Monique Wray

I had such a fantastic time speaking with artist, animator, and illustrator Monique Wray. Her bold, colorful, and lively art has been used by Google, Disney, Nickelodeon, Apple, and Microsoft (just to name a few places). We caught up recently to talk about her career and the evolution of her craft over the years.

Throughout our conversation, Monique offered insights into her creative process. She talked about the impact of a pivotal year of self-discovery, the importance of emphasizing humanity in digital art, and she shared her experiences with freelancing and maintaining a balance between professional work and personal projects.

Monique’s journey is such an inspiration for anyone interested in the confluence of art and tech. Thanks to Sam Bass for the introduction!

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

The BFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts consistently produces innovative and acclaimed work that is rooted in a strong foundational understanding of visual communication. It encourages creativity through cutting-edge tools, visionary design techniques, and offers burgeoning creatives a space to find their voice.

Students in BFA Advertising are prepared for success in the dynamic advertising industry in a program led by faculty from New York’s top ad agencies. Situated at the center of the advertising capital of the world, the program inspires the next generation of creative thinkers and elite professionals to design the future.

School of Visual Arts has been a leader in the education of artists, designers and creative professionals for over seven decades. Comprising 7,000 students at its Manhattan campus and more than 41,000 alumni from 128 countries, SVA also represents one of the most influential artistic communities in the world. For information about the College’s 30 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, visit sva.edu.

Salih Abdul-Karim

For our final episode of Revision Path for 2023, I talked with the amazingly brilliant Salih Abdul-Karim. If you’re a motion designer, then there’s a good chance you’ve used Lottie, which Salih co-created during his time at Airbnb and is the new industry standard when it comes to animation on mobile apps and the Web.

Salih talked about his current work at Cōlab, exploring their non-traditional approach which eschews agency hierarchies to maintain a hands-on, skill-diverse team that seamlessly fills in the gaps for startups and other companies. Salih also shared his personal journey of how he found his passion for combining tech and creativity, and we even gave our thoughts on Andre 3000’s debut solo album, New Black Sun.

Even with such a seasoned career, Salih’s humility and mindset of constant learning is truly inspiring. From all of us here at Revision Path, consider this episode our holiday gift to you! Merry Christmas!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So my name is Salih Abdul-Karim, and I am a creative director [and] motion designer.

Maurice Cherry:

So, Salih, we’re recording this at the end of the year. When you look back at 2023, if you could pick three words that would describe how this year has been for you, what would those words be?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I would say…confusing. What’s the word to say that something went fast, like…

Maurice Cherry:

Swift?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Swift. Okay, so I got confusing. I got swift. And maybe lastly, I would say family is what I would say would be maybe the third word when I think about this. And that has to do with both my literal family, but also, like, where I’m working right now has a lot of family vibes. We all take care of each other, so it always comes up.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you have any goals that you’d like to accomplish in 2024?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, I think that I don’t have any kind of specific goals, and I never really been the kind of person to sit down and set goals. I’ve tried to do it before, but if anything, maybe my number one goal is to really try to foster even more relationships. I think that’s probably the thing I think about the most right now, is I got a lot of great relationships based on the 20 years I’ve been doing this. And I kind of have been riding the waves of those relationships for a while. And I just know that there’s more out there, especially as new industries like AI come out. There’s people working in it. I want to meet those people. I want to talk to them. I want to foster just some more relationships in some different areas.

Maurice Cherry:

Isn’t it wild to say that you’ve been in this industry for 20 years? Doesn’t that feel wild when you look at the grand scheme of things?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

It’s wild. And I feel hella old, man. And then what has happened in those 20 years? It’s just been such a whirlwind. It’s interesting, I think about where that 20 years started, and it started in such a kind of ambiguous place where I’m getting out of school and I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m trying to figure my way around it. And again, I still kind of feel like that. Today I’m at a company where we’re working with startups and I’m trying to find their way. And the feeling almost has not changed from when I got some experience and I have some skills I can lean on, but the feeling when I got out of school, I kind of still feel like that today, 20 years later. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you feel like the guru at the top of the mountain? A little bit?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Definitely not. I definitely do not feel like the guru at the top of the mountain. And again, I can’t say that I don’t have knowledge or tricks that I lean on or experiences that I lean on, but more often than not, I definitely still feel like I really don’t know what the heck I’m doing and I’m trying to make the best decision I can with the information I have every day. It’s worked out. I still got a job, I’m still working, and I got a lot of great colleagues that I’ve built over the years, but I definitely still don’t feel like the wise guru or feel like I know what I’m doing at all.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk about Cōlab, which is where you’re currently at. It’s this creative studio that’s based out of San Francisco. Tell me more about it. Like how did you get started there?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So Cōlab is like you mentioned, it’s a creative studio focused in on marketing, brand design and product design. And Cōlab kind of sits within a growth equity company called Westcap. And so you imagine Westcap invests in mostly tech startups. They invest in the startup. They say, okay, we’re going to give you x amount of money, but we’re also going to have our creative team Cōlab parachute in and help you with various things. And when I say various things, I mean it could be almost anything. We got 22 people on the Cōlab team. We have brand designers, product designers, growth marketers, insights.

People do insights and research to better understand companies’ customers. We got me as motion design and creative director. We have brand strategists, we have content strategists, writers, we have pr. So we have a lot of various skill sets. And most of the skill sets we have are exactly the kind of skill sets that a startup shouldn’t quite have yet. There’s no reason for a startup to have a motion design, but there is a reason for me to, like I mentioned, parachute in and help out with various things. There are times where we have startups where they don’t have a CMO, but we have these two VPs of growth marketing. Maria and Diane. Sometimes they’ll parachute in very well what a CEO does and how to work with one based on all their experience.

They’ll be a temporary CMO for a minute. Cōlab is really about helping startups reach another level, and sometimes you can only reach that level when there’s a certain set of skills that you may not need yet. And that’s what we fill that gap for.

Maurice Cherry:

So you mentioned the team, and it has all these sort of different components. I mean, it sounds like almost kind of like a full-fledged agency.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah. And the only reason why we don’t call ourselves an agency, and this has been a debate between us since I started, the only reason why we don’t call ourselves an agency is because, number one, we don’t have all the layers that an agency has. Account director, senior account director, and all of the, I would say, account services of an agency. What we have are pretty much a couple dozen people who can, again, direct projects and lead projects, but also those people also design. So we don’t have people who are just managers for managers sake or salespeople or anything like that, that maybe a kind of traditional agency would have. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:

And I guess, like you said, it’s coming in from the bigger partner. So everything that comes in is basically like a fully qualified lead. You don’t have to hunt down work.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

That’s true. And one of the things I do like about Colack is we do have a group of companies that we work with on a regular basis that come in through who Westcap invests in. But we also do take external work as well. So we do sometimes reach out to companies that we’re interested in doing work for, or it might be a contact that we’ve known that has decided to start their own company and we’ll help them. So we do have external companies. Again, the main difference is when you work with us, you’re not really getting the same kind of, I don’t know, full fledged, layered agency experience. You oftentimes are working with a smaller group, four or five people. Each of those people is senior enough to do the work, but also to run the project as well.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay, I got you. So when new work comes in the door, what does the process look like? By the time it comes to you, I should say, what does the process look like?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, when new work comes in the door, usually, obviously there’s kind of a meeting with me. I serve as a creative director, executive creative director. We also have Brian Wakabayashi, who’s our head of strategy. He’s also kind of like our creative studio managing director. And then we have Michelle Ha, who’s our operations director. So the three of us usually will meet with whoever the company is that is interested in collaborating. And really we start a conversation about what they think they need, what we think we can do, and begin to kind of formulate a plan on how we think we might be able to help them. And from there, depending on what it is, sometimes I fade away altogether and they don’t see me anymore, because what they need is something that’s more like strategy.

And then we’ll bring our other brand strategists in, they’ll do a strategy process, and that might be the end of the project. Sometimes a thing will come in, like as an example, we had an AI startup approach us to do an explainer video for them that explains their product. That was an instance where I took that project on. I brought on a designer, brought on a writer, and then Brian, our head of strategy, he disappears. Depending on what the project is, you’re going to get a different combination of people from the team that really focus on the thing that you need.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, it’s funny you mentioned AI. That’s been a regular theme that we’ve had on the show probably for the past two years now. We mentioned it at least in every episode in some capacity. Like, how are you using AI or any of this other new tech, like virtual reality, mixed reality, et cetera. Do you use any AI tools in your work, or do you have any just kind of general thoughts about AI with motion design?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, I love it. I use them, but honestly, I more or less play with them. I haven’t yet figured out an exact way of how to integrate it into my day to day workflow. I imagine how I hope to be able to integrate it. Like as an example, if I have a video that I’ve made that’s 60 seconds long and it’s in a 16:9 kind of TV format, I’d love to just tell AI, :hey, make this into a square format for Instagram. Hey, cut this down to 30 seconds.” I’d love to be able to do that and have it just do it. But as of now, more or less any AI tool that I see come out, I try it, I play with it.

I play with mid journey, creating images, sometimes for fun, I definitely play with ChatGPT in terms of asking questions, or sometimes I’m doing writing for blog posts and I’ll have a proofread, stuff like that. But I feel a little bit like I’m just playing. I haven’t really found a way of integrating it into my work in a real way.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, has the AI gotten sophisticated enough to do motion work? I mean, I’ve seen like, chat, GPT will do text and mid journey and Dolly and things like that, can do images, but has it gotten sophisticated enough to do motion?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

There are some programs that do it. There’s one called Runway ML.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

They have a whole suite of tools. So sometimes one of the kind of projects that I work on sometimes is like screen replacement, right? So you imagine you have this app, and they need a video to show off what the app does. So obviously you need people walking around using the app, and you’re showing footage of someone using that app. And usually what happens is I go in and I put in a new screen on top, and I track it, and I do what’s called rotoscoping, kind of painting out the frames, the fingers in front or whatever, and making a new screen look like it’s integrated into the shot. And so this thing, Runway ML, they have a bunch of tools that can help you do that. For example, you can click on something and have it track. So if it’s a footage of like a surfer on a wave, you can click on the surfer’s body, and it’ll give you a tracking point as they move along. Then you can use that as you want to put a hat on the surfer or whatever you want to do.

So it has some stuff that are really kind of cool or fun to play with. But again, I’ve been using certain methods for a pretty long time, and occasionally I’ll try to use it to replace one of my methods, but it’s not quite at a place where I feel like it’s going to take it over quite yet.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. I was curious if it had the capability to do that, because I had a motion designer on the show a couple of weeks ago, Andre Foster. He co-founded a motion graphics design studio and production house called First Fight. And he talked about how he uses it sort of as like a Pinterest board. Like, he uses it for just kind of like inspiration and stuff. But then he said it inspired him enough to actually put together almost like opening credits to a show, not a real show, but just like, oh, let’s see how far I can sort of push the technology. And honestly, it looked like something I would see on, like FX or something. It looked really good.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, that’s dope. Yeah. See, I’ll talk to you when we’re done on what that is. And play with it.

Maurice Cherry:

You mentioned this in a past interview that you’ve done. You said that motion design is so crucial to making high quality digital products on any platform. Why is that the case?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

The case is just because the way, and this is maybe too deep and existential, right? But the way we experience all of our lives is through time, right? You walk outside, you walk down the block. That took 10 seconds. You experience time. You saw a dog, you saw a tree, you saw the sun. The way we experience life is through time. And I know that for years people were reading books and you using your imagination, people reading magazines. There’s a very static kind of experience. It lives as that thing, like a rock, just lives like that forever.

But now that we have technology, and smartphones are just ubiquitous, they’re everywhere, and you’re able to actually interact with them. You put your finger on it and you move it. You’re adding motion, you’re adding time to the equation. And the reason why motion is so important is because it helps you do something that feels more natural to what humans should be doing, if that makes any sense. So just as an example, right, if you’re on a website and you click on a button that’s going to take you to another page, the old school way is it’s just going to slam you right to the next page. Now you have to reorient yourself and figure out where you are now. And the way I think about it is motion can actually help you bridge those two things. It can help you understand where you were, it can help you understand where you went, where you’re going, and it just creates a more natural experience than just kind of blinking.

And now you appear somewhere else.

Maurice Cherry:

That makes sense. Now that you put it that way, it is something that I think humans are used to, that they’re used to motion. And also, so many things now are skewing towards video, and that’s nothing but motion. So it kind of makes sense to still put those sorts of animations and interactions in most types of applications because that’s just what we expect now.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Totally. And it’s not a surprise that TikTok is as popular as it is with videos. Right. We love to look at things that move. It feels good. In addition, to help you understand how Ui might work, motion just helps you add emotion. We are all emotional. You feel happy, you feel sad.

And the things you interact with, you want them to give you that same thing. So when something you interact with has a little bounce to it, it gives you a feeling. Oh, this is supposed to be fun when something you interact with has a smoother nature to it. Elegant. Oh, this is supposed to be classy, right? So it helps you give emotion to digital products, no matter what the devices are, whether it’s on a phone or AR or VR or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:

Motion adds emotion. I like that. That’s good.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

100%.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit and learn more about you. I’m curious on where this sort of spark for design and animation sort of came from. So tell me more about where you grew up.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I grew up in the DC area. Kind of moved back and forth between DC and Philadelphia. And growing up, we always had the latest game thing. I’m dating myself here. I’m an old man. But we used to have the Texas instruments, we used to have the Atari 500, or we used to have all these old game systems when I was like a little kid, and I loved playing with them. But I also had this curious mind where I would try to take it apart. I would say, what’s in here? So I would get a screwdriver.

I would open up the back. My mom would come in a room a week later. She’d be like, “why is the cover off of the Nintendo?” And I’d be like, “well, I just wanted to see what was in there”, right? So I actually had a Nintendo that did not have a cover that I played for years because I couldn’t figure out how to put the thing back on. I just have a love of technology, like a lot of people. And I used to build my own computers when I was in middle school and high school, I’d buy the RAM, I’d buy the motherboard. I’d build them from scratch. It was just a fun thing. And when it’s time for me to go to college, I thought, okay, let me try to do computer science.

