Rob Martin

Running your own design studio is no small feat, but design professionals like Rob Martin make it look easy. As the founder and creative principal of Majorminor, he and his team have done branding and digital work for a number of clients for over a decade, including ICA, Complex, and Sony. On top of that, Rob is a talented musician and producer who goes by the name RCA. That guitar you see in the photo ain’t just for show!

We started our conversation with a quick 2022 check-in, and from there Rob talked about the ins and outs of running Majorminor, working with clients, and the types of projects he wants to branch out and tackle. Rob also spoke about growing up in the Bay Area, attending Sacramento State University and working for a few companies before striking out on his own. We even chatted about his music and his upcoming gig at SXSW this year! Rob is proof that being true to yourself is the real key to success!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Rob Martin:
Hey, so my name is Rob Martin. I run a studio called Majorminor. We’re based out of San Francisco, California. I act as the principal owner and a creative director here. Yeah, we do branding agency work. We do brand strategy and graphic design identity systems for a different range of clients. B2B, small local bakery or some more enterprise-level international enterprise. But basically we work with clients and people that are really trying to do something good for people. So we try to do good work for these people at the organization to support them and their vision.

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

Rob Martin:
It’s been doing okay. Definitely not a banner year for us or me in person or anything, but it’s one of those years where we’re looking back so we can see how we can move forward, right? It’s a lot of reflection on how we’ve been running the company, our past clients, what we can learn from those experiences and start to implement things into our workflow, our processes to make it better for us to work, whether it’s a work-life balance kind of thing, or even just how we’re serving our clients. How can we get, “Better clients?” We just work less to do more.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because you just hit the 10-year mark not too long ago, right?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. I think 10 years was… I forget what year that was, but I think we’ll be turning 13 this year.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, it was 2019. So yeah, it should be 13 years. 2009, we started.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
And then yes, we should be 13 this year. July 20th is our birthday.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Congratulations.

Rob Martin:
Thank you. Yeah, it’s been a long ride.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the design studio Majorminor, which first off just for those that are listening and might be wondering, where did the name come from?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So the name actually goes back when I was in college in Sacramento State, our last class was a portfolio building class. We actually have a portfolio to use once we got out of school. I took it upon myself to actually treat it as if I was doing a studio for myself. Actually, since I started school at Sacramento State, one of my friends in school really put me on all the cool studios like Pentagram and Turner Duckworth out in San Francisco. That was my first real exposure to something like that. Even the idea of owning a business, something I’ve always wanted to do as a kid, but that was like I was a kid in the ’90s, so it was going to be a store, a 7-Eleven/import video game studio or a store/rollerblading store.

Rob Martin:
It was a very juvenile idea. That has always been inside of me. So once I had the idea like, “Hey, I can actually run a studio. I’m really passionate about graphic design. Here’s my chance to kind of get that idea realized.” So in this portfolio class, we start coming up with names and I’m really digging into myself about who I am, how that reflects my work. And it actually came from the parallels I see in design, in music and also even just myself. So I’ll kind of explain the names. I think it’s really interesting. This will help me make sure that it still makes sense years later. So basically when you have a visual, right? There’s a rhythm between light and that contrasting that creates the form, right? So you remember doing line studies in your first graphic design class. You’re doing these strips and then see how this black and white can make rhythm or how it can make a form.

Rob Martin:
And then even with sound wave, it’s a up and down wave. But the contrast between those ups and downs and the speed that they’re going at will make it sound. So those parallels are really interesting to me too. And then even thinking about myself. People thinking about different people like, “Oh, that person is X, that means they like Y.” I feel like I was in the middle of all these things like, “Oh, you’re a black dude, but you grew up around South Bay around a bunch of Asian folks. So you don’t fit that mold in that way.” So I always kind of saw myself in the middle.

Rob Martin:
And then bringing it back to the whole music thing, Majorminor the way I see it as being in the middle of these ups and downs and kind of existing there, even again with the whole balance between form and my shape and color, all kind of making these things. That’s kind of where I came up with the name Majorminor to then represent myself and the practice that we have at the studio.

Maurice Cherry:
So tell me about the Majorminor team.

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So the Majorminor team currently, our core team is there’s three people; myself, my producer, Vincent, and then my other project manager, account manager, Michelle. One of the cool things about Majorminor is that everyone at kind of the leadership-level, you want to call it, they’ve always been people that I considered my best friends in life. I’m very lucky to have people that I call my best friend or a best friend that I could then actually work with and work alongside with in a really healthy, non-toxic kind of a way.

Rob Martin:
And this current iteration they’ve been on the team for the last, two years now. During COVID I took a break. I had a really bad panic attack in 2020, I think it was right before COVID hit. So I took off pretty much that year from COVID or the year that we first had the shutdown. When we started to come back together or when I decided I was ready to get back to work, I brought them along to kind of reshape the team and move forward with a more healthier feel.

Rob Martin:
And it’s been great so far. They’re really, really sensitive to that kind of stuff. And just paying attention to that for even our clients. How are they feeling about this? How are we feeling about everything? Making sure we’re not working too much, but know that when we do need to pick up the pace or something, we’re doing that in a way that’s not toxic or berating of anyone. Really considering, “This is about the work and not the person, but the people here, they need to be in a certain place to able to do their best work.”

Maurice Cherry:
What are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Rob Martin:
I’d say our best type of client is and this is something that we’ve only recently started to identify maybe in the last year, maybe even two years, but really kind of taking a hypothesis and trying to see if that actually makes sense, which it has. But basically, it’s a company that has some kind of product they’ve been able to vet their business. They’re probably making at least a million dollars a year revenue, but they don’t have a real brand system or even a strategy. They’ve just been just doing their thing. And they want to become competitive on either a larger regional stage or a national stage.

Rob Martin:
And so usually that means most of our clients have never paid for a design or worked with a strategic design team before. So we already know there’s a lot of education that comes with that relationship and a lot of handholding, but not like… It’s just like, “Hey, this is the process. And it might feel unintuitive to you in certain ways, but let us walk you through it.” And we’ll explain why we’re doing all this stuff. So we kind of see ourselves as being the stepper for them to get up the mountain. Sometimes people climb mountains, but they never climbed ever. So they need someone that’s done it before, see how they move and then bring them up the mountain in a way that facilitates their best experience.

Maurice Cherry:
So when let’s say a company or an individual then contacts you about a new project, what does that process look like in terms of bringing them in, working with their idea? What does that look like?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So first off, I guess we get some kind of initial email from them, “Hey we’ve got this project we’re thinking about, we got referred to you by whomever.” We’ll just hop on a really casual conversation and just talk to them. They can say, “We need a new brand system. We like this and like that.” But again, this is their first time actually working with a strategic team. So we want to uncover what that really means for them. And then help them understand what that really is for them. They might need an identity system, but how agile are you expecting it to be? What places will the main touch points, the core brand expressions actually be? And then once we have those conversations, it enlightens them onto what they’re actually about to get from us, what they actually need. And just the whole thing, just more are detailed and articulated for them.

Rob Martin:
Then from there, we’ve kind of uncover all those things. We call it a discovery session. Once everything is uncovered during that discovery session, then we’ll actually go and write a proposal with a number in there for them, go back and forth. Maybe they can’t afford it, or maybe they have to get more money, but then we can cut things out of it, put things in there that might have been revealed to them during some kind of board review of the proposal. And then from there, everything is sign the dot line. And this is actually something we’re about to do, to have a second session after the contracts are signed, going through all the terms of the engagement with them very clear. So everyone’s on the same page on how the process will move and why we only want you to have six stakeholders and no one else can chime in, why we’re doing that because we don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen.

Rob Martin:
People giving feedback out of context, or even giving personal feedback that isn’t irrelevant, but it then messed up the flavor in the pot. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Rob Martin:
Really trying to get… And not to be strict, but just say, “Hey, if you want this to move efficiently, when you want to get done, then we have to move in this way.” It serves both of our parties, not just us, not wanting to deal with other people. But for us to get that product for them, we need to make sure we’re all in agreement with the way we all have to move. It’s like I sign a disclaimer for you to jump out of a plane or something like that, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
So aside from clients and everything you mentioned that’s been going on now for 13 years almost, what’s been the secret to keep the things going?

Rob Martin:
I don’t know if there’s a secret, if there is, I’m still trying to figure it out. So if anyone hears anything from the stuff I’m saying, please feel free to pull my coat. Let me know what the secret could be. I think if anything, it is really just building. I think the biggest part of it is building and maintaining relationships because people the best way word-of-mouth or word-of-mouth is the best way I think, to get new projects. And even I feel like people see your work, that’s not what they’re buying necessarily. So if they come to you like, “Oh, that was really cool that you did that.” And their whole traction leads off of your work. It’s usually, you got to turn that back around because they’re not really paying for the work.

Rob Martin:
While the work is obviously important as the product that they’re getting at the end of the day, the relationship and the way that you both move, how the designer leads you through this, I think is what really, the biggest thing is. If they’re efficient, they’re working right, they’re being professional, they’re hitting their timelines. Those are the things that I think you’re really paying for because you get anyone to do any kind of design work. That’s why I don’t get hire people like, “Oh, I can just go on Fiverr and get someone to do this.” I’m fine like, “Fine, if that’s what you want to do go, but it’s going to be a way different experience and end product than what you’re going to get from us.” And that’s fine. If you want to go there, I’m not mad at you because that’s probably stuff I don’t want to work with if they’re going to have that kind of mentality.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
Or maybe they don’t really know the difference. I have to educate them to show them the value of what they’re actually getting versus a different studio or even another designer or even a Fiverr guy.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean that education part is important. One, that’s kind of in a way what they’re paying for, hopefully they’re paying for the education because they’re paying you to do something that they can’t do. So the hope is that you’ll be able to kind of show them like, “This is how it should be done.” But then also, they’re also paying for just your expertise. If you’ve been doing it for this long, clearly you have a track record for knowing what you’re doing. So it would take, hopefully I’m thinking on the client end, it would take me less time to hire a professional than for me to hire someone on say Fiverr or some marketplace that I may have to do a whole bunch of explaining towards, I don’t know the verbiage or the terminology to really talk to them the way they did in order to do the work. It ends up becoming just a lot more work that way.

Rob Martin:
Yeah. And that part, especially with the clients that we have, where it is their first time paying for this large of an effort strategic with design, they don’t know what they’re getting into. And there’s actually even a moment I want to say it was about a year ago where this woman approached us for some work. We already knew we didn’t want to work with her because of her tone of voice. But we still took the time to let her know, “You have no idea where you’re about to get into and this is what it should look like. And that’s why it costs X hundred thousand dollars.” Just because you don’t think it’s worth that much. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth that much. If anything, you really need to understand what you’re about to get into because you’re going to have a world of hurt as you try and do everything you’re trying to say for $15,000.

Rob Martin:
And we’re not trying to be mean, it’s just like, “Yo, this is actually how it is.” If anything, it should probably cost more because you’re going to be one of those people that don’t get it and don’t want to get it and it’s going to make more work for everyone. So yeah, I’m sharing information because I want people to understand what we actually do and take the veer off because it’s kind of… If you’ve never done it before, it’s kind of nebulous, what it really is and you learn along the way. And that’s the kind of the fun part about it for our clients too, is them seeing and having those aha moments and say, “Oh, that’s why you guys wanted to.”

Rob Martin:
One thing that we do that we’ve been doing for the last few years and we do identity systems. We don’t just do the logo and then the colors and then the tie, we do the whole thing at once. So they see a very good representation of where we want to take this direction for the system. So they’ll see the logo, some colors, it’s a very detailed mood board. And we even mock up like, “Here’s a poster or a campaign idea within this.” So it might only get two directions, but these two directions are thought out and vetted all the way to the point where they can just say, “We like that one or we like this one or maybe can we try this one with the other colors?”

Rob Martin:
And we cut down a lot of the really big reviews because we’re not doing everything one at a time. We’re showing everything in context. So if you can see this image that we’re trying to create for them, what the system looks like and how agile it is, how it can scale, what other pieces we think might need to be invented. Maybe they didn’t think about, “Oh, we never thought about doing this thing because we never saw the need for it. But we do see the need for it in this image mock up that you’ve done for us.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like I said, that education is really important for them to kind of see what goes into it. Because oftentimes they don’t really know. Especially like you said, if they haven’t hired someone before, they don’t know what the creative process looks like. They just think you go in there and punch a few buttons and there you go. There’s the logo. But when you show them all the thought and the care and the psychology and everything that goes behind it, the hope is that they have that appreciation.

Maurice Cherry:
I had someone contact me recently that was like, “Oh, I need a logo for my organization.” And usually the first question I’ll always ask is, “What’s your budget?” Because for me that can be the indicator as to whether this is going to be a good project or a bad project. I hate to say it, but that’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
And so they had a pretty low budget and I said, “Well, you probably would be better off going to a marketplace just based on what you are willing to spend on this.” And it was pretty much a full brand identity for a nonprofit organization. They’re like, “We need a logo and this and that and the third.” Because I was like, “If you really try to hire the services of a designer, it’s going to be much more expensive than that. And I don’t know how much more expensive, it’s definitely going to be more expensive than your budget.” So you kind of have to ask those qualifying questions and stuff too. And especially when you’re starting out on your own, you may not know that. You may take those low gigs at first just to kind of have some skin in the game and you realize years and years later, you don’t do that.

Rob Martin:
Yeah. You know what’s even kind of crazy about that. They’re not crazy, but another piece of that is like, this is what I learned a few years ago too, was you might bid the pie and the sky project for them. But really they might not even be able to support that. It might be just be too much. And they spend all this money after you’ve educated them on it and they can’t even support it, and the identity just falls apart. Sometimes you’ll see this new brand comes out there, they wouldn’t be on brand new or something like that. But you’ll see the whole, “Oh, this is really cool. This is really great.” The way it’s represented on the designer side looks awesome. Then you go back a year later and it looks nothing like that because the internal team on the client side could not support something like that. Either their designer that they had in staff was whack or the brand guidelines you made them were trash.

Rob Martin:
But you also have to be able to make something that people can actually use and support over the length of however long they need it for. So that’s part of it to consider too. So they might be able to get the money for, but if you don’t think they have the support system to use that work and make it of even more value for them, then it’s kind like that’s another place you got to pause and be like, “Hey, you know what? Maybe we can just do a smaller scale of this or you should just to go somewhere else and just do something basic until you have the infrastructure to do something more. Just do something bigger to get you to that level, but I don’t think you’re there yet.” That’s something we’ve had to do a couple of times, but it’s a good thing to be able to identify as we’re kind of going through the bidding process.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense, actually. I didn’t even think about that. You can do this big identity and things for them, but if they can’t support it moving forward, then it’s like, “Do they really need that? Are they going to contract you to do that work for them?” There’s all these other questions that end up coming into play.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. And because just me personally, I to do the most and that always nips me in the bud a lot. So I’ve had to temper myself with trying to do everything I want to and would like to for them to what they actually need, what can they actually use? So that’s been, I guess, more of a learning for myself but that has been for other people. But we’ve had multiple times where we’ve had to encounter that and make a decision.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve mentioned doing a lot of branding and identity projects. Are there other types of projects that you want to do in the future through the studio?

Rob Martin:
Retail stuff is always really interesting because even getting into the graphic design. I remember my mom, she worked at, I don’t know, some place. It was a big white building called Sintex or something and over by Stanford in California and she would go to work every day and then come back and tell me what she did, it was data research or something. But there’s never any physical thing to show for it. And I also thought it was weird, at least for me because even as a kid, I liked to make stuff. I was either drawing or arts and craft, lanyards kind of shit. Everything I did, I had something to show for. Even when I was playing video games if I beat the game, I then make a drawing of the game as a certificate for myself like, “Hey, I did this thing.”

Rob Martin:
So for me, having some kind of artifact of your accomplishments or things that you do has always been really important to me. So the retail kind of thing, having a product that we then get to design and then package and someone I can point to it on a shelf like, “Yeah, me and my team did that.” That’s always been a really important to me to do more stuff like that. But even with websites, “Yeah, we made that thing.” But the physical thing is actually really interesting too. So even with the music that I put out, I put that on vinyl. So I have a record, literally a record of it and-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Rob Martin:
… it’s like a piece I can look back on. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s pretty dope. I want to definitely talk more about your music. We’ll get to that I think later in the interview. But let’s switch gears and talk about your origin story. You mentioned, or you’ve alluded to that you’re from in and around the Bay Area, is that right?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So I grew up in Sunnyvale, California, and that’s in the South Bay Area of the Bay Area and that was really cool being out there. Again, it was a cool mix, melting pot being around all these different people, even the tech and stuff out there. I really would say, I am a product of Sunnyvale, really into video games. Nerdy kind of guy, but cool enough where I could still get around and not get punked or anything. It definitely had an impact on the person I am in good ways, I think. I’m very proud to be from there.

Maurice Cherry:
It definitely sounds like you got into art and design and stuff pretty early on. You mentioned sketching the video games after you beat them and stuff like that.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. Video games was one of the gateways into art and design. Skateboarding was another really big one too. I was never, ever good at skateboarding, but I always like the art on them, the culture and the way people dress. That was a really big part of it for me. And then even with skateboarding, getting into punk rock music, I played in punk bands and stuff when I was in high school, sky bands, metal bands. But all those things, they all kind of… One thing I got into took me into something else, took me into something else. But they all stemmed around the art and the music part of it and the culture too, just the people that built it, seeing how they operate.

Rob Martin:
And especially even thinking about, I won’t say there was a counter culture necessary, but there’s just alternative lifestyles, the way people get down in there. Some of the crusty punk dudes, I used to kick it with. I would never want to live like that, but I respected the fact that they wanted to live that way. That’s what they did. And there was very authenticism or authentic part about it. They’re being themselves, doing what they want to do and whatever you’re “supposed to do,” they weren’t really worried about that because that’s what they wanted to do.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you know that design was something that you wanted to study?

Rob Martin:
Well, so I’ll say this, I always wanted to do graphic design, but I didn’t really know what graphic design was from a theoretical kind of practice until I got to Sacramento State.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Rob Martin:
Before that, I really just wanted a job where I didn’t have to do any math and I got to sit in front of a computer all day. I guess I wanted to be a production designer at that point. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I just wanted to make stuff on the computer and not have to stand all day.

Rob Martin:
So once I got Sacramento State, the first class was all about theory again, how we’re seeing light becoming sense of the form and color. I was like, “Oh, this is actually kind of dope. There’s a whole science to it.” Even the degree that we got from Sacramento State was a Bachelor’s of Science, not an art degree. I really like that they fought to get that kind of definition around the program because this is all theory. Yeah, you are making something. You’re making a “beautiful thing,” at the end of the day. But there’s a lot of science, psychology, anthropology, even that goes into the foundation of the algorithm that we used to make whatever we make, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And now prior to Sacramento State though, you started out at a art school, right? At Academy of Art University.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. So I don’t know if you knew this, but in the Bay Area where Academy is based out of, back in 2000s, they would run commercials late at night when all the anime stuff was on.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Rob Martin:
Show, “Hey, if you want to draw anime, you can come over to art school over here and we’ll help get you a job and all this.” It was very romantic in that way. Trying to play up getting an art degree. That obviously looked very attractive to me. It was very expensive, but I like, “Mom, I really want to do this. Can you help me get there?” So we worked over the summer to get me signed up over there. It was a pain in the arse to get signed up there. And I was still living in my parents’ house in Sunnyvale. So getting up to San Francisco to be there for four days a week, a little bit of a stretch being… I don’t know how old I was, so I think I was maybe 20 or 19 then.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you driving or were you taking Caltrain?

Rob Martin:
So I’d stay at my friend’s house in Berkeley. He was going to UC Berkeley and I would stay up there for a day or two and then take BART across and then come back on the weekends.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha.

Rob Martin:
So I could work and just be home.

Maurice Cherry:
Because that’s a commute from South Bay to get up to San Francisco. I remember I interned out in San Francisco for a summer when I was in college and I was like, “It’s a trek.”

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. If I had a good car, it wouldn’t have been that much of a problem, but just the logistics. So I’d be there till 7:00. I had to get there 9:00 AM, be there till 7:00 and then have to do homework. My friend was like I could just stay with him for a little bit.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, so I started school there, just the whole commute thing, the amount of stuff I needed to buy, the work I needed to do. I wasn’t ready for it. I think I dropped out halfway through the first semester. It wasn’t what I thought I was going to be. I wasn’t ready for that. It wasn’t what I expected it to be, which it ended up being more or the theory stuff. They start you out with all these foundational drawing classes, which are important.

Rob Martin:
But in hindsight, I don’t think that was absolutely necessary for the type of designer that I ended up being. So I’m glad I didn’t stick with that, especially for the amount they were charging. It was incredibly expensive.

Rob Martin:
Oh, yeah. I was going to continue with the little bit, the origin stuff, right? So I dropped out of there and I went back to community college and I decided, “You know what? I’m going to go to a state school. I would like to get out of the Bay Area slightly.” So I started working towards going to Sacramento State, doing some painting and drawing classes at the end of community college and then went to Sac State. I think I started in 2003 there and I was at Academy, I think 2002. Yes, maybe like a year. I had an in between just because we had to sign up for the whole school transfer and everything to go to a state school from any other school.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It sounds like Sacramento State was just a much better environment for you overall.

Rob Martin:
Oh, across the board. I swear I’m so lucky that this worked out for me because it was like one of those things was like, I don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t do this, I have to do something like this because I actually got diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago. And in hindsight that explained my whole entire life up to that point. And because usually if I’m not in it, I’ve been saying this thing recently. If I don’t fuck with you, I don’t fuck with you. And that’s kind of, if I’m not into it, then I literally can’t do it. My brain won’t let me. It won’t be stimulating enough for me to engage with it at all. I didn’t know that was an ADHD thing until recently.

Rob Martin:
But looking back, I told myself, I was like, “Yo Rob, you got to make this work.” Luckily the program at Sac State is top-notch. I highly recommend it to anyone trying to save money, but still get a very solid design education. I think their education there is better than Academy’s. It’s all theoretical. Although the professors are super Swiss old school trained, but they’ve been able to be agile and keep up with the times in a way. That really shows how much the theory and the practice of the foundations like becoming sensitive to the way you’re looking at things and having a critical eye and not personal preference or anything like that. They’re able to shape someone that’s maybe not naturally good at design and get them to a place where they can’t be competitive in the workplace.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk about your early career. So you graduated from Sacramento State, you’re getting out there in the world, working as a designer. Tell me what your early career was like because you were kind of working at a few different places here and there, right?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. Actually, so maybe I should take a little step back. So before I graduated, I went to Dallas for a student design competition and I won my first award there, but I also met a lot of people. I met Armando Simmons out there. This guy, Matt George, I was working at VSA in Chicago. I almost actually ended up working at VCA a few months after that, but I wanted to graduate first and they were trying to get me to get over there before I graduated. I’m like, “I got to get the degree due. I’ve been working on this for three years. I can’t leave a month early and not get the degree.” So passed on that. And then I graduated and then I think immediately after that, I started sending out stuff for internships and I was able to land one at Chan Design in San Francisco, one of my favorite studios.

Rob Martin:
So back in the day, they were very influential on me. I was back again to commuting. So I’d be taking the train or driving to San Francisco from Sacramento at least three days a week for this internship. Super long commute.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
And eventually it was a pain, but for me it was worth it because that was a place I always admired and I really looked up to. So for me that was worth the commute. Plus I got to listen to podcasts and music all day on the way up and down. So those two and a half hour drives weren’t too bad back then.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Rob Martin:
And then from Chan, I was able to get a full-time designer spot at Volume. I was there for about a year, I think. For the first half of that, I was commuting every day now, but this time I take the train, which took longer, but at least I wasn’t driving so I could sleep on the way there and back. I did that get commute for a little bit then I moved back to my parents’ house in Sunnyvale. I just drove from San Francisco every day to back home. Then from there I got a spot at this place called Duarte Design. They’re the PowerPoint keynote specialists for Apple. They did Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth stuff. They’re a heavy player. They are the PowerPoint people. You there’s no one else that’s messing with them in any kind of way.

