David Perrin

How are you using your creative talents to create a more equitable world. For David Perrin, his focus is on the world of nonprofit design. By day, David is the design lead at The Ford Foundation, and he works with an in-house team of editors, copywriters, strategists, designers, and developers. Outside of work, he’s an instructor with Social Movement Technologies, a nonprofit organization that provides strategy, training and campaign support to build people power and win in the digital age.

David gave me a breakdown about The Ford Foundation and what it does, and also provided a sneak peek at the variety of work the Foundation handles. We also talked about what fueled his background and his career transition into social justice, along with the challenges and opportunities it presents. David’s story is one of determination, self-reflection, and the power of using design as a powerful tool for change. Get ready to be inspired!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

David Perrin:

So, my name is David Perrin. I’m an art director, graphic designer, and illustrator. I use photo collage as my current graphic style to help kind of portray complex issues pertaining to social justice politics. You know, in my off time…Black joy and Black culture.

Maurice Cherry:

How has your 2023 been going so far?

David Perrin:

It’s been going great! Busy. Done a lot of traveling. Soul searching. Got into grad school, started grad school right now, so currently in that…and yeah, just really gearing up for the fall. Just kind of heads down, I think, for the first half of the year. Took a lot of trips to go see friends and family and everything, and now I’m like kind of just hitting the ground running. So it’s been a busy year so far.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, congratulations on grad school!

David Perrin:

Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:

Where are you going?

David Perrin:

So I’m currently at Baruch [College] studying arts administration. So getting a master’s in that. I’m super excited. It’s really going to help me bolster my leadership skills in the nonprofit space, specifically around art. And kind of on the back end of this, I do want to get into teaching and being a professor. I really love the work that I do, and I think it’s just going to just give me a stronger foundation moving forward.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. So I saw that you recently illustrated a children’s book. Tell me about that.

David Perrin:

Yes. “Amadou Goes To School.” So a friend of mine is Senegalese. He pitched the story to me a couple of years ago. At the time, the only person he knew that he would want to illustrate this book. And so the book primarily is about his experience, really through this character Amadou, and what the first days of school might look like with just dealing with just different cultures and just finding common ground and where people can kind of — or children, right? — can kind of see eye-to-eye on things and really just come together through that unfamiliar process of getting to know one another and stuff. So we’ve gotten a lot of just very just positive energy around the book. We’re working on a second right now. We’re hoping to make it a series.

This has definitely pulled me out of my comfort zone. I think, the last couple of years, I’m kind of undoing a lot of years of slight impostor syndrome and wanting to get into new spaces and things. And so slowly peeling back those layers and stuff. So this is definitely a project of love. Yeah. I really appreciate my boy Jonima Diaby who’s the writer on it. We’re heads down, trying to figure out what the game plan is. We want to do more readings in schools and get this out, you know, as the school year is kind of, I think, jump starting right now, as a matter of fact. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Was this your first children’s book?

David Perrin:

Yes, first children’s book. All original characters, content, all the things. Been drawing since I was in first grade, but to kind of do it in this platform…yeah, it was a little, like, nerve wracking. Finally, I think we released it last year, fall, and so, yeah, we’re gearing up, like I said, for the second book. So, yeah, just super excited to have it out there. And every now and then, I get a ping from a friend who just had a kid and they’re reading the book to their child, that type of thing. So I’m just happy it’s making the rounds. And like I said, I’m being able to touch my community in this way and…yeah, more to come.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice, looking forward to that. So you’re currently the design lead at The Ford Foundation. That’s pretty epic. Talk to me about that.

David Perrin:

Yeah, so I’m currently the design lead at The Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation is a global philanthropic institution centered around the mission of social justice at its core with the goal of expanding equitable experiences for all. The organization is global. We have eleven different offices. We cover a lot of ground and a lot of work. And so it’s really exciting, simply put, just because of all the different bodies of work that we contribute to. As a designer, I feel like I’m kind of a kid in a candy store, if you will. Being able to work on all these different topics, to be able to work on so many different types of bodies of work is really cool. And again, to add a bonus of us being global and working with the different regions as well and seeing how the work touches just different parts of the world is also pretty awesome.

Maurice Cherry:

I want to go a little deeper on what you do, like your day to day. I realized when I just asked that question before, I was like, that was real open ended. “You work for the Ford Foundation. Tell me about it.” I just realized as I said it, but what does a typical day look like? Are you in office? You’re working remotely? Do you have an in house team? What does that structure look like?

David Perrin:

Yeah, so we have an in-house team. So currently our team consists of so we have a creative team and we’re on a broader communications team, right? So the creative team consists of two editors, two writers, copywriters, if you will, and then two designers. And then our broader team consists of strategists and web development folks. So we’ve got a pretty robust team, I think around like 24 folks. So that’s our team as a whole.

The work? Yeah, it’s pretty vast. We have a lot of grantees, so we do grantee profiles where we reach out to our grantees, bolster up some of the work that they’re doing on their end, create these grantee profiles, which then kind of get condensed into maybe a blog format or social media. We’re here in New York, so sometimes our program officers will make regional visits to some of the regional offices and vice versa. So constantly creating content around those visits and kind of like information exchanged. We have a video series. We get into video a lot. Events. The Ford Foundation, as a building, as an entity, houses a lot of events throughout the year. We also have a gallery where we do gallery showings. I think we have one on AI that premiered a couple of weeks ago.

But yeah, we support everybody. Our small team, we have a group of fellows on constant rotation of fellowships that kind of happen throughout the organization. A small bite-sized list of things that we could be working on, you know, on a day to day [basis].

Maurice Cherry:

So it doesn’t sound like there is at any point in time, like a lack of work, because it feels like there’s always going to be something coming in, whether that’s, like you said, new grantee profiles or maybe that’s seasonal type campaigns or things that you’re doing. It sounds like it’s just a constant stream of work.

David Perrin:

Yeah, our grantees are moving and grooving. They’re constantly giving us things to put out into the space, and again, to bolster up. And yeah, the organization is constantly going through these different rotations. Folks coming in and out, fellows coming in and out. I mean, I will say the summers kind of are like a safe period where folks…we try to give ourselves some time off, right? So we’re trying to create some work/life balance there.

Like I was saying earlier, in the fall, yeah, it kind of heads down. Right. So right now we just have a lot of things going in constant rotation. But the summers, we try to keep it a little open ended for folks to take off.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s good to mention that because a couple of weeks ago I had Vasheena Brisbane on the show. She is…I’m going to butcher her title, but she’s like the director of communications for Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.

David Perrin:

Got it.

Maurice Cherry:

Which is a pretty big church, pretty well-known church. And we sort of talked about kind of like how when you’re doing the type of design that maybe not is, I don’t know, product-based or software-based or things like that, sometimes it gets overlooked and sometimes it has like a stigma to it.

I’ve had designers on the show. I mean, I’m a designer myself, where there can sometimes be a stigma against church work or nonprofit work or things like that because it’s not as, I don’t know, glossy and sexy as like, advertising or software or anything like that. So I think it’s good to note that there’s just a variety of design work that you do with The Ford Foundation and that it’s all kind of pretty encompassing a lot of different types of media.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. For example, we have a 60th anniversary of our East Africa office happening pretty soon, and I’m making a stage design for them. Some of these are firsts for me; wayfinding stuff, banners that kind of take up full columns of buildings and things. Yes, to nonprofit work and some of this stuff feeling, tone wise, really, I guess to your point, maybe not as sexy as advertising or some branding studios and stuff like that, but still get the work done. And we should be held to the same standard as everybody else, I believe.

Maurice Cherry:

Right? I mean, you get the work in and it’s a variety of work. I mean, I think sometimes if you’re working with a company, particularly if you’re just a product designer, you’re kind of doing the same type of thing day in, day out, you don’t really have a chance to kind of stretch yourself creatively. And it sounds like even though you’re the lead and you have a team, there’s always going to be something new and different coming down the pike for you to work on.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. I mean, yeah, we try to keep it interesting too. We’re also trying to push ourselves with our grantee profiles. We want to do more original artwork, original photography…really meet our grantees where they’re at and bolster the work up to, like, a New York Times or The Atlantic. We are really striving for just a higher standard of design and design thinking and reimagining of what this work can look like. We just went through a brand redesign. Yeah, I think it embodies some of these newer ideas and trends in the design community. So I think great design is accessible. Just because it’s nonprofit doesn’t mean “doesn’t have to be stale, doesn’t have to be all these things.” It could really be as energizing and exciting as anything that we see out in the private sector.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s the most challenging part about your work?

David Perrin:

I guess even going back to my days at Dēmos, sometimes visualizing some of this work because it’s so nuanced, right? I’m thinking on when I was working at Dēmos, this racial justice think tank, right? Like coming up with visuals for ending the filibuster, right? Like, what does that look like? It’s not a very tangible thing. You can’t just throw that into Google and a bunch of images are going to pop up. And so, yeah, for some of these more nuanced, more sensitive topics, right? The Supreme Court ruling on abortion, what does that look like? That creates an approachable tone, right? It’s so sensitive. What does that look like? What’s the tone that we want to strike with that? We deal in some pretty heavy topics. And so I think that’s always a difficulty in trying to establish a tone of empowerment, but also making clear what’s at stake and what’s actually happening in the space without being, I guess, disruptive or disrespectful. We do want to respect all the imagery and our grantees and the people involved. These are real issues, and so there’s a lot of sensitivities around that and we want to just be mindful as much as possible creating a message, but also, again, just really thinking on the communities involved in the work. So, yeah, sometimes there’s not always a balance. And so it’s tricky sometimes coming up with how to really set that tone and make sure everybody is fully represented in the right way.

Maurice Cherry:

And I would imagine aside from that, because you’re dealing with different cultures, you’re dealing with different just…topics and mores and things like that. So you’re always having to sort of strike that balance between, of course, something that’s going to be visually and aesthetically pleasing, but then also is going to work for the context that it’s being used. Like, for example, you mentioned doing this conference in East Africa. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t style that, like, you would do maybe an event in Silicon Valley. Like, it would just be a different type of thing, I would imagine.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. And to that point, and I’ll probably touch on this a little bit later, but yeah, bringing folks in, getting the right feedback. We’re very much in touch with the folks in that regional office, and they sent us, like, a mood board, right, to kind of help guide us on some principles and some rules of the road, right? Some things that they wanted to stay away from, as far as stereotypes, and I’m very appreciative of that. I want everybody, people that we are speaking behalf of trying to grantees, who are trying to bolster communities, all that to really come to the table, right? And really help us, guide us as designers and visionaries, so that we’re not misrepresenting the work at any point. It’s a fine line, but always, always here to hear from folks, like, what they want to see in the visuals, and what’s empowering and what makes sense to the work.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, along with the work that you’re doing at the Ford Foundation, you also teach you’re an instructor with Social Movement Technologies. How did you find out about them?

David Perrin:

At my time at Dēmos, I was still trying to get a handle on what organizing work looked like and felt like. And so my director at the time, I guess Smt, had kind of fallen into her inbox. She encouraged me to take the they had a Certificate course right on basically design tools for graphic designers in the organizing space. Right. I took the course. I learned a lot, met up with a lot of great designers, and just kind of got to hear the stories and just kind of be alongside of other organizers and grassroots folks, researchers, people who aren’t designers, that just wanted to learn and to help their organizations out in any capacity, in the design capacity and everything. So, yeah, it was just a really good learning experience overall. And so after the program, the head of the program reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be an instructor, and I jumped at the opportunity. I haven’t turned back. And so, yeah, I feel fortunate to be in a space again, to be on the other side and to kind of help usher in just this next class of folks year after year. It’s been very rewarding, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:

What sort of topics are you teaching?

David Perrin:

We’re starting from the ground up, right? So just teaching like, basic typography, color palette, mood boarding, brand guides, visual tone with photography, sourcing animation, illustration, whatever. We can kind of really pack in during the time that we have. We really try to pack it in. And yeah, we’ve created a pretty decent formula as far as pace goes. But yeah, we really just try to give people the building blocks on what to really think about when thinking about brand and how to start. Right. So really, like I said, from the ground up. And putting this against folks are limited resources too, and giving them a lot of open source material that they could use to kind of just get started. Like Photoshop. Adobe sometimes can be a little inaccessible, can be a little daunting, right? So we really just try to meet people where they’re at and help bolster their skills so that they feel more confident talking about visual identity and what to really think about when it comes to strategy for the organizations.

Maurice Cherry:

How do you sort of balance this teaching work along with your 9-to-5 work? Because it sounds like The Ford Foundation work is already a lot to do.

David Perrin:

It is. Full transparency, right? Like a couple of years ago, I was on the more teaching end of this and now I’m more of supportive…more of like a supportive role, looking at students’ work and being able to kind of guide them on next steps and things. So more of like a small group kind of feedback session type of thing. And I try to do my best to really prepare folks as far as next steps and help them again, just try to meet them where they’re at, whatever the desired needs are at the time.

Maurice Cherry:

Now let’s kind of, you know, change it up here a little bit. We’ve talked a lot about your work, you know, your teaching as well. I do want to ask more about Dēmos, but before we get to that, let’s learn more about you. I know you’re currently in Brooklyn, New York, but you grew up in Miami, is that right?

David Perrin:

Yes. So North Miami Beach, to be specific. But I have a kind of a very roundabout story.

My parents are both from Jamaica. I wasn’t actually even born in Florida, but that’s where I spent most of my time. So born in Texas, moved to North Miami Beach, where I think I did maybe, I don’t know, preschool to maybe the top of first grade. From there, moved to Michigan, spent a couple of years in Michigan, moved to North Carolina for a couple of years after that; each stop, like, averaging about three to four years, landing back in Florida, moving to the panhandle, going to the high school in the panhandle, going to college down in Fort Lauderdale. I spent some time in New York and all that. That mixture. And then finally moving to Brooklyn, where I’m at now. So that’s just a little bit of that journey.

My background as far as a creative kind of started in first grade, drawing dinosaurs and things. I was really involved with Jurassic Park and stuff. Then kind of moved on to Dragon Ball Z, anime, all that stuff. In high school, when I made it back where I made it to the panhandle, I went to a collegiate high school where I was basically taking collegiate classes with college students. There I was able to kind of dig in on artwork in a very specific way, right? So I’m doing live paintings and live drawings with models and sculpting, taking guitar lessons and all these things, kind of almost making up for some of these moves, right? I moved around a lot, so I wasn’t able to really hone in on the artistic side of me until I had a couple of years at this collegiate high school where I was able to kind of lean in, more specifically.

Graphic design really doesn’t start to take, I guess, even a role until I moved to Fort Lauderdale for college, where I’m studying accounting, of all things. And I was kind of doing that in the background. I was a part of a fraternity. I’m making flyers, diving in photoshop a little bit, but not that much. And then eventually after college, I worked in nonprofit worked on the nonprofit side in accounting for a little bit. I told my parents straight up after college because they’re Jamaican. So they’re like, “hey, you got to be a doctor, lawyer, business…something.” Like, you got to make it make sense type of thing. You know what I mean?

Yeah, I told them after a couple of years of doing the accounting thing, I just said “the arts.” I was like, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I’m going to be in the arts. And so I think around the time of maybe my second year of working in accounting, my sisters were getting ready to go to SCAD. They had made the jump, right? So they went to UCF down in Orlando, and then they wanted to go to SCAD. And they kind of propelled me. I’m like, well, they get to go to art school. I’m the bigger brother. I’m like, I want to go to art school too.

So I start doing some research. SVA is high on that list. I decide kind of then and there, I’m moving out of state. I’m going to New York. I create this portfolio, like, to this day, it amazes me because, like I said, I don’t have the most artistic background. Like, I’m drawing, I’m dabbling, doing little things here and there. But yeah, I cobbled together this portfolio for them of these sketches here and there, and some of these Photoshop files and things that I made along the years, and they accepted me.

And so, yeah, right after the acceptance, a buddy of mine was heading up to New York. His parents were moving up there. I moved up there with him, and I started taking night classes, continuing it at the School of Visual Arts. So by day, I found an accounting job on the nonprofit side. Again, by night I’m at SBA taking classes and things to try to make ends meet. But also with this battery in my back of “I need to make it,” they were very upfront with me when I got to SVA. They were like, “hey, you have a cap. You have a financial cap, and so you have a limit as to how much government support you’re going to get.” I think I had my back up against the wall kind of going in, and so I felt like really, really had to make it. But I also knew that from early on that I wanted to get into social justice work or work that’s community based. The commercial thing really wasn’t clicking for me, even in my early inceptions of learning about graphic design and typography and all the things a lot to think about.

But that was kind of like the early beginnings of design for me and school and everything. Fast forward and I eventually make my way to Dēmos, where I’m working on all these issues pertaining to racial justice, voting rights, I’m blanking on climate change, all these different buckets of work, and then eventually make my way to Ford. That’s the long…that’s the abridged version, but yeah, here we are.

Maurice Cherry:

So I saw, you know, and that you kind of — I guess, I don’t know, maybe skipped over this a little bit — but we can talk about it. I mean, you freelanced a bit in 2015 and 2016. And then after that you were working — this is before Dēmos — you were working at AMC Networks as their lead graphic designer. How was that experience? Because this is before you sort of went into the nonprofit space with Dēmos and now Ford. What was it like at AMC?

David Perrin:

Early beginnings was cool. I get to work for a big brand, right, and I finally get brand recognition. Brand recognition is such a big thing in the design community. It’s really like who you work for. If you don’t work for a big brand or something, it’s like your social capital is really low. You know what I mean? So I felt I got to kind of finally step into that a bit. And so, yeah, early stages of that job was really cool. But things started to kind of turn for me around, I think, like 2016, a little before 2016, just seeing how the politics kind of permeated through the workspace.

Early start’s great, met a lot of great folks, learned a lot. Working with a big organization of that size being able to kind of dabble in between different channels and meet people from different teams and things. It’s a full on learning experience. But like I said, toward the end, I had to make a change for my own moral benefit.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I figured when you said “it was cool”…that sounded a little bit loaded. I was like, okay. I think sometimes you have those experiences where you hope it’s going to be one way and then they’re kind of just throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you, especially if it’s at a place like you said, that has that name recognition.

I can say this now because I don’t work there anymore, but back when I worked at Fog Creek Software, which later became Glitch, Glitch was sort of known, I think in the 2018 to 2020 space, as being like this really progressive software company that’s sort of doing these things. But internally? Whoooo! I mean, I had several different titles. I even had personal slights with management. And then I became management and then they didn’t want to train me as a manager. There was like a lot of stuff that happened. I mean, I don’t want to go too much into it, but I mean, also, I’m not a big fan of really trashing places where I used to work. I mean, it’s in the past, like move past it, but I know what you mean because sometimes that name recognition does mean a lot. I mean, it’s something that I think now people are even finding out, especially if they’ve been laid off in the past year from a company that used to have better reputation. Yes, I’m talking about Twitter. They might be finding it a little difficult, I would say probably in the market to maybe get placed somewhere because that name now has I mean, despite the work that they might have done there, the platform is almost in the dirt at this point. So, I don’t know.

It’s a tricky thing, I think, for designers, especially with career mobility and trying to make sure that you’re doing work that is important, that means something to you, but then also unfortunately means something to other people once you get out in the job market again.

David Perrin:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

It sucks. It absolutely sucks. I just want to put that on the record. It sucks.

So after your AMC experience, you start at Dēmos. How did you find out about them? I mean, I’m sure you probably knew about it just in terms of general consciousness, but that’s a big shift from something like AMC to nonprofit.

David Perrin:

I think at some point, like I said, 2016, it’s like I made a pledge to myself, right? I was just like trying to manifest it was before I even knew what social justice meant. Organizing. My view of that space was still tied to places like the NAACP. I did the NAACP Youth Council growing up. And so I’m thinking, “man, I can’t get a job in this. Like a design job.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

David Perrin:

My view is just so small, and so I’m applying around. I’m on these job boards. I applied to Dēmos twice, right? They took a while to get back to me. I think just because of internal processes and things like that manifest. I manifested it, it happened, and I ended up there. Everything else in between, I have no idea. So I really thank my lucky stars on that one. Trying to listen to a kid like me in my pitch to get into the space because, yeah, none of my work really reflected that. I’m coming off of entertainment, right? So how does this translate into that type of thing? So happy that they took a shot on me.

Maurice Cherry:

And, I mean, it sounds like it really paid off just for you in terms of solidifying yourself in this particular realm, because now you’re at The Ford Foundation. So clearly your experience at Dēmos must have been pretty transformative.

