Jonathan Patterson

If you’re a product designer that’s been thinking about striking out on your own in 2024, then Jonathan Patterson is a name that you need to know. As a freelance senior product design generalist, he knows all about rolling with the changes in the industry, and about what it takes to stay competitive.

Jonathan and I spoke not too long after his presentation at AIGA Detroit’s IXD2 event, and he talked about the various projects he’s worked on in the fields of healthcare, education, and AI. He also shared his personal journey growing up with a passion for drawing, transitioning from traditional print design to digital products, and explained why he made the switch to full-time freelancing (and what he’s learned along the way).

Hopefully Jonathan’s story and his work inspires you to carve out your own path for your career!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Jonathan Patterson:

All right, so I guess I’ll give you the elevator pitch. I’m the invisible hand that crafts the products you rely on daily. Often we don’t know who’s behind the things we touch and interact with. And I mean that in the virtual and the physical, you know, whether it’s the buttons you click to play your favorite podcast or the home screen of a service that you subscribe to, I design and make sure everything is where you expect it to be and make it look good in the process. So I’ve got a BSA in visual communications from Kendall College of Art and Design, which is essentially graphic design. And over the years, I’ve slowly morphed my interest and my focus to kind of like pace or sometimes exceed where the industry is headed so I can stay competitive. But these days, I’ve moved completely into product design generalization. So instead of having one focus like user experience design, I do all of the skills that are closely related to design that launching a product or service usually requires.

As a full time freelance product design generalist, my goal is to really have a variety of skills that when you total them up, they make what I have to offer kind of more comprehensive and fine tuned than anyone who’s just doing one part of the product design stack. So, Jonathan Patterson, two decades of experience, first podcast interview. Let’s go.

Maurice Cherry:

Looking back at this year, what are three words that you’d use to describe how 2023 has been for you?

Jonathan Patterson:

I would say revolutionary, difficult. Well, this is not a word or more of a phrase. Kind of par for the course.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. How has it been “par for the course”?

Jonathan Patterson:

Par for the course. Meaning there’s always something changing. Nothing stays the same, which is especially true in technology. Right. And I think any business owner, which as a freelancer, full time freelancer, I certainly look at myself as a business owner. But there’s always a challenge to contend with. So par for the horse means while we have certain types of challenges this year, there’s always a challenge to contend with.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Well, the only thing constant in the world is change, as the saying goes. And I think those three words are a really good way to sum up 2023. I think for a lot of people.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. Everywhere you look online, it’s people posting about the tech layoffs and their job being downsized or eliminated or can you help me get a job? That’s what I’m seeing a lot of.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Do you have any goals that you’d like to accomplish for next year, like any resolutions for next year?

Jonathan Patterson:

I think one of the things that I’ve been sort of indexing on is just starting something, I suppose, of my own on the side. Now, while I have a lot of different fun side projects that I’ve done here and there, I think that’s probably one of my objectives for the upcoming year, is to start something maybe that is more official outside of the full time freelance product design work that I do. It could be a product or service. I have many ideas about what those could be. I keep a running list of things that I’m considering and just ideas that I’m vetting. I think that’s probably one of the focuses that I will put some thought around soon.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you just did a talk recently. There was an event in Detroit called IXD2 put on by AIGA Detroit. Shout out to Carlos and the folks there. Tell me about the event. How did it go?

Jonathan Patterson:

It went well. That was a first annual, we’ll call it…it’s called IXD2, which is the interaction design Detroit conference, and it will be held annually. So I actually talked about how to stop ghosting your side projects and basically I gave five tips that I’ve used to kind of see my projects from start to finish. So it was actually a whole day of different speakers and panelists and workshops. So mine was towards the end of a twelve hour, probably around their day. But it went good. It was well received. It will continue into the coming years, as far as I understand.

So I’d be excited to go back or I was a speaker this time, but if I’m not a speaker next time, or if not involved next time, I’ll certainly be happy to attend it.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, was this a new talk that you created?

Jonathan Patterson:

It was, and it was relatively in short order too. I think that between the time that I came to understand that they were interested in perhaps putting on some type of event like this, and the time the event actually occurred was just a matter of a couple of months. So I kind of last minute put together some ideas and the presentation ended up coming together. I probably would have talked about something else besides how to stop ghosting a side project. But again, due to the time constraints, it’s just like, okay, well, let me see what I can do that will perhaps resonate with people. And as I also come to understand, I tend to try to get feedback from people after I do a presentation or a talk or something like that, just because it’s always good to be sharpening your skills wherever you can. One of the things I heard was that people liked the variety that my presentation provided. There was a lot of, as you might expect from the title interaction design.

There were a lot of presentations and talks about processes and user experience specifically into the weeds of those types of things. Mine was a bit more general and sort of lighter. So I heard that people like that kind of component of my presentation. And I’ll also say for anybody who perhaps is listening to this and who saw that presentation, that I did put a lot of emphasis on the design of the presentation itself, because so often I find that, and this is just an easy thing for us designers to fall into for some reason, that when you’re doing a presentation, you don’t necessarily design it to your best ability. Rather, you’re just so focused on the content that you sort of let the design go by the wayside. And I’m like, okay, I can’t let that happen this time. This is specifically a design conference, so I’m definitely going to make sure that I put equal focus on what I’m saying, what I’m presenting, as well as what it looks like. So the design, it’s kind of contemporary.

It’s of the times. Lots of interesting typography and visuals to look at us designers are a fairly fickle bunch. We like things to look pretty. So I’m like, okay, this is going to look pretty cool.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you do a lot of public speaking at conferences?

Jonathan Patterson:

I wouldn’t say a lot. I’ve probably presented just a handful of times. Really. I can count in one hand probably the number of times I presented, but I’ve had some local colleges who will ask, like accelerators or programs that colleges have that are related to product design or design will ask me to come and talk to one of their classes or something like that. So I’ve done that a few times. I was part of another AIGA event a few years ago before COVID where I talked about or I presented a case study that was the theme of the event, was like, case studies and case studies projects that you’ve worked on. So I presented then, which was a few years ago, and then, like I mentioned just a few weeks ago, with this most recent one. So not a lot, but I was happy to hear that.

Some of the feedback that I also got recently was that someone said that my presentation flowed very smoothly and they got the impression that I did it all the time. I’m like, well, thank you very much. That’s probably the best, most flattering compliment that I feel like I got this evening. So I was happy to hear that.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. I mean, I hope you get a chance to give that talk at other conferences. I mean, you put that much time into designing it and you’re getting this great feedback, like take it out on the road.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, you know what? Somebody else mentioned that. I think if the opportunity presents itself, I might do that.

Maurice Cherry:

So let’s talk more about you being a freelance senior product design generalist. You had mentioned that before. I was like, that’s a mouthful. That’s a lot. And according to your website, as well as what you just said, you are the invisible hand that crafts the products that you rely on daily. And you’ve been doing it for such a long time. I mean, almost 13 years. That is super impressive.

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, thanks. Yeah, I’ve worked in all sorts of industries on all types of projects. Early in my career I worked with on a bunch of apps in the education space that taught kids how to write or do math. I also worked on a project for the brand pull ups where I did a lot of UX and UI for an app that parents use to potty train their kids. Let’s see. Some other memorable projects that come to mind are product designed for a healthcare startup. This is akin to like Angie’s list for healthcare workers. I did iconography for OkCupid, where I created dozens of icons that reflect the interest and the characteristics that people show on their dating profile.

I did data visualizations for Brighthouse Networks, which was bought by charter Communications or Spectrum Charter, I believe. But more recently I’ve done work for this company called the Standard, which is this wellness and social networking app. They’re kind of still in this amorphous phase where they’re establishing their value proposition. I’ve helped this company called True Anthem. They’re out of California and they have this AI powered social publishing tool. And basically the gist of it is that large scale content publishers like the Associated Press or Reuters or NBC News give their social teams access to this dashboard where they can automate their social media posts and understand all of the analytics around what content performs the best and when to post it and where to post it to. So it’s this dashboard that integrates with all the popular social networking platforms. You know, Facebook, X, Instagram, et cetera.

Last, I guess I won’t forget to mention Ford. I’ve helped them on and off over the years. I’ve worked on their website, helping to think through different visual concepts to present features and promotions. I’ve also done a lot of work on what they call the build in price section of their website, which is the part where you customize a vehicle that you’re interested in buying. And that area of the site in particular is in constant flux, and they go through many iterations to push out even the smallest of changes. So I’ve helped with the UX and the UI there, as well as, again, lots of iconography for that section of their website. Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of the overview.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you’ve mentioned a lot of different clients here and a lot of different sort of types of product design work that you’ve done. What are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Jonathan Patterson:

You know, I work on B2B and B2C types of projects. I tend to find the B2C ones a bit more, I guess, compelling to work on because the tone that you take in terms of the writing, the UX writing that you do for it, any kind of light copywriting that I might do, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a copywriter, but any of the. I think just the way that you approach a consumer is very different than the way you approach, like, a business product or service. Now, I definitely do both, but I think I probably get a little bit more fun out of the B2C ones. They’re just more room to, kind of…I feel like those apps and services are a bit, just more entertaining, if you know what I mean.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there any type of work that you want to do in the future? Like dream projects, anything like that?

Jonathan Patterson:

You know what, I have always been of this mindset too. I’m like, okay, it could be fun to work on in the entertainment industry specifically, maybe for some type of celebrity website or something like that. But then the more I think about it and the more I see how other industries work with certain types of media, I would imagine that it’s probably a more difficult ask to do some of that work quicker turnarounds, probably projects that you imagine might go a certain way, maybe don’t, because you’re answering to maybe people who have. Maybe my idea of what it’s like is totally different than what it’s actually like. I’m starting to think that that might be the case. So in the past, I’ve always thought that maybe I’ll work on entertainment stuff, but maybe not. I think what I have going for me now, which is a variety of types of work that come my way, is a great kind of mix because at times I’m working on very UX heavy work. Then, at other times, I’m working on very UI heavy work, and I think just the mix of projects is what keeps me most interested. It’s almost like you never get bored.

Maurice Cherry:

So you like to have that variety, it sounds like.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. I think that’s one of the main draws to freelancing, is that you get to pick the types of projects that you work on in the mix. So if you’re ever feeling too much of something, you can say, okay, well, this next inquiry that comes in, I won’t take that, I’ll take this other thing, because my plate’s full in that other area. So, yeah, that’s definitely a plus.

Maurice Cherry:

One thing that we’ve been talking about on the show pretty regularly over the past two years is kind of how a lot of this new tech is encroaching upon the creative industry. Maybe encroach is not the right word, but it’s starting to infiltrate into the tools that we use, the way that certain businesses now offer new services, et cetera. I’m curious…with what you do, have you seen any trends or changes in the industry, particularly as it relates to AI or generative AI or something like that?

Jonathan Patterson:

Generative AI pretty much seems like it’s working its way into everything. ChatGPT has all of the, like, DALL-E and all of those types of services. Photoshop, just typing in something and generating it on the spot. It is totally changing the way that we work, the way that I work. Like many People, I think that we’re in this phase where we’re just trying to understand how do we make our businesses kind of bulletproof against some of these new technologies. I think at times people have this idea about, or this feeling that, okay, I can’t wait till things get back to how they were. They’re not going back. This is kind of like we’re here now. It’s just going to kind of keep on happening, and I don’t want to say get worse, but there’s going to be kind of more of this need to reinvent yourself, to come up with ways to stay marketable and relevant.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, have you been using it any in your wor, or…

Jonathan Patterson:

No, I use ChatGPT for sure now. I tend to have it refine my work. So if I’m writing something, whether it be some text for a website or for anything, I like to use ChatGPT to refine my work instead of just be the kind of creator of it. I’ll say that one phenomenon that I do notice is that I tend not to recognize my writing. If chat GPT kind of manipulates it too much, and I think that might be, like, a phenomenon that people may start to realize. I’ve experimented with it, for example, commenting on a blog post or some type of medium article that I saw, where I’ve experimented with using ChatGPT to write my response haphazardly, type something out, pop it in a ChatGPT, have it, rewrite it, make it sound good, and then post it. Then go back and read it. Like a month, two months later, I’m like, okay, did I actually write that? I don’t remember writing that.

So that’s this phenomenon that I’m noticing with ChatGPT. So I use it, and I’ve learned to. Obviously, it’s still fairly new, or I’m new to it, but I try to use it more sparingly so that the work is my work, and I recognize it as such. But in terms of design work, not as much there. I’d say more in the lines of text. Right. I don’t feel like the image generators are exactly up to kind of the level that I would want them to be at. They’re helpful if you want to maybe change something small in an image, but they all had this overly smooth look.

If you try to generate an image from scratch, I’m sure that’s going to change in the future. But for right now, I don’t use it extensively in the kind of visual work that I do. It’s just not capable.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, we’ve had folks that have come on the show before that say they use it kind of like as a mood board or as inspiration. Like, it’s a great way to help spin up ideas. If you have maybe some ambiguity on where to start, it can kind of give you a nudge in that direction. But there still has to be discernment from humans, of course, the ones that are going to be using that stuff to decide how it should be used, if it should be used at all, if it should be changed, et cetera. So it seems like you have a pretty kind of discerning nature about how you use it.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, most definitely. It’s going to change quickly, I might add, too. I think that there’s always this kind of impression that, like, oh, this is far off. Well, technology is kind of exponential in many ways, so while it’s not there yet, it’s probably going to be there faster than I expect. So I guess fingers crossed. I’ve got a little bit more time to be employed.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, let’s kind of switch it up a little bit here. We’ve talked a lot about the work that you’re doing. But let’s learn more about you, about the person behind the invisible hand, so to speak. You mentioned before we started recording you’re in the metro Detroit area. Is that where you’re from originally?

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, I’ve always been in this area. Went to school in Westland. I had a class in graphic design. I was, I guess, early on, though, I was kind of always interested in drawing by hand. That’s kind of where it all started, drawing on paper. Mortal Kombat characters. I remember when the Lion King came out, I got a computer. Then I started drawing in, like, Microsoft paint.

Lion King characters. Yeah. So I grew up in Westland or which school in Westland, rather. Then I went over to the Grand Rapids area for school for my degree, and after I graduated, came back and started working at this. I worked at J. Walter Thompson, which is this worldwide advertising agency. They have offices all over. So I was working on regional advertising campaigns.

That was technically an internship, but it was after I’d graduated and I was actually making money and working on projects. So it’s kind of strange, but that was an internship. It was after I graduated. So I did that for a year and then I started working. Once that internship ended, I worked at this full service ad agency, which is again, in the metro Detroit area, and I was doing all types of things. Any creative task that came through the agency, I had my hand in it. So they were full service. They did out of home, digital, print, radio, TV.

So I was the senior art director there, and I did that for about six years, and I decided to kind of break off and do my own thing.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, before we kind of get into that, I want to just kind of step back a little bit to talk about your time at Kendall, because I’m sure if you sort of had this sort of talent as a child where you really were drawing and into this sort of stuff, and then you wanted to pursue it enough where you went to school. Do you feel like your time at Kendall kind of prepared you for getting out there in the world as a designer?

Jonathan Patterson:

I do think it did. Again, things are constantly in flux. Right. Stuff that you learn. I was in college in 2004, so obviously things that I learned back then are not necessarily relevant today. But for the time. At the time, yes, it did prepare me. Now, that said, I did find that I had to, or I’m the type to push myself to learn new things.

So even though I did feel like some of the courses and things like that, I learned a lot, but I didn’t think that they were challenging me as much as I could challenge myself. So I would take it upon myself to kind of just do whatever I could to be learning new things and challenging myself. It’s a great program. I learned a lot there, but learning is never done. You have to constantly learn new software. Things that the programs that we were using back then practically don’t exist now, just things that you were doing then, just not relevant. So for the time, it was great. But I know much more now than I did back then.

Maurice Cherry:

No, I mean, that makes sense. I mean, if you were in college in 2004, I’m just thinking, sort of, what design tools were out there. I mean, I think everything was pretty much Macromedia or Adobe. This is before they, I want to say 2004 is before they merged, because I distinctly remember using fireworks, like right around that time. And I remember Dreamweaver first being Macromedia, Dreamweaver before it became Adobe Dreamweaver. But just in terms of like, I’m thinking, yeah, software and things like that, there’s so much changing in visual communications during that time period. I think also because, and maybe you saw this when you went out into the world after graduating, but companies were then starting to realize how to have a visual presence online. Prior to this, companies were still sort of trying to figure out, well, how do I get on the Internet? Should I be on the Internet? What should that look like? And by this time, like mid-2000s, companies are starting to figure it out.

They’re starting to sort of see how they can represent themselves or represent their brand or their product or their service online in a visual way.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. So when I was in college, it was technically graphic design, so I only had, if memory serves one, maybe two. Two classes. Honestly, I think it was one class on web design or anything like that. So all of my other things were print focused.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, wow.

Jonathan Patterson:

I did learn Quark, but I actually never used Quark outside of school, at least not to any degree. It was always indesign. Indesign was like coming on the scene right when I was going to school and graduating and things like that. So all of my education was really centered around print design. I had a couple of typography classes and Photoshop classes and of course all of your core studies, design fundamentals and all of those art history classes and things like that. So I used GoLive, which doesn’t exist anymore.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, man, I remember GoLive. Oh, you just took me back with that.

Jonathan Patterson:

You know what? Their program was nice work, though. I loved the fact that it was like designing in Photoshop or Illustrator in the sense that you could lay something out on the canvas, then it turns it into the design. Honestly, I only had one Web design class, and it wasn’t until after I started working at that agency, after my internship, after college, where I really started doing more digital work and web work, everything else was like, up until that point was very traditional, advertising based. And that’s actually one of the reasons I did kind of make the switch to full time freelance, is because I’m like, okay, I want to specifically work on digital products, websites, apps, experiences, things like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. During that time, as you mentioned, you were kind of studying a lot of stuff with print. That’s another thing, is that the web was sort of changing from, I say, in the early days, it felt like a lot of the web was just taking whatever was in print and directly putting it on the web, whether that was a scan or whether that was a table based layout or something. And so it sort of limited, I think, a lot of expression that brands or companies could have. But then I’d say right around, not even too long after you graduated college, like 2005, 2006, things switched over to CSS, and then you could now float things across the page and change alignment in these ways that broke you out of this grid based kind of print format that I think a lot of early design was in. And it allowed you to sort of really kind of go outside the box with different types of design and things of that nature. So to me, it does make sense to freelance during that time, because if you’re working at a company, and I just know this because I did work at a company, when that happened, it is so much hassle to change things internally after you already have one set of processes, whether this is how it’s always been done or this is how we want to do it, as opposed to when you’re a freelancer, you can change on a dime if you need to. You can just focus on a specific type of product or a different type of service, but you can adopt and change, do things much quicker than larger companies or larger firms or agencies can.

Jonathan Patterson:

Oh, yeah, most definitely. And I think that you need to be able to do that. Right. I’ve had the kind of luxury of being able to experiment with. All right, so what interests me? What are people asking for? What are people reaching out to me for? And I have a lot of interest in terms of the design space. So while that may not work for everybody, it worked for me because back in the day, I had people, independent app developers, for example, making their first app for the iPhone and they need somebody to design it. That was kind of how I got my intro into designing for iOS was app developers reaching out to me saying they needed some design help. I’m like, this is fun.

Let me try this. So I did that. So my degree is in graphic design, but due to my wide range of interests, I have been able to kind of explore working in all aspects. And one of the things I’ve done is transition some of the skills that I’ve learned that apply to other design mediums into more marketable skills. So, for example, an ability to use Adobe illustrator very well and make cool looking icons, well, how that looks today for me is I use this program called Blender 3D. I wouldn’t call myself like a 3D artist. Rather, I’ll call them illustrations because I’m not focusing on how to make something technically accurate for 3D printing or for the architecture space,.right?

It’s more like, how can I add on this medium to enhance the product design work that I do, right. So if I’m creating a website or something like that, or an app, and it needs some cool animation or content to be designed that we want to manipulate, when the user hovers their cursor over it or taps it or something like that, that’s kind of where my skills come into play. So I try to develop this skill set of deliverables that can all work together.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, when you look back at your time at Quill, I know that was sort of what you mentioned prior, before we talked about Kendall a little bit. You wa ere there for almost six years. You were their senior art director. What sort of was the impetus for you to start your own business?

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, well, and to be clear, too, so I was the senior art director, but they were, we’ll say, a small to medium sized company. So it’s not that we had a ton of people there. So the reason that I decided to leave is what you were asking, is that right?

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I guess you could say that. I mean, unless that was sort of part of the reason for you wanted to start your own business, was that you wanted to leave.

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, I’ll say that I was just maybe starting to Plateau at the company. Maybe there wasn’t enough kind of upward opportunity. And again, I also wanted to focus exclusively on digital products and services versus having to work on prints and radio and broadcast. Also, I feel like I was capable of executing the types of experiences myself that the firm’s clients were looking for. So as is so often the case, pay was also starting to become an issue. And in the end, I felt like I wasn’t making enough as I could make, and I didn’t see much evidence that that would change. So that said, I did learn a great deal about the ins and outs of how to run a business. One of the most important lessons I got to see firsthand was how clients don’t hire you simply because you’re good at what you do.

They hire you because you’re capable of doing the work and you’re a likable person. You seem like you’ll be fun to work with. But the agency was, again, small to mid sized. So in a sense, I kind of, like, shadowed the owners, and I was able to learn how to talk to prospective clients and write proposals and run meetings and all of the other things they don’t teach you in college.

Maurice Cherry:

I think that’s fair. You get to a point where you feel like you could do this yourself or you could maybe do it better and you strike out on your own, and that’s what you did.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. Well, again, too, people were. It made it easy because people were reaching out to me in my personal email and saying, hey, can you help me with this? Can you help me with that? I’m like, okay, well, maybe I should try this.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I completely understand that because that’s the same way that I started my business. I was working at, at T and honestly hated it and just really felt like I could do better. I felt like I did reach that plateau where it’s like, I don’t know if this is going to get any better for me anywhere else. There were other issues there, too, just in terms of the staff, but in terms of just your personal fulfillment as a designer, I knew that I could be doing better work than this and could possibly be getting paid better, but this can’t be. The high point of my career is having a 15 minutes lunch break on a twelve hour shift. I can’t do this. Right.

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, I will say, though, too, at the time, it was in college, I was working at retail jobs, and that’s never fun, especially as a design person. You want to be doing work, that’s like, what you’re going to school for. So when I got that job, for the time that I was there, it was generally like, okay, this is where I need to be. I worked hard. It wasn’t that I wasn’t making any money, I was making good money. But I’m like, okay, I can make better money.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, totally. I get it. I 100% get that. How were those early years?

Jonathan Patterson:

Of business freelancing, early years of business. They were good. I would say that back then, I found myself working on a lot of smaller projects. Right. Projects that can be completed in a couple of days or a few hours versus these days. It’s like, okay, it requires a week minimum, or several weeks or several months. So back in the day, it was a lot of like…there were times where I’d be working for seven days a week.

I’m like, okay. I’d start getting stressed out because I’m like, okay, too many small projects, constantly working. I was making enough money, but the problem I had back then was too many small projects. Once you start running out of time to work on them, then you get stressed. So as the years have ticked by, I’ve slowly kind of expanded the scale of projects that I work on. And sometimes there’s some ebb and flow there, right? It can be very busy. Sometimes it can be a little bit slower. But I would say in general, the scale of the projects have changed over the years.

Maurice Cherry:

How do you approach a new project? Like, say you’re working with a client or something comes across in your inbox? What does that intake process look like?

