time for those who decide to participate into those avenues, even when they’re doing something new, they’re trying to shoot for a particular bar.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

Brent Rollins:
And I think that having those kinds of standards, absolutely. I think that I see no problem in that sort of higher culture participation. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. Certainly, I get what you’re saying about when you’d look at another nation’s culture for example, there’s a certain expectation there. And I think that’s because that play that particular aesthetic, similar to what you’re saying with like black people in music, it’s been distilled and exported in a way where you already have a presupposition of what it’s going to be before you even know what it is. Like if you order… I’ll give you an example. I ordered some pants from, I forget what the… It was something I saw on Instagram, that was probably my fault. But I saw some dope pants on Instagram and I was like, “Oh, they’re like some Japanese, Myketo pants. So I expect when I get them, they’re going to have a certain flattering cut or something different than maybe you wouldn’t see with American apparel or something like that. Not the brand, but just apparel in general.

Maurice Cherry:
And like for black design, I think that’s a moving target in a way, because it’s going to depend on your experiences, where you grew up, where you pull inspiration from. I just had a German American designer on the show, Julian Williams, who is currently in Amsterdam. Young kid, 25 years old, has done design work for Karl Lagerfeld, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, has this very distinct, bold graphic type of graphical design. But then he also pulls inspiration from voguing and the ballroom scene that he’s a part of. And so it’s all a part of his general design aesthetic. Is that black design? Because he’s a black designer? Yes?

Brent Rollins:
Absolutely. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
But I’m saying like it’s like a moving target, because then you could look at your work, and your work is definitely very steeped in like I said, these kind of references from the 60s and the 70s, and this tinge of nostalgia. And a lot of what you have done has kind of set the… I feel like has set the visual cornerstone for an entire culture when people think of hip hop design, it comes down to a lot of the stuff that you did with Eagle Trip, a lot of the stuff you did with Complex, these very interesting graphic styles. That also is black design.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, that’s the goal. Like I said, it’s not one… What you’re alluding to, it’s not one thing, it’s not one particular genre, but is when you enter that space, it’s going to be executed at a particular level. It’s going to be… It’s going to cover specific things. And there are sort of expectations that you get. Like jazz is totally different from R&B and is totally different from Samba, is totally different from reggae, is totally different from dancehall, but it’s all black music, right? It’s totally different from the blues, it’s all black music, they all sound different, right? But there’s this thread of expression and commonality. And when these genres develop themselves, the execution is you can’t deny it. So, that’s a goal, is to create things that even though they’re not in one particular space, or they may jump from place to place, which is what’s going to happen, you want them to leave a mark.

Maurice Cherry:
And I will say speaking about how kind of having black design being internationally recognized in a way similar to how black music is, a lot of your work has been exhibited in group exhibitions, both here in the US, as well as internationally. What does it mean to have your work kind of shown in that kind of fashion?

Brent Rollins:
When my stuff is recognized internationally, it means a lot because a lot of it was pre-internet and that means that the people that decided to talk about design or whatever, they’re seeking, they’re looking for. They’re looking for content like anybody like anything or anybody now, but they have a certain standard in mind. And there’s a filter that they have in their head. So, what I’m most proud of, I guess, is publications and people that have reached out to me. Yeah, like I said, particularly before the internet was popping. Because they were like, “Oh, I’ve seen this, I’ve seen a few of these things. I really was affected by this, or this was a music artist that really meant a lot to me. And I see that a couple of other artists that mean a lot to me were represented visually by this guy, Brent Rollins. And so let me look into it.” That’s a good feeling. And to know that people around the world who are on the same wavelength as you, and who are seeking out things, find you. That’s incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
That makes me feel good. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, we’ve talked about Ego Trip, just kind of briefly touching on it. But I want to go more in depth about that. You came on as our director, you’re kind of one of the co founders of this group with some titans in the industry, Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Jeff Mao, take me back to that time. What did it feel like sort of coming together and building something like Ego Trip and the work that you all were able to do?