I’m going to learn how to program. I’m going to build. Make games, something like that. And my first year, at the end of my first year, I had a 1.2 GPA, and that was because the math was destroying me. We had, like, this Calculus, or Calculus 2, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. And not only that, at the time, I just didn’t know how to learn. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t know how to sit down and study. I didn’t necessarily have the discipline yet to really push through.

I didn’t know how to tell my homeboys, like, I can’t go out with you all; I got to get this computer science work in, you know what I’m saying? So I just ended up almost kind of flunking out of school. And this is a story I’ve told before. That one evening, my dad came…I used to live in my parents basement. During college, my dad comes downstairs, he’s like, “bro, we saw your grades. Like, look, we don’t care what you’re going to do, but either do this right or don’t do it at all.” And then he closed the door and walked upstairs.

Maurice Cherry:

Damn.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

And it was just a note. We don’t care what you do. We’re going to support you. But don’t just do something and be flunking and failing out. So I had a moment where I had to really say, am I going to really try to do this, or am I going to look for something else? And the school I went to, George Mason, they had a digital arts degree. It was basically a degree to help people make art using computers. So I thought, oh, well, let me do that. That seems kind of cool.

They have class in Photoshop. They had a class in after effects, which is wild that I still use after effects today. And then they have a class in 3D program that doesn’t exist anymore. And I took those classes. I was in the art department. I was learning about our history, critical theory, critical thinking, and I was really kind of enveloped in the art world through a technology lens. And from there, I got straight in. So that shift enabled me to kind of see how I could bring some of my creative mind and technology together.

So my senior year, I started to find these motion design companies all around the country that were doing these awesome commercials, and commercials will be animated with all these awesome graphics and characters. And I said, you know what? I want to do that after school. So after college, I packed up my little car, a little Acura, and I drove up to New York, and I moved up there, and I was knocking on doors. I had a little dvd. So funny. My kids, they saw some of my old DVDs in the garage. They were like, what’s going to use them no more? But I had my old DVD that I made. I burned it and had my reel of student work.

And I’m, like, walking into these shops trying to get work. And luckily, I had this. He kind of became my first mentor. He’s a creative director at BET right now, Kendrick Reed, and walked into his office, and it was amazing again to see somebody like me, six foot something, Black man, bald head, and he’s a super fashionable guy, wearing cool clothes. I was like, okay, I see. So I walk in his office, and he’s like, “so tell me, what do you want to do?” And I was like, “well, I love design. I love animation.” At the time, he was the creative director at Comedy Central, and so they had a department at Comedy Central that made commercials for Comedy Central that aired on Comedy Central.

So that was the department that he ran. He’s like, “well, what do you want to do?” I was like, “well, eventually, I want, you know, like, I want to be creative director at some place with a team like this.” So he kind of laughed, and he gave me my first job out of college. I was there for a couple of years, built some good relationships with some folks. I ended up going freelance after he left. I was kind of sad when he left. So then I left after he left, and I ended up going freelance for about eight or nine years after that. And I was just designing and animating wherever I could get in the door.

Design shops, ad agencies, TV networks like HBO, Showtime. I just would get in wherever I could. And it was an amazing experience. And some of the people I met back then, I’m still in contact with today, even though I’m kind of on the other side of the country, I’m doing something a little bit different. That was a really important part of kind of what led me to what I’m doing today.

Maurice Cherry:

During that time that you were doing all this freelancing, I mean, yeah, you were at a bunch of different studios, a bunch of different places. Do you feel like there was something that you were trying to attain? Like, were you trying to get to Kendrick? Were you trying to get to his position in terms of moving up the ladder or moving up in your skills?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think the thing at the time, those ten years, what I really wanted to do was learn how to make my work good. Like, I would make something, and then I would go see someone else’s project. And it was very clear to me that mine wasn’t as good. My whole thing for that ten years was, I need to figure out how to make something good, because I see this person over here is crushing it, and mine doesn’t look like theirs. Why doesn’t mine look like theirs? And in the industry at that time, there’s a lot of late nights, and everybody worked from, like, ten to eight. We went out afterwards and come back to work the next day and deal with it. So it was a lot of hard work, but that was really the thing I thought about the most. Just like, why isn’t mine as good as that other person? It was more of a creative pursuit to make something that I felt was equal to the people I admired at the time.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I’m kind of trying to also place this just like, chronologically. So this was really during the time, I’m guessing this is like the early 2000s. Like early 2000s to 2010s, pretty much?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah. 2002 to 2011.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. I mean, during that time, even if you just step back and look at the web, think about how much the web had changed from 2002 to 2011. And of course that would end up invariably being reflected in media and advertising and publishing, because computers are now taking over as, like, the primary way that you do design, and the technology is getting better and the browsers are getting better, and all of a sudden now we’re using CSS, and now we have to change what we thought we did before with tables into something new. So there was always something new, I think back at that time, and it felt like there were new discoveries or new ways of doing things. Like every month it felt like it was something new and you had to keep going, you had to keep making stuff just to catch up. Like, you couldn’t really rest on your laurels during that time because of just how fast things were progressing in the industry.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, yeah, that’s 100% true.

Maurice Cherry:

So after you were doing all of this freelancing and everything, you ended up as a motion graphics artist at square, and you were there for, I think, roughly about three years, is that right?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, that’s correct. And square was the first place that I ever worked. Number one, that was a startup, but number two, that had, like, a physical product. All the things I had done for the ten years before were all advertising and marketing for tv shows. And the shows have people and Dave Chappelle’s show. It was interesting to be at a place that they had this little square card reader. And not only that, they had a whole team that worked on it. They had a team that worked on the box.

They had a team that worked on logistics of where the parts come from. They had a team that worked on every aspect of this little physical device. And so it was the first time where I worked at a company like that that I could actually get a peek inside the technology. I mentioned earlier. I was taking apart my Nintendo because I was curious what’s in there. And so it was really fun for me to be around people who were kind of making things, sending inside out. I think that it was mostly, again, like I mentioned, a little bit scary and daunting. It was comforting that I was on the video team at this company.

So I was still making videos. But when I would go into a meeting with the group who was responsible for the launch of the new Square Reader, and they’re talking about engineering challenges. I don’t know what they’re talking about. You know what I mean? I feel a little bit lost and confused, but the only thing I could rest on was like, okay, I’m still here to do the thing I came here to do. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn about what they’re doing. But that became my challenge at square was like, how much can I learn about what they’re doing, what they’re talking about that can help me do my job better?

Maurice Cherry:

And then after that, you ended up at Airbnb, where you started off as the company’s only motion designer. I bet that had to be pretty daunting, especially at that time when Airbnb was really starting to take off.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, definitely. And so when I was at Square, like I mentioned, I was in the room with all these other functions, physical engineering, but also product designers. Yeah. And there were a couple of times when I was at Square where I collaborated with the product designers. Oh, I would do an animation for the square’s website. One of those product designers, Jason Mamro, who I still work with today, he left Square and went to Airbnb. He’s on Airbnb’s product design team. And at the time, their head of design, Katie Dill, she was, you know thinking, we probably should get a motion designer.

And everybody’s, all the product designers like, yes, let’s get a motion designer. And Jason luckily threw my name out and I ended up kind of coming in, interviewing for the role. And it was funny, my first week, I’m sitting with my manager, and since I’m the first motion designer, it’s not exactly clear how I’m going to plug in. So he asked me, he said, well, what should you work on? I was like, what do you mean, what should I work on? You should tell me what I should work on. Right? He’s like, well, no. Since we never had a motion designer, you have to help us understand what you can do as well as us telling you what would need you on. So it kind of opened my mind up to like, oh, this is a kind of a role where I kind of get to help create it and it’s not so cut and dry exactly what I’m going to be doing all the time. If I see an opportunity, I can pursue it.

If I see something I think I can help out with, I can go help; and likewise, people who think I can help can contact me for help.

Maurice Cherry:

What were some of those early things that you were doing?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So I remember when I first joined, they were about to launch the Airbnb Apple Watch app. And you mentioned earlier how everything was always changing. So I was very much used to working on animations that were for TV. And the Apple Watch screen is tiny. And so I think the first project I ever worked on was the animation for the onboarding for the Airbnb’s Apple Watch app. We had these little characters and we had the little character, like, tap their watch and then we had a little Airbnb logo. It was very cute. I think that was the first project I ever worked on.

And then from there, I remember working on, they launched the Apple TV app and I worked on an onboarding video for that, or onboarding animation for the Apple TV app for Airbnb. And then from there, really honestly, it spread out to so many different things. Sometimes I was doing the animation for either the website or the app, but other times it was prototyping UI. Okay, we need a prototype. We got a meeting with Brian Chesky in three weeks. We need to put together a prototype to articulate how we want this flow to go. Or it was. Brian Chesky has a presentation about this new feature and he needs an animation for his presentation that shows what the UI is going to do.

And they still do this today. When you see Airbnb’s launches, they have a couple of motion designers now that they do this all the time where they’re making prototypes for presentations. So I used to kind of do, there were probably like a dozen different things, ways that I would help out just depending on the time and what was going on at the company.

Maurice Cherry:

Man, I mean, it sounds like you really had your hands full, because I know that as Airbnb was growing, and I said, like you said, the tech was also changing. Mean, did you feel like you were stretched thin? I mean, did they eventually hire more motion graphics designers?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, eventually we hired another one. Maybe on my third year we hired another one. Then he kind of subsequently left. So then it was just me again. But I used to tell everybody there were 60 product designers on the team with 60 product designers to one motion designer. I used to tell everybody, like, I’m just one person, so I’m going to do what I can and everything else is not going to happen. And everybody again, everybody who’s very understanding the culture that we had at Airbnb at the time it was real friends and family vibes. It wasn’t like people were like, oh, man, he’s not doing his job right.

Everybody knew that there’s no way that one person could do, you know, for a lot of teams, it was like even me helping a little bit was going to be better than not helping at all. So they would accept any level of engagement that I could give. Everybody’s really understanding.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s good, because I’ve definitely worked at some places that are not that. Definitely the opposite, where you’re the person that does it, they expect you to always be the one to do it. No matter how many times you’re like, I need help. No matter how many times you’re throwing out a life preserver, they’re like, oh, you got it, you’re good. No, I’m drowning over here. Can you help me? So while you were at Airbnb, and like you said, they ended up eventually building out the team some more, you were on a team that launched Lottie, which is an open source tool that adds animations to like, iOS, Android, native apps, et cetera. How did the idea for Lottie come about?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So I mentioned earlier that one of the first things I worked on was the Apple Watch app. I had these little characters animating, and the way I delivered it that delivered the animation to the engineering team was, I’m pretty sure it was a sequence of PNGs. My engineering partner, an iOS engineer, he had to build a way for the app to play those PNGs in sequence. I think it was like 30 PNGs per animation. And for me, coming from tv, I was like, there has to be a better way for us to do this. The png sequence to do all our animations. The file sizes were pretty big and I think everybody hoped for a better way, but there just wasn’t anything out at the time. And I developed a really good relationship with an iOS engineer named Brandon Withrow.

He was an iOS engineer, but he went to school for animation. So we clicked right off the bat. And Airbnb used to have these things called Hack Weeks, where during the whole week you could work on anything you wanted. And I remember I approached Brandon, I say, maybe let’s try to find a way for us to get some data out of after effects, the thing I animated, and get it into iOS playing somehow. So he’s, I mean, let’s try it. What do you got? We ended up finding this tool called Bodymovin. It was this engineer named Hernan Torrisi created this tool that could export data out of after effects into a file, JSON file. It just has all the raw data of the animation.

So I send this file to Brandon. I’m like, what do you think? Bodymovin is open source? Take a look at it. So he said, all right. A couple of days, he came back, and he had a blue square show up on the screen. It wasn’t moving, wasn’t animating, just a blue square. And I think that kind of spurred the next step, which was, okay, now he has the square going left to right. Okay, next. Now he has a triangle and a circle.

And he, Brandon himself, just worked on features in his own time, and he got it to a point where we could do some small animations similar to the ones I did on the Apple Watch, and we could actually put know, I could export it from after effects, get the data out, put it into the iOS app, and the file size was much smaller, and it was way more performant. And so we had a little thing for iOS that was working, and we thought, well, we have an Android app. Kind of a bummer to have animations on iOS. Let’s find an Android engineer that could help us. And we brought in another engineer, Gabriel Peal. He was an Android engineer at the time. And we said, well, look what. Here’s what Brandon has on iOS.

Maybe we could do something similar on Android. And Gabe was the funniest one because he was like, I don’t know. He’s like, if we could do this, somebody would already name it. We gave him the same files, but he did the same thing. First he had a box, then he had a circle, then he had it moving left to right. And the next thing you knew, we had an iOS and Android framework that could play these really small animations in our apps. So we had that for a handful of months. And I think it was February, or I think it was like December of 2017, Facebook open sourced their version of what we had.

It was called Facebook Keyframes. It was exactly the same thing you export from after effects. Your data comes out. It works on iOS and Android. So when we saw that, we said, oh, they made it, too. It wasn’t open source at the time, so I thought, oh, well, let me try theirs. And I remember exporting one of the animations that worked on ours. I remember exporting it in their format, and there was a whole bunch of stuff broken.

So it was very clear to us that, oh, the thing we have is a little bit better than the thing they have. So we should open source as well. So Brandon came up with the name Lottie. It’s named after an animation pioneer named Charlotte Reiniger, who’s German. In the 1920s, she created full length feature movies and we got the name, we open sourced it, we made a little landing page and it just kind of took off from there.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. It sounds like it was a pretty organic thing, though. It didn’t just sort of come. I mean, it came in a way out of necessity. But the way that it managed to sort of build out and really become a framework was really organic.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Absolutely. It was really organic. And it was just lucky. It feels a little bit like the right place at the right time. It was lucky that Airbnb had a motion designer at the time. It was lucky that Brandon was an iOS engineer who kind of knew about animation. It’s lucky that we were friends and he would work on it in his free time. It was lucky that Gabe was so talented that he could jump in and create.