Jonathan Patterson:

I think probably the more interesting part would be like, maybe my creative process. So it kind of starts with just asking a bunch of questions and understanding the problem to make sure I’m solving for the right thing. Suffice to say, there’s this extensive fact finding, goal setting, and planning process. But maybe the creative process is a bit more, I’d say, unique or just my own. It starts with taking inspiration from everywhere I watch movies. I think that medium inspires my creative process a lot. I think it’s so different from product design that it makes it easy to come up with an original idea based on a narrative that I saw. I think probably the most compelling creative ideas come from the mixing of unexpected connections that you can make between topics that are not already connected.

It’s almost like the magic comes from bringing those two concepts together in a novel way. But I try to take inspiration from everywhere and bring that work into the product design work that I do. In addition to that, I think, of course, surfing the web daily, you just come across things that naturally will someday work their way into inspiration for a project that I’ll work on. So I keep like, boulders of interfaces and websites and illustrations and animations on my desktop to kind of just refer to. I do consider myself in the business of selling ideas, so I’ll say this. Too often clients are eager to spend a budget if you hit them with something that kind of strikes their imagination, and having my go to folders that I can inspire myself from is a good starting point. So, actually, one of the things I’ll do to jump start a creative process or get a project off the ground and up and running is kind of like, after I have a meeting or a phone call with a prospective client, I will send them this preliminary or kind of like cursory email with some creative ideas, and that’ll get their wheels turning. And then the next thing I know, I’ve got them asking me to send a full proposal.

And then we’re often working on a new project.

Maurice Cherry:

When you look back over, I don’t know, let’s say, like the past, we’ll say five years, we’ll roll the pandemic into this. What would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

Jonathan Patterson:

Biggest lesson I’ve learned about myself. I don’t know that I’d learned anything new. And maybe that’s because I’ve been freelancing for way before the pandemic started. Everybody was kind of like, clamoring when it all went down, getting their office set up, trying to understand how to freelance or work remotely. I’m like, I’ve been doing this for ten years at the point that the pandemic started. So that was easy for me. I felt like…I’m like…I’ve been social distancing for ten years now. I already had everything set up, my billing software, my processes were in place.

I was able to experiment with different ways of working with clients. Do I work with them on a retainer? Do I work with them on a fixed price? What’s my rate? Do I sign NDAs ahead of time? Or do I never sign NDAs? That was one of the things that I’m getting a little off track, but I think maybe a little bit relevant. I think that I very much enjoy the. Am thankful for the fact that I was able to see what works and what doesn’t work, which is different than working for somebody else. Right. When you work for somebody else, they tell you what you can say in your email to the client. They tell you how to Bill, they tell you the process that you have to structure your files through. Those are all things that I got to do my way or just trial and error.

I think there’s something to be said for the ability to see what works and what doesn’t work for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:

Right?

Jonathan Patterson:

Again, I guess that wasn’t new to me, but that was something that I imagine a lot of people probably started to get wind of when the pandemic hit. And what they learned about themselves is probably some of those things that I had learned up to that point.

Maurice Cherry:

But you’ve been good. You’re good.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, I’ve made all the mistakes. I think that one of the things that I have learned over the years was that not everybody communicates the same way. I think that I have a very. In the past, I probably was much more direct than people that people tend to be like, if I have a question about something or if I just legitimately think that the client needs to hear some particular feedback, I would just say it. But I learned that, okay, sometimes you can’t just say it. You have to ease them into it. And that’s something that you can’t if you’re working for. I guess to bring my sharp point to this idea, it’s like when you’re working for somebody, they tell you that you can’t say this when you’re working for yourself.

You can try it and see what happens. And I certainly did that. So I made all the mistakes, but I think I’m better for it.

Maurice Cherry:

I got you. I feel you. Okay, so what are sort of the next steps of growth for your business? Like, where do you want to take it?

Jonathan Patterson:

I want to take it. I think that I have always wanted to remain in, I guess, a small business. Like, I don’t have any employees, and that’s by design. I think with employees comes other headaches. Right. You have to make sure that, well, I don’t know. I don’t have any employees, but I’m just guessing. It’s like you have to pay for insurance and all of those other things.

Many more expenses, overhead. It’s just a much different, kind of, like a ballgame. I feel like I would be managing people more than I am doing work, which is what I do now. When clients reach out to me, they’re looking for something to get done. I think my business is, I’m happy with kind of where it’s at. I’ve helped other clients of mine who say they’re like, oh, I wish I would have gone your route and not hired employees and just stayed small. So many fewer headaches to contend with. I had an attorney who I did work for who told me that.

So, yeah, I think just based on my experience and things that I’ve heard, I think it’s just as easy to stay small.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Where do you kind of pull strength from? Like, what motivates you to keep doing this work?

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, I’ve always been a creative person. I think creativity can manifest itself in many ways. Right? So while I don’t think I’ll do product design forever, I will always be in the creative space. So, for example, I used to play the piano for many years. I took classes in school. I took them outside of school. My mom hired somebody to take me to get lessons from. So I’ve done music oriented endeavors.

I’ve, like I mentioned, had an interest in drawing by hand. I then kind of transformed that into graphic design. Now I’m in product design. So I will always be in the creative space, in the digital space. I think there’s so many foundations to design that are transferable, right? So all of the foundations, color, scale, contrast, repetition, light, texture, those things can apply to interior design, print design, furniture design. So I very much see that I will be in some creative space now. Which one? That is in the future. I’m not sure for the time being it will be.

It’s going to definitely be product design. But I think in the long term, I could see myself going into something probably in the fine art space, right. I think my career, for the most part, up until this point, has been commercial design. Right? It’s about how to sell a product or a service or get somebody to take an action based on. It’s less art. Granted, there are a lot of visual components to the work that I do, but at the end of the day, it’s not art because we’re selling something or making something or convincing people or educating people on why they want to buy a service or a product versus art or a personal expression that is more about self expression. Right. So you think of sculptures or paintings or woodwork or something like that.

So I think in the future, my interest will probably be more in the focus on things that are not, like, consumer focused.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. Where do you see yourself in general in the next five years? I mean, I know we kind of talked a little bit about where you want to take the business, but when you look in the future, based on where you are now, what kind of things do you want to be doing, especially with.

Jonathan Patterson:

I’m very interested to see all of our AR and VR experiences start coming into play. I know that there are a lot of mixed reviews on how that’s going to look in the future of the metaverse and all of that. Personally, I’m interested in working in that space. I think it’s just going to be so new. Right. A lot of the work that we do in UX and UI design today for screens is there are many design patterns and tried and true methods to pull from. I’m interested in establishing and working in and setting up kind of new paradigms and principles and patterns for devices that are upcoming.

So I’m very excited about the Vision Pro. When that comes out, I’ll probably start to tinker around in that space. I’ll have to give me one of those when it comes out, start designing. And I do imagine maybe a similar kind of pattern as to what I experienced before, where if I’m offering services that are tailored toward developers who are creating products for vision Pro, they probably need some design assistance with it. So that’s kind of me keeping up with the times. It’s how can I tailor my services to be in demand and where the market is going? Which is one of the reasons I actually had an interest in three D. One of many reasons I’ve had an interest in 3D in the last few years is because I saw or I read that these types of experiences are coming and I want to be able to be able to create assets and just work in this space. So yeah, that’s an area I’m very excited about is VR, aR, that type of work.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Jonathan Patterson:

Definitely at my website, which is jonathanpatterson.com. I am on X – @jonpatterson_. That’s J-O-N underscore Patterson, of course. Linkedin.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Jonathan Patterson, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Thank you really, for kind of diving deep into your business and kind of exploring why you do what you do what you do in terms of services and things of that nature. I think it’s important, especially now at this time, when people, for one reason or another, might be out there trying to find their next path or like what the next thing is that they’re going to do to really sort of see what someone who has been out here doing this for a long time is doing. So they can maybe look at how they structure their work or their business. But I think what you’re doing is great. I know you mentioned something about sort of having the work speak for itself and being the invisible hand. I’ll tell you that once you start speaking, that kind of goes a little bit out the window.

Yeah, I know, because the work doesn’t have a mouth, you do. So it’s like, as you start getting out there and speaking more. And I think certainly as people really see more of you, as well as the work, you’ll take off for sure. I mean, certainly what you’re doing now is really great work, but I’m excited to see where you go in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, well, thanks for having me.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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David Dylan Thomas

This week’s guest is a true legend in the game — the one and only David Dylan Thomas. He’s the author of Design for Cognitive Bias, has over twenty years of content strategy and UX experience, and he’s presented talks and workshops worldwide on topics at the intersection of bias, design, and social justice.

We had a pretty broad conversation, touching on everything from his latest talk in Copenhagen to how he started The Cognitive Bias Podcast. David also shared his story of growing up in Maryland, attending Johns Hopkins, and gave his thoughts on the present environment of creating content online. You might want to take notes on this episode, because David drops a lot of knowledge!

Interview Transcript

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

David Dylan Thomas:
My name is David Dylan Thomas. I am an author and a speaker. My day job really is to just go around and get people excited about and give them better tools for more inclusive design, and I do that from talks and workshops that I give at conferences, organizations, what have you.

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

David Dylan Thomas:
Busy. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling. It’s like I’m making up for years of growing up without travel, and then the most recent three years of no travel because of COVID. I’ve been to Stockholm, Denmark, Japan, and then last fall I was in Berlin and just Seattle and all these other places, so it’s been really fun but exhausting.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, so you’ve been making up for lost time.

David Dylan Thomas:
Exactly, yeah, and it is this very much like growing up, I did not make a lot of money or my family didn’t have a lot of money, so the idea of travel was just totally out of reach, and now it’s the exact opposite end of the spectrum where I’m like world traveler and I love it, but yeah, it’s a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
Living the dream.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of all this travel, do you have anything that’s planned for the summer?

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, it’s not slowing down. Well, so I’m going to be at UX London in a few weeks. I’m going to visit some friends in San Francisco in a few weeks. I’m hitting up a gig in Tampa, family vacation to Montreal, so it’s staying pretty busy. I might get a break in August. I’m not sure yet, but it’s all good, but yeah, there’s still more to come.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I mean, you’ve got a stacked year so far. That’s pretty good.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I hate the act of travel, like air travel I despise. I…

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… [inaudible 00:04:00] it, but I love being places. I just hate getting there, so that’s the other exhausting part is the actual act of air travel. I’m not a big fan.

Maurice Cherry:
I know the feeling all too well. I went to Toronto back in October last year, and it was my first time traveling since before the pandemic, at least air travel before the pandemic. I was like… I was kind of dreading it a little bit, to be honest. I was like I had been seeing stuff on the news about people fighting in air airports and on the plane and stuff, and I was like, and I’ve been Atlanta. I’m like, “I don’t want to do,” I mean, I wasn’t flying spirit or anything, but I was like, “I don’t want to go to the airport and it’s a whole thing.” You know?

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I just want to get to where I have to go without incident, and it was fine, but I was kind of a bit worried leading up to it. I’m trying to get my sea legs back with travel because I used to travel a lot, like pre-pandemic for work and for the show, and I’m trying to like ease back into it now.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, I’m fully on board at this point. I’ve been… I think I’ve traveled more post-pandemic than I ever did pre-pandemic…

Maurice Cherry:
Wow-

David Dylan Thomas:
… at this point.

Maurice Cherry:
What lessons did you learn this past year? How would you say you’ve grown and improved?

David Dylan Thomas:
I’ve learned what my, or I’m starting to learn, I’m beginning to learn what my boundaries are because as much as I enjoy the travel, there’s a psychological hit, a social hit, there’s a family hit, there’s an economic hit, to be frank, but I’m learning. I won’t say I’ve learned it yet, but what I’m learning is balance and trying to figure out, “Okay, what am I comfortable saying no to?” I’m in the privileged position of having enough things going on and having enough financial stability to be able to say no, so where does it make sense to say no? Where does it make sense to say yes?

An example would be like Japan is a very expensive trip, and I was paid for my time there, but it’s always going to be more cost-effective to do something online. It’s sort of one of those I’ve never been, I love it so much, I’m willing to take a bit of a financial hit on that or whatever. It’s figuring out how much of that before it becomes a burden, that kind of thing. I would say balance, or that’s what I’m endeavoring to learn in this past year is, what does that look like?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm, and now I would say outside of the travel realm, is there anything in particular that you’re learning about now?

David Dylan Thomas:
My new hotness is really grappling with ownership. I mean, I’m finding that my talks, my work is drifting pretty rapidly into the political, so I talk about design, I talk about UX and content strategy, but increasingly the stakes, the things I’m talking about are things like Facebook’s impact in Myanmar. These are quickly becoming very political topics, and the stuff I’m reading, I’m reading currently Braiding Sweetgrass, and there’s a lot in there that’s really challenging me around ownership, like the idea of ownership and, where is it appropriate? Where is it problematic actually? Where is it actually doing more harm than good to have these strict notions of ownership?

A basic example would be if you think about colonial perspectives on Native Americans and taking the land from them. That presumes that Native Americans uniformly believed the land belonged to them, when in fact, many Native American cultures didn’t believe in ownership at all. It was sort of like, “Hey, those aren’t your strawberries or my strawberries. They belong to themselves and that’s it.” We don’t own things in that sense. Really, if you were going to do a reset, for example, to say, “Okay, what would reparations look like in the context of Native American land?” One version of that would actually be not giving the land back, but actually abolishing ownership of land, which is I think is a far more controversial, right…

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… concept than just saying, “Oh, we’re just going to give all the land back.” That’s hard enough, but so we’re not giving the land back. We’re just saying no one’s going to own any land. I think that would freak people out way more, so that’s the kind of stuff that’s really got me excited and challenged in terms of what I’m learning about right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, especially in this country. I mean, manifest destiny and everything. You talk about ceding ownership and people get hot.

David Dylan Thomas:
Oh yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a hot potato to deal with.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, that is the, “Y’all ready for this conversation” meme? That’s…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Let’s talk, I guess, a little bit more about the work that you’re doing. I saw just recently that you spoke in Denmark at UX Copenhagen. How was that?

David Dylan Thomas:
Oh, it was fantastic. Copenhagen is nice, and it’s one of those conferences where the talks are great, but what’s really awesome is just the people, the conversations you have in between talks at dinner after. Copenhagen’s a great place to have those conversations. Helle Martens who runs it is so kind and so thoughtful and is a great host, not just hosting the conference, but hosting her guests, her speakers at the conference, everyone involved. What I remember most, though, about UX Copenhagen is really just the great conversations and the people I met there, which is to me like the highest value of any conference is not the talks, although I enjoy the talks, it’s the people. It’s getting to meet new people, getting to reestablish old relationships, and UX Copenhagen was great for that this year.

Maurice Cherry:
Had you done that conference before?

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, that talk is actually historic for me. The book Design for Cognitive Bias comes from a talk called Design for Cognitive Bias, and the first time I ever gave that talk was at UX Copenhagen in 2018, which was also my first international conference. She invited me based on a podcast I did with Saskia Videler. She was like, “Oh, it sounds like you’re doing really cool stuff. Can you come to my conference and talk about cognitive bias in the context of like UX and content strategy?” I’m like, “Yeah, I can.”

I put together that talk, and putting it together was really where I found what I believed to be the spine of the book, even before I knew it was going to be a book, which is really this notion of not just, “Hey, here are these biases that our users have,” but, “Hey, here are these biases that we as designers have.” Really, this isn’t a talk about bias, this is a talk about ethics. When I figured that out, I unlocked that, that became what the talk was, what the book was, but all that started at that first UX Copenhagen I went to in 2018.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, so this was kind of a good return to form in a way.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, it was kind of a homecoming, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and now speaking of talks, you have a new talk that you’re doing now. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

David Dylan Thomas:
Sure, so this is a massive talk that I’ve been working on for a while, and it all started once, I don’t know what it was, but some social media company did something terrible. There’s way too many examples of that for me to remember which one it was, but I got mad and I posted something like, “I swear to God, my next talk is going to be called. “No, Seriously, F Engagement,” except I didn’t say F, I said the actual word…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
… and…

Maurice Cherry:
You can say fuck here, that’s fine.

David Dylan Thomas:
Oh, okay, so “No seriously, fuck engagement.” Of course, people were like, “Oh yeah, you should give that talk.” It was kind of a joke, but then I was supposed to give the closing keynote at An Event Aparts, which ends up being the final An Even Apart in San Francisco. I needed a new talk because I’d already given all of my other talks. We kind of went back and forth and I said, “Look, my new talk, it’s like super anti-capitalist. Are you sure you want me to do this?” They’re like, “As long as you have like actual positive advice and it’s not just a rant.” I’m like, “Yeah, I got great, great advice or challenges that I want to kind of put out there.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
The talk ends up being based on a quote from Martin Luther King which says, “We must rapidly move from a thing-based society to a person-based society or thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” This is something he said like 50, 60 years ago, and I basically start off by saying, “Okay, if we agree that’s a good idea, what is our role as designers, makers of things, whatever, in that shift?” I start by saying basically, “This is what a thing-oriented web looks like,” and I talk about things like Facebook and engagement and how the obsession with engagement could lead to things like genocide in Myanmar where they let lots of hate speech just sit up there because, frankly, hate speech is good for their bottom line. It increases engagement.

I sort of paint that portrait, and then I say, “Okay, what would a person-oriented web look like?” For that, I look to things like the Siksika and the Wyandot, who are Native American tribes that have different perspectives on just fundamental assumptions about humanity, basically that, “Hey, maybe you’re born having value and I don’t need you to have a lot of money for me to consider you having value.” You know what I mean? What happens if we take those assumptions and build the web based on that? I can point to a couple of different instances where people are kind of experimenting with that, but the whole point of the talk is we don’t have that web.

How do we build it? Really, it’s more of just like a challenge, almost like a design brief for the audience to say, “Okay, if we were to make these other assumptions about people and about how we should interact, what would we build? How would we build differently? Let’s go do that.” It’s the first time I’ve ever given a talk that’s more of just a challenge for something that doesn’t exist yet, as opposed to saying, “Hey, here’s all of this evidence from science about these methods you can use to make your stuff more inclusive.” I love that, but the thing that I’m really into now is this notion of, “Okay, what’s the next step?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I like that the talk is sort of putting the onus on the listener, the audience, whomever, to kind of come up with what the solution is. You’re pointing out the issue. You’re not giving necessarily a solution, but you’re saying, “These are the things that you need to think about so we can come to a solution.”

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah. It’s really challenging the audience to listen to themselves, frankly, because a big chunk of the talk I get very personal. I go into therapy that I’ve been through, I go into how I found value in literally writing down my values and trying to proceed from there. The only tangible advice I give the audience ends up really being around, “Hey, after this talk is over, I want you to go home and write down your values and ask yourself, ‘Is your work taking you closer to or further away from that?’ If it is getting you further away, well, what can you do to get closer?'” That to me is the beginning of that journey, so it gets very personal, too.

Maurice Cherry:
You know, I did a talk, it was 2020, maybe 2021, but I did a talk called Content is Subject to Change, and I had sort of come with… I guess I won’t say I came up with the idea on a whim, but I was talking about how content on the web is in this sort of state where nothing is really being sufficiently archived because the internet and the web itself was never meant to be a tool for archive. It was a tool for research. It came out of research institutions and how like the early web, the “Web 1.0” was really about research and discovery. Then, of course, Web 2.0 sort of ushered in user-generated content, and we’re sort of in the throes of, I don’t know, I guess we’re sort of limping into Web 3 with the way companies have been approaching the metaverse and such.

The reality is that users create and put so much content on the web. I mean, tweets, Instagram posts, photos, videos, et cetera, and none of that is really stored anywhere, not in a very active way. You can look at, or you can try to find articles from 10 years ago and all the links are broken. none of the images work if you can find the actual article at all. People point to the Internet Archive, but they’re just a small nonprofit. They can’t archive everything. They can’t even archive things in certain countries. They can’t archive Flash. I mean, Flash was everywhere. Now, Flash is a relic, and all of that stuff that was created with Flash is just like dust in the wind, essentially.

David Dylan Thomas:
I have an interview with Jack Dorsey that is-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

David Dylan Thomas:
… [inaudible 00:15:31] to Flash, and it’s such a tragedy because one of the questions I asked him is, “What makes you pessimistic about the web?” This is like 2008 or something. What makes you pessimistic about the web? What he said was, “I think it’s going to be hard to prove what is true.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
Like oh my God. Not being able to just post that online every single time something blows up, like, oh my God, but yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, even to what you were mentioning there with what Jack said, look at now with deep fakes and AI and MidJourney and all sorts of stuff. Like what is real? I’ll see imagines on Twitter or whatever, and it’s like, “Wait, I think that’s real. That might be real.” It sort of is falling into that sort of uncanny valley, especially as the technology gets better. I say all of this to say I like the fact that you’re giving sort of a design talk that’s not specifically about, I guess, digital design, but more so the concept of design and how that relates to what we go through in society.

David Dylan Thomas:
Well, yeah, and truth be told, it’s a political talk. I don’t market it as such because I’m giving it at design conferences, although I did give it at a journalistic conference once, but it’s a political talk because the things I’m talking about, the things I’m recommending are for everyone. This is at the societal level, and it’s what King was talking about. King was talking about what he was talking, about not for designers, not for politicians, but for everyone.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
He wanted everyone to be involved i this shift, and he saw the need for it. I’m like I’m speaking to designers for the most part, just because of the milieu in which I work, but I’d be happy to give this in Congress, in civil activist organizations, in churches, in just stand on the street corner and yell it. This is something I believe in and that I think is applicable at a very, very universal level.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and I think certainly as technology increases and as we start to… I mean, AI is pretty much already being used now by companies and a bunch of different things. Not to say that AI is like the scapegoat or the catalyst for the talk that you’re giving, but it’s important that more people outside of our profession know about this. They know that this is sort of, I have to say it, it’s sort of a condition of the world that we live in now. It’s like this is a thing that we have to contend with and it doesn’t just have to deal tech or just have to deal with design. This is a human problem.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, and the thing I try to get across in the talk and in my work in general is it’s just a tool, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
I mean, the same database that was used to hunt down people for their medical debt, it’s like, “Hey, you got cancer, but guess what? I don’t care. You have have to pay these bills.” That comes from a database and hospitals, people go and buy that debt. These two guys who were running one of those companies that had those databases sort of had a moment of truth when Occupy happened and they flipped it and said, “Okay, now we’re going to use the exact same database to find people who owe medical debt and then forgive it. We’re going to use the exact same financial mechanism of buying that debt from hospitals for pennies on the dollar and then forgive that debt.” They’ve forgiven something like $6 billion of medical debt that way.

Exact same tool, exact same database, exact same like… I don’t know if AI was in there or not, but let’s say, yeah, why not? AI’s in everything, but it’s like that’s a very, very old story. There were examples going back to indigenous Peruvians who were doing similar things with taking the same tool for different purposes, so this is… When I see AI, yes, it’s scary, and yes, it’s doing all sorts of mischievous stuff, but it is the exact same story. It depends what you want to do with it, and you can use it for great good, or you can use it for great harm.

Maurice Cherry:
The reason sort of like I said that it’s good that you’re giving this talk or you want to give this talk outside of our industry is that more people need to be aware of the consequences of these things or why it’s sort of something that we’re bringing up as a point. AI has really blown up to mainstream, at least to the point where the media is really talking about it outside of specialty outlets. It’s blown up over the past nine months where now the creators of this stuff are testifying before Congress about what are the best ways to curtail this or to use this or something like that. It’s important that these are issues that we talk about now before they sort of spin out of control.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, and I think that what I want people to do is not focus on the tool so much as the players behind the tool. There’s a great PBS Digital Studios channel that show, it’s not around anymore, but it was called Idea…

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Idea Channel with..