Brent Rollins:
Oh, sure yeah. And we have to remember the one titan who is always like never wants attention, was Gabriel Alvarez. Yeah. I mean, Ego Trip was kind of like… We were like a band. And in some ways for that world, we were like a supergroup. And I got to know… I started working with Gabriel Alvarez when I was working at Rap Pages, got the gig through very awesome, incredible woman named Sheena Lester. And Rap Pages was an early sort of competitor to The Source Magazine. And-

Maurice Cherry:
Larry Flynt.

Brent Rollins:
Larry Flynt, my man. Yeah. Enough respect to that guy, rest in peace. What a person to work for. I didn’t work for him specifically, but just to know that he was in the building, what a… Very bizarre to be early 20s and working for a pornographer. But yeah, he had started this magazine, Rap Pages basically to kind of reap some attention that The Source was getting. And Sheena had taken it over, after maybe a few issues, I guess. And we wanted to build an editorial team. I was one of the later people to join, and one of my compatriots, there was Gabriel Alvarez. So, between myself, Sheena, Gabe, Blau, Dorothy, and I apologize if I can’t remember Hannibal and some other folks that… Nikki, incredible person. We kind of were a little kind of a group who kind of wanted to take on The Source. At the time, that was like the main kind of hip hop music magazine. It was the first and undeniably significant. But we sort of had our take on things or whatever.

Brent Rollins:
But we had hired freelance writers, and among them was Sacha Jenkins, and Elliott Wilson, and I’m not sure if Mel… I believe Mel may have been hired as well, as a freelance writer, but that’s how I got to know those guys. Or that’s how I made first contact with them. And after a few years of working at the magazine, Gabe had moved to New York to work with Sacha, on Ego Trip. And Sacha Jenkins, who for people that don’t know, I would say in recent years, he’s probably known for producing these documentaries called, I believe it’s called Fresh Dressed, which is about hip hop fashion. He also directed this Wu Tang documentary on Showtime. And so he’s been… And he’s also in a punk band and all this other kind of stuff. And Sacha has always been doing all these kind of great self-started initiating things and had this sort of fledgling magazine, or zin rather, called the Ego Trip.

Brent Rollins:
And Ego Trip was… It was coming from the perspective of mainly, mostly writers of color to talk about hip hop, with a love and reverence, but also an irreverence towards the subject matter, and also had interest in other music such as punk rock, indie rock, what have you. And so, as Sacha would say, it was like Rolling Stones, but the inverse. So Rolling Stone would mostly cover rock, and maybe occasionally do hip hop. And so, Ego Trip was the flip side of that. And so that’s how I got to know those guys, and I eventually moved to New York in 1997, because of having some contact with Sacha. Sacha had sort of said, “Hey, we need to step up our magazine visually,” sort of invited me to join the team for no money, but more just out of like an outlet to do something creative.

Brent Rollins:
I looked at myself, as the Terry Gilliam to everybody else’s John Cleese, and the rest of the Monty Python crew. As far as being the visual person, I understood editorial, and I also wanted to do sort of humor. We were doing a lot of funny, goofy stuff. And so I had my take on how to express that. And eventually, that became the collage. There were… The magazine itself was instrumental to me in terms of my creative development, because it was very DIY, it was like, “Let’s just take…” We used to do precursors to memes called Ego Trip Ads. So we would find these funny images from Jet Magazine or, or Ebony or something like that. Just older magazines, like ads of black people in Burger King ads and write funny captions to them. But the captions were always like hip hop lyrics. And then we would kind of put the little slug like Ego Trip.

Brent Rollins:
And so basically, they became ads to fill in the unused ad space in the magazine. But they were fun. They helped us sort of develop our creative voice and make the magazine more individual and sort of unique. And so, that’s how I kind of got down with them. I had myself this irreverent take on hip hop and sort of making fun of hip hop, but loving it at the same time. This was the vehicle for it. And so, once we got together, yeah, Sacha was working, I think at Vibe Magazine. Elliott was working at The Source, Jeff was writing for a lot of other music magazines and Gabe, he’s the glue and like I said, he doesn’t get the credit that he deserves because he’s very much behind the scenes, he doesn’t want the attention, but he is the funniest MF around the planet, and super creative.