And at the know, we all had other stuff to work on. Our managers really didn’t care if we worked on Lottie in our free time as long as we got our other stuff done. And so that was the vibe for about a year. It was really a side project.

Maurice Cherry:

And now Lottie is used all over the place. It’s used in hundreds of thousands of different applications and stuff. What does it feel like knowing that something you’ve created has really caught on like that and made such an impact?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

It blows my mind. It really blows my mind because again, it could have easily not happened or it could have easily been Facebook keyframes that have been the thing that really caught on. So, yeah, it blows my mind. And it’s just humbling to be a part of something that people like and they use it and all. Full disclosure, I’m sure someone’s going to come out with something better than Lottie and then Lottie will disappear. That’s just the nature of software. That’s just the nature of creativity. I’m cool with that.

But to have had a hand in something that people like and use and have been using for the last handful of years is really humbling and amazing.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I can imagine. Just seeing your work make such an impact and then to know that you were really kind of behind it in the beginning is amazing. And it’s not something that is, I would say, hidden to history. People know that you did it. It’s not like Lottie just sprung forth anonymously. They know that you’re one of the people behind.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Really, the thing that I really like now is, like I was saying, at Cōlab, I’m working with startups all the time, so I’ll be working with a startup and they’ll be like, hey, can we put this animation we do? Can we put this on our app? And they’ll be like, I heard of this thing. It’s called Lottie. Maybe we could use that. They don’t know how. You’re like talking about my child, you know what I’m saying? I know this thing so well. I helped build it. I was there from the beginning. But people don’t know and oftentimes I don’t say anything.

I’m not that kind of guy to be like, well, that’s my thing. But it’s just kind of cute and funny to me that it’s now coming back to me through other channels I can imagine.

Maurice Cherry:

Like, you have to sort of keep yourself in check, like, “oh, like, I can’t…I don’t want to blow my cover here.”

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, 100%. But also, you know, design, motion design, this is a small industry of many. And what I did, while it’s maybe important to a couple hundred thousand people, there’s probably a ton of other people that don’t even know about it. So it’s not that big a deal. It’s not brain surgery. I’m not saving lives here. It makes me laugh when that happens, and it does happen every couple of months, which is great to me.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there still active development on it?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

There is some. So Gabriel Peal, the Android engineer; he still works on it. He still works on it. He gets requests through and I think that’s probably the benefit of being open source. You have other people in the community who contribute, you have other people who change the code and submit it. So yeah, it’s still being not, I think that for a little while, while I was at Airbnb, after Brandon and Gabe left, it wasn’t really worked on internally, but there were a couple pushes internally to help develop. So we, I remember it got changed from one language into Swift, and then I think more recently since I’ve left, they’ve done a couple small things on the iOS side, but it’s really honestly mostly being pushed outside of Airbnb. So there’s a company called Lottie Files.

They’re based in Malaysia and they’re doing a ton of development on themselves, bidding on top of it, building state machines on top of it, which is a complicated term. People can google it and they’re kind of doing all kinds of things with the format and helping develop it outside, mostly because it is open source.

Maurice Cherry:

When you look, sort of, back at the early parts of your career to now, what would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Maybe the biggest lesson I learned about myself is that I really do enjoy being in an environment that I don’t know what’s going on. Okay. That there’s things that are new, there are things to learn, there are things I can be curious about. So, for example, like I mentioned, when I joined Airbnb, I was the only motion designer on a team full of product designers and engineers, none of which I had worked with before. I’d never worked with an engineer before. But it was so interesting to me. I ended up taking an eight week coding class because, again, we were in meetings where I didn’t know what they’re talking about. So that part of trying to help myself understand someone else’s industry to better do my job is fascinating to me.

And now it’s a similar thing at Cōlab. I’m working with startups, I’m working with ceos, cmos, and founders. I’m understanding what they care about. I’m understanding that they care about their business goals, so they don’t care about how the thing moves or what it looks like. Is this having an impact on the business?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So now I’m having a whole different set. And I think every few years in my career, when I start to feel like I’m pretty competent at the thing I’m doing, I usually end up moving to something else that puts me a little bit off balance.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that because I think that that is a practice that is something that more creatives, I think particularly more Black creatives are starting to embrace. I’m tying this into something, I promise you. So we’re recording this right now on the day that Andre 3000 just released his new album, his debut album, debut solo album, New Blue Sun.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

We’ve been talking about it at work all day.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, really?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I listened to it this morning, actually. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you think about it?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think it’s…

Maurice Cherry:

You can be honest! Yeah, be honest. Think about it.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I mean, I’m such a big Andre 3000 Outkast fan. Like, I’ll listen to whatever they put out.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

You know what I’m saying? They could put out themselves beating a bucket and I’ll listen to it. But the interesting thing, I saw that they had an interview with them last night at GQ, and he was talking about, like, they were at the top of their game, and it loses some of its magic when you feel like you really know what you’re doing. And I think he was looking for something different where he could feel like a beginner again.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

You know what I’m saying? But, yeah, I listened to it this morning. I think it’s cool. I put it on while I was writing something. And honestly, for about 40 minutes – the album is like 90 minutes long. For about 40 minutes. I totally forgot it was on.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

And I think that’s the point.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s the point, too. And the reason that I was asking about this is because I think sometimes, especially when people know you for a specific thing that you’ve accomplished in your career, that tends to be a box that they put you in. So anything else that you do is, like, compared to that thing, or they expect that the next thing that you do is going to be the same box-shaped thing that you’ve done before. So, of course, everyone knows 3000 for his lyrics. They’re expecting it’s going to be a fire rap album. Right? Instead, he comes out with some Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Yusef Lateef-like flautist sound bath 90 minute journey that’s like the product of an Ayahuasca trip, right?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, he definitely was.

Maurice Cherry:

And I’ve been seeing some of the reviews. I mean, it just came out. By the time this airs, people will have known about it or. But. But I was thinking, like, man, I bet people are going to clown this album like they did when Solange’s last album came out. Like, When I Came Home came out and people were like, what is this? Because they expected her to be in this, Beyoncé’s’ little sister, kind of like, T.O.N.Y.-shaped, Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dream- shaped box. And she comes out with this…I mean, that’s one of my favorite albums of all time, her last album.

So I really like what you said about you, like, being in these spaces where you don’t know kind of what to do or what’s next. And I think that’s something that creatives in general, particularly Black creatives, should embrace, because it locks you in a box when you’re always doing the same type of thing over and over and over in a way. And as creatives, there’s more things that we want to do. There’s more ways we can sort of express ourselves. I think that’s a really good practice to have as a creative.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

And it’s scary.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

You know what I’m saying? It’s scary. But I think that’s part of the point. That’s the reason why people like roller coasters. It’s kind of scary.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

But that’s kind of what’s fun about it.

Maurice Cherry:

What would you say are, like, your next steps of growth for you as a creative? Like, where do you want to grow into?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, I think I have some knowledge from television. I have some knowledge from kind of the product design engineering side at Cōlab. I’m kind of putting those two things together. So I get to help startups with brand campaigns that have tv commercials, but also animations within their app. I think after talking with you about it for a little bit, it definitely feels like the thing that I butt up against most that I’m not always really sure about is really about business goals, how a business runs, how a startup runs, how do you actually make business impact, how do I use my skills in order to actually fundamentally change the direction of a business? You know what I’m saying? And I think that learning more about things like customer acquisition costs. Right. Learning more about measurement and research and strategy, I think will just help me put my work through a slightly different lens. And these are all things that at the moment, I would say I’m like a child at, but I think those are the things I’m starting to butt up against right now, especially when you’re talking to founders or people running companies.

These are things they care about and probably some things I need to learn there.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, and that’s a good point. I mean, the best designers, I think, eventually end up finding out how to meld the creativity with the business and the strategy to really take it to the next level, because there’ll be a certain point in your career, and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I certainly have, where you just feel like you’re the hired hand, like you just come in to do this part of the work and that’s it. And you may or may not see what the impact of it is. It may not be privy to you or you may not be exposed to it, but you know that you can do more. Like, you can feel yourself kind of growing out of that constraint that you have. And so I think that’s a good place to be, is to try to learn more about the business end. And I think with Cōlab, you’re at a great place to do it. You’re interfacing with startups.

Plus Cōlab is sort of this creative arm of a larger business entity. I think you’re in a great place to make that happen.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think you’re right.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you pull strength from?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Most of my strength comes from probably just my curiosity, like when I think about, what am I doing? So sometimes it’ll be like 11:00 and my whole family, my kids, my wife, everybody’s sleeping, and I’m just up, can’t sleep. And I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about some project that I’m involved in. It might be some explainer video where we have a script, but I think the script is not that good. So I’m really curious about looking up other scripts and good ones and seeing what they did. I’m really curious about doing, like, let me do, like, ten different versions of this thing and see what they look like. That curiosity, that creative itch. The part of the creative process where you’re really exploring this blue sky, it could be anything. I think that’s probably where I draw my strength from, is I’ll stay up late for those reasons.

And again, when I’m staying up late and I’m working hard on something, it does tend to be better.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. If you wouldn’t have gone into motion design and animation, what do you think you would have ended up doing?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I have no idea, really. I’ve been doing this so long, I don’t know what I would have done. And it all happened so kind of happenstance, you know what I mean? It was like, I rolled the dice, okay, now I’m in New York. Roll the dice again. Now I’m in San Francisco. Roll the dice again. I couldn’t have guessed that I would be where I am today, doing what I’m doing today. I don’t know if it’s like a question I have a really good answer for.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I guess, to that end, what do you want the next chapter of your story to look like?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think I want to continue doing the things I came to Cōlab to do, wherever it is. I want to keep bringing these two halves of my career together. So how can I use design and animation to entertain people? And also, how can I use design and animation to make people’s experience better, to make their experience of a product better? And I want to keep kind of jamming those two things together and then put a layer on top of. I want to use design and animation to help businesses achieve their goals. Right? So all three of those things. I want to just get much better at doing those three things.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I’m the worst with social media, so I’m not really on Instagram or Twitter or X or whatever. Our work is at colabgroup.com. That’s where our work is. We’re actually probably going to start releasing some thought leadership pieces, just some things we talk about internally that we want to put out there so you’ll be able to hear my voice through that. I used to have a website. I used to have a portfolio on a rewl. I took it down because it got kind of old. I was like, man, I don’t like this work anymore. So I don’t really have a personal site.

But, yeah, I would say colabgroup[.com]. And the work that’s there, the things that you see on that site, is probably the best representation of me on the Internet right now.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Well, Salih Abdul-Karim, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, the work that you’ve done with creating Lottie, like I said, it’s had such a huge reach, just in terms of how many people use it. I think there are people that are sort of the benefactors of your work that have no idea that you were sort of the person behind it. But I really love what you had to say about the big takeaway, because I asked you this before we recorded, is like, what do you want the takeaway to be? And it’s like, you don’t have to know what you’re doing. And I think the cosmic happenstance of this episode happening at the end of this year, potentially the end of this podcast, is such a profound way to sort of close things out, because the main thing that I’ve always wanted to accomplish through Revision Path is that there’s more than one way to get to be a creative. There’s more than one way to do this, and you may not know what that is. And so maybe the stories of all these people can give you some insight as to what that thing might know.

So I really like that. That has been sort of a guiding force throughout your career and throughout your life, and I’ll be excited to see you bring those two halves of your career together in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

No, thank you, Maurice. And thank you for doing all these episodes and putting this together. I think you’re doing something really special.

Maurice Cherry:

And we’re releasing this episode on Christmas, so it’s my gift to everybody. That was kind of corny, but, okay.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Pour a little rum in it for me.

Maurice Cherry:

Hey, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I’m talking about.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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Sean DallasKidd

If you have aspirations of being an agency owner one day, then you might get some great insight from this week’s guest, Sean DallasKidd. Sean is the co-founder and chief creative officer of DemonstratexDDW, and he uses his decades of experience to help brands define their story and communicate with their audiences.

Sean told me more about his new role, sharing what it looks like to run an agency from the C-suite and help it stand out from the competition. We also delved into Sean’s background, where he spoke about attending SCAD, getting into the publishing world, and how his shift to agencies helped prepare him for his current leadership responsibilities. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable has been the secret to Sean’s success, and it’s definitely paid off! (Big thanks to George McCalman for the introduction!)

Interview Transcript

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

Sean DallasKidd:
Hello, my name is Sean DallasKidd. I’m partner, chief creative officer at DemonstratexDDW. I would say what I do is make brands culturally relevant, and that takes place from brand development, naming, brand architecture systems over to go-to-market strategies. So really trying to create programs and experiences that resonate within culture, drive talkability with media and can be shared digitally and socially.

Maurice Cherry:
How are things going so far this year for you?

Sean DallasKidd:
This is a very interesting year. We’ve got lots of tensions in the US, globally, and so I think this year has been another year of quick adaption to socioeconomic sort of movement that’s happening around lots of new technologies that are turning on and a lot of disruption. So it’s a very interesting year to roll up your sleeves, learn a little bit more, and I’d say get creative.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything major that you really want to accomplish this year?

Sean DallasKidd:
Let’s see. This year, I think the main goals for me probably start with AI literacy from a sort of personal and business growth perspective, also want to take care of my people. I think as we’ve kind of seen on channels like LinkedIn, being able to create a business that can sustain over time, that puts its employees and its culture first, that’s one of my sort of big goals. And then obviously, working with brand partners that want to do very interesting, fun, provocative work.

Maurice Cherry:
Any sort of personal goals though for this year?

Sean DallasKidd:
Personal goals, to see more of the world. I’ve been historically a big traveler and the other thing that I love is food. So the over the course of the pandemic, have definitely been leaning more into traveling via my mouth and stomach. And so, this year I would like to actually get out into the world and see what’s happening in different countries and regions in the US.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk more about DemonstratexDDW. As you mentioned, you’re president and chief creative officer there, pretty recently as of last year, right?