David Dylan Thomas:
… Idea Channel…

Maurice Cherry:
… Mike Rugnetta. Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, fricking love that, and one of the episodes at some point they’re like, “Hey, we’re instituting this new policy on our show where when we talk about a new technology, we are not going to embody it, which is to say, we’re not going to say AI is doing this or AI is doing that. We’re going to say people are doing this with AI, people are doing this with ChatGPT, whatever that technology is because we don’t want to give the impression that technology is embodied, that it is its own thing. No, human beings are using a thing to do a thing. I feel like we need to keep our eye on that because if we point people and get hysteria around a particular technology, we sort of draw their attention away from the people because the people are the thing you need to be losing your mind about, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
You know, Elon Musk firing all the content moderators is the thing you need to be worried about, not Twitter per se, or I sat on a panel earlier about ChatGPT and content and people freaking out. “Oh, ChatGPT is going to take my job,” and I’m like, “Trust me, you do not need to be afraid of ChatGPT, you need to be afraid of shareholders. Shareholders are going to take your job hella faster than ChatGPT.” Shareholders have been taking people out a thousand employees at a time for the past two years. They’re the ones, but we’re not having this panic over shareholders, so yeah, I’m like, “AI, great.” It’s interesting, but the big story isn’t AI. The big story is who’s using it for what. The who is the big story.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, I first heard about you from your book Design for Cognitive Bias, which you mentioned earlier. For those who might not have heard about it, one, will include a link to it in the show notes so you can pick it up, but can you tell us a bit about the book?

David Dylan Thomas:
Sure, so the basic premise is that we have biases, our users have biases, our stakeholders have biases, and when I say bias, I just mean your mind has to take shortcuts just to get through the day. You have to make something like a trillion decisions a day. Right now, I’m making decisions about how fast to talk, what to do with my hands. If I thought carefully about every single one of those decisions, I’d never get anything done, so it’s actually a good thing that a lot of our decisions are made on autopilot, but sometimes the autopilot gets it wrong, and so the book is really… We call those errors biases, so really the book is saying, “Okay, if we accept that bias is going to be with us, what do we do? At the user level, what are some biases we can design our products in a way to either mitigate or maybe even use for good? How does that also play with stakeholders? How do we sort of use persuasion techniques to leverage biases they may have to steer our organizations in maybe more inclusive directions?”

Then, really, I think the most important part is our biases. How do we keep our biases from causing our users harm? All of that is in 92 quick little pages you can read, but yeah, that’s the spine of the book is this journey from our user’s biases, our stakeholders’ biases, and then our biases, and all the way through these very concrete examples and concrete methods to try to work with that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I love that the book really emphasizes the importance of recognizing and understanding them because that’s sort of the first step to fixing them or to create in spite of them, I suppose, to make more effective and inclusive work to strive for DEI. Oftentimes these things are brought up only in a sort of DEI context, which I think gives some people, some people, gives some people permission to not think about it at all because they’re like, “Well, I don’t fall within the, I don’t know, BIPOC spectrum or whatever. Why should I have to think about this?” You know?

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, which is actually the number one reason you should have to think about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly.

David Dylan Thomas:
Right, right [inaudible 00:23:57] supposed to be, you know? No, and then the thing is like, yes, when people think of bias, one of the main things they think about is race or gender, which absolutely they should, like two of the most harmful biases out there, but it’s even things like, “Hey, stuff that rhymes is more believable.” If you’re making something rhyme, you better make sure it’s true. It’s things like that that are both within and without the realm of race or gender. Yeah, it is important at a global level to understand how these things work.

Maurice Cherry:
You know, that’s even something that I think about honestly with this show. I think about it in the context of podcasts in general. I remember I think I saw some study, it was either from Pew or from maybe Edison or something like that, but they were talking about how most people believe I think it was like 80-something percent of podcast listeners sort of get their news from podcasts. That’s what they believe over, say, mainstream media, which is really dangerous because anyone can put out a podcast. Just because you say some shit on a microphone does not necessarily make it true, and so I think about that even in the context of this show.

I’ve done over 500 episodes. I try to get as varied a swath of people as I can to talk about a universal experience, which is being a Black designer or a Black digital creator or whatever, and that is broken down across gender, sexual orientation, gender presentation. It’s broken down across so many different things, age, geography, industry, and I try to do that to not sort of introduce what I think people may already look at. They may look at all of the people that I’ve interviewed and say like, “Oh, you just talked to a bunch of Black people. It’s all the same.” It’s not the same. It has changed drastically over the years. We talk about a lot of different topics. It varies. Every person’s conversation is different because every person is different so…

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… I understand kind of that need to recognize the bias so you can work against it.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, and by the way, if people out there are like, “Oh, you just talk to a bunch of Black people,” I’d be like, “Have you met Black people? We don’t all agree. When was the last time you hung out with more than five black people and they all agree?” Are you kidding with this? When’s the last time you sat in a barbershop for more than five minutes?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
Right? We agree? What?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Have you met black people? That’s funny. That’s a t-shirt right there. That’s funny. I like that. With everything that you’re doing, what does a typical day look like for David Dylan Thomas?

David Dylan Thomas:
No such thing. Well, okay, two such things, so one is the travel Dave where I am on a plane and I’m getting up in some new city and doing this weird mix of touristy stuff and my job. Those days look like this weird mix of I’m going to go check out this castle or this museum, and then I’m going to go rehearse. It’s very much like touring a comedian or a band. You go and you do the thing, but you also try to have a good life at the same time, or you meet people in town that live in that town that from the web or something. That’s travel Dave, and then there’s home Dave, which is I don’t do a schedule in the sense of at 9:00 AM I do this, at 10:00 AM I do that, but I do have a Trello where I just have my priorities.

It’s like the first few things I’m going to do is try to have… I like to wake up slowly, so I have a nice breakfast, watch some TV, maybe play some video games, maybe do some reading. Then, I’ll get into things like household chores like laundry or trash, or maybe help with the dishes and cleaning. Then, I might get more into things like, “Okay, let’s check some emails. Let’s go through all of that stuff.” That’s more of like depending on how the day comes out because I might have a meeting, I might have this, that that’s sort of fixed. Everything else that’s kind of liquid time that I can kind of play with is sort of like, “Okay, this is the next thing on the Trello that I want to get to.” Some days I’ll get through maybe laundry and the day’s over because there’s just too much other stuff going on.

Other days, I’ll be like, “I actually got through all 500 emails. My God, how did that happen?” That’s a little more fluid and it’s what I’ve learned over time works bests for me, both from an anxiety perspective, but also from just a functional perspective because I have the luxury of having a job where, with very few exceptions, my time is my own. I can choose how to spend my… I’m not required to be in a certain place at a certain time with very few exceptions like, “I have to be in that place giving that talk at that time, so that’s one hour that is a hundred percent accounted for.” For the rest of it it’s like, “You could be doing dishes. You could be meditating. You could be playing with your son. Any of those are options that are just as equally valid. I don’t have a boss saying, “Hey, why aren’t you doing this right now?”

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. Yeah. I think with any sort of entrepreneur, that’s the challenging thing is balancing it, managing your time, and still getting stuff done within the midst of all of that.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, and I’d say that’s my biggest challenge over the past year is really now that it really is much more fluid, making sure that I’m not over-optimizing for gigs, that I’m really making time to be there for my wife, to be there for my son, to be there for my family, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
Excuse me, and kind of give that its due weight and its due context because it’s really easy to fall into the trap of, I’ve found it, to fall into the trap of like making everything like a checklist…

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… of like duties rather than look at the team effort of we’re a family and we have these shared goals and we’re each chipping in to work on those goals. Yes, an easy way to get closer to that is to have the sort of list of to-dos, but there’s also times to be flexible. THere’s also times to like see a need and just work on it. That’s hard for me because I am a very list-oriented person, so that’s sort of what I’ve been working on is how to be more present, frankly, for my family. That’s the new hotness.

Maurice Cherry:
Same, same. Right now, I was just talking to my Mom recently because Mother’s Day just passed. Her and I were talking and she’s telling me like, “Oh, I’m finally thinking about moving.” She lives in Alabama. We’re from Selma, Alabama, and I grew up there, moved out when I was 18. I’ve been here in Atlanta ever since. She’s lived there her whole life. Now she’s talking about moving to Dallas, and the first thing in my mind was like, “I’m about to project manage the shit out of this move because, one, I’m like, “I have been waiting for you to leave this town forever, and you are finally going to do it. We are making this happen.”

It’s also about being in the moment of like why she wants to do it now. She’s been retired for, let’s see, she retired at 62, she’s been retired for eight years now. She just turned 70. I’m like, “Now you want to move? Sure, yeah, let’s talk about it. Let’s do it. Let’s try to make it happen.” I have to resist my urge to try to really plan this and make sure this goes off without a hitch, but also make sure that I’m present for her feeling behind moving because, I mean, she grew up there just like I did, but she’s just lived there now her whole life and now she’s like, “It’s time to get out of here.” I’m like, “Okay, let’s make it happen.”

David Dylan Thomas:
Just for a second, can we just talk about the South? Because…

Maurice Cherry:
Sure.

David Dylan Thomas:
… being born “in the North,” I was born in Maryland, which is technically the South…

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

David Dylan Thomas:
… and is the South in a lot of ways. I grew up with this fear of the South, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
I see like… When I think of the South, I think of Mississippi Burning, right? Like that’s…

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

David Dylan Thomas:
… at the same time, I’ve been to the south a lot of times. I never really had any problems, and that’s where 80% of us are. Black folk live in the South. That’s where we are.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
I talk to people who have lived there their whole lives, or who lived in the North and are anxious to move to the South and I’m just like trying to get my head… I don’t even know what my question is, but it’s just sort of like when I hear, “Oh, she’s moving from Alabama,” I get that, to Dallas. Oh, that’s…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
… Texas isn’t awesome right now, but okay, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Well look, her other choice was Florida, and I was like, “Well, that’s definitely…

David Dylan Thomas:
Ooh…

Maurice Cherry:
… not happening…

David Dylan Thomas:
… ooh.

Maurice Cherry:
… so…

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah. No, Dallas is better.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
Well, I’ve been to Dallas. It’s better than all of Florida.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
The entire state.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. Yeah, it was either Florida or Texas and I’m like, and even talking to her about it, I think honestly the main reason she wants to move is because her brother lives there, so her older brother-

David Dylan Thomas:
Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… lives there with his family and he is extremely well-off. It’s like…

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Okay, well, if you move there, if you move in with him or even in the vicinity of where he is, at least you’re together, it’s family. The main thing I’m excited about is that she’ll be in a city that is served by a major airport because I don’t drive and I don’t have a car, so me trying to get from Atlanta to Selma takes like a bus, a pack mule. I probably have to hitchhike part of the way. It’s not easy to get back home and I was like, “Heaven forbid there’s an emergency and I can’t get to you quickly.” If you’re at least in a city served by an airport, I can hope on a plane and take an Uber or a Lyft to get to where you are. That’s not a problem, you know?

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it was either Texas or Florida and I was like, “Well, it’s not Florida, so Texas it is.”

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, and I’ve been to… I actually like Dallas a lot, but it’s just this… I don’t know how many Black people hold this special relationship with the South or hold… I feel like Black people just have a feeling, it may not be the same feeling, but have a feeling about the South, and it’s just endlessly fascinating to me.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, what’s the fascinating part?

David Dylan Thomas:
Well, it’s just like I think I grew up with this myth in my heard that once you hit the South, it’s all Klan. You know what I mean? Like… How can you live there? I do. I get genuinely surprised. I have a brother who was living in Maryland and was like, “Oh yeah, I want to move further south.” Or I’ll meet someone else who’s sort of like, “Yeah, I was living in San Francisco, but I want to move back to North Carolina.” I’m like on the one hand, I kind of get it. Again, it’s one of those things I’m learning more about now, but on the other hand I’m like, “Yeah, but you know about the South, right?” You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

David Dylan Thomas:
I think the part that’s fascinating to me is that as I interrogate that, there’s no real evidence that the South is any safer or more dangerous. If I think about all the shootings that have happened with Black people, they’re all over. They’re not just in the South. There’s plenty in the North, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
I do think… I don’t know. It’s me dealing with my own fear of white supremacy, and when I think of white supremacy I associate it far more at the South than I do with the North, even though there’s plenty of it in the North.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I can only speak on the South because I grew up here. I’ve lived here all my life. I do know that there is that perception, certainly because I have cousins that live in the North. Most of my Mom’s side of the family is in Detroit. My Dad’s side of the family is in Cleveland, and they’ve always kind of treated us as like the country cousins, you know?

David Dylan Thomas:
Mm-hmm.

Maurice Cherry:
Like for whatever that means, but i think there is that perception. Granted, I mean, I grew up in Selma, which, I mean, I think now certainly within the past maybe like 10 to 15 years has started to become something that’s in the regular zeitgeist because presidential candidates go there and there was a movie about it and all this stuff. I can tell you, when I first came to Atlanta in ’99 from Selma, people thought that I meant Salem, Oregon, because they had never heard of it.

David Dylan Thomas:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah, which is weird…

David Dylan Thomas:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… because like when you grow up in Selma, you are not divorced from the history of the Civil Rights Movement at all.

David Dylan Thomas:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
It is present. It is not just something that you learn about. It is everywhere. You are a byproduct of it. I’m the first generation outside of Bloody Sunday. Like it’s everywhere, I remember, oh God, was this fourth grade, fifth grade? When did I have my social study teacher? I think this was fourth grade, my social study teacher Mrs. Manz had shown me… Well, it was like a field trip. She had shown us a spot downtown where her blood was spilled because she got hit by a police officer 20-something years ago. You’ve never divorced from it.

It’s always around you, and even growing up in Selma, I mean, I’m using Selma as kind of a bit of an outlier here, but you are fully aware of the gravity of racism and the Civil Rights Movement and all that sort of stuff because you’re in it. You know, “Don’t go to this part of town after a certain time, don’t go to this grocery store.” You just know that, and even as politics change and you see how people change because of politics, and Selma’s another good example of this, we had a racist white mayor from Martin Luther King, Jr. Times like the ’60s up until he died right around 2000, Joe Smitherman. He famously called Martin Luther King Martin Luther Coon, like…

David Dylan Thomas:
Hmm.

Maurice Cherry:
… and like the fact that he still got elected year after year after year is strange in a city like Selma, particularly when Black people are the majority, but he died, and so the city got its first Black mayor. Many of the white citizens were so incensed by that that they closed businesses, moved roughly about five miles up Highway 22 and started their own city called Valley Grande.

David Dylan Thomas:
What?

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like something out of The Simpsons, you know? Like…

David Dylan Thomas:
This is why I’m afraid of the South.

Maurice Cherry:
… but I mean, it’s one of those things where you are cognizant of it and aware of it and you kind of just… I don’t say you kind of just deal with it, but it’s because you are aware of it and it’s such an ever-present thing that you know how to navigate within it.

When I left Selma and came to Atlanta, I mean, came to Atlanta, went to Morehouse, the school that King graduated from, and being in and around all of that history and everything, it’s like you’re just aware. You just know this is the world you live in. I think sometimes when people think of HBCUs, there’s this perception that you’re in a bubble in some ways, and in ways you kind of are. You’re in a bubble of being around only Black people and certain aspects of the diasporic African experience because it’s not just African-Americans that go to Morehouse.

Then, you get out in the real world and you meet other people and you know that it’s different. It’s just hard for me to describe it, I think, in a way because it’s just something that’s been ever-present. You just know how to deal with it because you see it in so many different ways. I mean, just racism in general, sometimes it’s super overt, sometimes it’s covert. It’s just all this kind of a thing that you recognize. It’s a cognitive bias to put it… to kind of like, I guess, bring it back to your book and everything.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s just something that you know about, you’re aware about, and because you know about it and you’re aware about it, you know how to effectively work through it, work around it, or work to include it in some way. I mean, even what I do with this show and in the design industry is very interesting, we’ll just put it that way.

David Dylan Thomas:
Hmm.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say my time growing up in the South and in Selma and everything has taught me to deal with a lot of the stuff that I deal with in terms of just discrimination from this show that it’s just like, “Okay, I know that’s going to be a thing. I can work around that.”

David Dylan Thomas:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I can deal with that. I’m not going to let it stop me or bog me down or get me down in some way. It’s just a general awareness of it to the point that I know this is a thing. I’m just going to have to kind of work through it, work around it to try to make it better or to try to circumvent it or something. You just… It’s just always a thing that’s present. You just know that it’s always there. Even your mentioning about like the Klan, I mean, Selma has a Klan hall. One of our housing projects is named after the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan…

David Dylan Thomas:
What?

Maurice Cherry:
… Bedford Forest. One of the… It’s not an all-white school, but it’s pretty much an all-white school. One of the schools there is John T. Morgan, which is also named after a Klansman. It’s a thing that you know about. Even one of the cemeteries has a Klan monument in it. You know that it’s there so you don’t fuck with it. You don’t deal with it. You know like this is a thing not to deal with, so you just work around it or don’t deal with it. It’s kind of hard to describe, but

David Dylan Thomas:
No…

Maurice Cherry:
… but yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
… no, I think I see, and what it reminds me of is I talked to a guy from Singapore…

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… and Singapore does not have free speech.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
You talk shit about the president, you are not necessarily going to go to jail, but you’re going to get sued into oblivion. I was asking him about it and it was this thing where it was difficult for him to answer because it was sort of like asking a fish about water. It was just sort of like, “Of course they are.” You don’t fuck with it, but you also don’t necessarily… It wasn’t really affecting his day-to-day. It wasn’t like every morning he wakes up and thinks, “Oh God, I wish I could say shit about the president.” That’s just not a thing, and I don’t know, it’s interesting, but what you said makes perfect sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Even that sort of description you mentioned about asking a fish about water, that’s just how it is. Sometimes things happen and you’re like, “Well, that’s just how it is.” Some of it is unfair. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you just deal with everything and just sort of shrug your shoulders about it, but at least you are cognizant and aware of the fact that it is happening. You know why it’s happening, you know the cause from which it stems. It’s not just like out of the blue. You know this is how people are like. I mean, I can give you another example. Now, we’ll bring the interview back to you, but I know you asked about me, but…

David Dylan Thomas:
No, that’s cool.

Maurice Cherry:
… but I mean, when I was graduating high school, my guidance counselor was doing everything in her power to not want me to go to college. She wanted… The one white guy that was in our class, all-Black class and one white guy who happened to end up becoming valedictorian, but that’s a whole other story, but was doing everything to get him into college, giving his applications and all this sort of stuff.

Then, she’ll turn to me and be like, “Well, why don’t you think about learning a trade? You could go to the community college. I know your mother works there. My husband works there. You could go there and learn a trade. People always need air conditioning. We live in the South. What about HVAC?” I’m like, “Ma’am, I have a 4.5 GPA. What are you talking about? Are you daft?” I mean, this is also at the time when computers really started to be put into libraries and stuff like that, so I just did a lot of research on my own, but she was actively not wanting me to go to college like…

David Dylan Thomas:
Hmm.

Maurice Cherry:
… not helping with applications. She would give… The guy’s name was Gary. She would give him application vouchers for application fees and stuff and…

David Dylan Thomas:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… then she would tell me about, “Have you thought about welding? Welding could be a good trade for you.” “Ma’am, I’m taking AP Calculus, what are you talking about?” Welding, so it’s just stuff that you deal with and you’re like-

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Whatever.” Yeah, that’s a tough nut to crack, but let’s bring it back to you since we’re talking about beat. Let’s talk about your upbringing and your backstory.

David Dylan Thomas:
Uh-huh.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re right outside of Philly right now in Media. Is that where you’re originally from?

David Dylan Thomas:
No, so I was born in Columbia, Maryland. It’s the city that’s basically right in between D.C. and Baltimore, and I grew up… My mother and father split when I was very young. I didn’t really get to meet him, get to know him until I was like 25 years old.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
That’s very formative, and my mother was amazing. She really always made sure that we knew, like me and my sister, we knew we were loved and we knew that we could be whatever we wanted to be. Nothing could stop us, and she also really, really went to great pains to make sure we were educated, so for all of those things and much more, I’m always eternally grateful to her. She passed in 2011. From a very young age, I was writing, I was reading at a young age. Very smart, doing al of the smart Black kid things, and having to sort of like… It’s interesting. My earliest experiences of racism were actually coming from Black kids who didn’t-

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… understand why I talked the way I do, why I didn’t talk Black and that was… I think every Black person has the story of when they realized they were Black. That was it for me. It’s like the way I was talking was different from the way the other Black kids were talking. Weirdly, that’s how I found out I was Black because I wasn’t talking the way I was supposed to with this flat, not African-American vernacular we would call it now, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
That was also sort of an interesting wrinkle for me growing up, but I was always interested in filmmaking. I still do it today and I did it ever since high school, and that’s the sort of content in my content strategy trajectory really comes from that storytelling aspect. I went to Friends School of Baltimore, very prestigious school. Again, my mother went to-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
… great pains to make sure I was able to get in there, went into debt for that, and then ditto for Johns Hopkins University, which I originally went for electrical engineering, and then found out I was bad at that and switched to writing seminars and kind of got a concentration in theater and film.

I’m there, this is like the mid-’90s, and I’m armed with this like really solid… Basically I know how to think now that I’ve been through college. I know how to think and I know how to write, and for four years I’m just working in a record store because if you remember in the mid-’90s, there was like yet another recession slump. Nobody had any jobs-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
… so for four years I worked in a record store, which was actually kind of fun, and I just worked on whatever independent movies came to town. Then, after that, I finally got a job that more or less had to do with my major, which was being a online writing tutor for a CTY, Center for Talented Youth’s online writing courses, basically giving junior high and high school students these college-level narrative nonfiction courses on CD-ROM. That’s how long ago we’re talking.

Then, they go into an online forum to submit their work and to their workshopping, workshop those things. That’s when I really kind of fell in love with the web because what I was seeing the web do was take people, students who lived all over the world and might never meet each other in person, and they get to talk about sports and homeschooling and all these other things. That was amazing to me. That was just… The potential for the web to bring people together was where I really fell in love with it, and I’ve worked in tech in one form or another ever since.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, just to kind of give an idea, I’m trying to sort of place this within the context of history, I’m guessing this is roughly around like early 2000s?

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, so I worked at CTY from 2000 to around 2004.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Yeah. The web was really, I mean, it’s hard, I think, probably for people now to really know about this or think about it because, I mean, it’s been 20 years, but the web back then was just exploding in terms of new experiences, new things to discover. The technology itself with browsers and such were growing at such a rapid pace. I think about that time so fondly. I mean, I was in college right around the time I graduated in ’03, but that was such a magical time to be into the internet and the web because the big agents that are around now did not exist. It’s hard to think of an internet without social media, without Facebook, without Twitter, but I don’t know, maybe it’s rose-colored glasses. I don’t know. I think about that time so fondly with just the web being a fairly idyllic place. I might be romanticizing-

David Dylan Thomas:
No, I think-

Maurice Cherry:
… it a bit.

David Dylan Thomas:
… I don’t think you are. Actually, my new talk, I start out talking about personalization and how today it is almost impossible to find a website that doesn’t have a login, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
You go back to the early web, zero websites had a login. It was just this big art gallery-

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… and you’d have things like Homestar Runner, which to this day has no login option. The Homestar Runner you see is the Homestar Runner I see-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
… but every other website, you see a different version that’s personalized to you, and there are real psychological stakes for that because it basically makes it seem like the entire world revolves around us.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
You could be forgiven for believing that because on the web it does. Literally, every website you go to is custom-made for you, so that was not always thus. The early web was just a place where a lot of weirdos were just putting up like, “Here are my opinions about Star Trek. Here is this weird animation. Here is a bunch of things about badgers that’s like saying, ‘badger, badger, badger over [inaudible 00:48:23].'” It was sort of like if you think about the creativity you see in a place like TikTok where people… Some people are there being very money-minded and trying to do a business, but some people are just putting up weird, fun shit, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
That’s the early web, it’s just here is… Yeah, there’s a definite difference there, and there was a gold rush that came where people started realizing, okay, they can make a lot of money off of this by taking what was like the open web, something like an mp3, which is a format for music that isn’t owned. It’s free. Anyone can use it and changing that into a format that’s proprietary so, “Oh, if you want to play that movie, you have to do it on this browser, in this website, using our technology, and if you try to copy it, God help you.”