Rob Martin:
And I was there for a little bit and this is where my snobbery and the me thinking I was hot shit really came into play because I didn’t really… Cool. Working on PowerPoint stuff but I didn’t know I’d be working a Windows machine. I got really uppity about that. I think just culturally I wasn’t a good fit there and we all knew it, but they were trying their hardest to make it work just because they’re investing in the people and everything that they have. So I guess they kind of short, I am getting fired the day that Obama was elected.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Rob Martin:
But yeah, I saw it coming, but I get a little more symbolic on that day of all days. So I left there and I worked at Punchcut for a little bit and then I got laid off there because I was right when Obama got elected was when the recession started to hit. And it hit pretty hard right after that. So I got laid off there and then I was like you know what? I was going to start my studio. I’m living at my parents’ house. I said, “I need to make a little bit of money,” so they let me pay for food and gas and hang on the weekends. So I’ll be able to do that while I’m kind of getting my whole process together and actually figure out how I’m going to do this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to interject there for two things. One, when you were at Duarte, I’m curious. Do you know Jole Simmons? Does that name sound familiar?

Rob Martin:
It sounds familiar, but I don’t have a face.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s a presentation designer. I don’t know if you and he worked at Duarte at the same time, but you mentioned him. And that made me think of when I interviewed him a while back.

Rob Martin:
Oh, you mean Armando Simmons or Jole Simmons? I said Armando.

Maurice Cherry:
I know Armando Simmons, Jole Simmons, J-O-L-E Simmons, Hampton grad. I think Joel is still out there in the Bay now, but he does a lot of big presentations like Apple, Microsoft, et cetera. So you mentioned Duarte and I was thinking, “Oh, I think I know him. I don’t know if you all had crossed paths or not.” But it sounds one interesting parallel that kind of came up to me as you were mentioning that is you left right when Obama got elected, like you said, that was kind of symbolic. And I remember I was working at AT&T right at that time as a senior designer and I quit my job the day Obama got elected. I was going-

Rob Martin:
Because of that or just you got hyped up?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think I just got hyped up. It was all in the moment because I’m not going to get too much into it. Folks who have listened to the podcast have probably heard this story. But I was working at AT&T, I was a senior production designer. It was just a lot of work. And they were scaling things to the point where we were doing… All the work that we did had point values to it. And so they would lessen the point value of the work and increase the number of points you had to hit every week to make your goal or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
And then on top of that, I was also getting paid less than other senior designers there, despite the fact that I had more experience and I had sort of lobbied to not my manager because I was a contractor working there, but my contractor manager telling her what happened and she managed to get all of my back pay. There were six months of back pay that was owed to me and the back hit that morning because I remember I went to go vote. I came back to the office and my contractor manager pulled me into her office, told me that the money had hit and everything like that. So we should be all squared away and things like that. And it was like as soon as she said that, and then a little bit later on we were watching the votes and everything in the office and stuff like that. And we had a big team meeting near the end of the day and I just quit. I quit in the team meeting.

Rob Martin:
Yo, props for that, though. Even during the team meeting too, that’s a hard mic drop thing.

Maurice Cherry:
But I’m curious for you, you had kind of these short stints at these different design agencies and studios and stuff, what was going on during that time. Did you just feel like you weren’t fitting in anywhere or what was going through your mind then?

Rob Martin:
Yeah, this is actually kind of a personal thing for me, right? Again, with the ADHD thing, I didn’t know I had that until later in life. So first two spots to Chan and Volume just being contract designers out here, you kind of come in and out, that’s just how those worked out. At the same time, I think the person I was, my social skills were not where they are now. I’m way more socially inept or I’m better as a social person. I fit in with people. I can talk to people now more comfortable with doing that. Before I was really shy. I’m very awkward on top of me just not being into certain things. At Duarte, I just looked like an asshole pretty much I think to people. Not intentionally, but I was though.

Rob Martin:
Again, in hindsight I could see how the way I was behaving would look to someone for me outside in. And then even just starting Majorminor and having to now get in of people and sell myself, that really helped with all this being comfortable and being able to approach people, being able to talk to people in a certain way. All that really helped and it started to happen once I started getting my feet on the ground, started campaigning to get work and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
So that feeling was kind of what made you want to start the studio?

Rob Martin:
Well, I wouldn’t say that feeling necessarily, but I guess that was a part of it was just, I need to be able to do things in my own terms in order for me to do them at my highest level. Just like the personal investment. Do I really want to do this? Do I care about it versus kind of what you were saying with AT&T just throwing stuff in front of you and you’re just trying to churning it out. I can’t do that necessarily, at least for a sustained amount of time, after a while I just start to drift off and daydream in my head and think about other stuff I’d rather be doing. So I figured why did I just do that stuff in the first place so you never have to feel like that or make someone feel a certain kind of way about you because you’re treating their work in a certain way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What were those early years of Majorminor like?

Rob Martin:
Very interesting. I’ve ever encountered anyone else that had this kind of path, but I didn’t have any clients that I brought with me or anything like that when I left any of these places or even freelance clients. I literally just went on Craigslist every 20 minutes and refreshed a page and sent out my little cold email to all the people that were looking for stuff. Sometimes it’d be a little $150 logo. Sometimes it’d be like, “Hey, I need a magazine done or something like that.”

Rob Martin:
That experience was really critical because it helped me to build my process for any actual real work, getting my contracts together. Having that experience is where things go wrong, and I now learn not to do certain things. Understanding how to approach people and not just say yes to everything, but like, “Hey, I can do this, but I can do this. Well, you only have this amount of money. Well, I can’t do that then, but I can do this for you.” The negotiation thing, being able to meet people where they’re at with what they’re trying to do and really understanding and hearing them and what they’re trying to do and not just be a factory.

Rob Martin:
The beginning years of just chilling on Craigslist was pretty, pretty significant that way. I didn’t know that at the time, but looking back that was my master’s program was the first two years of Majorminor, just trolling on there. But the thing is once I was doing that because I started off solo, right? So I’m doing this just on Craigslist as often as I possibly can, looking for other avenues to get work without having any work to show or any other contacts that could put me in front of someone else. It really built me up in that way and got my process to a place where I can actually run a business.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad you said that because I think that way of starting out is a lot more common than people think. I know that-

Rob Martin:
Yeah, I hope so.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no, serious because that’s how I started out. My first year after I quit, I didn’t have… See, this was my thing. I thought I would have clients lined up. I had been telling friends of mine like, “I’m thinking about starting my own studio or something like that.” And they’re like, “Yeah, well you got such and such. I’ll have some work for you.” And I quit. And those first, I’d say probably those first three or four were lean. I mean they were rough. I wasn’t necessarily going on Craigslist, but I was definitely taking super low paying jobs, anything just to get something in the bank account.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to a lot of meetups because meetups were big. I’m in Atlanta to kind of give a context. But here at Atlanta, meetups were pretty big in 2009 or so. So I would go to all these web design meetups, which I quickly found out is the worst place for a designer to try to get a job because there’s other designers that are trying to get jobs. So you all are all competing for the same scraps essentially. Everybody’s trying to get something. It was rough those first few months.

Maurice Cherry:
I had went to one meetup and some guy had contacted me. He was a business graduate from UGA, this white dude. And he was like, “Yeah, I’d love to meet up with you. I have some questions about design because there’s this project that I might be working on and I’d like your help on.” And I was just like, “Okay, fine. If you buy me breakfast.” Because at the time I was like, I got $5 off to my MATA card. I can take the bus up there and then walk back to the station and take the trains, so I don’t have to pay twice or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
I went up there. It was a Panera Bread up in Buckhead for folks that know Atlanta. Went to Panera Bread, met this guy and he was telling me, “Me and this other friend were thinking of starting this business because we’re trying to… ” They were basically trying to cash in on the, it’s funny because Obama kind of ties into this, but trying to cash in on the trend of politicians now wanting to run their campaigns like Obama. So this is early 2009. Everything Obama did in his first run for presidency with social media and graphic design and stuff was really unprecedented.

Maurice Cherry:
And so this is one of the first slates of municipal races after that. It was like the mayor’s race essentially. And so everybody running wanted the Obama sheen to their campaign and it’s like, “Well you can’t hire the Obama folks because now they work for the administration or they’re going to be super expensive.” So he had knew this guy and they knew a candidate that was running and they were basically going to put a company together to pitch to that candidate. But they were like, “We need a designer.” And so he’s asking me to basically tell him how to design. He’s like, “Should I learn HTML or should I learn Dreamweaver? And I’m like [crosstalk 00:40:09]. I was like, “You know what? I’m sympathetic to your plight. I really need work. Let’s just kind of do this as a trio.”

Maurice Cherry:
And so the three of us had met up and we came up with a name for the business and we had ended up getting onto the campaign of this woman. She was the city council president and she had ran for mayor. She dropped out because her parents got sick and she was about to jump back into the race. So we’re talking to her campaign manager at this lavish mansion. And I was like, “This is the fanciest shit I have ever seen in my life.” I knew people in Atlanta were rich, but I was like, “I have never seen no shit like this.” Huge-

Rob Martin:
Yeah. Rich, rich.

Maurice Cherry:
… 10 foot round solid marble table that we’re meeting at like King Arthur. And we meet the candidate and she’s told us about we’re running for everything and she’s like, “I like the three of you all,” because two of us were black and one of us was white. And she’s like, “I like the three of you all. This is real diverse like Obama. You got you a white guy? This is real diverse.” Because she was black.

Rob Martin:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And so she kind of was, ask us about where we went to school and all this kind of stuff. And so is like, “Yeah, I’ll take a chance. I’ll take a chance on you.” So we ended up becoming the new media team for her campaign essentially. She got back in the race and ran from, I think April of 2009 to November. She didn’t win. She came in third place. But that whole experience set me up basically to continue running my studio for almost 10 years after that. Because if I didn’t have that experience of that campaign, I wouldn’t have been able to meet other people.

Maurice Cherry:
And honestly, like you said, get your process together. The crucible of working inside a political campaign is rough. It reminded me a lot of working as a production designer. You got to crank out stuff really fast. You got to respond to things quickly. There’s no time to kind of sit and iterate. You got to really come up with something super quick. It was a lot, it was a lot. And actually that’s where I first met Stacey Abrams because that was who our campaign manager was.

Rob Martin:
Oh, okay. Cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, so that was pretty cool.

Rob Martin:
That’s what I said. They all comes around full circle.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Those early years, I mean kind of to the point I was saying earlier, you kind of have to get out there and scrap. The hope is that you’re going to have these clients and people that come over. But the reality is, it’s a jungle out there. I’d say probably even more so now than that because the learning curve to design, I’m using air quotes around design, is so much shorter now because people can learn stuff on YouTube and they can take these courses and stuff. And there’s people half a world away that are doing this for pennies on the dollar. And how can you compete with that?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. It’s just all the bureaucracy that goes into that, everyone’s looking at it, everyone’s got something to say, but you still got to make it in two minutes just really quick. And did you even have a system that you were working with or were you just making stuff on the fly and [crosstalk 00:43:09]?

Maurice Cherry:
No, I was just making up stuff as I went along. I had no problem process, I had nothing. And like you said, it takes a few times you get burned by… I was fortunate that with the political campaign, everything worked out as it did. But even the clients I had after that, I didn’t have a contract. I eventually learned about AIGA’s design contract and I sort of used that.

Maurice Cherry:
I had a client that was a lawyer who used to work with the campaign. And so I bartered my service with him. I’m like, “I’ll do design work for you. If you write my contracts.” And so that’s how I got good contracts, proposals, templates and stuff. I started thinking like, “Who do I need to do work for to try to upgrade how I do my business?” But that process had to come along through a lot of trial and error. Nobody was sitting me, I didn’t have a business mentor or anybody that sat me down that was like, “You have to do this.” I was out here fucking up and just trying to recover from it.

Rob Martin:
The contract thing’s actually kind of funny. So we’ve always had problems with people running late or not paying us. Actually, we had a really bad one about a year ago. They’re still paying us. It’s been a year since the job was over. I’ve actually found the contracts to be kind of ineffective because if you don’t enforce them, whether it’s like, “Hey, this happened according to our terms, this is what’s supposed to happen.” If you don’t enforce them, they’re not going to.” If you do enforce them, you might not get anything. It’s kind of like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
So yeah, the whole contract thing, we’ve been trying to figure that out. Yeah, we have a good contract here. It is “legal” because they sign it. But, “Okay, cool. They’re not doing anything. Do we now want to spend the money that we don’t have to pursue the thing legally?” We can’t just flash the piece of paper in their face and like, “But you signed the contract.” “All right. I still don’t have any fucking money for you. What are you going to do?”

Maurice Cherry:
The one thing that I would do with clients is I would never let them sign the contract alone. So I would set up a contract meeting with them and we would go over each clause in the contract and make understood it and then we’d sign it together. And then they knew kind of moving forward, this is what you’re being held to.

Maurice Cherry:
And I was lucky that even with the lawyer that I had, he wrote the contract in pretty plain language. So it wasn’t a lot of PR24s and the party of the first part and all that kind of stuff. It was pretty straight forward. But I would always have a contract meeting. I would never let them sign it alone because one, the client’s never really going to read it. They’re just going to sign it so they can try to get the project started.

Maurice Cherry:
And the hope is that they read it. You hope that they read it. I’m like, “No, we’re going over this like you’re five years old. We are going over it clause by clause so you understand what this means. This is what scope creep means. This is what a termination fee means. This is what a kill fee means. I hope we never have to institute these things, but if it gets to that point you know because we’ve had this meeting.” I would sort of point back to that meeting if things started to go a little wonky during the process like, “Well, we had the meeting and you said this and we signed it together.” And they’re like, “Oh, okay.”

Rob Martin:
I think we are going to start doing something like that now. But I think even more so signing it in-person versus talking over the phone, which I think is what we’re about to do, but that was actually really good. I like hearing that. That was really smart.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, something that you had mentioned to me before we had started recording was the parallels in your design career and your music career. I’d love to hear more about that.

Rob Martin:
Oh, yeah. So I think more of that is just around the process of my approach. So I feel like all these things are kind of the same as far as the way that they’re made, right? You have layers in Photoshop and your music software, you have layers of instruments of tracks, right? The way you’re blending them, the way you’re using levels or curves or whatever. The same thing you do with mixing EQ, adding saturation to something, even the words, the semantics are similar in some cases.

Rob Martin:
So historically I’ve never done both of them at the same time up until maybe the last few years where I’ve really taken the design and my music career as seriously as I am. But even outside of the actual creative part, you got to start making relationships. The way you’re talking to people about your design work and trying to sell them is a similar kind of passion and trust is being built when you’re trying to get gigs or just talk to people about your music.

Rob Martin:
I’ve noticed as I do one more, I get better at the other one too. So they kind of lift each other up in separate ways. Well, separate ways, but they do the same thing. When do you do outreach or something like that, you’re campaigning yourself or your music stuff. When you start doing that in your design field, it’s a similar process. You’re running business, the concept of running a business is the same everywhere. You don’t need to know how to do that certain thing to operate the business so that you can scale it, right?

Rob Martin:
I never realized that until recently, but just all that stuff it’s very similar, even if you know how to use Final Cut, you probably know how to use Ableton or Logic or something like that. But the way they use softwares and the process, the workflow to use them are all very similar.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
The buttons might be a little bit different, but if you get the concept behind how to use it, you’ll be able to apply it elsewhere.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. The thing is for those graphic tools, a lot of them borrow their UI from music tools. So the layers [crosstalk 00:48:26] and all that sort of stuff. Yeah, it’s all the same. So what is it that keeps you motivated and inspired these days? What keeps you going?

Rob Martin:
I guess there’s a couple things, I guess first off, just my personal interest. I love what I’m doing. I love the fact that I can make money from my first two passions, even starting Majorminor and becoming successful with that. I feel blessed I’m able to do that because I need to be able to do something like this to wake up in the morning, and not become bored or anything like that. So I’m glad I’m able to be self-sufficient as a man, as a person in society doing the thing that I love.

Rob Martin:
So I used to tell people, “Oh, I got my second dream running the studio and we’re good.” But now I want to get my first dream and that’s to have a successful music career, at least doing music to a certain point. I don’t want to become famous or anything like that. But just being able to release music and work on it and have people make memories to it. I always have this idea where someone sees me on the street, “Oh, you’re that dude RCA. Hey, you made that beat. I met my girl that almost playing at the club or whatever. And we listen to it all the time, it’s a memory of ours now. I just want to say, thank you for that.” I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know, man.” But that makes my day. It makes my whole life right there, hearing stuff like that. That’s from a personal kind of place. So my personal drive, that’s where that motivation comes from.

Rob Martin:
I think the other part of it too specifically to design, and this is funny because this has changed a lot over the last, since I’ve been a student, but just having see another black person run a studio. I think a lot of times people just like the diversity and design. There’s people out there’s doing everything. But in certain places, I only know maybe three or four other studio heads that are black. And I know there’s more than that, but just personally know or have actually seen on the wild. It’s just good to see that because I’m always surprised when I’m on a company’s page and I see career director, black dude. Oh, cool. If we’re getting out there, not just as a team designer, but doing strategy or being the leadership part of the team.

Rob Martin:
When I was a kid, I saw none of that. I was always the only black kid in my class historically. So it’s cool seeing all that change, even just giving back to the community in that way. Just being, not like they need to be the face of anything, but just having people see me in certain ways always feels really good. So that’s a big motivator too. And just doing kind of talks for kid’s school or portfolio reviews. I always try to show up to those whenever I can just to give back in the first place, but also represent that we’re out here like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have any mentors or other peers that helped you along your design journey?

Rob Martin:
Not so much. I could call it mentors, but Armando Simmons, he was the first black student I had ever met. I was still in school and we talked a little bit after I met him when I was in school, but I wouldn’t call him mentor, but he definitely was a source of inspiration, just like, “Oh, shit. He’s doing and he’s been doing it for a minute too. And that stuff’s tight.” I don’t know, that was the first glimpse I got. And he was always really nice to just hang out and talk or whatever.

Rob Martin:
But as far as mentors, not really. Maybe my professor’s like Gwen Amos and John Forrest at Sacramento State, they were really positive to me in that way. I always tell them whenever I see them, “You guys changed my life. If I hadn’t met you, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I’d probably be working at Target or something like that.” They put the effort, they saw the effort I was trying to put it in, and they put the effort back into me and they knew there was something there. So I really appreciate them taking the chance on me like that and just pouring some of my extra effort into someone that they felt was deserving of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Is this how you imagined your life would look like when you were a kid?

Rob Martin:
Absolutely not. And I’m glad because when I was a kid, my later life, I was always very nervous to get older because I had no idea what I was going to do. And that’s even from being a small child. Like, “I don’t know what I want to do. I just want to make stuff, I don’t know what that means, making money, being a person in society and all that kind of stuff.” But then even as I got closer to becoming an adult, I’m like, “Oh, shit. I need to figure this out. I’m getting to a point where I’m going to be 20 years old. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Rob Martin:
So I’d say maybe actually in the first time in my life, in the last 10 years, I’ve actually felt like, “Cool. Things didn’t work out the way I thought they were as a kid.” I’m super glad I’ve been able to do that for myself. And now it’s just sustaining that. What’s going to keep me going? What’s going to keep me excited in the same kind of rhythm that I have now, be able to do the things I would like to, and then still be able to make money from it, but then also add to other people’s lives? I can’t do this all on my own, so I hope whatever people that do get on the ride with me, they’re getting something out of it and are doing it not for just money, but there’s personal investment. That’s why I usually end up hiring a lot of my friends that are really close to me because they seem to be into what we’re doing. Yeah, it just feels good being able to contribute to their lives because they’re contributing back to me in that way by team and up.

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

Rob Martin:
That’s a good one. That’s what we’ve been talking about internally with the team and just even me thinking about it myself. One thing I’ve actually been doing, this is kind of like I guess one of the parallels with the music and the design stuff is doing more concert visuals. So I’ve been working on my own personal show, learning how to do visuals whether it’s a video synthesizer or software synthesizer or with after effects and premier and integrating that along with the music, whether it’s programmed and able to live or it’s just a movie that plays in the background or something with Resolume. And I guess that’s kind of the marriage of my two passions, as I’m saying it out loud is how can I bring these things together? And then also now start to offer that as a service and be able to do it for myself as well, too.

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

Rob Martin:
Yeah. The best place to go. And we’re working on this now we’re on a new website, but you can find our stuff at majorminor.co. There’s a little bit of work on there, but if you’d like to see more, just feel free to email me, rob@majorminor.co. As far as the music stuff, you can go to rcawhatsgood.com. All the links are on there, IG, YouTube and just see what we’re all about and what I’m all about. The music stuff too. I think there’s a lot of parallels as far as the aesthetics and just how we approach design. You can see both those things on there. But yeah, if you have any other questions, feel free to hit me up on any of those platforms too. I’m always very responsive. I love talking to people.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Rob Martin. I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. We kind of had talked a bit before we had started recording, but it’s amazing how much our journeys as entrepreneurs and even kind of as musicians in a way have kind of paralleled each other. I think it’s great that you’ve really been able to carve your own way and find your own way in the design industry really through hard work, luck and determination and just doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
As a musician, it’s always about practice makes perfect. We always hear that. But with business, oftentimes you don’t have the opportunity to do that because especially for your own business, everything that you do has to be contributing hopefully towards progressing the business. But it really sounds like with Majorminor going for 13 years now, you’re doing something good. You’re putting out good things out there in the world. You’re supporting the community as well. And I’m just so glad to have had you on the show to tell your story. So thank you for coming on. I appreciate it.

Rob Martin:
Right on. Thanks, Maurice. And just for you too, thank you for doing all of your past stuff. I remember we talked a lot back on the Slack channel. I don’t know if this still exists or not, but that was really great for you to support or just put out there for the community and everything you do. I’ve always seen it from afar, but I really got a lot of appreciation of what you do and just the fact you’ve been doing it for this long too, so right off for having me. I really appreciate it. I’ve been waiting to be on this for a minute too, so it finally happened.

Joe Blau

It’s our anniversary! For this special episode, I dug way back in the archives and talked to one of our early guests, Joe Blau. He was a software engineer then, but seven years have passed, and now he’s an angel investor and the founder and CEO of his own company — Atomize.

We started chatting about the past seven years, and Joe talked about his time working for Uber and how that experience got him involved in crypto. We also talked about smart contracts, Web3, the metaverse, and a lot more. Stay tuned for the story I give near the end!

Thank you all so much for allowing me to bring these amazing interviews to you since 2013!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Joe Blau:
Hi, everybody. Also, thank you for having me back on, Maurice. My name is Joe Blau, and I am the founder of a no-code smart contract platform called Atomize, and I’m also an angel investor based in San Francisco, California.

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

Joe Blau:
This year has actually been pretty amazing for us. I know last time we spoke, I was mentioning that I would go to Amazon and back and chat with my girlfriend. She’s now my wife. We have two young boys, and I would say that this year is probably shaping up to be one of the most amazingly in a good way years of my career. So I’m super excited about what’s been going on and what’s been kind of opened up in terms of opportunity for myself, and then also for a couple of friends and the company that we’re founding and we’re building.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been just kind of working over these past few years with the pandemic and everything?

Joe Blau:
I would say that the pandemic has really introduced a lot of new dynamics into the workplace. I have a lot of friends that have gone from remote work to back in the office and back and forth. There are lots of conversations about what’s the right way. What’s the wrong way? Can we even go back in? Do we need to go back in? I’ve noticed that a lot of my friends are really unhappy with this disconnect between being out of the office and still trying to have this tight-knit relationship with your colleagues.

Joe Blau:
It’s been interesting to see that transpire in certain companies. And then other spaces, I’ve seen actually increased productivity where the teams already have this bond. They kind of already know what they’re doing, and it makes it so that people can really live their lives and have more of a work/life balance. For me personally, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to live in this new world where I can actually have that balance.

Joe Blau:
I can work from my desk in my house, have this balance of being able to be creative and be productive and not have to go into an office. So I’ve actually been trying to take advantage of it. My co-founder and I were trying to become more proponents of that lifestyle, but it has been tough because you do have people that really thrive and live off of this in-person engagement. I would say I’m one of those, too. I love meeting people in-person.