Sean DallasKidd:
Correct, correct, correct. What’s really interesting with DemonstratexDDW is last year we announced the acquisition of Deutsch Design Works, DDW, which is a 27-year-old branding agency that was based in Sausalito. And so, what we did was acquire the agency for the brand building capabilities that they had, and we thought it was a great fit because Demonstrate focuses on go-to-market strategies and campaigns and programs, and so this gave us the opportunity to not only bring brands to life and market, but really start with the fundamentals, which you often find missing when you’re working with brands. So what are some of the cultural artifacts built into the brand DNA, the purpose, how do you find actions, and so we felt as though being able to help set the bar and the tone at the upfront and being able to pull that into a market will do nothing but good things for our brand partners that we work with.

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

Sean DallasKidd:
Ooh, let’s see. Phigital, it’s physical and digital. So Zoom meetings, hybrid meetings, writing some design, and then the most fun part of being a business owner is Excel spreadsheets of things. That’s one of the sort of growth spaces when you become more of an executive creative person is getting right with the Google Sheets.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, was it a big shift moving from partner to president once this acquisition happened?

Sean DallasKidd:
I would say it was different, but it’s been an accumulation of experiences over time. I think that my history starting in publishing, moving into earned media, moving into advertising has become a brick by brick process. The transition didn’t or hasn’t to date been as dramatic of a shift because I have a network to help support and educate me on components and parts I might not be as familiar with on day one. So I would say the transition wasn’t crazy, not to say it’s not crazy. You get what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I would imagine whenever there’s a acquisition or things like that, you’re bringing more people in, of course, you’re merging company cultures, so there’s always going to be, I think, some clashing or things just as that acquisition tries to reach equilibrium.

Sean DallasKidd:
Exactly. You always have different ways and means, ways of working, different kinds of processes, lead times, you have different billing cycles, all sorts of stuff that you have to work out. I would say the best case scenario in any merger is a mullet. It’s business in the front and a rock show in the back because you’re trying to figure out how to get one set of systems to work with another without clashing in any sort of crazy way. But luckily for us, we’ve been able to make it through that stage and I think we’re starting to get into stride right now which is great.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you mentioned that part of your typical day still has some design in it. Are you still available to get hands on working with clients and with campaigns?

Sean DallasKidd:
Yes, yes. I feel as though I’ve always had, you would say, a problem with people who guard themselves off in the ivory tower, right? And so, one of the things I always tell our employees is that you want to have lived experience before you can recommend a strategy to someone, and in order to stay current, you have to do. So even if a design direction that I might develop doesn’t get picked, it helps me stay current on tools, timelines, amount of resources, different design trends so that when I’m talking to brand partners, I’m using language and referencing things that are happening now and not when I did it back in the day, 5, 10, 15 years ago.

Maurice Cherry:
I had an agency owner on here a few years back, I’m not going to call out who it was, but for folks who listen to the show, they’ll probably remember when this happened, but this person was mentioning that they have an agency and was talking about how they were the only Black agency owner that they knew and that. He’s like, “I don’t know about any other Black agency owners.” And I was like, “Well, that’s not true. I’m pretty sure there’s others out there because I’ve had them on the show.” But have you noticed during your career in advertising many other Black agency owners?

Sean DallasKidd:
I’ve definitely kept an eye out on it, but I will say it’s hard when your head’s down managing the work and the business to take the time to do the proper recon and outreach to folks. It’s a bit of a balancing of time and energy, but I definitely have seen the spark and the growth in that space. I know a couple of folks myself that have some small studios and then there’s some folks that I’ll look out to and see what they’re doing in the New York area that are really tearing it up which is great.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I mean, they’re out there. It’s certainly like you said, they’re at all sizes. Whether it’s small studios, big agencies, et cetera, we’re out there, but it’s about visibility as well too.

Sean DallasKidd:
Yeah, I would say it’s visibility, and then there is, I would say, the system of agency and connection. And so, I think that… What’s a good way to phrase it? The hurdles for growing an agency to the point to where you get visibility is tricky when you’re not a part of the club to start. I could be a great designer, but do I have the connections to be considered or backing to be considered for some of these medium size, large term clients is a different story, right?

There’s a procurement process as you start to grow your agency and payment terms that shift, and do you have the financial backing and resources or credit to be able to invest that manpower into going through one of those processes for the chance to win the business, and then can you float the business in a way that can deal with payment terms of a larger client on a bigger scale, right? You might move from payment terms of I’ll do a project and things get paid out 15, 30 days, 40 days to 90 days to 180 days as you get bigger and bigger clients, and so you see there’s different hurdles in order to be able to even get a bite at the apple that you have. I think that’s one of the tensions that you face as a Black agency owner historically which is why I think that’s one of the reasons why you have a lot less of them with that level of visibility.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s clients out there that are paying net 180?

Sean DallasKidd:
Yes, there are. There was, forgot what the brand was and I won’t even mention it, but it was a CPG brand, consumer packaged good brand that got called out on Adweek and in the industry because I think they wanted their payment terms to be a year.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, come on. A year?

Sean DallasKidd:
A year. And so, when you talk about diversity, equity, inclusivity, you can have a very talented agency, just call it a graphic design branding agency, and you have a staff of five to seven people, you’re doing really good work, and normally you’re getting paid in 30 day terms. Now that bigger client might be like, “Oh, I’ll want to work with you,” but then they give you a term payment of, well, instead of you getting paid a month later, you’re going to get paid six months later. How’s that diversity and equity model going at scale at that point with these small shops? And so, those become some of the bigger systemic issues, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you’re right, the balancing act of making sure that your clients and your cash flow is terrorist or at least coming in at a point where it appears to be consistent cash flow, especially when you’re paying employees, that’s tough. But net 365, that’s wild. Wow.

Sean DallasKidd:
Yeah, that’s [inaudible 00:15:31].

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think makes DemonstratexDDW stand out from the competition?

Sean DallasKidd:
I would say the way in which we stand out from the competition is we take a culture-forward lens with the work that we do. What we really try to do is drive this term we call talkability amongst target audiences that we’re looking to drive brand awareness, consideration, or conversion with. We also focus on brand or business objectives, number one. We start there, and as an integrated agency, we do, like I said, brand, naming brand architecture, packaging, but we also do integrated communication. So that’s paid media, earned media, social, digital content strategy, traditional above the line advertising. And so, what we look at are all the different levers of communication to drive those business objectives and then based off the audiences that they’re trying to engage with, what’s true to the brand, and timeliness as well as budget, what’s the right mix to help drive that messaging home to help spark conversation overall.

That really stems from, again, that background that I’ve had of being in earned media, being in traditional advertising and being in publishing, and at each step always seeing that for some of these integrated programs or brand initiatives, the PR team is not in step with what the advertising is doing and the advertising team isn’t in step with what the PR team is doing. As we look at this crazy new communications landscape, it’s kind of like it’s better to look at it holistically and then go based off these sets of truths, what is our best route into the market, looking at all the different components and parts we have access to across paid, earned, shared, and owned channels.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, not to give away any trade secrets or anything that you’ve got cooking at DemonstratexDDW, but what do you think are some of the biggest opportunities in the creative industry right now?

Sean DallasKidd:
Well, for me, I definitely would say AI is the biggest opportunity. I know people are frightened about it, ChatGPT and everything else that’s happening, but I feel as though with any new technology there’s definitely going to be category leaders, new roles that come into the market, and so becoming literate in what AI is and can offer and how you can work with it is the biggest opportunity. Actually, in my mind, Web3 is AI because if you think about being able to become an expert prompter, a creative prompt strategist to work with an AI machine so that it can find information that can then be fact checked to create more nuanced, quickly adaptable copy or design territories for you to explore, I think that’s a really interesting job opportunity. There’s some cultural anthropology that you can mix in with it.

I think there’s a lot there because it helps you tie in not only sort of brand DNA, but it helps pull in to design trends that could be pulled live or recalibrated and personalized for specific audiences. I think it could be a very compelling tool, but at the same time, the literacy is important because you got to know what the trade off is, right? I think we all ran into social as consumers of it, not realizing that the trade off was us and privacy and our data. And so, everyone is excited to use things like ChatGPT right now, but one of the things for me is what’s the terms and conditions? Are they going to get a piece of it?

You go and say, “Oh, great, I’m going do a Super Bowl ad using ChatGPT.” Will they have some sort of way on the backend to identify that this copy or this concept came from that, and then they want points? So I think we need to really understand what the technology can do and also who’s making the technology because whoever’s making the technology is creating a certain lens on where the technology starts to look for information.

Maurice Cherry:
Now we’re recording this the Friday before the Super Bowl, and I bet you there’s going to be a Super Bowl ad that has some kind of ChatGPT, I don’t know, punchline or something in it. I feel like it’s got to be in there somewhere.

Sean DallasKidd:
Oh yeah, yeah. I would definitely say. There are agencies that are losing sleep right now because three weeks ago everyone was hot to trot with ChatGPT and Ryan Reynolds did a ChatGPT ad, and everything they’ve been working on in the last year just got thrown out the window and they’re going to do something so that they’re timely and can make a splash of some kind.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, you know what we won’t see during the Super Bowl? Crypto ads. I remember those from last year, and boy, have the times changed.

Sean DallasKidd:
It’s funny. To your earlier question of staying in the work, the reason why you have to stay in the work is because you don’t want to give bad strategic advice to a brand partner. The easy trap for someone my age that got into social at the MySpace and early iteration of it and kind of settled, gave up on Facebook, does Instagram primarily to not stay current, right, to not check out TikTok and BeReal, and some of these sort of crypto based social channels and some of these niche social channels, you fall into the trap of recommending old and then you become irrelevant, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Sean DallasKidd:
And so, agency is all around the fight for relevancy, and I think the separator for us is knowing the nuance between relevancy for demo that everyone typically goes after 18 and 34 and nuance around the psychographic drivers and different folks because share of wallet goes from anywhere from a 10-year-old up to octatarian. People have needs, and the nuance comes from understanding what’s going to be that right audience that you need to tap into. So you have to stay current.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, absolutely. Now we’ll get more into your approach and your work a little bit later, but for now, let’s get into your background. You’re in San Francisco now, but you’re originally from D.C., is that right?

Sean DallasKidd:
Correct. Southeast D.C.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about growing up there.

Sean DallasKidd:
Well, let’s say the D.C. today is not the D.C. of the years I grew up. I grew up in ’80s in Reaganomic D.C. It was definitely a lot rougher around the edges in Southeast where I was. But I would say one of the things that always kept me curious and creative, I always loved to draw as a kid and since, and I was also a latchkey kid, so I chose to take advantage of latch keydom, if that’s a word, to take advantage of all the free museums and zoos and public transportation you had as a minor. I’d spend my summers going down to the National Mall, going over to the Smithsonian or Museum of Art, Portraiture Gallery, all that kind of stuff, and so that’s really what sparked and maintained my interest in creativity.

When I went to high school, I was lucky enough to get into an architecture program. So I actually started doing that in 9th, 10th grade, actually drawing plans and really had a great teacher. His name was Mr. Fotos. He was think of angry Santa Claus with a Greek accent. He taught us everything and was just an amazing teacher, and that allowed me to go to SCAD, Savannah College of Art and Design for architecture actually. I think I started on the sophomore year as a freshman just because of my portfolio and what I learned, and then got into graphic design and illustration along the way.

But the lesson he taught me, and I guess this has always been ingrained in me, he said, “If you’re going to be a great architect, you need to be able to design from the building down to the spoon.” And so, that was one of those sorts of thinking of where it’s not just about the whole, the big idea. It’s down to the details and the nuance, right? And so, that’s just been a philosophy that I’ve carried with me which helps you dig a little bit deeper to kind of understand how people move through spaces, or how people engage with an experience or a design, or how a message needs to be flexible to be able to sit in an internal communications program and be explained so that your workforce is on board, and how it can help inspire creative outputs out in the real world, whether it’s on the side of a bus or some sort of 4D, 3D billboard, or if it’s an augmented reality experience. So really being able to be transmedia and understanding does this thing have scale and flexibility.

Maurice Cherry:
What made you choose SCAD?

Sean DallasKidd:
Well, the city, downtown Savannah is beautiful. It’s hot in the summer, but I would say I loved the architecture there. The teachers are cool, the programs are really interesting, and for me, as you look at the, I would say the standard East Coast go-to design schools, the Pratts, the RISDs there was less… Well, I’ll just say, it was a less sense of entitlement and bourgeoisie in Savannah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Okay.

Sean DallasKidd:
I felt like I could actually learn things and experiment versus do things the way the teacher did them.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha.

Sean DallasKidd:
I kind of saw a bit of that trap as I was looking at some of the different schools of… I think for anyone that’s taking a life drawing class or something like that, you definitely have those teachers that are like, “This is the way to do it,” and it happens to be the way that they do it. And so, I definitely wanted a place where it seemed like I could be more collaborative with different departments as well, and so SCAD just really stood out in that way.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. I gotcha. Yeah, you were in college, I think we were in college right around the same time. You started in like the late ’90s, like ’99?

Sean DallasKidd:
Yep, yep, yep.

Maurice Cherry:
Graduated in ’03?

Sean DallasKidd:
Yep. [inaudible 00:27:33].

Maurice Cherry:
Yep. Same here. Same here. Tell me what you remember from that time.

Sean DallasKidd:
Ooh. Well, when you say that, the first thing that comes to my mind was 9/11, just because I remember that moment very specifically. I was an RA at SCAD and woke up to one of the towers falling.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Sean DallasKidd:
That was just a trip of a day, and the ripple effects of that are felt today. This is why we take our shoes off at airports, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Sean DallasKidd:
So 20-something years later. But beyond that, I would say some of the things that really were interesting to me at the time was the evolution in music. I remember there’s a funny moment when I was walking around River Street or that sort of downtown area in Savannah, and I saw a bus outside for this band called OutKast, and I went, “I wonder what they’re all about.” Little did I know that the OutKast was coming to us all, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Sean DallasKidd:
It’s the same sort of time when the Gorillaz made their first album which is just a mix of every kind of genre possible with layered animation for this sort of virtual band, and they’re still making amazing music now. And so, it was just a really, I think, funky time because it was this age, similar to now, of transition, right? So when you’re a designer, a couple years prior, everyone was using hand tools to do typography and all that sort of stuff, and we were there at that moment when it was like, “Okay, so we’re getting into Pork Express and we’re doing Adobe,” and you’re learning these new programs. Now in hindsight, you know those teachers barely knew those programs too because it was so new.

