Magnus Atom

With a name like Magnus Atom, I had a feeling I was going to be talking with someone extraordinary. This award-winning motion graphics designer and commercial artist has an impressive roster of clients, including Headspace, Viceland, Playboy, MTV, and Lil Uzi Vert. On top of that, he recently received a coveted Young Guns award! Very impressive!

I caught up with Magnus a few months after his win, and he talked about working as an animation director with Strange Beast and settling down in upstate New York after a recent stint in Miami. He also spoke about going to the “Fame” high school in NYC, how his father inspired him to be an artist, and what he’s got his sights set on for this year. With a name like Magnus Atom, I’ve got a feeling we’ll definitely hear more from him in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Magnus Atom:
Hey, so yeah, my name is Magnus Atom. I’m an animation director and I work globally with brands and clients to bring their brands to life with motion graphics and design, illustration, and tying that all in with animation. So…

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

Magnus Atom:
It’s been interesting. I mean, it’s been as good as it could be, I guess, this year. I mean, it’s been another one. But yeah, I started off… My wife and I, we actually went down to Miami for New Year’s and I’d never been there. So that was an interesting start. I was 100% sure I was going to get COVID and then I didn’t. So I don’t know how I’ve… It seems like everyone has been getting it so far, but somehow my wife and I, we’ve dodged it. So it’s been good. I mean, I’ve been busy working. I just moved to a new place. So I’m actually living in upstate New York in this town called Saratoga Springs. And so it’s definitely a departure from what I’m used to because I grew up in New York City. So this is more country, a little bit suburby, kind of small town living.

Magnus Atom:
And so I’m sort of… We just moved into an actual house [inaudible 00:03:43] renting, but it’s definitely a departure from the New York City one bedroom, 600 square-foot apartment. So now it’s like, “Oh, we have a place with space and yard space.” So it’s been interesting adjusting to it. So yeah, it’s been really an interesting start. So living in a new place, I definitely… I don’t really know anybody, either. So it’s also acclimating to the fact that I’m far away from a lot of friends and family. So trying to start fresh, I guess, is… Yeah, 2022 has been year of starting fresh.

Maurice Cherry:
So being in upstate New York, is it still pretty easy to get back down into the city if you need to?

Magnus Atom:
We picked a place that was sort of close to the city. So actually, I’ve never lived in Saratoga Springs or even really been to it. I visited it like once before we moved here. But we visited it and it was like, “Oh, this is…” It has enough stuff going that we didn’t think it would be super boring. And also it was close enough to the city that I can still visit my parents and my parents can come visit us. But it’s about two hours on a train or like two and a half hours driving.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s not too bad.

Magnus Atom:
No, it’s not bad. But in the wintertime it’s… sometimes you’re just… And especially if it’s snowing or inclement weather, it can be a little… a trek, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the work that you’re doing now. You’re the animation director at Strange Beast. Tell me a little bit about the studio and what a typical day is like for you.

Magnus Atom:
Sure. So I’m actually an animation director at Strange Beast. So the way Strange Beast works, it’s kind of unique. I don’t see a lot of this sort of setup in the States, but it’s a little bit more popular in Europe. So the way their setup works is, they have a bunch of animation directors that they’ve sort of signed and… kind of a year-by-year basis. And so if you visit their website, each animation director has a very specific sort of style and a distinct voice, I guess, that they… It’s very specific to them. And it’s a little different than what you might find in the States where some of the big animation houses like Buck or Giant Ant or some of these other names, the animation directors don’t get as much recognition.

Magnus Atom:
It’s more of like the studio takes the credit and people go to the studio to work with that studio name. Whereas with Strange Beast and some other studios like ours in Europe, people come to Strange Beast to work with a specific director. So whether that’s Caitlin McCarthy or Anna Ginsburg, they want to work with those specific animators and they have to go through Strange Beast to work with them. And so it’s a pretty cool setup because it gives you the flexibility where… I’m not full time, by any means. And I have a lot of flexibility whether I want to take on a project that they give me.

Magnus Atom:
So just to kind of give a mock scenario of how it would work, say a client wants to make a… I don’t know, a 30-second spot for TV. And they want an animation director from Strange Beast and they don’t really know which animation director they want to go with. So maybe they’ll pick out a few different animation directors. So maybe me and a couple other people on the Strange Beast roster. And then maybe they also want to look for some animation directors from other studios as well.

Magnus Atom:
They’ll probably… They’ll pick a bunch of people. And then we’ll all sort of pitch to… We’ll pitch for the project. And that usually involves creating style frames and written treatments and sort of a pitch deck and presenting it to the team. And all this is sort of… I don’t get paid for any of that stuff. So there is sort of a pros and cons of this kind of method where it’s… In this situation, I might have to do a bit of work to create some style frames and deck building. And if I don’t win the bid, then it’s like I didn’t get paid for it. But at the same time, it can be really an interesting process.

Magnus Atom:
And so another scenario would be, they would come to Strange Beast and they’re like, “Okay, I really want to work with Magnus Atom specifically.” And maybe I’m busy because I take on other freelance work outside of Strange Beast as well. So I can tell them, “Hey, sorry, I can’t work with you right now on this project.” And so they might go to another animation director or they’ll… Maybe the stars will align, which happens less often than I would hope… But sometimes the stars will align and I’ll be like, “Okay, I’m free and I’m ready.” And they’ll be like, “Awesome. We want to work with you.” There’s no pitching. “We just want to work with you.”

Magnus Atom:
And so from there, we’ll sort of… We have some producers that are full-time at Strange Beast and actually, lately, Strange Beast had a bit of a transition in terms of the heads. So actually, the woman who was running it, Kitty Turley, who’s amazing, she actually stepped aside for a little bit because she’s gone on maternity leave and there’s another producer who has come to sort of take her place. And so she sort of oversees everything at Strange Beast as like an executive producer. And then underneath her is a bunch of other producers who might be working on different projects. So they’ll be assigned to one project at a time. So yeah. So from that, we’ll sort of create a budget. They’ll tell us what the budget is and we’ll tell them, “Okay, this is what’s feasible. This is what can work.”

Magnus Atom:
And we’ll talk about timelines, the yada yada, all that… the more production-level stuff. I’m personally… I don’t really have to deal that much with it, which is really nice because the producers, they get to just handle that. They get to interface with the client in terms of all the numbers and stuff. And for me, I might start off a project by trying to create style frames. So I’m like, “Okay, what is the look of this project going to be?” So for example, I just did a piece… But one of the pieces I just did for them was for Headspace. And so they wanted to create a animation series where each animation episode was directed by a different animation director. So each animation had its own kind of unique style.

Magnus Atom:
And so obviously, there’s a constraint that you need to work within. So Headspace has brand colors. Headspace has sort of guidelines that they kind of need… You can’t do super-grotesque, raunchy, rated X stuff. This could be for children. This is going to be very calm, meditative animation. So from there, you sort of think about like, “Okay, what can we do within the parameters?” Maybe we’ll start designing some frames and start developing the look and feel. And alongside that, we might be developing the storyboards. How is that going to play out? Before we even touch anything animation, we’re just going all into the planning of getting all the style and concept down. And then once that’s approved, then we’ll move on to another layer where we’ll start working on the actual animation; the production.

Magnus Atom:
And from there… Strange Beast doesn’t have any permanent employees, really, except for the producers. But we work with a roster of freelancers, which they’re… We have freelancers that we love to work with because they’ve proven themselves. We get along. And so we’ll call up some animators and maybe we’ll need illustrators. And it’s kind of a cool process because it makes it so that each project, we’re not constrained by the resources that’s… we’re limited… Maybe a house that has in-house animators… We have to work with those animators or we have to work with those designers.

Magnus Atom:
I would have a project where maybe I need animation that’s a little bit more Disneyesque. I have animators who are very good at that sort of style and I can call on those. Or maybe I want someone who’s a little bit more free-flowing style and I have people that who would come to mind and I would want to reach out to to work on that kind of project. So it’s a very sort of organic process, each time we go into a project. But yeah, I guess that’s sort of the overall, I guess, methodology of Strange Beast.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. It sounds almost kind of like a collective setup where people come together for the work or people may have to sort of pitch themselves for the work. Just because something comes into the studio doesn’t necessarily mean the entire studio works on it.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah, definitely. And like I said, there’s many animation directors, so… I haven’t even met half of them. I’ve worked with a bunch of them and everyone’s been super awesome. And even when I was working at their studio in London, there wouldn’t always be overlap. So I would have a project and then it might… another animation director would have a project and we’d… might overlap for a couple days and we’d get to talking. But for the most part, it’s sort of a project-by-project basis and Strange Beast is good at giving you the resources when you need it.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. Okay. So I guess when new work does come in and, say, you put in for the project, you’ve made a little deck or you’ve made some slides or something for it and you do get the project, you win the project. What does that process look like once you’ve actually started on it?