Joe Blau:
I love going to events. I love going to parties. I love meeting people. But I think that there’s this really interesting push and pull in the community right now and in all office spaces between should we be in the office or should we not be in the office and then the trade-offs of doing that hybrid.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Balance, I think, is something that so many folks now, especially so many working folks, are really trying to figure out. Companies are trying to figure it out because they’ve sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into real estate that is largely sitting empty because people are working from home. So some companies are like, “Well, maybe we’ll do hybrid. Maybe we’ll try to figure out some way to still keep our brick-and-mortar location, but then also be able to work remotely.”

Maurice Cherry:
I know just for the show, we have folks that are in the advertising industry. I found it’s been really rough for the them because they’re really used to that in-office collaboration that you just really can’t replicate over Zoom. You can try. I think we’re starting to get better at it and such, but it’s still something we’re all trying to balance.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I’m a big fan of Star Trek. So I liken this to the whole world was basically traveling at warp speed and, all of a sudden, the pandemic hit and just dropped us out of warp. Now, we’re all looking around saying, “What are we doing? Was what we were doing before actually productive or is it counterproductive?” We’re asking a lot of questions that we just were never asking before because we were all just going with the flow because everybody else was doing it.

Joe Blau:
So I think these questions that are coming up are really important questions to ask about the future of work, and every company has their own take on how they’re trying to address it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think also with this balance of trying to figure it out, I feel like that’s where a lot of these talks about the metaverse, and work metaverse spaces have started to come up. We’ll get into metaverse stuff later. But I think one thing is how technology has sort of risen to fill the gaps in some way. I mean Zoom had always been around, but it really blew up in 2020 because of all of this.

Maurice Cherry:
And then you’ve got other platforms that have just started to come up because of that, because now more people are video conferencing. So there’s browser-based video conferencing solutions. There’s ways that people are trying to still replicate that experience. So technology, interestingly, has started to fill the void, but it’s still a process.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I would say right when the pandemic started, I attended a lot of Zoom weddings. I attended a lot of Zoom everything. Nothing really, up until this point, has really been a substitute for just physically being there with people in meet space, in atom space. So Zoom does kind of fill that gap, and it definitely makes it a lot easier.

Joe Blau:
If you’re fundraising and you don’t have to go walk downtown and go to a bunch of different coffee shops, if you can just have four meetings in a row on Zoom in two hours, that’s a lot easier than having to go spend half of your day walking around talking to investors, but there’s trade-offs to that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean I can tell the story now because I don’t work there anymore. But one of the companies I used to work for, they were trying to raise funds right during the start of the pandemic, like March, April, May, and it was just impossible. They would try to have these Zoom meetings, and people were either Zoomed out already, they just didn’t want to do anymore meetings, or they found it difficult to replicate at that same kind of in-person shaking hands, talking over drinks kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s just not the same over Zoom, especially when we were really trying to get a hold on what all of this was and how we were going to possibly come out of it. I mean the company is still around. It’s a shell of its former self, but it has impacted business in a big way.

Joe Blau:
One of the things that we are trying to do as, my co-founder and I, we’ve been thinking about this is we really want to see if there’s a way that we can embrace this new lifestyle because there are clearly people that really believe I should be able to work remote. I should be able to work anywhere. I want to be able to have a flexible lifestyle. So I’m looking at it more from the perspective of how do we embrace this, and what are the tools that are available for us to really take advantage of this new lifestyle and see if we can actually push this forward?

Joe Blau:
Because while there are trade-offs, I love going into the office. After I left Amazon, I pivoted to working at Uber. It was an in-office relationship, and I loved the time that I spent there. It was probably one of the best experiences in my career But right now, I feel like I’m at a point where I can step away and look back and healthily say I would rather be in a position where I can have a little bit more flexibility and have a little bit more of that balance and have a little bit more control over my time.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, let’s dive into that a bit. When you first came on the show, which was back in 2015, you were working at Amazon as a software engineer and you had a startup that you had created called Canopsis that was working in the Internet of Things space. Now, I know you’re not at Amazon anymore, of course. You just mentioned you’re CEO of your own company now. Are you still building Canopsis? Is it still kind of in the wings?

Joe Blau:
We’re working on that for a little while, but I actually ended up sun-setting the company when I moved out work in Pittsburgh at Uber. So I’ll go through and I’ll kind of do a little bit of a historical what happened between our last interview and now, catching you up to speed since the last episode. I was at Amazon for a little bit over a year and a half working on the mobile point-of-sale application. I had a blast doing it, met a bunch of amazing colleagues and a bunch of amazing friends.

Joe Blau:
I ended up being tapped by a product manager at Uber who was actually the one that led scouting for the Uber ATG team, which is the self-driving car team at Uber. He reached out to me in mid-2015, said, “Hey, we’re building up a new iOS team out here. We need somebody to help us build the user interface for the self-driving cars. You’re going to be the second person on the team, and you’re going to help scale this team up.”

Joe Blau:
So I ended up saying, “Why would I pass this opportunity up?” I’m very big into sensors. I’m very big into sensor fusion. The self-driving car, to me, is the culmination of almost every sensor you can put into something. So in January of 2016, I ended up moving out to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I lived there for about three and a half years, and I was working on Uber self-driving car. So we were able to launch V-1 of the self-driving car and then V-2 of the self-driving car.

Joe Blau:
The software that I built and helped contribute to, we were able to conduct about 50,000 trips with actual passengers in our car in Pittsburgh, also down in Arizona, and a few trips in San Francisco. So it was a really great experience because I got a chance to work with some of the brightest minds in the software industry and in the automotive industry, amazing industrial designers, amazing software engineers, amazing infrastructure engineers, amazing LIDAR designers.

Joe Blau:
The people that invented Google Maps were working there. I mean we had the best of the best talent on the team. So I really enjoyed my time and my stint there. And then about three and a half years in, I started to want to work on a few other projects. I started to see kind of the light at the end of the tunnel. I had a feeling that Uber was eventually going to sell the self-driving car division due to the change in leadership. So I moved back to San Francisco, joined Uber AI, where I worked on a bunch of also really cool stuff.

Joe Blau:
The team was amazing, another group of extremely bright individuals. And then right after the pandemic started actually, we were fortunate enough to be able to capture some equity from being employees of Uber, and we were fortunate enough to be able to invest that into some cryptocurrencies. That basically gave us enough runway to kind of set ourselves free.

Joe Blau:
So I was able to leave Uber in early 2020, soon after the pandemic started, and took a year to kind of explore what I wanted to do, and then eventually linked up with one of my friends that I actually met at Uber ATG, who was an industrial designer. We were able to start building our company.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. That is quite a story. There’s a lot of points in there I want to touch on. I want to go back just briefly to Uber. I mean during that time that you were there with the whole self-driving car thing, there was a lot of stuff that went down just with the company, in general. Just a few of the things were around Travis Kalanick stepping down as CEO. There was a huge data breach. There was talk about employees tracking customers with this God mode.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you ever feel any of the fallout from those events, just working there? Was it a palpable thing that you were working for a company where this sort of stuff was going on?

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I mean I still have friends and I still have family members that are in the real world. They’re watching the news, and they see all of the stuff that’s happening. There were definitely lots of questions that I got about it. I had lots of friends that, when I would go visit them, they would say, “We’re going to take a Lyft. We’re not taking Uber,” even though I worked at Uber. As an Uber employee, you get free credits to ride in the cars. So for the most part, I never even paid for Ubers while I was there because you get $400 of free credits every month, or you used to.

Joe Blau:
So it was really tough, from that perspective. I think that whole season, I remember when that first started. It was in January of 2017. It was the Susan Fowler incident. Then there was the gray ball thing that you were talking about, where they were tracking people, reporters. There was Travis Kalanick yelling at the Uber driver. Then there was the guy in the-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I forgot about that. Yeah.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. Then there was the guy in India who was doing something nefarious over there. There was all these. Then there was the Anthony Levandowski taking data from Google. Then there was Travis Kalanick’s parents or his mom died in the boating accident. So there was this really compact six-month window where it was just drama every single month. We had a lot of colleagues leave. A lot of people left.

Joe Blau:
There’s a pretty fluid transfer of engineering between a lot of the Silicon Valley companies, so a lot of people that I knew that I was friends with all left and went to Facebook or Twitter or Amazon or whatever. So it was pretty tough. There was one saving grace for us, which is that because ATG was a bit insulated from the rest of the company, we were effectively our own company. We were our own separate LLC.

Joe Blau:
Because we were insulated from the rest of the company, we didn’t really feel a lot of those effects, I would say, as strongly as people that were in the rest of the world, the rest of the offices did. But it definitely had a negative impact on sentiment at the company and sentiment as a team because, in our mind, we’re building this service that’s supposed to basically make it so that you can always get a ride. The original saying with Uber was. “Push a button, get a ride.”

Joe Blau:
When you looked at the thing that drew me to Uber was actually a bunch of negative experiences that I had with taxis in a bunch of different cities where I would try to flag a taxi and the taxi would drive by. I remember being in LA and actually my co-founder at Canopsis, we were in LA and he’d lived in LA. There were a bunch of taxis on Hollywood Boulevard. We had just come out of a club. We went to go flag a taxi, and they were like, “No, no, no.” And then this other Caucasian couple comes up and they get right in and they go.

Joe Blau:
I’ve had a bunch of experiences like that in the United States. So for me, when I pick an Uber, the Uber always shows up. So for me, I wasn’t just like, “Oh, I like Uber because,” for whatever reason, because it’s cheaper or whatever. I like Uber because it actually allows me to get a cab and get from point A to point B and not need a car. I had a deeper rationale for why I would choose Uber over a cab. Now, Uber over Lyft, that’s a toss-up at that point.

Joe Blau:
But yeah, it was really tough during those years to be an employee of the company because we lost a lot of talent. People were not looking to work at Uber. Our leader had kind of lost a lot of his power to be able to be actionable and, at that point, he was replaced with Dara.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember those times when people were really actively boycotting Uber from the user side because all these things were happening. It’s interesting because I don’t know. Do you think Uber’s turned their reputation around because of the pandemic?

Joe Blau:
It’s a tough company right now. I think the reason that their reputation has kind of turned around is just because a lot of the things that they were doing that were interesting and kind of counterculture have just fallen by the wayside. All of their assets that they’ve owned in other countries have been sold off. So Uber in Russia got sold to Yandex. Uber in China got sold to Didi. Uber in the Middle East got sold to Careem. They’ve really offloaded a lot. Uber in Southeast Asia got sold to Grab.

Joe Blau:
So they’ve offloaded a lot of the risk of a lot of these controversial pieces that they were operating, and really it’s just become … Right now, Uber is effectively a food delivery service. It competes with DoorDash. It does have ride-sharing, but that’s not a big part of the business right now because nobody’s really traveling. So it’s a tough business to be in. And then also, you’re in extreme regulatory environment.

Joe Blau:
Either you’re driving people around, which has a lot of regulation around it, or you’re driving food around, and food has a lot more regulation around it. So it’s a very tough business to be in, and the margins are super low. They’re razor thin. It’s just a lot of optimization. When Uber was not really following the regulations, that was kind of what brought it to prominence. Now that Uber’s just behaving, nobody really cares anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
I was thinking about that as I was researching for this interview. I’ve been an Uber customer for over a decade. It’s amazing. The thing that drew me to Uber was similar to what you were talking about with cabs. I would fly out places, and then I couldn’t even get a cab to come home when I came to the airport in Atlanta. The cabs were like, “No, I’m not going to that neighborhood.” They’ll take me to downtown, which is past where I have to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I could hop on the train, and most of the time I would do that. But it’s like sometimes you’re just tired and you’re like, “I just want to go home.” Uber could actually take me to my apartment, where a cab wouldn’t do that. So I think it was that initial convenience, like you mentioned, that really brought people in. But yeah. Now I was wondering that just because of the pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean yeah, Uber delivers food, which their competitors really don’t do, at least in the ride-share space. Lyft hasn’t went out and done that yet. But no, I was wondering if it sort of turned things around because now so many people are using it almost as a utility because of that.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I mean I think it’s just gotten to the point where you’re either taking an Uber or a cab. What it also did was elevate the service of cabs. So cabs have to be more nimble. They need an app. They need to basically increase their service. So that increased competition helped make cabs a little bit better. But for me, I think I’m still in the same boat where it’s easier for me to just call an Uber or call a Lyft.

Joe Blau:
Right now I don’t work there. So I just basically do what everybody else does. I open the app, figure out which one is cheapest. And then I just pick that one, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Joe Blau:
So that’s where I am right now. But they’re in a position where they are trying to do a lot of partnerships and work with a lot of teams. That’s kind of the new direction is, instead of trying to just dominate the whole scene, they just want to partner and work with other people. That’s a great position to be in because you make a lot of friends that way. So it’s a good strategy.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s talk about your current venture, Atomize. I’m looking at the Atomize website right now. It says, “Atomize let’s you deploy and interact with crypto smart contracts on chain without having to write code.” Now, before-

Joe Blau:
That’s a mouthful.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a mouthful. Before we get into more about Atomize, tell me how you got into crypto. I mean I think you kind of alluded to it a little bit earlier with flipping that equity from Uber.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. So the journey actually started with me back in 2013. At the time, I was doing a bunch of contract work. There was a tech crunch reporter named John Biggs, and he wrote this article. It’s actually from April 8, 2013, and it’s called How to Mine Bitcoins. So I read the article. I followed all the instructions. I installed this miner basically on my computer, and I let it run all night. My fan went crazy. I ended up mining half of a bitcoin or something in this mining pool called Slush Pool, which is actually still around today.

Joe Blau:
And then after that, I just didn’t think about it because electricity in San Francisco is super expensive. I was just like, “I’m not going to waste my money on this thing,” that I think at the time it was maybe $20 or $18. I’m like, “I’m not mining this thing and I’m paying 40, $50 in electricity to get $20 of coin.” So I just left it alone. And then fast forward, in 2014, I met this individual in my building, and he was super excited about crypto.

Joe Blau:
He was like, “Oh, you got to check out this new thing. It’s called Ethereum. You got to check this out. It’s Ethereum. You’re going to love this thing. It’s like bitcoin, but it’s a decentralized computer. You can run anything on it. You can run any type of program you want. It’s like bitcoin, but with programming on top.” I remember telling him. I was like, “I’m not interested in that. All I’m focused on right now is mobile application development and sensors.” This is probably maybe six months before we first spoke.

Joe Blau:
This guy told me about Ethereum. I just totally blew him off. I was like, “I’m not interested in that. I’m only interested in mobile sensors and machine learning and stuff like that.” He was like, “All right, fine.” I nicknamed this guy, Oracle Zero now. But he introduced me to Ethereum, and I just totally passed it over. And then in mid-2016, I started hearing a little bit of rumblings, and I went and created a Coinbase account.

Joe Blau:
I was like, “Let me go see what this Ethereum thing is doing.” It had gone from the 50 cents that he had invested in at the ICO or the 25 cents that he had invested in at the ICO per Ethereum to $12 or something. I was like, “Man, that seems like a pretty good investment.” 40, 50, and whatnot. It was 50 extra money, something like that. So I was like, “Okay.” Maybe a little bit higher, 60, 70 extra money. So I was like, “Okay, this seems like a pretty interesting concept.”

Joe Blau:
So I ended up borrowing money from two of my really good friends and then taking some of my money and buying a whole tranche of Ethereum in mid-2016. I basically gave them this crazy term sheet. I was like, “I will pay you back 150% of your money in 2017 with this investment.” I told them. I was like, “Where else are you going to get a guaranteed investment of 50% return on investment in six months? Nobody’s going to give you that.”

Joe Blau:
You go to Allied Bank and they’re giving you 0.5% interest on your money. So I basically offered them this crazy deal, and they gave me money. They both wrote me checks. I deposited the money. I put it into the Coinbase. I bought crypto with it. And then I ended up paying them back in early 2017, which was actually, looking back, probably a bit of a financial mistake, but it did help introduce them to crypto because they saw the gains happen as I saw the gains happen.

Joe Blau:
And then 2017 was just that whirlwind. Ethereum went from $12 a coin to $1,500 a coin by the next year. So you have this thousands of percent run-up of this token. That was my first taste of like, “Oh, wow. This crypto investment thing is actually pretty interesting.” I was trading that whole time, but it wasn’t really fruitful because if you were trading in crypto and it was going up, everybody was making money. So everybody looked like a genius.

Joe Blau:
And then in December of 2017, that was when bitcoin hit its top. 28 days later, Ethereum hit its top. And then everything kind of came crashing down. I don’t know if this is just something innate in me, but I was already scared. So I had actually sold everything near January of 2018. So I was fully out. I had no more crypto. But what I was doing was I started paying attention to a lot of the technology that was being built. I was like, “Oh, what’s going on with these smart contracts?”

Joe Blau:
I actually wrote one of my first decentralized applications or it’s called a dApp, which it was a dog-renting website where you would go in and you could rent a dog and then put it back and stuff like that. It would all happen on the blockchain. So I built one of those, and I started playing around with it, started listening to a lot of other podcasts that are in the crypto ecosystem and really just started to pay attention to it casually.

Joe Blau:
Because really, to me, all I saw was people are making these coins. These coins are going up in value, but they don’t really have any intrinsic utility outside of the original utility of bitcoin, which is a way to send something from one person to another without counterparty risk and without being censored. So I kept playing around. We’re talking 2018. I was still working at Uber. I’m still working on self-driving cars. We’re shipping, I’m going to Arizona. I’m going to San Francisco. We’re deploying our cars in production. So I didn’t really have a lot of time to really actively manage it.

Joe Blau:
So what I would do is I would just take part of my paycheck and just start to buy slowly back in. After the price came way down, I was like, “Well, I don’t think this is going away.” So I started to slowly buy back in. And then in 2019, Uber had its IPO. So the deal that I had received from joining Uber was pretty lucrative. Actually, it was a seven-figure return from the IPO. But after taxes, you pay 50% in taxes. So it ended up being a six-figure return, which was still very good.

Joe Blau:
We decided to take that and invest it into crypto. So we just YOLO’ed all in, I would say. That ended up working out very well in terms of timing just because this last bull run kind of exceeded the intensity of the original bull run, if you were looking at the right types of products. So because I had been paying attention, I had been in the community, I’d been watching and listening to a lot of creators and influencers, people that are developers, people that are commentators, podcasters, I kind of knew where to look for this next bull run.

Joe Blau:
So I was able to just kind of get lucky and then also, paying attention, get into this crypto wave. And then what ended up happening is what I realized is that myself and a lot of my friends from this original wave all got to a certain level of wealth where we started to realize we’ve got a lot of time on our hands. That led us to start to think really more about life and about life decisions. I think it really kind of broke my brain in a good way to have me open up my thought process and think about what do I really want to accomplish?

Joe Blau:
What are some big goals, kind of Elon Musk level? He wants to basically have a colony on Mars that can be fully self-sustaining without Earth. That’s probably not going to happen in his lifetime, but that’s one of those big long-term goals. So I started to think about that a lot. But that’s where my crypto journey kind of came from back in 2013. And then it led me to where I am today. And then what ended up happening is my co-founder, I actually met him at Uber. He was an industrial designer on the same team that I was a software engineer on, and so we decided to pair up.

Joe Blau:
We’ve always been friends. We used to hang out in Pittsburgh and grab drinks together or go to each other’s homes. So him and I got together. We floated a bunch of ideas back and forth. We tinkered around with a bunch of stuff. And then we decided that since we’re both doing financially well and we’re in crypto and we’re both excited about this field, we want to make it very accessible for somebody who doesn’t know anything about crypto, somebody who doesn’t know anything about smart contracts, to be able to build one of these things and put it on the blockchain and retain ownership. That’s kind of what we’re focused on right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean it sounds like you really learned about this in a really smart way, which is you had been in the game really kind of learning and studying for a long time, since 2013. You didn’t just jump right into it after, I don’t know, buying stocks after Reddit recommendations or something, but you’ve been in there for a while and was able to kind of see the ebb and flow and see how things go and then find the right time to really get in. With that, you’ve started this business to help other folks get in.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I think for us, what we’re really focused on is I think there’s a key thing about crypto, which it’s a lot of things to a lot of people. There’s NFTs. There’s tokens. There’s metaverse. There’s DAOs. There’s all these words that can get floated around. But I think fundamentally what crypto provides is a contrast to the existing system that we’ve kind of been grown up and raised in if you’ve been around the internet from basically after the 2000 dot-com crash until now, which is there will be a website, fill in the name of big website dot com.

Joe Blau:
They will create a database, and they will entice you to get on that database somehow, some way. What happens is you have these network effects, which the more people that are on that website in their database, the more people want to go to that website and get in their database. So you’ve got Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google, Apple. They all have the same kind of network effects. So what happens is these services get to a certain level of scale where you start to realize that if you’re a consumer, the one individual consumer doesn’t really matter as much because you don’t own the data.

Joe Blau:
I actually saw this in 2011. The first company that I worked for when I went to Silicon Valley, we were a startup and we used to collect Twitter data as well as other social media network data. And then we would filter the data. Then we would sell insights to companies that were our partners. We had Bentley was one of our partners and a bunch of high-level … Apple was one of our partners. So we would sell them information about what’s happening on Twitter.

Joe Blau:
Well, once Twitter realizes, hey, there’s a business here, twitter wants to roll that into their business. So they just cut off the pipeline. Twitter had this service called a Firehose. They just stopped the Firehose. And then they just run the Firehose internally. They build this business internally. They sell ads internally. And then they use that as a revenue generator internally.

Joe Blau:
So there’s this kind of push and pull between this open source ecosystem of people that are developers and that are creative and that are actually contributing to the platform and the internal team that is trying to make money any way, shape, or form to return the fund for the investors. You started to see this more and more often on the developer side from 2010 until it’s still actually going on now, where with Facebook, there was the whole App.net controversy where somebody wanted to build an app store for Facebook using Facebook’s API.

Joe Blau:
Facebook said, “No, we’re building that ourselves, and that violates our terms of service.” So they had to make something else. They made a different social network. There are tons of examples of this where somebody builds a platform. They build these APIs to allow you to integrate. But as soon as they find that somebody else is building something that has value, they cut that integration off, and then they just build it internally. The reason they’re allowed to do that is because of the network effects. They own all the data.

Joe Blau:
The contrast to what crypto does is crypto tries to take that same database, but instead of the database being inside Facebook or Google or Twitter or Amazon, the database is on everybody’s computer. So everybody has access to the data. And then it becomes a game of, or not a game, it becomes a challenge of how do you build the experience that solves the person’s problem? It’s kind of the Y Combinator’s slogan of make something people want. How do you make the thing that people want?

Joe Blau:
If you make this product or service that performs the job better than the competitor’s product or service, where you both have access to the same data, that makes it a more equitable playing field. So the thing that I like about crypto, and this is just all in theory. This could all be invalidated tomorrow for all I know. But right now, there’s an equal playing field where everybody has access to the same view into the data. Really, you as a creator or you as an engineer or you as a developer, you are just kind of like a deejay where you get to curate the songs.

Joe Blau:
You’re like, “Today, we’re playing house music,” or, “Today, our site plays house music, or our site plays hip hop, or our site plays jazz, or our site plays classical.” You get to curate that data and build your community around that curated experience. So we want to help people build products that can be put online. And then we think that as we start helping people get their things online, their software, their products, their smart contracts, it will allow them to then have other services that other people build that we don’t control, make their experience even more customized and even better just for their community or whatever they want to build.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, where does the smart contract come into play? Why is it important to have that?

Joe Blau:
If we go back to the beginning of bitcoin, bitcoin is a way for me to send you some value, basically like a token, the bitcoin, a way for me to send it from myself to you without having somebody else be able to stop the transaction. The challenge is it’s just a value. Think of it like a dollar. I’m just sending you a dollar or sending a dollar back. What people learned early on is that a lot of times value is attached to some sort of condition.

Joe Blau:
I want you to have this money after you rake my yard, or I want to give you this money after the stock price goes to $50, or I want to release this money after these six things are accomplished at this speed or whatever. So the smart contract piece is just adding logic to the value transfer. So this is what’s created this crazy ecosystem in crypto because people are trying to add all types of crazy logic to value.