Brent Rollins:
And so, collectively, yeah, we kind of just became like Voltron, like superhero group and looked at the magazine as a vehicle to express just how we… Just things that we were interested in, and also to try to put it to… Like every issue, I only did like the last three issues, but it felt like making an album. And each issue got more and more personal. Like there’s running… It’s a magazine literally with like running jokes. Because if you turn the pages, you’ll see a reference to something that came earlier, and we made it this kind of like goofy puzzle. And it became semi… Everything in Ego Trip became this… It started blurring the line between music, journalism and autobiography.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. How was it received at the time?

Brent Rollins:
I think you’d have to ask a lot of journalists maybe how they thought about it. I guess at the time, no one was doing what we were doing. And I don’t say that to sound like arrogant, I just mean in a sense-

Maurice Cherry:
No. Hey, talk your shit.

Brent Rollins:
But I’m not [inaudible 00:48:30]. It wasn’t usual for people to get together to be like, “Hey, we want to talk about this with this particular voice. That isn’t straight ahead. So, when we got together to do that stuff, we just had fun. We would just goof around and just make jokes and it was like one of the… Those guys were like my brothers, brothers that I never had. And so, like I said, it’s kind of like we were sort of a supergroup. Yeah, we used to do some stupid things. In my head, I’m thinking about this time we kidnapped this journalist.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait. What?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Yeah. So, there’s this journalist who writes for the New York Times now named John Caramanica.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God! Okay. No, I’m sorry. Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
Wait, do you know…

Maurice Cherry:
I know of him because of some of his shitty reviews. But no, go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
So, I can’t remember what he was interviewing us for, maybe it was for our first book. I can’t remember probably. But we were like, “Okay, this is how we want to be legendary.” So at the time, we used to have this one office on 16th Street in Chelsea Market, and we used to have this really dope… The fourth floor, we had almost all to ourselves. We were sharing it with this graffiti brand named Bullets of Brooklyn, but they were never there. So, we kind of just had the run of the space. And then for reasons that I won’t get into, we had to vacate that space. And so we ended up moving into the basement of the building. So, we wrote our first book in the basement of this building on 16th Street in Chelsea. And so, there were pipes of bolus than you’d hear like toilet flushing, and you’d just hear all this sewage going by and stuff like that.

Brent Rollins:
And then we have this room in the back… We only have like two rooms, we have this one room that was where, if you see the cover of our book, the book of Rap List, that was the room that we shot this in. And we were like, “Okay, I guess we’re going to get interviewed.” I think it was probably for the New York Times, and we’re going to get interviewed and we can’t just do a normal thing, man. We’re like, “We’re Ego Trip dude, we’re [inaudible 00:50:49] this shit.” So we told them to meet or show up someplace in the Chelsea Market, which is like this kind of food court now. This glorified food court in Chelsea. And we had this really cute girl who was a friend of ours, go meet him and she was like, “Are you John Caramanica?” He’s like, “Yes.” She’s like, “Come with me.”

Brent Rollins:
We wanted him to have a story to tell. So, she leads him… I can’t remember if she… We weren’t there. So, I can’t say exactly. But I believe she probably blindfolded him at this venue, and probably walked him outside across the street and then walked into the building took him downstairs in the elevator. He shows up, he’s blindfolded, we walked in [inaudible 00:51:39].