That was how we moved into the web we have now, which is much more capitalistic, much more predatory, and it’s basically, “Every way we can possibly make a buck off of you we will.” The early web was more like, “Hey, look at this new toy. What can we do with it?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The early web was also just a place where you could play, I guess play… I mean, I’m using play in sort of a broad sense, but you’re playing without consequence. Like you said, there’s no… Aside from there also not being any logins back then, there was no tracking really. Google Analytics wasn’t a thing. The way that you found other people were visiting is if you had a hit counter on your website, or if you had a…

David Dylan Thomas:
[inaudible 00:49:46]-

Maurice Cherry:
… guestbook-

David Dylan Thomas:
… web counters. I’m like-

Maurice Cherry:
… and someone signed it, you know? You didn’t know.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There wasn’t all this sort of stuff to sort of track your movements across the web and like, “Oh, you went here? Where did you go next? Where did you go after that? What purchases did you make?” None of that existed, and you could really… The thing that I… It’s funny. I tell this to my… I have two goddaughters, they’re nine and twelve, and I tell them that back when there was Windows 95, how when you logged off there would be this message that would pop up that would say, “It is now safe to turn off your computer.” There was a time when you could turn things off.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
TV had a stop time.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
At 12:30, those test bars came on and you went to bed. There was nothing else to sort of keep you up. You know what I mean? It’s so different now with everything being so tracked and analyzed and stored and sold to other companies. It’s just the web now is so different, and I think about that a lot in the context of “creating content.”

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You’ve been writing, you’ve been making podcasts, you’ve done web series, et cetera, and I do want to talk about your podcast work, but you’ve been creating content online for over 20 years. How have you seen content online change during that time?

David Dylan Thomas:
There’s a dichotomy there because the original sin of the OpenWeb, and Anil Dash talks about this in a talk called The Web We Lost.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
The original sin of the OpenWeb was that it was very, very privileged. If you did not know how to code at some level, it was very difficult to create content on the web. What Facebook did, what Twitter did, what all these walled gardens did was make it easy to create content, make it easy to put it on the web.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
In exchange for that ease, we gave up data. The plus side of that was a lot of poor people got to make content. I don’t know another way to say it. If you look at Vine, back in the day before it collapsed, there was some amazing BIPOC content going up there, especially BIPOC humor. There was so much like I would say sort of innovative work being done, and some of that has bled over into TikTok as well. There are people who are creating content today who could not have made it otherwise because of Facebook, because of Vine, because of Twitter, because of TikTok. The trade-off was, “Oh, now we have your data. Now we can track you everywhere.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
I don’t think it had to be that way. I think that governments could have stepped up to say, “We think it’s important that people who aren’t privileged are able to make content. I think that different business models could have arrived that were better than that, but I don’t think any of that was likely because we live in America. We live in capitalist country in a largely capitalist world where people are incentivized, are told from a very early age your highest value, the best thing you can do is make money, so the likelihood of having a web that is sort of built on the idea of lest as many people responsibly make content as possible is not likely. This is not going to happen. The way I’ve seen content change over time since I started doing it is it is way easier than it ever, ever, ever, ever was-

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… but it has come at the cost of data. It has come at the cost of misinformation. I will always, if I have to choose between a privileged few being able to create content and a whole lot of people being able to create content, I’m always going to choose a whole lot of people, even if it means the odds of disinformation going up. The fact of the matter is, the odds of disinformation don’t go away if it’s only a privileged few. In fact, depending on who those privileged few are, the odds of disinformation skyrocket.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
You know what I mean? So-

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think we’re definitely seeing that now with Twitter’s recent change in ownership.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, so that’s a lot of why I talk about what I talk about now is this idea of I want people to understand what that balance is like and that it is good for lots of people to be able to create content. We don’t know how to deal with that yet. Somebody was pointing out so people talk about these unprecedented times, and I always get kind of like, “Really?”, when people say something like, “Yo, we’ve had.” There’s a lot of people who’ve been living in precarity for a long time now. It’s just more middle class people. More white people are having to deal with black people shit than ever before and they’re calling that unprecedented. I’m just…

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… [inaudible 00:54:26] that, like poverty and health problems and all these other things. Other people have had to deal with that before, but what I do think is unprecedented is two things.

One, we have never, ever, ever, ever had 8 billion people on the same planet at the same time. Just hasn’t happened, and two, they have never all been able to talk to each other at exactly the same time. We’ve never had many too many communications at scale instantly ever, like ever, ever, ever. That’s never happened, so why should we be good at it? Why would we expect we’d be even remotely good at it? Especially if it’s all being done through a capitalist lens. It makes sense that we’re fucking this up, but I think we need to focus up on, how do we do this? I think it’s important to preserve our access to each other. I think it’s critical, but I don’t think we know how to do it yet.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you mentioned something here just about the fact that we’re dealing… I mean, I think the unprecedented part of what you’re saying is just that, yeah, we don’t really have those mechanisms available, even though communication now is easier than it has ever been just because of the technology. You can text, you can FaceTime, you’ve got WhatsApp and Instagram and all these sorts of things, but I don’t know if the tools are necessarily facilitating the conversations in that way.

David Dylan Thomas:
Well, and I think it’s really, really important to understand that the societal work has to come first.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
There’s a great Twitter thread where someone talks about how this comes from actually an episode of The Orville, I guess, but there’s a character… The Orville is kind of like a Star Trek kind of show. There’s this character from an impoverished planet that asks the Federation, basically the spaceship, “Hey, why don’t you give us all replicators?” A replicator, for those who aren’t geeks like me, basically just a device that can just make anything you want. It just out of thin air it just makes it, so food, clothing, whatever. It just makes it. “Why don’t you give us all replicators and then we can be as peaceful as you are?” The guy from The Orville explains, “That you got it backwards. The only reason we were able to develop the replicator technology in the first place was because we got over our shit.

We were able to actually support each other to the point where we could coordinate to make something like that. The guy goes on, the Twitter thread goes on to say, “Look if we had replicator technology, if Twitter developed replicator technology, they would license it. They would make it so that if you don’t keep paying your subscription fee, or give us data for advertisers, it would stop working. Different companies and then different countries would be like, or different political groups would be like, “Oh, replicated meat is ruining the meat industry, so we’re going to say that replicated meat is bad and evil and I’m going to run on that platform so I can get votes.”

He basically breaks down all the ways that the greatest technology in the world can be ruined by people. People have to get their shit together first. Then, you can do good things with the technology. Yeah, we’re going to keep using social media for shit because we the people have shit that we need to work out. We have trauma that we need to get over. We have all these sort of agreements we need to actually make with each other before we can even have a hope of actually using the technology in a positive way.

Maurice Cherry:
Amen to that, amen to all of that. Society has to work through their own biases and other shit before we can really start to have the technology serve us, hopefully in a positive and constructive way. Just to kind of bring it back to the earlier conversation we had around content, to you, what does content strategy mean now? I mean, you’ve been a content strategist since before the title really came to be in this industry, and like I said, you’ve been creating content online in many different media for over 20 years and across several different fields, I should mention. To you, what does content strategy mean now?

David Dylan Thomas:
Organizational change. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s doing some work with the G20, and long story short, she was talking to someone about trying to get more buy-in around content strategy with her stakeholders and the person was like, “Don’t call it content strategy. Call it what it is. It’s organizational change.” Even from day one, so like 10 years ago I get my first official job. I’d been doing content strategy before, but I get my first official job where it says, “Content Strategy” on my business card. Within a week, I turned to one of the strategists at the organization and I ask then, “How much of our job is just doing interventions?” Hey says, “90%.” I’m like, “Oh, okay, I get it now.”

Yeah, I do content audits and I do this and that, and I built content models and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and I make these artifacts, but at the end of the day, none of that means anything if I can’t work out your political problems, your organizational problems, your biases, all of the stuff, half of the examples in my book come from real-world experience I had working with clients, which is why I think it’s valid, frankly.

I’m glad I went through those experiences because I don’t think my book would make any sense otherwise, but yeah, it is people stuff. It’s messy people stuff, and content strategists are at a great position to witness and document the outcomes of the messy people stuff. If you have no taxonomy, if you have paths that don’t make any sense, if your language only makes sense to certain people in the organization with certain seats of power, all of that is just the outcome of people stuff, messy people stuff.

When you’re really… I’ve never seen a content strategy work lest there be organizational change that preceded it. If you did not fix the organizational problem, the best content model in the world isn’t going to help. I mean, the same thing with UX, same thing with dev. I think content strategists in particular get exposed to that first if they are kind of looking because they’re kind of the first ones under the hood looking at, “Okay, let’s take a look at your content inventory. Let’s take a look at your… Let’s do an audit.” You get to see those outcomes firsthand…

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… but yeah, so I think call it what it is, organizational change. I spent 10% of my time as a content strategist creating these like artifacts like from an effort perspective. I spent 90% of that effort trying to convince you that it works.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

David Dylan Thomas:
That’s what I’ve seen is a shift toward understanding that, or at least personally what I see, and that’s the other thing. I don’t feel comfortable commenting on content strategy like per se because I haven’t worked with a client in three years. It’s like, “Don’t ask me, ask the people on the ground what content strategy is.” My observation is that it is becoming clearer and clearer that content strategy is, in fact, organizational change, and to varying degrees, absolutely UX, absolutely design, absolute… There is no service industry in terms of like, “I am building you a website,” or, “I’m helping the organization do X, Y, or Z.” That is not on some fundamental level organizational change. That’s the shift I’ve seen.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, as I mentioned, you’ve done a lot in your career, events, web series, talked about podcasting. I have to ask about the podcast because you’ve done several. You’ve been host, you’ve had your own podcast. When did you really start getting into doing that?

David Dylan Thomas:
I was in podcasts before it was cool. Do you remember Odeo?

Maurice Cherry:
I remember I was on Odeo.

David Dylan Thomas:
Do you know what Jack Dorsey was up to before Twitter?

Maurice Cherry:
I remember. I do, I do. I remember Odeo in like 2004-2005. Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
My friend, Kevin Smokler, wonderful author and filmmaker in his own right, convinced me or we partnered up. Basically he’s my best friend, so we partnered up and said, “Hey, let’s do a podcast about movies.” We’re just going to talk about it because we’re both huge movie buffs. We called it Talking Pictures, and our first episodes, I believe, were posted on Odeo. Then, we moved on to other things later. That’s back in 2006 or so I started doing podcasting. I’ve never done it with any sense of like, and again, this is that arc. The early days of the web, you just did stuff because it was fun. You weren’t trying to get followers. You weren’t trying to make a fortune. You were just, “Hey, I can post something, and like hundreds, hundreds, hundreds of people could potentially see it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
Wow. You have to understand, that was new. The only way to hear your voice on the air was to go on the actual radio. There was no like… The idea of just putting something online and having other people witness it that you will never meet was just a totally new thing. It didn’t matter if it was five people or 5,000 people. There just wasn’t as much a thing as it is now where it’s like, “Well, if I don’t get a million followers, what’s the point?” Yeah, and then many years later, I did The Cognitive Bias Podcast because basically I had been reading up on cognitive biases ever since I saw a talk by Iris Bohnet called “Gender Equality by Design.” It blew my mind, and she was the first one to start connecting the dots for me around here is this bias and here’s this impact, and here’s how design influences that.

It lit a fire under me to learn about cognitive bias, so I literally went to the The Rational Wiki Page of Cognitive Biases and just looked at one bias a day. I would pick a bias and I’d learn about it. Next day, go on to the next one. This turned me into the guy who wouldn’t shut up about cognitive bias, so my friends, and I remember one friend in particular who worked for Ted at the time was like, “You should do a podcast.” When someone who works for Ted is like, “You should do a podcast,” you listen. I’m like… Okay, at the time, I had a job that I only worked four days a week, so I had Fridays off, and so I was like, “I’ve already studied all these biases. What if I just do a podcast where I talk about one bias? Then I just would kind of reacquaint myself with a bias, make some show notes, and then just turn on the mike and talk.

I could wrap that up within an hour, and one hour every Friday was super manageable, so yeah, I just started posting it. Again, I wasn’t with the intent of like, “Oh, I’m going to grow this big audience.” It was more like, “Hey, this would be a fun thing to do,” and people tell me that they’re interested. Yeah, and it just grew and grew and grew and grew. It was never like… I never got to the point where I was like, oh, getting advertisers, or anything like that because frankly I’m too lazy. I just don’t have the energy to… I don’t care about that enough to build a whole business around it, but I care enough to do this thing, and it led to all these other things like giving the talk in Copenhagen, like writing the book. My experience from career perspective is that that’s how it works.

You may have a plan, you may not have a plan, but if you are diligent and lucky, and I stress the lucky because I don’t want people to think, “Oh, some people are just better than others and the ones who have all the hustle get the good shit.” No, the ones who have the hustle are persistent and that helps if the lucky thing happens, but there’s also luck. There is privilege, like I was born lower middle class to a mother who really cared about education, which put me in a better position to be able to get education and so on and so forth. There are people in my life who have cared about me and supported me…

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… so that wasn’t something I planned and then happened because I’m so fricking awesome. No, it happened because of just all of the chaos theory things that happen in life-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
… but when those things happened. I was prepared to say, “Yeah, I will do a hundred episodes of this podcast. I will go out and give all these talks.” I’ll… I think it’s a mix of those two things.

I always stress that because I won’t want people to forget about privilege. I don’t want people to forget about privilege. I don’t want people to forget about the social structures that limit our opportunities, and I really, really, really don’t want people to fall into the trap of thinking some people are just better than others. That’s one of the most horrific doctrines…

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… in the history of the world. I’m not even a little bit overstating it. I always stress that, “Hey, I’m not here because I’m so fucking awesome, I’m here because I tried really hard. I care about these things. I was passionate about these things. I did it in a context where very fortunately these other people were in my life and I was born in this particular place at this particular time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
There are a lot of things that I didn’t have control over that played in my favor, as well as some that played against me, but it isn’t just don’t think that some people are better than others. That’s the thing I really try to avoid when I’m telling my story.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m so glad that you mentioned that just kind of in the context of the work that you do and how that places you with where you are now. It’s a combination of things. This wasn’t something that was just handed to you. I mean, we’re talking about privilege, too, but also it’s kind of by privilege, I don’t want to say by privilege, but it’s also by fact of just being early, being around at the time that this technology started to pop off in a way where people could really take advantage of it and make livelihoods out of it. I think about some of the early projects that I’ve done, the Black Weblog Awards, and in 2015 I did a whole podcast about tea for a year. I just did like…

David Dylan Thomas:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… short bursts, less than five-minute episodes about tea, one episode a day. I called it The Year of Tea…

David Dylan Thomas:
Oh.

Maurice Cherry:
… because I only did it for a year, and I could do that now. Maybe people would pay attention to it, maybe they wouldn’t. I hate the fact that content creation is now under not just the filter of algorithms, but also the lens of like how many likes or shares or whatever it gets.

The early web was just so much about doing things because you could do them and no one else was doing them, so you’re like, “Well, I’ll just do it and maybe it becomes something, maybe it doesn’t, but I’ll also not doing it for it to try to become something. Like…

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s… I don’t know, it’s hard, I think, to explain in the current context because so much of what’s done now is just filtered through engagement.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s as you kind of said earlier about fuck engagement, but everything is like, “Well, are people paying attention to it?” Who cares? Are you doing it because you like it? You know? Like… oh yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
Who is being helped? I think that’s the other sad truth about the early web is it wasn’t particularly, I won’t say exclusively, but it wasn’t necessarily… It wasn’t helping people, I think, necessarily in the way that there’s the potential for it to help people now. Some of the early shit like Ushahidi was awesome where it was like this tool for helping people know where to avoid violence during the Kenya elections of 2007. It became this disaster relief tool. I think people… I wanted to see more of that out of the early web. I was perfectly happy to see us just kind of fuck around and do cool shit, but I also wanted to see us, and I think some of us were, and I think it got harder in some ways after the web got commoditized. I want a web that where the metric isn’t how many people are looking at my shit, but how many people am I helping?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
That’s the web I want to see. That’s the metric I want to see.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s something with Revision Path, I’ve certainly… I don’t want to say I’ve come to terms with it over the years because when I started this, it really was just honestly as a continuation of a project that I did back in 2005. I started the Black Weblog Awards in ’05. In ’06, we had a category that was Best Blog Design. I was a blog designer at the time, designing movable type and WordPress sites. I was also working at AT&T at the time. I had other friends who were designers that were Black designers, and I just thought we weren’t getting any recognition in the industry. The magazines at the time, the conferences, we were not there, period. I wanted to do something about it, but couldn’t do it then.

It took me seven years until I started Revision Path, and now I’ve done that for 10 years as of this year. I’ll still run across people that think like, “Oh, this was just a fluke.” Like, “Oh yeah, you know, you’re just an overnight success.” Yeah, overnight since 2005. Come on, you know? I think about it in that context of like, “Is Revision Path ever going to be as poplar as, say, like Design Matters or 99% Invisible?” I don’t even look at the success of the show through that lens.

David Dylan Thomas:
Mm-hmm.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t. I mean, I could and then I would be like, “Oh, the show is failing.” I don’t think about it that way because we haven’t reached that level of, say, audience or general I would say design community knowhow or knowledge or penetration, largely because people, honestly, they see the word Black and they’re like, “It’s not for me. I’m not interested. Whatever.” Which I’m fine with, but the impact that the show is having on the design industry, I know that there are teachers that teach the class in their schools, so there’s a new generation of designers learning about current Black designers, that those current Black designers that I talk to never encountered other Black designers.

I’m helping to change the conversation around who can be a designer, the visibility of what a designer looks like, where a designer can be, what a designer can do, et cetera. I have to look at it in that sort of lens of this is the impact that it’s having and less about whether or not it’s getting a hundred thousand downloads or something like that.

David Dylan Thomas:
We never know truly the impact we have, and you’re reminding me of this little Twitter contest that happened at least a decade ago where Ashton Kutcher and Wil Wheaton basically said, “Okay, we’re each going to ask our followers to do some kind of charitable thing.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
I think the way it broke down was… I don’t know, Kutcher had a much, much bigger reach than Wheaton, but Wheaton, a higher percentage of his followers actually did the thing, so it may have been technically more of Kutcher, a larger number of people did the thing from Kutcher’s clan, but if you did it by percentages, maybe 50% of Ashton’s people did something. Whereas, like 90% of Wheaton’s people did something. It’s sort of like if I had to pick, right?’

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
I’m not sure. I feel like maybe I’d rather be Wil Wheaton in that scenario because the people who are following you mean it. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
It’s this tighter relationship, and increasingly I find myself defining success through relationship rather than through numbers. I’m working on this movie right now and I’ve decided the number one metric for success for the film isn’t going to be how much money it makes, it’s going to be, what are the relationships like during and after? Do I get to meet more people and form these new relationships? Do I get to strengthen existing ones? Because, A, that’s people I can work with again, and most of the experience making the movie is going to be working with people, so why would I not want that to be pleasant? B, I would much rather have that than have the movie just kind of fizzle versus have the movie be a huge success and we all hate each other when it’s over. That is not interesting to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
Where I’m at now, that’s just not interesting to me. Yeah, I feel you in terms of trying to not fall into the trap of it just being about the numbers and comparing yourself to other podcasts. I mean, my latest podcast, I’ve done two seasons of my new podcast called Lately I’ve Been Thinking About, and it’s nobody. There’s like… it’s like five people have heard it. The people who have heard it love it, but it’s sort of like compared to… Even compared to myself, it’s a failure in the sense of I don’t think it has nearly as much, as many plays as my Cognitive Bias Podcast, but I don’t care.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

David Dylan Thomas:
I actually am in some ways more proud of it because it’s the first podcast I’ve done that’s actually accessible. I’ve got a transcript now and I paid for the transcripts and I’ve got good… There’s certain things that I’m doing as a podcaster that I think is better podcasting than what I did with the first one, so…

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… to me, it’s not as cut and dry as like, “Am I getting more likes than Joe Rogan?”

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I’m hoping to get to that. I mean, I don’t want to say I’m hoping to get to that. I still am in the mind of creating things just to make them, and if it does, well, it does well. If it flops, it flops. It doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad idea. Maybe it’s bad timing, you know?

David Dylan Thomas:
Mm-hmm.

Maurice Cherry:
We did a design literary anthology we started in 2019 called Recognize, where we wanted to sort of cultivate like BIPOC design voices, et cetera. We did that in 2019. I think it went pretty well. The pandemic happened in 2020. That pretty much killed it, so we did one more year in 2020. I think I tried to do it in 2021 and it wasn’t working. It did not have the impact that I wanted it to have. I’m going to bring it back one day. I’m going to find a way to do it again because I still feel that it’s super important, especially as I start seeing more Black designers and Black creatives like writing books and stuff. I still want to do that because there was a time, and not too long ago, I’d say maybe roughly, I don’t know, maybe five, six years, maybe a little bit longer than that, but I feel like there were prominent design voices online. Not necessarily authors, but like you have venues like A List Apart. I remember when Designer News used to be a thing before it turned into a graveyard, but there used to be places where you could read writing about design.

David Dylan Thomas:
Mm-hmm.

Maurice Cherry:
There was AIGA, had Eye on Design. I think there might have been a couple of others. Now you see things and they’re mostly just glorified tutorials, which is not to say that’s a bad thing, but who’s the next generation of design writers? The current generation is either, I mean, not to be morbid, but they’re either dying or nobody’s paying attention to them anymore. Who’s going to be the next generation that are going to be talking about the things that are important? I feel like it’s going to be us and our generation, like you, of course, with your book and the works that you’re doing, hopefully me with this podcast, but there are more design voices out there that need to be cultivated. I feel like it’s going to mostly be designers of color that are the ones that do that.

David Dylan Thomas:
Mm-hmm.

Maurice Cherry:
How do we bring back Recognizing the Future? I don’t know. I’ll have to noodle on it some more, but I still think it’s important because it’s just important. I still think it’s something that needs to be out there. You know, did it do well the first time we did it? No. It’s just a timing thing. I’ll find a way to bring it back.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah, and I hope you do, and frankly, I think that the… I’ll say women and people of color are going to be like the new design voices, and I think they’re Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Eva Penzey Moog, Sheryl Cababa…

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… all these folks are doing great work, but I think that the new design voices are also going to be political. I think that’s the difference. I think that’s…I think it’s going to be increasingly difficult to tell the difference between good design voices and political activists. I think…

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. Hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… that is… and frankly, there are periods in design history, like look at Bauhaus, there are periods in design history where that has been the norm where… I mean, design has always been political and sometimes it’s more pronounced than others. I think, I hope, we’re entering into a time where it is this thin, thin line between kind of activist voices and design voices, especially as we come into this period where we’re really realizing racism is designed, sexism is designed, transphobia is designed. All this injustice is designed-

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

David Dylan Thomas:
… and can be undesigned. Social equality can be designed. People treating each other humanely can be designed as well, but that there’s this, I don’t know, increasingly, and maybe this is just the voices I’m listening to, but increasingly I’m seeing design and discourse becoming more human and less technical.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. Yeah, I’m definitely starting to see that as well. I mean, I look at what I did for… I mean, I’m trying not to keep bringing it back to me, but I’m seeing it with things like, where are the Black designers? Which was kind of an offshoot of a talk I did in 2015. Mitzi Okou ended up doing a conference around it for two years starting in 2020. Now, it’s sort of grown out to be its own thing. They’re partnering with agencies and stuff, so I’m starting to see the byproducts and the effects of the work, and that to me is how I measure the success of what I’m doing or the impact that I’m having is that it’s reverberating out into the industry in other ways.