Joe Blau:
Economics is the study of value of how goods and services are transported and how they generate value. When you look at crypto, crypto kind of gives you a playground to actually test out these theories. So I could write something that says, “Okay, Maurice, I’m going to give you 100 JOE tokens today. And then tomorrow, I’m going to give you another 100. And then the day after that, I’m going to give you another 100. And then the day after that, I’m going to give you another 100.”

Joe Blau:
I’m just going to keep doing that forever. As long as you have access to your wallet, my program will keep giving you 100 JOE tokens. You can deploy that onto a blockchain and see what happens. Will that eventually reach some value? Would you eventually say, “Oh, I have a billion of these, let me give these to somebody else?” Now two people have these tokens, but you’re still the only one getting paid those tokens. Does that eventually form a market or a marketplace?

Joe Blau:
Do people eventually start to say, “Oh, there’s actually value, I can actually use these things as a way to barter back and forth for some other asset or for some other thing that’s in the real world?” So you basically end up with the social consensus, which looks a lot like money, but it’s written in a way that the rules are written in code and they effectively can’t be changed.

Maurice Cherry:
Like you said, it’s all on the blockchain. So it’s decentralized, but it’s a way where … Well, I don’t know. I guess I’m still trying to wrap my head around smart contracts and NFTs and everything like that. I want to get more people on the show this year that can really explain it because I see it now, all of this being really the next generation of where the web is going to go. I’m saying last month because we’re recording in January.

Maurice Cherry:
But back in December, I attended a conference about the metaverse in the metaverse. They had people talking about all the different considerations, like interoperability and scalability and commerce. There were so many considerations and things to think about with this upcoming metaverse, which I think had already started to be a part of people’s minds once Facebook Connect happened back in I think it was October of last year, 2021, when they said, “We’re changing our name to Meta. We’re investing in the metaverse.”

Maurice Cherry:
And then all of a sudden, everyone was like, “What is the metaverse?” I think anybody that probably watched anime in the ’90s had probably already heard of metaverse. I don’t know. I think it was probably on VR Troopers or Sailor Moon or something probably. But they’ve heard of that concept, but not necessarily what it meant in the real world. So it was something that I think was part of people’s general mindset saying, “Well, I don’t want to be part of the metaverse.”

Maurice Cherry:
But after I attended that conference, what stuck out to me was that this is the next step. I could see this being potentially the next digital divide because people are putting a ton of money and resources and time into really building whatever this next massive infrastructure is. There’s so many people that are just like, “I don’t want any part of it.” But it feels like the velocity at which we are approaching this is rapidly increasing. So I want to try to learn more about it to try to see where I can fit in with all this stuff.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I guess for me, I kind of separate metaverse and crypto into two separate buckets. For me, the metaverse is the next evolution of AR/VR. AR/VR is a technology that was invented in I think the late ’80s, and they’ve slowly been incrementally trying to push it and make it a reality. This is very similar to self-driving. One of the reasons why I worked at Uber and I went to Pittsburgh is because Carnegie Mellon, they had a self-driving car in 1989 called ALVINN that was able to kind of do some basic navigation. They were one of the pioneers of helping make self-driving a reality.

Joe Blau:
So I got to learn from some of the best of the best that invented a lot of the processes for self-driving. So you’ve got this technology vertical, self-driving cars. We don’t have the human-level self-driving car yet, but we’re on our way towards that progress, and that’s something that started in the ’80s. VR/AR is the same thing. It started in the ’80s. We’re trying to get to that point where we have compute and screens and comfort and battery power that can make this experience good or good enough that you will feel comfortable immersed in this environment, so that your neck doesn’t hurt, so that you don’t get dizzy, so that it feels as realistic as possible.

Joe Blau:
That’s another vertical that’s kind of being developed in what I would say is the newest incarnation, which is the metaverse. And then you’ve got crypto. Crypto is really about censorship resistance and reducing counterparty risk. Earlier, you were asking about what is a smart contract. If you just think about a regular contract in real life, you go rent a car at Avis. They give you a piece of paper, and you sign your name on it. When you sign your name on it, you’re agreeing to all of the words that are in that paper.

Joe Blau:
If I crash it, I’m going to have my insurance pay for it or whatever. It doesn’t have any of these dents or these dings. That’s what you’re agreeing to. Now, that contract is adjudicated by some legal entity, probably a judge. So if you violate that contract, there’s going to be somebody that’s going to say, “Oh, Maurice, he borrowed this car. It didn’t have any scratches. I don’t know what happened. But all of a sudden, there’s a big scratch on the driver’s side door.” You have to pay whatever the contract stipulates in the contract.

Joe Blau:
So if you just take all that logic that we just said, if car gets scratched, you have to pay X amount of dollars, if this thing doesn’t do this, then you have to do this. You write that in code, just like I would say, “If this happens, then do this.” You would write that in code. And then you can deploy that code into a database that everybody in the world has access to read and see. That’s pretty much what the smart contract is.

Joe Blau:
So the NFT, or a non-fungible token, is a contract that specifies that there is effectively only one of these. Fungibility is this concept in economics that means that if I have something, the one thing that I have is no different than the one thing you have. So the best way to explain it is if I have 10 $1 bills and you have 10 $1 bills and somebody picks up all of them and then they redistribute them and they give you 10 new ones and they give me 10 new ones, you’re not going to say, “I want the one with serial number that ends in 05 because that was mine,” because dollar are fungible, which means I can exchange my dollar for your dollar or your dollar for my dollar and it doesn’t matter. They’re exchangeable equally.

Joe Blau:
Non-fungible means if I have a dollar, my dollar is special and your dollar is not. So that’s when you get into things like trading cards or Beanie Babies or pet rocks, things that have a unique value. If I have a special anime card or special Magic: The Gathering card and you don’t have that Magic: The Gathering card, that’s non-fungible. I can’t just give you mine and you’ll give me any other one back. So these non-fungible tokens are representations of unique items.

Joe Blau:
The way that they’re defined is in what’s called a smart contract. This item only exists and is only owned by this one person, for example.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. Gotcha. Okay, I get it. I understand. Okay. Thank you so much for that explanation.

Joe Blau:
There’s a lot of economic theory. There are a lot of disciplines that all merge in together to form crypto. You really have to be multidisciplinary, which I was not before I started learning about all this stuff. You really have to learn a lot to try to fit your into what is actually going on in crypto.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, where do you see, I guess, Web3 with all of this? I keep hearing Web3 being called the technological evolution of the internet.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. So Web3, it’s funny because, as a software engineer, I’m always thinking like, “Okay, what is the most basic thing?” Web3 is a library that was created that literally all it does is let you interact with this blockchain. So this database that is this ever-growing database that everybody has access to, Web3 is just a library that lets you read and write from that database. Now, what’s happened is that term has been co-opted to be everything involving crypto.

Joe Blau:
So Web3 means smart contracts. It means dApps. It means Solana. It means means everything. It means bitcoin. Everything kind of falls into this Web3 umbrella. The mantra behind Web 3.0 is that we’re going to create a new internet that is not owned by Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, but it’s owned by the people. That is the charge. The way that the people can own the internet is because of what I mentioned earlier. When you create the smart contract and you deploy the smart contract on the blockchain, you own the contract.

Joe Blau:
There’s nobody else that can go in and take custody of the contract. That design is the genius invention that bitcoin created, but it just created it for money basically, for value. When you own your bitcoin, nobody can just come take it from you. You have to basically give it to somebody else. There’s no way for somebody to take your bitcoin. You have to voluntarily give it to somebody. Now, a judge can say, “Hey, you violated this law and you owe us XYZ dollars in bitcoins. If you don’t pay this fine, then you’ll go to jail or whatever.” And then you can hand it over.

Joe Blau:
But there’s no way that they can just go into your account and pull the bitcoin out. You have to hand it over. This Web3 concept just takes that version of you have to give over your bitcoin to you have to give over anything you create in Web3. So I mean you can obviously get tricked out of it. There’s a lot of people that are getting scammed and hacked because a lot of the tooling is not amazing. But effectively, you have to give something away. Nobody can take anything from you.

Joe Blau:
That’s the whole concept behind this Web3 movement. We’re building a version of the internet where Facebook doesn’t get to block your account or Twitter doesn’t get to revoke your developer access or YouTube doesn’t get to take down your video because they thought that this looks very similar to another video even though you did all the work and recreated and remastered and built everything yourself. We’re building a version of the internet where you own your stuff.

Joe Blau:
And then you have to go through the regular legal process. If in the real world, something happens that violates a law, there’s a legal process that you go through. It’s the same thing in crypto. Mt. Gox lost a bunch of people’s money. They did a bunch of shady stuff. They went through a legal process. They got their bitcoin confiscated, and they went through the regular process that anybody who did anything shady would go through.

Joe Blau:
So it kind of just slows down this network effect process of aggregating data, aggregating user information, and then being able to use that to rent, seek, and kind of take over and start to build this vertically-integrated, monopoly-style business.

Maurice Cherry:
So for people that are listening to this now and, hopefully, folks are listening to this and they’ve been able to wrap their head around these concepts. How can folks start getting involved with smart contracts and Web3? Because it sounds like these are, as you’ve described them, they’re kind of different entry points, but still somewhat related.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I mean there are a lot of resources. It’s very difficult for me to point to good resources because lots of people have lots of takes on it. I would liken this to the internet in 1997, ’98, where everything looks like a great idea. Pets.com looks like a great idea. Webvan looks like a great idea. All these things look like great Ideas. Maybe when you fast forward 20 years, while Pets.com failed, Amazon now has a pet store as a sub domain of their website, and it’s effectively what pets.com’s vision was. It’s just 20 years later.

Joe Blau:
So these ideas may be working, but it’s very hard to really find great information. Maybe I should build some sort of resource. I mean there’s a gentleman by the name of Jameson Lopp who really organizes a lot of great information around bitcoin. He has a great website, if you just search for Jameson L-O-P-P. I think it’s lopp.net or something like that. He has a great resource that kind of encapsulates a lot of information about bitcoin.

Joe Blau:
I think bitcoin is a good place to start learning because it’s a very confined space in terms of what bitcoin can actually do. Because once you start getting out of this bitcoin space, everything gets very crazy and very wild very quickly. It’s just the stuff that people are doing, no financial economics book would have ever predicted this, ever. It’s like the wild, wild west of finance right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad you made that analogy to the early days of the web because that’s really how I see a lot of the activity right now going on with the metaverse. Calling back to this conference that I had went to, there was one session. I’ve told this story on the podcast before, but there was this one session I went in where this guy was showing off digital land in a metaverse that he was a part of. He had on this NFT suit.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s like, “I can walk into this NFT, and look at how it changes.” He’s saying like, “You all should really see this.” We’re like, “Okay, fine, whatever.” It was just like walking around in VR space or whatever. He’s like, “All these plots of digital land are available. If it anybody’s interested, we can go ahead and start the bidding.” Someone bought a plot of land inside of this virtual world. It was a 300 square meter plot for $10,000, just bought it right on the spot.

Maurice Cherry:
In my mind, I’m like, “What are you going to use that for?” I guess you could build something on it, I guess, in this particular metaverse world that you can have people come to. But it had me thinking about The Million Dollar Homepage and how people were buying up little pixels just to be on this one page to stake their claim and say, “Ha, I was a part of the internet at this time when it happened.” It is very much like the wild, wild west, all of this, because it’s not regulated.

Maurice Cherry:
People are doing all kinds of just wild … I mean we’re using these adjectives wild, and crazy, but it’s really kind of mind-boggling just how much is going on with a lot of this stuff. It feels like history is being written every day when it comes to these things. It’s unprecedented. Yeah. Like you said with the analogy about the economics book, no one could have seen any of this stuff really actually, possibly happening, and now it is happening.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I think about the whole NFT space because a lot of people have a bunch of different takes on it. Some people are like, “Why would anybody buy a JPEG online that you could just copy and download?” I’m not very big into art collecting or lots of mechanical stuff. I used to really be into mechanical watches, but right now I just wear an Apple Watch. It tells the time perfectly. Mechanical watches have drift. They’re effectively, to me, just jewelry right now.

Joe Blau:
But there are people that they buy things because of the story. Human beings are creatures of story. I’m sure, as you’ve been going through the podcast and having these conversations, really what people get captivated by are the story. If you just see a CryptoPunk and you’re like, “Oh, this is just an eight-bit image that’s not really that nice,” that’s one story you can tell yourself.

Joe Blau:
But there’s another story, which is this CryptoPunk was one of the first ones that got minted. I got it gifted to me. And then it was sold to this other person who was a prolific artist who then sold it to Gary Vee, and now this is Gary Vee’s CryptoPunk. Now there’s a story. There’s this narrative that flows from what this thing represents. People love to buy stories. When you watch football or you watch anything, it’s all about the story.

Joe Blau:
Formula 1 was boring to a ton of people until Netflix made that Formula 1 show with all the story about what’s actually going on behind the scenes, who’s got problems with whom, who’s getting fired, who’s getting hired. It’s just a story. I think a lot of what NFTs are about right now and what’s really captivating is a lot of these stories. Somebody just stole $20 million worth of NFTs. That’s a classic heist story that people love to read.

Joe Blau:
This kid who was 12 years old is now a multi-millionaire because he created this little NFT collection, and he became a multi-millionaire off of it. That’s the rags to richest story. People love to hear those stories. So a lot of what I see in NFTs is really just a reflection of what happens in the real world. It’s just that it’s being accelerated because we’ve got the internet. We’ve got this technology that really allows us to push this narrative a lot faster.

Joe Blau:
A bunch of bloggers and a bunch of YouTubers can come up and tell the story super quickly instead of having to syndicate it through a newspaper network that takes a day to turn over and whatever. So I think that the story is really what is driving a lot of what’s going on in the crypto space and especially in the NFT space. From that perspective, I get it because I love stories. I love watching movies. I got into the Formula 1 thing just like a lot of my friends did after watching the story behind all the people.

Joe Blau:
Now I know everybody’s name. I know who’s got problems with whom, who started off at what racing firm and went over here and got downgraded to here or got demoted to this team and whatever. So what people are building with these NFTs are really just stories, and people will pay unlimited amounts of money for a great story.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. That’s a great way to put it. Now that I think about it, especially a lot of the talk I’ve seen around NFTs, people just starting to sort of get into them and are making astronomical amounts of money. But then even ones, like people that are buying these NFT art pieces and such, which I watched the video, I think it was the other day, that was like, “Why is most of the NFT art so ugly?” That had me thinking about, well, is this an opportunity for some designers to try to find a way to make their way into the NFT space?

Maurice Cherry:
I know a few Black NFT artists that I’m really trying to get to come on here to really talk about how this is working for them. But yeah, I totally, totally understand what you mean about people buying the story. That makes a ton of sense to me.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I have a few friends. This is also to this whole story thing. Back in mid-2017, the CryptoPunks people reached out to them and they said, “Hey, we’re going to give you 26 CryptoPunks.” Because of the influx of growth in crypto in 2017 where everything looked like a scam, and there was 100 coins coming out a day, these guys were like, “Nah.” They just ignored it. And then a few months ago, they went back to look through their emails just to see if anything had come from Larva Labs.

Joe Blau:
They saw that they had an opportunity to have 26 CryptoPunks. What’s the floor on CryptoPunks right now, $250,000 or something like that, some crazy number? So they would have been done. But this is also part of the story, right, the opportunity that I missed. All of these little things are all parts of you can watch any movie or any Disney show or whatever. They’re all parts of these stories where people love to just kind of tell these stories. That’s really what I think a lot of what’s going on is about.

Joe Blau:
It’s really about these stories, the legality. Do you really own this or not? The rags to riches, the heist, the clones, the fakes, there’s all these like, “Oh, I took this NFT and I turned everybody that was facing to the right, I made them face to the left,” and then the controversy around that. So there’s all these things that are really just that narrative. I think that’s really what’s selling with a lot of NFTs. We’ve had this since the dawn of time. We’ve been making stories about stuff and selling stories forever.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah. Good point. Really good point. What does success look like for you at this point in your career?

Joe Blau:
I feel like I’m in an interesting and very privileged space right now just because last time we spoke you asked me, “Are you at the top of your game?” I was like, “No, not even close.” I didn’t even hesitate to say, “Not even close.” I think by working at Amazon with the amazing people that I was able to work with, by working at Uber with the amazing people that I was able to work with, by getting access to a lot of really high-quality individuals in Silicon Valley through angel investor networks and through just socializing, I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where I would still not say I’m at the top of my game, but I feel like I know what I’m shooting for right now. I know where my stride is.

Joe Blau:
One of the things that happened actually right before the pandemic, so late 2019, really soon after I sold all my Uber stock and bought all this crypto, my brother and I actually went back to West Africa, which is where my mom’s from, in Sierra Leone. We get to West Africa. We land. And then my mom wanted to take us to the village and the house that she grew up in. So we ended up getting a car. It takes forever. It’s not that far if you were in the United States and you were driving on a highway. But in Africa, it’s a five-hour trip that should be an hour.

Joe Blau:
So we finally get to this village. On our way there, we saw a bunch of these signs. It’s hilarious because they have all these cities there called … They have a New York there. They have a New London. Yeah, it’s funny. There’s all these little town names. You would never even think about this. A joke that my brother and I, as we were leaving the town where my mom was born and raised and grew up, my brother and I were like, “We should start our own city called New Atlanta, and start it in Africa and build the city.”

Joe Blau:
If we were going to design a city that we wanted to be successful and build it somewhere in West Africa, what would we build? Where would we build it? It was just a joke at the time. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently in terms of the type of … I know there are lots of other famous people. I think Akon is building a city, and I think Kanye West is building a city. A couple of really famous people are building cities.

Joe Blau:
But one of the things that I’m really excited about is science, engineering, the STEM fields or STEAM fields, science, technology, engineering, art, and math. One of the things that I’ve noticed about crypto is in, some of the communities that I’m in, I’m seeing what happens when you unshackle a person from needing to have money. It really opens up a lot of opportunity and a lot of thought and a lot of creativity to people that have skills, but they can’t necessarily create in the way that they want to create because they’re kind of restricted by being an employee at a company and whatever the OKRs or whatever the goals are, or the profitability of the company, or you have some sort of fixed time that you have to be in and be out of work or whatever the constraints are.

Joe Blau:
So I’ve really been thinking about this idea. I don’t really have anything formalized yet, but just thinking about what would it look like to build a modern city. I guess the goal for me would be … Elon Musk has this program where he wants to have rockets fly from city to city within 30 minutes. What would it be like to have a city where you could host that in West Africa? What does that look like? What does that city look like? What does that design look like? I don’t have anything working towards it. I have no plans. I have no drafts. I have nothing.

Joe Blau:
It’s just an idea in my head, but that’s something that I would love to see come to fruition. I think that through the companies that I’m investing in, the projects that I’m building, I think that I can start to kind of chip away at that goal and that vision. It’s going to take, obviously, a lot more trips back to West Africa. It’s going to take a lot more conversations.

Joe Blau:
But I think that’s something that, for me, if I can get towards the goal, just any way, shape, or form towards the goal of building that city and New Atlanta’s just a name because my brother and I were like, “Atlanta is awesome. The Black population and culture there is amazing. So we’ll just build a new one.” If I could get to anything towards that, I think that’s going to be something that I would be really excited about leaving as part of a legacy on planet Earth.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, aside from all of this tech that we just talked about, we didn’t even really touch on you being an angel investor. How did you wander into that?

Joe Blau:
That’s a funny story. So when I was at Uber, I met … My manager, actually the person who hired me, he told me. I asked him the same question. I was like, “Hey, how do you become an angel investor?” He’s like, “Just start writing checks and start losing a lot of money.” So that’s effectively what I did. I just started finding companies. I think the first key thing about being an angel is you have to come up with some sort of thesis. Why are you investing? Are you investing to make money? Are you investing to have a social impact? Are you investing for whatever your thesis is?

Joe Blau:
And then you need to know what your constraints on your investments are. I’m a developer, so I called my investment firm Deploy Capital because it’s just like deploy code or deploy whatever. I said Deploy Capital. And then the idea is that I want to invest in people that are working at a company. They’ve got some great idea, but they can’t execute on their idea or their vision because management is saying like, “This is not a priority right now.”

Joe Blau:
I’ve seen this time and time and time again in companies where there’s an idea, there’s a team, there’s a group of people that have some idea. They can’t build their idea. They go out, become successful. They build their idea. But then they get reacquired back into some other company who’s like, “Oh, this is actually working.” So I really want to help the people that are dreamers, that have ideas, that want to build something, but they’re constrained from a financial aspect. I want to help them grow, and I want to help them build whatever their vision is.

Joe Blau:
Building a company is not easy. There’s lots of little steps, but there are lots of tools out right now that make it a lot easier to build a company than it’s ever been. So if I can just help in any way, shape, or form, give you some help on tooling, give you some intros to investors, help you find talent, those are the types of things that I want to be able to provide and just be a sounding board. What do you think about this?

Joe Blau:
So I got into it because I had some extra money, and I thought lots of people that I know are writing money into these companies. One of the things I realized is that investing is how a lot of the wealth in America is created. You put your money into some company, and then the people that are at the company are doing all of the work. You’re just sitting there, and the value of your thing is going up because other people think that thing is going to go up.

Joe Blau:
So I kind of got into it because I wanted to make more money. But now I have more of a thesis around it when it comes to the types of investments that I’ll do.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to accomplish this year? I mean it sounds like you’ve got your hands on a lot of different things. I mean you’ve got your business. You’re investing. You’re doing all these other things. What do you want to come out of 2022 having done?

Joe Blau:
I would say that, from my company perspective, I would want to come out of this year with a team that is the size of about 25 people. We have an exciting, growing business. I think we’re on trajectory to do that. We obviously want more partners that we’re working with, the best and the brightest in the software engineering space, whether they’re smart contract developers or React Web3 developers. We’re looking for those people. So I would want to have that be successful.

Joe Blau:
From a family perspective, I want to make sure that as my children are getting ready for life … They’re still young and they’re going into kindergarten. I want to make sure that they’re getting the best experience they can. When I went to school, I’m pretty sure most people went to school like this where it’s you just go wherever is closest to your house. You’re just in the room with whomever is there, and the teachers are who the teachers are. You don’t really have any optionality.

Joe Blau:
We’re fortunate enough to be in a position where we have optionality, and I want to make sure that the experiences that they get are better than the experiences that I got as a child. Just overall in life, I want to make sure that I go through 2022 enjoying it because this year has started off so awesome. I’m really having a great time. I’ve met a lot of new people. I’ve met a lot of great friends. I’m in this perpetual learning loop. I just want to meet more people, spend more time with people. I want COVID to be over so I can go back and hang out with people in the real world.

Joe Blau:
I just want to be able to really enjoy life the way I was enjoying it before, but with a little bit more freedom and a little bit more optionality to celebrate and do things that I want to engage in. And then just meet more people, make more friends, build a business with my friends. People that are looking for help, I want to help them build their businesses and build their dreams as well.

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

Joe Blau:
Yeah, for sure. The company that I’m founding is called Atomize, and we are atomize.xyz. If you have any questions for me specifically, you can send me a message at joe@atomize.xyz, and that’ll come to me. Last time I spoke, I had @joeblau everywhere except for Twitter. I have a funny story. I was actually able to get @joeblau on Twitter, no underscore.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Joe Blau:
I traded it with another person named Joseph Blau as well. The trade was that I had to buy him a HomePod and some AirPods, I think AirPods Pro. He sold me the Twitter handle for that. So it’s pretty funny because if you look at the shipping, it’s from Joe Blau in wherever, I think I was in Pittsburgh at the time, to Joe Blau where he lives. So it looks like somebody buying themselves something. And then we just got on a call, and we did the trade.