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. So the process once we’ve actually won the bid, it’s kind of what I was saying where you need to create the look, the style frames and the storyboards, and really just fleshing out the entire project. So Headspace, that’s an example. For that, we needed to… Well, actually, so that was an interesting, unique project because it was actually me and one other animation director, just because it was like, we had to do 20 minutes of animation in like two months’ time period. And so that’s a lot of animation. And so they thought it would be better if we have two animation directors who can sort of tag team it and approach it. So yeah. So for a project like that, that was fun because I got to kind of bounce ideas back and forth.

Magnus Atom:
So I worked with this animation director, Yuval Haker, and it was an interesting project because we had to both come at it with kind of our own style. But we also had to develop a style that was very unique to the project. So I would sort of start by creating a style frame and then I would send it to him. He would take that and he would sort of make his own style frame sort of inspired by that and then he would send it to me. And it was a very back-and-forth process. We did this dozens and dozens of times before we finally came down with a style that we’re like, “Okay, this is going to work.” And then once we come up with the style, so in that example, we were just hand-drawing everything in Photoshop using just brush tools.

Magnus Atom:
So once we were sort of comfortable with the style, we sort of then send it off to the client and the client will then have a bunch of notes and be like, “Okay, well, we don’t like the way this character looks. Can you slim them down?” Or, “Can you give them…? Take off these brands,” or whatever. Stuff like that clients are supposed to say. Then we’ll have that sort of back-and-forth process with the client. Then that’ll happen several times. From there, we start to organically build a style that both we’re comfortable with and that I’m comfortable making and animating and that the client is comfortable with. And so once we sort of create those initial style frames, and then we’ll start creating the storyboards where we’ll start saying, “Okay, this is what’s going to happen here. When the voice actor says this, we’re going to have the sun rise over the sunset and the swans are going to fly out of the reeds.”

Magnus Atom:
You have to sort of build out that very minute detail of what you think is going to happen. Because as an animation director, a lot of the times, I’m not actually touching everything. So you’re sort of building out a roadmap. Yeah. You’re building out a roadmap for… Then you give it to other animators who don’t animate in that style. And they’re coming in with very little knowledge and they’re basically… You’re giving it to them and being like, “Okay, build this.” And so there has to be a lot of… very little lost in translation. So they need to be able to see the storyboards and be like, “Okay, this scene is going to have a sun and it’s going to be rising. And the rays are going to be turning like this and the reeds are going to be blowing.”

Magnus Atom:
And then they’ll have that style frame that I made of that exact scene. And so they’ll know, “Okay, this is what I need to animate and this is what the final style should look like.” We go through this process where we have the storyboards laid out for the entire… whether it’s 20-minute project or 30-second project. And we then create a style frame of what it should look like for each key moment, whether it’s a different landscape or a different character. And so that whole process is… It can be very time-consuming because obviously, there’s a lot of back-and-forth. You’re basically just creating the style and the playbook for the entire animation. So from there, once you’ve finally gotten that and you’ve got it approved, the client loves it, you like it, and then you can just go straight into the animation.

Magnus Atom:
And then that’s when you start reaching out to your animators; you’ll be like, “Come on board.” And designers, if you need background designers or illustrators. And then you just go on full-on production where you’re like, “Okay, these rough animators are…” And when I say “rough animators,” there’s several layers to the animation process if you’re doing this sort of illustrative style. So there would be the very rough, hand-drawn, loose animation where it’s not fully fleshed out, it’s not final line work, but it shows the movement. This is how the character is going to move. And this is the weight and this is how the waters are going to ripple. But just in terms of… Think of it like a rough sketch of a painting. Before you do the final painting, you probably want to do a bit of a rough sketch underneath. That’s what the rough animation is.

Magnus Atom:
So that’s a process. And then after you’ve gotten that down, then you’ll have another layer of animation and that’s what we’ll call cleanup animation. And then a lot of times, those two animators, the rough animator and the cleanup animator, won’t even be the same animator. So the rough animator has to create it in a certain… They have to create the rough animation in a certain way that any cleanup artist can come to it and be like, “Okay, all I have to do is trace over this rough animation in the final line work. Because now I’m trying to make it look final.” It’s basically… We’re just trying to get it from the rough animation to the final. And that’s actually even a longer process, surprisingly.

Magnus Atom:
But it’s kind of like building, I guess, a car. You don’t start by just building the car. You have to start by thinking it out. You have to think about the production, the budget… And then you have to think about the schematics and the layouts and the materials. And then it’s this iterative process that slowly over time, a bunch of different people with a bunch of different skills all are coming together to sort of build this final animation that has that sort of initial style frame and idea that you sort of created. Or, and when I say “you,” me as an animation director sort of created from the get-go. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That is quite a process. I think it probably helps to have a client that really is tuned into working with creatives to be able to go through all of that with so many different steps and working with so many different people.

Magnus Atom:
For sure. I mean, it’s definitely not for the impatient. And yeah. Animation, it takes work. People think… There’s a running joke in the animation industry; it’s like, “Just press the animate button and bring your character to life.” And it’s like, no, it’s a process, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to get more into really how you learned about animation. So let’s take it back into the past a little bit. I want to learn more about sort of your origin story now. You’re from NYC originally. Is that right?

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. So I actually… Well, I was born in Hawaii, but I grew up in New York City.

Maurice Cherry:
What was it like growing up there for you?

Magnus Atom:
Well, so I grew up in Brooklyn. And so I lived in… When my family first moved here from Hawaii, they didn’t buy a place. We were renting. So when we first moved here, we were actually living in Park Slope. And if you know New York City, you know Park Slope is a super-expensive, super-nice, ritzy neighborhood. To hear tell, it was not like that when we moved here. I actually hear it was quite dangerous when we first moved here. So I spent my early years, like in elementary school, in that area. But as rent started increasing, my family ended up having to move from Park Slope and we ended up moving to an area called Ditmas Park around Flatbush. And I didn’t spend a lot of time actually in Flatbush, per se. I went to middle school there and I had a lot of friends there, but when I started going to high school, my high school was actually in the city.

Magnus Atom:
So I actually spent a lot of my youth just in the city, whether it’s… was Midtown where my high school was, or… I spent a lot of time in Chinatown. And it’s funny because New York City, it’s kind of a place where you kind of need money to do a lot of things. And also when you’re a kid, there’s a lot of things that New York City offers to you that you just can’t have access to because you’re under 18 or you’re under 21. So a lot of my youth was spent hanging out in parks in Chinatown, playing sports; like playing handball and… That’s where a lot of my friends hung out.

Magnus Atom:
So in terms of living in New York City, to compare it to… I guess I can’t really compare it to anything else because I only had one childhood. But I would say that it was nice having such a diversity of people. It was something you didn’t think about. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I’m the only person of color in this area.” I was surrounded by all different ethnicities, all different cultures. And so, I mean, it was funny, even at my lunch table in high school and middle school, it was like the UN. It was like… I literally… every ethnicity. It definitely gave me a lot of experiences in terms of the type of people I met. I had… I guess parents tried to take me to cultural events when they could afford it. But for the most part, it was good.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, New York City sort of has that reputation of being a really big melting pot. So it sounds like that definitely was what your experience was like growing up. And you mentioned high school. I don’t want to gloss over… You went to a pretty well-known high school for those who might be of a certain age, like myself; the Fame school, LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. What was it like going there, knowing that it had such a reputation?

Magnus Atom:
I never took school seriously until I finally got to college. But high school… I guess, to backtrack just a little bit… My dad always wanted to train me to be an artist. So I never really pushed myself in terms of art, but my dad was always the one who was on my ass about like, “You need to do this painting, you need to…” I don’t remember if it was every night, but it was definitely several times a week it was like, “Okay, get onto your corner and do your painting.” It’s like I didn’t have a choice. It was kind of, I guess, like a typical parent would tell you, “Go and hit the books.” My dad was like, “Go and paint.”

Magnus Atom:
When I was applying to high school, I think I already had an edge over the other people who applied because a lot of the other applicants, a lot of their body of work was maybe school assignments. And you can tell when something’s a school assignment or something’s done outside of school. And so I think that really helped propel me into it because I already had this sort of formal training from my dad growing up. So when I finally got into high school… You had to apply to get into it. You had to take an actual test; an art test. You had to show a portfolio to teacher and they would ask you about it. So it’s definitely… It was a lengthy process to get in. But when I actually got in, I didn’t take it all too seriously.