And so, you’re getting into the age of digital publishing in the middle of this sort of like what’s happening in the world because everything, America’s the safe space and now this thing happened, and everyone’s unified for six months. It was just a wild time. Then you’ve got this technological boom happening, and then you get sped out into this world where a couple years later, an iPhone pops out. It’s a very reminiscent, minus the pandemic part, what’s happening today. It was just chaos.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you really had to be around during that time to realize the gargantuan amount of technological advancements that have happened from 2000 to now. I mean, you talk about iPhone, but then just a whole bunch of other technologies and stuff, even the way that we do design online. I mean, back then design was slicing up a table in Dreamweaver and posting that on the web. Now it’s all browser with layouts and flexbox and all that sort of stuff, not to mention other service side technologies and stuff.

I mean, I was in college in ’99. I had started as a computer science major, computer science, computer engineering because I wanted to be a web designer. I had cut my teeth in high school in the computer lab at my mom’s job because she taught at a college. I cut my teeth reverse engineering websites, and I made something on GeoCities, and my mom was like, “Why you putting our address on the internet?” I was like, “We live in rural Alabama. Nobody knows who we are.” But I went to school, went to Morehouse, majoring in computer science thinking that was web design, right?

Sean DallasKidd:
Well, it was. I mean, I remember I had to do HTML coding because I was taking some program classes, and for people who don’t know, there’s a program called BASIC and Pascal.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, yeah.

Sean DallasKidd:
C++. I was taking all those. The internet back in the day was code. ,And then you’d upload images and like you said, you’re doing slices and all that, and now you’ve got… But what was cool about that is lacking today, it feels like to me, is that there was all this experimentation, right? You’d have these Easter eggs on the side, you’re like, “[inaudible 00:31:50] scroll left or right, up or down. Am I navigating through this weird wormhole?” Whereas now everything’s on these sort of modular boxes, and so there’s shades of vanilla essentially, and then however powerful your imagery is, but people are also picking up the same sort of trends on en masse at this point, which is one of the sort of fears or outputs that might become AI down the line is Marvel movie number 856.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Sean DallasKidd:
But I think back then there was a great experimentation and we were all sort of learning and playing around, and I think that was probably part of the happiness people were experiencing originally with sort of the Web3, NFT space, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Sean DallasKidd:
It kind of had that same energy. It had some wrinkles to it. It had a little bit of dirt in the fingernails of we’re figuring it out and we’re going to make art and it’s going to be awesome and we’ve got our own closed loop, and then [inaudible 00:33:00].

Maurice Cherry:
I attended a metaverse conference in the metaverse. Was that last year? I think it was last year. It was last year I’m thinking about it, yeah. I attended a metaverse conference in the metaverse, and one of the sessions this guy was talking about digital real estate, and he’s like, “Yeah, we have this digital world and you can buy these plots of digital land.” Somebody during the presentation bought a $10,000 plot of land that only exists in the metaverse, and it made me think of, do you remember The Million Dollar Homepage?

Sean DallasKidd:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
The Million Dollar Homepage was basically, it’s probably still online, to be completely honest, but it’s basically you bought pixels on this homepage. Say you had a 88 x 31 ad tile or something, you could buy the area of that 88 x 31, and it’s like a dollar per pixel and put an ad up there. People were just buying spaces and putting up all kinds of stuff on there, and that’s what it felt like. It’s like this digital real estate that doesn’t really exist, but you’re kind of buying into it for the hopes of it becoming something in the future which I guess is like real real estate.

Sean DallasKidd:
It’s so funny to me, the whole digital real estate now. Whatever it starts to morph into in five, 10 years will be what it is, and everyone will come back to this podcast episode and laugh at me for saying it, but the reason why real estate exists and has value in real life is because we live on one planet. It’s literally a finite resource, right? This is where we breathe, hopefully, and have food and light and all this sort of other great stuff. And so, there’s X amount of space for X amount of people, and there are prime pieces on it.

In a virtual world, much like if we didn’t have to worry about time or eating or breathing, we live in this vastly, huge universe like in the real world. The digital world is the same thing where it’s like it’s infinitely large. There’s, in actuality, no real prime real estate because you can own one square inch and have it feel like a million square inches or you can just go to a different section of virtual town and make your own thing. Yeah, the real estate part is quite interesting in terms of how they attain it or how they attribute an X, Y, Z coordinate to it. It’s not a place.

Right, right. Yeah, in a way, it just sort of felt like it was kind of just like you’re buying a plot in a subdivision because it only exists in that particular metaversal world that we happen to be in, because the metaverse is many different worlds. It’s not, as you’re sort of saying how earth is one finite resource, the metaverse is a whole bunch of stuff.
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Sean DallasKidd:
Yeah, I could literally make my own planet in the metaverse, in my own solar system in the metaverse. So why do I need to buy a 50 pixel by 800 pixel piece of property across the street from Snoop Dogg’s one place?

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And Sean, he paid $10,000 for it, and the guy was wearing an NFT suit or something, and he kept showing off like, “I can show off my NFTs on my suit.” I was like, “This is giving me a headache. I don’t even know what to make of this.”

Sean DallasKidd:
That’s probably a slam. I think there’s always what’s presented on the surface and then what’s happening on the back end and part [inaudible 00:36:48], “Hmm, did you really buy that? Was that a plan?” Like, okay.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Those early days, in the 2000s, as you mentioned, on the web, it was really sort of experimental with publishing and stuff. Now after you graduated, tell me about your early career because you got into media and publishing afterwards, right?

Sean DallasKidd:
Correct. Yeah, so I had a couple of gigs prior, but I would say my professional career really kickstarted in the publishing world. I worked for Future Publishing, Ziff Davis, and Maker Media. I started over at Ziff Davis and now Ziff Davis was really about video game magazines. I was working on their PC focused gaming magazine and then started getting really curious. I’ve always been, I would say, hardworking and curious, sort of always looking to push my edges. And so, I was proactive about reaching out to other publisher or other magazines if they needed help designing pages. And so, I was very proactive and worked with Electronic Gaming Monthly or PlayStation Magazine or Xbox Magazine and all these things just so I can get more experience quicker.

Then I transitioned over to Future, which is like the sort of, they were essentially Coca-Cola and Pepsi as holders, and so they had the reverse version of everything. While I was at Future, I started their custom content division, and so that was working directly with brands to develop branded, independent magazines, websites, apps, podcasts for folks like Best Buy or NVIDIA, brands like Paul Reed Smith Guitars, did a crocheting magazine, all sorts of stuff. And so, that helped do a couple of things of giving me a brief and a business objective for the brands we did partner with, and then gave me the license to concept and develop an entire magazine, for example, that would service those needs and what those sections would be and sort of design language that would go into that, not only that printed piece, but the digital footprint as well.

And so, it was a really great time because at that moment we were making the transition, the death of print was happening, as I said at the time, and so not only were we doing magazines, but it allowed me to do websites, it allowed me to do apps because the iPad had come out. And so, we were looking at how do you translate brand DNA into a digital platform space, which was a really interesting moment that I would call back to the sort of tensions that are happening today. It was really weird because people had this sort of cognitive dissidents between this magazine I’m holding is the brand. And it’s like, no, the brand is the brand, what your brand stands for and your tone and how you sort of approach things and it happens to be a magazine, but it can also be a website, it can also be a podcast, it can also be an iPad app or a tablet app.

You can start to see the split of people that didn’t want to adopt or learn, and then the people who leaned into it, and I’m always been the one that just leans into the chaos because it never looks as crazy on the inside as it does on the outside, and that’s where all the opportunity is. And so, that was a really great moment to go and take that experience over to Maker, because instead of working on multiple brands, this was making one brand that had the business, Maker Media, it had the printed magazines, Craft Magazine and Make Magazine. It then had a body of different websites and then it also had Maker Fair.

And so, now you’re looking at how do you take a brand and have it stretch out into these various forms because they found themselves there and then create order around it and really sort of bring it home so that it could grow and thrive in the midst of the quote, unquote, “death of print.” It’s still around. It’s still doing very well because I think part of it was learning that your brand, believing and knowing that the brand is bigger than the mass at the end of the day or has the ability to be.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, was it kind of a shift to go from working in these publishing companies to going in-house, working with agencies? You also have worked with JWT, worked for FleishmanHillard, now you’re at DemonstratexDDW. Was it a big shift making that change?

Sean DallasKidd:
Yeah, I mean, the days are different. It was interesting. I feel like I had a soft entry, I’ll call it soft, because before going into fully external agencies, I worked in-house at Discovery Communications. They did Discovery Channel, Learning Channel, Animal Planet, and so I was helping with the Investigation Discovery launch and show launches there as well as Velocity Network, and so that was the agency inside. You had to develop a pitch concept, pitch it to the marketing team or the showrunner and come up with marketing campaigns that way. And so, that was a good segue before going fully agency because FleishmanHillard is one of the big global PR agencies, so was J Walter Thompson which is now Wunderman Thompson, and so one’s Omnicom, a sort of agency holding company.

I guess I always did this. I went from Pepsi to Coke or Coke to Pepsi, and so went over to J Walter Thompson and did the same thing, but I think the transition at Discovery really helped out because it gave me insight and understanding on what are the different outputs that come in advertising, what the digital lens, what are people looking for in terms of making commercials or campaign programs. It started to really give me the language and became a good test bed for me in that transition.

Fleishman gave me, I would say, my PhD in quickly pivoting your mind. I worked not only nationally but sort of globally as well. And so, I worked on everything from sort of data security to consumer goods to FinTech to healthcare, you name it. And so, I would get briefs that range from internal communications programs, crisis management programs, general awareness programs, and really focused on creative and content strategy while I was there. At nine o’clock in the morning, you’re talking about the future of electronic payments in developing countries. In the afternoon, you’re talking about the future of medicine. And so, your brain has to be able to pivot because you’re going to be in a room with a bunch of C-suite executives talking about and really having to understand the background information and sort of ways in which culture was moving.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, from this point where you’re at in your career, what does the future of agencies look like?

Sean DallasKidd:
I would say that the future of agency is going to have to be personal. I think that interesting part, and this is why I think AI literacy is so important right now is it gives smaller, medium-sized agencies an opportunity to scale up outputs if done properly, if integrated properly into your workflows. I think that because we’re going to have so many different digital touchpoints that are super niche, you’re going to have to get very personal and personalized in your messaging. I think that the physical interaction and experience is going to be highly coveted, and people are going to appreciate that a lot more because no matter how amazing that virtual experience is, people still need, just have a genetic need to engage with other people and smell the same thing, be in the same room in a very real way. That’s not to say that in 20 years there’ll be some matrix version of that reality, but until then I do think that people getting together and engaging with each other is going to be super important, but I do think those will be more curated, more selective kinds of engagement points with folks.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think there’s been so much talk about data-driven outcomes and seeing what the data says and all that, but at the end of the day, you’re still dealing with people. I mean, even with this AI stuff, I see so many videos on TikTok and YouTube about people telling you how to craft the perfect prompts for GPT and all this sort of stuff, and I think what it’s still boils down to is that at the end of the day humans are still the entry point.

Sean DallasKidd:
Well, you’re still going to be the decision-maker at the end of the day.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

Sean DallasKidd:
If you are essentially at a 12th grade level and GPTed your way into life and you find yourself there as a 26-year-old, really do the math on that. You started out and you GPTed your way from 18 to 26, the wheels are going to fall out from under you because at a certain point you’re going to be in a room and you need to be able to answer the questions and defend the solution to someone else, and if you don’t know your stuff, because you’ve been essentially the parrot for this fishnet of an answer that your AI gave you, the trust won’t be there. That’s what all the access and the ability to repeat opportunity comes from earning, cultivating trust over time, and that’s a human thing. And so, if you get to the point to where you are pointless, then you won’t as a person have any need to be in the room with people. And so, I don’t know if I lost the point on that one, but I do think that’s a bit of-

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no, I think you’re spot on.

Sean DallasKidd:
Yeah, it’s a balance.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What have been some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in your career?

Sean DallasKidd:
Being comfortable, getting uncomfortable is the most important lesson I’ve learned in my career. I’ve touched on it over the course of our conversation, but being proactive when transition happens, jumping into the chaos, because I firmly believe that’s where the opportunity lies, and when that new messy space opens, if you’re over there first, you get to make mistakes on a small scale, right? Imagine putting out a bad tweet when Twitter just started or putting up a lame Instagram post when Instagram first started. That’s the best time to do it. You can learn how the audience interacts on the channel and get feedback and get better. You do not want to be doing that high wire act in the middle of the Super Bowl for the first time.

Getting into that space, understanding the language, understanding the nuance and the flow of energy there gets you smart on it because people will eventually come there because that’s where all the changes, that’s where all the new is, that’s where all sort of cultural influencers are being born and sparking new kinds of innovations. Eventually everyone’s going to get there. So always being comfortable with getting uncomfortable is hard, it’s uncomfortable, but I think the reward there is the most fruitful for a long-term career as a creative, not as somebody.

I think you’ve probably seen this over the years, there’s lots of people who used to be a designer, used to be a creative, used to be in marketing, and the difference is not just some of the systemic stuff, but it’s staying relevant, right? In order to stay relevant in today, you need to be smarter than what’s happening today, which means you need to be ahead of the curve a little bit, and that’s a hard thing to keep up with. You got to be the Lil Wayne of the industry. He’s been doing it since he was 12, so he just stays up there. And so, you got to be the Lil Wayne of whatever you’re doing in life.

Maurice Cherry:
I still remember Lil Wayne from those CDs in the ’90s, No Limit and everything.

Sean DallasKidd:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Sean DallasKidd:
And Cash Money.

Maurice Cherry:
Cash Money.