Joe Blau:
So if you’re looking for me online, at J-O-E-B-L-A-U is pretty much the same address everywhere, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, GitHub, Dribbble, everywhere. And then for my angel investing, that is at deploy.capital. So if you have any great ideas and you have some insight that your leadership is overlooking and you think there’s going to be a great opportunity to build a business, I would love to chat with you about it.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Joe Blau, I cannot thank you enough for coming back on the show. This show is our ninth anniversary episode. It’s really special to me, I told you this a little bit before recording, because when I first had you on the show back in 2015, your interview came out. I think it was in February 2015, and I was ready to throw in the towel on Revision Path. I was getting so much flack from the design community and from just random folks out there.

Maurice Cherry:
I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Your dad wrote me a letter after the interview. I’m going to read the letter to you because I don’t know if he ever shared it with you, but he wrote me this letter. I have it printed out above my desk to look at on those days where I’m like, “I’m tired of Revision Path. I want to give this up.” So I’m going to read the letter to you.

Maurice Cherry:
It says, “Maurice, please accept this email as kudos for your really excellent interview of Joseph Blau. I am not an impartial listener, but rather Joseph’s dad, Robert Blau. You may even remember his having mentioned me a few times for exposing him to computers at a young age and taking him around the world as a child of a career foreign service officer. In any case, I was so very proud of Joseph’s performance, both for the content and for his poise and eloquence.

Maurice Cherry:
“This is also a tribute to you for asking him the kinds of questions that would get him to make the many intelligent comments that he made over the course of the interview. I was especially pleased with the discussion that success is not usually an accident or God given, but rather the product of hard, painstaking work. His time at Virginia Tech brought out those qualities in him, and life has continued to teach him this lesson over and over.

Maurice Cherry:
“As you noticed and pointed out, he is already successful, but has his sights set on even greater levels of success. So thanks for doing a great job as interviewer and maybe, in the process, giving Joseph the kind of exposure that will help build his corporate brand.”

Joe Blau:
That’s amazing. I love my dad because he has a lot of heart. I always notice that when I hang around with him. He has been a pioneer and really a great inspiration to me just in all the things that he’s done, whether it’s work ethic or just integrity, character. I really appreciate him sharing that with you and I also appreciate hearing it because him and I, we’re very close. So I think that it’s an amazing letter. I’m glad that it’s an inspiration that kind of keeps you going.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It came at a time, I mean I was really set to give this up. And then that very next month, I was at South by Southwest and I presented this talk I did called Where are the Black Designers? And then that just completely skyrocketed my career. It skyrocketed this podcast. I don’t know if I would have done that if I hadn’t have gotten that push from your dad writing to say, “You’re doing a great job. Keep it up.”

Maurice Cherry:
So thanks to you. Thanks to your dad. You’re killing it, man. I can’t wait to see what you got coming up in the future. But thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Joe Blau:
Awesome, yeah. I appreciate you having me. Thanks. I would love to come back and follow up maybe later next year or something. We don’t have to wait seven years between shows next time.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Sponsored by The State of Black Design Conference

The State of Black Design

Texas State University’s Communication Design Program is excited to announce The State of Black Design Conference, a three day virtual event March 4-6, 2022.

This year’s theme is “family reunion”, and there will be over 50 amazing speakers, including author and educator Jelani Cobb, and world-renowned poet, activist, and educator Nikki Giovanni.

This year debuts the State of Black Design’s Resume Book initiative, so if you’re a Black design student, or you’re a Black designer looking for your next role, then listen up!

You will be able to submit your resume and your portfolio to the Resume Book, along with your institution of study and major if you’re a student, and recruiters and employers will have access to it before the event. If you’re interested and you want to be included in the Resume Book, send your info to blackdesign@txstate.edu with the subject line “Resume Book”. You have until March 3, 2022 to submit.

The State of Black Design Conference is brought to you with the support of the University of Texas at Austin, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Microsoft, General Motors, Design for America, Civilla, IDSA, AIGA, and Revision Path.

Visit The State of Black Design Conference website for tickets. Hope to see you there!

Harrison Wheeler

If you’ve been a longtime listener of Revision Path, then you probably already recognize this week’s guest, Harrison Wheeler. Along with being a senior design manager at LinkedIn, he’s also a podcaster with his own show called Technically Speaking. (And I’ve been a guest twice!)

Our conversation started off with a peek into life at LinkedIn, and he talked about working and managing remotely, as well as about how he’s changed as a manager over the years. We also talked shop about podcasting, the metaverse, the future of design in business, and Harrison shared some of the best career advice he’s received. I love checking back in with guests and seeing just how they’ve grown over their career, and Harrison is proof that hard work and dedication pays off in the long run!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Harrison Wheeler:
Hey, Maurice. My name is Harrison Wheeler. I am a senior prog design manager at LinkedIn, and I’m going on four and a half, five years. Time flies.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Welcome back to the show, man. It’s good to have you back.

Harrison Wheeler:
I know. Yeah, we were just chatting beforehand. It’s been what, almost four or five years since I … No, it’s been longer than that. What I’m talking about, I’ve been at LinkedIn for, like I said, almost five years. So it’s almost been like seven years.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You were at Base when we last talked, which is now part of Zendesk, I believe.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But yeah, it’s been a while. So we definitely got a lot to catch up on in terms of your career and everything.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. It’s funny. I’m trying to think. I think I might have been in Chicago or had just moved to California back when that was recorded.

Maurice Cherry:
You had just moved to California.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, man.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2021 been for you? What did you learn about yourself over this past year?

Harrison Wheeler:
Look, if 2020 was rough, so I think I’m a glass half full kind of person. So I will say that 2021 definitely felt like a bit of emergence out of that. Just looking back, I mean, a few things. And so I think really being unapologetic in terms of just turning things off and making time for myself. I think making time in the space for yourself is super important for that. I think, additionally, we all know this, but your voice matters. And I think probably it’s a bit of a reflection in terms of where I’ve grown and the position and the role that I have within my organization, within the design community. It’s important to have that voice and then also give back. Perspective is very important. And I will say many things have also accelerated within the last couple of years.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so when you think about how a lot of the workforce is now, like tele commuting, what sort of constraints does that create? Are we creating opportunities for people to get in? Are we also conscious of some of the effects of the work that we do? And so how can we bring more consciousness to the work that we’re doing, to the decisions that we’re making on a day to day basis?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think really also with this past year, because … and I want to say this partially because of the vaccine in a way. It’s really thrown workplaces in general into a bit of a learning moment in a way. Because of course in 2020, when we didn’t have the vaccine, everything was like, we’re going to move to remote work, we’re going to do this. And then the vaccine comes and then offices are like, well, I guess maybe we can start going back. And then the variants come through and they’re like, well, maybe you should stay at home. There’s been this weird push, pull. Of course there’s been the creation of these hybrid schedules, but I still think companies are trying to figure out what they’re going to do next and they’re not doing well at that. But I think that’s to be expected because this is so unprecedented.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I mean, I’ve had a few thoughts on that. I’ve had an opportunity to at least exercise what the hybrid concept is like. And just reflecting, again, over the past couple of years, I think we’ve seen a lot of evolution, at least from a design perspective, the tools that we use. You have the online multiplayer, you’ve got tools like Loom where you can do asynchronous video recordings. Obviously Slack is a big part of it. Having soundboards or sound rooms as a way of communicating without necessarily needing to be on camera. I think the list really goes on in terms of how remote work has been optimized. But the moment that you step into an office, it is a relic of where we left off. And so there is a gap there.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so, one of the things that actually I’ve been thinking about is, how does this play a role in the design rituals that we have. Not necessarily from a remote perspective, but when we have folks in an office and then we have folks on camera. Because there are some really interesting nuances. Like, we’ve all had pretty good high fidelity cameras at home, but the moment you’re in an office, you now see someone in three dimensions. So maybe their voice sounds different, maybe the audio is a little bit distorted. Folks might not see what’s going on in the chat. Folks might be having side conversations. Some of these things aren’t new per se, but now we’ve got a more equitable type of situation that we need to be considerate of. And so, how can we build in process, practice? How can we ingrain it? I think for me, how do you think about that at scale? And so, there’s a software component, there’s a hardware component and then there’s also just the general human to human communication component. So yeah, it’s really interesting, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s funny now that I think about that, because when the pandemic really started, I was working for a company that was very much remote first. And they had an office and I had been to the office. I don’t even remember the last time I was in their office, maybe 2019 I think. But that was three or four jobs ago. Since then, now I’ve worked at a number of different companies in remote positions with people who I’ve never met, who I’ve had to work with oftentimes across very wide time zone births to try to get creative work done. And yeah, it’s a change, it’s a big change. And just trying to adjust to it, making sure you’re getting the best work out of people. Of course, I think, one, with being sensitive to just the general overall global issue that we’re going through with the pandemic. But also, it’s going to be a different kind of thing when you meet them in person. At the other places, I’ve not met a single one of my coworkers in person in over a year.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
I think it’s truly fascinating, that social component. I think on the show, I don’t know if I had gone to this point yet, but a lot of the engineering team that I was working with was based in Poland. And so I think we hadn’t developed ways to communicate. Technology wasn’t there, so the ways to communicate were extremely difficult. So then you really had to see and visit somebody to understand their body language. But I think now, we’re so good at communicating with each other. I think seeing each other in the flesh it sort of like, oh, how do we compute this now?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m running into that a bit now because the place where I currently work, we’re split between San Francisco and Paris. And so I’m working with Europeans in the morning, working with the US folks in the afternoon trying to … And it is all very much a sync. I mean, I’m right in the middle. So when I start my day at 9:00 AM, it’s the afternoon already in Paris and it’s still early morning in San Francisco. So I have to try to juggle how I work now based on that, because we’re not all on that same eight-hour block.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think about 2022, are there any certain resolutions or goals that you have that you want to try to accomplish?

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, resolutions or goals. I would probably say I need to do a better job at taking a vacation. I’ve been saying that for a long time, but I think this past couple of years, I think from a mental health perspective, haven’t been easy. And I don’t think it’s been easy for most folks. And so again, I think be able to create that time and space where you can reflect. You don’t need to, you can also be in the moment. You don’t have to necessarily reflect. But I think we need to just create the space. That’s how I recharge. I’m doing a lot of really awesome stuff with my podcast, Technically Speaking. So I’m looking forward to really expanding that. I know we’re going to get into that a little bit later. But I would also say like, move a little bit more. Really be conscious about getting movement in. I mean, I’m in meetings all day. And so going for that. Walk around the block, heading on the bike, lifting some weights. In some way, shape or form, committing to that every day.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want a vacation. Well, I think I need one certainly, because the last time I was really out on a plane somewhere was February 2020. I just haven’t went anywhere because of the pandemic. But now it’s, I’m feeling it now. I need to disconnect on a beach in another country somewhere like nobody’s business.

Harrison Wheeler:
You’re in the hub, man. I think you can fly anywhere in the world from Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true. I’ve just been wary of it because … I mean, you’ve been seeing all this stuff with people fighting on planes and stuff. I’m like, I’m not trying [crosstalk 00:12:33]. I’m not trying to get caught up somewhere having to try to go somewhere. But we can’t because back in 25B, they’re [dooking 00:12:41] it out. Like, come on, you’re holding up everybody. We are all trying to get somewhere.

Harrison Wheeler:
I mean, this is a sad state of affairs. But it’s sad when airlines have to take away the alcohol because folks can’t handle themselves in the air.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, have they taken away the alcohol on planes for real?

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, yeah. I think now, probably around mid-December, early January, I think some airlines are looking at bringing it back. But yeah. Folks were getting lit.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. Wow. I didn’t know it was that bad. Geez.

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Hopefully we can get it together, but I don’t know. Humanity has been … it’s been a very interesting experiment of humanity over this past year or so. Just seeing how folks have acted, especially with these vaccines. We’re not going to make this political, getting into it, but it’s been a lot. So yeah. When you were last on the show, which as we talked about was way back on episode 140, you were at Base, which is now part of Zendesk. And since then, you’ve went on to LinkedIn where now you are a senior design manager. What has your time at LinkedIn been like.

Harrison Wheeler:
Wow. Yeah, this is great. I love reflecting on this. So I mean, look, I want to maybe touch on … maybe we can give a brief overview of what Base was. Because I think a lot of times I get a lot of questions in terms of, what attracted you to LinkedIn? And I also get questioned around, yo, it’s been five years. And tech speak, five years, man, you’re an OG at that point because the average length of folks is usually around two years at a job. And that number is probably going down over time. I mean, we see that there are so many opportunities out in the market these days. But when I started at Base, I was a manager for basically a 300-person startup. And so my design team at the time was around five directs on the product side, one on marketing. And then I reported up directly into the CEO and then eventually the chief of product.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so I think for me, that was an amazing experience. I got to really build something from zero to one. I got to experience what growth looked like. Had some really amazing experiences being able to go to Europe and create lasting connections with folks back on that project. I think for me when I was looking … And I wasn’t even looking, to be honest, Maurice. I think I’d probably taken a moment to sit down and understand, what is the general experience that I want to have? And I think for me, I was pretty simple. I want to be able to have impact in the organization on the product and eventually grow a team. But most importantly, I wanted to have the support to grow as a manager. I didn’t really have the tools, in my opinion, to lead with confidence. And I will say that what attracted me was the fact that there was a good amount of folks that were experienced and seasoned from a managerial perspective. The company had a lot of amazing programs to help foster that connection.

Harrison Wheeler:
And on top of that, there were folks that I’ve been able to meet that have also played a big role in my development. And of course, I’ve had some awesome coworkers. I think in terms of the opportunity, so right now the team I’m on is called LinkedIn marketing solutions. And so if you aren’t familiar with our enterprise products, there’s obviously the flagship product that most folks on LinkedIn are on. It’s where you post, that’s where you see jobs, you’ve got the feed. And then we have really four different product areas. Sales navigator, so that’s usually for sales folks. We have LinkedIn talent solutions for our recruiters. And sometimes you might get those inboxes from recruiters trying to hit you up for a new gig. We’ve got LinkedIn learning and then we got LinkedIn marketing solutions. And so LinkedIn marketing solutions is really our ad platform and one of the fastest growing lines of … actually, I think it is the fastest growing line of business at LinkedIn.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so for me, I have had an experience very similar to a startup because we’ve seen a lot of growth in terms of folks using our product. A lot of growth in terms of the team growing. And also, the acceleration of our experiences from a maturity perspective. I think going in, LinkedIn was around 15 years old. So I think most people would be like, oh, man, that company is old, 15 years. But over the past four years that I’ve been there, we’ve invested a lot. And honestly, it’s evolved like night and day. It’s been really fun to be a part of that ride, because I know that I’ve had some part in doing that. Being able to have that impact for me and seeing that growth was really core to my decision-making there.

Harrison Wheeler:
And look, I mean, when you’re in the tech game, I think it’s important to understand really … on top of the work, understand what are the things that are going to help bring value to your life. We all know that over the past two years, if you’re working in tech, going into the office, not having benefits, not being able to focus on your physical and mental health as a part of that package, you know there’s somebody out there offering better. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
That’s the beauty of the situation right now. And for me, I can confidently say there’s not really too many companies that would offer support in that way any better than LinkedIn. And so honestly, that’s really kept me around.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, you came on at the time … I think it might have been right around the time that LinkedIn was bought by Microsoft.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. So I came in actually a little bit after that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Harrison Wheeler:
But I believe the acquisition had happened earlier that year.

Maurice Cherry:
So even with that, I mean, you’ve got that big tech juggernaut behind LinkedIn. So I’m sure that in terms of just like, I think one job security, but two also just the … Like you said, if you’re in the Bay, probably just if you’re in tech in general, you’re always looking to try to level up. I mean, that’s a great place to do so.

Harrison Wheeler:
100%.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you talk a bit about what you do as a senior design manager?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I get a lot of questions around, what does IC growth look like? What does a manager growth look like? And so, as I mentioned before on my team, I have eight designers … excuse me, seven designers, one manager. And then soon I’ve got two roles opening up. So for folks listening and you’re interested, definitely check out the job listings. But it’s really interesting because I think a lot of times when you think about managers, the people side of things. But honestly, for me, I think about, how can we create an organization that is really based on outcomes around how we approach design? And so a lot of that is making sure that my team has a time and space to thoroughly think through their problem space. I’ll give you an example of a few initiatives that I generally work on.

Harrison Wheeler:
So number one, we’re working really hard in terms of trying to really double down and protect our design rituals. And that’s from our weekly standups to our feedback. How can we give better feedback? How can we provide even safer spaces for feedback? How can we make sure the process is inclusive for everyone on the team to have a voice and be able to scale that in different areas? How are we thinking about what growth paths on the team look like? How can we be consistent in terms of creating expectations? How can we create different opportunities and modules for designers to have a better understanding about the situations that they’re in? So as they have the autonomy to really start to lead projects, they’re equipped with the proper tools to have the right conversations to be able to say no, and also understand when to prioritize.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so those are just a few of them. Obviously, there’s the planning side of things, there’s the performance review side of things. But ultimately, how can we also think about having more of a thoughtfulness in terms of thinking horizontally? So as I mentioned before, we’ve got the flagship experience, we’ve got these four other enterprise experiences. How can we bring some of that goodness or how can we bring in some of the initiatives that they’re working on into some of the things that we’re trying to achieve. And so a lot of that is honestly, I think, fairly similar regardless of the size, the organization that you’re at. I will say, LinkedIn, being that it is about an 18-year-old company now, there’s around 13,000 employees globally. There’s a little bit more conversations that you’ll have to have, but I don’t think that’s any different from most organizations this size.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, with the team make up like it is, I mean, do you get a chance to really work one-on-one with designers or are you mostly working more with upper management and leadership?

Harrison Wheeler:
Honestly, it really is a mix. At least for my designers that are my reports, we do have our one-on-ones. So we do have an opportunity to go through individual designs. We do have opportunities to really think about what growth looks like. As I mentioned before, we have rituals that I always attend. So if I can, at least. And so that is our design reviews, our standups. Those are the things that I really try to do. I try my best to make sure that our team is equipped, like I said, to be autonomous, to be able to work with their teams. Because I am not able to be in every single situation. Also, my manager isn’t available to be in every single situation all the time as well.

Harrison Wheeler:
So there’s a bit of that. There’s a lot of back and forth at least from a leadership perspective as well. And so, we have a growing design organization. We need to also understand at least as a manager too, that whether it’s coming from product or inch, that we’re not only managing down to the team, but also managing up and giving our executive team visibility. We might be working on vision work and so I might be a little bit more involved there working with other VPs or directors involved in that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of design management, when we had you on the show back in 2016, you were a design manager at Base.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say you’ve grown as a design manager since then? I mean, is it different in this larger organization or what’s changed?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I mean, 1000%, I’m a totally different manager than I was back then. There are times where I’m like, if I could take situations back in the day and pair it with what I know now, I guarantee you the outcomes would be totally different. And so I think a lot of times when I started out is like, you’d read all the books or you have this idea of what a manager is supposed to do and you try to be like. Or at least for me, I can’t speak for other folks. I had this misnomer that I had to be right. That I had to know what I was doing. That it was important that people knew that I knew what I was doing, when that was not the case.

Harrison Wheeler:
And I think really coming to terms with like, hey, I have no idea how this is going to turn out, I think for me became pretty transformational. And then I had a moment too where I had an opportunity to have a professional coach, shout out to Brooks. He was actually on one of my episodes on Technically Speaking. But the sessions that I had with him really changed, honestly, my mindset on being a manager. And a lot of it really came down to understanding when to have conversations and how to have those conversations. A lot of what we do as designers really comes down to communication. And sometimes it might not be comfortable, it might be uncomfortable. But usually when you do feel that, you’re usually at a crossroad. There is a decision that needs to be made. And on the other side of it, it’s going to be beneficial no matter what.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I would say, it sounds like you at least had that … and I’m not saying you didn’t have this at Base, but it certainly sounds like you’ve had support to grow at as a manager while you’ve been at LinkedIn. You haven’t just been winging it. I say that to say, I’ve been in design management situations where it was very clear I was winging it. The company was not really trying to offer any support in that area. But these were startups, it’s not an established company like LinkedIn. But it sounds like they are invested in your growth as a design manager.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Yeah, 100%. And I think one thing, you asked what I do on the day to day. But there are definitely things that I look at in terms of, how can we evolve as an organization? And so those are things that we’re constantly chipping away. And I think having that north star and being able to have your team align on that, I think does help quite a bit in terms of making sound and constructive conversations and decisions as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, have you encountered any other black design managers while you’ve been … not necessarily at LinkedIn, but just in your career in general?

Harrison Wheeler:
You mean as far as being my manager, or?

Maurice Cherry:
Just in general.

Harrison Wheeler:
In general. Honestly, I will probably say, not since I’ve been at LinkedIn. How should I phrase this? I will say that there are a few that I’ve known and heard of from afar, but I will say I haven’t been able to personally meet any until I was at LinkedIn. And we’ve seen really a lot of growth in terms of representation as far as black folks go at the manager level. And so I think that’s been really, really special. Because I think for me, it just felt really inaccessible in terms of meeting other black design managers. And so now to have that presence where I work, I think is extremely special to me. Because I always think about, the first manager that I’ve had technically was my mom because my mom had hired me to do web design at the elementary school that she worked with. And so I always tell people, my mom was the first black manager that I directly had. And I think what was really interesting, the lesson in that for me was, I was able to reflect on this.

Harrison Wheeler:
I was like, my mom literally advocated for me in terms of making a budget. And then on top of that, she gave me the space to grow. It’s funny when you think about the lessons in some of these areas in your life that you don’t really think of until you are a lot older. And so I don’t know. That for me was really groundbreaking. Because I think in the discussion that we had in terms of that growth piece, you mentioned something around black designers need to have the opportunity to fail. And I think it’s so important to have representation as a black designer, as a black design manager, because now you can actually discuss these things. You can fail, you can have mentorship within your organization. And we all know this, that the representation numbers are extremely low. I think it’s really special when you can have a community like that to support along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. Even as I’ve done this show over the years and I’ve talked to people from other organizations and such, it’s still pretty fragmented when you think about other black design managers or even just … Someone had asked me, oh, is there a professional group of black designers that I can join? And I was like, well, not really. I mean, you could join the organization. And I have to preface this because I don’t want anyone from OBD coming after me. But look, I’m not saying the Organization of Black Designers is not doing great things. What I am saying is that for current black designers that are in the industry, they do not know that you exists. So I can mention, like for example, I can say AIGA. Or if you are regional, I can say, well, there’s Bay Area Black Designers or there’s I think Black Design Seattle, I think is what it’s called or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
There are some regional groups, but a national organization kind of thing. It’s still pretty fragmented. I mean, there are shows like mine and shows like yours, which of course we’ll get into, that I think do a good job of highlighting who we are and what we’re doing out here. But it’s still, for I think the average designer, it still is pretty hard to find that community.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah, it is. It is. Yeah. And I will say it’s probably even more complex given how fragmented it is. It’s actually even harder to find, as you mentioned, because consistency is key. And so even over the past couple of years, I’ve seen things pop up, but then really quiet down. And so it’s not only finding the group, but it’s making sure that it’s active. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. I’ve certainly run into a few that have been in that same fashion. They start up one way and then it just dies out. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. It takes a lot to keep those things going. So then just in terms of initiatives and things, are there any particular initiatives that you’re involved in at LinkedIn?