David Perrin:

Me being the lead, the only designer on the team, I got to experiment. Shout out to my director at the time. She really let me spread my wings on what was possible kind of under the organization. We just got a new president. We just redesigned the website. I kind of used that as, like, a proxy to pull new fonts and new colors into the new body of work. I used that kind of like the template to create what our reports would look like moving forward and what art might look like on the site. I kind of just hit the ground running. Folks just let me know they saw one collage. They were like, “oh, this really resonates. Let’s do this again.” And it was just kind of like rinse, wash, and repeat. And I felt like a lot of the stories that we were telling, the organizations that we were uplifting, the communities that we were talking about, really internally, for me, really embodied the work that I wanted to be doing. So I was really appreciative for just having so much floor to experiment, just really build up this tool of collaging and talking about the work in a way that I feel kind of brings people to the table.

Dēmos can be wonky at times in how they put out their reports, right? They crank out these lengthy 10-page, 15-page reports and things. But, yeah, you want to bring folks into the room and bring it to the table and everything. So I felt I was able to do that with what was them and just rich copy. I mean, we’re talking about really good research that’s done, so things based, in fact, organizations based in reality. And so, yeah, it just kind of gave me a firm leg to stand on. But I did at times miss kind of the allure of an AMC or a bigger brand, right? I feel like I’m working on all these things for an organization that maybe didn’t have the biggest digital footprint out in the space, in the nonprofit space, in the organizing space, think tank space, they are pillars. But outside of that, it’s kind of like (sighs). But love the work, though, nonetheless.

Maurice Cherry:

And a lot of your design work has this basis in social issues, which it sounds like is definitely something that’s really important to you. You mentioned 2016 being sort of this nexus point for you. Why do we need more designers in the social justice space?

David Perrin:

Well, because of the work. The work is we are talking about communities that are on the margins, right? We need folks that represent those communities in this space because I think the work presents itself very differently. You know what I mean? And so, yeah, when you’re not attached to these communities, I think you’re detached in a way. And yeah, I feel like these opportunities should be given to the folks that, again, are from these spaces, that are speaking to these spaces.

Sometimes that’s often not the case. Some of these jobs are low paying. I’m also going to advocate for more pay for nonprofit designers. I’m also going to ask for more of a leadership track or a track to leadership in the design space on the nonprofit side. Yeah, designers are kind of left out these conversations, right? And we’re such a big and pivotal part of the work and how it’s represented outside of the organization and into these spaces. Using Dēmos as an example, we’re making work to put in the hands of policymakers. So like, it’s transformative, right? You’ve got the right policy into the right policymakers hands. I mean, you know, government is slow, but you just don’t know what can happen putting these things in the right hands and stuff. So really important work across the board.

I do want to see more BIPOC designers like instance in the space and also being able to maintain a life in this space. I don’t think it’s temporary, right? Like, we love this work just as much as everybody else. We definitely should have more of a space to live a sustainable life, to create this work over time, you know what I mean? I should be able to retire, working on the nonprofit side, that type of thing. And everybody else should too. Making a huge push for that, for the grant makers, the foundations, policymakers, whatever, for them to really create that budget line item when you’re creating those grants, like, really try to build out more of a creative team. I’m advocating for designers, but more creatives that exist in the space. There’s a lot of people that want to do a lot of great work again, [they] deserve to make a living.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. And to your point, they deserve to retire too.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. 1000%. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

I had Cheryl Miller back on the show for episode 500. And I remember…I think we might have said it in the interview, but we definitely talked about it afterwards about how there’s no retirement plan for designers. And I was like, well, I kind of get what she was saying, but I think in the grand scheme of, like, if you’re a designer today, unless you work for, I don’t know, maybe like a big tech company or something like that, you kind of end up going from job to job. Like, the life and career of a designer is not as structured as, say, a doctor or a lawyer or something like that, or even something more blue collar, like an accountant or something like that, where you could be somewhere for X number of years. I mean, I think just in our lifetime job security, to be somewhere for four or five years is admirable. Whereas my mom was at the same job from like ’74 to 2016. It was an easy thing. And she worked in STEM, she worked in biology. But we were talking about how there’s no retirement plan for designers, which really got me to thinking, what would it look like to retire? Would I just have to keep working and doing gigs until I’m dead? Or what does that look like? Which is morbid, but a reality. Especially like…I’m in my 40s, so it’s a reality.

David Perrin:

Yeah. These are the things that I’m also thinking about, right? Longevity in design, resilience in design. And yeah, I want to figure out what the answer to that is sooner than later. It’s not a magical thing. It’s a process that should also be, again, rewarded with stability at the end of the day, just like everybody else.

Maurice Cherry:

Absolutely. What keeps you motivated and inspired with your work?

David Perrin:

I mentioned the Master’s program earlier. I really want to teach. I really want to teach BIPOC students what this world looks like, the possibilities of a designer. Try to, again, just build a bigger, broader community of future thinkers. And so, yeah, I’m really just, primarily, I want to do this for this next generation coming about. I feel like my design journey? Happenstance, right? I mean, a lot of work, right? A lot of grinding, all these things. But, man, I would have loved to have even this book — “The Black Experience in Design” — I would have loved to have this at 16 or like an earlier age. Who knows what life would have looked like for me if I had just a couple more years? Just being able to get a better grasp of what design is, the possibilities. That’s what keeps me up at night and wanting to really get to that space and just social justice in general.

2020, 2016, like the pandemic, like these inflection points, it really shook up democracy in a way to where you could, you know, scratching your head. Like, what does democracy even mean? What does liberation even mean in this country, specifically and abroad? Yeah. And what does that look like from a design standpoint? What are we going to do to kind of help maintain the steady rhythm of just organizing and getting people together. These are the things that I think about is what does the future look like for this space? How do we contribute to it? How do we keep it fresh? How do we keep feeding it and keeping it energizing and inclusive and bringing more people to the table and bringing them in? That’s why I’m calling for more nonprofit designers to come into this space and share their expertise from all different points of life, because we need it. There’s a lot of noise out there, politically and everything. And yeah, we definitely need the support.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you have, like, a dream project that you’d love to do one day? It could either be through The Ford Foundation, it could be a personal project…anything like that.

David Perrin:

Yeah. So through this medium of collage, I want to do murals. I see a lot of vector art murals, painted graffiti, all these things. I think of…I think his name is, like, JR. Artist. When I first came to New York, he had a lot of just big murals, right. With his collage work and everything. And so, yeah, we have a piece at The Ford Foundation. So that’s been a dream of mine, is like yeah, to be able to do a big collage piece on, you know, one of these walls in the area. So I’m constantly driving around and being like, “man, like, a mural would look really good here.” That type of thing. Also just more editorial work in general. I’d love to see my work in [The New York] Times or The Atlantic, that type of thing. So I’m kind of moving and grooving about. Yeah, I want to be able to kind of be on everybody’s radar and be able to tell those stories for those publications and murals and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Do you think it’ll be doing that kind of work?

David Perrin:

Absolutely. Yeah. I want to have a couple more of these Amadou books under my belt. We do want to make this a series. Yeah. Some murals and eventually, like, teaching. Like I said, I want to be at a school, ushering in that new generation of thinkers, communicators, and mentorship. I really want to give this stuff back to my community in a way that feels impactful and meaningful, and I want folks to come back around and ask me questions. I want to be the design elder. I’m putting that on myself, that type of thing. Anything I can do to just build my community up in the ways that I think are going to be positive moving forward in the realms of design, artwork, that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:

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

David Perrin:

So I am on Instagram under my artist’s name, @dpicting, right? So my name is David Perrin. So DP, right? So D-P-I-C-T-I-N-G. So using my first initials. And then I-C-T-I-N-G. So that’s @dpicting on Instagram. I’m online at dpictingstudio.com. Also dpicting.com on the website. Yeah, I’m working on want to get an exhibition out there of my artwork. I’m working on After Effects as well, trying to create more moving collages and things like that. So that’s a slow and steady process. So that’s going to be coming. So show coming soon. Yeah, you can find all the updates and things on Instagram, on LinkedIn as well. I’m on LinkedIn. David Perrin. That’s where I’m at. Right.

Maurice Cherry:

Sounds good. David Perrin, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. First of all, I just love the work that you’re doing at The Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation already does so much great in the world, so much philanthropic work. And when I was doing my research and I was like, “wait a minute there’s a brother that’s leading all this.” That’s when I was like, I had to get you on the show to sort of talk about that. I mean, I think it was one thing, of course, it was great for you to talk about your history with working and doing design with social justice issues, but also kind of, I think, giving folks the opportunity to see that you can switch career paths and stay true to yourself. Certainly you sort of started out, like you said, doing this accounting work, and then you kind of wanted to work at a design place that had a big name. And then 2016 happened, which I think was a nexus point for a lot of people, not just designers, but a point to have them think, “well, how can my work make more of an impact?” And now you’ve done this work for Dēmos, you’re doing this work for The Ford Foundation. I hope that others will hear your story and realize that this is something that they can do. Nonprofit is a space that they can go into and that they can often find success. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

David Perrin:

Thank you so much for having me. Yeah, super overjoyed. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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Ethan Baldwin

It’s no surprise that designers like working on projects that allow them to fully display their creativity and talent. For Ethan Baldwin, those projects just happen to revolve around what might not be considered that exciting by others — banking and finance. That outlook is one of the foundations behind Slash and Structure, his new brand strategy and visual identity design firm.

Ethan spoke about his passion for “making boring stuff less boring”, and how it’s been important for him to balance his artistic skills with other aspects of a career in design. We also talked about working in-house vs. being an external vendor, and Ethan shared how his education at Oberlin and his work in the agency and financial world in NYC helped shape his perspective as a designer and an entrepreneur. For Ethan, being involved in the creative process is about more than just making something look good — it’s about providing value, trusting the process, and staying connected to your craft!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Ethan Baldwin:

I’m Ethan Baldwin. I am a creative director based in Brooklyn, New York. And this year, I have started a new brand strategy and visual identity design firm called Slash and Structure. So, say hi to me. I am a founder, entrepreneur, creative director, lover of all things beautiful and design forward and eye catching. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

How has the year been going for you so far since starting the business?

Ethan Baldwin:

It’s been pretty good. I always tell people that the only downside has been kind of like the demons inside of my own head and trying not to get into my way. But within all the situations where I’m able to push forward and really focus on what I’m trying to accomplish, it’s all been pretty successful. It’s been such a joy to work on crafting something that I’m building from the ground up. And I’ve been working with some amazing clients so far. I’ve got to work on some very cool projects and it’s nice just being able to, what I say, raise this baby from birth. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there anything that you want to try to accomplish before the year ends? I mean, this could be business-wise or not.

Ethan Baldwin:

I would say from a very business specific standpoint, I want to basically up my monthly run rate. We don’t need to necessarily talk about specifics of numbers, but I do think having that kind of like, business financial goal in mind is incredibly important. And really I want to have an established four to six clients by the end of the year that I can see that longevity with. Like really kind of like…I will say the partnership feels like a family. It’s all still very new. We’ve got some great relationships. So it’s all about building those connections outside of the work itself.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, you know, since you talked about your studio Slash and Structure, let’s dive more into that. What was behind the idea of you starting the studio?

Ethan Baldwin:

Yeah. So I worked as a visual designer for many years now. I got my start in advertising and then after freelancing for quite some time, I mainly started working on the client side of things, working either for design teams or designing for marketing teams. Also a little bit of product work, but after my last job, that job fell through. Got let go. Kind of like that post-pandemic…I’ll say, like, that post-pandemic bubble kind of burst. I realized I didn’t want to be in an office anymore unless it was the group of people that I really felt that I could build a team or family with. There was a product that I was super passionate about, but really I just wanted to create something that really tapped into my design methodology, like the way I run projects and the way I see the world.

And given all the places that I’ve worked in the past, I knew there was something that I can tap into based on the way I do think that could be of service to people, and I could be of better service doing it from my own firm versus trying to do it and change things from inside another corporation. So that really was the impetus to start the company. And the name Slash and Structure. Slash has always been in kind of like my artistic forward usernames for many years now. And it always kind of stemmed from…I do this, I do design programming, I do print, digital. And there is always that push that I got from people, like, “you really need to niche down. You really need to focus on serving one particular audience.”

And it was a lot of figuring out how I can do that. Again, you want a good business to serve a specific audience. But just being me and having this brain that wants to pick up on so many things, my experience got me to where I am by being able to pick up a whole bunch of different skill sets and talents and interests. So having that slash in there, being able to see a whole bunch of different either types of mediums or types of industries to really get people to focus on what their goals are and what their content is and how I can then put visuals on top of it, I guess that kind of became the throughline for all of my work. It’s really about helping people figure out what it is that they want to do or build or sell, and I can apply a number of different mediums or modalities to help them achieve that.

Maurice Cherry:

So you’re bringing basically to their project…slash structure?

Ethan Baldwin:

Yeah. (laughs) In my business, the slashing is going through whatever they have so far. So usually when I’m working with the client, it usually starts like, “I want a website,” or “I want a motion graphics piece,” or “I want this set of collateral.” I’m like, “okay, that’s all well and good, but we need to figure out who you are, what you’re about, what you’re trying to say.” And so that’s another play on the slash part. We take all of the stuff that you’ve kind of set up for yourself. We slash it all apart. We look at what all the individual pieces are and we figure out how to put them back together in a way that makes sense for you and for your audience or for your desired customers.

And then the structure comes after. The structure is building those systems in place, giving you the platform that you need and then giving you a way forward that’s scalable. Because at the end of the day, while I want to keep all of these partnerships, my biggest thing is I want to build solutions — design based solutions — that clients will use on their own if they need to update their content on the website. I make sure that the sites that I build have a robust CMS so that they can update their own content, they can change their own pictures. Because it’s always those little things that clients tend to get so wrapped up about. And I’m like, that’s the least important part of all of this process. That’s the least important part of your growth.

I want to make those things as easy as possible. Clients can focus on building their business and talking about themselves and really figuring out who they are and getting that out there.

Maurice Cherry:

How’s business been going so far?

Ethan Baldwin:

Pretty good. A bit of a, I would say…there’s like that standard slowdown in the summer. And to be perfectly honest, a lot of that was mainly coming from me. I needed to take a break physically and emotionally. As I was talking about, I had a nice little vacation this summer, went away for three weeks, and now I’m kind of getting back into the swing of things. And it’s weird because as much as I needed that break, I have missed that energy of bringing in new clients and working on multiple design projects simultaneously. It’s an ebb and flow with the business. So this fall is going to be picking back up pretty…I would say pretty steadily pretty soon.

Maurice Cherry:

Are there specific types of clients that you prefer to work with in a particular area, like healthcare or business or something like that?

Ethan Baldwin:

I would say I like to focus on, in terms of client size, I like to focus on solo entrepreneurs or like very small teams that are just building, or larger companies that have a bunch of systems in place that they’re looking to improve upon. And I mainly focus on SaaS platforms, technology, anything that usually tends to have a whole bunch of data points, whether that be tons of customers or tons of product segments. But anything that tends to have a lot of data points that need to get organized and that usually falls inside of the tech and digital product space.

Maurice Cherry:

And I’d imagine that probably draws on your background too. I mean, prior to you starting Slash and Sructure, you were at Clear, which you mentioned earlier. So it’s kind of feeding into that in a way.

Ethan Baldwin:

Yeah. The majority of my experience really has been kind of working with a product or a platform that at face value can seem like very boring or everyday and figuring out ways to make it appear more luxury or make it more accessible to a wider audience, or just provide some clarity for people to understand it better. And in all of those places that I’ve worked with my clients now, it really goes to what I always call “what is your flag in the sand.” What is the one thing that you’re trying to say? What is the one person that you’re trying to reach? And finding that flag in the sand is hard because we naturally want to get as many audience — people in our audience as possible — reach as many people as possible, make everybody happy. These [are] things that I struggle with as well. The more that we find the specific person that we’re trying to reach and improve and serve, the better reach we end up getting, because the connections that we create in our business end up making more sense. We find the people that fit what we do.

Maurice Cherry:

What are some dream projects that you’d love to do through the studio?

Ethan Baldwin:

I would love to do a platform rebrand for some boring banking product or something in, like, I’m thinking of…these aren’t boring breaking products, but these new products that are coming out in the financial space like Chime or Rocket Money — these things that are finding, I would say, contemporary ways to do very boring tasks like bookkeeping. What is a way that those products can be packaged and presented in a way that gets people more excited about doing their monthly bookkeeping keeping or doing their taxes and not having this weird aversion to having to do all the boring stuff? I’m always trying to find ways to make boring stuff less boring because that’s how I have to function as a designer. If there’s a tedium, it is always hard for me to get started. So always looking for those types of projects — there’s that end. It sounds real weird, but I love doing annual reports; again, anything where I get to play with large amounts of data, making charts and making graphs and making those things move and ways that we can provide more understanding through visuals. Those are things that I really get behind.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, you know, I’d also say the other thing about even if you’re in the market for doing not necessarily annual reports, but things like that, you can really find a way to become a part of a company’s design budget or marketing budget. Back when I had my studio and I was really doing a lot of design work with clients, my main goal was I wanted to be a line item on the budget, because then that way every year, you know, you’re getting some kind of work as a retainer or something like that. But annual reports, email newsletters, like any sort of thing that you can do continually and build that relationship with them, it ends up being really lucrative for the business. But also it provides you as a creative a lot of stability in what can be a very unstable…I mean, striking out on your own is never easy. You got to find clients, you got to do all the admin work and stuff like that. But having that level of steadiness allows you to then explore other things either through your studio or outside your studio. But you always have that rock to come back to.

Ethan Baldwin:

Exactly. And it’s interesting that you mentioned the retainer model because that’s something newer that I picked up for my business and I’ve discovered in the past year that it really works for me. Part of it is exactly what you mentioned. Kind of like having that stable repeatable income coming in makes it easier to focus on growing the business or growing different projects in or out of the business. But from a client perspective, I like the retainer model because it allows me to grow with a client and really help them see and understand the creative process and specifically the identity creative process. Like getting into brand style guides, going like “this is why this purple shows up in all of these places”…having that ongoing design relationship with someone, you get those aha moments where they are starting to realize that “oh, that’s why you did that” as a creative. And so that’s how I kind of divide up my business.

I have kind of like the brand strategy, brand building side of things which is project-based and those are usually focused with smaller business or solo entrepreneurs that are looking to grow something from scratch. And then I have the retainer model, and those usually go with larger companies that are kind of like “we need someone to do X number of banners” or “do this video.” And what I’ve seen is that through that retainer process, it usually helps clients see we don’t need a lot of the dumb stuff that we ask for. It teaches them how to use more templates. Yes, you have me on a retainer and I will do whatever that you want me to do, but you probably don’t need me to do PowerPoint graphs all of the time. Once they see everything that’s capable and how things can be templatized and automated, they then start to focus on more of the big ticket projects that are going to give them more ROI. And that works for me because then I get to work on more interesting things.

Maurice Cherry:

I don’t want to say it’s a magic trick, but it’s kind of a magic trick in a way because sometimes companies don’t really know what they need creatively until they have a creative on staff. And then, as you’re able — that’s even in a freelance capacity — but then once you’re doing that work for them, they’re like “oh wait a minute, you can do this” and “we could do this” and “maybe we don’t need to do this.” They’re going to trust you also because you’ve built that relationship over time and it’s less of kind of this one off sort of thing that you have to try to win them over about.

Ethan Baldwin:

Exactly. And piggybacking off of that. One thing that I’ve noticed on going off on my own and working as a vendor for clients versus working in house. There’s this weird, I don’t know, mindset that when you’re working as an outside expert, there’s a heightened level of understanding or at the very least, respect for what it is that you do. Because for a lot of the things that I’m doing now, they’re the exact same things that I did at places working in house. But because to a certain extent, people are now coming to me to solve very specific problems versus just me being there to just, quote, unquote, “do things,” I’m able to get people to shift their briefs a bit better so they’re improved, or they’re like, “maybe you don’t need to do this. Let’s do this.” There’s more opportunity for rapport, and it’s weirdly because I’m not on their payroll, or I’m a line item, but I’m not on their payroll. It’s weird.

It’s like a mental shift where they feel like they can get more out of having this vendor relationship, like, more value from it. I haven’t been able to figure out what that is, but it’s one of the biggest things I’ve noticed after making this shift.

Maurice Cherry:

Value is good. I mean, never discount that at all.

Now there’s more about your career I want to get into. Of course, you’ve had a very prolific career, and we’ll get into that a bit later. But before we do that, let’s kind of learn more about Ethan. Let’s learn more about you as a person.

You’re based out of Brooklyn currently. Is that where you’re from originally?

Ethan Baldwin:

No, So I’m originally from Washington, DC.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Ethan Baldwin:

And my whole family is from deep “dirty south” Aiken, South Carolina. But I’ve been in New York since I left college in 2006. So I feel like I can officially say that I am a New Yorker now.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. Now, did you sort of always have this interest in design and everything growing up? Like, was it something that your family cultivated or anything like that?