Magnus Atom:
So funny, my grades were actually terrible. In the first year, freshman year, I think I failed three classes and I had to do summer school for the first time. That wouldn’t be the last time. And I kind of goofed off a lot. But in terms of the people I met, it wasn’t your typical high school experience. And I think that was sort of the thing I took away from it the most was, the people I was surrounded by were musicians and other artists.

Magnus Atom:
And although maybe not every single person was passionate about art and wants to be an artist… I’ve never seen Fame, so… But [inaudible 00:26:48] I think I’ve seen clips and people are dancing on tables and singing in the hallways. There was singing in the hallways, but it wasn’t… People weren’t dancing on the tables and… But people genuinely… Talking to other people I’ve met outside of LaGuardia, in their high school experience, I’ve heard it’s very much cliques. Like you got the jocks and you got the cheerleaders and… At least this is what I’m kind of imagining other high schools to be like. Like the kids who wore Abercrombie and Fitch. And then you had the skater boys.

Maurice Cherry:
It was high school.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. It was high school. But for me, there was a little bit more emphasis on being unique, I guess. It wasn’t forced. No one was telling you, “Oh, you got to be unique.” It was more like people were proud to wear clothes that they just made themselves. Whether it was good-looking clothes or not, it wasn’t… It didn’t really matter. Cool, if you had started your own little fashion T-shirt brand in school and you wore your own jeans that you had messed up with paint. So that was sort of the vibe. I guess everyone had this unique sort of voice.

Magnus Atom:
And there was definitely a lot of talent. Looking back, the amount of talent at that school… You don’t realize it when you’re in the moment. As a kid, you don’t know what to compare it to. But looking back, I went to a performance… They do these concerts that the instrumental majors and the vocal majors and the drama majors will put on. And these are not like normal high school productions. I’ve been to many Broadway shows. These are on par with Broadway productions. These, they’re good. And it goes to show, because a lot of them end up working in that field afterwards. So yeah. I mean, that was my experience. I met a lot of really cool artists. Most of my friends, if not all of them, were just artists.

Magnus Atom:
So it was cool to bounce ideas off of. And I did a little bit of graffiti when I was of that age. And my first clothing company was with some of my best friends. We just decided to create a small clothing company. And so we’d create stickers and merchandise and we would sell it to our friends and other people. And we even dabbled in making music. It was a really creative, I guess, environment to grow up in.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So we were talking before recording about like, “Oh, yeah,” I said, “the Fame high school.” You’re like, “Oh, yeah, it was a movie.” And I’m like, “Well, it was a TV show. It was a movie first, then a TV show. Then there was Fame LA and then another movie.”

Magnus Atom:
Wow. I didn’t know it was such a series. I literally just thought it was a movie and I feel kind of ashamed because so many people have been like, “Oh, you went to the Fame school?” And I’ve never even seen Fame.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, you should check it out. It’s a pretty good show. And a movie. I mean, I remember the first movie, but not the second one. The second one was in 2009 or something, I think.

Magnus Atom:
Oh. Oh, well, that’s funny, because I graduated in… Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I did remember that coming out. Sure. But yeah, I graduated 2008.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. I’m curious to see it. I don’t know if it’ll actually be like the real life experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, after graduating, you went to Parsons, which is a very well-known school in New York City for fashion and for design and everything. And we’ve had a few Parsons alum on the show as well. How was your time over there?

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. So definitely different than high school, because like I said, in high school, I completely slacked off. I barely graduated by the skin of my teeth. Yeah. Terrible grades. And I actually just got into Parsons by the skin of my teeth. But when I got into Parsons, I sort of… Well, my dad told me, he was like, “This is your last chance. If you fail, if you flunk, there’s no point in you doing this. You don’t need to be in school anymore.” And so I realized, I was like, “Oh, okay. This is like, it’s serious time.” And so I took it very seriously.

Magnus Atom:
So actually, funny enough, I guess it’s kind of serendipity, but when I was applying to Parsons, I hadn’t heard back from them for… Yeah. I sent in my application and I hadn’t heard back. And it was like, time was passing, months were passing. And I was like, “Ah, I wonder whatever happened.” And the girl I was dating at the time was like, “You really need to check on them and see what’s going on.” And I was like, “Okay.”

Magnus Atom:
So I went down to the office. I was like, “Hey, what’s going on?” And they were like, “Oh, so you actually got accepted, but they didn’t send out some sort of letter,” or maybe I didn’t get it. And so by the time I went down there, all the applications for the basic… I forget what the term is for most art majors that go into Parsons, but… That was all filled up. And they were like, “We feel really bad and you did get in and we have this experimentative… a new program that we’re creating called Design and Technology that we still have some spots open for. And if you want to go in through that, it’s a different curriculum.”

Magnus Atom:
And so rather than going in through the traditional route where you have to go through graphic design and you have to learn all these very fundamental principles and… It was more of a DIY sort of route, where you get to kind of… It’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure. And the whole idea is, it kind of merged a whole bunch of different, I guess, topics. So you had coding, coding within art, and then you had web design and then you had more experimentative… It was anything that you could think of where it’s design, but also plus technology. So you even had some sound designers in that mix. And so I went into that not knowing what I wanted to do at all.

Magnus Atom:
I thought maybe I was going to do graphic design. I knew I had to pick something at some point and time was ticking. And so when I went in, I was like, “Okay, I’ll try graphic design.” And that was not for me. I was like, “This is not my thing.” And then I did like… I really loved illustration and that was something I always did passionately on the side. But it wasn’t a choice, in terms of what I can do. They didn’t offer… If I wanted to be illustration, I would’ve had to completely do a whole new curriculum. And I would’ve had to start over or something. So I was like, “That’s not an option.” And then there was web design. I was like, “Okay, maybe I want to be a web designer.”

Magnus Atom:
And I think I got into it because I had some illustration stuff and I wanted to put it on a website. And this was before Squarespace and all those kind of templated websites where you could just upload your images. Kind of still had to know some coding. There was a WordPress, but I never really liked the whole WordPress thing. So I thought maybe I would do some web design and… I even took an internship in web design and realized… I got pretty far. I learned… I knew HTML, CSS, a little bit of JavaScript. I realized it wasn’t for me, either. Staring at lines of code for like 12 hours a day was just like, “Okay, this is not my thing. I’m going to burn out doing this.” And then the second year of Parsons, I had a good friend who… He had a little bit of animation experience that he just did from high school.

Magnus Atom:
I think he was kind of a go-getter; he just tried interesting stuff, tried new stuff. And so he already came in knowing a bit of animation. And so he was a close friend of mine. And I saw what he was doing and I was like, “Oh, that’s… kind of looks fun. That looks interesting.” And so he convinced me to take the Motion Graphics 1 class. And so I was like, “Okay.” It was just learning After Effects; basic After Effects. How to make shapes move and text move on screen; simple learning how to use the program. I took the class and I immediately was like, “This is pretty cool.” Because I liked illustration already, but it was the first time where I can take my illustration and have it come to life.

Magnus Atom:
And I took it very seriously too. A lot of people I knew… So I was… I lived in New York City, so… And I couldn’t afford to live in the dorms, so I lived at home. And so a lot of people I knew, they were living at the dorm life and they were partying a lot and… I was very jealous of like, “Oh, man, you get to live with three roommates and 200 square feet? Oh, man, I’m so jealous.” I really was. But I didn’t have any of that. And so I spent a lot of my time just working on my school projects.

Magnus Atom:
And so I think putting a lot of that work in early, I already saw… The amount of work I put into it, people were noticing it. I think the first time I was doing artwork or something that was kind of unique to myself. And people were like, “Oh, this is really good.” Before, people would be like, “Oh, yeah, I like this illustration,” or “I like that painting.” I was doing those kind of because I had to, almost. This was the first time I was like, “I want to do this.” And then people were telling me that they think it’s really good. And then also I was in these animation classes and it was already better than a lot of the other animators who were in that class.

Magnus Atom:
So there I think it created sort of a feedback loop of: People are saying you’re good at this. And I’m enjoying it so I feel kind of proud. So I feel like I have to do it even more. It ended up just becoming a thing where I’m… I ended up taking a whole bunch of animation classes and I wanted to learn everything about animation. I started off just learning After Effects, but then I was like, “Oh, I want to learn how to do stop motion. I want to learn how to do CGI; 3D animation.” And then within 3D animation, I was like, “Okay, I want to learn how to do dynamics. I want to learn how to do lighting and modeling and character rigging.” And I was like, “Oh…” I discovered cel animation for the first time, where you can actually just draw on a screen, rather than having to draw it on paper and then scan it in, and move it around in After Effects like moving images; it was like, “Oh, you can bring things to life Disney-style.”