Harrison Wheeler:
It’s real funny because I go back to … I was thinking or reflecting on the first episode that we had. I think for me being a black designer in tech, it felt like a sense of accomplishment. I mean, it definitely was. Coming from the Midwest, really trudging along and just taking risks, not knowing what’s on the other side and not necessarily having those perspectives. I think it was definitely something to celebrate and to be able to do this. But I think that quickly went away because at the end of the day you’re still one of, who knows? Hundreds, thousands in an organization.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so in the moments around Trayvon Martin. And it was tough, it was very isolating. And I think not having a community to be able to go to or at least just talk it out, I thought was, I don’t know, it was very isolating. And so I think moving into LinkedIn, I didn’t want to go through that again. I’ll put it like that. You know who Renee Reid is? Shout out to Renee Reid.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah. Tech Wrap Queen, of course.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Tech Wrap Queen, check it out. So we actually joined LinkedIn actually the same year. So myself, her and George Hay, shout out to George, we actually got together and we were like, we should put something on. We should try and create some representation within the organization. We should also have some external representation to let folks know that we’re here. And so we started with a lot of small things. I remember Renee was really passionate about having a week during Black History where the cafeteria served food from all over the African diaspora. And by the way, LinkedIn, I mean, we don’t have cafeterias right now because it’s kind of … Well, we do, but it’s not operating in the same capacity. LinkedIn has some bomb food. I think if you’re ever in the Bay Area, if you ask somebody which tech company has the best food, LinkedIn is definitely up there nine times out of 10.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so what they cook tastes pretty good. We got together and designed the LinkedIn [nberg 00:33:15], that’s the LinkedIn logo. I designed that with the kente pattern and we got those printed. And so whenever LinkedIn showed up, we showed up for sure. AfroTech, we came in deep with the kente cloth pattern and people were like, this is what LinkedIn is about. And one of the most amazing things about it is that it resonated with black folks all over the country. But LinkedIn has global offices around the world. So we had folks down in Brazil repping the LinkedIn kente nberg. So I think it was really great to see that movement. And then we had a little bit of a coming out party about three years ago during the week of AfroTech, the second week of AfroTech, where we had designers come to LinkedIn. And we just chuffed it out.

Harrison Wheeler:
We had a panel with research and design and we basically called that black by design. That was really a big moment for us. And it was great because we got to show people what design was like. Inside LinkedIn, people had an opportunity to see what we look like and what we were talking about. And there was a relational piece to it. And then we also eventually made hires from some of the folks that attended. And so here we are, we’re strong. I think 15 plus folks, it might be even more, but we started out being only three of us. And so it’s been really great to see that evolve over time. And over the past year, we’ve been doing a lot to really organize and really keep it growing. Because obviously we want this to keep growing, whether we’re at LinkedIn or when we move on. They call that the next play.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so we have really three pillars that we focus on. So we got a set of folks working on growth and retention. And so that’s really around, how can we keep folks in? How can we provide opportunities for people to grow outside of their traditional day to day job? We have another pillar called brand building and community. So that’s when we go out and we have these happy hours. So when we show up to events like AfroTech, this is when we have an opportunity to really be able to not only push some of the amazing initiatives that LinkedIn is doing, but also elevate the folks within the group to the community. And then we have a third pillar called product experience.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so actually a couple of weeks ago, we had a presentation around company pages that we invited black creative businesses to join. And so how can we elevate our products to benefit the black community and also learn about how people are using them, and bring that feedback directly into the product. So it’s been really fun to see that evolve. Really be able to create a space for our members to be able to kick back, talk about anything and everything, and go live in the Slack channel. So it’s been really great to see that evolution over time.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say this is a testament probably to the longevity and the structure of LinkedIn, that you are able to have such a robust employee resource group like that, that will allow you to do things that directly touch the brand. A different version of the logo. I mean, that’s a lot just in and of itself because that’s something that goes out globally, like you said, across LinkedIn in a number of different countries.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Look, I will say, I mean, it’s been a journey, but definitely shout out to the exec team that supports us. We have two executive sponsors. I’ve had an opportunity to talk with other folks within the company that have been super supportive and be willing to work with us and iterate as we go. And I think with that kind of mentality, that’s extremely empowering in allowing really that expression to be able to happen. And so it’s really been, honestly for me, I’m humbled. I’m honored to really be able to be a part of creating that platform where … I was thinking of this. To some folks, this is their first experience in tech. I mean, that’s mind blowing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, switching gears here. Of course, we’ve mentioned before about your podcast, Technically Speaking. Which is one big thing that’s changed since you were last on the show, is you do podcasting now too. So why don’t you tell the folks here about your show and what it’s about?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Well, look, man, I mean, I kind of touched on this a little bit earlier, I think. We both touched on this. I think the representation in the industry for black folks is fairly small. Still small. Very small. I shouldn’t even say fairly small. And I think what’s important is like, I think a lot of times when we tend to see each other, we always ask, what’s your story? How did you get to where you are? I think at least in the product design space, I thought that was extremely important to really be able to provide a platform for. I’ve been considering this for a while, but I honestly think a lot of the events from last year really was a bit of a catalyst to move that forward.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so to be honest with you, I didn’t think I could do a podcast. I think I’d asked people so many questions on how to do it and I for sure was procrastinating much of the time. But yeah, I went ahead and did it. And honestly, it’s been a game changer for me to be able to meet so many people and have many different perspectives. As much of a tool as it is for folks that are listening for them to learn, it’s been a tool for me to also learn about their stories. I think the production element of the podcast is also another area that I’m always striving to improve and learn on and iterate. But yeah, I think … let’s see, I mean, we’re about a year and a half in, almost 10,000 downloads throughout the lifetime, within a year and a half, which I think is a huge milestone. And I think we’ve recorded around 38 episodes.

Harrison Wheeler:
So yeah, man, it’s been fun. And look, you’ve been an inspiration along that journey as well. I think we’ve mentioned this on the episodes, but it really meant a lot to have you on the show, especially during San Francisco Design Week. Because I can remember when we were chopping up before the show, I was like, man, we got to get you out here and do something. So we still need to do something live at some point, but that’ll be post pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What has podcasting really taught you? I mean, you mentioned the thing about people being able to tell their own stories, but have you gained any personal insight from doing this?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I think some of the personal insight, again, it’s like this weird perfectionism thing. Some of it I’ll also go into where I was coming in the Base. When I was going in my last job, it was definitely a career pivot for me. Moving from a more graphic design oriented web design career into product design. And so I didn’t really have the vernacular to be able to express design concepts, research concepts, et cetera. And I think for me, I have this idea of what an archetype of a designer was. And honestly, that could really go to hell at this point in time because there isn’t an ideal archetype for a designer. And I think a lot of the folks that are on the show are at a point where they’re having the same kind of realizations.

Harrison Wheeler:
But I think you’re seeing this evolution where people are really starting to prioritize their own ideals and beliefs, which I think has really been … I think to be able to have folks that have been in the industry for a while, but then on top of that to see that as the starting point for the younger generation, I think is an amazing learning. And I’m super hopeful that that can transform a lot of how we think about the folks in the industry who we’re solving for. And understanding that some of the things that we’ve perpetuated for years and years are extremely toxic and we need to move past that. But we also need to evolve in a way. We need to have these discussions, whether it be to tear it all down, whether it be to reform some of these things. But we need to be having these discussions followed up by action. And I think a lot of these storylines can really help people understand what that angle is in terms of moving in that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Well said. Well said. I mean, podcasting for me, I think, has been something really which has given me a deep level of, not just introspection into people’s processes, but also how they come to the decisions that they do in terms of their career and the work that they do and everything like that. Have you found that there’s been a bit of a common thread among your guests?

Harrison Wheeler:
No. I think there are some folks that have definitely done the linear approach. I think there are some folks that have figured it out along the way and had a very meandering path. And so I think that’s what’s important. There’s not one way to do things. Did that answer your question?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, absolutely. It did. Now, you talked about LinkedIn and even venturing onto these different spaces, like you’ve mentioned with black and design. And one thing that LinkedIn did recently was that they participated in AfroTech world, which was like a metaverse essentially. It’s like a conference in the metaverse. Now, I know you told me that you didn’t get a chance to attend that, but what did you hear back from how that experience was?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. This was the second year that AfroTech had done the metaverse thing. So for folks that aren’t familiar, AfroTech world is a conference. I think they had 10,000 folks buy tickets, I think 7,000 showed up. But it’s a global conference where folks talk about a lot of different topics around technology, design, engineering, product management, venture capital, all that. And so the experience is in a virtual world and so you could basically dress up your avatar, you could network with folks, you could have one-on-one meetings on a beach, in a jet ski, on a boat. It’s whatever you want to make it. And so I think a lot of folks were excited at the concept because you could have folks have an experience together without physically being in the same place. I think definitely it is just novel. It’s great to see it at a very large scale. I don’t know, I’m super curious to see how it’s going to evolve over time. Were there some other conferences doing something in the metaverse as well?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I went to one last week. And for people that are recording, we’re recording this early December. But I went to one at the beginning of December from this company called Tech Circus that was called Enter the Metaverse. And they had an online component, but you could also, I think, attend inside the metaverse that they set up for the conference. And so there were all these panels about just all the different things dealing with the metaverse. The economy, virtual wellbeing, real estate. The founder for Second Life was there and he gave a really great presentation. There was this guy, I think he works for Microsoft in Berlin, and he gave this really just overarching talk about, these are the things we need to think about when we talk about the metaverse. And it’s given me so much to think about with like, there’s all this talk about how the metaverse is going to be the future of the internet and the future of the workplace. But then hearing people talk about it in this conference, seeing the reality that the current metaverse is. First of all, there’s no one metaverse, there’s multiple metaverses. And-

Harrison Wheeler:
Metaverses. I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Metaverses. The multi-metaverse, I guess. But there’s dozens to hundreds of them and that we’ve actually already experienced some versions of metaverses, even though they haven’t been called that. And the one that they pointed to most that got me was Foursquare. So Foursquare circa 2010. Because what it was is that you had this information layer of data layered on top of real world maps and things like that. You could get these badges that were not really NFTs but were because they could really only belong to one person or certain people. And it’s interesting when you think about the concept of Foursquare badges.

Maurice Cherry:
They’re kind of like these prototypes of what NFTs are in a way. Because for this metaverse conference I went to, they were like, oh, everyone gets a free NFT. And I was like, what do I do with that? They sent me an email like, here is how you claim your NFT. Okay, and do what with it? But the NFT was issued. They issued it through something called a POAP, P-O-A-P, proof of attendance protocol. And so it essentially was a badge that said you attended this conference at this time. And I’m like, oh, I can’t do anything with this.

Harrison Wheeler:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s, I guess, good to have. They were like, oh, well, you can connect it to your blockchain wall. And then they just lost me after that. I was like, I don’t know what to do with it after that. But-

Harrison Wheeler:
Look, I will say this, I’ve been dabbling into it. So I think what’s really interesting about this is, for one, the Foursquare thing really blows my mind, but it totally makes sense in a way. And I think if you’re going to learn about the metaverse, you should understand how the blockchain plays a role in it, where the NFT plays a role in terms of maybe something that you get to keep that identifies that you were there or not. I think it’s all extremely fascinating and it seems like even I haven’t heard of it, like the proof of attendance. But even that is super fascinating. Because now you can think of, I always think about it like this. It’s like when we were growing up, if we went to a basketball game or we went to a concert, we had a paper ticket, we might frame it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
And now everything is like a digital thing on your iPhone or your Android device, and you can’t really do anything with that. And so I think nowadays it’s like, huh, if I go to a concert, I have a token or I have an NFT from it. And maybe if that’s tied to Ethereum or whatever digital coin, then that can be valued over time. I think it’s really interesting that you’ve got this economy. It really adds another layer to like, hey, who are you? Oh, I’m famous on the internet. Because yeah, we were talking about this before, you got people that can make $300,000 in a week, millions in a month just selling NFTs online. Never do a gallery show. Not in a museum. I think it’s super fascinating.

Maurice Cherry:
The other part that’s super fascinating too is, for many people, the entry point into the metaverse are NFTs, like we’ve mentioned. But what I saw from this conference with there being these multiple metaverses is that there’s a huge problem with interoperability. So there’s all these metaverses. But if you buy NFT, for example, and it’s locked to a particular metaverse, you can’t necessarily … Or it’s minted with a certain metaverse, I guess that’s the terminology. But you can’t use it with another metaverse. And they were like, oh yeah, it’s like if you go to Foot Locker and buy shoes, but you can only wear them in the store. And so they’re thinking of like, well, what are ways that we can tie some intrinsic, real world value to an NFT to make it more of a lucrative thing?

Maurice Cherry:
But I mean, this conference touched on land ownership in the metaverse, it touched on things about digital wellbeing, cultural appropriation. Because one thing with being in the metaverse is that you’re represented by an avatar. But these avatars, well, of course we’ll, I think just like regular avatars that we see in terms of profile pictures and things, are not wholly representative of the diversity of body size and gender expression and race and ethnicity. You know what I’m saying?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I saw from looking at all this was like, oh, this is a huge opportunity for POC designers or particularly black designers to really try to get in on the ground floor of this and find a way to carve a niche in. Because I could easily see how we could get left behind in some digital divide sort of way. I mean, the fact that Facebook has renamed itself to meta, to subconsciously … And that was the other thing that I thought was great. Is that everyone on the entire conference was just shitting on Facebook. They were just like, what meta is doing is insidious. Because people are going to think metaverse and think that Facebook is the-

Harrison Wheeler:
Brand association.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Brand association. They’re going to think that they are the company that is the underpinning of the entire metaverse, when that is not the case. And the other thing about how even experiencing the metaverse is not something that you necessarily have to do through a $300 VR headset or something like that. So it was such an interesting conference. I’m going to have to go back and listen to some of the different talks from it. Because it really got me to thinking about, well, what is our place going to be in this new internet or whatever that they’re trying to call it. Because another portion of this was, how do we make sure we don’t carry over the issues from the current internet into the metaverse in terms of trolling and all of that sort of stuff. People don’t have any of this stuff figured out.

Harrison Wheeler:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
By a long shot. And the actual infrastructure for it can’t even support everyone like the internet can largely support people. Maybe hundreds of users per server. Some workplace metaverse situations can maybe only support about two dozen people. It’s not a revolutionary thing, by far.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But people are throwing enough money at it that it almost feels like it’s a possibility. It reminded me a bit of the Million Dollar Homepage during this one particular talk. And for people that are listing that don’t know, back in the day, there was … Actually, I think the Million Dollar Homepage is still up. You went to this site and people basically bought pixels to be represented on the page. I think it was like a dollar per pixel. And so the goal, I guess, of it was to have a webpage that was worth a million dollars. But there were people in one of the talks that were buying up plots of land in a metaverse for thousands of dollars. This one person bought a 300 square meter plot of land for $10,000 in one of the talks. And I was just like, what are you going to do with that?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You just had $10,000 sitting around one afternoon in the metaverse like, you know what? I’m just going to buy this plot of land. What are you going to put on it?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Who can visit it? It’s abstract in that way where you’re like, this doesn’t make any sense. But there are so many smaller companies that are trying to get in on this before the “brands” get in on it. I.E, a Facebook/meta.

Harrison Wheeler:
Well, I think Nike or Adidas actually, they’re launching their own concept of a metaverse. So it’s already starting to happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s already starting to happen. And it’s definitely at a point where, like I said, I can feel like we could be left behind in that. So I don’t know. One thing that I’m going to try to do this year on the show is bring on some designers that are doing NFTs, just to try to get the audience that listens to the show up on like, what is it and how can we get involved? Because I see it. I was in this conference and I was just like, I can see the future and we could very easily be left behind. Because the fervor around the metaverse reminded me so much of late ’90s, early 2000s internet. Before internet advertising really became a big thing and companies trying to figure out, well, how can I conduct business on the internet?

Maurice Cherry:
Now it’s like, how can I conduct business on the metaverse? The same conversations, you just swap out internet for metaverse. How are we going to work on the internet? Email, what is that? Now it’s like, how are we going to work on the metaverse? It’s the same conversation, different times. And I’m just like …

Harrison Wheeler:
I don’t know if anyone’s seen it, but there’s this old clip of Bryant Gumbel talk from the Today Show.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know the exactly one you’re talking. It’s Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric pontificating about email or something.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. That’s going to be this episode. What is web 3.0 in NFTs, in blockchain, and all of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
I hope there are entry points where the barriers aren’t as expensive as it is right now. Because I think for me, I’ve been dabbling.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
I’ve been trying to explore, how do you get an NFT project off the ground? I’ve bought a few NFTs myself. And for anybody that has bought an NFT, having to do the wallet thing and then the gas fees, it’s not cheap. And so-

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Harrison Wheeler:
… to even get in the game to play, I think it still requires a decent amount of capital to really participate. So I hope there’s a bit more development, like you said, and ways for folks to get involved before the massive wave that folks are talking about actually happens.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think it will happen. Because honestly, again, thinking back to early 2000s, one of the things about, well, how are people really going to get onto the internet? Oh, well, you can use a personal computer. So people were thinking about things like that. But then there were also any different number of web enabled. Like smartphone devices, you had BlackBerries, you had Treos, you had Palm. I’m really dating myself now. But you had all these personal things that were like, oh, we can get on the internet. And on this little device that’s in the palm of my hand. Things like that. So, oh, man.

Harrison Wheeler:
The World Wide Web. I think we were still calling it the World Wide Web back then.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We very much were still calling it the World Wide Web. So it’s happening. It’s happening, but-

Harrison Wheeler:
It’s the meta wide verse.

Maurice Cherry:
And speaking of web 3, I think that’s another thing. Because back then, this conversation was happening around the time prior to web 2.0, because web 1.0 hadn’t really been named as such. But web 2.0 really came about with the advent of social media and user generated content. And now with web 3, it’s decentralized, it’s the blockchain. And I’m actually going to a web 3 conference in January. I think it may have passed by the time this episode airs, but people can definitely look it up. I’m pretty sure there’ll be more web 3 conferences in the future. Because I’m like, I want to know where we are going to get in on this.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So much of what we’ve done now has been steeped in web 2.0. Like, where do we get in on this next thing?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. It’s real interesting that you talk about that. You mentioned Second Life and Second Life was around before web 2.0. And this is the same story. We are now at a point where the ideas and technology are now at a crossroads. They are finally intersecting. And so I always think of, we were talking about the Palms and the Treos, but then once we got processors and graphic interface that were fast enough, then that’s when we got the iPhone. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yep.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so, this is another one of those moments where the price of headsets are significantly cheaper than they were before. Now we’ve got this blockchain technology, we now have these different currencies that you can use in these different worlds. And so it feels like everything is there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. With metaverse and cryptocurrency and all of this starting to mesh together, I can see where it confuses a lot of people. But also, this is happening. It’s not a, oh well, maybe. No, it’s happening and it’s happening right under our noses. I mean, this sounds almost apocalyptic in a way, but it’s happening. It’s happening and it’s either you need to figure out where you fit in in this or you get left behind.

Harrison Wheeler:
Or you’re going to be the 50-year-old on TikTok.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Or you’re going to be like my mom who is completely tech averse. And it’s like, I give her a cell phone and she turns it off until I have to tell her when I’m calling. Like that sort of thing. Because, I don’t want to get tracked, I don’t want them tracking me. I’m like, okay. But it’s getting to that. I see it getting there. And yeah, I could even see smart phones starting to do more with VR and AR and mixed reality, which we’re even starting to see with Google. Google has their maps that layer their own way. Finding on top of what you view out in the camera. It’s happening.

Harrison Wheeler:
It’s happening.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s happening.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. No, it’s definitely happening. I think in the tech sense, it feels like that moment when the iPhone came out, if folks can remember. People see what the possibilities are, people are doing a lot of experimentation. People are okay if it works and if it doesn’t, and I think that’s the way to do it. It doesn’t necessarily have to work. I think it’s good to see folks really doubling down to really push the boundaries. And so I will say, for anybody listening that is well versed in all of this, definitely tweet myself and Maurice and let us know if we are getting the solid good grasp on it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Please do. I don’t want to be sounding crazy out here, but I also want to make sure we’re informed because we both have our respective audiences too. We want to make sure that people are being informed about what this next thing is because it’s coming. And we either need to find a way to become a part of it, or once again, just get left behind with it.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, we’ve discussed all of this. What do you see as the future of design and business?

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, that is a million dollar webpage right there. I have many thoughts on this. We’ve been working from home for the past couple of years, so I’ve had an opportunity to really do a bit of introspection and really thinking about the conversations that we’re having. If we reflect, again, when I first started working in tech, when I first started doing web design, when I first started doing graphic design, I think the foundations and the way that we approach the craft, I think those foundations really still exists. But I think in terms of what we need to be conscious of to create inclusive environments, whether it be around make ups of team, we had talked about the different working spaces that people are in, thinking about what the consequences of design decisions are. Shout out to Ron, he actually just did a talk on consequence design. I think he was also a guest on your show, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. Ron Bronson. He is cool. Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. So I can keep going. We talk about equity, we talk about bias and whatnot. The list of things that we have to be conscious of, even on the business sense of things, research. I mean, I could keep going. I personally do not think a single designer is going to be able to comprehend all of that. But it is also very important to the work and central to the work that we do. And so moving forward, the industry itself, and that’s not just design, but we’ve got to say, hey, look, some of these things are not just in the discipline of design. We should be having design. We should be thinking and all encompassing about the elements that play a role in design across different business areas. This means your CEO should understand it. This means your product managers, engineers, they should understand it.

Harrison Wheeler:
How can we bring these types of things into the schools that they’re working at, into the conferences that they’re going into, because it’s a lot to put on the shoulders of design. And I think that if folks can really understand what the value is, we’re seeing a lot of growth now, I think the growth of the industry could honestly double. Most people you talk to, they’re always like, man, we need more designers. I’ve never heard of a situation where it’s like, we got too many designers.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so I think it’s really important for our industry to start really transforming the discussion there and thinking about design as an afterthought. If we’re still talking about design getting a seat at the table, I mean, that’s some web 2.0 stuff. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
We got to have organizations that are design centric. And so that’s where I see it going. I mean, I think whether it’s on the metaverse, whether it’s on web 3, virtual reality, augmented reality, the way that we operationalize still to this certain point needs to be the responsibility of everybody. And so I think that is where I see design going. I know that’s not a super trendy answer, but I think organizations really do have to do a better job of just thinking design is a service. I think there are some companies that are doing really great things, but I don’t want that to necessarily think that the industry as a whole is evolving. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say has been the best career advice that you’ve gotten?

Harrison Wheeler:
I don’t know. This is tough. Because I think some of the best career advice I’ve had is super simple, it’s the matter of me executing. But yeah. I mean, I think honestly, it really comes down to asking questions. Being curious, asking questions. And I think the question piece is not necessarily in a place where you are not in a normal onboarding sense, but questioning why things are the way that they are. Why are they the way that they are? Because I think we’ve operated so long in a world where we don’t question those things and we have to deal with the consequences. And the consequences may directly, indirectly affect us. Or we are around a bunch of folks that don’t care. And that in itself is already destructive in its nature.

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

Harrison Wheeler:
You’re bringing out all the hard questions. To be honest, I have not thought about that. So we have the former CEO or co-founder of LinkedIn coin this term called tour duty. I’m not one for military terms in a workplace environment. I think that’s extremely unhealthy and anxiety inducing, especially just given, again, just how crazy the past few years have been. People are definitely feeling it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Harrison Wheeler:
But I think the idea around is really being on a path of, I don’t know, learning, a journey. And I think for me, I mean, I talked about this before. I think being able to transform an organization to be able to think about design, kind of like how I had mentioned in the question earlier. For me, that’s the mission that I’m on right now. And it’s great to really see the progress of it. In that sense, I don’t know what’s on the docket five years from now. I would love to lead the team. But I will say that I also get super excited about Technically Speaking. Moving into technically the third calendar year of the project, I will say that I’m looking forward to just iterating on it. So definitely more guests, more episodes. I’ll be introducing some writing, a lot of really cool mini project on that. So definitely stay tuned. That’s on technicallyspeakinghw.com.

Harrison Wheeler:
I’ve really started to look back at some of my older work. I think for so long I had this thought that my writing wasn’t good enough. And so I’ve been bringing back a lot of things that I’ve written down in notebooks or in notes or in slide decks that I never presented because I didn’t think it was there or somebody told me it wasn’t all the way there. I was like, man, this stuff is really good. And so I might have a book that comes out. I love talking about management. I love talking about how it can be more conscious around the things that we’re doing. I love having discussions around different tactics you can have. Because in my journey, I didn’t really have much of that.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so, I would really love to have something that the next generation of managers can have in their toolkit. And they don’t have to use it, but at least it helps them start to think about ways they can do things that are authentically them, that represents their nature and really helps build a healthy community around what they’re doing.