Sean DallasKidd:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that keeps you motivated and inspired? Because I can imagine this is not an easy thing to sustain, this kind of thing with being comfortable with being uncomfortable because you’re sort of always kind of jolted out of balance in a way, I would imagine.

Sean DallasKidd:
I mean, to be very straightforward with it, family keeps me motivated. I have a kiddo and she is a spark of joy, and so that situation keeps me motivated to keep wanting to do better from just a sort of fundamental lizard brain section of my mind. Creating room and space and opportunity for her and creating, I’ve seen my dad do that so I can do it and I can one-up him, right? Having that yard stick in front of you I think is a great driver.

Then I would say for me another motivator is just I am curious and I feel like my brain is creatively broken. It’s like a faucet that doesn’t turn off. You hear the conversations with people going through these dry periods, and I’m not trying to toot my own horn or anything there, but it’s like my brain just does not shut up with things it wants to do or think about or see. I think that comes from living that, trying to have a more balanced life of… And you ask me the question, what are some of the hobbies and things that you like to do that kind of spark you, those are the sustaining breaths that help keep passion and curiosity going.

And so, when you cultivate or try to cultivate a life where Monday is not a dreadful day, Monday is just Monday, and now the dreadful part of the day is, well, now people are going to expect me to respond to an email because it’s not the weekend. But at the end of the day, I’m writing or designing or talking to people or trying a product or trying this or going to an event. I’m like, “That’s dope.” It’s a good thing and it just takes effort to stay on the ball, but I think that just comes with it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, who are some of the people that have helped you reach this point in your career?

Sean DallasKidd:
I would like to think myself for… No, I was like, I couldn’t remember that new [inaudible 00:53:25] quote. I’d like to thank myself for the hard work. But honestly, I think it’s a bit of that, just you got to know your center and you got to know your truth and you got to play to your strengths and you got to build up your weaknesses. I’ve been blessed in meeting very kind people that have cracked the door open and given me opportunity. That comes again from the fact that proving or being in that sort of energy state where you are proactively looking to grow. I’m more willing to open the door to someone that I see that’s working hard and looking to grow and looking to be challenged than someone that’s sitting on their laurels. Luckily, the people I’ve engaged with were willing to open the door.

Then I have a great network of friends and colleagues to be able to bounce ideas off of, hear what they’re going through, take lessons from that, and make connections and references. You can’t do everything by yourself. It’s one of the sort of points that I always teach. I always stress to my daughter, she wants to become the next Hayao Miyazaki. And I go, “That’s awesome, and Hayao Miyazaki not only is a great drawer and a writer and all that sort of stuff, but he also has studio space that he has to pay mortgage on and employees, and so he has a CFO and he is got da, da, da, da, da. He is got to work about licensing deals and everything else.” So it’s like you got to have a good network as well and make those connections.

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

Sean DallasKidd:
Man, on my bucket list, I want to do some shit in space. I really want to do something in space.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Sean DallasKidd:
I’m going to put that energy out on this podcast. If somebody knows someone in any country that’s doing something in space in the next five years, it would be great. I think that would just be a trip. I don’t want to go underwater. I don’t want to go into any of that deep sea stuff, but space would be kind of just like I feel like that would be a mind-altering, crazy thing and inspirational thing to do. Something dealing with logistics. Doesn’t that sound cool? I’m working on an interplanetary logistics program, or I’m like, this new bougie hotel that’s in low earth orbit, and so I’ve got to do a promotional campaign or video or collaboration thing. That just sounds dope to me. So that’s what I want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
I interned with NASA for two years when I was in college. So it’s funny because we were talking about college and you mentioned 9/11. 9/11 was one of a turning point for me too because the program that I was in, the way they had it set up, it was based off of Ronald E. McNair who was in the Challenger explosion, and so his family put together a foundation, whatever. So I was a McNair scholar at Morehouse, and the part of the NASA thing was that you interned at NASA for two years and then afterwards you basically had your pick of any NASA facility to work for. So I was like, I had done my first one in California, did my second one in Alabama, and I thought I was all set, until 9/11 happened, and then the funding shifted towards the creation of this new department called the Department of Homeland Security.

Sean DallasKidd:
[inaudible 00:57:22].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and they were like, “Yeah.” I remember they called us all into the office and they were like, “Yeah, the seniors will still be able to go forward to work at NASA facilities,” and I was a junior at the time, but they were like, “the rest of y’all, you’re on your own.” I was like, “Oh man.” I say all of that to say that I think now, certainly 20-plus years in the future from when I graduated, there’s probably more opportunities for designers to work with NASA and space than there were back then. I think back then it was still pretty, I don’t want to say confined to academia, but you’ve got even people on TikTok who are budding astrophysicists that are doing stuff that has to deal with space and everything. I feel like it’s possible.

Sean DallasKidd:
Well, yeah, I mean, definitely think it’s possible. My mom actually used to work for NASA. She’s a mathematician, and I think the terms they used to use back in the day though for people like my mom was data analysts.

Maurice Cherry:
Ah, yeah.

Sean DallasKidd:
Give them a data analyst title versus a data scientist title, save yourself a hundred thousand dollars, and they’ll hide those fingers in the back somewhere. I do think that the opportunity today is a lot more open, but the work, it’ll be curious to see how willing people are to do the work because you always see do the work as the hashtag, but the sort of underlying effort, sustained effort of doing the work is the great equalizer in a lot of ways. You will get tired and then you’ve got to get that seventh and eighth wind at the end of the day.

Maurice Cherry:
Look at you. Your mom was a hidden figure. Look at that.

Sean DallasKidd:
Yeah, it was weird. It’s funny, I’ve got these old photos and stuff of her on some airplane thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Sean DallasKidd:
Well, the thing about D.C. is back when I was there in the ’80s, it’s like a bunch of little Black ladies that run all the sort of inner operations of the government at a certain point because they were all the secretaries and they were working in, they were the data analyst or this kind of thing, and they were just working in the back.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Sean DallasKidd:
Yeah.

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

Sean DallasKidd:
I am so Google-able at this point in time. You can literally type my name in, but you can follow me at kidisgoat, K-I-D is goat, G-O-A-T. You can look at the company, we are demonstrate.com or you can look at ddw.com if you’re interested in branding work. But that’s where you can find me. Look me up, I’m out there.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Sean DallasKidd, I want to thank you so, so, so much for coming on the show. I really think that your authenticity and the passion that you have for your work really shines through. I mean, even just from your early days of getting into publishing with the work that you’re doing now for Demonstrate, I like what you said about having to be in the work so you kind of stay one step ahead. It’s that sort of thinking that certainly I think is going to take all of us as creatives far, but certainly it’s been such a boon for your career and for your life, and I’m really excited to see the Sean DallasKidd project in low earth orbit one day. I think it’s going to happen.

Sean DallasKidd:
Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
So thank you so much. Yeah, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Sean DallasKidd:
All right, thank you.

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George McCalman

Y’all are in for a real treat this week, because I got the chance to catch up with the extremely talented and accomplished George McCalman. He is well known for his work a studio owner and creative director, and he recently published his first book, Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen.

George shared how the idea for the book came about, and he spoke about some of the surprising and interesting things that came up during his research on who to include. He also talked about getting his start in the magazine industry as an art director, shared what convinced him to eventually start his own business, and elaborated on how his style has evolved over the years. George is a master of his craft and a true inspiration to aspiring creatives everywhere!

☎️ Call ‪626-603-0310 and leave us a message with your comments on this episode!‬
Interview Transcript

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

George McCalman:
Well, number one, thank you for having me on, Maurice. My name is George McCalman. I am an artist and creative director based in San Francisco. I live part-time in the Caribbean, the country of Grenada. And I run a design studio, which affords me the privilege of doing a lot of creative things at the same time. And I’m also a fine and commercial artist, and I’m often the artist of projects that I am designing and am the creative director on. I do a lot of other things, but that’s it for right now.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a lot.

George McCalman:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, first off, happy New Year to you.

George McCalman:
Happy New Year.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re recording this right near the start of 2023. How have things been going so far?

George McCalman:
It’s been great. I’m in a very different realm than I was even a few weeks ago. I just had a couple weeks of a break from a book tour that I have been on and a press tour in support of my book Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen. And so I’ve had a little bit of a reprieve, and so for the first time in many months, I have had the opportunity to really synthesize and make sense of the whirlwind that has come from the second half of this year of this book being out and me going out on a book tour and a national book tour. So I’ve just been really reflective for the last couple of weeks, and so this conversation is really timed well because I’ve been just thinking a lot about my experience of being a published author and people interacting with this book and having their responses and what I have learned from their response to this book. It’s been really incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
And I know you’re currently recording in Grenada. I would imagine having a Caribbean paradise at the finish line of a book tour is a pretty good motivation.

George McCalman:
Well, it’s actually just a reprieve. I start back on the book tour in February. So this is actually not even the midpoint. I’m going to be on tour for this book most likely another year just because I feel really passionately that this subject matter should be revered every day of the year and not just localized to a month or a period of time. So I am taking the message of that to the streets.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. When you look back at last year, is there anything that you want to try to change for 2023?

George McCalman:
Yeah. Expansive. I don’t know that I would use the word change for myself. It’s expand. I learned a lot and I was involved in all aspects of the making of this book, which is a really unique place to be. Most authors are not involved with all of the backend, the making and the design and the marketing. And so it’s been a really comprehensive experience too. And if I would say any adjustment, it would just be more, basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ll make sure that we have a link to the book in the show notes. Yeah, let’s dive more into it. Tell me about the book. I think the name is self-explanatory, but tell me more about the book, what was your idea behind it, all of that.

George McCalman:
The book came from the word … The first sentence of the introduction of this book is I had a curiosity, and that is the very simple truth. I was just curious to know more about black pioneers. And I was just coming to a point where I started realizing that there was an artist inside of me, and so I decided to merge these twin curiosities of, I want to test out the parameters of me as an artist after basically not making art since I graduated from college 20 years before. So I’m a classically trained artist. I’m a painter and a drafts person and a sculptor and a photographer. But when I went out into the professional landscape of being a magazine art and creative director, I didn’t think there was any room for me to be a fine artist. And at the time, there just weren’t people who looked like me in this realm.

And so I knew that would be a hard road, and I decided to go with the convention of working in the corporate world just to establish myself financially and it was an adult decision. But I came to a point a few years ago where I started realizing that there was more that I was interested in. It felt like there was an ocean that I had not touched. And I decided in a flash of inspiration to make this project my first assignment as an artist. And so I researched and wrote and painted a different black history pioneer every day for a month of February, and it just started ballooning. I think that’s the right word. It started expanding from there.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you go about researching and selecting the people to feature in the book? Because as I’ve looked through the book, I have the book actually, you have a wide range of people that you feature.

George McCalman:
I really know that the person that I am personally and professionally has really been framed by my time working at magazines because it’s basically, I got both military and library training at the same time, if that makes sense. There’s a rigor to when you are working under deadline, you have to really be sharp, you have to have your focus, you have to know what the context is of what you’re doing. You have to be really communicative with the people around you. And you have to make sure that what you’re writing is all the time. And so it really trained me to know some of the shortcuts of researching and trusting my instincts around that. And for me, I was interested in people I didn’t know that much about. Even if I knew their name, even if I knew some of their story, there’s always more to learn.

And that’s the thing that I’ve learned in my 15 years as a magazine person before I opened my studio, that even when you think you know everything about a public figure, there is always more. And so it was a trust in the information I was learning, but it was also a trust in myself. And so I was always just looking at the periphery, looking at the fringes, asking myself questions. Who is Edna Lewis? What was Gordon Parks thinking as he was moving through the world? I found myself asking intimate questions to myself of the people I was researching. And so I found myself drawn to aspects of their story, and I was always looking for not just their accomplishments, but their personality. So many of our pioneers were always looking through a contemporary lens, but life was just so much harder then.

And so I can’t imagine what Gordon Parks’ everyday life was. He was always the representative, and there’s always a burden placed on black people in America that we have to represent our community. And I can’t imagine what that was like 50 years ago, what that was like 75 years ago, 150 years ago. How much harder it was to be seen as an individual when your community is always being judged against the majority white community. And so it’s always this push, it’s always this burden, it’s always this pressure. But then you look at these accomplishments and so many of these people, publicly anyway, were really graceful. And so you have to develop this superpower when you’re out in the world. And I found myself thinking, what did these people have to compromise? What did they have to give up? Who did they have to be to be the people that we know and sometimes take for granted?

I was always looking for the hidden messages of who these people actually were, and that just always sparked my interest. It just made me hungry and curious. And even as I was painting them, I found myself drawn to nuances of personality. Gordon Parks was really charming, and so the portrait that I did of him, there’s a twinkle in his eye. I was looking to bring out the anger and the jokingness and the sadness and the power and the force. I really wanted to capture human personality in these paintings and really individualize them.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from just how poetic that is, that is extremely profound of you as an artist to want to approach it in that way. Even as you mentioned that, I’m thinking of my personal experience, but I’d say maybe a couple of years ago, this was right around the summer of 2020, I was doing a lot of research looking at old issues of Ebony Magazine and Jet Magazine from the ’50s and the ’60s. And one thing that stuck out to me that I thought was really interesting, I saw an ad for … It was some kind of alcohol, maybe gin or something like that. But it was Langston Hughes.

George McCalman:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Langston Hughes was selling alcohol. And I don’t know why that broke my brain for a second because in a way you think of, oh, Langston Hughes, Harlem Renaissance, profound poet. Why is he selling alcohol in Ebony Magazine?

George McCalman:
Yes. We don’t often think of our pioneers as whole people. People who have made mistakes and people who have had different lives and weren’t always doing the things that we focus and categorize them in terms of their professional accomplishments. And you start seeing people are just flawed. Every human being is flawed. We have complicated relationships with our icons in that we have to place them on a pedestal to basically show ourselves and to show the larger community how great we are. And so we always have to work harder to show these things. And then when you see Langston Hughes out of context, it’s confusing.