Magnus Atom:
I was just fascinated by every different aspect of animation. And not only that, how can you combine all of these different things? So how can I mix CG and cel animation? Or how can I mix stop motion and cel? Or… And I even went so far as to take sound design classes because I was like, “I want to make the sound and music to my own animation.” So I was sort of just gathering all these skills, just because it was really fun to do. And I was like, this is… Seems appropriate. I wasn’t thinking… I was thinking I want to make a career of this, but it was more of like, “I’m doing this because I’m just super-fascinated by all of these different aspects.”

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. I think learning all those different things really helped me. And so I think by sophomore year, I definitely knew what I wanted to do. And by junior year, I actually… I felt like I was just ready to hit the workforce. I actually had a lot of teachers who were really helpful in terms of my early getting off the ground. So one of the classes I had, it was an intermediate animation class, learning concepts. And so one of the projects was for creating a mock commercial for a product or for a brand. And at the time, I was super into the whole vinyl toy scene; Kidrobot and even like BAPE and all that stuff was super popular.

Magnus Atom:
And so I really loved Kidrobot so I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to make an animation about one of their toys,” which was that iconic money… If you don’t know it, it’s… kind of looks like a white monkey that you can draw on; customize. So I made this animation, it was like a 15- or 30-second animation. It actually ended up… The teacher brought in some professional, I guess, people she knew from her professional circle to actually critique us in the finals. And so a lot of them… Some of the critiquers came in and they saw it and they were like, “Oh, this is really… You made this by yourself? This is definitely top-level… At least almost studio-level stuff.”

Magnus Atom:
And went so far where I sent it to Kidrobot and I was like, “Oh, I don’t know. I might not hear anything.” I think it was a couple days later, one of the directors of operations, they reached out to me. They were like, “Hey, this is awesome. Can you do something like this just for us for this other product that was coming out?” And so that was sort of my first step into a client project that I had gotten just by myself; no one else. So Parsons, I think, set me up in a way where it’s like, I met a lot of really interesting people, a lot of other interesting animators who also wanted to do what I did. Yeah, it was kind of like LaGuardia where it was a very creative atmosphere that was fostering my creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
And of course, now, you’re well-known animation director with Strange Beast. So clearly, even just getting that spark from doing the work at Parsons and learning about it has propelled you to where you are right now. The way that actually I had heard about you was because you won an award back in 2019 from The One Club. You won the Young Guns award, which is usually given to young designers. I think they do it every year. They have a Young Guns 17, Young Guns 18, et cetera. Where were you when you got news about your win?

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. Well, just really quickly, I actually won it this last year. But it was called Young Guns 19. I was actually sitting in the same spot I am sitting in right now. I was just at home when I read the email that I won. Actually, when I read that I was the finalist, I didn’t even know that I was a finalist. My executive producer at Strange Beast just texted me and she was just like, “Hey, congratulations on being a Young Guns finalist.” And I had… I didn’t even know I was a finalist and I was like, “What? Awesome.” Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And have things kind of changed for you since you won the award?

Magnus Atom:
Not really. I mean, yes and no. I’ve had a lot of people reaching out to me to try to pin me down for a full-time job. Actually, funny enough, this one company I’ve always wanted to work for… When I was starting off in my career, I always wanted to work for this animation studio. And I reached out to them early on and they never even got back to me. And it was always a dream to work for them. And then after I won, they reached out to me and they were like, “Hey, do you want a full-time job?” And actually, I turned them down because I’m enjoying freelancing and doing the whole thing with Strange Beast so much. So it’s funny how life works like that, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I’m curious about that because we’ve had other award-winning designers on the show and I’m always curious to know if things really change once you get the award. Does it open you up to bigger and better jobs? Does that mean you get more press? Do you get representation? I’m just always curious about that because I feel like it’s still kind of 50/50. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the award can be kind of the thing that… Not hold you back, but it can end up being a bit of a curse, in a way.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. That’s interesting that you say that. After I won the award, I felt like all of a sudden, now there’s like a spotlight on me. I feel like I can’t really mess up, you know what I mean? Because it’s… A bunch of people now know my name in the industry. I’m not just, I guess, a nobody at this point. But at the same time, it was very liberating because it’s something I’ve always wanted, was the Young Guns. Ever since I was in college, I wanted to win this Young Guns award. And it was definitely like it was a dream come true for my twenties. So when I won, it was sort of liberating because all of a sudden, I didn’t have to think of, like, “Okay, I need to do this animation because I have to… It has to fit into my body of work so that I can win this award; the Young Guns award.” Now I’m kind of like, “Oh, I can do whatever I want.” If I want to do something different, I don’t feel like I’m constrained to doing just animation anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. The award kind of… It’s the validation. And so from there, you can springboard to other things because the work that you’ve won that award for, you don’t really have to prove yourself. You’ve gotten an award for it. People have judged your work and said that it’s good to this caliber; to this standard. So it kind of does give you freedom to do other things in that way.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. Yeah. That’s it, definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And now, speaking of other things that you’re doing, aside from Strange Beast, you have a fashion and art brand that you created called Yugen Goon. Tell me about that.

Magnus Atom:
Yes. That was a fun side project I actually created with my wife. Actually, I started concepting it many years back because… I work as a commercial artist. So this work that I put on my site and the stuff that I do professionally is definitely of a certain, I guess, content. It’s commercially viable. I always had this outlet of stuff I like to do outside of that. I like to paint. I like to do… I love doing pastel still to this day. I grew up my dad making me do pastels and I still love to do it. And I have all these fascinations with all this other stuff, whether it’s spiritualistic or tribal or different content from religious or spiritual stuff from around the world that… It probably is not going to make it into my commercial for Nike.

Magnus Atom:
So it’s like, I kind of wanted to create this separate thing where I was like, “Okay, this is going to be just me.” That… I don’t really have to answer to anybody. Actually, funny enough, I created it because I wanted to sort of just create a side hustle. Because I was like, “I want to make a bit of money on the side, just as a revenue source.” And it ended up being… I couldn’t just do something for the money. It ended up being like, “Okay, if I’m going to make something, I got to make it cool.” So I ended up spending a long time on it, way longer than I should’ve; years creating just the idea for… I guess I’m such a perfectionist, but… Actually, my wife helped propel me to really finalize it because if it wasn’t for her, I would just have just been aimlessly just creating designs and not even putting it out.

Magnus Atom:
And she was like, “Okay, just… You got to put it out.” It was a nice departure from my usual animation stuff, because I got to take the artwork that I was creating on the side and then kind of play around with some graphic design and illustration that I get to experiment and kind of have fun and do stuff that I’m like, “Okay, this might not be right, but it’s like, this is… I think it’s cool. And if I think it’s cool, maybe other people will think it’s cool.” The whole idea with Yugen Goon was, I wanted to create this brand that was sort of a world in its own. So I wanted have these different characters and all these different storylines and hopefully one day I’ll create an animation that ties in and kind of tells the story a little bit better.

Magnus Atom:
But I made up all these different gods that are depicted on the clothing. And even within the clothing, if on the inside label, there’s… unique poem on each… So you know where the tag would be on the inside of the… that apparel tag? Instead of having a tag, I have a poem. And it’s just kind of there just for the people who buy it. It’s not there to show off. It’s not there for anybody else other than the people who know it; know it’s there. So I kind of like this idea of creating this world where it’s just… It’s sort of like storytelling and it’s sort of constantly evolving. It draws on a lot of, really, stuff that I’m fascinated by, whether it’s cultural… tribal masks, African masks, or Japanese masks or things like holy scripts from like the I Ching. Stuff like that just fascinates me. So that’s kind of Yugen Goon in a nutshell.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to ask about what the significance with the masks might be.

Magnus Atom:
I haven’t even figured it out myself, honestly. Maybe if I ever have a therapist, it’ll come out and I’ll figure out why I’m so fascinated by masks. But I don’t know. I love the mask designs, whether… Of all cultures. Yeah. Japanese, Tibetan, Chinese, African, different African tribes… I think it’s kind of what they represent. And when you look into why they exist, they all kind of have their own unique meaning, but there’s kind of this connection that you see between all these different cultures that were separated by oceans. I don’t know. There’s just something beautiful, I think, to masks.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. When you look back at your body of work, is there any one project that really stands out to you the most?

Magnus Atom:
When I was working at Vice, I created this one piece called Bone Dance. I think it’s 15-, 30-second long animation. It was for Vice’s… They did a weed week where for a week, they would just air weed-inspired content. And they tasked us… They were like, “You can create anything you want, if it’s for weed week, and we’ll put it on TV.” Which is a cool brief. I don’t have that anymore. And at the time, even I knew, I was like, “This is cool.” But looking back, I’m like, “Wow, that was… You can create anything you want and they’ll put it on TV.”