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

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. So you can look at my random tweets on Twitter, twitter.com/H-M-W-H-E-E-L-E. And then for the show, it’s called Technically Speaking, so that’s available wherever. Technically Speaking with Harrison Wheeler. So that’s available wherever you listen to podcast. And then on social media, if you follow Technically Speaking HW on Instagram and LinkedIn you should be able to find us there and at technicallyspeakinghw.com. So just remember Technically Speaking HW and you should be able to figure it out. And of course, you can find me on LinkedIn @harrisonwheeler. So feel free to connect. As I mentioned before, I’ll be looking at hiring a couple of roles. They should be up by the time this episode is live. So feel free to reach out if you’re interested. And of course, we’re always hiring designers, design managers, researchers, project managers, product operations, all that. So definitely check out the job listings on LinkedIn.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, like you said, companies are always looking for designers. Right?

Harrison Wheeler:
100%.

Maurice Cherry:
Harrison Wheeler, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been, I just have to say from a personal standpoint, it’s been so great seeing your growth and your progression since we first met back in 2016 up to now, and just how much you’ve managed to do. I mean, in your personal career and especially what you’re doing at LinkedIn, but also now branching out into podcasting and really putting that message forward and opening up more opportunities for other people to tell their stories. I think it’s such a natural extension of just the amount of patience and I think thoughtfulness that you bring to your work. So I’m excited to see what you do certainly for the next five years. And again, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Harrison Wheeler:
Appreciate you, Maurice. Have a good one.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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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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Michael Collett

“A better world is possible if we approach our work with a class- AND race-aware lens.” Michael Collett was dropping gems like this, and we hadn’t even started recording! I have followed Michael’s work since 2016, and I’m glad we finally finally got a chance to talk on Revision Path about his career and his overall philosophy to life.

We talked about his involvement with Greenworks and Design To Divest, and Michael shared some of his origin story growing up between The Middle East and the United States. He also spoke about class awareness and politics among the Black creative class, working in San Francisco, and the one piece of advice that has stuck with him over the years. We need deep thinkers like Michael in the Black design community to keep us all honest and accountable!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Michael Collett:
My name is Michael Collett, and I’m a multi-disciplinary designer based in San Francisco, California. I’m on the steering committee at Design To Divest which is an organization that seeks to center and uplift black creative talent wherever we find it. And I’m a partner at a company called Greenworks and our slogan is tender loving care for plants and people. Thank you so much for having me today, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no problem. Wow, it’s so formal. My goodness. This is a night live.

Michael Collett:
I hit my ribs real quick. [crosstalk 00:03:24].

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

Michael Collett:
It’s still 2020, right?

Maurice Cherry:
In some ways, yeah, it feels like it.

Michael Collett:
Yeah. I mean, not bad truthfully like still walking around, still freelancing and keeping as busy as one can. San Francisco conspires to be approximately 60 degrees while the rest of the country is boiling, so I suppose I should just be grateful.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s right. Just so folks know we’re recording this right now where there’s like this massive heat dome over the Northwest United States, like it’s crushing most other cities, but San Francisco seems to be like the ice cube in the middle of all this.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, they’re joking that even the heat can’t afford rent here, yes. Understandable.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What has San Francisco been like now that I guess the state and everything’s opened back up?

Michael Collett:
As a San Franciscan, I hold the right to criticize my city a lot, but I will say that the pandemic and broadly reopening has been handled halfway okay. People were generally pretty willing to put masks on, San Francisco is very, very dense, we all sort of live on top of one another and quite literally.

Michael Collett:
And the mask rate was really, really high, people have and myself included quibbles about particularly things like outdoor dining and the way that that’s come to pass. But we’ve mostly reopened the cases aren’t really spiking touch wood. I don’t think it owes much to our political class so much as just our citizenry though.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s been weird how like Atlanta and Georgia, for the most part, it’s largely been open since, I don’t know, like May of last year.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I have friends in Atlanta who say the pandemic never happened.

Maurice Cherry:
It really never felt like it happened. I mean, certainly there were companies that had closed down like movie theaters and such, and even the city itself went through this whole reopening phase. Right now we’re in phase four of five of the city fully reopening, but it never really felt like the city closed.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, traffic’s been the same going out and about is largely been the same. I think there might’ve been certainly a time in early April where it felt like, “Wow, this is going to really affect the way of life here.” And then everyone was like, “You know what? We’re good.” They just kept going.

Michael Collett:
We just kept going hard and fast here by American standards for sure and the city, and much has been made of the exit is from San Francisco that the numbers don’t really back up, but definitely a lot of boarded up shops that quickly got covered with graffiti. I don’t know, I liked my city with a little bit of an edge to it. San Francisco in the last five years particularly had gotten to be a bit of a Disneyland, so a little more bite to the town always, always suits me.

Maurice Cherry:
So you think it’s sort of changing that way now that there’s been that Exodus?

Michael Collett:
We’ll see. Like I said, the Exodus is I think a lot more hyped up than real, like maybe some of the folks who were pulling down six figures and never really cared to be here other than for the job itself are in the East Bay now or somewhere deeper into the valley, but there’s still just roughly the same 800,000 plus people here.

Michael Collett:
I think what has sort of been interesting to see is that we all, for the most part, looked around and went, “Okay, I’ll put this mask on and do what I’m supposed to do.” And it broadly sort of worked, I think of criticism that I’ve had of everybody throughout the pandemic, both presidential administrations to governors and mayors, and everybody.

Michael Collett:
As citizens, we’ve been left to our own devices to figure this out, and it was pretty cool to see San Francisco by and large sort of figure it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I finally got to see you speak at this year’s where are the black designers confident. For folks that don’t know, I knew Michael, when Michael… Is Michael Collett still-

Michael Collett:
Michael.

Maurice Cherry:
… working Michael?

Michael Collett:
I probably shouldn’t say that it’s still my email address, but yeah, it’s still my email address. It was a numb day brand or whatever you want to call it for a while. I’m mostly using my full initials as a professional mark these days, but I’m always working on something that was why the name existed to begin with is because what are you doing or I’m working.

Michael Collett:
Back in the day, it was a lot of black collar work service industry stuff and that kind of work as much as graphic design. So it was an homage to being on both sides of that fence, but these days it’s mostly just graphic design.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but seeing you at this year’s conference and getting to hear you speak on that panel, I was like, “Wow, this is dope.” I was the whole event for you.

Michael Collett:
Pretty seamless, I tuned in, I was out and about on Saturday on some personal business, but tuned in and watched a session before on Sunday. And much as Zoom we’ve grown to joke is and Design To Divest is pretty notorious for glitching out whenever I get too political. The technical part of it was seamless, and then I don’t know if you stuck around for the online little after party, but there was just a wonderful sort of sense of community in particularly like the slack rooms and the chats that were going on.

Michael Collett:
I’m always impressed that people manage to produce anything resembling a human connection when it’s just Zoom screens and chat windows, to organize a real event. And then I’m somebody who grew up on Okayplayer message boards, and the old BB boards days, and that kind of stuff.

Michael Collett:
So I know it’s possible, but the idea of like running a whole conference just digitally, still strikes me as really impressive. So I was just blown away by all of it. The branding I thought was really, really nice, just some lovely illustrations and all the way through to the Zoom backgrounds for presenters, really well thought through. You know how designers can be, God, we’re so nitpicky, but I felt really touched to be a part of it and to be asked to be there. So that was really great.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I gave the second day keynote for the conference, and that was something that I mentioned was now more than ever we have, of course, like these physical groups of people that got together, pre pandemic, we have Bay Area black designers, black designers of Seattle, and other kind of similar groups.

Maurice Cherry:
But then like the number of events that sprung up over the last year, because someone, like you said had a Zoom account, they’ve got a Slack room, boom, put it together. You’ve now got a conference venue where you can bring people in and they can give talks. And like the technology has progressed to the point that allows us to sort of spin this up pretty cheaply and pretty robustly which is great to see.

Michael Collett:
And credit to the organizers, I think particularly of this year is where the black designers, without naming names I’ve been to some other things that just felt like workdays, you’re just in Slack and on Zoom all day and I’m like this doesn’t… Whereas like designers this year did not have that feel, and I think that’s the real secret sauce, if you will, is being able to take these tools that let’s be clear have been built for business purposes and to use them for something that is deeper and beyond that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think that just like black folks though?

Michael Collett:
It sure is.

Maurice Cherry:
Making something out of nothing. But yeah, the amount of different events and things that have come on and I did some of those events last year and it has varied wildly, some of them have been super easy, super smooth, and then others have really felt like work.

Michael Collett:
The first versus, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right, right. Yeah. So like you mentioned, you’re a partner at Greenworks, talk to me like…

Michael Collett:
Greenworks.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, talk to me about that. What of work are you doing?

Michael Collett:
Tender loving care for plants and people. So Greenworks is a fun story, I was up in Sacramento in December looking after a family member who had some medical work done. And while I was just trying to calm my nerves, I started flipping through a shelf full of books and posting on my Instagram. And when I found cool typefaces, just mindless research type of thing you do when you’re twitchy about something.

Michael Collett:
And a buddy of mine, Mohammed Sillerman in New York saw one of them and it was this old ’70s plant care book called Greenworks. And it had that one of those classic ’70s wobbly font types, you can sort of picture it in your head. And the tagline was tender loving care for plants. And he joked and he said, “That would make a great T-shirt.”

Michael Collett:
And I said, “Oh yeah, tender loving care for plants and people, why don’t we do it?” And so we dove immediately into the print on demand T-shirt economy. And the more we kept trying to type set the words, tender loving care for plants and people on a Gildan T-shirt the more and more it felt like we were just really fucking up. It was just this fundamental disconnect between what we were saying and how we were doing it, because look like Gildans and the cotton T-shirt economy in general is not a fantastic one.

Michael Collett:
And we wanted to do more than just add another T-shirt to the world, right? Like in what way were we improving on not doing anything? And so we stepped back and my buddy Mo realized that he had a friend Anj in Seattle who had worked with all kinds of different manufacturing and was currently working in the legal cannabis industry there. And that we ought to reach out to her about how to take this T-shirt thing on.

Michael Collett:
And so there was a particular design detail that we wanted to do, and we were having a hard time conceptualizing it. And so we reached out to Anj, and Anj not only had already solved for that design detail but immediately picked up on the problems that we were having with the quick turnaround print on demand object universe. And said, “We’re at a point now where we cannot do this.” And we all said, “Yeah, why don’t we not do that?”

Michael Collett:
And so Greenworks now is a research company more than anything else. And what we’re trying to do is provide as holistically as possible solutions to problems that we encounter as designers. So with T-shirts, for instance, rather than running immediately to a 100% cotton blank that you don’t know how it’s produced, but you probably can guess, we’re searching out looking for and working with people who grow hemp and use recycled cotton, and who are looking at the water impact and waste diversion from what they do.

Michael Collett:
So rather than simply treating the T-shirt and the thing that goes on it as the design problem, we’re looking at as much as we can, the whole thing from stem to stern. So we’re in the process right now of developing a line of houseware solutions since we’ve all been inside this year and nobody needs really another T-shirt, but everybody could use a new pot for some plants or a blanket for their couch or an ashtray to burn some incense in, or a nice water bottle. And there are ways to produce those that are in keeping with our ethos.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. When I looked at it initially, and this I don’t know if this was an intentional comparison in general, but when I thought of it and looked at it, it sort of reminded me of what Seth Rogen is doing with houseplants with his brand.

Michael Collett:
There’s definitely I think some similarity there, I would admit that we are perhaps similarly aligned about various kinds of houseplants if you will. But what I will say is that rather than approaching things from a hype beast standpoint, we’re really interested in products as the result of design solutions rather than products as ends in and of themselves, if that makes sense, we were just having a conversation about this yesterday.

Michael Collett:
One of the things that we’re really interested in doing as we produce objects is being really transparent about processes because what we’re interested in is tender loving care for plants and people, and that extends to the people that are making the objects that we’re designing.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s a new, maybe not a new challenge for designers, because if you go back through industrial design history, there’s certainly that awareness of it. But when we think about the holy grail for us as graphic designers is passive income. You make T-shirts, skateboard deck, coffee mugs, that kind of stuff. And people buy it because they liked the design of it and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Michael Collett:
But that stuff isn’t without its own cost and it isn’t without its own ethical problems. And the challenge I think for us as designers now is to look at not just the object, but the process as the design challenge. So that’s what we’re doing.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like that’s an ethos that has started, I think, in some aspect to creep up now because the pandemic because one thing certainly that this period has done is that it’s really exposed supply chains and how fragile they are.

Michael Collett:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
And so when it comes down to people trying to create new sorts of products or things like this, hopefully they’re looking at more ethical ways to do it ways that won’t be a big tax on other resources and stuff like that.

Michael Collett:
And selfishly ways that won’t get stuck in the Suez Canal for a month, like there’s also just the fundamental functional problems of hyper globalized manufacturing in that, your stuff is literally on the other side of the planet until it’s not. And I don’t know, I’m a designer I’m picky, that seems like a really bad way to have as much control as possible over what I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s the designer way, isn’t it? To nitpick over the details and to really create something that is, I think more towards art, particularly with physical works. I’ve had so many designers over the years where yes, they may be digital designers by profession, but in their spare time they’re doing pottery or woodworking or something, they’re making something tangible and they’re doing it with the amount of care and precision and such that they probably would with a digital design.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah. Oh, well, I mean, I think once you look at the world that way, it’s hard not to do that in every part of your life. I bet you are very, very intent on how your onions get chopped, even if you’ve never worked in the kitchen before, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michael Collett:
And that’s I think partially how I was raised both my parents are landscape architects and I grew up around them and not only in their professional peers. And so I’ve long believed that every moment is an opportunity to bring a design sensibility to things which to paraphrase Minari, I think is just a planner with an aesthetic sense. So if you’ve got a plan and a sense of taste then you’re halfway to a design. And even if that’s just chopping onions.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny you mentioned that about onions. I remember reading something, this was years ago, about how an onion will actually taste differently depending on how you cut it.

Michael Collett:
That’s exactly the point. Yes, that’s exactly it, right? Like sometimes you want the long slice, sometimes you want the diced onion. Sometimes you want to put it in before the garlic, sometimes you want to put it in after, sometimes you don’t want to put them in together at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, good point. Yeah. You’re also on the committee for a collective that’s called Design To Divest. Talk to me about that.

Michael Collett:
Design To Divest. I am just so full of love for these folks. So Design To Divest started in the context of the pandemic and the summer protests last year by a designer creative based out of Brooklyn named Vanessa. And they reached out to their network and extended black creative networks, initially for people to essentially for graphic designers to lend their skills to existing social justice organizations who needed design help.

Michael Collett:
And we quickly became a little bit of a running crew, speaking of assembling community online and in virtual spaces, it’s definitely sort of how that came to be. And over the course of, I guess, now the last year and a half, we’ve gone from hosting regular weekly meetings for black designers and allies to pulling back a little bit from the regular grind of the digital ecosystem and trying to be really, really intentional in the work that we’re doing.

Michael Collett:
And so we’re about to release in collaboration with San Francisco print shop a butt whole press that’s beauty, W-H-O-L-E, for those listeners with sensitive years. Our first Dezeen, our first publication that’s going to grapple with critical race theory and Afrofuturism and all kinds of things that are imminently topical right now that we’re only just fringe ideas six months ago when we started talking about this.

Michael Collett:
And broadly we are immersed in the process of trying to create something that I mentioned during our panel discussion last weekend, like a walled garden for black creators. And this is something that is not only, I think, a priority for me with Design To Divest, but is also a priority with my work with Greenworks.

Michael Collett:
I fundamentally believe that keeping up with particularly the Instagram algorithm for creatives is an inherently toxic and losing game. And I think anything that we can do to literally just provide a space for black creatives and black creators to develop outside of that really consumptive and extractive digital space is something worth doing.

Maurice Cherry:
And with Design To Divest and you all sort of coming together and doing these things, I guess, where do you want to see this collective grow into? Are there larger things also that you’d like to accomplish?

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, we’d like to divest from white supremacy in design in general. Yeah, that’s the large goal and design as broadly as possible and divest as largely as possible. We are I think, I’m going to say today, disgruntled optimists, as much as anything else about the possibility.

Michael Collett:
It’s cliche for designers, like design can change the world, but the world is designed. So yeah, I mean, sort of, right? And that’s not to say that like any one poster is going to solve racism, but there is a level at which we can be looking to develop spaces, institutions, cultures that are not based on extraction from black people.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really curious about that notion that you said of divesting from white supremacy and design, because one thing that I’ve seen probably over the past two years now is just how much more political, I guess I would say black design initiatives have become, that they’ve been largely steeped in these concepts of decolonization, divesting from white supremacy, et cetera, because it makes sense like you have to sort of strip that away in order for us to really get back to what we hope is the root of what it is that we do, because it reminds me of an essay that the late Sylvia Harris had written for Stephen Heller’s at the education of a graphic designer, where she talks about how black designers have fallen into this pattern of imitation rather than innovation.

Maurice Cherry:
And that the work tends to mimic what they might’ve been taught in schools or whatever around like the Bauhaus or like Swiss Style or something like that, and it’s less about their own kind of cultural touchpoints. And that’s not to say necessarily that that cultural touchpoint is a direct line to Africa, like a tribe or a country or anything like that, but just like where you come from. I mean, as African-Americans have a very unique culture in this country that is ripe with inspiration for so many things…

Michael Collett:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
I had Brent Rollins on the show for episode 400 and I mean, just the shit that he has created out of his experience is so uniquely like African-American, but also is hip-hop and film. And I mean, the man made the logo for boys in the hood for poetic justice when he was like a teenager.

Michael Collett:
That’s very much I think the point. When Design To Divest first came together, I remember we had a conversation, somebody on the call had lamented the fact that there wasn’t a black graphic design tradition that they could call upon in school. And I was like, “What are we talking about? What are we talking about? Absolutely not.”

Michael Collett:
When it comes to the combination of text and image in terms of its resonance in our culture, black designers are without par, but we just don’t consider that graphic because it’s not Swiss School publications, poster, nominations. I mean, has the AIGA ever recognized Pen & Pencil Studios?

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t think so.

Michael Collett:
Then they are not talking about graphic arts in this country, because Pen & Pencil Studios is a Seminole, Pen & Pixels, Pen & Pixel Studios is this Seminole studio when it comes to not just the African-American, but the American graphic design tradition, if we’re really getting down to brass tacks, right?

Michael Collett:
Whatever kind of design you want to focus on, but as graphic designer, there’s a huge black graphic design tradition that we don’t even think about because it’s so denigrated. And so when we talk about decolonizing and divesting, that can get really heady. But what I mean is that like, we should be in the same way that so much of the Bauhaus and Swiss School is about, so the Swiss poster thing, that’s about wheat paste posters that the Swiss put up on the street for advertisements.

Michael Collett:
That’s what that’s about. That’s the root of the Swiss poster and all this other thing, it’s street advertisement. So if we’re in thrall to street advertisement, then let’s go find those iconic street ads for hip hop records, for clothing lines, for all of the representations of black American culture, which has been the primary driver of American culture since time immemorial.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Collett:
And so when we talk about like, what does that walled garden look like? What we’re trying to do is to coalesce and to ideally produce and publish this knowledge and make it available for people. It kills me to see it’s definitely a common refrain among folks, take us off the mood boards and put us in the creative directorships.

Michael Collett:
We are already as black people inherently creative because you have to be fly in the face of systemic oppression. And then our creativity is never what is compensated, while it is what drives all of the cultural engine. You can find discreet examples of that like the young woman who created the concept of on fleek, has the millions of dollars worth of advertising that have used that word in the last, I don’t know how many years, provided a dime to her.

Michael Collett:
But it’s so symptomatic of the extractive nature of our social media platforms, I think in particular where so much, especially now during the pandemic of our culture is not only consumed but creative.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s interesting. As you mentioned, kind of social media and the algorithm, like there are people now that I don’t want to say that they’ve come up, but what you’re finding now is like this new instantiation of a designer who is more curator than creator. It’s less about what they may themselves be making it more about what they can pull together from what others have made, because there’s so much noise for lack of a better term out there, that they’re the ones that can say, “Okay, here’s the good ship that you need to pay attention to.” And like, then that person ends up being like a tastemaker or something in their own right because of that.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah. Well, and the ability to manipulate the algorithm has now been passed off for creative direction.

Maurice Cherry:
True, true that.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s okay, sure, it is creative direction, but it’s creative direction in the service of what? And so for me, the at all opportunity is trying to turn away from the algorithm as a driving factor in the work that I’m creating, is a big point for me these days.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I’m curious to know about the Michael Collett origin story, where did you grow up initially?

Michael Collett:
I was born here in San Francisco, and like I mentioned before my parents are both landscape architects. And in the late ’80s the Bechtle company was hiring lots of landscape architects to work on a project in Kuwait.

Michael Collett:
And so my folks being relatively young and fresh out of school-ish, first couple of jobs said, “Hey, pay looks good, live abroad for a couple of years. We’ve got this kid, they’ll pay for his English school out there. Sounds great.”

Michael Collett:
And so I want to say mid-’88, we packed up here in San Francisco and flew off to Kuwait and planned on being there for, I think at least four or five years. Oh God, the timeline escapes me. But the summer of the first Gulf War, before it was the first Gulf War, we went on vacation to Cyprus to visit my godfather in Scotland and to visit some family in New York.

Michael Collett:
And when we got to New York and got settled in, in our hotel, and these were of course, the days before cell phones and people had to know where you were going and call ahead, there was a message from my aunt saying to turn on CNN and that she hoped we had packed winter clothes because Iraqi Republican Guard had not only entered Kuwait, but had set up its command center in our apartment building.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh shit, wow.

Michael Collett:
So what was the vacation very quickly turned into, I guess, we’re coming back to the states now. And we returned to San Francisco, but from there we bounced around a bit. I mostly grew up in Davis, California, which I will mostly hold my tongue about. There’s some very nice people there and some less so people there, I’ll put it that way.

Michael Collett:
But then I went to a few different schools, first University of California, Riverside. Then when my mother got a job at Penn State, I went to Penn State main campus, that was a bit of a culture shock. University of California at Riverside was the first minority, majority UC school. Penn State main campus was 85% white when I got there and it snowed in October.

Michael Collett:
And like I said, I’m from California and not built for that, but I met some wonderful people at Penn State in spite of it being occasionally a pleasant villi in the horror. And then came back to Sacramento, having not finished and then went moved to Philadelphia outside of which is Penn State Abington in order to finish my education there.

Michael Collett:
That was sort of a choose your own adventure degree, I had originally started studying political science and bounced around and did a bunch of stuff. As the child of designers, I definitely did not want to join the family business for a long time, or at least I thought I didn’t. The punchline to that story is I’m currently now enrolled in school for architecture. So obviously I did not want to do it that badly, but you know how kids are great? You know how to get [inaudible 00:34:30] against everything, I’ll go be a lawyer. And then I realized that was a horrible idea.

Michael Collett:
So by the time I got to Penn State Abington, I definitely needed to write some very persuasive essays to convince these folks why all these disparate classes from three different schools about to do a degree, but we did that. And then I ended up back in Sacramento twiddling my thumbs. I worked a traveling salesman job for a Mormon windows heating and air conditioning company just as the economy was cratering in 2007, which was weird, definitely got chased off of some Stockton front porches by the sound of cocking shotguns, et cetera, et cetera.

Michael Collett:
Surprised I didn’t get turned into a hashtag, although I don’t know if they had those then. And from there, I realized that because I could passively photo edit in Photoshop and export to PDF that for boomers, I was essentially a computer Wiz and could pass myself off as a graphic designer to people who didn’t know any better. And then I quickly realized that I was in over my head and needed to go learn a bunch of stuff, which I spent the next 10 years doing, and here I am.

Maurice Cherry:
So one of your early design gigs was there in San Francisco. You were working for Mule Design Studio, which I think for people that are listening to this show that know about design and probably heard of Mule Design because of its proprietor, Mike Monteiro. How was that job? I’m just curious. How was it like working there?

Michael Collett:
Mule was a really, really interesting gig. Mule has since shuttered and I think both Mike and Erica are consulting and mostly doing speaking and writing gigs now. But Mule was a really educational experience for me as much in terms of design as it was in terms of how to deal with clients and I think particularly about the politics of design work.