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve still a thought of the fact that he just went with this woman and got blindfolded, just went with her.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, man. It’s like, what is he going to do? Is he going to say no?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true, yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. He did it. So, it was just funny.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you say kidnapping, I’m thinking like somebody got shoved in the back of a panel van or something. He sounds like a willing participant in this case. Well, go ahead. Go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
I can imagine that for someone in his position, it must have been definitely strange. He thought he’s going to an office to talk to somebody, he’s being blindfolded by some attractive young lady and brought to who he doesn’t even know where he’s going.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
This white van as far as we’re concerned. She takes him into the back room and we have the lights down low. I remember exhaustion now, Jeff and I we’re back there. So we had turntables in there. And I remember because I was in the other room. I just remember Sacha had something… He had some record on the turntable, and he kept looping it. So it was just super creepy. He was just scratching it, [inaudible 00:52:50] just back spinning it. Super creepy thing. And then we instruct Caramanica to take off his blindfold. And then the guys proceeded to talk with the flashlight under their heads.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow!.

Brent Rollins:
And then they do the interview. And finally, it’s time to leave. I do remember Jeff going like, “It’s time to go.” And I do remember Jeff now going like, “Hey, thanks. Thanks for coming by, you know what you got to do now, right?” He’s like, “Yeah.” So we asked our friend to… The young lady to blindfold him again. We span him around a few times, and he exited the building. And the rest is history.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow! That’s a wild story. That’s a wild story. So, Ego Trip eventually evolved from this magazine to a book, to several television shows. I mentioned prior to us recording how I remember watching those shows on VH1 as a teenager, the White Rapper Show and Miss Rap Supreme, and Race-O-Rama and everything, and just being so… Well, maybe not so much the reality shows, but certainly, the visual elements from like Race-O-Rama and stuff like that being so enamored with… I had never seen anything like that before talking about black culture, hip hop culture, that kind of thing. I’ve never seen it done in that way. And it blew my mind. It was really… I have to say it was kind of an early design reference for me, I wanted to make stuff like that. I wanted to be able to kind of have that sort of tongue in cheek irreverence towards culture in that way, in a way that felt familiar, but also felt kind of new and fresh, unlike something that you haven’t really seen before.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man, thank you. Thank you. Yeah. I think that was again, the… For me, that was a little bit of a Terry Gilliam in terms of all the crazy animations that you would see from Monty Python. That was my inspiration in the sense of the humor of stuff. And how do you express that stuff visually. And everything that we were doing in Ego Trip was really… It’s funny, because I’d like to think that we… I don’t want to say that we originated things, but there definitely wasn’t any sort of bigger reference. And it’s funny how meme culture has years later sort of assumed some of the similarities to what we were doing. So, was it a human thing? I don’t know. But it was in terms of like pairing these references and music lyrics to things and doing so like tongue and cheek, but I don’t know, but we definitely did it early. And so yeah, for Race-O-Rama, each episode, or there was three series, I’m sorry, three episodes in the series.

Brent Rollins:
And Race-O-Rama was this kind of fun house idea. And the idea that looking at race through this sort of voyeuristic lens. And so each of the shows was blackophobia, which used sort of the visual language of horror films, and pulp alien invasion movies and stuff like that. In Race We Lost, which was pulling from the visuals of like… I mean, I love this time square CD, porno theater graphics and all that kind of stuff. And the other one was, “Dude, Where’s My Ghetto Pass?” Which was kind of like this we call an urban safari. So this idea of cultural sort of, not necessarily appropriation, but this sort of… Everything was about the voyeurism of race, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
So, once we started thinking about those kinds of things, it was just like, it was just super fun to kind of riff off of them, because our take on on discussing race or presenting race was about the idea of not so much making fun of it, but at least making it less about some of the typical things or things that people would immediately associate when you’re talking about race. Particularly at that time, that series was based off of… Well, that series sprang from a book that we wrote called The Big Book of Racism. And that was a book that Dana Albarella, our beloved editor, who also produced our Ego Trip’s, Book of Rap Lists, she had moved on from St. Martin’s Press to HarperCollins, which was headed by Judith Regan, who was kind of a big shot in the publishing world, particularly at that time. And so we had the opportunity to do that book called The Big Book of Racism.