Magnus Atom:
For that project, I was like, I came up with this concept of having these… Without going too deep into it, I wanted to create this thing that was a little bit trippy, but sort of high thought, kind of would make people think, because it would be playing late at night, hopefully while people are smoking weed and they’ll see it and be like, “Oh, that was different.” I didn’t want to just create regular weed bong stuff. So that was probably my favorite project because it was sort of… I had the most carte blanche. Still to this day, I look back and I’m like, “Oh, this is…” People see it and they’re like, “Oh, this is still super cool.” So yeah, I think that’s probably my favorite piece I’ve done.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you had any mentors or anyone that have really kind of helped you out throughout your career? And before you answer that, I feel like your dad may be one of them, in case you’re not going to mention him. Because you’ve mentioned him just in passing about how he’s really pushed you, especially early on, to be more artistic in this way.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. I mean, that was… Yeah. I mean, you got it. It’s definitely my dad. I’ve always had teachers who are… They’re really helpful, but they haven’t stuck with me for the long haul, you know what I mean? After… I might keep in contact with some of my teachers after school, but not as much. So my dad has always been there. So I’ve always been able to tell him about what I’m doing and… He’s an artist himself. So I can… He gets it. He is… I don’t have to explain… He doesn’t have to be like, “Oh, so what is this animation thing?” It’s like, he’s always been super-supportive and pushing me to do that. So yeah. It’s definitely my dad.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What do you really appreciate most about your life right now?

Magnus Atom:
The thing I appreciate the most… Probably the fact that I’m safe and I’m healthy and everyone I know is healthy. I know… I have friends who have lost loved ones to COVID and it’s been really hard for the last several years for a lot of people. And so I’ve been super-fortunate that everyone I know is healthy and… Yeah. I guess that’s it, really. I mean…

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I mean, it sounds like so far, your career has really progressed to a fantastic point. I mean, you’ve had this strong upbringing, this dad that really pushed you, now you’re doing this work at Strange Beast. What else do you see yourself doing in the future?

Magnus Atom:
It’s interesting thinking about it, because even if I look back at the last decade, I would never have imagined I would get to where I am here. Because my goals when I was younger is completely different now. Where I will be in ten years or five years, I have no idea. But the stuff that I’m super-passionate about now is not as… It’s not the same stuff that I was passionate about when I was in art school.

Magnus Atom:
So I think a lot of the stuff that’s really… still inspires me is working on my clothing company or if it’s… I’m really into this upstate living of repurposing… antiquing furniture and making it brand new, which is something I never thought I would be into. So yeah. It’s like, I still want to do… I still love animation; that’s still my path, I think. And in terms of where I see that going, I want to keep creating stuff that’s sort of in my style and keep it evolving. Keep doing work that I am passionate about that pays the bills. But on the side of that, I have other passions that is completely outside of animation now.

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 online?

Magnus Atom:
Sure. So you can visit my website. It’s just magnusatom.com. Or you can find me on Instagram, @magnus.atom. And if you want to see other Strange Beast artists as well as my stuff, you can just go to Strange Beast’s website, which is strangebeast.tv.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Magnus Atom, I want to thank you so much, really, for coming on the show. I think if there’s one thing that people really get from this, aside from just your incredible story, is that getting to where you’ve gotten has taken a lot of work. And that’s not to say that the road should always be easy as a creative, but what it sounds like to me is that you’ve really put in the work over the years and now you’re sort of at the point where you’re able to really kind of reap those rewards, which sounds, of course, really good to hear. I really am interested to see kind of what you do in the future. I mean, a lot of your work is already out there. I didn’t mention this, but there’s a Lil Uzi Vert video that you did also. So you’ve managed to amass a huge body of work, and I’m really excited to see what you do next. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Magnus Atom:
Well, thanks so much for having me, Maurice.

Kelly Walters

We have had a good number of design educators this year on Revision Path, but how many of them have written a book on designers of color? Meet Kelly Walters, an artist, designer, and educator who is currently the assistant professor and associate director of the BFA Communication Design program in the Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York. Kelly is also the founder of the multidisciplinary design studio Bright Polka Dot. Talk about having a full schedule!

Kelly talked about the adjustments she has made over the last year with respect to teaching, and we talked about how she was exposed to the arts early, but never thought of it as a profession. We also discussed the works she’s done through her studio, collaborating with other Black design educators, and the launch of her upcoming book “Black, Brown & Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race.” Thank goodness for educators like Kelly who are helping add to the corpus of design history!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kelly Walters:
My name is Kelly Walters. I’m an artist, educator, designer. I teach at Parsons School of Design. And yeah, I make things. I make a bunch of different things. Print and digital, and everything in between.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How are you feeling so far about 2021?

Kelly Walters:
2021? You know, I was really curious to see how the inauguration was actually going to play out at the end of December. Just anxious about all the various things that have been happening. And I think the beginning of 2021 felt really rocky just for me and trying to understand the end of one presidency, the beginning of a next, the middle of a pandemic, and just a lot of uncertainty. So it felt a little overwhelming, I think. But it feels like it’s getting potentially better. As best as better can be, I guess. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but …

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I can certainly see how it sort of feels a bit like we’re starting to see the light at the end of this long pandemic sized tunnel in a way. So I know what you mean. Now especially that we have new leadership, there’s vaccines that are out there, people are getting vaccinated. It feels like things are starting to go into a different direction.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I feel like, I don’t know. I’m just anxious for everyone and making sure that we can safely make it through this second year I guess, of this new world that we’re in. And I’m also really curious to see what patterns or observations that are made in this time that will affect us longer than this time, I guess. Longer than the year and change that it’s been. I’m really curious to see what it looks like. And being able to reflect back maybe even in 10 years or five years, what I remember of this era. So I don’t know. I’m reflexive I think in that way of looking forward and back if I can at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s funny. That’s kind of, January is after the Greek, I think Greek god or demigod Janice, that has one face looking forward, one face looking back. So that’s a very kind of apt comparison. Are things different for you now than they were last year?

Kelly Walters:
I’m trying to think. At this point last year, we were maybe a week out before everything shut down. If I recall, I think the last time I was in New York was March 11th when we were told two days later, everyone had to stay at home. And I think things were more uncertain in some ways at the very beginning of that last year. And as I reflect on where I am now, I don’t know. I feel like there’s still unknowns, but I’m living to sit inside of the uncertainty. It’s very uncomfortable to do that, but I don’t know. I think more than last year, I feel like this year, you have to sit with the uncertainty in a way that I don’t know. I don’t know how to really describe that exactly. I just feel like I’m navigating what it means to not know even more than before, and not take for granted what was thought to be stable. Or what was thought to be certain, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So what is a regular day like for you now?

Kelly Walters:
Well, my home, is my office, is my classroom, is my social space. So it’s the all-purpose room for many things. And I think it was weird to navigate that last year of finding what the delineation is between all of those kind of spaces. But I think depending on who you’re talking to in meetings, whether it’s coworkers, or your friends, or your family, kind of figuring out a way to feel as though even at your own environment, home environment, that in a separate area or at a certain time of the day, that it can feel as though you can feel the shift. And it’s sometimes it’s about just getting up, and walking outside, and coming back, and feeling like you’ve gone into a new room. Or changing the lighting, or opening the blinds, or turning on the light. I think it’s these small actions to make it feel like you’re in a different space sometimes. So I feel like that’s what my day’s like more and more now of just what are the subtleties that I can adjust in my home environment to feel like I’m in a different space, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Has there been a change in how you’ve been teaching or anything like that?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah, definitely. I think now, it’ll be a full year of teaching remotely online. And I think that for my program, the communication design program at Parsons, I think we had transitioned to an online teaching format. And I think what was really challenging the beginning was trying to figure out what does it mean to do a critique in this environment? What does it mean to build up student rapport and morale, and all of those, and community around students that you are working with that previously you were seeing physically in a particular space? And I think the difference between what I’ve learned in that kind of crisis, moving in somewhat of a crisis mode to teach remotely versus starting the year teaching remotely. It’s just like I’ve been working with students all year that I probably won’t ever get to meet in person. So there’s this difference in trying to figure out how to get to know someone as much as one can. An online format through smaller group conversations, or having Slack channels or things where people can sort of commune in a digital sphere. But it’s definitely been different than previous years.

Maurice Cherry:
And has Parsons kind of been accepting of all of this and all these changes that have been going on?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I think every program is navigating this in its own way. I think that including ours, we have tools, and supplies, and things that we are wanting our students to use for all these various projects. But with students kind of navigated across the world really, it makes it difficult for them to be able to have access to that. And I think that the school is aware and understands as does many other institutions as well, that the safety protocols of social distancing, and having rapid tests, and all kinds of things to kind of make sure that people are being safe on campus is understood. I think it’s just challenging overall, many schools as well. Where students want to be back, but we’re kind of navigating the pace of the pandemic and what that looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
What courses are you teaching right now?