Ethan Baldwin:

So, strangely enough, my mom is also a visual artist, so she was a photographer for the Smithsonian basically her entire career. She just retired about a year ago, and she’s also a fine art painter, ceramicist, and she does a lot of tapestry work, so she kind of like the idea of having all of these artistic hobbies, I would say, came from her being a multihyphenate, so to speak.

But in terms of a line of study, I actually started as a theater kid. Ever since I was little, I did theater. I did dance. I went to school. I joined the theater program and did that up until halfway through my junior year. And there was just a shift of, like, I’ve always wanted to create things, but I’ve realized I wanted to be more behind the scenes, and I wanted to create either physical things or things that just had a bit more, I would say, staying power that weren’t as ephemeral as a stage performance.

And I always had an interest growing up dance. I always had an interest in dancing, choreography, and my main goal I always wanted to do music videos.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay!

Ethan Baldwin:

That was kind of like the biggest thing that got me into the visual arts and why I jumped into advertising. I’m going to be that person who makes the next Gap commercial. And so that’s when I made that shift in college. And we didn’t have a marketing program at Oberlin, but I wanted to focus on making beautiful images. So my studio art focus was photography, and my senior thesis was a coffee table book called Ego Boost, and it was really just editorial photography for my friends. And the point was, I truly feel that everyone should deserve to feel like a celebrity for at least an hour. So I made this coffee table book, and then we made all these posters with all of my friends who modeled, and we put the posters around the school, and then we made these little collector cards that people could pick up. And then instead of having the thesis show in the museum, which was kind of standard, I had it in the student union and ended up making this huge white party, like Puff Daddy style white party.

And then I built these translucent, lit up walls to house all of my photography. And my friend from the dance group I was in, he had the DJ, and we had a bar. And it was the art world, but in a way that was fun and fit, like the community that I’m from. It had that performance piece to it, but it still focused on photography. It was very hip-hop focused, very focused around dance, but at its core, it was fun. The whole point is that all of this stuff is supposed to be fun.

Being a designer, being a creative, we have these jobs that make no sense. Think about it. But we’re able to tap into something that’s really kind of magical, especially in our clients, because we’re able to make those connections with things that people can’t necessarily verbalize or we can see something out in the world or can hear a piece of music or see watch a movie and have that be the foundation to build a whole bunch of new ideas. And we somehow made that into a job. It’s wild, but that’s what’s fun about it.

Maurice Cherry:

So while you were there, you majored in visual arts, and certainly this sounds like it was a visual art production in some capacity. How was your time there overall?

Ethan Baldwin:

It took me a while to appreciate Oberlin for the school that it was. I mean, it’s a great school, very hippie dippy school, but it’s also a school that has such a rich history, especially when it comes to what they’ve done for marginalized communities, what they’ve done for specifically Black people in America. And it’s also a school known for having this amazing conservatory. So even if you’re not a musically inclined person, you’re always surrounded by music and opera, great dance, theater. It was a great place to be specifically for the arts, considering that it’s not an art school. So, yeah, I fully appreciate being at Oberlin until I made that switch from doing theater and going into visual arts, because that’s where I really found that my creativity aligned with who I was.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Ethan Baldwin:

I tell everyone “everybody should go to Oberlin.” It was a great school.

Maurice Cherry:

So Oberlin kind of pushed you in this other direction then, sounds like.

Ethan Baldwin:

Yeah, I would say Oberlin gave me the space to find that other direction because I didn’t know that I wanted to go into advertising. I can’t even really say that I wanted to go into advertising. I knew I wanted to dance, and I wanted to make videos. Like, when I was a kid in middle school, I would make behind the scenes music videos of the musical cast. So almost like Behind The Music before the High School Musical. I just wanted to do some sort of upbeat music media that, I don’t know, got people moving, got people dancing, and Oberlin gave me the space to figure that out. There wasn’t a marketing program. There’s a studio art program, but it wasn’t like a fine art program that you’d get at an art school or a design school. It really taught us how to find what our voices are, find what it is that we want to do, and then do that successfully.

I got a good amount of fine art training for photography while I was at Oberlin. Shout out to Professor Pipo [Nguyen-Duy]. He was the absolute best. But the biggest thing that it taught me was how to prepare a show, how to work on an outline, how to sell an idea, like how to fund all of the stuff that you’re trying to build. It strangely taught me a lot about the business of being a creative.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think that’s a great thing to get in college, especially because from other people that I’ve talked with on the show that have went into design or they discovered design in college, business wasn’t really an aspect of that. I think there might have been one or two folks that I’ve had on where there was some sort of business component along with their design, but they ended up having to sort of pick up those skills later in the real world. Not in a very sort of, I would say safe — I mean, I think college is a safe environment to learn and to grow, in that aspect — but it sounds like Oberlin really provided that for you, though.

Ethan Baldwin:

Yeah, I would say as part of the senior thesis program, I think they pick it’s like 10 or 15 students. And one of the biggest projects is we do a big trip to New York, and you get kind of, like, fully immersed into the art scene, but really, like, the business of the art scene. So we visited all of these galleries throughout Hell’s Kitchen in Chelsea and met with all of these kind of curators and gallery owners. And it was really to teach us how to learn how to pitch. Like, how do you take whatever your artistic, creative idea is and make it so other people will want to fund it, someone will want to put it up, how to get your own ideas out of your head so that someone else can comprehend them. So we each had to — it was basically like a pitch challenge — we each had to learn how to pitch inside of the environment of an actual New York museum. It was scary as hell, but that was more important in the long run than any kind of fine art training, I would say. And I’m eternally grateful to the arts program at Oberlin for that, because anyone can pick up an artistic skill, a fine arts skill; but if it’s something that you want to make into a career, I always tell people 80% of my job now has nothing to do with me designing.

Maurice Cherry:

So once you graduated, you started working for an agency, working for DDB as a junior art director. Knowing that you had this sort of business skill that you had acquired from Oberlin, how was your time there? Like, what do you remember from that time?

Ethan Baldwin:

DDB was one of the best jobs I ever had, mainly because of the network that I built. The people that I met on that job, I’m still friends with a lot of them to this day. One thing I do want to shout out about that job is I got that job through the MAIP program or the Multicultural Advertising Internship Program. And MAIP is part of the 4A’s Foundation, and they just do amazing work with bringing awareness of the marketing advertising industry to students of color throughout the nation. So I owe a lot to that organization for helping me land that job. I got the internship through that program, and DDB hired me after the internship. And at DDB, I learned a lot about who I was as a creative. It was a very kind of standard house.

I worked on some very cool clients. I got do some storyboards for Diet Pepsi. My favorite project from that time was making a bunch of billboards for Subaru and then getting to see them get put up over the PCH. That was, like, one of the coolest things because something that I created was now 50 feet in the air. But I learned that there is a big difference — and it seems to be more apparent now — there’s a big difference between the design side of things and the art direction side of things. And I don’t necessarily think that there should be.

But I knew after that job, I think I was there…I was there for almost two years after that. I knew I wanted to focus more about how to find my design voice, and that’s why I jumped into this long phase of freelancing. After that, I got a job at the Apple Store working late nights and then would just take different freelance jobs throughout the day. I recommend every creative go through a phase of just picking up freelance projects. If I was to say one thing that everyone should do, it is that the best way to figure out what your design voice or what you love doing is to really just try out a whole bunch of different things.

Maurice Cherry:

I want to go back to what you said about sort of the difference between art direction and visual design that you just mentioned. Can you unpack that a little bit?

Ethan Baldwin:

Yeah. It’s funny. One of the things I discovered after doing a bunch of freelancing and then kind of wanting to settle into a full time job, that having been out of the advertising game, so to speak, it was harder to get back into it. Because in most advertising firms, your design function, like your design talent, usually ends up being part of a production team. And your art directors and your copywriters, they’re the ones who are coming up with the ideas for campaigns, print campaigns, motion graphics, commercials. A lot of it kind of started with the ideas of making the commercial or the print ad, but the art director would kind of come up with the visual ideas, but they weren’t necessarily illustrating or drawing or building the site for a multimedia campaign. They were kind of like coming up with the ideas with the copywriter partner and then eventually that would go to production. And there was something about that that I missed.

I want to push the pixels and do some of the illustration, and I don’t really do that now. There are people who are much better illustrators than I am, so I’m obviously going to farm that work out. But there was such a divide between the design and the art director. That’s where the slash originally came from. I have a very close friend of mine that I met at DDB and she said to me, “at this point, you need to decide, do you want to be an art director? Go down like, the art director to creative director to chief creative officer path down an advertising journey, or do you want to be a designer going to being a senior designer, working for a design firm, working for a production house?” And I couldn’t agree with either of those options. There has to be something that has both, because I always knew I wanted to work on the big ideas, but I also wanted to have a hand in how it was crafted. That craft is, again, like the fun part.

And I’ve seen with a lot of kind of people at the director level that it’s very easy to get jaded and you lose sight of the thing that made you want to do all of this. Like pulling out crayons, pulling out markers, getting on a whiteboard or a sketchbook and drawing out ideas or figures or little stick people or landscapes. That connection to the craft is still incredibly important to me, and especially like when working with my clients, I would say that’s one of the things that I offer. I am going to help you work through your ideas, your high level ideas, to build your campaign or build your website or build your next video piece or whatever the project is. But I also want you to trust that I’m going to make something for you with you that is also going to be pretty. It’s going to be beautiful. The content is always more important, but creating something that is beautifully designed and constructed and illustrated is just such a great feeling.

And so I wanted to make sure that that divide of being a creative director and being a designer didn’t really exist for me. I don’t really see the need for that divide. If you have a larger company and you can section out those functions, then great, good on you, but that’s not what I want. For me, I wouldn’t want to be either or. I think having both allows me to serve people better.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it sounds like you didn’t want to have that, I guess you could call it…a restriction in a way. You wanted to be able to do it all.

Ethan Baldwin:

Yeah, and that was kind of the moment where I realized I probably wouldn’t work for an ad agency again. And not necessarily because I didn’t want to, but because it’s like talking with hiring managers. They want to see that you’ve worked on X number of commercials or X number of campaigns. And I was like, “well, I’ve worked on plenty of campaigns and I’ve worked on tons of video pieces, but not necessarily in the context of an ad agency.” In all of the places that I’ve worked, I’ve been able to work on long form video and full website builds and beautiful out of home print work and big event installations. I really just started to love working in house because the idea of that divide was less apparent.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you’ve done a lot of, you know, freelance work. You’ve also worked full time at some pretty prestigious places. You were at Dow Jones for a number of years. You were at PulsePoint. You were at qbeats. Earlier you mentioned being at Clear. We don’t have to go into those particular ones individually unless you want to, but I’d love to know, when you look back at those experiences as a collective, what sort of stands out to you the most? And it can be multiple things too.

Ethan Baldwin:

Yeah, I would say for all of those jobs, my biggest thing is I wanted to do something that would somehow leave a mark. And it doesn’t have to necessarily be my mark, but something that’s going to change the way, whatever place that was thought about how they did business, or they did design or they went into a website build or thought about branding. And if anything, I would say I’ve been able to achieve that throughline in all of those places, Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal…that was a particularly weird but fun and exciting experience because it was one of those places — and this goes back to the idea of in house spots being a bit less restrictive on what your experience is and where you’ve worked. I got hired there. My title was multimedia communications manager. Who knows what that means? And it was within the HR department.

And I remember my interview…one thing that stood out to them was the fact that I told one of my interviewers that I tap dance. And I remember there was at some point where someone asked me to do a shuffle step in an interview and I was like, “I will do this once.”

Maurice Cherry:

Oh no! Noooo….

It was pretty far along.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay….

Ethan Baldwin:

I was like, this is…we’re treading.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, there’s tap dancing metaphorically for an interview and then there’s that…

Ethan Baldwin:

…literal tactic. (laughs)

Yeah. But that job taught me so much again, about crafting what it is I want to be doing and what the things I love doing can be of service for who I’m doing it for, because there was no precedent for my job in that function and inside of the learning and development team, but what I got to work on was building a whole bunch of internal campaigns, and it really actually brought out my love for learning and development in particular and building training programs and building curriculums for other employees.

One of the biggest things there was being able to help start the DJ program or Digital Journalism at Dow Jones. And it was all about bridging the gap between kind of print journalism and digital journalism. And so we did multiple versions of this week long training program in New York, Princeton, London and Hong Kong where we talked about the business as a whole. But we also got to do very specific trainings. Like this is how you can use your iPhone to shoot footage on the fly for a smaller piece. Or here are the rules around photo licensing so you don’t get sued. It got into very specific trainings and that was just so fun for me because we immediately got to see the results from our efforts. And I knew from that that part of what I want to do as a designer, as a creative is help teach people how to do things better or how to make a process easier.

This goes to working for Clear, and one of the big things there was revamping the website and eventually moving to the Webflow platform. I will talk about Webflow all day long. I absolutely love that. But one thing that was really important to me was getting everybody, like all of the stakeholders, on some sort of system that they could start focusing on their own content and inserting their own content where it needed to go versus always being dependent on a developer or on me and the design team within marketing to do something like make a new blog entry or insert a new airport location.

You don’t need a team of designers to do something like that. So my goal was to build a system in place and then teach people to kind of do those content updates for themselves. And it makes the working relationship so much easier. And there’s always that aha moment where I’m like, “oh, no, you updated that web page. You updated a web page. You just built a new web page.” Of course, me and my team, we do all the stuff on the back end to make those templates and whatnot. But you now see that it wasn’t about how beautifully is it designed, or “am I going to break something if I enter in this bit of tech?” No.

As designers, one of our biggest goals is to create solutions that help people do things better. If you’re designing a chair, you want that chair to be beautiful, but it also needs to sit someone’s butt. Design without function is just art — which has its place — but function in, again, serving someone and making their life easier is always at the forefront of what I do now.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there anything different about how you do business now as opposed to when you first started freelancing? Because you mentioned you were kind of working at the Apple store, you were also freelancing, so I would imagine even just kind of trying to juggle work and freelance work was a bit hard. But outside of that, what do you do different now that you did when you first started?

Ethan Baldwin:

Well, when I first started freelancing, it was a little bit different because I mainly worked through placement agencies, so it was like people would often find work for me, and I would work on those projects on whatever basis that they have. And now I pretty much do all of finding clients through word of mouth or through my own lead generation. So that’s one kind of logistical difference. And at some point, I may jump back to using a placement agency. I have absolutely nothing against them. It’s just not something that I’m doing right now. But in terms of knowing more about myself and how I operate as a creative, I would say the biggest change is I will not work on a project if I know I just absolutely don’t want to do it. It’s one of the biggest things I tell younger designers.

I had one job — we don’t need to go into who it is — but it was a job that I was incredibly excited about. It was a big name and great for a resume. But working there? No one’s happy and none of the products are particularly interesting. And at its core, it was just a job and the pay wasn’t that great. It really just was a bad stepping stone, I would say. But all of that is to say that when you’re starting out, there’s always this pain in your chest about making sure you have enough money, making sure your rent gets paid, and making sure you have enough coming in so you don’t have to just keep focusing on work. But I’ve learned now that if the work itself is not either fulfilling and enough to make it worthwhile to work on, or they’re just paying, you absolutely extravagantly, finding a job just to find a job as a creative usually is not worth it.

As a creative, you’re not going to perform your best if you don’t want to be there. Your clients are not going to be served in the way they should be served because you don’t want to be there. And it’s just going to be miserable for everyone involved. And at all of this, at the end of it, you probably won’t even get a good portfolio of it because you’re not exactly proud of anything you’ve done. So I would say it’s better for me to sit and work on some back-end stuff than just jumping into a job just because the job has presented itself.

Maurice Cherry:

Outside of that, how would you say you’ve just grown creatively? Like, how have you grown as a creative over the years?

Ethan Baldwin:

I’ve definitely become more efficient. I would say I just developed a lot of processes to help get to an end product faster. And I would say I’ve also learned to give myself a lot more grace and knowledge that not everything is always going to be perfect. I can definitely say that I am a very good designer, but I am not the best. And I’m not going to be the right choice for every single client that comes my way. And being able to say, “oh, I’m not the right fit for you, let me recommend somebody else,” or “I’m just not the right fit for this project” because secretly I just don’t want to do that. It’s not going to give me anything outside of the paycheck. And being okay with that, that took a lot of growth.

It’s okay to say no. And I’ve learned that we as creatives, we can have more stock in ourselves. We think about other service industries, think about mechanics, you think about electricians, and they have this very specific skill set. They’re able to do this thing amazingly well. And for whatever reason, I’ve noticed that as creatives, we tend to not think about ourselves in that same way, because the thing that we do isn’t necessarily as tangible, but the results that we provide to people are. And so we focus on, like, “I built this website, but that website increased conversions by X” or “this social media campaign increased this company’s Instagram followers by Y.” There are tangible results, tangible business results to the beautiful, weird idea connections that we make as creatives. And I think we need to start giving ourselves more stock in ourselves because of that.

That’s another thing that I’ve learned.

Maurice Cherry:

Who are some of the people that have really kind of helped you out in terms of mentorship or anything like that over the years throughout your career?

Ethan Baldwin:

I would say one of the biggest people I follow, and this is everyone kind of [inaudible 49:01] follows this person, but Chris Do of The Futur has always been like one of those people that…if there’s a conference, I may or may not go, but if he’s there, I likely will go, because he has a very no nonsense, matter of fact approach to not just being a creative, but really how to be a creative business, how to run a business and how to get through the day of running a business in a way that isn’t confusing. It kind of just is what it is. And he keeps it kind of, like, “follow what I say or don’t.” There’s a level of confidence there that I find so admirable because that is also, again, that’s eventually the level of confidence that I want to be at. That’s the level of confidence that I want to give to all of my clients. Everyone should feel that good about what they do and what they provide to the people that they do services for.

And then I would say a more personal mentor is actually one of my old — technically technically, she’s still a current client — but one of my old bosses at PulsePoint, Maria Simeone, we’ve had such a weird working relationship, and I think it’s just a matter of fact, we work really well together. But she’s very much a marketing brain from the strategy and the business side of things.

And I learned so much about marketing from that standpoint, from her, because that’s not how I approach problem solving at all, but just watching her work while we’re at PulsePoint and then watching her grow within the company and even grow further. Even after I left, she always kind of looked back to see what I was doing, would always give me really good advice. She’s always been open to critique me on our work. And she also has a very similar no nonsense way of, I would say, gathering me together, which I appreciate. I’m very much a tough love type of person because it shows me that you care and that you’re invested, but you’re also not going to let me fall completely on my face.

Maurice Cherry:

So what does success look like for you now? I mean, you’ve got your studio. You’re out on your own. What does success look like at this stage in your career?

Ethan Baldwin:

For me, success is being able to do what I want, when I want. And that’s really to say if there’s a day that I’m not feeling well or I just need a break and I just need to go walk in a forest — I really love camping — but to be able to just go do that and make sure I have rapport built with my clients to say that I’m not going to be working or to have enough of the work done and a system in place that I’m not needed 100% of the time or being able to travel as I see fit and work as I travel…I try to keep a very, I would say, like, lean tech profile so I can really do what I do from anywhere. Like, I have just like one small MacBook Air and then I have one larger Pro for video work, but I mainly just work on laptops because some days I want to go work in the middle of Central Park and so I can do that. That’s what success looks like for me. Because for some people, success might be a number amount, like a number of clients or revenue goal, and I have those goals from a business perspective. But success really looks like being able to take a vacation and not have to sit there and tally up the number of vacation days I have left or not feel guilty about taking a sick day.

It’s always wild to me. I would always tell my team this back when I worked in an office: “if you’re sick, go be sick and get better.” I don’t need you trying to…you’re not showing that you’re any more of, like, a badass because you’re working while you’re dripping snot all over your face. Get out of the office, go home, go rest. But there’s this weird…we’re in this working society where every one of those things are tallied and counted for and often used against you. And that’s something I just cannot stand for personally. And I’m sure that will get me in a lot of trouble with a lot of places, but I’d much rather see people do what they need to do to take care of themselves so that when they do work, they are working at 100% of their capacity and 100% of their joy. Again, if you don’t want to be here, don’t be here. That’s how I run my business.

If it’s something I don’t want to do, I’m not going to do it. It’s not going to make me happy, it’s not going to make a client happy. No one’s going to be happy in this. So, yeah, success is being able to do what I want, when I want.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What sort of work do you want to be doing?