If I do something and it doesn’t go well, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea was bad. Maybe it was just the execution or the format or the timing, like those… Again, with the way that the modern web is and everything being geared around algorithms and numbers and such, just because something isn’t seen doesn’t mean that it’s not in some ways a success.

David Dylan Thomas:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What keeps you motivated and inspired to keep going?

David Dylan Thomas:
A couple things. I mean, people mostly. I have a wonderful wife, a wonderful son, I have wonderful friends, and just seeing them thrive or meet challenges helps. I think what also helps, frankly, is once you study things like cognitive bias in the human mind, you start to get a really great respect for uncertainty. Uncertainty can be scary, but it can also be invigorating, and so one thing that makes me hopeful about the future is that I am terrible at predicting the future and that, in fact, everyone is terrible at predicting the future. That’s just something we know. We’ve looked. People suck at it. I used to fancy myself a futurist until 2020, and then it was like, “Oh, it was adorable how much I think I could predict about the future.”

Now, I’m like, “Oh, something happens, Ron DeSantis will do some ignorant shit in Florida,” and I’ll be like, “Oh my God, we’re all doomed.” I’ll feel my feelings, but then I’ll remember, “Oh, right, I have no fucking clue what’s going to happen.” I don’t. I really don’t, for better or worse. I cannot accurately predict the dystopia and I cannot accurately predict a utopia. All I can do is what I can do, and what I can do is I can go around and get people fired up about inclusive design, get people fired up about treating each other like humans. That’s something I can do. I can go make my art, make my movies that I feel are going to have an impact and express these things and that might even bring me some healing. I can treat my family well. I can support my friends. Those are the things I can do. What I can’t do is predict the future, and that means I have just as much right to hope as I do to despair. I have equal access to both of those things because neither of them are accurate.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to someone out there that they’re hearing your story, they’re hearing about your work, and they sort of want to try to go into that direction? Not necessarily following your footsteps, but they want to be a more active designer as it relates to the issues and the things that you’re talking about. What advice would you give them?

David Dylan Thomas:
I would give them the advice that I give at the end of my newest talk, which is say sit down with a piece of paper and write down what you believe in at the level of like for me, it’s compassion, creativity, curiosity, connection, open-mindedness, spirituality. I just write these things down. Literally, I have them in a Trello, like straight up they’re in a Trello. Then, I look at them from time to time pretty regularly, actually, and I remind myself what I believe in. When I have to make a decision, like a hard decision, I look at that and I say, “Well, which course of action is more compassionate? Which course of action favors creativity?”

It’s not always an even mix. Sometimes it’ll be like, “Okay, well, this decision would be more compassionate, but less creative or whatever.” I have to… It gives me a framework for approaching the world and it reminds me that it isn’t all chaos, that there are things I can control because when you sit down to write those values, that’s you. You get to decide what you believe in. You may not get to decide how much you get paid, you may not get to decide how other people treat you, but you get to decide what you believe in and that the degree to which you want to strive for those things. Honestly, everything else I’ve done aside from the just chaos of it all that I couldn’t control began from those things. I would say that’s the best first step.

Then, after that, I mean, if you want to know what I did, what I did was I doubled down as much as I could on the things I was passionate about to the degree that I could and I chipped away. I basically reached a point where rather than think about my day as, “Here’s my day job and here’s the time I spent doing what I love, and here’s my hobby or whatever, or my passion.” Instead, I broke it down into, “How much of my time am I spending doing what I love?” There were times during my work day I could, in fact, do 5% of that work day was doing something I love. Okay, maybe next year it’s 10%. Maybe next year it’s 15%. I chipped away, chipped away, chipped away until now, I’m at the point where I’d say 90% of my day is spent doing things I love, and then there’s laundry. That’s a 20-year journey, by the way, at minimum, so don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t happen in a week.

That, I’m speaking about that abstractly because I don’t have a path. There is no like, “Oh yeah, Dave, that’s who you follow if you want to become a podcaster/speaker/filmmaker/workshop-giver, I guess author.” That’s the thing, right? No, it’s just a bunch of shit I do and I love it and I’ve worked very hard at it, but it’s like no, there’s no… I didn’t sit down one day and say, “Oh, well, first I’m going to do a podcast, and then that’s going to get me some talks, and then that’s going to get me a book deal.” No, I didn’t know any of that was going to happen. I seized the opportunity when it did happen, but I didn’t know it was going to happen. I just knew I really care a lot about this, so I’m going to start talking about it.

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

David Dylan Thomas:
I mean, in terms of impact, it’s like I said, I want people to treat each other better and anything I can do to make that happen, but concretely, I’ve got this movie I’m making. It’s based on a true fact, which is that beneath Washington Square Park in Philadelphia and Urban Park in Philly there are buried the bodies of hundreds of enslaved people. What if they came back one night as zombies, but they only ate white people? Movie is called White Meat. I have finished the screenplay. I did a table read-

Maurice Cherry:
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… I want you to keep going. You completely have gagged me by talking about the zombies and called it White Meat. Oh my God. Continue, continue. Please continue.

David Dylan Thomas:
Oh no, no, so I did a table read in December with professional actors and an audience. It killed, and I’m now putting together a budget, maybe a pitch deck, so I’m moving forward with that. That is one of those if it takes me until my dying day, I’m working on it kind of thing, but I’m hoping it’ll only be like five years, so that’s one piece. When I’m done that, I kind of maybe have another book in me because this new talk, it keeps getting longer. It’s like this actually might be a book or one-man show, so I’m going to keep doing that, and I’m going to keep doing what I do. I’m going to keep going out and giving these talks and these workshops, but yeah, that’s where I see my energies focused over the next few years is really do what I do on the daily, but I really want to make this movie. That’s the number one creative priority for me right now.

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

David Dylan Thomas:
The one-stop shopping for me is daviddylanthomas.com. You can buy my book there. You can sign up for my mailing list. You can hire me to speak. All the good stuff is there.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. David Dylan Thomas, it has been an honor and a pleasure to have you on the show. I had a feeling that we were going to have a great conversation. We had, I think, a tremendous conversation. I just want to thank you for the work that you’ve done, the work that you’re continuing to do around not just helping us designers, people, et cetera, to uncover our biases, but also find ways to take that knowledge and then put it into action and to service to help make the world a better place. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

David Dylan Thomas:
Thank you so much for having me, and thank you for all the hard work you do with this podcast. Appreciate it.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Nakita M. Pope

We have all had to change things up in one way or other over the past few years. But if you’re like this week’s return guest, Nakita M. Pope, there’s power in pivoting! (You might remember her from my recent talk with Jordan Taylor, or from our 2016 interview.)

Our conversation started with catching up on what’s happened over the past few years, and Nakita spoke about some of her recent projects, including launching a business course and a subscription box turned online community — Bella Boss! We also talked about her work as a design educator, the recent closing of The Creative Circus, being awarded as an AIGA Fellow, and she shared how her passion projects have impacted her career. Nakita’s love for community and giving back really shines, and I think you’ll get really inspired by this interview!

Bella Boss

Branding Chicks

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Hi, I’m Nakita Pope. I am a designer, creative director, studio owner, and professor. I’m the chief chick at Branding Chicks, which is a boutique branding agency here in Atlanta, Georgia. And I specialize in brand strategy and brand development for women owned businesses and femme focused brands.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, the year has been a little bit of a whirlwind. I was just talking to someone the other day and telling them that during the pandemic, everybody, well, a lot of people kind of slowed down. Everything got a little bit slower. The pace wasn’t as rigorous. For me, everything sped up a little bit. It was super busy. And so I feel like 2022 has been about wrapping up that kind of frenzied level of work and of coming back to center a little bit. So it’s been some ups and downs, but it’s been a good year. I can’t complain. It’s been a great year.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish this year, before the end of the year?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, get some rest. That is my goal by the end of this year. I am wrapping up some things right now, and that’s my goal is to take this last quarter of the year, I don’t know if it’ll be the whole quarter, but I definitely want to take some time at the end of this year to just sort of recenter myself and get some rest.

I’m always doing so many things at once. I kind of like it that way, as a creative, it keeps me from being bored. But I’m starting to realize that it’s been a very long time since I stopped everything. And so I’m looking forward to taking some space to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Good. Definitely, take that space now before, say, oh, I guess before the winter really starts. But it kind of feels like any time between Thanksgiving and New Years is sort of a down period for everybody. You know what I mean?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So-

Nakita M. Pope:
That’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
… hopefully, you’ll get a chance to get some of that rest. I think we all probably need that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, indeed. Indeed, more than we think.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk about Branding Chicks. Now, you’ve been in business now for what, over 12 years, now, right?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s been a while. It went by so fast. That sounds crazy, 12 years.

Maurice Cherry:
How has your business changed since we last talked? That was back in 2016. How has your business changed?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s changed quite a bit. A lot of it has stayed the same, but so much of it has changed. I think part of what has changed… Well, I’ll start with something that’s stayed the same. So one of the things that stayed the same is I kind of always worked remotely, because I have sort of a niche sort of brand. I feel like I end up working with people all over. And so it’s not specific to Atlanta, necessarily. And so that was always kind of how I worked. But now since the pandemic and all that stuff, I find that it’s expanding even more, because other people are now looking outside of their geographic locations even more.

And understanding that they can do really robust and deep work with people, even if they’re not necessarily in the same place or able to meet face to face. So I feel like that has both stayed the same and also changed. I feel that I’ve also been able to work with some amazing organizations that are doing really great work that I feel really strongly about, personally. I’ve been able to do some deeper dives with some brands, and do some larger projects with some of those brands. And to me that’s growth, to allow me to do more of what I want to be doing, and more of where I feel that I can have the best impact. That’s how I measure success. So in that space, I’m really happy with the direction that things are going in.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you seen a change in the market with respect to the things clients are looking for? Have things shifted or changed during the pandemic?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, yeah. I think some of it, from a brand strategy standpoint, I’m noticing more and more that organizations and companies are starting to understand that even if they were already committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, they are looking to build that and bake that into their brands a bit more. Which I love to see, because that’s something I’m passionate about as well. And I know that in some cases we see companies doing that, and we’re not sure if it’s going to stick.

But from my perspective, when I see companies that come to me for that and they are looking at the foundational parts of their brand and their brand personality and their core values and things like that, if they’re baking it into those things, then I find that they are more deeply passionate about it and more committed to it. So I see a lot of that happening on my end, which, like I said, I’m really happy to see. And it allows me to work in some of those spaces that I work in outside of my business, also, in my business. So it gives me a chance to bring some of that knowledge in, and also, help people build brands that they feel like really represents them in every way. So I see a lot of that shifting.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first see that shift? I’m curious.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think 2020. I think when George Floyd happened, and so much of the conversation got so much louder. A lot of us have been talking about this for a long time, working in this space for a long time, both at the front lines and behind the scenes trying to make some of these things happen. But I think overarchingly after the nationwide, worldwide conversation got so much louder, I think that some of these companies are realizing that they need to change their ways. And/or if they were already committed to it, then they need to be even more vocal about their commitment. So I feel like that was the catalyst for a lot of it, to be honest.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, it’s all over the place. Most days I am working on client work. Two days a week, I’m usually teaching as a professor. But other than that, some days I’m also consulting or I might have a public speaking engagement or doing things like this, doing a podcast interview. So it really varies quite a bit from day-to-day. But I kind of like that, it keeps me from being bored, and it gives me a chance to dive deeper into the things that I care about and the spaces that I work in a lot of different ways. It’s all connected. It doesn’t feel disjointed to me. It’s all connected in some way, but it gives me a chance to touch it in different ways.

And they all feed each other. So all the things that I learned with my client engagements brings me into the consulting with other clients. All of those experiences I can bring to my students, and give them a more robust education about how we work with clients and things that I’m working on, and what the industry looks like and all that stuff. And when I’m doing industry stuff, then I learn some other things and then bring it back to some of those other things. So I feel like it’s all connected, but it does allow me to have a different day, every day.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, has the pandemic changed business for you in any way? I know we talked about sort of have you seen a change in the market, but since the pandemic has started, has that shifted how you do business?

Nakita M. Pope:
Not particularly, to be honest. I think just in terms of my processes and my creative process and stuff, that hasn’t changed very much. Like I said, I think more people are willing to work remotely. So that’s changed a little bit of the opportunities that I’ve been getting and people that are reaching out to work with me. I think from a logistical standpoint, I think more people want to be on video these days.

Like I said, I’ve worked with people all over the country for a while now, and most times people were completely fine with just a phone call. But now that everybody’s kind of been forced to work remotely, I think that video calls are now the go-to instead of the phone call. So from a logistical standpoint, that is something that I’ve seen that’s changed. Which I don’t mind most times, but it is definitely interesting to see a shift in that. But then I saw the uptick in it and then I saw the fatigue that came from it.

So now I’ve gone back to giving people a choice, “Listen, you don’t have to be on video if you don’t want to. Let me know what works best for you. I don’t want to make it more uncomfortable for you or make it more of a heavy lift to have this meeting.” So I try to be respectful of that too.

Maurice Cherry:
I say that also when I have meetings, I actually have two separate booking links, one is for phone, one is for Zoom. And I’ll only give the Zoom to people that I like. People that I want to see, I’m like, “You can get the Zoom call.” If you just hit me up out the blue and want something, a phone call is fine. It’s the same information. So I get what you’re saying though about having that option though. Because even I think with the fact that everybody’s getting on video, folks still have not really gotten used to it. We’re-

Nakita M. Pope:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
… what, two something years in and people are still like, “Oh, sorry about the background,” or the lighting is bad or whatever. And I’m not expecting studio quality video here-

Nakita M. Pope:
No, right.

Maurice Cherry:
… even though we are very much in the future. I’m not expecting that. But I don’t know, sometimes it’s different. Plus, there’s all these different video platforms. There’s Zoom, there’s Google Meet, there’s WebEx. What else do I have installed? I have BlueJeans. I have Teams. I’m like, Just pick up the phone.

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s too much.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, just pick up the phone. It’s the same information. It’s the same information.

Nakita M. Pope:
I’m going to have to steal that one. I might have two separate links too, now. Because mine was already set up, just the default was phone. And then I realized that all the instructions said, “I will give you a call at that time,” after they book. But I still get emails, “I didn’t ever see a link to a video call.” And I’m like, “That’s because it wasn’t really supposed to be one.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’ll say, “I didn’t see a link.” Or sometimes what’ll happen with people is they’ll say, “Oh, well I’m in the car going somewhere and I’m not going to be…” Just call me. Just call me.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s fine.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s fine.

Nakita M. Pope:
It really is.

Maurice Cherry:
The phone still works. It did not go away in the pandemic. It still works. I see that one thing that you’re offering now is a course. You’re offering a course called Building a Business Brand. Talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
That was something that I did in collaboration with Small Business Invoicing Company. And they were looking to just build a library of resources for their small business audience. And so I was able to do that with them and it was really great. It was a series. I think there were three modules. But we just talked about the benefits and the value of being able to build a brand for your business. Whether you’re creative or not, regardless of what type of business you have, I think most of us start a business because we’re really passionate about what it is that we do. We’re passionate about whatever that skill set is, whatever product or service that we are putting out there in the world. And so that tends to be for most people where your area of expertise is.

But that doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily an expert at being able to brand yourself or market yourself. Even creatives that are in these spaces every day struggle with that, because it’s hard to figure out what your personal brand is or your business brand is. Sometimes it takes having some help from outside. But we just talked about the fundamentals of that, and how much of a difference it can make to distinguish you in your category.

I hear all the time where some people are getting ready to start new businesses or they come to me and they’re like, “I’m starting a business that’s this, fill in the blank. And people are telling me that I shouldn’t start a business in this, because it’s oversaturated and there’s already so many people doing that thing.” And I was like, “Well, that’s really where branding comes in. The fact that you can establish a personality or some value-add or some way of talking about your product or service that’s different from everybody else is what’s going to stand out.” So it was really kind of built around that and it was super fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you thought about expanding into doing other courses?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, for sure. I’ve done lots of workshops here and there before, both under the umbrella of other organizations, and some independent ones on my own. And I don’t know when I’m going to tackle this, because like I said, I’m trying to take a little bit of a break, but I’m looking at, one of the things that I see is that, for me, I really care so much about what it is that I do. And teaching is something that’s really close to my heart.

So I’m always looking like, what do people need? What is it that people are struggling with? Or where can I have the most impact? And one of the things I see, especially for designers is that, and not just designers, actually people that are in marketing, for instance, some people who have design backgrounds or even people that are in coming from sales, often I hear people, “I want to talk about brand strategy. I want to get into that, but I have no idea how to make that transition.”

And for designers, especially going from strictly the visual identity and the creative side of things to talking heavily about strategy sometimes is a challenge. And it’s not because they’re not already doing it. Because that was my situation, in retrospect, I realized that I was always a strategic designer. That was always a big part of my process. But I didn’t necessarily put it out there. I didn’t explain all of my process to my clients necessarily. I didn’t build it into my proposals. It just wasn’t at the forefront. But it was there underneath all the time. Before I designed anything, I did all the research. I looked at their competitors, I did all these things. But I realized that for most designers, it’s hard to make that transition, because they don’t know how to reposition themselves in the market in that way.

And they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know what they need to know to be able to take those parts that they may already be doing, and be able to go deeper with that and really make it a big part of their practice. And because that’s part of the process that I really love, I’ve always been looking at how can I do more of this? And then of course at some point I had that fork in the road, where I had to decide, am I going to position myself in this way? Or am I just going to make this a bigger part of my design process?

And so when I started Branding Chicks, that was the pivot for me to decide that I was going to make brand strategies the thing that I led with. And I still do a lot of design for my clients, but I also am now in a place where, probably, about half of my clients, I’m only doing strategy for, I’m not necessarily creating any deliverables on the design side. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like we’ve started to see designers probably over the past maybe four or five years, start to lean more into that strategy. Because it’s been pushed a lot to say-

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Yes, you can know how to do design, you can know the programs and the tools and the methods, but until you’re able to apply that in a business sense, then that’s when you’ll become truly effective.” Douglas Davis, who we both know, has a whole book about it. So it’s something that we’re starting to see a lot of designers try to go into. The thing with the courses, though, I’m really interested about, because I feel like courses are something that, and I’m dating myself here, I’m thinking way back to 2010, probably, even a little bit earlier than that, but do you remember CreativeLive? Does that sound familiar to you?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, I do.

Maurice Cherry:
CreativeLive used to do these multi-day courses with entrepreneurs would come in and they would teach. And I mean for the time it was pretty novel. I actually don’t even know what CreativeLive is doing now. But I know that something that is pushed on a lot of entrepreneurs, it’s like, “Oh, take the knowledge that put it into a course, and then sell the course.” Which is always an option, but are your clients going to be the same people that you want to sell your course to? It feels like it opens up a separate revenue stream, potentially. But then unless you’re just not a great salesman, that’s skills you have to tap into.

I tried to do courses when I had my studio, and even though I’ve taught before, I was like, “I don’t want to sell the course.” It didn’t feel right for me to sell the course. And I know that people do, this was actually a little bit before Skillshare, but people would do Skillshare and things like that. I taught at Mediabistro and I sort of did my courses that way. And it was easy because it was just like you had a PowerPoint, you had a microphone, you spoke all through the lessons and stuff like that.
And it works, but it did add on, for me at least, it just added on this extra dimension of sales that I have to do. And I’m like, “It’s not worth it. For the money that I’m getting from it, it’s not worth it for me trying to hustle on these courses. I’ll just get some more clients.”

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, I totally get that. And I agree with you. I don’t think that any of the courses that I’ve done previously or the one that I’m going to be doing about brand strategy isn’t really targeted towards clients. It’s much more targeted to other creative professionals more than anything else. So I look at it as a form of professional development, I mean, because I did the one that you’re talking about in partnership with someone else, that was meant to be an evergreen course, so it was fully recorded and all that kind of stuff. And so they’ll have it for a while and their audiences can access it whenever.

The way that I’m approaching my brand strategy course is I’m looking at it as sort of a masterclass. I want it to be hands-on and I want it to be small and I want it to be in real time, because I enjoy that part of teaching. And I feel like there’s so much so to learn, there’s so much to share, and there’s so many questions that people always have that this is born out of my day-to-day, and people that ask me these questions or they send me emails and those kind of things. So I’m looking at how can I help them in real time? I want to answer your question, not a general question like yours. I want to answer your question.

So I feel like, for me, I’m looking at sort of a masterclass kind of thing more than an evergreen, pre-recorded course. I think there’s a lot of value in those as well, but I don’t know if that’s what I really want to do. I just like the hands-on so much more, so that’s the way that I’m looking at it. Yeah,

Maurice Cherry:
I gotcha. So while we’re talking about teaching, I have to ask you about The Creative Circus. The Creative Circus is where you’ve taught for, how long have you been teaching there?

Nakita M. Pope:
I think this is my 13th year.

Maurice Cherry:
13 years. It’s closing its doors. Jordan Taylor, who I had on a couple of episodes ago, we talked about that. How do you feel about it?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s a set of mixed in motions. It really is. Other than some workshops here and there and some guest lectures and things like that, this has been my most continuous experience with teaching and it’s something that I truly love. So it’s always going to be something I truly love. I’ve seen so many talented people come through those doors, and it’s such an amazing alumni network. And so many people, I’m still connected to both that are still in the building, people that are graduates, former instructors, and things like that. So it’s a mixed set of emotions.

I’m excited about what my next chapter looks like. I know that frees up some mental and emotional space, and also some time to do some other things. So in some ways I’m excited about that, but I’m going to miss that place. I’m going to miss my students. So it’s definitely been some emotional times, up and down, over the last six months or so.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at that time, because you not only were there as a teacher, but you were advising, especially along DEI and stuff like that, what feelings in particular come to mind? Are there any sort of memories that you have specifically about your time there?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, so many. I think the things that stand out most to me is, as a teacher, the thing that you want the most is to watch someone’s light bulb go off. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I get it now.” And I’ve seen that happen over the years in multiple ways. Sometimes it’s about a course that I’m teaching, sometimes it’s about the DEI training that I might be doing, or it might just be those life conversations that I have with my students. I just love connecting with the students more than anything else.

So many of those moments are the ones that I hold close where they trusted me to tell me something about their lives or to ask for advice. I was able to help them with something that really made a difference for them in their professional careers or their academic careers. Those are the things that I’m going to keep close to my heart, because those are the things that let me know that I was having impact and made it all worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
When you step back and just look at, I guess, Atlanta as, I don’t know, I guess you could say a design education city, I feel like over, I’d say maybe the past 20 or so years, I mean, we had Atlanta College of Art, and then that went away. Now, there’s The Creative Circus that’s going away. I’ve heard there’s been some changes at The Portfolio center, which I think it’s now just called Miami Ad School, I believe.

Nakita M. Pope:
Mm-hmm. It is.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you feel about just the state of design education in the city? I mean, I feel like we’ve had these specialized colleges for a while that taught them, and then over the years they’ve sort of changed and went away in some way.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, lots of changes over the years. I think some of it… Well, one of the things, like you said, this is definitely a design education city. When I was on the board with AIGA, I was running the education committee, and we have seven design programs in metro Atlanta. That is unheard of for even most other metropolitan cities. So even the more niche schools that you’re talking about, there’s still, Georgia State has design programs, Georgia Tech has design programs, University of Georgia, which we kind of still count. There’s other schools as well that have designed programs even outside of The Portfolio School, and more specialized schools and things like that.

So it was just such a breadth of education in that space. I think that some of the changes are good. I think some of them are going to have some ripple effects. I think one of the things that has always been a struggle, and I think with the changes in the programs it’s going to add to it, is that even though so many people have been educated in design here in the city or around the city, they tend to not stay in the community for their professional pursuits.