Brent Rollins:
And our thing about that book was that it was about race, because that was our secondary preoccupation after hip hop, the title and the premise kind of started off as a joke. And then we actually kind of started really getting into it. The thing about that book was we wanted to talk about race in a way that people could relate to, because generally, when people talked about race, they talked about sort of the history and we’re talking about the history of race from the arrival of slaves in America, up until the civil rights era. And so… And it tended to be very academic. And our lens as far as how we related to each other and joked with each other, was always through the lens of popular culture. And so the idea of doing a look at race through the lens of popular culture, was an interesting challenge. It was a crazy challenge for us.

Brent Rollins:
And on top of that, to bring attention to things and to make fun of it, or to joke about it, in that sort of sarcastic sort of coping mechanism kind of way. And it was really hard because we wrote it during 911.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh!

Brent Rollins:
Which really… Yeah. There was a point where we had started writing that book, The Big Book of Racism, and then 911 happened and we were just like, “Man, we don’t hate anybody, we’re critiquing things.” But it was very difficult. But we kind of decided if we’re going to do this, it’s going to be… If we’re going to fail, it’s going to be a magnificent failure. We were just like, let’s… Man, I’ve never doubted myself as much. I don’t edit and perhaps I’m speaking for the rest of the guys when we were doing that thing because we were just like, “Should we do this at a time when people needed unity?” And we’re just writing, not so much a divisive book, but a book to sort of in our minds, illustrate why people of color feel the way they do based off of the treatment that popular culture has presented. And so that was always my interest personally, was understanding how popular culture affects the perception of people. And so like I was saying, a lot of the academic books spoke to a very specific audience. And our goal was to be anti-academic.

Brent Rollins:
Chock full of information and intended to be sort of ingested sporadically wherever you want to enter it, but also for you to walk away to understand like, “Oh, damn, this country is built on race, there’s so much race in this country that people want to not acknowledge. And here’s our sort of listical way of doing it with jokes.” With comedy, but trying to make it apparent. That’s the role of an artist, is to make you see things that are right there in front of you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow! During 911. Yeah. That was certainly a very interesting. I think that was definitely a pivotal point in the country as it relates to race relations. Because aside from that, you got the formation of the TSA and how that has changed. Just so many things around screening in airports and stuff like that. But it really turned the dial on how race relations were in this country.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, there was a lot of internal examination going on. And that tragedy. Tragedy sort of expose what you’re made of, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Even just the recent craziness that we, as a country have been going through the past few years, it’s ultimately I guess, a good thing because it’s being brought to light. And then you see where people are trying to reach out and where people are trying to find those commonalities, and that common ground, and where they’re not. And so that just reemerges.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that you have worked with Ego Trip for a number of years, but during that time, you also were the creative director at Complex for a while. What were some of your memories from that time?

Brent Rollins:
I was creative director after Ego Trip, we had sort of kind of fizzled and disbanded.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, okay.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. So there was a period where I was kind of back to sort of doing… I was always kind of working on independent projects concurrently while doing Ego Trip, when Ego Trip was in sort of in full rev, that’s where I spent the most focus on. But there were always opportunities to do album covers, or things like that during that time. But complex kind of came about because actually our former Ego Trip intern, Noah was an editor at complex and he sort of, he needed, I like to call myself a substitute teacher, because the previous art director had left, and they needed to finish a few issues. And so that’s when I kind of came in to work on the magazine. And then what was interesting about working there, was I came in and sort of helped finish the issues. And I was like, “Okay, cool, this is fun.” Got to work with some younger designers, and really start to exercise my kind of delegation, and start to teach in some ways or pass along whatever information that I could and knowledge that I could to other people, and to learn how to shape things.

Brent Rollins:
Because when you’re creative, you tend to keep it to yourself and you do things that you don’t need to do. Like you don’t need to scan, you don’t need to… If we’re talking about graphics, you don’t need to do the silhouetting. You don’t need to do that stuff. Maybe you do it sometimes out of necessity, and maybe you might get really good at it. But the bigger thing is just really putting all those pieces together. So it was a great exercise to learn how to orchestrate a symphony. And that’s kind of what I refer to myself as a creative conductor, because at a certain point, it’s less about my actual hands and more about my actual thought and how do you put all those elements together. And so Complex became from a magazine, and this is during start of the decline of print as a popular media form, and the ascension of the web as the dominant media form. And so Complex, all the business heads behind it, were very perceptive in terms of growing that business.