Maurice Cherry:
It caused me to pause for a minute. Not so much the why behind it, but it made me think … I don’t know. I wouldn’t think of him as a spokesperson for an alcohol company. I’m thinking of him as the poet. And not even thinking of like, oh, well, what are the circumstances that brought him to do this? Because I’m not looking at him being in Ebony in that way as a negative, but it just surprised me to go through the pages and I’m like, “Oh, Langston Hughes is selling gin.” It was gin or something. I don’t know.

George McCalman:
Because Langston Hughes had to pay his bills too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

George McCalman:
Homie had to pay his bills, and so lots of people did lots of different things to survive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What would you say is the most interesting or surprising thing you learned while doing this research? Aside from what you just mentioned, which I said is extremely profound.

George McCalman:
Oh gosh. I learned so many things it’s hard for me to pull out. If anything, it just broadened my fascination with basically how we think of our cultural figures. Back to your point of the kind of artist I was at the beginning of this process that I was looking to render a kind of wholeness of people. I was just always interested in the emotional language of portraiture and even how we as black people render each other is going through a current renaissance because we have not always … We haven’t been given the room and encouragement frankly, to render ourselves. And so I knew it was maverick of me to basically not flatten everyone and not render the same style. That would’ve been easy for me to do, but I knew that that was not the right thing for me to do for this project. I really wanted to make sure that I was showing the complexity of who these people were and I was also trying to show the humanity and make that as important as the historical details. That I was basically equating the emotional parts with the historical facts.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you hope people take away from the book? I mean, aside from buying a copy, what do you want people to take away from it?

George McCalman:
Well, I honestly think, Maurice, that we’re super casual about this subject. Not that we don’t know how important it is, but at the time that I started this project, I realized that there wasn’t a book like this and that I wanted people to have it because I thought that we all deserved to have something like this, that we deserve to have this resource. Even though we as black people, we carry our history in our bodies and we have a very particular way of an oral history of passing information down to each other that has survived the ravages of time and racism. This book in and of itself, I didn’t feel comfortable thinking about it until after the book came out and several people have told me that this book is in and of itself a pioneer. Because we just don’t have this information accessible in this way. That there wasn’t a book outside of historical, academic and children’s categorization, that there wasn’t an accessible book just to buy and share about American black history. And so that’s what I want people to know, that this is still a rarefied thing. This is not an everyday thing. This is a pretty amazing resource that we now have. And I made this book for myself as much as for anyone else. I wanted a book like this. And so that’s partially why I did it.

Maurice Cherry:
I also love that the typography that’s in the book for the titles as well as on the cover is from a black typographer.

George McCalman:
There are two black typographers in this book. And because I’m the designer of the book, I was clear that that aspect had to be represented. That I didn’t just want to talk about it, I wanted to show it. It was more important that people knew that that sensibility … There’s this reductive conversation that came up during 2020 again that was like, where are all the black designers? And I was like, “Screw you all. There are plenty of us around. You just need to stop being lazy and do your research to find them because we’re all here.” And I know tons of black designers, and so that’s not a thing. There should be more of us, certainly. But this idea that somehow everyone just woke up and started looking for us, I was genuine. I was like, “Fuck you.” I wanted to know. The two black typographers, one has been in the game for over 30 years, Joshua Darden, and he has a very successful … Which he sold a number of years ago.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Darden Studio.

George McCalman:
Darden Studio. And the other one is a more recent designer and typographer by the name of Trey Shields. A vocal type. And Trey’s hook, and it was a hook that he has just expanded beautifully, was to honor the civil rights protest signs and digitize them and make them accessible to everyday people. And so the book is filled with typefaces. There’re three or four typefaces in this book that both Trey and Josh designed.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Yeah, Trey’s the homie. I’ve had him on the show before.

George McCalman:
He’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

George McCalman:
He’s amazing. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit and learn more about you. Learn more about your origin story. Are you originally from Grenada? Is that where you grew up?

George McCalman:
Yes. I was born and raised here. The first decade of my life I lived here, and then my mother and I moved to Brooklyn. I grew up in East Flatbush in a West Indian neighborhood. And all my formal education was in New York. I went to Marine Park in Brooklyn and then Midwood High School, which was a medical science high school. Webster attended Midwood High School. That’s my one celebrity, useless factoid. And then I went to St. John’s University and graduated and then started working in the publishing field.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you always have an interest in illustration and design growing up?

George McCalman:
Always. I was that kid who drew in the margins of every page of every notebook I’ve ever had in my entire life. And it was just raw. It just came out. I had no formal training until college, but I was just obsessively drawing. And I drew superheroes and I made up characters and it was all very detailed, and I would just create these worlds and I would be lost in them to the eternal frustration of my mother. And it just came from me. It came from me and it came for me. But I had no encouragement into this world, and I didn’t know enough of it to realize that I could make a career out of being an artist. I saw no road into it. And so it made sense to me to just walk away from it when I graduated from college.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s talk about college. You mentioned going to St. John’s University. We had another guest on recently, Sharon Burton, who also told me about her time there. Yeah. What was it like for you?

George McCalman:
My college education was a dysmorphic experience. I didn’t know what I had until it was in the rear view mirror, as is perfect parable of youth. We have no context to know what it is that we’re learning until life crashes into you when you have something to compare it to. And for me, I had an education that I was constantly frustrated with because it felt that it was out of step with the cool art schools that were in Manhattan. Number one, I was in Queens, which felt so far removed from the center of the art world, which was Manhattan at the time. And so I’d go into all these galleries in Manhattan, and I had friends who were at Parsons and SBA and Pratt, and it just felt like I was at this Catholic university that had a tiny fine art and graphic design department, and I just felt like my education sucked.

And it wasn’t until I graduated school and started working, I realized how amazing my education actually was and how unique it was in the landscape of how people are taught fine art and graphic design. And one of the main things that differentiated my education is that I learned philosophy and theology alongside art history, fine art and graphic design. It was one of the most comprehensive educations I could have received. And it took me a few years to realize that I was actually ahead of the curve and I’m actually really happy that I did not go to a more prototypical fine arts school. I got a fantastic education at St. John’s.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How’s that saying go? Hindsight is 2020?

George McCalman:
It sure is.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard that personally because I didn’t even study design. I went to a liberal arts private college. I went to Morehouse. And I initially went there because I wanted to … And this was late ’90s, early 2000s. Because I wanted to be a web designer. I had started learning HTML in high school. I taught myself HTML in high school and learned Photoshop. I designed my high school’s yearbook and the paper, and I really wanted to go into it but the scholarships that I got weren’t for art school. I actually never even applied to an art school. And then I got to Morehouse, majored in computer science. And in my mind I’m thinking, oh, well, it’s all the same, right? It’s all computers and design. It’s all the same. And I quickly realized after the first semester, it was not. I switched my major to math, which is what I got my degree in. But I know what you mean about looking back at the education and seeing how it served you versus the time that you’re there and you have this comparison on what your peers are doing, on what others are doing or what you think they’re doing that you feel like you should be getting at that formative stage.

George McCalman:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
So after you graduated, you talk about going and becoming an art director. Did you go right into that right after you graduated?

George McCalman:
I did. It’s pretty common now, but it was a little more unconventional back then. This was the mid ’90s. St. John’s had a internship requirement that your final year of school was spent in the field the entire semester as if you worked. And so the entire semester, I ended up having three options. I remember being going to interview at these three distinctly different locations, and it was kind of a sliding doors. And even then I knew that I was basically deciding my path with these three. One was an ad agency, one was a magazine, and the other was a small boutique design firm. And I remember being confused about which direction I was going to go in. I really did not know. And I walked into the Office of Money magazine, which is where I ended up interning. There was just a vitality. The office was a newsroom and there were people walking around and talking and gossiping and stuff being put up, and I could see layouts, and it just felt alive. It felt like an organism. And in my early 20s, I was just kind of like, yes, I think this is the environment that I need to be in. And I didn’t know anything about magazine design at that point, but it just felt like I needed to be there. And so I said yes to it, and I think it was one of my first really adult decisions.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really interesting that senior year you got to have that choice. That’s something that I know that a lot of students now don’t get. They don’t get to see the working world-

George McCalman:
They really don’t.

Maurice Cherry:
Before they graduate like that.

George McCalman:
They don’t. Yeah. Because I teach also. I’m a professor of graphic design. And one of the big issues I have … And it’s not an easy problem to solve. I am critical of it while knowing that I don’t have the answers myself. One of the fallacies of school is that it doesn’t really prepare you for the real world. It’s like one of the last bastions of this purity of education. And it often is counter to how the process of the professional world runs. I quickly learned when I started Money Magazine that there was no graphic design class I had that prepared me for how the magazine world worked and how the design process actually worked. I realized how luxurious school is. It’s a place where you can sit and think and talk and show your work, and there’s no real disruption. There are no real crises. There’s nothing for you to solve outside of the assignment that has been given to you that you have months to ponder and to ruminate on.

And so the idea of instinct is just absent in the school diaspora. And so when I teach now, I teach differently than I learned, and I try to infuse as much of a real life sensibility. The other issue with schools is that a lot of people who teach don’t practice. And so you have a completely different and often very dissonant where the education is rigorous and it is really valid, but it is outside of basically the professional norms of how you would actually solve problems. But then the people who are in the field don’t have time to teach because they’re working. And even for me, teaching was a really difficult thing for me to do with the entrenched deadlines of my studio process. And so I understand that it is a very difficult thing to do. I recently took part in a review of students at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard a few weeks ago at the end of the semester in December.

And this was an active conversation that I was one of six jurors, and we were all in different strata of the professional world, and we were really debating and having this conversation about how what best serves the students. If you’re only learning from people who are not practicing, I’m sorry, the education is only so valuable. But then if you’re only learning from people in the field, you don’t learn what being spacious in your thinking and being intellectual and being academic, you don’t learn the value of that in the design process also. And so the answer seems to be a balance between the two, but that is not always the case depending on where the school is and at what stage the professors are and where the students are. So it’s a very complicated metric to figure out.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting you say that because I’ve certainly encountered that even with some … Honestly, some schools that have interacted with Provision Path in different ways. You name a top design school in this country, they’ve reached out to me in some capacity about the show. Which is great. They like what the show is about. It’s filling a gap in their curriculum in some way that they’re not. But then if it comes down to me lecturing or teaching or something, it always seems to boil down to the fact that I don’t have a design degree. That they’re like, “Yeah, but …” I’m like, “Well, stop wasting my time.”

George McCalman:
Stop wasting my time. And those kind of rules and terms don’t really serve anyone anymore. I mean, just the landscape has changed and design, because of technology, is just so accessible. And I know lots of brilliant designers who did not go to art school, and I don’t believe that you need to have a design degree to be brilliant at what you do. There are lots of people who have defied the convention of formal education and produced really entrancing, relevant, resonant work. And to me, that’s what it’s about. And so I don’t subscribe to this hierarchy of academia. I mean 30 years ago it was used to be exclusive and keep a lot of people out, and that was seen as a value, but I don’t think it serves anyone right now. Culture has changed and education has changed. And because of technology, everything is just more accessible. And so it’s really about what you are doing with the technology. It has nothing to do with did you go to school or not? That’s just such a reductive argument.

Maurice Cherry:
I agree. I agree. This actually is making me think of a question that I do want to explore more on the show this year. And since you’re one of the first guests on this year, I’ll ask you. I’m curious what you think about the future of the art and design industry and how it’s going to be impacted by technology. I think we’ve seen in at least the past year, maybe two years, talk about web three and NFTs and most recently AI generated art and things like that. How do you think these industries are going to be impacted by tech?

George McCalman:
I think it already has been. What we call entrepreneurship is actually just hustlers. That’s what technology has given us. It’s given smart hustlers who are pulling and stretching and tweaking and bending the rigidity of so many of our institutions and our disciplines. The word I use a lot is it has expanded the notion of what design is, who it’s for, who it’s not for. And technology has brought so many things to people who would not otherwise have them. It just brings an aspect of the world to your doorstep. Technology for me, because I grew up outside of it and I was an adult … People who were born into technology, that’s what they know. That’s the real world. To me, it’s not the real world. It’s an aspect of the real world. And so I think of social media as tools.

I don’t think of it as real life. I think it’s a facsimile of real life. And so the language of how I talk about it has given me clarity in that I’m not confused about its place in my life. I started learning graphic design before we got our computer labs. And so I had two years of playing with typography, playing with a lot of the conventions of what is now basically archivable materials because nobody does it that way anymore. But because I learned design with my hands, that is how I continue to interface with it. I still draw out everything I do first. And that dexterity, frankly, has made me a better designer. I don’t rely on technology as a starting point for anything that I design. I bring it in to help move the process forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Good answer. I like that. You started talking about tech and that question just popped into my mind to ask you about that. But to go back to your career as an art director, you have a very storied history as an art director for several magazines. You mentioned Money Magazine, but you’ve also been an art director at Entertainment Weekly, at Mother Jones, at ReadyMade, just to name a few. When you look back at that time being a director for all these magazines, what stands out to you the most?

George McCalman:
I can’t give just a simple answer. I can give a collective answer. Because I learned a lot. I learned a lot of things. And I don’t think in terms of best or worse because I think life is too complex for that. But what I did learn was agency. The word agency. Meaning that I am not stuck when I don’t know how to solve a problem. That there are ways and there are many paths to telling a story, and there’s no one way to do anything. And depending on the context of what you’re doing, I learned how to be a better communicator. Because when you’re working with a lot of people who are reliant on you, you learn that you are a cog in a wheel, but that your role, nobody else working with you has that. So everyone is really important to the process at different times.

And so you learn the economy of collaboration. That collaboration can be a really beautiful thing. And that there’s an excitement when you are working with people who are really good at what they do and that want to tell stories as well as possible. And that telling stories is one of the most unique aspects of being a human being. And that that is basically how we thrive and survive as people. We share information and we share stories with each other. And that’s where I learned that. I’m not sure I would answer this question in this way if I hadn’t worked at magazines. And I utilize magazines also to learn. And I did. I used them for two things within myself. To learn the process of what I was doing. And I moved around a lot.