They get their education in this space and then they move to another place. Which nothing is wrong with that, but that has been part of the challenge is trying to retain that talent here. Because I think sometimes, especially for those students who might move into the city specifically to go to school, they don’t necessarily always have time while they’re in school to dive into the creative communities here in a real way. So they only see the little bubble that’s created for them by their programs. So they don’t necessarily get a chance to see all that’s available and what the real Atlanta creative community looks like. So when it’s time for them to look for a job, they don’t always consider staying.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like there’s an ongoing trend in Atlanta about not being able to retain, or I would say appreciate creative talent.

Nakita M. Pope:
Nope.

Maurice Cherry:
Not just in design, I’m thinking specifically about music, but music, art, design, I feel like that’s an ongoing thing, where, and I mean we’re speaking of the city as it’s a person, but I don’t know if the city appreciates what it has and what it cultivates here to the point where people would want to stay here. There’s been several musicians that have blown up elsewhere, but when they were here in Atlanta, nobody would give them a chance. I’ve certainly had folks on the show who were from Atlanta, and they may have gotten their education here, but they had to go elsewhere to find opportunities or to do big things.

I’ve had other Atlanta folks that are, I would say, other educators and other business folks to ask, like, “Why do you think that’s the case? What is it about Atlanta that’s not making these people want to stay? Is it the workforce?” I would imagine there are other factors, just cost of living and traffic and stuff like that. But I even think about when I was in my 20s, I definitely, at one point. Wanted to leave. I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling.” This is well before I started Revision Path. But I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling in my career. I don’t know where else I can go from here, unless I move away.” Maybe that’s what plays into it. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think there’s a lot of factors. I think some of them, you’ve already tapped into. The other side of it, my experience is a little different from yours. I came here for grad school. I came here to go to Portfolio Center, which is now Miami Ad School. And I was going to finish my two years and I was going to just leave it open. Where do I end up? I don’t know. But everything is wide open for me. And so by the time I graduated, I was actually looking at moving to Seattle, but I graduated in the middle of a recession. So I shot my book all over the country, and people are like, “We love your work, but we’re on a hiring freeze. We’re not hiring anyone.”

So that meant that I ended up staying here. I mean, it took me a little longer to find a job and all those things. So I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll just stay here for a while.” And so I ended up getting my first design job here. And I think, honestly, that’s the best thing that could have happened for me. The other thing I’m aware of is that my situation also isn’t everybody else’s, is that because I’m independent and I’ve been independent for so long, I never really went through the process of trying to move up in a creative agency completely.

I worked in agencies. I worked in in-house. I’ve done a lot of those things, but on the short term, or I did them for a little while. And so I did a lot of that moving around in the beginning. But for the last 12 years, I’ve worked for myself. And so for all of the things that come along with being an independent creative, and there are many, both positive and negative, I think one of the biggest positives, and I can say this in hindsight now, is that there is no ceiling when you’re on your own. When you’re on your own, you create your own path, for better or for worse. You might make some mistakes. Whatever those things look like, you’re on your own. So I feel like, for me, I don’t know if I’d have been able to do all of the things that are available to me now had I stayed in a traditional agency environment for my entire career.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Nakita M. Pope:
And I don’t know if that’s the truth for everyone else. I know other people have taken that path and it’s worked out extremely well for them. I don’t know if it would’ve for me, and it’s hard for me to know, because I don’t have the opportunity to do both. I did some in the beginning, and now I’m here, and I think everybody’s path is their own.

But I do think about that often. What would that have looked like? And would I have gotten to a place where I was like, okay, like you said, I have to move away if I’m going to move up, or I have to go do this if I’m going to move up or whatever those things look like? So I think it’s different for everybody, but the landscape of what it looks like for different people and what your personal commitments are, and what kind of lifestyle you want to live and all those things really play into whether this is a good fit for you or not.

But on the flip side, I do think that Atlanta is a lot of creatives here. And I do feel like it’s a very supportive, creative community. So I don’t know, like you said, if the city itself does everything that it can, but I feel like once you find your people here, I feel like that network is amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
I agree. I agree 100%. Once you get into that niche and you find those folks, you find your tribe, your people, whatever you want to call it, there’s no limit to the things that you can even work on. And to speak to what you said earlier, I did have to leave. I had to leave where I was AT&T, strike out on my own, and then that’s when I started to really… Well, first of all, I could never have pictured staying AT&T. There are people who I used to work with back then in 2008 that are still there. God bless them, because it couldn’t be me, could not be me. I say that to say, though, I mean, everyone has their path, for some folks staying in that very comfortable, crucible of being a production designer, if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they want to do.

I just knew that I could do better than where I was at. And this is not a slight on the people that are still there, but I could do better. And I just didn’t know, when I think about Atlanta in 2008, I mean this is pre SCAD. This is pre a lot of larger tech companies setting up offices in such here.

Nakita M. Pope:
True.

Maurice Cherry:
This is pre Uber and Lyft. I was like, “I don’t have a car. Where am I going to find a good job? I got to catch MARTA somewhere, it’s wild.” So now I think the city is definitely different in that aspect. We do attract a lot of people that want to come here for, I think, just creative art stuff in general, not just for maybe design. But over the past 10 years, we’ve really blown up with television and entertainment.

Nakita M. Pope:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And that opens up a lot of roles in the creative space. So the environment here has just gotten a lot more rich since then.

Nakita M. Pope:
Agree. Agree, wholeheartedly.

Maurice Cherry:
Now speaking of the sort of Atlanta community, you mentioned AIGA. I just want to congratulate you on your recent AIGA Fellow Award.

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you. Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Such a great honor. AIGA, for those of you out there that don’t know, it’s sort of the national body of professional organization for designers. And so we’ve got chapters all over the country. The Atlanta chapter has been active for a really long time. And each chapter has the opportunity to award fellow awards to people in their community that they feel have really moved forward the area of design or made impact on the local, regional, and national level.

And I think our chapter has honored 32 people, possibly. No, 16 people. It’s a very short list, so I was honored for 2021. We just had the celebration a couple months ago, because of the pandemic and everything. But I was given the honor in 2021. So that was a magical moment for me. It gave me an opportunity to really celebrate my community and celebrate all the things that I’ve been able to do and touch, and people that I’ve been able to meet in this community. So it was really a great night.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I’m glad that the community has come around you to recognize all of the great work that you’ve been doing, and to have their support for you. So that’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it was a great honor. It was a great honor.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of other projects, I see that you have this project called the Bella Boss Box. How did you come up with the idea for doing a subscription box?

Nakita M. Pope:
So we talked about having your people. I feel like, I don’t know about you, but my friends are the ones that always get me into stuff, especially my creative friends. They’re the ones that call you with a bright idea and be like, “So this is what I’m thinking.” So it was kind of similar to that. One of my good friends, Nekeidra Taylor, and actually we met through a client. A client of mine introduced me to her because she was like, “I think you guys should meet.” And so this was years ago. And so we’ve been friends and professional colleagues for a while.

She’s in public relations. And so during the pandemic, we hadn’t done our normal check-ins or have coffee here and there, kind of thing. And so we finally had a check-in call, and we were just catching up and talking. And we just ended up talking about our journeys as entrepreneurs and what the pandemic had been like and our support systems and things like that. And the fact that without those support systems, we wouldn’t have been able to do half of the things that we’ve been able to do.

And so from that conversation, we started thinking about what must it be like for people, especially women, who are starting businesses or running businesses who don’t have that support system. I think that I’ve been lucky, personally, because of my network and people who’ve introduced me to other people or just friends of mine who I’ve been friends with for a long time, but who are now also business owners as well. And even if your friends and your family support you in what you’re doing, and sometimes they won’t, sometimes they just won’t understand.

But even if they do, if they’ve never done it before, they still don’t know what it’s actually like. And so sometimes it helps to have someone that you can pick up the phone and call and ask a question, and feel like it’s a safe space to ask a question. Or to just vent and be like, “Look, I’m about to go work at Popeye’s.” That used to be mine when I was really frustrated with being an entrepreneur. I’m like, “Yep, I’ll just go and work at Popeye’s. I like chicken. It’ll be fine.”

And you need those people that you can call and say that, and they totally get it. You don’t have to explain it, you don’t have to do anything. They’re just like, “Oh, it’s that day, huh? Mm-hmm. So what happened?” And so that’s kind of how it was born. We talked about it and she’s like, “No, I think you should do…” We talked about a subscription box. How could we build a community of women that would be able to connect with each other in that way? So we came up with the idea for a subscription box, and I was like, That would be really cool.” And she’s like, “You should definitely do it.” And I’m like, I should do it. Why, I got to do it?”

And so she’s like, “I don’t have time to do it.” And I was like, “Well, I’m not doing it if you’re not doing it.” And then next thing I know, we’re setting up an actual call to talk about it. And that was October 2020. And so we planned this whole thing and launched the whole thing during the pandemic. We launched in April 2021. We hadn’t seen each other in person until March 2021. So this was all done on Zoom, during the pandemic. Even though she lives here, we were still kind of staying away from everybody and stuff. So it was kind of crazy.

But it’s been awesome. I feel like we’ve connected with some really amazing women all over the country who have a multitude of different types of businesses and things like that. And then just this summer we decided that we were going to pivot a little bit. The subscription box was going really well. As a designer, it was awesome. It gave me an opportunity to create things specifically for that community. We had a zine. I was designing products for the boxes, and I did all the branding for the boxes themselves, and all that stuff. And she’s in PR. She did a lot of the writing and things like that. So we really were a good fit to compliment each other.

But this summer we looked at everything and kind of like we tried to have those moments where we stop everything and start working on the business instead of in it. And okay, where are we? And where do we want to be? And we felt like the community part of it wasn’t getting as much shine as we really wanted. That was why we built this thing in the first place, so we decided to take a break and regroup and relaunch just the community.

So we’re still kind of working on that. We’re taking a break. She’s busy. I’m busy. We both have separate businesses on top of this one. So we’ve decided to just take a break for a little while, really get grounded in what we want, and then relaunch again. Preferably, we want to do an online community so that we have a chance to provide deeper relationships for the women that are our subscribers. So that’s what we really want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you’re pivoting from the subscription box to an online community. So just sort taking that notion and deepening it, I guess.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, exactly. Exactly. Because I think what we heard from our subscribers was that they love the items in the box, and they love so much of that stuff and the magazine and all those things, but they really love the idea of being exposed to other women who were doing amazing things and hearing about people’s businesses. And we would do this series called Respect on Our Name. So we would do interviews with black women entrepreneurs on Instagram. So people really responded to those kind of things a little bit more than the items in the box. And so much of the stuff in the box was also about providing resources and information. So we felt like we could wrap that all up and also bring the community to a higher level if we pivoted a little bit. So that’s what we’re looking at doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you interviewed me back in 2018 for Design Observer, and during that interview you had asked me how passion projects have impacted my career. Now I want to flip the script and ask you that question. How have your passion projects impacted your career?

Nakita M. Pope:
Lots of different ways. I think Bella Boss is definitely one of those passion projects. I probably would’ve done that even if it wasn’t a business. That’s just something I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about seeing Black women shine and succeed and women in general. And I think running a business has been such an adventure for me in so many ways. And I think that I know what it’s like even when you have support. I can’t imagine what it’s like when you don’t have support. So I always try to be that support or give people resources wherever I can. So I think Bella Boss is definitely something I would consider to be a passion project.

Mentoring is another passion of mine. Almost everything that I’ve done has come from something that holds a special place in my heart. Teaching is just more of mentorship for me. So mentorship and teaching are very much tied together. I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and I used to be terrified of public speaking. But the thing that shifted public speaking for me was looking at it as a bigger classroom. And because I love teaching so much, I’m like, “Well, you just get a chance to share knowledge with more people.”

So I feel like those aspects of my career have come out of the passion of wanting to share with other people. Branding is so much about being creative and solving problems and all those kinds of things. And I think all of those things are core to my personality and core to the things that I care about.

One of the stories that I love the most about when I was a kid is that my mom told me that I used to love puzzles. And so she would buy me all these different puzzles. So because I had so many, I got to a point where I would literally dump all the pieces out in the middle of the floor and solve them all at one time. And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I do every day. Mm-hmm. That’s pretty much the life that I’ve built for myself.” So when I think about things like that, I feel like all the things that I care about or that’s fun for me, or that’s interesting for me has been the foundation of every single thing that I do every day.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you built your confidence over the years as a creative professional? I mean, you’ve been doing this for a very long time. That longevity obviously has to come from somewhere. What fuels you as a creative professional?

Nakita M. Pope:
I try not to stop learning. As a teacher, I feel like you have to learn all the time. But even outside of that, I think I’ve always been naturally curious. And so for me, I want to ask more questions. I want to learn more. I want to talk to all the people that know the things that I don’t know. I want that, that’s what feeds me. And so I feel like confidence for me comes from knowledge and it comes from experience. And sometimes you have one without the other or vice versa, and then sometimes you have both. And I think over the years, I’ve just tried to learn as much as I possibly can on a day-to-day basis. And because of the years behind me, now I have the experience as well. But in the beginning, I didn’t have all the experience. I just had the knowledge and I had the willingness to learn.

And I think, if nothing else, I feel like those are the two things that has allowed me to grow the most and to be willing to take a chance. I can’t stress that enough. So many of the things that I’ve been able to do or that I’ve done that I can look back and be the most proud of are the things that terrified me in the beginning. If it doesn’t make me want to vomit a little bit when I say yes to it, then it is probably not going to make me grow. And so going back to our previous conversation just about being an independent and how that looks so different for me, I think the flexibility to try a bunch of new things and different things and to take on new challenges, I’ve had the flexibility to do that for the last 12 years, and I’ve taken full advantage of that.

If someone comes to me and says, “Hey, I really think you should do this thing.” And I’m like, “I’ve never done that thing before. I don’t know much about that thing. Let me go learn some more about that thing and then decide.” And then if I decide, “Well, it’s going to be a challenge, but I’m going to do it anyway.” I feel like that’s where all the growth comes from. And those are the things that have allowed me to be more confident. Not just because of what I already know, but because of the fact that I’m willing to take a chance and willing to take on the challenge.

I know that I’ve done that before and I didn’t die. And I made some mistakes, but most of the time it went pretty well. I’m like, that just gives me more confidence to do it again to something that’s unknown that I’ve never done before. I was just like, “Okay, I did that. Everything was fine. Okay, let’s try it again.” So I think so much of that is just taking chances too.

Maurice Cherry:
Whose work are you inspired by right now?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, quite a few people. Some of them are visual, of course, and then some of them are just community-based kind of things. I love what Kenny Thacker is doing with a 100 Roses from Concrete in the advertising industry. I think the programming that they’re putting together and the resources that they’re providing for young Black people are just amazing.

Visually, I am a big fan of Bisa Butler and her work, and right now I just can’t get enough of it. My best friend bought me one of her coffee table books for Christmas, and it’s like one of my prize possessions right now. But I get inspiration from so many different places and I’m like discovering new people every day, truly every day. That’s why I tell my students all the time that I use social media as a curation tool.

So I usually don’t care how many people follow me, but on any of my platforms, if you go look at them, I probably follow three times more people than follow me, because I’m just like, “Ooh, I want to see what this person is doing.” “Ooh, what is this person doing?” Ooh, I didn’t know about this artist. Let me follow them.” Or, “Ooh, that agency’s doing that. Let me follow them.” So I’m just like, “I just want all that good stuff coming in my feed when I log it on.” So I find new stuff and new people and new agencies and organizations and artists all the time. And that’s part of what feeds my creative process too.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
I want to travel the world. I do travel. I don’t travel as much as I would like to, but I would like to hit the majority of the countries before I leave this Earth, so that’s one thing. Another is I need to finish my book. I think the last time I was on with you, I might have talked about my book and it has been sitting in a dark closet for a long time. I did the first draft of it, and then I just kind of let it go. In retrospect, I think I might’ve just gotten scared and was like, “Oh, I can’t do this.” But I definitely want to revisit it. I’m going to pick it up again. I still feel like the subject matter is important. I think it’s still relevant and I still want to do it.

It’s a book about branding, and I just feel like there’s not enough resources out there that make it plain what branding really is. And I think especially for entrepreneurs who are trying to build a brand and don’t know what that means, or even for individuals who are trying to build a brand for themselves and don’t know how to do that, I think that there’s a lot of insight, hopefully, that I can provide. So I definitely want to tackle that and get it back up and running. I just hate that I didn’t finish it, so it’s got to get finished.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think if you go back and take a look at it, especially with all the knowledge you’ve gained now, you’ll probably see some things in there that you can update, that you can maybe add to-

Nakita M. Pope:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
… or something. So take your-

Nakita M. Pope:
Definite change.

Maurice Cherry:
… time with it. Take your time with it. I mean, the thing with books, I mean, I’m finding this out myself as I’m working on a book, which I guess is a sort a scoop. I mean by the time this comes out, people will know that I’m working on a book about Revision Path. But-

Nakita M. Pope:
Ooh, I’m excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve been working on a book about Revision Path and it has been a journey. Because at first I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to do it about the show or whatever.” And I was talking to my editor and he is like, “No, you have to go deeper.” And I’m like, “There’s not really that much to it. I wanted to do the show, and I did the show.” He’s like, “No, you have to go, go back further. Where did the seed start?” And it’s taken me all the way back to my childhood. It’s like a therapy session-

Nakita M. Pope:
I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
… trying to get through this book. I mean, I don’t know when it’s going to come out because I’m still working on… Well, one, I’m working on the proposal, but then just even all of the thought to go into how I’m going to approach the story and talk about it and everything, it’ll be good when it comes out. It’ll be sort of parts autobiography part about the show, but-

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man. That sounds awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s a lot. It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, it is.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
It is a lot. And I think it is a major undertaking. So I feel like even when I started it several years ago, I told myself that even being willing to take on a project that big, is a victory, period.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah-

Nakita M. Pope:
Full stop.

Maurice Cherry:
… absolutely. Absolutely.

Nakita M. Pope:
Regardless of what happens after that, that is a victory.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
To be honest, I’m kind of leaving it up to the universe a little bit. I think part of this break that I’m taking is just about getting some rest and giving myself a chance to take a break and be able to hear my own voice about what I want next. The benefit of all the work and the thing, the people that I’ve been connected to and done stuff with and collaborated with, it’s such a blessing that I have several opportunities to do things next, but I want to make sure that I make the right move. I want to make sure that what I’m doing next is going to be fulfilling, that it’s going to allow me to grow, because that’s always something that I want. I never want to stop growing. So I’m really taking a break just so that I can hear my own voice and decide what’s next.

But also I’m taking my hands off of it a little bit and sort of letting things unfold the way that they should unfold. I think sometimes, and I’ve had to learn this the hard way, because sometimes I just want to plan everything, but so often when we try to make plans, the plans that we make are coming from our perspective. You can’t plan something that you don’t know about to some degree. But I think that sometimes you need to let there be some divine intervention, some universe to step in, because sometimes the things that we think we want next isn’t big enough, because we can’t see it yet.

And so I feel like I don’t know what it is, but in my heart, I feel like that’s where I am. I’m at that kind of space where it’s time for something big, but I don’t know what that thing is, yet. So I’m just going to center myself and take some time and figure out what that is. Branding Chicks, of course, will still be part of the equation, at least for now, but I feel like there’s so much more to do and so many more people to have fun with and create with. So I’m excited about whatever it ends up being, to be honest. I just don’t know all of what it is yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I think that’s a good place to be though. To know that you have this possibility or all these possibilities ahead of you and just be excited for what that could be. That’s a great place to be, because a lot of folks are stuck if they don’t know what or whatever they think might be coming next is just more of the same thing. So to have that, I guess, opportunity to dream in that way, that’s priceless. That’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
You have to believe it first. That’s what believing really is, right? If it was already concrete and set in stone, then you don’t have to believe in it. It’s just there. So sometimes you have to just believe that it’s going to be great and that it’s coming and that it’s yours, and that you’re going to have what you’re supposed to have, period. I believe that. So I don’t know all of what that’s going to look like. I don’t know all the details, but I do believe that I’m going to have what I’m supposed to have and I think it’s going to be good.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
You can check us out at brandingchicks.com. That’s where you can find all of my work there. And Bella Boss is bellabossbox.com. The site is on hiatus right now while we pivot, but you can still find us there. And also on social media, you can check out Branding Chicks, both on Instagram and Facebook, and for Bella Boss Box, also on Instagram, Facebook, and I don’t think we’re on Twitter, no, but Facebook and Instagram.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, Sounds good. Well, Nakita Pope, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I feel like every time that I see you, and I know that you and I haven’t seen each other in a while, because of-

Nakita M. Pope:
I know.

Maurice Cherry:
… the pandemic, but every time I see you, you are such a just bright light of just like energy and positivity. And I know that the Atlanta community, of course, knows this, that’s why you have that AIGA Fellow Award. But when I think of somebody that is always such a positive, just, influence in the design community locally and otherwise, I think of you. So I’m just-

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you very much.

Maurice Cherry:
… so glad that you’re still doing your thing. I’m excited to see what you come up with next. And thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Nakita M. Pope:
Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so much for that. And thank you for always supporting me. And I love these conversations, whether they happen on the podcast or not, where we’re just catching up. So thank you so much. I appreciate it.

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Adekunle Oduye

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
It could be lock picking.

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

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Adekunle Oduye:
That happens.

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

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

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

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

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Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

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Reggie Black

Reggie Black is a true Renaissance man. He’s combined his talents as a multimedia artist, designer, speaker, and mental health advocate into an experimental playground he calls all things progressive. Whether it’s a hand-lettered design project for a client or a public art installation, Reggie is navigating through this time and letting his passions light the way.

Reggie and I really had more of a general conversation than an interview, and we touched on a number of issues: staying productive in the midst of uncertainty, the role of the Black designer during this current time, and making space for creativity to flow. It’s a little something different for our 8th anniversary, but I think you’ll enjoy it all the same.

Thank you all for keeping Revision Path alive and thriving!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Reggie Black:
My name is Reggie Black. I’m a multimedia artist and designer, Principal of All Things Progressive. I work primarily in hand type, which is this very distinctive style of hand, a hand type fonts that I’ve created and worked on through repetition for years to carve out as my distinctive language. And I use that to share and articulate thought provoking messaging through all mediums, whether it’s print, installation, all sorts of medias to just really raise questions and bring about thought to the public and our questions and just really highlighting the vulnerability and transparency of everyday life.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you been doing so far this year?

Reggie Black:
This year good. Man, I think we had an interesting ride in January. It feels like every Wednesday was like a different year, with being here based in D.C. and seeing what transpired on the Capitol and then the following week, getting a new president and then the following week. So this year not bad, but in general, Maurice, all things considered, I feel like with everything going on in the world, I feel like health is a luxury. And if you have that and family and employment, you can get up every day and just be grateful for that. I’ve been trying to focus more on that than the larger questions for now, if that makes any sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. As you sort of, I guess, approach this year, did you have any resolutions or goals that you wanted to accomplish?

Reggie Black:
I’ve been dancing around this question and I think it’s clearly a result of what we’ve experienced in the pandemic, just living life without really, I won’t say without really questioning things, but I’ve been thinking about what is enough and that’s not the resolution, but I think it is a gateway to patience and intention for me. And I don’t really know what resolutions they have become, but I know I’d definitely as 2020 has told us all how very temporary everything can be. And then also quite how very transparent the world can be. I’ve been really thinking about, what’s the intention behind my life and what I want to do and being very specific about the work I want to share with the world. And then also, who am I as a person? Because to be perfectly frank, I feel like during the pandemic a lot was lost, a lot of business slowed down.

Reggie Black:
And so I didn’t realize that a lot of my life was connected with the work. So I had to go on this path of relearning myself and being with myself and spending more time with myself because it was normally, I guess, pre-normal times it was travel, travel, travel. So you didn’t really get that much time to have a lot of introspection. Been dancing around with those few things.

Maurice Cherry:
What are your days look like now?