Ethan Baldwin:

I would say in five years I want to have some big national tech brands under my belt. I want to work on some internal rebrands. I’m thinking of something like…I recently got to meet someone who worked on Chase Sapphire and working on this luxury sub brand inside of this big financial institution. And that would be a dream project for me, taking all of these kind of boring things like credit cards and points and really building this almost lifestylish brand around that very boring thing. So more of those within the next five years. But really it’s just scaling what I do now to just hit maybe a couple more clients each month. But I actually really enjoy how lean things are and being able to work with freelancers as needed. But as of right now, I don’t really see growing employees, too many employees inside of the business. I like the flexibility of building a network, so to speak, versus building another office.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you, about your work, about the studio? Where can they find that online?

Ethan Baldwin:

You can find my personal previous work at ethanbaldwin.com. You can find and sign up for an engagement with the business at slashandstructure.com. That’s no spaces, no underscores, just slashandstructure.com. And there you’ll learn a bit more about how the business functions and some of the clients that I’ve been working with. And you can also find me on Instagram at instagram.com/slashandstructure. Really, if that double slash doesn’t work as well when you’re saying it out loud. (laughs) But yeah, instagram.com/slashandstructure.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Ethan Baldwin, I definitely want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I like that you are someone right now that’s sort of striking out on their own, especially at this time when there’s so much happening in tech and design. I think also there’s just kind of this instability with working at companies at the moment. It feels like a really good time for a lot of people to kind of strike out and you certainly not only have the professional experience with the places you’ve worked, but you’ve freelanced before as well. So I’m really interested to see kind of where Slash instructor goes in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Ethan Baldwin:

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a blast.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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Vasheena Brisbane

Vasheena Brisbane’s star is on the rise! New Yorkers are no doubt familiar with her work as the associate director of visual design and communications at one of the city’s most prominent places of worship — Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. And now, Vasheena’s just been honored with a coveted spot on GDUSA Magazine‘s “People to Watch” list for 2023. I had to reach out and have her on the podcast so I could learn more about her story!

Our conversation began with a glimpse into the intricacies of Vasheena’s work, and she spoke about the fulfillment she’s gained because of the variety of designs she gets to touch. We also talked about the obstacles of gaining legitimacy for doing faith-based work while also shining a light on the importance of visibility and representation as Black designers.

Vasheena’s story is both inspiring and thought-provoking, reminding us all of the power of design to connect communities and create meaningful impact!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Vasheena Brisbane:

My name is Vasheena Brisbane. I am currently the associate director of visual design and communications at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. That means I do all things visual and design for the church. People usually ask me, “well, how much could there be for a church?” And typically, a typical church, there’s not as much, I think, as there is for this specific church. Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is like the cathedral church of Presbyterianism. So like, St. Patrick’s is for Catholicism. So it’s a big historical church in midtown Manhattan, and we do church like everyone else — Sunday services. But we also have a large outreach ministry and we do a lot of work within the community.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And so, yeah, the church basically runs in seasons, right? So this is our off season. Summer is the off season and fall is homecoming. That’s when our senior pastor returns and we start a sermon series and there’s a magazine and there’s the season of Advent, which is from just after Thanksgiving until just after Christmas. And then there’s sort of a quiet season and then there’s Lent up until Easter, and then there’s a season of Pentecost. So we run in like a season, so it’s like a loop every year.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, nice. I think for people that are, you know, for folks that are listening that even have some experience with Christianity — or just, I would say, Judeo-Christian religions, there is that kind of cyclical nature to the year that sort of revolves around that, right?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Those specific events, sure. And we advertise for every single one of them. And so we advertise…I mean, advertise feels crass for religion, I think, but we do get the word out there, right? And so we do for the fall season, it’s a sermon series and it’s just like the topic that the preacher is preaching on for the season. And he’ll pick a subject and we’ll provide visuals for it. And so we do banners. We do a spread in the magazine that comes up for the fall, which has the fall events. Any happenings. We have a robust music program that has five or six concerts throughout the year — some free, some paid — so that needs advertising and visuals. We do banners on the facade of the church on Fifth Avenue. We do posters to talk about any programming that we have going on throughout the year. And to advertise the season, we also do brochures. And then there’s just all the regular stuff. Like every Sunday, we print a bulletin. That’s some of the more day to day stuff.

Maurice Cherry:

So there’s a lot, I mean, there’s a lot that goes into, I think especially of a church of that size. It’s not just regular Sunday service. There’s a lot of media, there’s prints. I mean, there’s a lot.

Vasheena Brisbane:

There’s a lot. And we have an arts in our faith group. They do gallery exhibits — big ones — probably twice a year, maybe three times a year. We sometimes partner with artists and sometimes it’s something that the committee comes up with. The committee is made up of congregation members and they come up with it. And sometimes, it’s a collaboration. Sometimes I’m brought in to sort of make the vision that they’re thinking of come to life. And sometimes we collaborate on a vision. So it really just depends on the season and what people are thinking and what ideas they have. And sometimes they don’t have any ideas! And so we know we have a little small gallery that we do our exhibits in. Sometimes they have to do with the sermon; like this past season, we did…our senior pastor did a series called Tattoo, and so it was about the words of Christianity that are tattooed on your heart. And so we did an exhibit based on that where I made some temporary tattoos, tattooed them on the staff on various body parts, and photographed them, and we made that into an exhibit. And so it really just depends. So when people say, what is there to do? And I’m like…you have no idea. There’s a lot of things you can do in a church, especially a church of this size, I think.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think it’s fascinating that…it sounds like there’s probably, even with the regular cyclical nature, like you said, of different holidays and different things in the church, there’s just so much to do. And I would imagine you’re kind of, in a way, working, I guess, against stereotype, I think, because you want the messaging, of course, to appeal to the congregation. But you also want it to appeal to other members or even nonmembers. But there’s probably a way that you have to do it so it doesn’t seem so…I don’t know what’s a good way to sort of describe this. I want to say cheesy, for lack of a better word. I feel like sometimes Christian marketing can be really wholesome, like, very white bread and 1% milk, kind of. Like, you know what I mean?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Right. You do struggle with that a lot as a designer. I struggle with that because you want to be seen as, like, a legitimate designer, right? I went to school for this. I didn’t stumble into it, right? I might have stumbled into this specific job, but I didn’t stumble into the career of design. So I’ve attended conferences, like I’m sure you have. We could be having an amazing design conversation. And then when they’re like, “oh, so where do you work?” And then I’m like, “oh, I work at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.” And then the conversation sort of just dies. Like, “ohhh…okay.” It’s not seen as valid to maybe designers that are working in a design firm or maybe in-house, a big in- house shop. So that’s something that I’ve struggled with, I think. And I think what I’ve learned is that I can’t focus on what you think about what I’m doing. I have to focus on why I do what I do and then just let my work speak for itself. That’s all I can do. And so when those things happen, I don’t take it personal so much. I just move on to the next.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I can see that. I mean, we talked about this a little bit before I started recording, but when I first started out as a designer, and I think probably as others have as well, you’re trying to find clients. And sometimes some of those first clients that you end up finding are churches because they don’t necessarily have design talent in-house or something. But someone’s got to design the regular Sunday service programs or they need to design funeral announcements or things like that. And often what I’ve heard, and even have experienced to some degree, is that they’ve largely kind of been negative experiences because the church doesn’t want to pay. And then when the church doesn’t want to pay, they try to make it seem like you should just be doing it out of the good of your heart for God. And it’s like, “well, I can’t pay my bills with that.” There’s this sort of negative stigma around it.

Vasheena Brisbane:

It’s like a stigma. Yeah. So I have not had that experience at this church, but I have heard that from other designers. And so for smaller churches, there is no budget for design, which I get. Everyone doesn’t have a budget for design. And so if you’re going to do those jobs, I think what you’re doing it for is the love of the work and the practice of it, right? Because these are not easy pieces to design. Like a Sunday bulletin is like a master class in hierarchy. So if you’re going to do this, you have to come to it, especially if you’re going to do it and be underpaid or not paid at all, you have to come to it thinking that you’re going to get something else in pay, right? So your pay is your practice. Your pay is the refinement of your type skills. Because if you want to learn type skills, do a Sunday bulletin every week and make it readable and make it pleasant and make it great, right? And so one of the things that was my first project, really to do with the church, I was hired freelance, and I was just looking for a bridge job, sort of between…I had finished up an internship at a design firm, and then I was like, “well, what am I going to do?” And I was like, “okay, well, I’ll go on this interview as a church,” and I was just like everyone else. Like, it’s a church. It’ll just be something until I get a real job. And so I found this church and they came in. It was a good positive vibe. And they were like, “okay, you’re going to do Sunday bulletins.” I was like, “all right, fine, I’ll do that.” And so that’s how my work with them started. It started on a freelance basis. I was only doing bulletins. Then the person that hired me ended up leaving, and they hired a new director of communications, and he asked me to do something else. He was like, “oh, can you do this brochure?” And I said, “sure.” And then that worked out. And so it sort of just grew into something. It was not something that I had intended on. I didn’t intend on staying, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:

And now you’ve been there now for almost a little over 13 years now.

Vasheena Brisbane:

I feel like…yeah, I think I started in 2012, to be honest. I have to check the dates, but it’s been a long time and it’s been a progression, right? So I started off freelance, project-based, 1099. Then I worked really well with the director of communications. Actually, he just retired. And so we worked really well together. And as each project came up, we just worked well together and the projects kept getting better and they were more interesting. And so I was like, “okay, well, I’ll do this project.” And then it was like, “we do this newsletter.” It was a newsletter — like an eight page, eight and a half by eleven [inches] newsletter. That wasn’t my favorite thing to do. But then we decided, “okay, let’s own it. We’re going to change it.” We turned it into a magazine. We turned it into a small eight and a half by five and a half [inches] pocket sort of magazine. Sort of like JET size. I mean, I think JET might be a little bit bigger, like that’s JET’s size, I think. Yeah. If any of your listeners know JET Magazine….

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, they know. They know what JET is.

Vasheena Brisbane:

JET is dating me a little bit! Yeah. And so we sort of just evolved the communications of the church to the point where people call and ask us, like, “where do you get your Sunday bulletin done?” And I’m like, “well, it’s in-house. We do it all in-house.” So I think all the way back to the beginning of the question, which is, have I had that experience? The answer is yes. But if you come to the table from a place of, “I’m going to get this experience and I’m going to better my craft through it,” then you don’t lose. Yes. You have to find other things to pay the bills. But if you can perfect something while also getting some experience, even if the experience doesn’t come with pay, I think you still win.

Maurice Cherry:

Right, I get that.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah. I don’t think you have to stay there forever. But if you prove yourself and you’ve perfected it and they still don’t want to pay you, then you can politely decline.

Maurice Cherry:

Makes sense. Yeah. And look, being somewhere for as long as you have, like I said, a little over 13 years, that is impressive for any designer to be somewhere, especially in this modern age of design. If you’re somewhere for, like, five years, that’s great. But 13 years, that is amazing. Which to me is no surprise because you were named one of GDUSA’s 2023 People to Watch.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Thank you. That was surprising to me, so I’m still shocked that it happened. So to be honest, I’ve kind of just been, like, putting my head down, feet to the pavement, moving from project to project, trying to do my best work. In, I think, 2016, 2017, we got this magazine, and my boss, my old boss, he said he was pointing out all these different winners in the GDUSA magazine. And he was like…he said “you should enter this.” He said “you could win these.” And I was like, “yeah.” I was like, “okay.” And so he was like, “let’s just do it.” And so we entered some pieces, and I ended up, the first year I think it was 2017, I ended up winning three awards. And so I was like, oh, I think that after about five years of you sort of just head down doing good work, in my opinion, not getting it judged anywhere, but I’m proud of what I’ve done here. And so it’s just like, it’s been like, five years of that. And then to see someone say, “hey, this is exceptional,” that was really heartening. And I feel like that’s when I said, “okay, this is like a career.” I don’t think in the beginning of people’s career, at least not for me, you don’t feel like, “oh, this is it. This is my career.” Some people are polished right out of college. That was not me. And so I didn’t feel as if I had a career. I feel like until that happened, I knew I was working. I knew that I could get a job somewhere. I knew I could design, but I didn’t feel like I had a career, I don’t think, until that happened. And I don’t think it was the acknowledgment. I just think not that was the wrong thing to say. I don’t think it was the fact that I won something, but it was the fact that people agreed that I was doing good work.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, that kind of validation is incredibly important. I mean, honestly, it’s one of the core tenets behind why I do Revision Path is to validate the fact that there are Black designers out there doing great work and that people actually want to talk with them about it and about their career. And it’s not in the context of a job interview. It’s like, no, we see you. We see the work that you’re doing, and we think that other people should see it too. Just getting that kind of validation is — and this is going to sound corny — but I learned that from Oprah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

I don’t think anything Oprah says is corny!

Maurice Cherry:

But like, as I asked you before the interview — and people who have been on the show know this too — like, I always ask something that I call my “Oprah question,” and I got that from her, because she has said before, the thing that has made people want to sort of come to her show and come to the mic and everything is the fact that she validates wherever they’re at right now. Oprah doesn’t really do…well maybe now, since she doesn’t have the show…but Oprah’s not really doing shock journalism, you know what mean? Like, she’s not bringing people on to necessarily expose them. She’s like, just giving you the mic and giving you a platform to it. That’s it, you know?

Vasheena Brisbane:

And just be you. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

But that kind of validation in your professional career is super important, especially when, you know, you’ve put in the work to know that other people see that too, and they see you, and they see the fact that you’re putting out this kind of great work? I think that’s what we all want, especially as creative people.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah. And I don’t think I even knew how important it was until it happened. Yeah, and sometimes you don’t, because sometimes you’ve just got your head down. You’re just working, right? You’re just getting up every day, going to work, working, going home. It becomes a real practice. And sometimes in that practice, you can get real, just…yeah, you do. Because once you do something, it’s so repetitive. I mean, the work changes, but the process is still the same, right? You get up, you do it, you do your best, you go to bed, and so you can become numb. And so when you step outside that and then for me, especially to be like…it’s hard for me to say, “hey, I think this is great work to people.” You know what I mean? It’s hard for me to pat myself on my back. For some people, it comes easy. Like for my daughter, it comes easy for her. She thinks she’s great at everything, and I love that about her. We just don’t come from the same…we’re not cut from the same cloth. To even do that felt weird. And so I would encourage people to one, enter a contest just so that you can get a little bit of validation, because you don’t have to win to get validation. But I just think the simple process of editing your work and figuring out what you love and telling people, I did this and I love it, is a great practice for people.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, what’s been the reception for you since the list came out and people have seen you on that?

Vasheena Brisbane:

The reception has been good. Like, the congregation? They congratulate me. They’re some of my biggest supporters, which I really appreciate. I’ve gotten, you know, friends and family. I thanked GDUSA online and on their social via social media. And so I’ve gotten a lot of follows, mainly, I think, on LinkedIn for that, and that’s about it. I don’t think anything major has come about because of it, but you never know. Your email came from it! I never would have thought that here I am listening to great designers on Revision Path, and Maurice Cherry is emailing me. Like, I never would have thought that that would happen. That was…it was so wild when it happened. I couldn’t even believe it. I was just like, “what? This has got to be a joke.” I could not believe it. It was shocking. I even sent it to my boss. I was like, “is this real?” He was like, “I think it is.” I said, “are you sure?” I was like, “are you sure?” I could not believe it. So the biggest thing to happen to me since then is you. You’re at the top of the list.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh! Well, I’m pretty sure that there are going to be bigger and better things after that. I think, one, winning awards, but then two, also being on lists like this, it just puts you in the view of other people to see the work that you’ve done.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Right. And, you know, it’s important to be in the view. But how do you get there? I feel like we go to school to learn our craft and to do our thing, but we don’t learn how to navigate a career. And that’s different. That’s different than just doing good work. You have to really know, like you said, who to get in front of and how do you get there. And I think that a lot of, like you were saying, what Revision Path does is put you in front of the people that need to see, I think. And I think that’s what’s amazing about this platform is that you can get some visibility and whereas you might not be able to be on the other design podcasts. Yeah, because usually it’s like real rock stars. Not that people on here are not rock stars. Please don’t think that. But there is a specific lane that is hard to get in as a Black designer.

Maurice Cherry:

Look, I can tell you from ten years of doing this show…. One, I’ve had a lot of people on who they’ve said, “yeah, this is the first time anyone has ever talked to me about my work outside of maybe like a job interview.” Their family doesn’t even ask them about what they do and how they get inspired. So I’m glad to be able to have the platform for that. And this is not to put down any other show in particular, but even when I was starting out doing the show and trying to network in the sort of, I guess you could say, “design podcast community” — I don’t know if it really existed like ten years ago — but there were other design podcasts out there. And even with me networking with them to let them know about the show and maybe give some ideas for guests, I was met either with complete silence or absolute hatred.

There was only one platform, one podcast that really was like, at that time that was like, “oh, we like what you’re doing. We’d love to have you on our show.” And that was this show called On The Grid. That was with this podcast network called 5by5. And there were three guys that did the show — it was Dan Auer, Matt McInerney, and Andy Mangold. And I was on their show twice. It was like a panel kind of interview thing. And that ended up sort of getting me into the view of other people because they were like, “oh, we didn’t know that Black people did design, let alone talked about it.” Like we haven’t already been in this industry for decades doing this work. But even just that one sort of opportunity to do that put me in the vein where I could be seen by all these other people. But even now, honestly, ten years out, and there’s of course other podcasts out there, and there’s even other Black design podcasts out there, it’s still kind of rare even from some of the larger shows to really hear or see from Black creative voices. And I’m saying this for design media, but Black media does that too. Black media is not really big on showcasing design outside of fashion. I would say, like, you may hear about a fine artist every now and then, but it often has to be in conjunction with something larger. Like, for example, Luna Iris Viktor. I think I’m getting her name right. I think it’s either Luna Iris Viktor or Luna Viktor Iris. But she did a lot of great work in conjunction with Marvel for the first Black Panther movie. But she had been an artist of her own acclaim well before then. It didn’t really start to get out into the community, the Black community, at least until that movie happened. So it’s something where, even now, Black media doesn’t necessarily look at us and the work that we do and sort of give any sort of celebration in that respect. So I think Revision Path kind of occupies an interesting sort of Venn diagram intersection between design media and Black media in that way to at least showcase, like, hey, this is work that we’re doing. Here are our stories in our own words. Here you go. This is what we have to go through. This is what we deal with. And I try to get a good cross section from like across the world.

Vasheena Brisbane:

You’ve done a great job doing that.

Maurice Cherry:

Thank you.

Vasheena Brisbane:

It’s amazing the amount of artists I feel like, like you said, are people looking? You have to look, and you have to talk to people. And it’s like when your head’s down and your pounding on the ground and you’re getting your work done, it’s like you look up and you’re like, “where are all my people?” It’s like, well, I don’t even know where to start.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And you’ve given us an amazing, valid place to start. So if you’re looking, look no further. Or look no further and then look further. Right? Because then at least you can tap into it.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, I like that.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah. You can tap into it. Because even attending…because I’m constantly trying and failing to expand my network, because, one, I’m not a good networker. I don’t have the gift of gab. My husband has that, though. He definitely has the gift of gab, can make friends anywhere. And I am more reserved in that I’m not a wallflower because I can engage in any event, right? But also, I’m a little bit of an extroverted introvert, I think is what they call me. Okay. It’s like I am extroverted when called upon, but I do need that introverted time to recharge and become an extrovert. And so it’s been challenging to expand my network, especially going to conferences. And in the conferences, it’s often a sea of white — which is fine — but I also want to connect with other people, and it’s often hard to find. Or when you find them — I don’t know how to say this diplomatically; I’m going to try to say this as diplomatically as possible — but usually people are concerned with their status in that circle, and that status is often tokenism.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Which is not…I get it. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. I just am resolved not to subscribe. And so, you know, a lot of times, people feel like we can’t talk because you might become the one, but they don’t know that. I don’t even want to be the one.

Maurice Cherry:

Right?

Vasheena Brisbane:

I just want to talk to you and learn. Yeah. That’s where I come from. I am a lover of knowledge and a sharer of knowledge. Ask me anything you want. I will tell you exactly what my experience is. That’s all I can give. This is my experience, and this is where I come from.