Kelly Walters:
I am teaching a Black visual culture class, and that’s a class that I’ve created. It stems from some of my research. And then I’m also teaching a senior thesis course with our BFA students.

Maurice Cherry:
A Black visual culture class. That sounds pretty dope.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I’m figuring it out. I think it’s an experiment, and I’m learning how to teach it, and learning how to teach it from the perspective that I’m seeing, and also being influenced by how my students are seeing. I feel like I’m learning as much through them as I’m providing to the class as well. So a lot of it is about learning how to teach even this material. Just as much as I may know certain things, they also know things that I don’t. And I try to build that into the context of the class.

Maurice Cherry:
Now have you taught this in person before? Or have you only just done it virtually?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. Fall 2019, I taught it for the first time in person. It was very different. We were using the Risograph machine. We had access to come together in a classroom space and project and view, view material together. And I think it’s a little harder to do that now. But yeah, I had taught it in person before.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What does teaching do for you as a designer? And we’ll get into your design work as well. But how do those two work together?

Kelly Walters:
I feel like they’re interconnected. I think for me, teaching is a way of relearning tools, or techniques, or methods that I’m using in my own practice. So when I’m talking with students or we’re talking about projects, or conceptualizing about something, or trying to figure out how to make something, I think I feel like I’m a co-facilitator or co-collaborator in that, where we can talk through strategy. We can talk through approach. And I think it’s so important to my practice because through those discussions and my ability to kind of think through how do I deliver this material to students? How do we discuss X, Y, or Z, or think through these things? I see my own self being able to kind of in my practice, reflect on even those lessons or conversations that I’ve had with students.

Kelly Walters:
And I think they inform each other. And I think my design practice with things that are happening outside of the classroom, those experiences working with clients or working with other artists and designers. For me, those are examples that I can draw upon to kind of bring into the class about this is how I did X, Y, or Z with whoever. And I think it lends a bit of a credibility to it as well, because it’s not like I’m just making stuff up. I’m speaking from the various experiences that I’ve had. I think it’s helpful to draw upon as lessons in the classroom space.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting. Because I’m sure that like you say, the students are informing you, as you are going through all of this. I wondered though if it was maybe easier because now you’re teaching over kind of an entirely visual medium. Teaching over the web. You can use Zoom, you can point to YouTube videos. But I don’t know. Have you found that it’s been a little easier in some ways?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. In some ways it is. Because the only thing that’s between us is the screen. Right? And what I’ve really loved about this time is being able to draw on the screen over the design. So when a student is sharing the work of let’s say a book that they’re making, or progress on some design work. Once it’s up, I have the ability to annotate on the screen. And I’ve been doing more and more of that because I can point out very specific details. Whereas previously, it’s harder to do that with everyone just looking at one big projector screen. So I think there’s a hyperfocus in some way that the screen sharing and annotating various tools on the screen, or me just sharing how I do something in a software or program. Just seems like the focus and attention is a little bit more direct than sometimes it can get lost in the classroom. Because you’re running to class. You’re tired. You’re not really looking at the screen. Your head is down. Lots of other distractions sometimes in the space when 15 other students are with you. So I think that there’s some positives to the hyperfocus that I think lends for some students.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve been focusing now on your teaching and the work that you’re doing there. I’m curious, were you kind of always exposed to design and art even growing up as a kid?

Kelly Walters:
I think so. I look back at this. In elementary school, I went to what was called an arts magnet school. And I don’t think I really fully thought through this until you’re asking me now, further back than even college. But I think in elementary school, because it was an arts magnet, there was a huge emphasis on creative projects. And from movement and dance to artistic projects that were happening in the art room, plays, and musicals, and all these various things. And I don’t think I fully thought through how much of an influence it’s had on me. Because once I left elementary school, I was still interested in arts, and I always did band, and was definitely a music and band person. But I think what happened was that you had to choose, right?

Kelly Walters:
I think for middle school and high school in particular, you could only do one art or art focused discipline as part of your credit sequence. And I chose marching band, and I chose band, and would always be in a lot of the music classes. But because of that, I only got to take one art class at the end of high school, which was a graphic design class.

Kelly Walters:
So I think I was exposed to music or creative environments. But not really knowing what to do with it, or just thinking that it might be a hobby. I think through middle school and high school, thinking that art could be a hobby, not necessarily as a profession.

Kelly Walters:
But at the same time, there was one other project that I did in eighth grade where I think I wrote away to Pixar. And Pixar sent me back a folder of all of these inserts from all of the different animated films, and Toy Story, and Bug’s Life, and all this stuff. Again, I think there were things that happened, but I didn’t connect the dots I think at that time that I was interested in some kind of computer animation or computer generated imagery kind of thing. But not knowing exactly what to do with it.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s something interesting that you mentioned there about how in elementary school, there were all of these different arts and music. And I don’t know, you were exposed to a lot of it. And it had me even thinking about when I was a kid, we had school plays. We had of course music classes with recorders and the little xylophone blocks, and all that sort of stuff. And it was always just kind of presented as options. Not necessarily, “If you stick with this, you could be a musician.” But more so just showing you that this is kind of out there. It’s an option.

Maurice Cherry:
And of course as you go through your education, you go from elementary school, to middle to high school, it appears like those options kind of winnow away a bit. It’s less about arts and more about humanities and science. Depending on what school that you go to. I’m curious, knowing that that was your experience as an educator, does that help inform you when you’re teaching your students now?

Kelly Walters:
Just the types of exposures that I’ve had you mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean for me, I think what’s really important is that people feel like there’s versatility, that they can have adaptability, that they can use these different skillsets in different ways. And I think my exposure to music for example, while I’m not a musician anymore, play the clarinet like I used to, I think being in the creative musical environment for as long as I can remember, there’s just a sense of improvisation. A sense of listening for others, hearing other voices. So those things have translated for me. Even again just using marching band for example, the ability to be a single individual playing inside of the sound while also creating sound, I think is just something that it translates in other areas I think of my practice. Where you’re kind of trying to be attune, and listening, and taking note, and being observant. So I think that those things have definitely translated to teaching and working with students.

Maurice Cherry:
What did you play in the marching?

Kelly Walters:
I played clarinet.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice.

Kelly Walters:
Yes. The small fin, less heavy instruments.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a good instrument.

Kelly Walters:
It is. It is. Woodwind instrument.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When did you know that working with design and art was something that you wanted to do for a living?

Kelly Walters:
When did I know? When I entered undergrad, I was still uncertain. I went to UConn up in Storrs, Connecticut. And I came in as an undecided, undeclared major in my freshman year. And I think I was again, the idea that art could be was present. There were things that I was doing that was creative. But I guess I just didn’t know or have enough awareness of what could be or what was possible. But I did know that I wanted to start taking some more art classes. And it was in that process of taking, I think it was a drawing class or painting class in my spring semester is when I was like oh yeah, this is immersive conversation. The looking, and the thinking, and conceptualizing, it just felt right. And I think it’s when at that point, I applied to get into the graphic design program. And I think it was once I was in that program, and I was seeing, and I was exposed to more pathways that I really was excited about that discipline.

Maurice Cherry:
While you were at UConn, I’m curious. What was your time like overall outside of just studying?

Kelly Walters:
Well, I also did marching band in college. So for me, I really liked it in that you got to go to football games, and basketball games, and things like that. And I think on one hand, I was really just trying to find myself as an undergrad and navigate this really rural environment. I was coming out of more of a city suburb backdrop previously just growing up. So Storrs, Connecticut was really rural. So for me, there was also this kind of tension of navigating being in that sort of isolated space. And it also being really predominantly white and feeling like I was missing … I think towards the end as I was about to graduate, I was ready to kind of move to a more eclectic, more diverse space. But I think as my time evolved while I was there, it took me time to figure out who I was, and what I was saying, and what I wanted to say. By the end, I was like okay, I’m ready to go elsewhere or try something new.

Kelly Walters:
But I think it had its challenges. I think that I was one of very Black students in the art program. Luckily the year that I went through, I think we had in graphic design, I think there were three of us that were kind of in the program together. And I think the other kind of interesting thing about UConn is that it’s known for basketball and science, right? So those are giant components of the campus culture. And everyone kind of fawning around all the basketball players, or science and research were really dominant focuses of the campus. As I look back, I was just learning how to become who I am in some way. and navigating again, what I needed to do next.