Brent Rollins:
And so that’s what also kept me there, was learning. I learned about media when we were doing stuff with VH1, but the opportunity to work with teams of people and to build a business really, was exciting. That was an exciting opportunity because now, I’m dealing with for the first time in my life, a generation of people whose references are different than mine. And I’m now in this position of also learning from them. So, I like to learn new things. And I get excited by new stuff. And I’m always looking for that new drug. Like, “Yo, I need to get high again, give me that design crack. Give me that culture crack.” That was an opportunity to stay plugged in and to learn new things. And also to be able to work with people. And also Ego Trip as “successful” as we were, we hit a wall in a sense, and going to Complex was an opportunity to sort of flex some different muscles and to see…

Brent Rollins:
Ego Trip was patronizing in the sense of that we had the VH1 give us money. VH1 gave us money and before that the book publishers gave us money. But we were not successful in the sense of able to generate money ourselves. So, Complex was an opportunity to sort of look behind the curtain and then kind of step behind that curtain and see how business, or how entrepreneurial minded business grows and develops and becomes like this media titan that it is today. So, that’s what kept me there, was to learn from the younger designers, to help shape them also, to pass on that information and that knowledge, and they would also show me some things or helped me… I used to say they helped me think. Because they would try different things and I’d be like, “No, no, no, no, no.” They would create these different options… I’m a good critic, I think. As a graphic designer or a communication designer, or that kind of visual designer, you’re taking these kind of existing elements, and arranging them versus an artist necessarily who kind of create something from scratch.

Brent Rollins:
So, they would create these things from scratch in some ways, or create these options and then I can look at them and be like, “Oh, yeah, no, no, no, no, no, this is not communicating, or this is not tapping into that feeling that we were talking about before. This is not communicating this thing.” And helping to shape them. So, that was immensely satisfying. And working with celebrities is interesting and fun. And traveling around the world is great. And so, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

Brent Rollins:
Success is kind of about satisfying the need to create projects that actually propel ideas and culture. And I guess that’s maybe always the idea of success for me. I think the idea of monetary success, yes, I’m not going to say that that’s not important. But I’ve come closer to this understanding of when my time is up, for me, what am I putting forth in the world, or what’s my legacy? And so I can’t do everything myself, there are things that I’m working on that are about personal vision, but as a group, we can accomplish a lot of things. Ego Trip as a group, we accomplished things that we didn’t think we would ever accomplish. Working in Complex, we accomplished things that were in that… The metrics for that world, we surpassed them. And so for me, when people tell me that they’ve been influenced by something that I did, or they show some sort of appreciation for the things that I’ve done, and even more so when these things are attached to something that has some sort of cultural importance, man, that’s a great feeling.

Brent Rollins:
I want to keep doing that. For me, that’s the metric of success. Again, know how to make money, [inaudible 01:08:48] money, love me some money. But we’re put on this world to do things. And so I’m happy and fortunate that whatever mark I’ve made in the world, I’ve been able to do. I think the thing about it is, it’s also fleeting, and it’s also like you got to keep doing things. Success is also somewhat short lived. You know what I mean? I’m happy to inspire people, but I’m also like, I want to inspire more people and I need to keep doing to continue to be relevant, not because I’m trying to be the cool of the week, but because a large enough body of people are viewing and affected by the things that I work on. Right now, that would be the marker of success to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. That’s a very interesting answer.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I guess because I’ve been kind of dropping these little pins like throughout the interview like your work, and the work that you did with Ego Trip, the work you did with Complex, is really like been a cornerstone in the design style of when people think of hip hop culture, a lot of that boils down to work that you have done, whether that’s been magazines, we didn’t even touch on the album covers that you’ve done. I feel like a lot of people are inspired by your work, but they may not know that it’s from you, maybe.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, yeah. It’s funny. The thing about [inaudible 01:10:15] is because it’s still kind of being done in the service of whoever. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people who more or less are like, “Hey, Brent, I like your style.” I had to develop a style because the more you do something, the more people recognize it. And then if they like it, then they come to you. But in some cases, yeah. There’s been the suppression of Ego in the sense of, it’s not about me, it’s about I’m doing this for someone else. And so yeah, there’s been things that I’ve done that maybe people don’t see that thread, I have a good friend, Phil McMillan, who he was another designer. And he’s… Some people are really in tune with it. He’ll be like, “I saw this and I was like, yo, I think Brent did that.”