Reggie Black:
Still, early rising. I’m an early riser. I get that from my grandma. And for me, I’m up, there’s meditation, there’s journal writing, which is very essential to my day, gratitude writing. I bought a WaterRower last year during the pandemic, when I realized that I was probably going to stay out the gym. So I’m doing that. Still, in work every day, still working on design projects. What I am learning is that it doesn’t have to be as aggressive as I used to think it was. And so, there’s breakfast, these conversations with my wife, conversations with my son. Breakfast coffee, I’m starting to buy more coffee table books and design books just to have time and reference material around the house to browse at and look. And so I’m doing a more of that.

Reggie Black:
It’s more research, more deconstruction to reconstruct a lot of things, just tons of notebooks all around the house I’m just jotting random thoughts and really, trying to document this process to be able to look back on it and think about where my mind was during the times and in between watching comedy on Netflix and stuff like that. So yeah, just trying to stay human in it all, still working, but realizing that we don’t have to be the machines that we once thought we did in order to get things done.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I feel like this past year has been a very interesting sort of, I don’t want to call it an experiment, a tree of this, I guess, on how our relationship to work is because I think one thing it’s amazing how quickly we’ve seen the disappearance of the American office space because of the pandemic. There were so many things about being in one spot and collaborating in person. And now all of that is largely been replaced or at least supplanted by Zoom calls and Google Meet calls and just conference calls and things like that. And sort of re-examining what it means to work collaboratively, what it means to work asynchronously, what it means to work across great distances, is something that I think a lot of people have had to contend with.

Maurice Cherry:
And to your point now with us depending on where you live in the country, being in one place that now is not just your home, it’s your gym and your kids’ school and it’s date night and it’s like, all these things rolled into one. That will cause… I hope it causes people to think and re-evaluate about, what is important? But yeah, this past year has been something for real.

Reggie Black:
That’s very true. Did you have a studio that you traveled to throughout the day? Or you’re doing everything in home or… That’s a very interesting point. And I think it takes a lot of… I think screen fatigue is becoming more real than anything and this idea of what home is, is being redefined. So just curious, are you in and out of a few different spaces, separating work from home? Or…

Maurice Cherry:
Before the pandemic, sure. So I’ve been doing this remote work thing since 2009. So by the time, I hate to say it, but when the pandemic first happened, I was like, “Oh, I can do this standing on my head.” I was like, “I got this, this ain’t nothing.” But what’s different is how other people now have to acclimate and adapt to this time, which is what I didn’t necessarily consider when it all first started. I don’t have a space. I have a corner in my bedroom where I work and I’m able to mentally… Well, I’m now able to mentally separate work from home largely through… I think I mentioned this on the show before, but I have smart lights in my apartment, so I have different lighting modes that will signal to me. Okay. This is the work lighting mode where all the lights are on and I’m working, but then this is relaxation mode where the lights are dimmer.

Maurice Cherry:
And I know this is for watching TV or something like that. And so the lights will come on and off at certain times and stuff and that just lets me know like, Oh, I need to switch gears into doing something else or I need to switch to another mode.

Reggie Black:
I love that. Yeah. That’s perfect. I love that. Figure out where you got those smart lights from. I love that. That’s a beautiful way to transform the home, right. Because it has become all one thing and I love what the pandemic has done for creativity to get people to think about collaboration. And that was really spot on when you talked about the American office and what that will look like in the future, because although I do think that office is where a beautiful place for meeting and collaboration. I wonder if the office was also this cage, that suffocated people’s imagination, right? Because you can contribute to your company from home in a way that activated certain creative senses that you probably couldn’t do in the corporate headquarters because of the culture that was embedded in there.

Reggie Black:
So it’d be interesting to hear or see or study or something, what type of new results are being generated from people being at home versus going into an office every day. Is there a difference in the modality and the thinking behind problem solving at work? I would love to just see how that could transform the workplace and the office in company culture in general.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think we’ll start seeing profiles like that certainly like within a few months. Because I feel like that’s when companies at least last year started saying, “Okay, well now you’re going to be working from home for the foreseeable future.” And some companies they were just kicking the can down the road, they were like, “Oh, well we’ll be back in the office by the fall. Oh we’ll be back here by the winter.” And it’s like, no, you still will be at home. The last company that I worked for and it’s funny, we’re talking about the American workplace, they really prided themselves on having a great office space. I know about this because I wrote about how great their office space was, about how it had these different modes inside the office for working. And we’ve got this terrorist and we’ve got this.

Maurice Cherry:
And at the time that I was working there, we were about to expand up to a higher floor that was going to give us more space, more desks, a sunlit reading room and all that stuff. And then the pandemic happened and shut all of that shit down. They just halted construction and then I think it was about two months after that they laid off my entire department. I was like, Oh, well. Fast forward to now, and this is only [inaudible 00:14:09] I know just from people that still work there, they’ve actually sublet the office now, there’re no plans to go back anytime soon. It was something that the company really prided itself on, almost as much as the product itself, they prided themselves on having this really great workspace and now they don’t have that.

Reggie Black:
That’s true. Wow. That’s interesting. Yeah. We’ll see, a lot of things aren’t coming back, the reality of this all, and I wonder where the home office not the home office. I’m sorry. Yeah. I wonder where the home office lands and then I’ll also wonder where the corporate headquarters, where do they begin or what’s the new future for them? We’ll see, we will see. I think that the longer we’re in this situation, the harder it’s going to be to get people to return back to work. I do feel that way.

Maurice Cherry:
It will be. I know that from experience, it will definitely be hard to go back into an office because… So back when I had my studio in full swing, I would spend days sometimes inside of a company’s workspace or I’d work out of a Starbucks or something. I had the freedom to move between different spaces to work. But I did largely work at home and it wasn’t until I wound my studio down at the end of 2017 and got a job. And even that was a remote first job because the company was headquartered in New York and I’m in Atlanta. So it was still a remote first job.

Maurice Cherry:
But there would be times where we would have to go to the office, whether it was onboarding a new employee or we had our onsite for the year or something like that. And it was so stifling for all of us that were remote workers, it was just so stifling being in that building, list like going to meetings and stuff. It’s just the chairs aren’t like our chairs at home and the snacks aren’t the right snacks, it’s why’s it so cold in here? It’s all these different sorts of things. It was certainly difficult, but…

Reggie Black:
Which all play… That’s so interesting that you mentioned that because I feel like all of those small things that we overlook are what contribute to our productivity and where we can teleport ourselves to produce work. Right? Like if you don’t have the right chair or the right environment, a large percentage of the day is all about getting comfortable to be able to perform. And so it’s interesting. I think that it’s all interesting and we’ll really see new definitions of what commercial spaces and home offices, how they overlap and one supersedes the other.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And to answer your earlier question. So I don’t have a separate studio space.

Reggie Black:
Got it.

Maurice Cherry:
But I want one now.

Reggie Black:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Hands down, I want one now. So I’ve started already looking even just at places in my neighborhood. I don’t need a lot of space, I just want a separate discrete space for work that’s not my home.

Reggie Black:
I’ve transported and teleported into the guest bedroom. So my wife was like, “Listen, I don’t think we’re going to have any guests. So let me just go ahead and and take this over.” So it has to become the nook that I’m able to get a lot of things done and to your point to have something completely separate just to come in and make this the work studio and the office. And it’s cozy for me, it feels really good to be here. I’ve got accustomed to getting up every day and making breakfast and then coming to work. It’s weird, all these things that I have to mentally do to get prepared, like get up and get fully dressed. I can’t sit around the house in lounge wear and sweatpants. I’m up fully dressed every day as if I was going outside.

Reggie Black:
And even if nothing really, really happens that day, if I just get on the keyboard and peck away at a few emails, I feel like I’ve done enough to keep myself motivated for the next day because of what I have noticed is that for me, it’s all or nothing. I’m either super inspired or I’ve watched too much news and I’m just depressed for a week. You know what I mean? There is no [inaudible 00:18:38] in-between. So in my head, the thoughts are, well, how can I keep myself inspired to focus on the things that are in the pipeline and the things that I am working on? Instead of creating this home retreat, where I can bounce back and forth between the news and calling a friend.

Reggie Black:
I still have office time where I like do not disturb hours. And just to try to have some structure and regimen in place that allow support to constantly exercise mentally to make sure that I’m in a space to produce something. And if I show up that day and I end up with nothing, then that’s what it is. But at least I like to carve out that landscape to be able to do so. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s super important now, because you have to impose those structures when you’re working from home, because your home is the place where you really don’t have that structure. Home is where you’re supposed to after work, you let your guard down, you have a glass of wine, you relax, you chill. It’s hard to really shift between work mode and relaxation mode in the same place. So you have to put… I time shift a lot of my emails. I have a booking link, if somebody needs to reach me, it’s not like, “Oh, can I pick your brain?” No, you can pick an appointment and we can get to something maybe later on in the week or something. I have to really segment and regiment my time pretty strictly now during this pandemic that I really didn’t have to do before, but it is important to do that.

Reggie Black:
It is. And I think because we will find ourselves doing things, the busy stuff. It’s like, Oh, well, I can watch a movie and cook a nice lunch or do laundry or clean up or straighten up. But like you said, home is comfortable. And so the things that we do at home, aren’t typically figuring out a way to stay productive and work. And so the moment escape and slide off to even just go to the kitchen to get a glass of water or something, right. It’s like you think of something else that could be done while you’re at home, when really it’s supposed to be the working hours. And so I think you’re spot with having those regimens in place to keep supporting and listen, the reality is, because I don’t want to sound like I’m super buttoned up but there are some days I just don’t have it.

Reggie Black:
And it’s like, all right, I’m sitting right here and I’m going to binge watch a few things all day for the next couple. You know what I mean? And that’s just the ebb and flow of where we are right now. It’s okay to not be productive. It’s okay to not want to create, all of 220, a large percentage of it, I couldn’t muster up to produce work. I just couldn’t because the social tension, black brothers that look like you and I were being killed pretty much every day, it felt like in this country. And so the things that my creativity was fighting for, it didn’t feel important. It wasn’t important. It’s not important because it’s like, if we’re not doing anything to contribute to shifting the climate of racial tension in this country or whatever your cause is, climate change or food deserts in the country or economic disparity, whatever it is, if none of that is really happening and you’re not contributing to that, it’s like, all right, well, what I’m doing is invalid at the moment.

Reggie Black:
And so I don’t want it to appear to be like this time is a priority productivity training camp, when you have to be as productive as you can. No, if you gain a couple pounds, no out this thing, everything is okay because we’re all dealing with this differently. And it is something that none of us have experienced before. I spent a lot of time talking to my mom on Facebook not Facebook, FaceTime. And I’m starting to enjoy those conversations more because she’s like, “Listen, I’m 72. I have no idea how people are dealing with this. We’ve never seen anything like this before.” So it’s interesting to talk to an older person to hear what they think about where we are at the moment. And it’s like, this is the most mental exhausting time periods because life was open, it was everybody could be and do.

Reggie Black:
And so however people are dealing with this thing is perfectly fine. I just feel like for me, I’m trying my best because I spent a lot of years in depression, I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’m almost what, somewhere in between six and seven years sober. So I’ve struggled with anxiety, I struggle with mood disorders, all sorts of things. My ability to stay strong in this moment is really predicated on a lot of, I like to call them tricks that I have to impose on myself, to keep me moving and keeping me motivated.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m the same way with having those tricks. I’ve basically had to give myself a routine. I wake up every morning 7:00 a.m., from seven to 8:30 it’s me getting ready for work. I’ll water the plants, make some tea, all these stuff. And then for me, I’m completely in work mode from 8:30 to 4:30. I don’t answer any other emails or anything, everything is focused just on work. Because for me, I know that I’ve got stuff to do usually right after work. I end work at 4:30 and then I’ll start doing interviews at five o’clock, or I have other calls or something else that I have to do after work. So there’s my eight to 4:30 time, which is work. And then there’s my five to maybe 11:30 or midnight where I’m working on other stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
I try to put that split in there, so I know this is when I need to shut this off and then turn this on. Even like I was telling you about the lights, the lights help me, those are tricks too. 11:30 all the lights in my apartment are off and whatever I’m working on, it’s like, “Okay, I should probably go to bed now.”

Reggie Black:
Yep. That’s the thing too. And I love how you’ve underscored the home. Right? We don’t want it to become like, because it’s so comfortable, we can go throughout the day and not really identify the things that need to happen. And so you find yourself at being midnight and you’re still working. You’re like, “Wait, but I’m supposed to be in bed too.” So it’s tricky, the home can transform and become whatever you want it to be during this time period. If you engulf yourself in work, you’re going to feel so comfortable that you don’t realize that you’re working that much. Or if it’s become an oasis of relaxation, you’re going to find yourself struggling to find a spark that gets some things done. And that’s why I said just having some system or a few things to keep you in line of break that, like you said to have that break in the day. Because we’re not active as we used to be.

Reggie Black:
We’re not commuting, we’re not moving our bodies, which I try to do a lot. But I have several free friends who just do walking meetings only. They refuse to sit Zooms and they refuse to sit on Skypes. So they take all of their meetings on the phone. It’s straight, I’ll get your Zoom call in number or you can call me on my cell phone and they walk the neighborhood while they’re having a meeting and take notes on their phone. You know what I mean? To find balance, to stay active, because like you said, if we’re just sitting in front of screens every day, you got to think about what that’s doing to our physical health as well. So that’s something I’m going to try to incorporate this year as well too, just moving more and getting back to it because yes, I row at home, but I still think that there’s something about getting up and getting out and physically moving your body and walking. I don’t know if [inaudible 00:26:17] or YouTube workout.

Reggie Black:
So I have a Peloton subscription, I don’t have the bike. I have the classes that you can take online, but you’re still in front of a screen, following the trainer. And so it’s much different than walking to the local grocery store to get groceries and physically moving your body. Something that happens there that just we’re missing with being dormant for this period of time.

Maurice Cherry:
The walking meetings, that’s a good idea. I’ve watched something on the news recently that I think scientists were saying that the biggest byproducts of the pandemic is going to be just how much people’s mental health is being affected, whether it’s like you said, depression, anxiety, et cetera. I was out of work for half of 2020, and during that whole job search and everything, it was a lot to deal with. Especially when you’re also seeing with other things happening in the world at the time, like you said, the social unrest, the former administration and how they’re handling all of this, it’s just like, there would be days I would just get high and just play video games all day. And that’s the day, that’s all I’m doing.

Reggie Black:
I think what I’m trying to say is that all of those days are just as important as having super productive work. Because I don’t think we’re in this space to judge what day is superior than others, because I feel like now more than ever, we’re seeing the value of life and just how important it is. And so whatever you do with that day, it’s a success, because you could not be here. You know what I mean? You just couldn’t be here. And so to have that, we got to somehow undo this badge of honor that America has imposed on us, this busy badge of honor. And I’m on that same quest too, there has to be a balance of being a human fucking being, and also being able to produce and do work. You shouldn’t be consumed by work all the time.

Reggie Black:
And the walking meetings is actually from a good friend of mine, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. She’s a good friend of mine, we met during Ted years and we’ve just become really cool and some of the best closest homeys ever. And when I heard her tell me that I was like, “Wait, you don’t do what?” And she’s like, “Nah, I got to move my body.” And so I’m constantly grabbing things from people that inspire me and makes sure that I can keep finding new ways to just to stay in this fight. You’re right. It’s a mental fight that we’re more in term with than anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about work. Tell me about the studio. When did you decide to start All Things Progressive?

Reggie Black:
Man, All Things Progressive. It’s a love child of mine that I’ve had in my head for a few years. And I’ll tell you why a few things contributed to the thought, working as a solo artist, I feel like when there’s not a studio or some formal structure, business structure is what I’m talking about now. When there’s not some business structure formed, what happens oftentimes I feel like when you’re pitching for larger work or larger clients, it’s weird. And this is a trick that I’ve kind of… Not even a trick. It’s like a professional hack that I believe is really stupid, but also very important. It’s a legitimacy thing. Most large companies won’t choose to work with you if you’re just a solo artist. And so it’s like, Oh, well either they don’t take you serious or they don’t think you’ll have your terms and conditions in place.

Reggie Black:
Or a lot of times they want you to be the artist when you’re saying no, I have a multitude of services that I could provide. And so, yes, there’s Reggie Black that’s the hand type artist. That’s the multimedia designer that can do a lot of the beautiful things with my hand and with type and with abstracts and all the things, but then there’s also a part of me that can do the very beautifully graphic design products or package design or identity systems, right? I have two sides of my brain that allows me to do both. And so what I realized was that in order for me to be able to empty the tool bag and access all of the things that I’ve been able to accumulate throughout the years, through beautiful mentorships and just countless hours of trying to figure this thing out, I said, well, what if I put a business structure in place that allows me to separate, if someone wants to hire Reggie Black for the bold and visceral hand type that he produces, that’s one thing.

Reggie Black:
But if there’s a graphic design job or book cover job or anything that separates it and takes me away from Reggie Black, it’s almost like a personality. And then it evolved into just having a few collaborators that I could work with and I can hire them for various projects and almost became like a think tank. And so 2018 is when I officially formed it. I had the name for a while, I didn’t really know what to do with the name, but really it’s just about trying to create value and spark things that move forward and work with clients that want to have a bowl perspective on where they’re going and what they would like to do. And so with All Things Progressive, it’s really just an experimental playground for companies and businesses and clients that want to figure out how to redefine their perspectives in where they’re going and what they want to do.

Reggie Black:
And we assess each project as such and I like to look at everything that’s going on in the market place, within that particular genre of industry that I’m being hired for and go the complete opposite, because I think that there’s a clutter that’s happening in every industry where people are just copying and regurgitating what is successful in the industry. And then when that trend ends up dying, you see all the businesses that have led themselves down that path die with it. So I’m always about how can we go the opposite direction? And that’s what All Things Progressive that every project we can assess, it’s like, all right, well, if there’s a book cover design, the author speaking on self-help well, let’s look at every self-help book cover and go the complete opposite direction.

Reggie Black:
Because it’s very easy to follow the herd and end up in the clutter. But I think it’s brave to say, well, sure, yes, I am a smoothie company that I’m thinking rebranding [inaudible 00:32:41] like, well, do we have to use green? Do we have to use the colors of vegetables? I’m always about how can we push something in the opposite direction of where people think it should be? What if we do the impossible? What if we do the unimaginable in every case and see where that experimental plate side of our human instincts take us.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you been finding that clients have been more experimental during these times?

Reggie Black:
Yes. Because what I think, Maurice is happening is that everybody is realizing that everything… And I think you and I talked about this previously, everything needs to be redesigned. And right now, while the world is figuring out or trying to figure out where to go, I think this is a beautiful time for everybody to shake things up. I don’t know if we were living in like no one’s under scrutiny right now. Right? You can do something that’s completely left field and it’s completely okay because we’re all trying to figure out a way to move our businesses forward. Because what we thought worked, we saw something as large as COVID come and hit us and realize that, Oh, I might need to figure out how to not be so comfortable. And so experiment and play as becoming a part of almost the culture of companies now, because what they’re realizing is that one, you have to fight for attention now because everybody’s home.

Reggie Black:
Everybody has four to five screens at home, whether it’s the TV, the iMac, the iPad, the phone. So attention is at an all time high and everybody’s willing to consume information. And so what are you going to do to separate yourself to at least just to garnish a little bit of that attention, or take a little bit of that in the marketing department or a product that you’re building or campaign that you’re about to launch? What’s going to make your messaging stand out a bit more just to hold the attention of somebody that’s scrolling on Instagram for 10 more seconds, that it would, if you were doing things differently? And so I was just talking to one of my design friends. We talking about how you see a lot of the large, I guess old guard companies doing identity system re-brands, GM just did it, Kia just did.

Reggie Black:
There is another one that I thought was important as well. Even the CIA just rebranded. Right? And so you’re watching so many old guards realizing that if we don’t do something differently, there’s a possibility that we’ll become Blockbuster. You know what I mean? When they was completely avoiding what Netflix was trying to say or Blackberry, when they had the largest market share in mobile devices and they thought that we were all going to love Qwerty keyboards forever, then we got the iPhone. And so no one is at liberty to rest and relax in this moment of uncertainty. I think if things are in certain, let’s push on certain ideas. If things are unorthodox, let’s push unorthodox ideas. And that’s what I’m really excited about. What’s going to land when the smoke clears from where we are? And if it does land, will you be able to tell a story that was innovative and different in the midst of all of the smoke that’s happening?

Maurice Cherry:
That it’s good that companies, I think now are starting to be open to this, they almost have to. I think at this point they have to.

Reggie Black:
I think they realize that either two things happen, the brand story expires, or they realize that they aren’t the only players in the industry that they thought they were. And so they have to and they have to innovate in a way that respects the customer and respects their consumer base, but also figuring out a way to tap into new consumer basis too. Right? That’s what we’re seeing happening and everybody’s scrambling and trying to figure it out. And to add another layer on it, everybody also now realizes something they should have realized or been able to… Excuse me, identify years ago is that they had to have a social responsibility. And now we’re seeing a scramble where everybody’s trying to figure that out on the fly.

Reggie Black:
And it’s like, Nope. If that was built into the culture beforehand, you wouldn’t have to hit the panic button, when you see something like George Floyd happen. When you see something like our sister Breonna Taylor happen, when you see something like the former administration wants to put the wall and immigration and family division on the borders. If there was one company that I sincerely love is Patagonia because they’ve been that way for a while, that the CEO and the ethos of that company has clearly stated that, this is what we’re going to speak on and we’re going to speak on it regardless of what the social times are. And I think that the commercial structure has existed in a space of reactionary approaches. And I think now we have to figure out a way how to be more proactive, like Ben & Jerry’s is doing a good job, but Patagonia has clearly put their foot down in so many instances saying like, this is where we are and we’re not going to waiver about it.

Reggie Black:
And then what ultimately happens is that you see something transpire socially and they’re the first ones to respond. Nike has always done a good job, Wieden and Kennedy and their marketing teams over there, everything about their campaigns are beautiful because they’re always thinking about how can we make sure that we’re on top of what’s happening socially? Because our product typically lives in urban cities where black people and people of color are affected. And so we have to make sure that if we are speaking to the Colin Kaepernick situation, if we’re speaking to social or racial injustice in this country, we have to make sure that we’re ready to be able to articulate that at any moment.

Maurice Cherry:
No. I was just thinking, I think it was right around the time this year started. I’m like, I wonder how companies are going to react to not just Black History Month this year, but also Juneteenth. Because I think a lot of folks will say non-black folks, I think a lot of folks just discovered what Juneteenth was last year. And for many people, this is going to be a free paid holiday for them. I’m like, how are people going to jump out the window, trying to show how woke they are this year? I wonder. We’re recording this at the start a Black History Month, so that remains to be seen. But yeah.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. I agree with you. I think and that goes back to the point that I was just trying to make, in addition to support what you just said, I feel like they weren’t considering it to begin with. And so they are in panic mode because what today’s we’re recording this on February 1st, as you just said. And so they got four, five months to rally up to figuring out how to structure things. And then you’re seeing companies in Black History Month trying to rollout these large beautiful campaigns that they probably thought about two weeks ago or yesterday. So I don’t know, man. I think what it really boils down to is equality and diversity in the workplace and in the companies, when you look at a lot of the companies, VC funded companies, tech companies, everywhere across the board, people that look like you and I aren’t represented at large numbers.

Reggie Black:
And so you have a specific voice that’s speaking for the entire company, that’s offering a product to the world that it’s as diverse as America is, which we know that that doesn’t land well. And as a result of that, you end up seeing messaging that’s off and messaging that’s tone deaf. And that’s why they always have to hit the panic button because they’ve overlooked that women need to speak and be in positions of power. Black men need to speak and being in positions of power. So that there’s a diverse language and it’s not just coming from a white millennial, who started a company with X amount of dollars in C funding and they’re just doing it to be cool. We have to figure out a way ensure that people have a social impact model built in before they even get started.