Maurice Cherry:
When you graduated, did you feel like you were prepared for the design world, prepared to work as a designer?

Kelly Walters:
When I graduated, I felt bereft of the academic environment in some way. Because my thesis project as an undergrad was called Black, and I was investigating my identity, who I am, what I wanted to say like I was saying before. And the design work was very, it might even be if we were to kind of situate it, almost kind of as a contemporary artist. Right? So I was making work in a way that what I was concerned about was how it was going to be perceived in a more corporate context, and how I could apply for jobs with my thesis saying Black very visibly on it.

Kelly Walters:
I think I was just trying to, when I finished getting out of school, I was trying to figure out what my design community would be. And it was a very different time. We have all these different digital spaces, Black spaces where people are convening, and connecting, and meeting each other. Yeah. I don’t think that I knew what it meant to have a community. I didn’t know what kind of design I really wanted to do or go in. So I was a freelancer for the first year or so out of school, where I was kind of navigating through job boards, and finding places to do smaller, freelance gig projects with.

Kelly Walters:
It was also in that time that one of my former professors had reached out about teaching in a class at the University of Bridgeport. So I was like, “Really, can I teach? Can I do this really?” And I think her reaching out, and because my mom is a teacher, they were really supportive of figuring out the thing, or not figuring out, but helping me figure out how I could begin to teach in this collegiate environment. Because I started in that way, it was like freelancing. I was teaching. I started out with a hybrid practice, and I feel like I’ve kind of maintained that ever since in some way where there was a kind of a triad of working in industry, teaching, and having also a research practice that may not necessarily be for clients at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
And now is this the beginnings of Bright Polka Dot?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. And actually, Bright Polka Dot was born out of a web design class that I had in college, because we were all asked to create portfolio sites. And my name is so common, that there’s hundreds of people that have my name, Kelly Walters. So I was trying to come up with these different permutations of Kelly A Walters, Kelly Ann Walters. I was just trying different versions of things. And I didn’t like the other options that were left, like .biz .net. So I was like, well maybe I’ll just go in a very different direction and just kind of think about a moniker, if you will.

Kelly Walters:
Many of the fabrics and the patterns that I always gravitate towards are polka dots. So I was really interested in this idea of polka dot. And then I was also interested in adding bright to it. Also a metaphor for myself, but also just kind of a lively addition to polka dot, I guess. So I went with it. And there’s a very particular pattern that I use for one of my design books that is kind of also the very specific inspiration. I don’t know where it is. It’s somewhere in my apartment somewhere, but that became my website name. And I’ve kept it ever since. And I don’t know. It felt right I think to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Now as you sort of started Bright Polka Dot, and then even as you’re kind of navigating the postgraduate world, how did Bright Polka Dot change? Did you sort of start it off in one way and it shifted into something else?

Kelly Walters:
I think what’s interesting for me was navigating wanting to work with different design studios, right? And different agencies. And again, trying to figure out how to mesh more corporate work that has nothing to do with me versus projects that are kind of self-driven and are interested in various topics or themes.

Kelly Walters:
In the very beginning, my portfolio on my website would reflect a lot of work that wasn’t necessarily from me, but might be client oriented. That was I don’t know, it was just really corporate in a lot of ways. And I wasn’t sure what I needed to have up there to get a job, to look a certain way. I think I was very conscious of wanting to put up work that looked like a thing that would impress someone else. As I’ve gotten older and as my projects have changed in what important values are important to me at this point, what was more important was having a blend of projects that I was excited about, that were really connected to me, to communities that I’m a part of. That could really just push forth topics, conversations, have a critical point of view. And I think that that’s what’s kind of shifted in the last several years as my portfolio has continued to change, and projects that I’ve done are kind of again, discussing large or grander topics than I had previously.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s talk about some of the projects that you’ve done through Bright Polka Dot. One of them that I saw, I think it was one that I saw right off the bat was … and forgive me, I might be getting this wrong. I think it’s God is a Black Woman, I believe is what it was titled.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. So The Black Woman is God.

Maurice Cherry:
The Black Woman is God. Thank you.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. So that one, the curators for the exhibition were Melorra Green and Karen Seneferu. And when I was living in the Bay Area, I worked with SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco. And one of the exhibitions that I was invited to work towards for the design components around was The Black Woman is God. And it was the first time I think … I’ve worked on it two or three times in different years for a different theme. But the first time was super exciting for me to connect with curators. And the show essentially featured black women in the Bay who were presenting art and design works in the SOMArts Cultural Center gallery space. And I think through those projects and thinking through the visual identity, I was just really interested in playing with color, playing with typography, and subverting expected visual tropes about what blackness is, and really kind of draw upon inspiration for things that I was seeing as typography in either old film posters, or one exhibition was called Reprogramming The God Code. And I was just thinking about the digital component of what reprogramming means and trying to think through typography that had a certain kind of digi vibe. So yeah, I was just really thinking through the approach in a lot of different ways for those exhibitions.

Maurice Cherry:
And one of the others, I know your research does focus kind of a lot on Black cultural media in a way. There’s another project Superfly and Shaft.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I think what’s also a part of my practice is looking at visual identities, and again, typography that are a part of really influential or iconic spaces, media spaces. Whether that’s films, television, music. I’ve been doing just deeper dives around who created this work, right? Was it created by black designers? Was it created by non-black designers? What does it mean that this image or symbol is actually, it represents blackness, but not have come from a black artist or designer, I guess? And just thinking about what that means from social and cultural standpoint. And how within the Superfly work, just kind of amplifying and looking closely at what was significant. For me, out of that poster was the letter forms, and hyper isolating into certain areas, and then remixing. And in some way, I think the music influences that I’ve had. And I think about as if I were a DJ, right? What are the remixes and the samplings that I can do from these different eras, from these different visual graphics? And how do you reassemble them, where they can maybe speak to someone who like my parents, grew up with those films. But also, the visual and the type of graphic play potentially speak to someone right now who’s an emerging designer, and maybe not has ever seen that film or series of films. So I like the idea of remix and juxtaposition.

Maurice Cherry:
And now as we sort of delve into that more, which is your research focus. as it says in your bio, you focus on how sociopolitical frameworks and shifting technology influence the sound, symbols, and styles of Black cultural vernacular in mainstream media. Which sounds like a mouthful. What sort of research is happening right now on Black visual culture? You can talk about some of the other work that you’re doing, or maybe something that you’ve seen from peers, anything like that?

Kelly Walters:
The thing that I’m finding really kind of interesting right now is that a few years ago, I was just reading articles about digital blackface. And the circulation of memes, and gifs, and things like that on a social channel, like Instagram, or Facebook, or Twitter. And I was drawn to kind of understanding what does it mean to have something that’s digital blackface? And what is blackface? And I think I was going down a path in terms of research of just trying to understand more historically about how blackface has surfaced in the United States and what its history and its lineage has been. And I think there’s so much kind of visual content today that has a connection to that lineage. We just don’t always know what it is, or it’s been suppressed in various ways where it’s not been analyzed and talked about in the context of graphic design. But it’s analyzed and talked about in many other disciplines. Whether it’s media studies, or Africana studies. Things like that, I think that there’s so much scholarship that’s been generated around images, and understanding the root of those images.

Kelly Walters:
So anyway, I think for me as a designer that’s working with type and image often, I just wanted to have a better understanding of that history. And I began to kind of do research around music publishing, and early music publishing. And for me, was trying to trace the lineage between a music album cover to that early music sheet cover, and forms that have surfaced in between. So I think that it’s been a lot about excavation, and trying to see what I can find. And using digital collections to see what’s available and look closely at who was publishing various works. If there’s information about the artist. Sometimes, the artist’s name is embedded on the illustrations of those early works.

Kelly Walters:
So it’s just been for me right now, navigating a lot of that historical information. And I think what I begin to do with that is again, the remix part is wanting to look closely at the topography. And these become typographic specimens. And I think what’s really loaded and charged about doing that is the time is really charged. So I’m trying to be mindful of what does it mean for my own positionality to be working on top of these works, or fragmenting, or cropping them in particular ways? What do I find sacred? What can I touch? What is uncomfortable for me in creating a collage or a remix, if you will? And I think that I struggle and tangle with all of those things I think in the creation of work that responds to that research.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re also coming out with a book soon, right? Is this the culmination of this research?

Kelly Walters:
No. So the book that’s coming out is called Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race. And because for me, there’s multiple avenues of my practice and things that I’m exploring, right? The research that I was talking about is one avenue. Another of my design practice is collaborating and connecting with other design educators or designers of color. And this particular book that’s coming out features 12 interviews. One of which includes myself with design educators from across the United States and Canada. And it features kind of an interview of our experience getting into design, navigating private and public university and college settings, and what it means to now be teaching in the environments that we are. So I’m super excited about this book coming out at the end of the month actually on March 30th. Just because it’s the first time that I’ve had a public, a really, really public project I think like this, that is being published at this scale. So I’m excited, and scared, and all the things in between as well.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. Congratulations on the book.