Brent Rollins:
So he sees it. And so whatever is the essence of me creatively shows up in those things and he’s in tune with that, and he can find that. And there are other people that can do that too. And so that’s a much more honest relationship, when you can work with those people, because that means you guys are on the same wavelength. And so that’s… I found that those have been the best projects for me, is when people come to me because they do know, because they are familiar with the things that I’ve done, and they’re like, “That’s the vibe that I want.” And it’s freeing because it lets me be me. I’m a designer in the sense that I’m problem solving, but I’m also an artist in the sense that I’m trying to express something emotionally and I connected with those people. And so, yeah. Ramble, ramble, ramble, ramble.

Maurice Cherry:
So, is there a dream project that you would love to do one day? I feel like you’ve done television, you’ve done magazines, you’ve done album covers, you’ve done a book. What’s next? What do you really want to do one day?

Brent Rollins:
There are many dream projects that I want to do. There’s personal projects that I’ve finally started initiating. One is really getting into furniture design.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. And so I had gone to Italy in 2019 to start that. I’m working with a friend of mine over there. And then just the nature of the project really meant that I couldn’t restart it until the warmer months. Totally happens and dashes those dreams on the Mediterranean rocks. That’ll still happen. And then I have a sort of a creative… The dream projects, yeah. I mean, it’s really more about when does Brent start putting his own voice forward more? Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Brent Rollins:
My voice has been forward in people’s projects, and mostly because I’d never… I would probably say that there’s one critique with myself, it’s like I devalue what I think I have to say. I have an idea… I actually started this project during the pandemia, I’m going to is like Black Star Wars, and let people kind of go from there. But I started some stuff in making models, telling friends who are also creative, and they got super excited about that stuff. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I wanted the soundtrack.” And you got to have this character do this, and you got to do that. And it’ll happen. And I’m not afraid to say it. I thought about like, “Should I even talk about this?” But hall yeah. But really, just more personal projects are exciting. My father was a phenomenal creative person who passed away recently.

Brent Rollins:
And my mission I guess, is to let the world kind of see what this guy who inspired me, what he did, and with the hope that maybe he also inspires other people, so that’s also another project. Man, I got a lot of projects. God, I got a lot of things. Yeah. Like I said, 2021 let’s go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I hear you. Well, Brent, just to kind of wrap things up here. Where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Brent Rollins:
I guess online you can look me up Brettrollins.com under my website that really needs to be updated. You can follow me on Instagram, my handle is Brentronic, B-R-E-N-T-R-O-N-I-C, and then at that point, by the end 2021, hopefully you’ll be seeing my name in a lot more places when you won’t even try.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Brent Rollins, I have to thank you. Just thank you so much for coming on the show. I guess prior to us recording about how much of a design influence you’ve been to me seeing your early work, and it’s been just such a pleasure to one just introduce you to the Revision Path audience, I have a feeling that people are going to listen to this. And they’ll be like, “Wait a minute, he did that!” They’re going to now know that you are the person behind so much iconic work out there. It’s just been a joy to talk to you, it’s been a joy to hear about the work that you’re doing. And I want to see what comes next absolutely, because I have no doubt it’s going to be hot. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Brent Rollins:
Man, thank you so much. And I know other people will say the same thing to you, man. But dude, you’re doing God’s work. Thank you so much for doing Revision Path.

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