Reggie Black:
Sure, we want beautiful products. Listen, I’m a student of Japanese culture and beautifully designed through and through and Herman Miller and Scandinavian design. I love all the things, I love all of that, but what I love most importantly is being able to… I love Nina Simone’s quote, “Art must reflect the times.” And I think that now companies have to identify that and figure out a way to catch up to speed, but then also realize that it’s not black people’s responsibility to solve the overlooking of what white people have dragged along in this country. It’s not our job to fix that. That’s the work they have to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, that’s very true. Very, very true. So I know we’ve just spoken at length about a number of things. I want to jump into some of the projects that you’ve done. You just recently… in this conversation, you mentioned being in Southeast Asia for a while. Let’s start there. What brought you to Southeast Asia?

Reggie Black:
The entire family and it’s a trio of us. There’s the wife Shante who I love dearly, we’ve been together for forever and there’s my son, [inaudible 00:41:59], we were looking for a life change. And 2014, there was an opportunity for my wife to take a job in [inaudible 00:42:07] with their company. And we wanted our son to go to international school and then to be quite frank, I think I was hitting a wall here in America. At that time… We talked off the record a little bit, at that time that’s when Sticky Inspiration was deplaning and there wasn’t a lot of momentum happening there anymore. And we’ll talk about Sticky Inspiration later to draw back and connect the dots. But I was just out of a lot of opportunities and things weren’t really looking as promising as I thought they would.

Reggie Black:
And I felt like let’s just go away and start over, at least for me, my wife’s career was successful. My son was entering high school. So everybody was engulfed in this new chapter and we left, 2014 we moved and moved to Bangkok. And what I did know is that it was an opportunity for me to set myself apart, but it was also an opportunity for me to go and to discover something. At that time, what it was, I had no idea. I had no idea that Asia and Southeast Asia in general would birth largely the design sensibility and the style and the projects that would give me the platform to be able to come back to America. So when we got there, it was like, Hey, well, this is the new terrain that you have to summit if you will.

Reggie Black:
And so I didn’t have any relationships there, I didn’t know anybody there, but I knew I wanted to start to get my work out internationally. So it was just a matter of me just doing the groundwork and meeting people. And clearly, for the record, I didn’t speak Thai. I didn’t speak Japanese. And a lot of the places that we went and a lot of the pitches that I was submitting for, there was a lot of rejection. Recently as of last year, I just got an artist manager, which is my friend, Alison Beshai. Who’s now my artist manager, but for my entire career, I think the last 15 years it’s just been my wife and not just managing this thing and figuring it out. So everything that we were submitting for and trying to make happen, we weren’t getting any responses.

Reggie Black:
And so you and I had a conversation about starting where you are. And so I was the only thing that I knew was that one, I love coffee. And so there was a community there that was creative. And then also there was the coffee culture there in Bangkok that I loved. And I just started going to the same coffee shops every day, every day, that was my routine. I would go there. I would do a couple of hours in illustrator. I would write a little bit, I would read a little bit because this was this new path that I was trying to figure out. And funny enough, what happened is that I realized that one of the coffee shops also had this multimedia function where it served as an art gallery. And so I literally, after so many months and just going to the coffee shop every day, I was like, Oh, I would love to have an exhibition here one day.

Reggie Black:
And the owner [inaudible 00:44:59] at Ink & Lion, shout out to them because they were really gracious here you are, you have a black man coming to Bangkok in a Thai owned coffee shop and multimedia space, they took a chance and was like, well, let’s do it. And this was 2015, so we got there in 2014, it took me about a year to really go outside. As vibrant as the world sees Bangkok, to be quite honest, I was somewhat afraid of it, Because there’s 20 million people there at capacity when the city swells up on a midday Tuesday afternoon from the commuters. And it’s a huge city, we’re talking New York City, maybe times two, there’s 20 million people that swell up in that city every day.

Reggie Black:
So I just think the hustle and bustle of it and the foreigner mentality that we had to experience being black, which is whole another podcast we could record for, all of those elements frightened me a bit. And so I took this route of familiarity and I guess, did the things that I knew. And when that one opportunity for an exhibition started, there was some local press that picked it up, the numbers are few BK Magazine who did a really good job with doing a story on me there. And we’re all talking Thai publications. There is no English and documenting English culture or foreigners that come there. I started to land placement and notoriety in the Thai creative community. And so one thing led to another, one exhibition happened at a coffee shop and another exhibition happened during Bangkok Design Week.

Reggie Black:
And then another exhibition happened at another space and it all just kind of snowball. So it ended up being three exhibitions in Bangkok, one in Tokyo, which was a combination of our… When we were there, we were traveling a lot. So we would just go to different places for family vacations. And I was like, Oh, I want to show here. I want to show there. And it was just tons of groundwork, tons of rejection, the ecstasy of a gallery that I showed out in Japan, Diginner Gallery, they took a chance on me as well. So I think there was a lot of people along that way and along that journey, that was gracious enough to see the potential of my work. Because it wasn’t always like what it is now. There was a lot of discovery of me trying to find a voice.

Reggie Black:
So the work that I showed in 2015 looks completely different than the work that I produce now. And so going on that journey and having that rejection and being this kind of an ambassador for myself, it was basically like, alright, you’re here by yourself. You have to figure out a way to believe in your art and the things that you’re making because no one else will. And so three exhibitions in Bangkok, one in Tokyo, and then it landed to meeting some really cool guys Marble Print & Clay in Hong Kong. And so within that four years, it was a matter of what five exhibitions internationally, which started to garner a lot of attention back in the U.S. because I was sharing everything on social when people were seeing the momentum happen, but it wasn’t the case before I left.

Reggie Black:
So I was like, well, maybe it’s time to go back. And then the family now we decided to come back four years later, here’s where we are to the modern day. Yeah. It was a journey. It was a real journey. And I’m grateful for all of it because I think that it was something that I personally needed to go through to really just trust myself, that thing for a long time. I didn’t want to call myself an artist nor did I ever really want to own the role as an artist, because I always thought it was like, you have to have all paintings and a cool studio and large canvases to work, but I’ve always worked in language and I’ve always used messaging as the art form. And I didn’t know anybody that ever did that before. I didn’t learn about the Barbara Kruger’s and Jenny Holzer’s, and Hank Willis Thomas and the beautiful art that they produce on a public scale.

Reggie Black:
I just knew that there was street art. And then there was art that you experienced in the galleries. I didn’t know that there was a hybrid of the two, Paula Scher who works a lot in graphic design. So it was just also of discovery that I knew I had to like go on to carve out the space. If it didn’t exist, it was a testament of being able to trust myself enough to create it.

Maurice Cherry:
Before we were recording, I asked you, was there a point that you feel like your work pushed you to that next level of awareness? And it sounds like this is when it happened, this time when you were in Southeast Asia.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. I think you’re right, Maurice like 300%. And at the moment I didn’t realize it because it was just so much groundwork and we never… As creative as we never come up for air to assess the things. But what did start to happen there throughout our travels, we would go to Japan. I would pick up Sumi brushes and Sumi ink. And it was almost like the art started to be influenced by the cultural tones that we started to experience. So if you’re in Korea, and you see this beautiful art being produced in a certain way. All the tools that I use are pretty much Asian inspired. And I’m pretty sure that I use all of them wrong. I’m sure that I don’t use the Sumi brush properly. I know I don’t use a lot of the Sumi inks the way that they’re supposed to be properly used in traditional Japanese and Chinese calligraphy.

Reggie Black:
I don’t use them properly. And what I did lean into was that, I knew that my family and I, we were very fortunate to be a black family and have the opportunity to experience and travel throughout Asia. And pretty much all of that side of the world. We we went to Australia, we went to New Zealand, we traveled a lot. And to my wife’s credit, she was like, well, if we’re here, we might as well make it happen because this is a long trip. And we need to experience and see this. And so the travel started to really inform the work that I was making. And all of what you see now is a testament to having that. I like to call that an artist residency to go away and figure out because most people don’t get that time.

Reggie Black:
And so I’m very fortunate, you get into college and then as an adult, it’s like, all right, go out into the world and pay your dues to society, be an adult and pay your bills and go to work. And so what I realized is that my ability to have that four years to incubate and produce and create at that point, I had to figure out a way to make sure that, that time spent there would be able to produce a lifetime of projects and opportunities that I could make it feel like it was all worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So I’m curious, there’s a lot of things I want to ask you about now that you’ve really been going deep into a lot of this stuff. I was looking at your latest installation called No Records. Can you talk a little bit about where the idea came from for that?

Reggie Black:
No Records. Man. I think so many things happened last year, but I think that, that’s Alison and I that’s our highlight of the year, our pride and joy that we were really excited about. And Alison has been a great friend of mine for over 10 years. And it transpired from a good friend of mine, Amanda always like to do names when [inaudible 00:52:18] opportunities happen. So it’s like you’re giving people the credit and shouting people out along the way, because there’s this weird thing where people feel like artists are just making it alone and it’s bullshit. Nobody is making it alone. Somebody always reaches out to you, giving you a nudge or an opportunity comes from the great vine, which is essentially a person, being like there’s no, Oh, I’m just out here doing it by myself.

Reggie Black:
And so a good friend of mine, Amanda, that I also had met from the TED Residency! during that time, she reached out and said, Oh, the Dyckman Farmhouse in New York, saw your work and they’re looking to highlight this story of slaves living in New York. Because a lot of times when we think about slavery, we only equate it to the South. And we don’t think about the amount of slavery that transpired in New York City. And so when they presented that opportunity, Alison and I, we looked at the project and said, if we can’t say anything bold, we don’t want to be a part of it. And when the Dyckman house, they sent us over a lot of their archival documentation, a lot of the things that they had kept on record, but to be perfectly honest Maurice, there wasn’t any records. There wasn’t anything on file. They tried to have a lot of information that they thought was valuable to document the lives of the six slaves that lived in upper Manhattan and they didn’t have it.

Reggie Black:
And so hence the title, No Records. Because we said, listen, we can’t pretend to tell a story that is false, if the institution has pretty much given us the goal and letting us know that they didn’t even have any records. And so slaves lived here, what we were learning is that people were living in Inwood community, which is where the Dyckman house is like 207 and forgot the cross street Broadway actually. And people live there in that community every day. And they just thought that Dyckman house was like a farmhouse as an artifact or something. It’s like, no, this is where slaves lived. And we wanted to highlight that and really put that on display. And so that’s why I said, the language and the messaging has to be clear to allow people to really get what has happened here.

Reggie Black:
We don’t have to sugar coat it. We don’t need to dress it up. We don’t need to make it appear to be anything than what it is is that slaves lived here. And Alison and I we talked about it a lot and we were really thinking about the messaging. And then when we learned that there’s also a very Spanish speaking population in Inwood community, she said, well, let’s do it in Spanish too, because I feel like we have to start making art accessible and to translate the communication so everybody can be a part of the conversation and at which was my first time doing that. And I thought that it was probably my favorite part of the deliverable of the project because it invited everybody into the conversation. So at the installation, the night of the installation, there were beautiful conversation with people from all walks of life because the art was accessible and people walked by whether they saw it in English or Spanish, they was able to get it immediately and have a conversation about it.

Reggie Black:
Not being able to really know that this was something that had happened and they lived in the community. They didn’t even know that this existed. And so for me, it was about accessibility and being able to make a clean statement that this is what happens and let’s not overlook this. And throughout learning that I learned a lot of the names and places in New York City are named after slaves owners, because that’s what it was. So I lived in [inaudible 00:55:58], but I didn’t know [inaudible 00:55:59] and was a notorious slave owner. I just loved it because I lived there and the culture’s there. You know what I mean? Home of Biggie Smalls and home of Jay Z. And I lived in Brooklyn for three years and it’s another huge part of the story that gave me the skin that I needed to keep pushing forward.

Reggie Black:
And, but I didn’t know that [inaudible 00:56:20] was in the history was rooted in slave trade. And so we overlook a lot of the things by default, I think, because we tend to focus on what we deem is cool, but we don’t really utilize the resources that we have to outline a whole story. And so for that project, for me, it was like, listen, I want to make sure that I don’t leave anything uncovered here. So let’s talk about it. But most importantly, let’s make sure that it’s extremely plain, so everybody can understand it.

Maurice Cherry:
And you did that right near the tail end of 2020, is that right?

Reggie Black:
Yep. Yep. That was the end of December, December 7th, I think was the installation night. We were going to postpone it. We were going away to 2021. There was a lot of back and forth with the logistics. And I said, I think that this is an important conversation that needs to happen now. And mind you, where right off the tails of such a devastating year for black men, women, black trans, everything was transpiring in this country where police brutality and just the unjustice in this country. And I said, if we’re not going to do this now, what better time? Because I think for some odd reason, let’s just say, non-black folks feel like that this is a temperamental temporary issue. When the reality is this isn’t going away. There is no special time to talk about these things.

Reggie Black:
And it’s something that you and I have to experience every day. There is no vacation for being black. You don’t get to wake up and turn it on and off when you want to, this is the life that we live. And so if this is the life that we live, let me make sure that I’m doing what I can to highlight the things that we go through. And was it always this way Maurice? Possibly, possibly not. I don’t feel like I did my due diligence to make sure that I was highlighting the things of importance. And so when I was looking at a lot of the projects that we had on the table last year, and it was assessing things, I noticed the change in me too. I was like, you turn on the news and you see this thing happening nine minutes and 17 seconds or whatever that the exact time was when the gentlemen stood on George Floyd’s neck for, Breonna Taylor was shot in her sleep.

Reggie Black:
You look, and you see these things. And then I will have to show up to the iMac the next morning and try to design something that was beautiful to sell a product. I started to feel disconnected. Yeah, I’m a black man, but am I really using my voice to highlight the things that define the black plight in this country? And the answer was I wasn’t doing my best. And so now I’m trying to make sure that I need to make a conscious effort. My messaging sends a symbolism and it’s inspiring and it’s thought provoking. And I do a lot of work in mental health in Outland articulating that messaging and outlining that conversation. Right. But that’s a very colorless thing.

Reggie Black:
We can all experience that because human emotion is colorless, but when it comes to specific black issues, am I doing enough? My wife has, which is why she’s my wife. She’s like, listen, we all have more work to do. And when she said that to me, that was like another pivotal moment in my life. All right, you got to do more to make sure that your voice and your platform is being used and executed in the right way.

Maurice Cherry:
So something I definitely get from really from this conversation and really just from how you talk about your work is that you’re a very deep thinker. It’s not just about doing the work, but you’re really set on finding the intent and the drive behind it. How do you see the role of the black designer in this current climate? And I’m asking this for two reasons. One, I think certainly now with this increased awareness that people have about black creatives. And I would say just the struggles of black people in general, I hate that we had to get to this point this far along in human history. But one there’s this increased awareness, but two, just here on the show, one question I asked every guest last year was how are you using your skills to create a more equitable future? So I’m posing this question to you, and I’d love to get your answer to it. How do you see the role of the black designer in this current time right now?

Reggie Black:
There’s two folds to that. I think that forever, I feel like we’ve been overlooked. Like you just say, right. And I think we’ve been overlooked, but then also we’ve been undervalued. And I think we’re only called upon when it’s time to clean up something or when it’s time to make something look cool. Like when you look at the makeup of the black community and the black culture, we run the world, we run shit, we validate what’s cool. We make it cool. And then the world grabs it, right? Hip hop is the fastest growing genre in the world. And it’s only like 35, almost 40 years old. It’s a very young genre, but it’s [inaudible 01:01:19] the world. Right. And so we look at our ability to have cool, but then we look at like, we don’t own things and we’re not in positions of power.

Reggie Black:
And so for the black designer right now, I think what’s important is for us to say, okay, here’s my place in the world. Here’s my position, here’s a corporation at wants me to work or collaborate with “them”. Right. And if that’s the case, we have to make sure that we’re saying the things that are important to amplify, the topics and issues that are affecting our communities. And I think that’s the role. It’s okay. Because that’s another thing that it’s a lot is that we feel like artists aren’t supposed to be compensated properly. We need to be properly compensated for the things that we contribute and the value that we contribute to messaging. And then also we need to be able to say the things that feel good and speak to our people.

Reggie Black:
And I think that we can’t be used as pawns in the system to tell a story that isn’t accurate to how we believe. We have to reflect the times, which what I was just talking about my work, I was realizing that I was speaking to one thing when in fact the world was on fire and I’m a black man and in any given moment, I could have been shot as well. And I’m not saying that you have to abandon your bread and butter and what you’re known for. Both things can exist, but I feel like somehow they want us to exclude a specific messaging for a specific messaging. And I’m saying no, that they both need to exist right now. So it’s our obligation as the black designer to make sure that when we speak on these things, we’re making sure that we amplify a point that needs to be said that can’t be said by a non-black person.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you make space for these days?

Reggie Black:
I’m trying to get better at self care. I know it’s a hot button topic and everybody’s trying to explore it and define it for themselves. But for me I’ve always been a very inquisitive child. I’ve always been like you said, and thank you for that compliment, man. I’ve always been a deep thinker. I get it from my mom who isn’t as I guess won’t say talkative, but she’s a woman of few words, but the few words that she says are super impactful. And so I picked that up as a child from my mom who was just very intentional about what she says and why she says it. And so as a result of that, I’m trying to be intentional about how I treat myself and how I care for myself.

Reggie Black:
And I’m spending a lot of time and introspection asking larger questions as I get “older” what do I want this life to really look like for myself? And how can I give myself enough love that’s detached from the results? And just really thinking about where I want to go and how I want to impact the world. But before I get there, how do I impact and change myself? Because I think we go out with the Superman cape on every day to stand up and design and raise questions and fight for causes, which are all beautiful. But I think sometimes we go out half empty. We’re not completely together ourselves.

Reggie Black:
And as I’m going on this journey, I don’t believe that you could be of complete service to a cause, a company, a client, if you’re not really at whole yourself or have a beautiful sensibility to be able to compartmentalize that, to show up and do that work and then go home and figure out a way, how to sort your own personal stuff up. So I’m really just trying to figure out one, who am I outside of work? And then how can I bring that guy to the work to be able to impact it more?

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would have been if you’d never became an artist and a designer?

Reggie Black:
Funny enough, man, I’ve always wanted to be a business banker.

Maurice Cherry:
A business banker.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. A business banker venture capitalist. Like one of those guys Goldman Sachs with the suit on. And don’t… I won’t say don’t ask me why, ask me why. Yes. But then there’s two points to it. I wanted to be it because growing up, I felt like that was the only way, which I do feel like it’s still important, but economics is the way to freedom. And so growing up, I was like, well, let me pursue a career money, one, because that’s what a lot of my teachers told me. And that’s what was like, Oh, you need to go… And growing up without it. It’s like, well, that’s what I want. And then two, I feel like there’s not a lot of space for creative venture capitalists.

Reggie Black:
I know that the full premise of it is to fund companies to have a return, to build more companies. But I think we’re doing a huge disservice to excluding the currency of creative intellect. And somehow one thing that drives everything, but it’s the last thing to be compensated for. So it’s like we can bill big companies to connect us as fast as we need to be and share our most valuable moments. But we overlooked the importance of the everyday creative that’s trying to get an idea off the ground. And so I would love to in a perfect world start a creative venture capitalist fund where there’re these micro grants that small entrepreneurs and innovators and thinkers can apply for and receive. And I know it exists in the world.

Reggie Black:
There’re so many beautiful people doing that work Backstage Capital, who I love, she’s doing an amazing job, Arlan Hamilton. There’s so many companies that are doing that work, man. But yeah, I think that’s what I would have been, man. It’s the impossible for a lot of us. And I’m always looking to explore the edges and go on to extremes or a DJ.

Maurice Cherry:
Or a DJ.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. Or a DJ. Because I love music. And I’m still got to execute fun in your life. So on a business side, super serious side venture capitalist. But outside of that, I think that a DJ of some sort.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s interesting that certainly other countries do a lot to sponsor artists or to fund the arts. And I feel like we used to have that here prior to the last administration. Hopefully that will come back. Or we start to at least see some more investment from, I think the government towards artists. But yeah, I would think even celebrities or other businesses or things like that, you probably see this too. There’s so many big names that expect free creative work.

Reggie Black:
Sure. And that’s the part that has to be dismantled because art and creativity is the one thing that communicates every element of our lives, but it’s still one thing that’s always negotiated. Right? Everything we interact with is designed by somebody, the homes we live in, the cars we drive, the clothing we wear, there’s a designer, there’s some creative intellect that’s going on behind that. But for whatever reason, like you said, we’re always the ones that are like, Oh, well just do this for exposure. One of the person that I do have to highlight and give the credit for, somebody that I would like to, if in a big sky dream Pharrell Williams, I think that he does a beautiful job and he just launched the new, Black Ambition incubator to do this very thing.

Reggie Black:
And that’s give the black and Latino X, co-founders an opportunity to launch businesses and stuff. He’s clearly doing something that I would love to do, but in a large wish upon the sky, he’s the one person that I would love to meet and work with to some capacity. Just because his ability to see, listen, I’m a kid from Virginia Beach, Virginia. And I connect with that story. I’m a kid from Northwest, D.C. growing up in 80s pre-gentrified D.C. when it was very rough to like and see yourself to transcend this place outside of what society deemed for you to be. And so there’s a connection there as well.

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

Reggie Black:
That’s a loaded one, man. I don’t know; no one knows. Right? But I think because I don’t want to perceive to have all the answers. I don’t know what I will be doing, but what I would hope is that my work will land in places that could inspire people to use their voice. If All Things Progressive could work with clients that could inspire a new generation of business, I feel like that’s what I will be doing. So maybe it’s in the aspiring business and that’s not a business, but maybe I just need to be in a position to ignite new ideas and birth new generations of ideas, maybe it’s this venture capital thing. I know Reggie Black the artist will always be able to produce beautiful, innovative things that I love and believe in.

Reggie Black:
But I think in the next five years, somehow focusing on impact and that could be with the black artists fund that Alison and I were working on to carve out and creating a platform. I think me personally will probably I won’t say, take a back seat, but I’ll be thinking about more how I could use my platform to amplify the voices of others. To some regard I don’t know what it looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here. Where can our audience find out more about you and all the work that you’re doing, where can they find that online?

Reggie Black:
iamreggieblack on Instagram. iamreggieblack on Twitter. And my website is, Iamreggieblack.com. So out of those few places you can find me. It’s where I’ll be man. And then before we get off, I just want to thank you for the work that you continue to do with your platform Maurice because it’s super important. And I want to thank Ashley for recommending me to be here because I think that iron sharpens iron, and I think that the work that you do connect so many people to give them the hope to see. And that’s a point that I want to make as well before we go off, the ability to see what you’re doing is a huge void that I missed in my life because I didn’t meet my first black designer until I was 25.

Reggie Black:
I didn’t know that this was a real thing. I didn’t meet anybody that could work Photoshop or Illustrator till I was 25. So your sessions and your interviews that you consistently put out to the world is hope for somebody that’s listening to this, like the little Reggie that could have been listening to this 10, 15 years ago to see that this is possible. I think that the translation and the gaps that happen here, are all exposure, people don’t think that design of some black kids, or people of color. They don’t think that this is possible because we don’t see anybody that could do this. So thank you brother. I really appreciate you, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, thank you. And thank you for coming on the show, for not just sharing your story, but also really going deep into the thought that you put into the work and also the messages that you want to put out there in the world. I really feel like we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Reggie Black in the future. I think certainly just based off what you’ve been doing so far, I can’t wait to see what you come up with next. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Reggie Black:
Thank you, man. As long as I’ve been doing this, I feel like I’m just getting started. So thank you so much for acknowledging that. And I’m looking forward to just staying a student and stay open. And if there’s any way I can support further banger, you know where to reach me, man.

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