Michael Collett:
And I say politics in a lowercase sense that I mentioned that I studied political science in school. And one of the things that early, 101 political science courses talk about is this idea that politics isn’t just party A, party B, big national election. Politics is the struggle for power in any group of people larger than one.

Michael Collett:
And when you look at it in that lens, particularly client work is a lot of political reading and handholding of the organization that you’re performing the work for. One of the things that we used to talk about at Mule that I find is such a great metric for things these days is that the main navigation bar of any organizational website will tell you so much about the politics of that organization, if you know how to look at it.

Michael Collett:
An organization that has a very succinct and easy to understand top menu bar, top level nav particularly, is one that… I mean, might have its internal problems still, but at least has a proper delegation of powers, like a hugely overcrowded main nav is a symptom of something organizational and much larger than just the design.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s as much, if anything, the key that I took away from Mule, is that design is a reflection of the organizational priorities and politics of whoever it is in question.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. Now, I’m thinking back at the last two places that I worked before my current gig and how design was… It was a reflection of internal politics, like the first company I remember starting at it, started out as… or at least when I started there, it was just sort of small, stable, fairly well-known software company. And their design was pretty basic, off stare, nothing that’s like winning awards, nothing mind-blowing, but they were also very well-funded and stable and all their employees loved it.

Maurice Cherry:
And then we switched to becoming the startup overnight and the branding was so… I use chaotic in a good way, but the design was like, oh my God, I’m really trying to accurately pinpoint how weird this was. There was like late ’90s, early 2000s like Murakami anime style, where it was certainly trying to like push a boundary.

Maurice Cherry:
And this is a tech company, like trying to push a boundary, but then it’s also like bordering on juvenile because I mean, honestly we were a young company, we had went from being this old company to a startup overnight. And that really reflected as the company went on, the people that attracted, the way that we sort of did business, unfortunately the internal politics as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And then the second place I worked at was this very stoic Eastern European tech startup, and the design very much reflected that it was just black. I started, they had a logo and they had black and two shades of gray, and that was the brand. And that very much reflects the monoculture of the company like, “Oh, okay. Yeah. Wow. That’s a really good perception there.”

Michael Collett:
Yeah, that I think was one of my big takeaways from Mule. The other one, and this was, I think, credit to Mike Monteiro where it’s due, was that it’s just websites. I think a lot of our industry, a lot of our profession is beset with a really inordinate amount of stress and anxiety and pressure.

Michael Collett:
Some of which are self-generated, some of which is client-generated, some of which is generated by the fact that we live under capitalism. But at the end of the day, like it’s just websites, like everybody needs to take a deep breath.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s something that I’m glad that I’ve been able to keep in perspective throughout my career because I started designing websites. God, this is date… I started designing websites in 1997.

Michael Collett:
Hey.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, this is basic SHTML geo cities, Athens Roads 1130. You know what I’m saying?

Michael Collett:
I thought those sites could still run, I bet [crosstalk 00:41:17] probably.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, they definitely could still run. Absolutely. I’m pretty sure if there’s a geo cities archive somewhere in my old website with my full address and phone number at the time.

Michael Collett:
Oh God.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s probably still on the web somewhere.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah, but the privacy fails, we all committed in those days.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. And I remember when my mom found out about it and I mean, she chewed me out, like, “Why are you putting that? Why are you putting that address on the internet?” I was like, “Nobody’s going to find it.”

Michael Collett:
Strangers on the internet.

Maurice Cherry:
“Nobody’s going to find it,” like come on. Like, yeah, there’s going to be some hacker in Stockton, California that’s like, “I can’t wait to get to sell my Alabama and find…” That’s not going to happen. But I say that to say, like having been on the web, building things on the web for such a long time, all of this shit is so ephemeral and like, it’s going to get redesigned and over it, which is why I never really sweat or stress web design in general. Like some people really like live this shit like Moses came down from the mountain with two tablets. And I understand-

Michael Collett:
[crosstalk 00:42:20] fake my eyes, I just don’t get it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, and I understand that, but it’s like, I’m like, “Dude, in 10 years, all of this is going to be like sitting on a hard drive somewhere. None of this is going to matter.”

Michael Collett:
Not only that like, I hate to break it to web designers, but your cookie acceptance banner takes up half the goddamn page to begin with, so I don’t know what you’re looking at to start with.

Maurice Cherry:
The speed at which that has taken over every website in the past two years.

Michael Collett:
GDPR killed mobile web design and I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you go to a website and there’s like three success of pop-ups, there’s a full-page modal to subscribe to their newsletter with some snarky dark pattern. No, I don’t want to save 20%, and then you’ve got the cookie banner and then something else pops up. I’m like, “I just wanted to read this news article. Oh, wait, it’s behind the paywall, damn.”

Michael Collett:
Oh, reader mode. There we go.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh man.

Michael Collett:
But I’ll just go find the tweet and read it on reader mode because you’re not getting my eyeballs for this, but I mean, this is where we’ve arrived. This is the world we’ve designed ourselves into, or that has been designed around us, because I mean, I’m not responsible for the GDPR modals, but it does, I think come back to again that pressure that we have, not pressure necessarily but the potential that exists for us as designers to unfuck some of this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Collett:
Hopefully, I mean, I don’t know what can be done about Shell oil or whomever, but at wherever we can there’s that potential to sort of rest things towards not sucking.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny. You mentioned that about Shell. We’re thinking, God, it might’ve been earlier this year where Exxon’s shareholders have to come to them and say, “Look, you all have to do something else besides oil.”

Michael Collett:
I mean, dissolve, like what else does Exxon do besides oil? I don’t know, I feel like that’s like walking up to the Fox and being like, you’ve got to eat something other than chicken I mean-

Maurice Cherry:
Diversify.

Michael Collett:
… not Wu-Tang Financial like it’s Exxon. And if anything they should be held liable for crimes against humanity and dissolved, but like, what are we talking about? Shareholders aren’t going to vote for that, but I’m sure they’ve got some crack in diversity initiatives going right now.

Michael Collett:
I’m sure there’s a bag for somebody waiting at BP to stand there and be the blackface of their diversity equity and inclusion extraction initiative.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. The higher, most likely. And I hate to say this, but it’s only because I’ve seen it as a pattern, but they’ll hire a black woman to do it.

Michael Collett:
Oh, I know. I know. And run her out like Google did to…

Maurice Cherry:
Tim Nutt?

Michael Collett:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Michael Collett:
Oh, I was just, I mean, it’s a shameful practice that particularly, I think a lot of the techies are very guilty of. We had brought up previously an article I had written a while ago, but there’s another one I had written this also a while ago now. But I think when I was at Mule, because we had a day in the office laughing about Google, having spent a quarter of a billion dollars trying to solve their diversity problem over the previous five years, and somehow not having solved it. And my immediate question was, “Well, have they tried hiring black people?”

Michael Collett:
And apparently seemed that nobody who took their $250 million suggested that to them, but then they do that and then they do how they do. So it’s sort of a damned if you do damned if you don’t, but…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s something I’ve always been wary of. And I’ve taken, I mean, in like speaking of where are the black designers, because we talked about that earlier. When I did that presentation initially in 2015 and I gave a very reluctant updates to that presentation in 2020.

Maurice Cherry:
And I say that because when I gave it, and I mentioned this in my keynote, but for people who didn’t hear the keynote, I got so much shit for that presentation after I gave it that it pretty much tanked my studio. I had to go out and get a job because like all my business stuff had dried up just because I said.

Maurice Cherry:
The answer to that question of where the black designers should not come from black designers, it has to be from a coalition of people from organizations and businesses and schools. And quite frankly, black designers create the problem, so stop asking us, and so…

Michael Collett:
That’s not an answer people want to hear.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but like I say, I reluctantly gave an update because I let it, I recorded it, I put it up on YouTube, and it’s been up there since like March of 2015 with like no comments or anything. It wasn’t until last year, like in the wake of people getting on the streets and protesting and companies saying, “Well, we want to uplift black voices and share black voices and such that people found the presentation were willing to give me money for,” and shout out to reparations.

Maurice Cherry:
And we’re talking about it now in this new light to this honestly now newly perceptive design community that was willing to hear it and was like, “Oh, this is actually good advice. Why didn’t anyone take this advice five years ago?” I mean, who knows? But I gave that reluctant update.

Michael Collett:
Obama had been president, what more do you want?

Maurice Cherry:
And listen. But I gave them a reluctant update to it because one, I was like, I really don’t have anything else to contribute to the conversation, first of all. And secondly, not much has changed. Now, I think some certain statistics around it have changed, like when I talked about the percentage of black students at schools, but I also spliced in economic data.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “Look, white households in this country have like 10X to 13X the net worth of black households.” And so if you’re looking to these high tuition schools to try to find black designers, it’s going to be hard to find when black families largely can’t afford them. But also saying that companies need to stop building pipelines, because when I hear a pipeline, I think of something that strips resources out of a place and transfers it to another place.

Maurice Cherry:
And there’s always a talk about all the pipeline, there’s a pipeline problem. It’s not a pipeline problem, there’s a relationship problem because what’s happening is these companies are looking at HBCUs and black design groups and such as like this fertile soil that they can keep harvesting from, but not planting seeds. And it’s like you keep…

Michael Collett:
Mentality is totally extractive, it’s totally extractive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s totally extractive. I’m like, if you’re not also helping buy, like for a school, for example, maybe offer to embed an employee there as a teacher or help to get their curriculum up to the point where harvesting has… I don’t want to say harvesting, Jesus Christ, but like pulling students from those schools makes more economic sense in terms of getting them up to speed with what’s in the market and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I said, “Look, I’m not giving another update to this presentation, like this is it. This is it.”

Michael Collett:
Well, and the truth is, is I don’t need another pipeline, there’s a gentleman on the steering committee with us at Design To Divest, Aziz Ali. And he has a great quote he says, “Black people are over mentored and under resourced.” And I really love that as… It’s one of our organizing principles at Design To Divest, we know what we’re doing, just get off the money. At a certain point, pipelines and internship… No, just stop.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Michael Collett:
Pay your taxes, pay your ties if you’re a credulous person, but just get up off the money, because that’s what it is. And whether it’s a pipeline, or some other kind of extractive relationship with black communities, it’s not the way forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve just come up off the money, write the check, or as a Tiffani Ashley Bell put it, I think she said, “Send the wire, make the hire,” or something like that.

Michael Collett:
Exactly. That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m probably butchering that quote, but it’s something to that effect, yeah.

Michael Collett:
Send the tracking number and we can get on the flight, shout out to Larry June speaking in San Francisco. At a certain point, like there’s black squares and, oh, look at, we were so sad about the way we treated all those folks in the past.

Michael Collett:
Well, have you paid them out? Are you paying us out now? Like what are we talking about? For stringently, capitalist and profit focused culture that we live in, all of a sudden everybody’s real touchy feely, talking about platitudes and emotions and shit, when all of a sudden it was the quarterly report and making sure those metrics worked.

Michael Collett:
I certainly don’t want to hear about emotions from tech companies whose whole thing is that we make data-driven decisions. Well, your bank account is data, drive it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Just go ahead and make that detour.

Michael Collett:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Seek that exit, yeah.

Michael Collett:
I mean, it’s not even a detour, because like speaking of San Francisco and particularly the way that companies behave extractively, we’re not just when we talk about the algorithm on Twitter on Instagram, and we’re not just talking about that in terms of extraction, but these are companies that have fermented and precipitated huge amounts of displacement in San Francisco who have gotten sweetheart deals from local politicians going back multiple administrations now who have never paid their fair tax share who in the state of California for companies like DoorDash and Uber, have been instrumental in demolishing worker protections in labor law just to pad their own bottom line.

Michael Collett:
So when we talk about extractive stuff and especially where design is concerned, that really covers the whole industry in a lot of ways.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that you mentioned, wanting to talk about, and I think it’s probably tangential to what we’re discussing now is about class awareness and politics among the black creative class. So I want to open up the floor so we can talk about that, and so you can go more in depth with that topic.

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, I think a lot of it ties into some of what we were talking about on the panel discussion. When we talk about particularly like, are black people capable of appropriating from other black people? Are black people capable of being gentrifiers? Are black people capable of behaving in these extractive ways?

Michael Collett:
And the example that we brought up on the panel was the Michael B. Jordan now untitled again Rum brand that had run a foul of people who are deeply invested in the history and traditions of carnival. But there’s any number of examples with that, I know for black southerners and for people who are invested in the south.

Michael Collett:
The attention that Tulsa has been getting, for instance, there’s been a lot of discussion around who’s right it is to tell this story who benefits from the telling of it. And these are questions that involve the black creative class. If we’re in the business of telling stories like that’s who we’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Listen, listen. I’m from Selma, Alabama. So let me tell you about how black people can gentrify other black people.

Michael Collett:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay? When Selma, the movie happened-

Michael Collett:
I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
… Selma, the city did not have a movie theater. I didn’t grow up with a movie theater. My first movie theater I went to I was 17, 18 when I first moved to Atlanta. But I say this to say like Selma… And I’ll let you get back to what you were saying, but when you said that, that’s really stuck out to me like, I just remember during that time and my mom telling me about how so many celebrities are coming through the city.

Maurice Cherry:
To me I’m thinking, “Okay, well what’s going to happen when they leave? Are they putting resources and things back into the city?” Because I know when I go home, downtown is boarded up. Selma is still like one of the most violent cities in Alabama, probably the number one most violent city in the state. There’s parts surrounding Atlanta. I’m not Atlanta, oh shit.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s parts surrounding Selma that the World Health Organization has classified as bad as third world countries, like you want to talk about how black people can gentrify and take from other black people. Why is Selma always a political stop? Obama and them come through and march across the bridge and then what?

Michael Collett:
And drive right out.

Maurice Cherry:
Right out.

Michael Collett:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Sorry. Sorry.

Michael Collett:
No, no, no. That’s exactly my point, right? Is that as designers, as people who deal in symbols, we need to be critical about how symbols are used. And that’s something I think that is often missing from, and the class awareness of that, because like not only is Selma this major political stop, but it remains a bastion of entrenched generational poverty there.

Michael Collett:
And the way that the black political class, the black celebrity and entertainment class, but also the black intelligentsia and the academic class and those of us, myself included, in the creative class treat not just Selma but other places and parts and people in our culture as symbols to be pointed at, as opposed to people to interact with.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s something that is often that I find, I’ll try to be as sort of politic as possible, but that I find is often missing in some of these larger conversations. And when we talk about extractive, we were joking about the diversity and equity and inclusion at Exxon, but I don’t know how much of a difference I draw between Exxon and Uber in that regard.

Michael Collett:
I don’t know how much of a difference I draw between Exxon and Facebook in that regard. And it’s one thing to go get a bag and I’m not trying to call anybody out for that, but I do think that in getting a bag, we have to make sure that we’re not continuing to enable things that are detrimental, not only to communities that were part of the larger ones.

Maurice Cherry:
So back in 2014 you wrote this piece called “Now is the time for a Black graphic design”, and there’s a line at the end, I’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. But there’s a line at the end where you say, “A black data processing associates have organized to support one another.” Why can’t we? Or maybe the better question is who’s going to stop us? Do you still feel that way?

Michael Collett:
I mean, honestly, yes, now more than ever, I want all working people to organize whether we are white collar workers, blue collar workers, black collar and service workers. As working people, we have much more in common with one another than we do with our bosses. As black creative workers, I think it is incredibly important on us and imperative for us to organize in some way or another. I am blown away, speaking of black creative talent by the TikTok strike.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Michael Collett:
Just got out the TikTok strike because I am too old to have it on my phone, but I see it come through my social feeds. And I know that they got those white dance thieves heartened right now, because they are not putting it together for it. And I think that is maybe it’s for jokes, but I think it’s really serious. And that is very much what I’m talking about by when I say, resisting the algorithm, the commodification and the extraction of our culture, because TikTok has turned some of these offbeat as white kids into millionaires.

Michael Collett:
When the people whose dances they’re stealing are still working with cracked phones. And it’s like, I think now the hidden upside, if you will, of our digital era is that so much of what’s already been going on for generations is now not only visible but hyper compressed.

Michael Collett:
It took 20 years for Elvis to get famous from stealing from black artists. But now these kids are doing it so fast that you can still see the people they’re stealing from, and I think there’s something to that. So yeah, I absolutely believe that black creative workers of all kinds need to organize and need to unite because we are, and continue to be the driving cultural force in this country and massively, massively under compensated for it.

Michael Collett:
And that’s whether you’re talking about music and dance, entertainment, production, but also graphic design and the way that design influences popular culture.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Michael Collett:
I mean, a lot of things. The thing that I’ve been getting really into at the moment is, is something that we’ve been working on for Greenworks which is 3D printing with ceramic.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I’m fascinated by a lot of the potential for new materials production and new ways of doing micro industrial production, and thinking about how to rest the utility of a lot of the new manufacturing and production methods back towards more artisanal or like small run kind of production things. But I mean, I’m obsessed with lots of stuff, man, how much time we got?

Maurice Cherry:
We got time.

Michael Collett:
The other thing that I’m endlessly passionate about is the history of the city of San Francisco. It’s partially just being a unrepentant homer, but in a lot of ways I’ve always felt that San Francisco can be a bit of a bellwether for the nation, particularly both politically and economically.

Michael Collett:
This has always been a bit of a neoliberal hellscape from the gold rush onward, of course. And if you learn to read the history of it, as much as I suppose the history of any place, it becomes very clear why what’s happening now is what’s happening. And I think especially as a designer, as somebody who’s admittedly very online knowing the… And it’s also, like I said, it’s my hometown. So knowing the nooks and crannies and the how we got here is very important to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel satisfied creatively at this stage in your career?

Michael Collett:
No, never.

Maurice Cherry:
Why is that?

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, there’s projects that I haven’t even finished coming up with the ideas for yet. I may have mentioned it offhandedly, but I’m also currently beginning to go back to school now for a license for architecture. The built environment, of course, having landscape architects for parents has always fascinated me. And the license to change the built environment, which is what an architectural license is, feels like a real sort of Mario Star for designers, right? Like oh, you can make a website, you can make a chair, but this is the thing that sets off the theme music and lets you do literally whatever.

Michael Collett:
So no, I’m nowhere near creatively satisfied because I feel like there’s just all kinds of things I could be sinking my teeth into. At 35, I finally feel like I’ve got my feet under me. A decade in the industry has shown me a lot and shown me as much of what I don’t want to do as what I do, but the things that are possible.

Michael Collett:
And I think especially now like what the possibilities between… The one thing about Greenworks that bears mentioning is that we’re all on separate coasts basically, Anj it is in Seattle, Mohammed’s in New York and I’m in San Francisco, and we’ve created a company and got up and running without ever all being in the room at the same time.

Michael Collett:
Which I guess in the context of the pandemic is a little less remarkable, but to me that’s still kind of wild that you can do something like that. And I’m really excited to explore the potentials that as much as I was poo-pooing global supply chains, the potentials of global networks of communication and idea exchange to me are just incredibly exciting when it comes to creative work.

Michael Collett:
And then potentially the idea of like I was talking about with 3D printing, being able to empower people to create things for themselves to take part in what had previously been seen as sort of enormous isolated industrial processes at a real personal level.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think back over your career and where you’ve worked, the type of work that you’ve done, et cetera, people you’ve met, what advice has really stuck with you over the years?

Michael Collett:
Oddly enough, I would probably have to give another shout out to Mule here, particularly Erica Hall, who is one of the partners there. And Erica was the one who was broadly engaged in a lot of the really naughty kind of personal one to one facilitation that enabled the graphic design work to run as smoothly as it did.

Michael Collett:
And she would occasionally come back from a tough session and flopped down on the couch in the office and let out a sigh and say, “Humans are fascinating.” I think that phrase and just that sense of not necessarily like emotionless detachment, but a professional detachment from our work that as engrossing and as occasionally anxiety inducing as it can be that it’s just websites, and people are fascinating.

Michael Collett:
And we’re very, very lucky to be able to do the work that we do in a lot of ways. And if we can keep that in mind, even in the roughest moments, there’s still something to be gained out of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you see yourself doing? You’ll be 40 at that point?

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I suppose I will.

Maurice Cherry:
What kind of work do you…

Michael Collett:
Thanks for reminding me that.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey, look, I just turned 40 this year, so I’m well aware of the change.

Michael Collett:
Right. [crosstalk 01:06:16].

Maurice Cherry:
What do you see yourself? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Michael Collett:
Having undertaken now via, and now set it on a podcast. So I’m really fucking responsible for it. The effort to return to school for an architecture license, I would love to be working in the field in five years in some capacity or another I’m not really… I mean, between my politics and everything else, not super interested in going to work for the big firms.

Michael Collett:
I think again, the attraction is being able to alter the built environment in small and measurable ways myself. I’ve got some dear friends that go way back with who are in the construction business. And so pie in the sky, just a small little design build firm to take on particularly affordable housing, adaptive reuse. Like I said, both the city of San Francisco and the idea of being able to work on the built environment are both very important for me.

Michael Collett:
And so I think there’s ways to alter that and to encourage that change that ideally are possible.

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

Michael Collett:
The best place to start is probably the Instagram account at greenworks.earth, because all of the stuff that I’ve been talking about throughout this podcast will be slowly starting to dribble out there over the next few months.

Michael Collett:
I’m on Twitter at either __mclc or mclc__, I can never remember which. And hell, I guess I said my email at the beginning of people do want to get in touch on workingmichael@gmail.com. I don’t keep much of a web presence as is in keeping with a lot of the things that I’ve spoken with you about here today. But I do maintain a small portfolio of some work at HTTP://whatifitoldyouihadnoweb.site.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I’ve been there and it’s like a little, it’s a presentation, it’s pretty dope actually.

Michael Collett:
Thank you. Thank you. It is, as the presentation that is linked there says, now is not the time for portfolio sites. Now is the time for a black graphic design as it was in 2014, it’s still the time for black graphic design. And that’s I think what I’m focused on as much as anything else.

Michael Collett:
And also find Design To Divest @designtodivest on Instagram, which is probably the easiest place to get on our website. We’re also on a wonderful platform and I’d like to shout them out, the folks at Are.na. A-R-E dot N-A. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve heard of them.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I’m on Are.na, just regular old MCLC, that’s probably the easiest place to find out what’s going on in my brain these days because it’s where I collect a lot of my shots.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Michael Collett, man, this conversation I feel like has been a long time coming, but I just want to thank you so much for coming on the show, so much for sharing your wisdom, your perspective. I mean, I knew when I first encountered you years and years ago, I was like, I feel like you’ve got something to say, and I don’t know if there was maybe a reluctance to talk about it, but just to see how much you have been doing over the past few years and even, like I said, hearing you’re at the most recent where the black designers conference like I want to hear so much more from you, just like your work and your words and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
And so I hope that this interview in some way can be a catalyst for that. But yeah, thank you for coming on the show.

Michael Collett:
Maurice, thank you. Absolutely. I really, really appreciate it. I think what I will say is that, I probably was trying to, I mean, this may be easy to exchange opinions over a Skype call, but in the same way that where the black designers may have thrown you for a loop, I haven’t won a lot of friends with a lot of my takes when it comes to design and politics in my career.

Michael Collett:
And so I think maybe all those years ago, I was probably still trying to play it safe, but at this point they haven’t killed me yet. So I might as well just keep going.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s a morbid way to put it, but I totally agree with what you’re saying. If there’s ever a time now to get it out, this is it.

Michael Collett:
Yeah. No, this is the time to be living as authentically as we can.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Again, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Michael Collett:
Thank you, Maurice.

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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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Donald Burlock

2020 has been one hell of a year. What if you could go into 2021 being superhuman? Then you should meet Donald Burlock, Jr.! By day, he serves as the creative technologist lead for the physical experience design team at Capital One. But by night, he’s the author of the brand new book Superhuman by Design: Keys to Unlocking Your Creativity for Life-Changing Results.

We started off talking about his work at Capital One, and from there Donald talked about his time working as an entrepreneur, growing up in the Midwest, and his times studying at Kettering and Georgia Tech. He also spoke on the inspiration behind his book, and shared how he’s helping to build an equitable future through unlocking people’s creativity. If you need a boost, then I hope this interview gets you inspired to take action!

Happy Holidays!