Maurice Cherry:

Look, in the early days of doing this show, when I tell you it was like pulling teeth to get guests, because when we first started, it was just an online magazine. I would interview people. I wasn’t recording anything. And I started recording in June of 2013 when Raquel Rodriguez, who was episode one, when she was visiting from Chicago and was like, “yeah, I want to be on the show.” And I was like, “what show? It’s just a magazine.” She’s like, “oh, no, we could record it.” And I didn’t have any recording equipment. All I had was my phone, which is what we recorded it on. And it wasn’t until, like, almost a full year later in March of 2014, when I then sort of took the few recorded interviews I had done and said, “oh, let me just make this a podcast,” because it was just easier to sort of get out week by week. But there were a lot of people in those early days that were like “absolutely not. I don’t want to be on this. Why do you want to talk to me? This is like BET,” which kind of felt a bit like a slap in the face. Like, I understood what they were saying, but it was in such a derogatory way where it’s like, well, I’m not denigrating anyone by having you come on and talk. Why do you think it’s a bad thing that me as a Black media outlet wants to talk to you as a Black person? I think part of that might also just be behind some other Black media outlets that don’t make us look great. I’m not naming any names in particular.

Vasheena Brisbane:

But some of them kind of peddle in…

Maurice Cherry:

They pedal in some, you know…mess, and that unfortunately, gets unfairly sort of branded for the rest of us that aren’t doing that kind of stuff. And yeah, in those early days, it was like a lot of people have said no, which have then come back later and been like, “oh, can I come on the show?” And I’m like, “absolutely not. No.”

Vasheena Brisbane:

No, really? Did you not let them wanna…

Maurice Cherry:

No, I reserve the right to not have you on the show. If you felt like for some reason this was negative against you, then, yeah, we’re not going to do it. There’s one…I’m not going to name this person. But there was one designer in particular. Let’s just say that when I reached out to them, this was a mixed race designer. When I reached out to them, they very much were like, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t really consider myself, like, culturally Black. I don’t want to do it.” And I was like, “okay, fine.”

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Fast forward to, I want to say, like, the summer of 2020.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:

When, you know…murder of George Floyd, protests around this stuff…this same designer was very much like pro-Black Lives Matter. And I’m like…look, I’m not saying that events can’t happen in people’s lives that change them. I get that. I just thought it was really weird that this particular designer was very much like, “yeah, I’m not really Black.” And I’m like, you have a very Black name, and you present phenotypically as a Black person. But now that this sort of thing has happened, that sort of, I guess, shifted you into your own sense of Blackness.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Right. It was very odd.

Maurice Cherry:

And then they asked to come on the show, and I said no. I was like, “no, I don’t think that’s going to be a good look for me at this point. It’s not you, I don’t think, for the show, this is going to work.”

Vasheena Brisbane:

Our props to them.

Maurice Cherry:

But it was very weird.

Vasheena Brisbane:

I would think it would feel less than genuine.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, yeah, it absolutely did.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah, I get it. I agree. And I get that stigma. Right? It’s like, okay, is this a Black thing? Am I only going to be able to do Black things? The people that say that are not realizing that, okay, that may happen. I doubt it. It may happen. But also, are you not pigeonholing yourself into something else that is not genuine?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And if you are going to be stereotyped, shouldn’t it be as Black? I just feel like it’s a hard road we walk sometimes with trying to balance being legit with being culturally legit.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s complicated. I will 100%.

Vasheena Brisbane:

It’s complicated. And so sometimes when people feel complicated, they just go to what’s easiest. Let me just go with the flow. Right?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

We are not afforded sometimes a lot of times, the opportunity to just go with the flow.

Maurice Cherry:

No, that’s true. That’s very true. I want to bring it back to your work at the church because there’s just some things that I’m really interested in. So you mentioned that a lot of the work is pretty much all the work done that you do with the church in house, or do you work with an agency or with freelance? Because you said you started out freelance.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah, no, it’s all in-house. It’s all in-house. It’s just me and my direct report, which is the director of communications. He does the writing and editing and sort of like this tells the story and I’m involved with the visuals.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Vasheena Brisbane:

So I’m producing everything, I’m sending everything to print. I’m sort of crafting the visual of everything. And so that’s sort of how we work. We are the communications department and we’re a two person team, and I handle all design and production and he handles all story editing, press and stuff like that. And we come together when it’s time to like, okay, we have this story we need to tell and we need visuals for it, we need materials for it, we need digital stuff for it, digital assets. And so we do work with web developers that we contract with, but that’s really the extent of our outside work and print houses. But there’s no I am the designer, it’s just me. It’s a one woman show and we try to make it work.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I mean, you’re definitely making it work again, you’ve been there for as long as you have, and just the breadth of work that you described earlier I think definitely speaks to your prowess as a designer to be able to navigate between the different types of design that you have to kind of work on.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah, and so a lot of our work is for the senior pastor and he’s shaping the vision of the church. And so a lot of the stuff we do is specifically from him. And sometimes he comes with like, okay, I saw this. One of my favorite projects is he saw this illuminated manuscript letter and was like, “yeah, I’m thinking of the sermon series and I saw this.” It’s like an O. It was like a golden O with like a lot of flowery elements around it. And he was like, “what can you do with it?” That turned into a brochure and banners and posters and we actually won an award for that. And so sometimes he comes with something little, sometimes it’s nothing. Like, this is the theme. We come back, workshop it, and then come back to him and present him with a draft. And it’s a yay or nay. Usually it’s a nay. I mean, usually it’s a yay! Once in a blue, it’s a nay. That’s sort of how we work. We are the team. It’s just us too.

Some of the projects are self-driven. We’ve done history exhibits because we have a pretty robust archive from the church. And so we’ve done a history exhibit where we’ve done a timeline of the church from 1808 up until the present. And so that was more something that I drove because I was interested in it. We have an archivist, and so it seemed ashamed that this stuff wasn’t accessible or visible to the church. I was like, we should do a history exhibit. So we did one, and currently we’re working on doing transforming a larger space in the church into sort of a permanent historical exhibit. So we’re visiting other churches that have archives as well and seeing what they’re doing to exhibit their historical stuff and if they’re doing anything. So I’m not sure if that answered your question.

Maurice Cherry:

No, you did. And we’ll link to your website in the show notes because I really want people to see the breadth of the work that you’ve done and the references, even, that you’re bringing into it. Like, I’m looking at this one campaign not a campaign, but it’s for a sermon series called This Is War, and you’re like, you’re pulling details from, like, Picasso to put all this together so it’s not just put a cross here, put a dove there, and it’s done. It’s real design work going into it.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah. And so our pastor, he loves fine art, and so a lot of times he comes to us with pieces and he’s like,”oh, I just love this piece.” And he just gives him me a JPEG and he’s like, “okay, well, I love this piece.” And I’m like, “okay, well, how can we make this interesting? How can we make this a thing?” All he really wanted was a postcard. And I was like, “no, we need to do”…it’s such a beautiful piece, and it’s very long. And I was like, “I can’t pick one section of this to do one little postcard.” I was like, “we have to do three postcards with different parts of the image on each,” and so that’s what we did. And each postcard had a different part of the image with a different color, with the words This is War. I guess you’re looking at it right now. And on the back, I think the messages were slightly different.

I feel like working in a church is — and working specifically in this environment — is like there are a lot of restrictions, right? You have budgetary restrictions. We don’t have a lot of money to spend on this because this is not a firm, right? We’re not spending all the money on design, right? So we have to make whatever we do impactful. But it also has to be cheap because we’re spending our money outreaching to the community. That’s what we’re doing. We’re spending our money furthering the word of the church and of Presbyterianism and of God. So, yes, the design has to be good, right? But it also has to make sense to the congregation. You can’t come in with this shiny new thing that costs so much money, so many dollars, because people are donating this money. This is money that people have said we’re going to give to you to further the Kingdom of God, right? Not to make shiny things.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And so doing it in that way when we did this sermon, because this sermon series, I think it was only three weeks, if I’m not mistaken. And so it’s like he wanted something to be impactful, but also, how do we do it on a budget? And also we have our Lent season coming up right after this, where we do spend a little bit more money. And so those usually are the more fun project, the smaller projects. Like, how can we make this small thing impactful and exciting and interesting and make people that are walking on the streets because it’s a tourist church, too. Like, people are in the city visiting. Across the street is The Peninsula and The St. Regis. You know, major hotels. And so if people are here on a Sunday, you want to make it impactful for them to maybe want to come to service, maybe they want to stop in. So those are the things I think that they’re most exciting to do. Yeah, the small little one off things in addition to the regularly scheduled seasonal stuff.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I would imagine, even with what you just mentioned around financial considerations, because people are donating to the church to keep it as a community institution, right? But I’m sure there’s other considerations that you have to keep in mind, like, of course, theological and cultural sensitivity, inclusivity, tone and voice. There are a lot of things that you have to put into the design that a designer, say, maybe for a software company or an advertising agency, don’t have to consider.

Vasheena Brisbane:

That’s true. And I’m always thinking, like, “how can I make this a Pepsi thing but keep it church?” Right? I’m always trying to figure out, like, okay, yes, this is church, but how can we make it exciting? So that, one, it’s interesting for me to do. Like, I want to make my work exciting. And two, it gives people pause. Like, oh, I might walk in there because I see this that’s a cool this, or that’s a cool that. My goal is always to generate interest in church by making church things not so churchy, so that it appeals to the audience that we have, but also people that might be walking by that are not necessarily religious or not looking to attend on Sunday, but because maybe because they saw this poster or these banners, maybe they will. Maybe because they saw this magazine, they will.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it draws you in. And I think with designers being problem solvers, this is such a really unique problem to try to solve. Like, with every design that you have to do, it has to appeal to the congregation. But then also, how do you make it, quote unquote, design, right?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yes. Because you can’t just appeal to the congregation. Also it won’t grow right. You have to appeal to people outside to bring them inside. Sometimes that’s a hard sort of walk, a hard tightrope to walk because you don’t want to go too far where you get to where it’s not respectful of the institution. But also you want to make it so bland that no one is interested. So you have to sort of walk that tightrope. But I like to err on the side of go wild and then let them rein me back in.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And so we can sort of pick and choose elements that are exciting and figure out how to strike the right balance.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Now, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about your work, and I want to kind of pivot this conversation to learn more about you as a person. You’re originally from New York. You grew up in New York City. Tell me about, like, were you exposed to a lot of art and design growing up?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Not particularly. I’m from Staten Island, New York. I grew up in the neighborhood of Mariners Harbor on Staten Island. And my mom, she worked for the department. — she works, still works, for the Department of Transportation — and she was a single mom. And we went to school. We came home. I didn’t have any emphasis on the arts. I just was always interested in it. I was always interested in architecture and fashion as well. And when I had planned to be an architect, to be honest.

So I started my time at the City University of New York, CUNY I started my time in the architecture program. And that year was transformative for me because I figured out that when I had to take a photography class as part of you have to take electives. And so I said, all right, I’m doing all this technical work. Let me do something that’s less technical. And so I’ll take a photography class as one of my electives. And I took it, and I just fell in love with it. I was just like, I need to be doing design. And so I switched my major. My mom was not happy I did it. And honestly, I was failing physics anyway. I was not a good physics student. And so I switched to design, and I never looked back. That’s it. I was born in San Diego. My mom was in the Navy, and so was my dad. And so they were in San Diego when I was born. And then eventually they split, and then my mom came back to New York because she’s from originally Staten Island as well. So, yeah, I’ve been here my whole life.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, while you were at City College in New York, you had started something there called the Electronic Design and Media Club.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Electronic Design and Multimedia Club.

Maurice Cherry:

Multimedia Club. Did that come about, sort of after you switched over from architecture?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah, so after I switched from architecture, I believe it was Ina Saltz or Annette Winetraub, which I’m not sure if you know those names or not, but they’re pretty big in design. They asked me to start the club, and I did. And we ran it while I was there. And it was just, you know, we’d meet, we talk about, you know, critique our work. And it was just a way for us to network. Because when you go to a…because CUNY is like a commuter school, no one lives there. So it’s hard to generate community because you’re not sort of forced in a space together all the time. You sort of come, you do your classes, and then you go home. And so it was a way for us to foster community there, and I enjoyed it.

Maurice Cherry:

So it sounds like even with just that little — I mean, not that little — but even starting that club, that kind of was your budding interest in sort of design and how that could possibly be something more than just like a hobby.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yeah, for sure. When I started doing it, I was just like the first year, I loved the idea of design, but I had no idea I wasn’t one of these kids who went to school for I didn’t apply to be a designer, right? Or I didn’t submit a portfolio or anything like that. And so I sort of transferred over into it. So I had to learn the basics in college, whereas some of these kids knew they wanted to do it from the beginning.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And so that was hard for me because I’d never been like, an average student. I’d always been an above average student. So for me, it was struggling with not having a formula to be good. So I just had to really learn the ropes and just be like, okay, I’m just going to have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Maurice Cherry:

Got you.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And it was…it was uncomfortable for a while. And then I began to…I don’t want to say I got good because I don’t think I was good when I was in college, but I did some internships. I interned with InStyle Magazine, which was huge for me. I interned at Smart Money magazine when that was a thing. It was years ago. That was a big deal. And it also helped me decide how I wanted to work in design, because once I worked at InStyle Magazine, I was like, “I don’t want to do magazines.” Because the experience was just so micro. Everyone has their small little part to play in the magazine. It felt like in order to have any creative sort of agency, you would have to rise so far and be so far in your career. I just couldn’t understand how you could be happy until you got to be the design director and you could do the main spreads of the layout. Interesting, because that’s the only person that was doing those.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

That helped me understand, like, okay, magazine is probably not going to be your way. Then. I worked at Smart Money magazine, and it was a lot smaller, and they let me dig into their files, redo some of their layouts. It was just a different experience. So those two opposite experiences helped me decide to go small. I never wanted to go big after that because I was like, big is too restricting.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And you don’t get a lot of freedom once things are established. And I think that’s what’s exciting about doing nonprofit work in general and church work, is that you’re sort of writing the rules as you go. Like, yes, there are some guidelines. Obviously, you have to work within some things, but whatever it turns out to be is up to you. And so I didn’t know that then. Looking back now, I can say that, but I knew I didn’t want to go big when I was younger. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I knew it couldn’t be big or else I wouldn’t be satisfied.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, one of your early career experiences, after you graduated, you worked for the Anthology of Recorded Music. Tell me about that.

Vasheena Brisbane:

New World Records. It’s a non-profit record company. Oh, my gosh, so many years ago. Yeah. And so I got that job, I think, right out of college. And what I did was, if I’m remembering correctly, I scanned album covers, helped make little press releases for their work, and there was newer records where they would showcase sort of electronic and I’m having a hard time describing the music because it’s not your typical recordings. But they also had a nonprofit branch that they distributed this music to music schools, music programs across the country, like at colleges.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Vasheena Brisbane:

And that was called DRAM. And…please don’t ask me what DRAM stands for now, because I can’t remember, but I sort of made the look and feel for that website and for their website and just, like, getting all their content up and online. And so that was like, my first job outside of college. It was very production heavy. There was not a ton of design there’s. A little bit, a little bit of design, but mostly production. And so that’s what I did there.

And so that…I think I don’t remember when I left that, but after I left there, I freelanced for a while, and then I did an internship with a design firm. I don’t remember the name of the firm. Now that I think about it, that was my early career. It was my first job, and I learned how to work in an office in that job, which they don’t teach you that in school, you know how to design. But how do you design in an office when you have all this other stuff to do all day and so that was my first experience of designing for work and learning that you’re not going to be doing design all day long. You have many other things that you have to do in addition to your design, especially when you’re the only one. And I feel like in every single job that I’ve had, it’s been just me, right? The lone sort of designer or production artist or I think my title was officially production artist at that job. And so it was eye opening and it was nonprofit and it was small. And I enjoyed parts of it, the parts that had to do with design and sort of production and figuring out the back end of websites, because websites were not new, but they weren’t as advanced as they are now. Right. But there was still a lot to learn, especially right out of school. So I enjoyed that. I enjoyed that process.

Maurice Cherry:

So you were working for this nonprofit, then later you ended up working for the church. I’m curious prior to that, and I think we might have touched on this a little bit earlier, but did you have any skepticism about doing work for a church?

Vasheena Brisbane:

Yes. So this specific job came up on, believe it or not, monster.com. I had a resume on monster.com, which I don’t even know if that still exists — have no idea. But yeah, they just called me off…the current director of communications called me and was like, “hey, we’d like you to come in for an interview.” I went in with the idea like, “oh, this is great. I’ll have something to do. I’ll be able to make some money until I get a real job.” That was my exact words. And so I went in, the interview was fine. They said, “okay, well, we’re going to contract you on a freelance basis.” And I said, “great.” I was doing bulletins. My work was do the weekly bulletin, and that was it at first.

So I would go on site one day a week, I think maybe we’d sort the bulletin out, get it done, I’d send it in, and that’d be it. And then probably two or three months after I started, the director of communications left. So they had an interim and they needed help doing the magazine. So I said, well, magazine, they needed help doing the newsletter. It was an eight and a half by eleven, eight pager, I think, so two sheets. We started doing that. It looked awful, but I was just there to maintain until the new director of communications.

So they hired the new director of communications, Tim Palmer. He just recently retired. My favorite boss ever, I’ll say. And he asked me, “oh, the senior pastor wants to do this brochure. He said, ‘do a brochure for his fall sermon series.'” I said, “sure, I’ll try i”t. So we did that. He loved it. And then it was like, “okay, well, do you want to work on the newsletter?” I said, “all right, let’s do the newsletter.”

And so it sort of just snowballed from there. Went from just doing the bulletins to bulletins and brochures, then the newsletter. Then the newsletter turned into a magazine. The first one we did was a 32-pager written by him, designed by me. And then we moved from there and projects just sort of kept coming up. And so I was skeptical, like, “okay, I’m only going to be here for a little while.” But things just kept happening and the project was like, “oh, I’ll take that project. Oh, that sounds interesting.” And I just kept taking projects. And eventually, like three years later, I’m still here and I freelanced with them for three years and I was freelancing with other people.

Like during that time, I freelanced with a private equity firm called PrivCat, and they were doing sort of private equity reports. And so a designer had already designed the magazine and so I was tasked with producing that. But then they would do these sort of digital, I don’t know, two, four or five page reports. And so I designed those. And so during the church work, I was also doing private equity work, which was a little bit dry, but the designs were a little bit more exciting because they had to make the design exciting so that the content didn’t feel so dry. Yeah, I never intended for this to be a long term job. It was supposed to tie me over to my wonderful design firm job that was going to come along, I’d be working at an amazing design firm. But it just kept growing and the opportunities just kept coming.

And then eventually they asked me to come on full time. And I was like, “well, I don’t know.” I was still skeptical. Like, I don’t know if I want to work for a church full time. Maybe I’ll just come three quarter time so I’ll give you all a set, couple of days, we’ll do that. And so I did that for a year and then eventually the job just became so big we started doing banners and we’re doing exhibits. It just became so big they sort of made a position. There was no position in place for a designer. And so the position that they made was called a communications associate. And so that’s what I was when I finally came on full time. But technically I was a designer.

And so eventually we started doing more work and more exciting work, different things, starting to get a little bit more creative freedom. Because once you build sort of trust with people, I was able to do more. I was able to able to be more creative and suggest more. And when you get that trust, people trust you to take them further than maybe their mind can take them creatively. So that’s how it grew. And so, yeah, the answer to that is yes, I was very skeptical and no, I did not want to work for a church. I will just say that outright because it’s not something that has cachet when you say it in a space. Right. I work at a church, so that was hard for a while. For me, I don’t want to believe that it’s ego, but it probably was ego.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, it’s something that we’ve talked about on this show before as well. I’ve talked to designers maybe that don’t live in a big city, or that do work for an insurance company or something like that. The work that they do is not the flashy stuff that you’ll see in design media or that might win big awards or stuff like that. But when you think about the fact that everything that we interact with as humans has been through some lens of design, that means that you’re still designing for experiences that everyone needs. Everyone can’t work at a software company. Everyone can’t work at Apple or wherever and do kind of mind-blowing design work. Some people have to work at an insurance place or a healthcare brand or something like that. That may not be, quote unquote, sexy work, but the thing is that’s stuff that people still use all the time, and those need to be thoughtfully designed experiences as well.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Right? You have to design for the people. You have to design for someone other than yourself. And I think that makes you a better designer, because your focus can’t be just making it sexy, which is fun. Right. But it has to be like people have to be able to engage with whatever you make and be comfortable doing it. I wouldn’t want to say I guess it’s more of, like, legibility and readability, right? So they have to be able to read the content because it’s content. They need to consume something sexy. You can just enjoy it for the sexiness. Even if you don’t get it at all, you can just enjoy it. And those are fun projects to do, don’t get me wrong. But when you have to design with that sort of thoughtfulness, it brings a certain level of compassion to your work that I think you can miss when it’s just all about the sexy.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you’ve been, like I said, working at the church now for almost 14 years. When you look back over the span of your career from when you started to now, how would you say that you’ve evolved as a creative?