Kelly Walters:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you hope people get out of it?

Kelly Walters:
I think what I hope the most is that folks like myself, emerging designers, emerging students in design can see themselves in this book. I think we’re only a sampling. We’re not everyone. And we can only share our perspectives from our own backgrounds and what we have accomplished and done. But I think that my ultimate hope is for there to be visibility, and to see it as a pathway, to see it as … like if you’re interested in teaching, you’re interested in design, and you’re a person of color. And specifically, you’re Black, brown, or Latinx. It’s just a sampling of folks who are doing it, and working through their own design practice, and navigating challenges that are coming up. And also to validate any other educators who are experiencing similar challenges or successes. And to recognize that we are a bigger community than we realize. And we’re only a step away from each other in some way. I think that that’s something that I’ve learned a lot about.

Kelly Walters:
And in this book, many of the people that I’ve interviewed have become such good friends now. And I’m collaborating with them on multiple projects. And I just think to feel connected to each other has really been life-changing for me in the last year. Because I think the project was born out of a panel presentation at the College Art Association. And I think that was literally the last and the last time that I’ve seen many of the people in this book in person. And I think for us to be together in that space was life-changing for me. I’m sure it was for others just to think about a panel that reflects us, talks about our experiences. It feels like it can be very rare. And I think I’m wishing and wanting us to get to a point where we don’t feel like we have to feel rare. That there’s many of us here. And there’s just a bunch of us in different places.

Maurice Cherry:
I have to say one thing that has been an interesting kind of, I don’t want to say improvement, I’d say an interesting development from the last year or so is just how many of these types of events, or panels, or things like this have happened where you’re starting to see more Black designers come together. Whether it’s Black design educators or just regular design practitioners, etc. That are kind of outside of what we may have seen prior to this in terms of other types of events or conferences. Like for example, The State of Black Design that happened last year. You were a part of a Where are the black designers? from Mitzi Okou. These sorts of events didn’t really happen before. And now, it’s so exciting to see these happen now. And that people are still continuing to work together. And even to your case, writing books. You’re now contributing to the corpus of design history by putting out a book that people can then go and reference years and years down the line.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the really exciting part that as I’ve met more designers, as I’ve met more design educators. And I’ve been trying to kind of navigate within my own practice what the importance of a book like this can be. There’s so much power in it, and it’s such a privilege to be able to do so. And learning even how to do this process, and learning what it means to kind of work with a publisher. And all of that, sometimes unknown, inaccessible, out of reach opportunities. And I think that it’s so important that as we learn is this how it works? How are we sharing that back out to the folks that we might be working with that may not know it as much about that process? So I think to contribute to the design field in this way is an honor. It’s a privilege. I’m excited to do so. And I’m also really just thankful for everyone in the book. Because to be open and share their stories also can be a very vulnerable position to put yourself in. And I’m mindful of protecting their stories, and making sure that they feel like they’re best represented. So I’m so just thankful for their contributions and participating, because it wouldn’t have come together without their stories.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you are an artist, you’re a designer, you’re an educator in academia. How do you balance all of that? Do you find that there are opposition at times? How do you make it all work?

Kelly Walters:
You see it as a kind of rotating hats. I think sometimes, the focus is on one thing more than the other during the year. Teaching fall and spring semester is really a primary focus. And then sometimes in the summer, what’s really nice is there’s a bit more expanse of time to work on more self-driven projects or other kind of commissioned works and things like that. Commissioned work happens I think year-round. So it happens even as I’m teaching, and collaborations with different people as well.

Kelly Walters:
So I think that it can be a lot at times. But I also, as I’ve gotten older, kind of navigating what it means to kind of rotate the focus and figure out what takes precedent right now. And how can I sort of not overtax myself, but create a balance such that things can rotate? And I think by seeing things rotate, I’m less scared that I’m never going to get back to X, Y, or Z? Or I won’t be able to do that kind of work or that kind of work. I think I’ve been more interested in telling myself that things can shift and rotate, and you don’t have to do everything at once. And I think that that has been really freeing for me. And it also just allows for a flexibility in yourself, and your life, and all the things that you want to try. There’s an opportunity to kind of space it out. Because what’s always important to sort of be aware of too is not trying to do too much where other things suffer, or you’re diluting the power of what it could be, because you just don’t have the bandwidth.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the best thing about the work that you do?

Kelly Walters:
The best thing that I like is when I’m connecting, and meeting, and bringing people together. I think that that to me, of all the various projects, and specifically all the different design projects where I’m meeting people or people are meeting each other. To me, that’s the most important thing and the most exciting thing. The most beautiful thing. I’m just thinking vividly of times when they’re like, “You’re over there? I didn’t know you were there.” Being able to kind of help facilitate that is exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
If you hadn’t gotten into design, or I would say even if you hadn’t gotten into education, what do you think you would be doing?

Kelly Walters:
I would be talking about race probably still. Whether, I mean in fairness in college, I was a dual major. So I studied graphic design in the art program, and I also was a communication sciences major. So if I wasn’t doing design, I feel like I would still be facilitating conversations around topics of race and representation. I may not have been a designer I guess. But I think I would probably be still very focused and interested in these topics if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel creatively satisfied?

Kelly Walters:
I think there’s always more that can be learned or done. And I think what I’m learning is that sometimes, it’s okay not to have it all immediately. Does that leave you wanting more, wanting to try more? Perhaps. But I think I’m okay with that. I think I’m okay with not fully always having everything, and working towards more. Working for something else. Because I feel like it creates a drive and makes it so that you’re not complacent and staying in place. So I think it’s okay that I’m not always satisfied, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. Where do you kind of see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work would you love to be doing?

Kelly Walters:
I feel like in the next five years, I would love to work towards other book projects. I would love to collaborate with other designers. Some of which is happening right now. I want to keep learning. I want to keep growing. There’s so much that I still don’t know. I want to continue to find ways to connect with folks or bring people together. I know that seems really simplistic, but I think it can be … it’s actually more challenging. And to do it successfully can be an art. I’m learning what it means to be able to do that and to kind of work with folks passionate, interested, and excited about all aspects of design. And I just want to continue to be inspired by those that are doing really interesting work right now and celebrate what they’re doing just as much as I’m trying to work towards things in my own practice.

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

Kelly Walters:
You can find my work on Bright Polka Dot. And that is if you’re searching online, you’ll find it in the browser. And then on Instagram and Twitter, I’m also @brightpolkadot. So you can find me there as well.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well Kelly Walters, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really talking about the focus behind your work. I’m excited to read the new book. Actually [Wes 00:50:48] sent me a copy, so I’m excited to kind of really get into it. But for those that are listening, we’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. But no, I really like the approach that you have to your work. And I hope that people kind of feel empowered and inspired from hearing your story. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kelly Walters:
Thank you so much for having me.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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Husani Barnwell not only has two impressive degrees under his belt from Parsons and Harvard, a mile long resume, but he continues to reinvent himself. He is a storyteller, a designer, and a leader in the industry. His passion and drive shine through in his work and in our conversation! He is honest and open, and our chat was an enlightening experience that I appreciated. His experience ranges from Creative Consultant to Educator and so many things in between. Talking to him highlighted the important work that is happening, and that still needs to happen, in this industry.

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


Danielle Beecham is a great example of someone who is inspired by the different ways you can use design for what you are passionate about in life. As a freelance UX designer in New York City, Danielle’s focus is on design for social impact.

We talked about her nontraditional path into design via journalism and international relations, her current MFA studies at Parsons, and how her work with nonprofits has been a benefit to her work in UX. Danielle is here to truly make her impact on the world, so you’ll definitely see more of her in the future!

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Hans Dorsinville came across my radar when I saw AdWeek’s Creative 100 for 2017. If his name doesn’t sound familiar to you, then you’ve definitely seen his work. I’m talking Donna Karan, Lane Bryant…even Beyoncé. His creativity has been instrumental in some of the world’s top luxury brands in fashion and beauty.

Of course, we had to start off talking about his magnificent body of work! Hans talked about the business side of design and shared how he first got his start as a junior designer fresh out of Parsons School of Design. We also looked back at the booming creative and fashion scene in the 90s, and he shared what he’s learned over the years about making a name for yourself, along with some great advice for designers who want to follow in his footsteps. Hans is all about showing the possibilities available in life, and I’m so glad to have such a talented visionary here on Revision Path. Enjoy!

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