Vasheena Brisbane:

I feel like my evolution has been yes, technical. Because I think when you do anything for a long period of time, you should get better, right? I don’t want to say you obviously get better, because some people don’t, but you should get better. And I feel like I’ve gotten better, I’ve gotten faster, and I’ve become a much more, I feel like, compassionate designer, and not in the sort of sappy way, but just, like, understanding that people are coming here for a reason. And that reason is not always the reason you set out to design. Sometimes it’s just like they just need this content for whatever they need it for for their lives, right? Like, yes, you want to do your best work, but your best work can’t be the best work unless you have that person in mind from beginning to end. And I don’t think in the beginning, I didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t approach my work thinking about how a person would feel when they opened it. Like, on a more high level, like, yes, will they like it? Will they think it’s pretty fine, but is it thoughtfully done so that they don’t have to work harder to get what they need? I think that evolution for me has been the biggest and it has been the most rewarding thing to do. Like, how do I think about these projects through the lens of who’s going to consume it at the end and how they’re going to consume it?

That’s one thing about working with one community for such a long time is that you can really get to know the people and know what it is they’re looking for when they’re picking up a material, or when they’re picking up a magazine when they’re picking up. Because we also do the pledge campaign brochure, which is every year, the church has a pledge drive to fund the church. And so it’s an ask. It’s basically an ask for money to help us to continue to move forward the vision of the church. And so presenting those materials in a way that is sort of respectfully and thoughtfully done so that people feel connected to the institution, but also are able to get from the piece the value that they bring by giving their money, I think is hard to do. It’s a tricky ask. And when you’re designing materials for that, you really have to be careful about how you’re asking, why you’re asking. And that has a lot to do with the content and the words, but also what images we’re going to show. How are we going to connect the feeling of church to this ask for money? That’s a hard thing to do.

And so I think my favorite piece that we did was it was a few years back now, maybe 2018, 2019. I did some hand sketches of all the favorite things that people always mention about the church. And then some not so, some not so not favorite, but some sort of mundane things that people it’s like your money doesn’t just pay for, like this beautiful I did a sketch of the organ and of the rose window, which is part of the architecture of the church. It’s like, yes, we pay to maintain this, but also we pay for hymnals. We pay for palms on Sunday so that you can wave them for Palm Sunday. And so just connecting those sort of cherished things with the more nuts and bolts of the church is hard to do. And I think if you approach it through a lens of compassion, you can get it done. But I don’t think you can make those connections if you don’t know a community and approach that community and your work with them through compassion and really understand what it is that they love and how you can present it in a way that makes sense to them.

Maurice Cherry:

What are some pieces of advice that you’ve gotten throughout your career, throughout your life that you find yourself coming back to?

Vasheena Brisbane:

I don’t know that I’ve gotten advice on my career, but I feel like I’ve gotten advice on life, and it works for your career. And that is just like, go where they love you. And I don’t want that to come off, like, go where you don’t get any pushback or any flak or anything like that, but just, like, go where you are valued and they see your value and they believe in your value, and then you can, in turn, produce things that are valuable for that community. I think it’s a give and take. You can’t just go somewhere because of the money or because it looks good or for the cachet or because it looks good on your resume. I think that the most valuable advice I’ve been given is, like, go where you’re treated well and you can do work that’s meaningful and to you and hopefully to others.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s something that you kind of are still working on unlearning?

Vasheena Brisbane:

I feel like I’m working on unlearning this idea of a charted path. I feel like everyone wants the charted path. Like everyone wants that “I go to school, I get the beginner job, then I get this rock star job, and then I make a lot of money, and then I retire.” Right? I feel like that’s the path. Whatever. Your thing is fine. But what I’m still trying to unlearn I’m still trying to unlearn that. Right? I’m still trying to be okay with my career path, which is not a sexy career path, but has been really rewarding. And so I’m trying to unlearn thinking of my career in terms of what other people think is valid and trying to think of it more along the lines of what do I think is valid and what can I do to grow myself, regardless of where that may be, because I think you can grow anywhere. It’s just up to you. I don’t think the space determines if you grow or not. I think you and what you bring to it determine what you grow or not, and I’m still learning that.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years to that point? Where do you see yourself growing into?

Vasheena Brisbane:

I feel like nonprofit is just my calling, even though I didn’t ask for it. When I say nonprofit, it doesn’t have to be like a small nonprofit. I feel like maybe museum work or work where I’m helping to broaden the minds of people. I don’t see myself going in a commercial direction. And maybe that’s how I can speak about this better, is that I know where I don’t see myself. I don’t see myself, like, going to work for Pepsi at Coca-Cola or a big commercial brand. I don’t see that for myself. But I do see more of a sort of philanthropical or sort of path for me because I just feel like it’s been rewarding up until this point. And so at this point in the game, I’m looking for rewarding work. And I feel like that has been very rewarding for me and it’s also been very freeing. I don’t feel like you can get me, I can be wrong. I don’t feel like you can get as much freedom working for those big organizations as you can with small nonprofits or even a little bit larger of a nonprofit. I just feel like they’re more willing to take a chance on your creativity than global established brands are.

Maurice Cherry:

That is very much true. That’s very much true because oftentimes, especially with these larger companies, they don’t value. What I would consider what you’re doing is like you’re kind of a generalist. Like, yes, you work as a designer, but you’re not just doing one specific type of design. Like your work is spanning print and media and visual, et cetera. Whereas if you’re in a larger company, you’re kind of just slotted into doing one thing and you have to do that one thing. You can’t really branch out if you want to. Even if you have those skills. You’re not allowed to kind of do that within that one position.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Right there’s a designer who does this. They do this thing and that’s all they do. I would die slowly if I had to do that every day. And the exciting thing about working for a church is that I can go in one day, I’ll be working on banners the next day. Like right now we are working on that exhibit project that I mentioned earlier and we’re visiting other congregations and figuring out how they do stuff. And so we’re doing field trips and so every day is sort of different. And I didn’t know that I wanted that until I did it. And I was like, this is amazing. Every day is something different. Like, today we work on this, tomorrow we’ll be working on that. The summer is pretty busy for us. We’ll be working on a bunch of fall projects and it’s all different. And some people work in these amazing design firms and they’re doing one thing every day it’s the same. And I can’t. My soul won’t my soul won’t allow it. I would be restless and miserable, I think.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Vasheena Brisbane:

My website vasheena.com. I’m on LinkedIn. I am on social media at @sheenzfix on Instagram. I’m on Facebook for Vasheena Brisbane. But Instagram and Facebook, I’m not a big social media, so if you’re looking for me there, you’re not going to see much. But my website has some work that I’ve done.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, we had this big conversation for people that are listening. We had this big conversation earlier about kind of social media and being on which that’s a whole other thing, but I completely understand that. But Vasheena Brisbane, thank you so much for coming on the show. One just thank you for the breadth of work that you’re doing through the church. I think it is amazing and powerful and impactful to see someone doing this work, particularly a black woman, doing this work. It really means a lot. I mean, to me, it means a lot, but I think it means a lot, of course, to the community that you’re doing this type of work. And to be a creative problem solver and to do this kind of thing in a space that perhaps design is not necessarily looked at or considered or valued in a really impactful way, I think it really means a lot. And I’m super excited to see where you go from here. You’ve been doing great work. You’ve been recognized, you’ve been awarded. So clearly other people see that too. And my hope is that through this show, many others can kind of see the work that you’ve done thus far.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Vasheena Brisbane:

Thank you for having me. And thank you for doing what you’re doing here for the community and for our community specifically. It’s needed. And when I found the podcast, I was so excited that it even existed because I had been asking myself, like, where are all the black designers? And now I can connect with people and you can meet them and you can hear from them and hear their stories and to make for a more well rounded experience. And it’s invaluable. So please keep doing it.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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

Kendell Burton

It’s been fun checking up on folks I’ve interviewed on Revision Path before, which brings us to my interview this week with art director Kendell Burton. When we spoke nearly a decade ago, he was just kicking off his career. Now he’s winning awards and staking his claim as one of NYC’s most dynamic creative talents.

We started off talking about his current work at international health agency 21GRAMS, and from there Kendell shared his story of growing up in Brooklyn and getting excited about tech through an unlikely source — Xanga. Kendell also spoke about the high points of his career, gave some tips about working at agencies, and talked about his horror podcast TerrorNova. Kendell truly loves what he does, and I can’t wait to see how his career continues to grow well into the future!

Interview Transcript

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

Kendell Burton:
Hey. My name is Kendell Burton. I am a senior art director at 21GRAMS, currently. I’ve been there now for a year. Yep. Coming up on a year. Yeah. Just past the year.

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

Kendell Burton:
2023 has been nice so far. I can’t complain. I’m always excited for what comes each year. I try to mix things up a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you want to accomplish this year that you didn’t accomplish last year? Any New Year’s resolutions or stuff like that?

Kendell Burton:
I don’t really do resolutions that much, but I guess if I had to say the closest thing to it is this year I want to travel a little bit more. I haven’t traveled as much as I would like, in a lot of ways, these past few years. Of course, due to the pandemic and stuff like that. I want to get back to doing that a little bit more.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I hear you there. I took my first plane trip since the pandemic back in October. I went to Toronto and spoke at a conference. I was tripping, leading up to the trip. You see on the news folks be fighting the airports. I don’t want to go and it’s some hassle. I just want to go to the airport, get on the plane, get where I’ve got to go. You know what I’m saying? It was fine. Once I got back into that rhythm, I was like, “Okay. This is good. I can do this.”

Kendell Burton:
That’s cool. You went to Toronto. I love Toronto. It’s one of my favorite places to visit.

Maurice Cherry:
That was my first time visiting. I didn’t get to see a whole lot of the city because they had us right by the convention venue where we spoke at. I tell people that Toronto kind of feels like if Hollywood made a big city to shoot movies in, it would be Toronto. It feels like New York, but less gritty and grimy, in a way.

Kendell Burton:
That’s a perfect description, actually. Yep. Someone who goes there every year, that’s a perfect description.

Maurice Cherry:
Interestingly enough, I got to the airport, took my cab to the hotel, got to the hotel. Soon as I walk in the hotel, they’re playing Drake. I’m like, “Really? Really?”

Kendell Burton:
They love Drake over there. [inaudible 00:07:03] Drake. Cab drivers have asked me and my lady about that last time I went. I went in the summertime last year and the guy was like, “you heard of Drake?” I’m like, “I know [inaudible 00:07:11]. Who didn’t hear of Drake?”

Maurice Cherry:
Who hasn’t heard of Drake?

Kendell Burton:
I don’t listen to his music like that, but of course I’ve heard of the man. He’s like, “He’s not popular in America?” It said, “Very, very popular.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You mentioned 21GRAMS. Let’s talk a little bit about the work that you’re doing there. Can you tell me about that?

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. I could tell you a bit about agency. I’ve been there, like I said, for a year. The work is pharma based, which is really interesting because it’s my first step ever into pharma. I’ve like never done anything pharma before this. It’s been really interested. 21GRAMS a pharma agency. It sometimes comes down to figuring out the best way to market a drug. Very similar to a traditional agency in the consumer space where maybe Mars or M&M’s would come to the agency and say, “Hey. We want to do a campaign. What should we do? What is the thinking? What is the concepts? What does your campaign look like?” That’s pretty much the 21GRAMS does with pharmaceuticals.

It could be a general campaign that’s about bringing awareness around a particular disease or particular condition that people suffer from or it could be a campaign that’s about a very specific drug that is meant to help and treat a very specific condition. The campaigns kind of range, but the thinking and all of that stuff, strategically, conceptually, design-wise, all that stuff still applies.

Maurice Cherry:
What is a typical day like for you?

Kendell Burton:
Oh, man. It’s exciting for me, because I’m still learning so much new stuff every day. Some things are the norm, just hopping on Teams or hopping in chats and talking to my teammates about what’s happening on the project. Some days can be very heavily design focused where I’m in design or Photoshop or XD or any of the millions of programs in the Adobe Suite. Could be one day of me making maybe working on a brochure or a lead behind or working on a direct mail alert or it could be working on a page for a website or I could be working on print ads. Like I said, it’s a variety. Honestly, some days can just be very heavily meeting focused where I may be having conversations with my internal team about the upcoming project, relaying questions to them about what I need to do, what I can do.

This is the interesting thing about working on pharma, you kind of have to learn about the drugs or a disease stage you’re trying to fix. That’s another meeting, they call it Med 101. They may be sitting in a meeting for an hour where I’m just learning about the condition that people suffer from and this is why this particular medication was created to treat this. It’s really interesting. My day could jump around. It could be very, very different from day to day.

Maurice Cherry:
What attracted you to work for them?

Kendell Burton:
I wanted to try something new, to be honest with you. I wanted to try something new. I remember telling them that during an interview process as well. I wanted to try something different throughout a good portion of my career I’ve to work consumer side, which you knows things like Nike, Adidas, my Little Pony, Hasbro, all of this variety of brands I’ve been fortunate to touch. I remember one of my professors always said with pharma, he was like, “Hey. Some people get stuck in it. Some people don’t like being stuck, so if you could try consumer for a little while and then go into pharma, so at least if you don’t enjoy pharma, you can go back. You might find that you like it, so it’s kind of up to you.”

I’m the type of person that likes to try new things. I was like, “Great. I’ve done all these years of consumer.” The opportunity for pharma came up to me and I was like, “Yeah, I want to try that. I haven’t done that before, I’m sure I’ll have to think differently and learn new things.” That’s kind of a part of a reason I got this field to begin with. So I was like, “Time to launch a new step.”

Maurice Cherry:
Overall, as an art director, what would you say is the best thing about the work that you do?

Kendell Burton:
It’s a lot of things. Of course I’m a fan of the end result, when the project is done. [inaudible 00:11:03] A everyone’s just like, “Wow, this really came out better than we expected.” It’s always great to hear that. I honestly love proving the people that design requires more work than people think. I think oftentimes people just to just go, well, you know the brand color is, what photography to use, I would direct that. I think sometimes a big part of art direction, which is different from design, they are not a hundred percent the same. A big part of our director is trying to direct people like, “Hey. We can do it like this. We can do it like this. I know you may be selling this particular thing, but we could style this in the style of, I don’t know, a Cinderella book or something or some type of fairytale story.” You could just remix things in the ways that people don’t expect and that’s a part of the experience.

It’s not just laying out the content, but it’s the way in which you lay out the content that makes things really interesting. That’s a part of the art direction. What type of typography do we use? What type of photography do we use? That’s a part of art direction that’s slightly separate from design, but is of course connected. That’s one of my favorite aspects of it. Just kind of showing non designers that and showing “non creatives” that aspect of what we do.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I hear people kind of use art director and creative director somewhat interchangeably. What would you say are the difference between those two, from your perspective?

Kendell Burton:
I’ve heard it a few different ways. I would say, I guess, in my experience, the way the industry has been lately, within the time I’ve been in it, it seems like people have tried to merge the two. From my understanding how things used to be, there was never really a mergence of the two because thinking and doing are two very different tasks. There are people who are really good designers, like fantastic designers, but they may not be the best in terms of figuring out the best direction for something to look visually, but they may be the best to put it together. They just may not be the best to come up with the idea. Generating ideas is important. Similarly, to how people think of Apple when they’re just, “Steve Jobs didn’t design anything.” You’re like, “You’re probably right.” Having the vision and coming up with the idea is a big part of the process too. You can’t separate the vision from the actual technical part they’re doing.

I’ve always viewed creative director and art director as they’re different. In my opinion, the creative director is more of the manager. The creative director is the manager of the entire project. Not just necessarily the art aspect of it, but understanding what are we trying to accomplish? What are we doing on brief? What is the brief. What is the brief action? Do we have enough information in the brief? All of those things. I feel like, the creative director is a part of kind of guard railing to make sure that the art director and the designers can succeed.

The art director, I’ve always viewed it as art director is generally in charge of what is the ownable creative POV in which we can tell this story. Are we telling the story in a way of a video game? We know some type of video game narrative that uses maybe a UI video game experience. What are we trying to say? Here’s the best way to say it. The career director is just, I would say, there to make sure that you have all things in place such you can actually get to doing part. That’s just how I viewed it. I’m sorry if that sounds a little complex, but that’s just kind of how I thought it. Art director is the creative vision. Creative director is making sure art director has everything they do and need and being the guardrail and the pressure cooker to make sure that things are going out make sense.

They’re like the, I would say, the artistic version of the client. That’s how I’ve always thought of it. When I work on a project, even though I’m designing as well oftentimes, I’m going to the creative director far before I’m going to anyone else to go, “Hey, here’s what the brief said. Here’s what the POV is. Here’s what the goal is. Here’s how I think we should do that. We should tell that story. We should solve this problem. What do you think?” I feel like the creative director’s supposed to put their client hat on in some ways to go, “Okay. The client may or may not like certain aspects of this. We’re kind of pushing a bar, but that’s cool. Let’s push the bar. Let’s do this.” That’s kind of how I’ve always viewed it.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, I got you. No, I like that distinction and that comparison. When I’ve had folks on the show or even when I’ve just talked to other creatives, I keep hearing them used interchangeably. I know they’re different, but I don’t know if they know that it’s different, if they’re saying one thing and it should be something else.

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. That’s why I say what it is now, because from my understanding from people I’ve spoken to who have been in this field far longer than I have, even before I knew this field was an option in life, people who have been in this field maybe 20, 30 years, maybe even longer. They’re like, “Hey. These jobs used to be treated entirely separately.” Even the designer and art director were treated entirely separately. You weren’t just promoted from designer to then your next level was art direction because some can’t make that jump. I was like, “That makes sense.” Now it seems like it’s been smushed together in a lot of ways. I’m sure it has to do with money, it’s easy to pay one person versus two. I’m sure that’s why that decision was made. Everyone who’s an art director is not meant to be a creative director and vice versa.

Maurice Cherry:
Got you. Got you. I kind of want to switch gears here a little bit because you sort of alluded to earlier about not even knowing this was a profession. I kind of want to know about your origin story, how you first got into design and art direction and everything. You were born and raised in Brooklyn, right?

Kendell Burton:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me what it was growing up there.

Kendell Burton:
I loved it. I still live in New York. I’m not in Brooklyn anymore. Now I live in Manhattan, but I’ve always loved Brooklyn. It’s always had a good community, in my opinion, especially being a kid. I was born in 89, which isn’t that long ago, but it can feel like it [inaudible 00:16:42] hindsight. I’ve always had a really great community. I was not a cool kid, but I mean I had a good time as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. I was always in parks, really simple life. My family wasn’t super wealthy or had money to really do vacations in crazy places or anything like that. It was a lot of spending time with family, going to block parties when Block Brooklyn used to do more of that when I was a kid, block parties were a thing. The thing, especially in the summertime. It’s the best thing ever. Just every morning in the neighborhood comes out, everyone’s cooking, giving stuff to kids, nobody’s worried about kids getting kidnapped. It was chill. It was really cool.

I really just loved that as a kid. That’s literally my fondest memory of Brooklyn is just block parties and everybody just kind of being out and no one calls [inaudible 00:17:31]. Everyone’s just chilling. Hey, you want a hamburger? We’re making burgers over here. You want some hotdog? You want some ribs? Everyone’s making everything. It’s a great time. I loved it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I love that sort of sense of community that comes from close-knit places like that. I mean, I grew up in the deep south, but that’s one of my memories of growing up is we were around this tight-knit community where if you needed something, you went across the street. It sounds quaint. Oh, I’m going to go across the street and borrow a cup of sugar or whatever, but you could do that. Folks would sit out on their porch and wave to each other and all of that. Doesn’t happen now, but back in the day it definitely was just a different vibe back then.

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. I try to recreate that in my everyday life in some capacity. It’s a little challenging, but I try to create some small aspects of that going forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, were you a really creative kid? Did you do a lot of drawing and stuff?

Kendell Burton:
I tried. I tried. I guess I would say I was creative. I was like every other kid watching Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon and things like that and trying to draw the character as best I could. I did have that aspect of it. Drawing never really stuck with me, but I did do that. I just enjoyed comedy and seeing and doing creative things. I was a really active kid. I was never one of those kids who just knew what they wanted out of life in terms of … Some kids are like, “I know I want to be a doctor. I know I want to be this.” When that question came to me in elementary school, I was like, “I don’t know, man. I’m five. I know firemen do cool stuff, but I know police do their thing. All these other companies and professions do their things, but I don’t know. Can I just learn life?”
That was always how I’d been. I would just learned stuff. I was like, “Oh. This is interesting. That’s interesting.” Standup comedy was interesting. My father would play that stuff in the house and that’s how I knew Richard Pryor and things like that. I was like, “This is funny. This is interesting.” It was movies another thing.I just experimented with everything.

Maurice Cherry:
You said you were born in 89, right? Right around that time of the late eighties, early nineties. I would say even going into the mid and late nineties, there was such an explosion of culture that happened, I think particularly here in the US, because of the advent of technology and personal computers and cable and the internet and all that sort of stuff. Prior to the generation before us, we just got exposed to so much more stuff at a formative age. It kind of makes sense that when that question gets asked about what do you want to be, it’s tough because you have so much choice.

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. I think it’s good to have choice. I’m always the person that thinks people need to experience stuff to know what they like. That’s just how I view it. I guess you can call it my childhood wisdom even. That was just the way I viewed things. I was like, “I don’t know until I tried it,” I would just try stuff. That’s why I played a billion sports. I was also drawing stuff. I was trying to write poetry, I was doing so many things. I was just like, “I don’t know what I’m good at yet. I know I’m smart. I don’t have any self-esteem issues or self-confidence issues, but I need to explore the world. I just got here. I’m eight.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now did your family support you in this, all this sort of exploration of all these different things?

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. Yeah. They definitely did. My dad, I mainly raised by my dad, because my mom passed when I was a young age. My dad, he didn’t even tell me to do these things. I just was interested in stuff. I would see stuff that he did and I was like, “That’s kind of cool,” obviously. Whether it was movies we watched or TV shows or bike riding. We did a lot of bike riding when I was a kid. I still try to ride my bike now. It still applies. Seeing things in the world, seeing things in the park, seeing people try stuff maybe in a TV show and I’m like, that’s interesting. Let me try that. My parents never discouraged me from doing anything.

They kind of in some ways opened the world up to me. They didn’t really shield me from things in the world heavily. They were just kind of like, “Yeah. Some things are like this and things like that.” They kind of encouraged me to ask questions and tell them my thoughts if I had any. I just kept going. I just kept doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now I read in another interview that you cut your teeth in tech trying to set up a Xanga blog to meet girls. Is that right?

Kendell Burton:
Yes, that is.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about that. What’s the about?

Kendell Burton:
This is my origin story. You know what’s funny? I tell this story at job interview, so I’ll tell you exactly how I tell it. I need people to know my personality. I’ve always felt like if people don’t understand my personality then there’s no point in me working at places. I tell them the same story when I go to job interviews. People are like, “What got you in the design?” I go, “Women.” People are like, “What? What does that mean?” It’s not a answer you expect. You expect me to sit down and be like, “I was drawing such a young age, Picasso.” No, it was none of that.

It was gross. I was a teenager, I was 13 years old. I had my first summer job or first job, period. It was a summer job. I worked at a senior center in Queens. I lived in Queens at the time. I worked at the senior center and Ravenswood in Queens. This kid that I worked with with was a little older than me. He was a graduating senior in high school. I just finished my freshman year. He was always on this website called Xanga. I didn’t know what it was. I just saw he was always on it.

They had a computer. This is before computers were everywhere. People had computers, but not everyone had a computer at home. I was one of those people that didn’t have a computer at home. I knew how to use computers because schools had computers. In our office job, at the senior center … It was office job. You’re sorting paperwork, you may occasionally have to type something, you may occasionally have to send an email. We mostly hung out with the elderly people that were there, because that was what it was. It was like maybe bringing lunch to him, stuff like that. It was just a space where older people could hang out in the summertime and they didn’t have to go out and worry about the heat or anything like that. It was a really chill place.

My coworker that worked there, he was just on his website all the time, Xanga. I always saw he was on there, whether he was putting music or changing photos. It was a really simple blog. I guess this was before people even called them blogs, but it was a really simple blog. He always had music playing. He was just metal. He had cool backgrounds. I think one day after a few weeks of getting to know him, I was like, “Hey, man. What is this website?” He was like, “Oh. I use it to talk to my friends who are” … What is the word I’m looking for? For people who were shipped out in the military, because he was in a program called ROTC, I believe was the name of it, which is kind of a preparation program for people who were going to go to the military or go to military schools, things like that. He was like, “Yeah. I stay in touch with my friends who are overseas and who have already been deployed. I just used us to stay in touch with them and talk to other people.”

I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. That’s really cool. Can I meet girls on here?” Specifically, can I meet girls on here? He was like, “Well, technically, yeah.” I was like, “Cool. That’s all I need to know. Create a profile for me.” [inaudible 00:24:45]. I had my own page. I remember my username was Shadow 1989. I had my own page and I just started tinkering with it, because I saw that he was always tinkering with it. I was like, well, what can you do? The page gave you limited HTML on coding capabilities, honestly. It was like you can change the background color, you can put an image in the background, you can position the image in the background, you can change the color of the text. You could change some of the effects over the text. Maybe you hover over the text and instead of it going purple, maybe it glitters or something. It was just these little capabilities that were really cool. Me and my friends were literally Googling stuff to find out how to change the code on certain things.

It just opened up a can of worms. I was on it all the time, customizing my page all the time, thinking of really interesting themes for my page. Oh, I want to do a Final Fantasy theme. I think at the time, Final Fantasy 10 was a thing. I had the photo of Titus and Uno. It’s from the game for people who played the game. There’s a scene in the game that’s really beautiful where they’re in this water and there’s these fireflies around. I had that in my background. The hover state for my links was this sparkling glitter that looks like it was from the scene. It was beautiful. [inaudible 00:26:03].

I didn’t know what design was at the time, but I was just doing that all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean I think what you’re mentioning here is something that’s really important for, I think, anyone that’s looking to learn something new. Use the gateway of something that you enjoy to be that sort of fuel that pushes you into it. Do you think you would’ve gotten into this if you couldn’t meet girls or … You know what I mean? Because you knew that because that was an avenue for you, you’re like, “Okay. I think I want to learn more about this,” because you had a vision of what you wanted to do because of what you were interested in.

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. It was a hundred percent that. See, that’s the funny part. I had years of using that software, using that website. I got all my friends hooked on it. We were all 13 at the time. I think one or two of my friends maybe a year older. We all got hooked on Xanga. We’re all using it for the same reasons, pick up girls. We also all were just really getting into the design aspect of it, but not knowing that it was something that people do professionally.

The way I found out graphic design was an option was in my junior year of high school. Yeah. My junior year of high school, I had a computer class. I transferred schools. I went back to Brooklyn. I had a computer class, I remember with a teacher, Mr. Mastell. That was his name, Mr. Mastell. Mastell. I remember his name. Really nice guy. I remember seeing him years later and I told him this story. He laughed. He was like, “I forgot all about that.” I was like, “I know you’ve had a hundred students.” The computer class, we had to build a webpage. We had to build a website, but mainly you could just build a webpage. He was like, “Just build a page.” In that class, as we were on computers all day, I was bouncing between building my page and then playing with my Xanga. Why not. I’m a kid so this is what I do.

Then one day the teacher was coming over to my desk and I was on Xanga and I saw he got close, because remember when he used to have those big computer monitors, it wasn’t like [inaudible 00:27:54]. Well, you could see somebody walking up to you. It was the big one. I didn’t see him until his shadow basically came over the top of my screen. I was like, “Oh snap. Let me minimize this window.” Being an old computer, the window froze and it got stuck. My Xanga page was just stuck on the page. I’m just sitting there clicking so hard on the minimize button. It just wouldn’t minimize. He came by and he was like, “How’s your project going?”

He sees my screen. I’m like, “It’s going.” He was like, “Hold on. What’s that?” I was like, “I don’t know. This thing [inaudible 00:28:29].” Yeah. I thought I was in trouble. He was like, “No, that’s actually really cool.” I remember having this tornado marquee with typography coming out of and stuff. He was like, “That’s really cool. Wow, that’s really cool. How did you even learn how to do that? I didn’t teach you guys anything like that. This is cool.” He was like, “Wow. You should maybe be a designer or something.” I said, “Hold up. I was just using this to pick up women. You’re telling me I could have a career choice here?”

He was like, “Yeah. There are people who do graphic design, professionally, whether it’s websites or other stuff.” I was like, “I had no idea. I’m so happy you said that. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do in college. I just knew I wanted to go to college.” That was kind of how it started.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of college, you went to City Tech. For folks that have been listening to the show for a while, we’ve had a few professors on the show; Douglas Davis, Danny Shaw, we’ve had a couple of City Tech alums too. Tell me what your time was there.

Kendell Burton:
That’s my professor, Douglas Davis. I had him as a professor.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, really?

Kendell Burton:
Yep. Danny Shaw, that’s one of my good friends.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Kendell Burton:
City Tech was great, man. I loved City Tech. It was a really nice experience to get around other people who were trying to do something in field. Remember, I’m just a kid who’s just playing around on the website. I don’t know design principles, I don’t truly know color palettes. I know how to use color. I know what looks good to the eye. I wasn’t that kid who was like, well, you’re supposed to use these particular shades of red to go with this particular shade of blue. I didn’t understand or know any of that, because I never was traditionally taught any of it. That’s why college was really great, because I got to really see the basics of how to do some of these thing, even just basic drawing. I still don’t draw much to this day, but just having life drawing classes and things like that was really fun. You see different people skill levels. You see people who’ve clearly been doing it for way longer than you, or you see people who are also learning as well.

Meeting these people, becoming friends with them and become friends with the professors. City Tech was honestly one of the best parts of my life. I met a lot of really cool people that I’m friends with to this day. It was great. It was a great experience, man, from beginning to end. My skillset was terrible walking in, considering I only knew how to play around on our websites. To what it was post, after leaving City Tech, like drastic change, man.

Maurice Cherry:
I’d imagine it was probably pretty cool also having a black male professor, someone that’s teaching you how to do all this stuff too.

Kendell Burton:
Oh, yeah. Doug was cool. His class was hard. As somebody who didn’t have any traditional training in the field or any understanding of what a concept for a campaign was, it was very hard for me at first. I remember telling him this. He was always just like, “Oh, I know it’s hard. I make it hard because this is what it’s going to be like.” His class isn’t hard for the sake of being hard. It’s hard because he’s being realistic about how projects are done and the actual agency space. I was like, “Okay, cool.” It was super challenging. I didn’t know how to come up with a concept fora campaign. I didn’t know what a campaign truly was. I knew commercials I saw that were really cool. I remember, I used to always tell people this joke, but I’m clearly when I saw the Old Spice commercial, which was out at the time with the dude … What was his name Isaiah Washington?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Isaiah Mustafa, I think.

Kendell Burton:
Yeah, something like that. The guy riding on the horse?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Kendell Burton:
[inaudible 00:31:42] to the camera. That came out when I was in college. I remember seeing that commercial going, I don’t know how they got to a black guy on a horse, but I know it couldn’t have just been somebody saw Old Spice black guy on a horse. There had to be thinking again from A to that. There had to be thinking. He was like, “Yeah, for sure.” I was like, “I don’t know what any of that thinking is, but I would love to learn.” His class was great for that. His class was really, really good for that. Yeah. Seeing a black professor was awesome. In a lot of ways he was inspirational, because I didn’t have many black professors prior to that, that I can recall, let alone that was still actively working in the field and still was keeping up with where things are moving. He’s a very innovative professor for not just City Tech, but just in general.

Maurice Cherry:
What was your early career after you graduated? You obviously had this interest that you had sort of cultivated through getting on Xanga and meeting girls and stuff. Then you’re also strengthening it through college. Once you got out there, what was your early career?

Kendell Burton:
It was interesting, man. I didn’t know where to go. There’s no clear handbook for what you do once college is done. You know you want to get a job in your field, but for somebody like me, like I said, I didn’t know what was possible. I had a better idea of what was possible after all of this college stuff, whether [inaudible 00:33:02] internships or talking to professors or being fortunate to volunteer for some award shows to actually see what those were like. I still didn’t really know where I wanted to go. When I graduated, I didn’t get a job right away, but I was applying places. I was talking to recruiters and all that. I still do that to this day, honestly. Talk to recruiters, email recruiters, hop on the phone with recruiters and talk to them. I always kind of try to make a habit of that because you never know.

Actually, Doug used to always say this. He was like, “It’s best to talk to people when you don’t need them.” [inaudible 00:33:35] for a favor. I was like, he’s a hundred percent right because I hate when people hit me up only to ask for favors. I try to it make a habit. No, I make it a habit to be a good person in general, not just when I need something, to everybody, whether you can give me something or not. I was the same way with recruiters. Yes, I needed their help when I was coming out of college, but I was also just trying to build a relationship. It actually worked out for me. That was how I got my first job.

I got my first job three months after I graduated college. It was at VaynerMedia. I got that job because of a recruiter that I spoke to probably about two or three times a week. He was always so proactive about trying to help me get something, it’s my homeboy Jakes. We still talk from time to time. He was so proactive about helping me get a gig because he was like, “Your work is clearly good. Obviously you’re a junior and [inaudible 00:34:22] stuff you have to learn.” I’m like, “I know. For sure. I’m willing to learn it.” He was like, “I’m going to keep trying to place you.” He kept trying to place me.

Then eventually the intermediate reached out to me through email for an interview. I went to the interview, I got the job. I was like, “Wow. This is awesome. I got first job.” Ironically, the first day I ran into him in the bathroom. He was like, “Hey.” I was like, “Hey, man. What’s going on?” He was like, “Hey. How’s everything going?” I was like, “Good.” He was like, “How’d you think you got the job interview?” I was like, “I don’t know. They just randomly reached out.” He said, “It was me, dude. I recommended you.” I was like, “Oh, thank you, man. I didn’t know. You didn’t tell me that. I knew you left your recruiter job, but I didn’t even put two and two together that you came here and then they reached out to me.” I was like, “That’s so cool. I appreciate that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I remember when I reached out to you. I think this was almost 10 years ago, almost a decade ago. Good Lord. You were working at VaynerMedia at the time. For people that know Vayner Media was founded by Gary Vaynerchuk, who … I haven’t really followed him lately, but I know back during that time, right before he started VaynerMedia, was really well known in the social media entrepreneurship space. What did you learn from that experience working there?

Kendell Burton:
I will say a lot. Honestly, I also want to preference, I didn’t know who he was when I went to the job interview.

Maurice Cherry:
That probably is a good thing, to be completely honest with you.

Kendell Burton:
I guess. Well, I’m sure people do, but I didn’t go there like, “Hey, I really want to work with Gary.” In my mind I’m like, I just got out of college. It’s an interesting job where I could do social media work. I’ve always been told that digital is going to be the future anyway, in a lot of ways. This is a cool opportunity. I remember the woman who interviewed me, she said, “Hey. Do you know anything about Gary?” She was like, “I’m not going to hold it against you. I just want to know.” I was like, “I don’t know anything about this man. I just found out who he was when I found out about this agency and that’s fine. I’m cool with that.” That’s not to say that he’s bad or anything, it’s just I didn’t know who he was prior to getting the job.

Sorry, what was the question?

Maurice Cherry:
What did you learn from that experience working there? Did it teach you anything? Any sort of lessons that you still carry with you to this day?

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. I worked with some really awesome art directors there who were, I would say, patient with me. I tell everybody, you need patience with people. Regardless of job level and title, you need patience with people. It was my first gig. I’d done social media work a little bit prior to that, but honestly not a lot. I did intern at Buddy Media when I was around at one point I interned at a F Sharp building user experiences for social, but not creating daily social content.

Working at Vayner was a bit of a change, because at that time we were pumping out social content for so many different brands daily. It was a very go-getter energy. I kind of really liked that. I didn’t right away appreciate it. I was kind of like, “What’s going on here? What the hell’s going on here?” Because everyone was kind of bouncing around doing different things. I would see the art director. He’s like, “I’m heading to a shoot.” Then I see him five minutes later, he’s like, “I’m designing something for something.” Then I see him a few minutes after that. He’s like, “I’m overseeing this other person who’s working on a different brand, but I’m in charge of what happens on that brand.” I was just like, “Wow, this guy’s doing a lot in two hours. There’s a lot happening.”

That was just the energy there at the time. Even as a designer, they gave me a good amount of responsibility. I was in charge of my daily creative needs where it was a certain amount of content for maybe a brand I was on. I was on Hasbro. I touched a lot of brands when I was there, probably some of the most in my life. It’d be like maybe designing maybe four to five pieces of content a day. I remember this daily content, they’d do daily content at the time for brands. My day would be designing maybe four or five things. Then I may be leading a small photo shoot for one of the products for one of our brands. Then maybe I’m also helping out somebody else for another brand because maybe someone just needs a body to do something.

Hey, guys. We’re trying to record a Vine, when that was a thing. Need someone to be here. We need someone to be here. Who’s free to help? Then it’s like, “Kendell, are you free for 10 minutes?” Sure, I’m free you. Then I’ll go in and help out with a Vine, whether we’re doing something for Chips A-Hoy or doing something for a random brand. I was like, “Cool.” It was just a really good go-getter energy. I really appreciated and that it. It was really cool. It was a lot to learn there from everything that was just happening.

Maurice Cherry:
Now after VaynerMedia, a couple of years afterwards, you ended up working at another agency G and you were their lead designer. Was that kind of a big shift from that sort of fast hustle culture that it sounds like VaynerMedia had to, what was going on at GLOW?

Kendell Burton:
A little bit. Yeah. A little bit. I felt like with Vayner, often days you didn’t know what you were going to get. I knew it was going to be designing a few things, but you sometimes didn’t know if you were going to be leading the shoot or volunteering with different things. There was a lot going on. It was really fun. I loved being a part of that. That was awesome. GLOW is drastically different and drastically smaller. It was way smaller. When I first got to Vayner, I think two weeks in and they were moving to a new office, because they needed more space. I think we might’ve been over 300 employees at that point. It was a lot of people there. So much so I started losing track of names of so many people. If you weren’t on my direct team, or I didn’t work with you in the past, it was hard to keep track of names. There was so many people.

GLOW was a lot smaller. GLOW was maybe 20 to 30 people.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Kendell Burton:
[inaudible 00:39:41] the creative team. I meant the company was 20 to 30 people. It was a lot smaller. The work I did there was some of my favorite work I’ve done in my career. It was just a good time. It was a different experience. Whereas, Vayner was a lot of consumable goods, whether it was like Hasbro or Chips Ahoy and things of that nature. With GLOW, it was a lot of entertainment focused. It was TV shows, which was drastically different. I worked on social for a lot of TV. It was still social based, so that aspect I still hold down to. It was a lot of TV shows, whether it was shows for HBO, Showtime, Star, Sci-Fi Channel. It was a lot of TV shows. There was a little bit of a learning curve in what you can say for a TV show, what you can do or what you can’t do. It was interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I’m trying to place the year. I’m guessing this is like 2010s maybe, mid to early 2010s?

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. Roughly about maybe five years ago almost. Probably mid to late.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Yeah. I think about how television and social, because you mentioned that, I remember when Scandal came out on ABC. I had been on Twitter. I had been on Twitter since 2007. I don’t think the concept of live tweeting a television show was really a thing back then until that show. It really popped off. Now you go on Twitter and you can’t escape every web series, movie, television show has some kind of hashtag or social campaign behind it or something. I feel like that was really sort of the golden age of that stuff popping off.

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. Yeah. I was actually just looking at the year. It was like 2015 till 2018 I was there. Yeah. Definitely during that time where live tweeting was becoming a big thing and brands were starting to care, TV shows in particular, but all brands. Really TV shows are starting to care a lot more about how they appeared on social, how did they engage with the audience? Were they doing good stuff prior to the episode airing and then during the episode earring and then after the episode airing. It was really cool, man. It was a great time. Some of the stuff I got to touch and work on, some of the most fun work I’ve done in my career, honestly. It was just a really interesting time.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, after GLOW you worked for even more agencies. You worked for 360i, you worked for Collected, you worked for Ghost Note. We actually had their art director on last year, Rebecca Brooker. What draws you to working for agencies?

Kendell Burton:
They keep hiring me.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, that’s real. Hey, I get it.

Kendell Burton:
It’s really that. They kept hiring me. From Vayner, like I said, I had no predetermined career path. I was like, “Well, this agency works for me, let me try another one.” It just kind of kept snowballing that way. It’s been good. It’s been interesting. It’s been good. I’ve learned different things from every agency. They just kept hiring me and I kept getting really interesting opportunities. I was like, why not? I’ll keep rolling with this. It just kept working.

Maurice Cherry:
What qualities do you think agencies look for in a designer? Is it just about having a portfolio of good work or is it something else?

Kendell Burton:
I think it’s a little bit of both. I’ve heard people say different things, but I think it’s a little bit of both. I think on one hand they see a portfolio that people look for potential. They’re like, “Oh. How does this person think? What does this person think about?” Who they are based on their work. Then I also think they’re looking for a fit. Oftentimes, a lot of agencies, at least a lot of ones I’ve experienced, I can’t speak for all agencies. A lot of agencies I’ve experienced, they usually hire because they were trying to fill a specific need. It was like we got new business coming in. They probably have a specific type of business coming in, so they’re looking for a specific type of person to fit that brand that they’re bringing in. Whether it’s a cooking brand or something, like looking for somebody that probably fits that niche.

Sometimes it’s just general and they’re just like, we just need bodies in here. We need people in here who are going to fit the mold and fit the team. I think oftentimes people are looking for a specific kind of fit. Yeah. It is your work. I think also it’s a part of who you are. That perspective of who you are can be very helpful in your day-to-day life.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve always kind of just been curious about that because I mean, I’m speaking partially from personal experience, but also from what I’ve heard from other designers. For those that may have worked on more of the UX side or product or tech, what I’ve heard and experienced personally is that it’s hard to break agency because agencies are looking for “agency experience”. Have you heard that before?

Kendell Burton:
I have heard that. I have heard that, but I can’t say definitively they are, because I think it’s mixed. Here’s the thing. I think a lot of people like agency experience because agency … It’s just my opinion, I’m not speaking for everyone. I think a lot of people look for agency experience because agency experience tells them that you know how to deal with a lot of crazy things happening at once. I think there is an underlying but known secret that a lot of agencies are not super organized. I don’t think it’s that they’re unorganized, because they just decided we’re going to not be organized. There’re things that happened. There’s a lot of moving pieces in our field from account, strategy, creative. There’s a lot of moving pieces. It’s easy for something to slip through the cracks. Some people can’t function when things slip through the cracks. They’ll just be honest. There are different personalities. I have friends who don’t want to do agencies at all. I understand, because I work in agencies so I can understand why that wouldn’t be for everyone.

As an employer I can see why employers would see that as exciting because it’s like, “Wow. This person knows how to kind of function in a little bit of chaos. They may be good here.” Some people don’t know how to function in that little bit of chaos. Depending on the type of jobs or internships you’ve had prior, you may not have dealt with this kind of chaos. You may have been in-house, probably had one brand. That one brand that’s probably not super dependent where you selling something every day. You just kind of, not coasted, you ain’t coast, but your workload was different.

Agency, you could be on three brands doing campaigns for three different projects that are completely different. They have the deadline of four days between the three, they just slightly staggered. That’s not what it should be like, but that is what it’s like sometimes.

Maurice Cherry:
You know what? Thank you for saying that. I have asked that question to so many people and the response I get is almost like they’re ruining the first rule of fight club. It’s like, “Oh, well I can’t tell. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.” Even my personal experiences with trying to work at agencies, they’ll look at my work and be like, “Oh. Well, you’ve done all this tech stuff. We’re really looking for agency experience.” I’m like, “Well, I can’t get agency experience if I don’t work at an agency.” I’m glad that you mentioned what that distinction is.

I get. It makes sense mean. From the other folks that I’ve had on the show that have worked at agencies, you do have the opportunity to work on lots of different projects. It can be kind of fast-paced, a little frenetic. Again, if you’re in-house and you’re only working on a brand or part of a brand or part of a product, it’s just different. It’s just a different type of workflow.

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. It’s very different. I often think when I’m on Twitter, I’m on Twitter quite often, but I’ll see someone, unfortunately when Twitter did all those layoffs, a lot of different people talked about different aspects of their job. Some of those people have very specific needs, I mean very specific rules. Some people were like, “I work just on bookmarks.” I’m just like, “Only bookmarks? That’s all you did for Twitter? You work specifically on bookmarks?” That’s really interesting. I wonder what their day to day is. That’s tech, so it could be very … That’s not to say their life’s cushy, but if you’re working on just one thing …

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a little cushy. A little cushy.

Kendell Burton:
I would hope your job is some level of cushy from time to time. Every day can just be grinding nonstop. I would [inaudible 00:48:00]. You go, “Wow, that’s cool. You get to work on this one thing and really refine this one thing.” There is a lot of pros to that, but some people could look at that as a con, because like I said, similarly to the creative director, art director thing, it seems like people are kind of smushing these roles together. They want somebody to be a bit of a Swiss Army knife.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s so tricky because in the tech world, at least what I’ve found, there’s just so much sort of needling down to specialty. They want specialists. They want a UX person that’s done work on a healthcare brand. They’re looking for a specific person that fits in that specific niche. It could be a person that’s done UX as more of a generalist, but if they haven’t done it for this brand or this type of company, then they’re like, “Oh. We’re looking for this one thing.” I’m kind of grossly generalizing this, so please, people don’t write to me and be angry. I find tech really wants specialists in very particular, finite roles and places, because even that can differ for company. Whereas, advertising is kind of more about, like you said, being a Swiss Army knife, someone that can do a lot of things at a particular level across a number of different brands.

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. That’s not bad. I don’t think being a specialist is bad. I don’t think being a general is bad. When somebody’s hiring, they could ask for whatever they want.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s wild man. It’s wild.

Kendell Burton:
It is.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to somebody listening to this episode and they want to follow your example in being an art director. What would you tell them?

Kendell Burton:
Network. I always tell people this for any field, but network heavily. Network. That means with people in your field and out of your field. It is good to know people because the more you get to know people, you get a better idea of not only what they’re capable of, but maybe what you’re capable of, which you didn’t even consider. Right now we’re talking about design and the design field, but there are a million other ways to be a part of the design field and be a part of this industry in one way or another, whether it’s a strategist or an account person. There’s a lot of other ways that can still utilize design thinking. You could have a good design taste, but be a project manager. You don’t necessarily have to be the person that’s in Photoshop. You could have a good design taste and be an account person. That doesn’t mean that you are a designer, but that means that you can at least do a good job backing up the designs that are being presented to clients. There are a lot of ways into this industry.

I think you need to talk to people and network with people to kind of figure that out. Hell, go on LinkedIn, man. Go on LinkedIn. If you ain’t got one, create on LinkedIn. Message absolute strangers. I think of it as back in the AOL days when people were just online like, “A/S/L, where you at,” but on LinkedIn. You type in project manager, if that’s what you want to be. You could literally type in project manager or senior project manager. A bunch of people will come up. You can narrow it down to your state, your country, whatever you prefer. I would just recommend you message somebody.

Hey, man. I’m a new kid who’s interested in project management. I see that you have a title that does this. Can I ask you about it? I’ve done some research on project management, but do you have a few minutes to tell me what you do or type? Why not? Right? You may not get response, but LinkedIn has unlimited people. You can do this all day. You can do it for five people a day. Somebody might respond. I’m saying that because I did that. I did that at times when it came to finding a job. I got an interview at ESPN a few years ago because of me doing that.

I was going online, looking up other things. I was like, hey, I’m interested in sports. Let me see what people were doing in this. I’m looking for recruiters. Recruiters, lot of times they’ve got the 411, they know what’s going on, they know what’s happening. I was just online looking up recruiters. All right, man, design recruiters or recruiter or whatever, narrow it down. Okay, cool. I’m not familiar with this recruiting agency. Let me reach out to one person that works there and tell them who I am and maybe they can at least give me on their list of creatives and then down the line they can push something out from me. I started those conversations. Somewhere along the way, somebody at ESPN got pushed my way. I was like, “Oh. That’s great.” I had an interview at ESPN. I would’ve never gotten one otherwise, probably just existing out here. People do and just get reached out to, but you can also play a little bit of active role. That’s networking.

I would highly recommend your network online, of course. I would also recommend you network work in person, the people you sit next to in class. Doug used to always say this to us, Professor Doug, our professor, as I always call him. He always said this. You’d be like, “The people who sit next to you in class, to your left, to your right front and the back, these might be the same people you end up working with. You never know which one of them end up giving you a job or you end up giving them a job or they end up recommending you for something or you end up recommending them for something.”

I have friends who finished in City Tech like I did, who did not get into design, who still reach out to me for design related jobs doing other things. They just reach out to me. They just like, “Oh, Kendell, I was thinking about you because this gig popped up.” Does that always mean I want it? No, but that opportunity is there from me just being a good person and being their friend for so long that they’re just like, “Oh. I thought of Kendell when I saw this.” There were 40 other people in his classroom, when we were teens learning this stuff, and he was like, “I thought Kendell when this position popped up. That’s why I’m reaching out. What’s going on, Kendell? Network.

Maurice Cherry:
Network. I agree with that a hundred percent. That’s a really great thing I think people should all try to cultivate. Like you said, you never know when you’re going to need it. Don’t just do it when you’re in need. Continually network even when you’ve got the job, when you’re in the job, but just let people know that you’re always out there.

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. That’s how I met Danny. I met Danny through networking.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, was he not teaching at City Tech when you were there?

Kendell Burton:
No. When I was there, Danny had already graduated. He’s a few years older than me, so he had already graduated. I think I might have heard his name in passing because Professor Davis mentioned him a few times. At City Tech, I think they still have it, we had a design club. In the design club we would do this event called Meet the Pros. We’d bring the professionals to talk to the students. We’d also do an alumni version where we’d bring back people who graduated from City Tech who are working in the field. Danny was one of the people who they brought in.

I wasn’t the president at the time, so I was just a part of the club. I wasn’t the one actively talking to them that had those conversations. Well, after the event was over, I was like, “Hey, man. You seem really cool. I appreciate everything you said in the talk, man. You want to stay in touch?” Then we just stayed in touch. Now we’re good friends. We are very good friends.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, aside from work, you are a podcaster. You co-host a show called TerrorNova. Tell me about that.

Kendell Burton:
That’s my baby. TerrorNova, it’s a horror podcast as it says in the title. It’s TerrorNova Horror Podcast. Me and actually one of my fellow alumni from City Tech, Jackie, Jacqueline Martinez, we both were fans of horror. We’re both really big fans of horror.I grew up watching horror. She grew up watching horror. We’re both massive fans of horror. Even when we were City Tech, whenever I needed somebody to talk about horror movies, it was usually her. Now we’ve got Get Out and all that, so a lot more people get into horror. Before that, a lot of people weren’t as broley into horror. Me and her would always chop it up and watch horror movies, whether it was digitally sending each other the link or just talking generally about horror movies.

I was like, “Man, she’s always my go-to for this. This is great.” Then during the pandemic, we had that, I guess you could say two years or a year where everybody going through different stuff, everybody’s figuring stuff out. We had a little bit of that slowdown when it was kind of like you just stay in the house. Then after that two weeks slowdown, we still had a bit of a slowdown. I was like, “Man, I kind want to do something. I want to do something that’s fairly positive, but also enjoyable and doesn’t really feel like a job, but it is something I could have fun with.”

I listened to a lot of podcasts. I was like I guess I could do a podcast, but what would I want to do it about? I didn’t want to do it generally. I wanted to be very specific about what I talk about. Horror just popped in my head. I was like, sure, why not? I love horror. Let me see if there are any podcasts out there to talk about horror. There were a few and I was like, okay, cool. There’s a little bit of market for this. Let me have some fun with this. I want to do it with a co-host, I don’t want to do it by myself. Then Jackie came to mind. I reached out to her. I was like, “Hey. I have an idea for a horror podcast. Do you want to do it? If you don’t do it, I probably won’t do it.” Then she was like, “Okay. I’ll think about it. You know what? Yeah, sure. Why not? Let’s do it.”

Then we kind of jumped in. We have a horror podcast. We talk about movies, we talk about TV shows, we do topics. We started doing kind of more autobiography type episodes where we highlight your figure and talk about their relationship with horror. Yeah. We do everything horror. It’s really, really fun, man. To go back to that whole community thing, there’s a really big horror community everywhere, honestly, but definitely on Instagram as well. We found some really interesting people on there. We’ve brought people on as guests from all different walks of life. I had people from London who came on, people from Texas, people from just all over. They were just like, “Hey, man. If you ever in town, let us know we’ll hang.”

Just kind of an extension of the stuff I was doing when I was in high school with Xanga, but now I’m doing it not to pick out women, but to meet new people who also like horror. It came full circle.

Maurice Cherry:
What has podcasting as a medium taught you? Has it taught you anything that you kind of take back with you in your work as an art director?

Kendell Burton:
It taught me to be clearer with my thoughts. Not even just as art director, as a human being, it is sometimes hard to clarify your thoughts. You have so many of them going through your head, especially at once, even before someone probably even asks you a question. Just someone can say a statement, you have a hundred things running through your head. I’m really big on trying to be clear about what I’m saying when I say something. That is probably one of the biggest things I try to be hard on myself about. When I say something, do I mean what I’m saying and is it clear what I mean what I’m saying? I don’t want to misinterpret or mislead someone. I’m sure that’s in part because of a lot of the fake news stuff going around in the world and fake thoughts and fake opinions that people have about stuff. I try to be very clear on my thoughts.

The podcast has been a huge help for that, because we end up talking about horror movies. We always say the podcast is for people who horror movies and even for people who don’t horror movies, whether it’s you don’t want to watch them or you’re too scared to watch them. The podcast is for those people as well because it’s not that we spend a bunch of time talking about the guts and people being ripped in half. We spend time talking about how the characters feel and how the characters are relatable and how there’s a scene and the themes and the socioeconomical version of this stuff, the race. All of these things that make these movies, these movies that people go, “Oh. That’s [inaudible 00:58:47] culture.” No, all of these things were written and baked into the film for a reason. We’re not making this up.

We spend time talking about all of that. It forces me to get clearer about what I’m saying because I’d never want to say something and people would just go, “That person’s being crazy,” or, “That person’s making stuff up,” or, “That person’s being hateful,” or, “That person’s being ridiculous.” I try to be very clear in my thoughts and it translates to my job a lot because often as the art director, even the designer, you have to just explain your decision making. Even if you wow somebody with a design, the person still probably wants to know the logic behind it because [inaudible 00:59:25] the design is nice, but if it’s not on brief and it’s not hitting the goal, not hitting the mark, it just looks good and that doesn’t help anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is your favorite contemporary horror movie?

Kendell Burton:
Of the past few years? Something recent?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’d even go say the past decade or so.

Kendell Burton:
Actually, no, I’m going to just go with something fairly recent that I really enjoyed. There was this horror movie that came out recently called Pearl that I thought was really the great. I saw it in theaters three times.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I think I saw a trailer to that movie. I think the setting is in the twenties or something. Is this the movie I’m thinking of? I don’t know.

Kendell Burton:
Kind of, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I think the lady that’s in it is Mia Goth, I think.

Kendell Burton:
Yeah, Mia Goth. It’s set around I think a time of World War II.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Okay. Okay. Yeah. She’s like an actress or something, right? You can tell I watch a lot of movies.

Kendell Burton:
[inaudible 01:00:20] you only saw the trailer then I can understand why you wouldn’t know what it is. She’s a farm girl in a lot of ways. Her family grew up on a farm. They’re German, so they in some ways fled from Germany during a war and all of that stuff. She just wants to get off this farm. She has aspirations of being a star, whether it’s a singer or actor, she has these aspirations. She grew up on a farm. The way her life is going there’s probably no chance that she’ll see those aspirations come to life.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Kendell Burton:
The thing that makes it interesting is the style of it. I tell people it’s The Wizard of Oz of it was a slasher because it’s not styled like a dark and grim horror movie. It’s styled very beautifully with bright colors and mostly during the day, similarly to Midsommar. It’s styled really interesting, which kind of in some ways is a reflection of how the main character sees the world. I could talk about it all day. It’s very interesting stylistically how they did the movie versus what the messages of the movie are and the themes that are super relatable about identity and self and all that stuff. It’s like it’s a really, really well done movie.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s clear that horror is certainly a big thing for you. It’s something that you really love. What are some other influences for your creative work? Is it any people in particular? Any things in particular?

Kendell Burton:
I wouldn’t say a specific person or anything like that. Just like when I was a kid, I’m a fan of stuff. I love science fiction. I love action movies. I love every genre of everything. I try to take pieces of that with everything I do. Just how I tell stories, how stories are told, how I design. I try to take all of these things into account when I’m working. I wouldn’t say I’m inspired by any specific visual style or specific person. Honestly, life just inspires me. Life inspires me. The people I get to have conversations with, the people I meet, the characters I see in movies and TV shows, all of those things inspire me. I’m not inspired by any specific graphic designer. I’m sure there are better designers than me in the world, but I’m not heavily inspired by super great graphic designers. I’m inspired by super great storytellers and super great stories that I’ve seen unfold that feel very human, they feel very grounded.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of your career, do you feel creatively satisfied?

Kendell Burton:
Surprisingly, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Why surprisingly?

Kendell Burton:
I say surprisingly because, man, you would expect the corporate world to kind of beat you down. There’s always that tragic story of the artists of they got in it because they love it and then somewhere along the way money got involved and they hate it. I could see that very easily happening in this field as well to people. Trying to fill a lot of bellies, [inaudible 01:03:03] task of a designer or honestly even any world you have in this field. You’re trying to fill a lot of stomachs, man. Whether it’s account people, the clients, strategy, yourself, creative. There’s a lot of people that have go to get fed before an idea goes out into the world and actually exist.

There’s a lot of battles that people have to fight for their work to be seen by the general public. You would think with all of those challenges in front of you that some people end up hating this, but I actually surprisingly still enjoy it. I do enjoy these conversations. I enjoy the people that I work with. I enjoy the people that I’ve worked with in the past, whether we had disagreements or not, because I’ve learned something from them, whether it was about myself or about them. Honestly, if it was just about myself, how do I handle a situation? How do I handle moments where things feel like it’s too tough and they feel impossible? How do I handle moments where I spent a lot of time on a design and then someone goes, “Let’s just change the whole thing.” How do I handle that? How do I bounce back from that?

It’s been satisfying, man, how I’m bouncing back for these things and how I learn from them and how I get better from project to project. It’s been very satisfying.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when I had you back on the show again, this was 10 years ago, I asked you where do you see yourself in the next five years? You had mentioned that you wanted to create a product that you can build a company around. Granted, since then you’ve worked for agencies and such, but at this stage of where you’re at now with your career, where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Kendell Burton:
Oh, man. That’s a good question. I forgot I told you about that. That was back when I was working on this bike app idea that I had. I still have that somewhere. I think in the next five years, man, I feel like I still see myself doing this. Maybe my title will probably go up, but I still see myself doing design or possibly even still pharma, but I’ll see. I still see myself just enjoying this field, man. I’m not tied to any specific industry in terms of which one I [inaudible 01:05:01] or not. I just really enjoy what I do. It’s a good time. You get to meet interesting people and they get to tell you interesting stories. You get to live a pretty interesting life when you make it in there.

I’m not flying to Dubai every week or something for photo shoots or anything like that. I’ve done very little of that in my career. The type of people you meet and the type of stories you get to hear people tell and that you get to tell yourself, from the projects you work on, it’s really interesting and priceless, man. I really enjoy it. I kind of just see myself still going down this road of in some ways where the winds takes me, but in some other ways, I’m just enjoying this space.

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

Kendell Burton:
You could add me on LinkedIn. You can look me up, my name, Kendell Burton. It should be in a show notes and everything. You could add me on LinkedIn, feel free too. You could follow me on Twitter if you like. Honestly, on Twitter, I don’t really talk about the field much. I just kind of enjoy the craziness of Twitter. Enjoy the memes and the wild stuff people say on Twitter. That’s pretty much what I’m doing on there. I guess if you want to laugh along with me about the crazy stuff that happens on Twitter, then feel free to follow me there. My name is theKendellB.

That’s my name on most things. You can find me on Instagram, same way, where you can follow my podcast, which is exclusively on Instagram. I just don’t want it bounced between a million platforms. The podcast TerrorNova is only on Instagram, but you can listen everywhere. It’s on Spotify and all that stuff. Yeah. So LinkedIn or Twitter, or Instagram. Those three places, best places to find me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Kendell Burton, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, I think, honestly for just showcasing how much your enthusiasm and passion for what you do. To me, it just sort of permeates through everything you talk about, your life story, your story of working through the industry and things like that. I can tell that you really have this innate, deep, burning passion for it. That’s something that I think we all need to kind of work to try to cultivate, find what it is that sort of lights your pilot light.

I get the sense from you that really this is something that you’re super passionate about. I’m excited to see what you end up doing next, man. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kendell Burton:
Yeah. I appreciate it, man. I appreciate the invitation to come here and talk to you again, man. It’s a pleasure. It’s great. For everyone listening, man, just find what you like, man. Find what you like and just strap yourself to it, the best way you can, because you’ve got to enjoy life.

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Andrew Bass Jr.

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Step.

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, yeah.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, here in Atlanta.

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

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

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Somewhere over there.

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

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

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, he was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Jacinda Walker, yeah.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Barry.

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

Maurice Cherry:
So that went nowhere.

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Bennie F. Johnson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Oh okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Exactly.

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

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah, yeah.

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
Uh oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Bass Jr.:
No problem. Thank you.

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