I never worked at a magazine more than two years because I always wanted to learn what I was doing through a different landscape. There are lots of people that get a job and stay there for decades. I am someone who I learn what I need to learn and then I move on. I have always been that way. And so for me, it was what can I learn about the subject matter? I learned about the financial world, honestly, working in Money Magazine. I learned about the inner workings of celebrity culture, working at Entertainment Weekly. I learned about the wellness world at Health Magazine. I learned about technology working at Wired, working at ReadyMade, working at Afar. I really immerse myself in the subject matter to learn more about how these stories focused on this particular field. What was the combination, what was the metrics, what was the engineering of the subject matter? And so I was always kind of process nerd, if that makes sense. And that’s what I was always looking for. And with magazines, the process can become repetitive because you’re doing the same combination of things. And so the first year I was learning about the magazine and the second year I was learning about the subject matter. And then like clockwork, I’d come to the end of the two years and I’d move on.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, was this sense of agency the inspiration behind you starting your studio?

George McCalman:
Yes. I reached a point where I realized I wasn’t learning anything more. I wasn’t learning anything new. And I had all these skills that I wanted to apply in a different way. And it was working at ReadyMade that gave me the inspiration to open up my own studio, which was the second to last corporate magazine job that I had. And ReadyMade was a magazine about do-it-yourself design. It’s basically recycling. What we now call upcycling. It’s taking something that is at the end of its road as it’s being used and refashioning it for something else where it has an entirely new shelf life and you can use those things. And it was really just clever. It was just really clever design solutions. It’s taking cloths and making a kite out of it, or taking old jeans and turning it into place mats. Just stuff like that that is seen as quaint now, but was really at the vanguard of this recycling movement that is just more every day and more common.

It was recycling before recycling, even in California, was as ubiquitous as it is now. And I got to work with a lot of makers. People who just made things and who were just passionately, quietly … And not starting businesses, but just people who were making things for their own edification, for their homes. And I was honestly just really inspired. And I was just kind of like, oh, I know a lot of people who are working for themselves. And when I started thinking about it, I would talk to friends and contemporaries and professional acquaintances and everyone said, “Do it, do it. Do it. When you work for yourself, you will never go back to the corporate world.” And they were right.

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

George McCalman:
It has both changed and remained the same. My interest is in culture. The identity of culture. And so I have coined a phrase just internally in my professional world that I am interested in culture clients. And in the early days it was … I live in San Francisco, so there are lots of artisans. There are people who are making small batches of things. There are restaurant owners. I was always working with clients who were working for themselves and needed help with the language and the messaging around branding. And so I worked with restaurants and I designed products and chocolates and tea, but I was really kind of more comprehensive. It was less me coming in to just design a package and it was basically working on the whole branding from the logo to the identity to the strategy to the messaging to the website, just the whole thing. And I realized that I was drawing on my editorial background to tell the whole story.

And so it expanded to … I started working with the tech world and then quickly stopped. Because I realized that they … I remember having a meeting with Uber. This was like 10 years ago. I was working with TripAdvisor and Uber. And these are big names, big clients at the time. I can tell you, TripAdvisor, I consulted with them for almost two years. They didn’t know how to assign photography. And so I worked with them comprehensively working with a photo editor to basically get them a library of photographers, come up with a system of rate assignments. Just basically the basics that one of the largest companies in the travel world had no awareness of. With Uber, it was they had been focused on the service for so long and they were starting to atrophy some of their customers because there was no story. There was nothing.

And the people who started Uber did not think that that was important until suddenly it was. And I remember having a meeting with them where I was like, “Oh, they’re just taking my ideas. I’m just here speaking to them.” And I was like, I don’t trust this field. I don’t want to have my intellectual property just ripped off and I’m not on the inside, so they’re not going to value what I’m doing. They’re going to treat me like a vendor, and I’m not anyone’s vendor. And I was really clear about my value to myself. And so I stopped working with the tech world for a few years and really just focused more on the one-on-one. And I worked with larger companies, but it was still where I had direct access to the founders and the CEOs so that I could thread continuity between what I was doing. I didn’t want to work with any intermediary people, so I had to be conscious of the scale that I was working in just to make sure that the projects didn’t get away from me. And I was also clear with myself that I wanted to keep my studio small, because I wanted to keep it manageable and basically control and frame the quality of the work that I was doing. I didn’t want to be embarrassed by anything that I was doing if it got too corporate.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that idea of culture clients because yeah, working with tech companies, they will just relegate you to vendor status and-

George McCalman:
And they will just steal your shit.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’ll steal it.

George McCalman:
No compunction about it. And it’s the people who don’t know what they’re doing that want to steal your shit.

Maurice Cherry:
And I know in my instance, when I have worked with tech clients, it felt like … Or at least I entered into it thinking it would be more of a partnership. We would maybe bounce ideas off of each other or things like this. And in some instances, they just wanted to just cut the check, which I mean, look, I’ll take your money. I don’t have a problem with that. But I was really thinking that it would be more based on how the initial conversations went, why you sought me out, et cetera. And then it just ends up not being that. They just want to have it to be a bullet point on a DEI presentation.

George McCalman:
It is rarely that. And this is even before DEI so there was no representative of that. And that was the other reason. That I was often the only black person. And I was like, “No, I don’t want to do this.” I left publishing because I was tired of being the only black person. And for me, the tech industry has just become the new media publishing industry. I can see the corollaries and a lot of the people, a lot of my contemporaries have gone over and taken our playbook into the tech world. I mean, Apple very much has snapped up a lot of the most prominent magazine editorial art directors in the field in the United States. And so many of their campaigns, I’m looking and I can see the editorial strata of how these stories are shot and presented. It’s all going in that direction. And it should, because it’s the best form of storytelling. Advertising as a medium, as a typical form, I think is not very good at storytelling.

Maurice Cherry:
No, they are not. In addition to the work that you do through your studio, and you alluded to this earlier in the interview, you’re a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. How did that come about?

George McCalman:
Well, it came about the year that I started the original 29 day project of Illustrated Black History. I tell you, Maurice, it was just a year where I just lost my mind and just began drawing and painting obsessively, just everything. I was just manic for it. And it was like it had been bottled up and it all just came out. And so that year I took a sabbatical, which means that I stopped taking on work. And when I tell you that I had no money, I mean I had no money. I was just living off of my savings. It was a really reckless thing to do, and I’m a pretty cautious person. And I knew that it was the right thing because it just came so easily to me. I fired all my clients and just started everything from scratch. And so I gave myself the time to do that, and I was also trying to figure out how to make a living with it.

And so I ended up doing a series. A series of series. And that is also a playbook from my magazine days. You tell a story in multiple images, threading a narrative and a continuity from beginning, middle to end. And so I did several series on my family, on Illustrated Black History, and then I started documenting the visual identity of San Francisco. And I was really fascinated by the human ecosystem of the Bay Area. And I’d been working on another series about how the tech industry started in the Bay Area and how it could not really have started anywhere else and just all of these threads were coming together. And I had this epiphany one day where I knew that I wanted to do a culture column on the makeup, on the genetic makeup of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

And I had been inspired by a morbid thing. It was when Bill Cunningham, who used to be a columnist for the New York Times, and he was a style photographer and he documented black style in Brooklyn and Harlem, and he equated black style with high fashion, which is something the fashion industry did not do and still does not do, even though they think they do. I was just like, “Oh, I think this is what I should do.” And I remember writing a pitch and deciding whether I was going to send it to the New York Times or the San Francisco Chronicle. And because of my magazine background, I outlined everything to myself and I wrote a pro and con list about the San Francisco Chronicle versus the New York Times and how much creative freedom I was going to have. And the whole idea for the column was that I would be writing, illustrating and designing this column, documenting various events that gave you a larger sense of what the Bay Area was all about and what made it unique and special and also frustrating and just all of the things that just brought all the complexities in.

And I sent that to the woman who became my editor, and she wrote back immediately and she said, “This is brilliant. We’re going to do this.” And I remember thinking at the time, “Holy shit. I didn’t think she’d respond this quickly, and now I have to do this on a monthly basis.” And it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I would go out to cultural events several nights a week, and I just became this man about town for years. And I would show up as a reporter with my notebook and my pens, and sometimes I would live draw and sometimes I would draw later on and I just drew this column every month and designed it for the style section of the Chronicle, and I did that for years.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. When it comes to work between what you do in your studio and what you do for the newspaper, is your approach different for each one?

George McCalman:
I work in parallel lines, as I’m sure my answers are starting to illustrate. I’m always on the inside and outside of what I do, and I’m looking at both sides of it at the same time. And I think I developed that skill as a magazine person because there’s not just the story that you’re working on, it’s the process of how the story is being made that is as important as the story that you’re making. And as a designer, you are at the intersection of words and images, and so you’re never just looking at one aspect of anything. And it has just expanded my brain, I think, where now I can’t help but think of everything through this parallel thread of thinking. And so in terms of making this column for years, I knew that I was training myself to do basically all aspects of what I was doing.

I was always an art director, so I would have been the designer of the column, but I would’ve been working with a writer and working with an illustrator. But in combining all of those skills, I was sharpening my capabilities, but I was also training myself for this kind of repetitive monthly grind where it just became less of a grind. I remember the first year I was just stressed out all the time, and then suddenly it settled and it was not a stress anymore. And the column used to take me several days to do. And towards the end of that initial run, it would take me 24 hours to do the whole thing. And it just became a little more fine tuned. I really was able to pace myself. I knew what I needed to do. I knew what I needed to accomplish. And so you just anticipate what you need and then you do it.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say your artistic style has evolved over the years?

George McCalman:
To answer your previous question, I do … And I’m answering both at the same time. I think I have developed a way of backing into the style. I often don’t know what style I’m going to do when I start something, and this book is evidence of that. I really just feel my way into what I was doing. The original column had a lot of different styles, but I basically invented a newspaper style because I wanted it to be stylized. I had to do things quickly, it had to be out of a economy of time. So I developed a shortcut of illustrating that for the longest time my contemporaries thought was my style. And then when I started working on the book, even close friends were like, “Oh, this is totally different from what you have been doing with the Chronicle.”

And I was like, “Yeah, this book is actually what my work is actually.” But I’ve been doing this shorter version of it for a while and it has just become what I’ve been known for. But the truth is I tend to start from scratch every single time, and I do it in my design world and whether I’m designing something, whether I am illustrating it, fine art, it is a brand new thing every time I’m sitting to do it, even if I’ve done it before. And so I’m considering all of the layers. I was like, what is best going to serve this story? Is it something that’s in pencil? Is it something that is in paint? Is it typography? I just think freshly about everything that I’m doing, and I throw out what has come before. I honor what has come before, but I don’t get stuck in the nostalgia of what I’m doing. I will throw everything out and start it up again if I think that that is the right thing to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that have really helped motivate and inspire you over the years?

George McCalman:
There are so many hidden figures in my life. The truth is, it’s not a lot of artists. The artists who inspire my work are not contemporary artists. They’re people that I grew up admiring. And where I find my inspiration is not really in other people, it’s in nature. The natural world really provides a lot of my motivation. But in terms of the people who have inspired they’re close family friends, they’re people I consider mentors in my life that have just always been many times the last few years where I’ve just admitted to my internal community, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just literally making this up. And there have been many times, there were many times that first year of launching out as an artist where there wasn’t a month that went by that I was like, “I don’t think this is going to work. I think I need to stop doing this. I don’t think I’m going to figure out how to make a living. I don’t think this is working.”

And no one person would let me do that. Everyone was just like, “Nope, nope, nope. Keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going.” And I’m grateful for that because that the first year I was absolutely flabbergasted how I was going to make this thing work. And I could see the talent and I could see that there was something there, but how all the pieces fit together in terms of continuity and financial stability, I didn’t see it. And then I got the column and the column I didn’t give the context for. I started six months after I started being an artist. And that was the first light bulb where I was like, oh, I think I know how to package this work.

And then I started getting more assignments and then it just picked up from there. And there were many stages of the process where something else would happen and I’d think, “Oh, okay, yes, that’s how this fits in.” And, “Oh, right. And then I can do that.” And then when I got my book deal, I realized that my column had been training me to do this book and that I had certainly designed lots of books, but this was the first time that I was all things and that I’d been doing a version of that for the last few years. And so I had been prepping myself for this larger project that I think it would’ve been much harder to do if I had not been doing it. So I just started seeing how all the pieces were fitting together.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

George McCalman:
That I get to do what I love. I am happy. I am as happy as a pig in shit. I feel really fortunate that I am passionately in love with the creative world that I’ve given myself. I get to work with all of the things and the skills that I’ve been given. And there’s so much I’ve learned over the years that I get to relearn and apply in a different way. And I’ve learned that I get bored really easily and I’m not bored by anything that I do right now, which tells me that I’m doing the right thing. Learning is an absolute essential part of what I do, and I place myself on the ground floor of everything that I do because I see myself as a student also. And so I remain energized by what I do. I have a genuine love of what I get to do on a daily basis.

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

George McCalman:
I have to say I’m already doing what I see myself doing in another five years. I’m going to be making a lot of books. I’m designing a lot of books. I am making a lot of books. My next book is actually on the publishing industry. And I’m also starting to expand into three-dimensional spaces. I’m finishing up my first stint as an exhibition designer. I’m designing a museum show that is premiering in another few weeks in California and it’s a major show for a major artist by the name of Mike Henderson, as a black artist who is having a renaissance right now and he requested a black designer specifically. And the cultural aspects of design is something I’m really keyed to and always representing the black perspective so the people know that design is not neutral. I went to school and grew up hearing this fallacy that design is objective and neutral, and I know that it is not.

And so I teach in that way, I design in that way, I educate in that way, I work in that way. And so I just see more three-dimensional spaces. I see designing interiors, I see designing fully comprehensive experiences where you can see the two dimensionality of the design process in terms of type and art on the walls, but also the three dimensional aspect. The mood and the tone and the feeling of what you should be feeling, of what the average person can walk into a space and experience. That is what I’m going to be doing a lot of in coming days and weeks and years.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, your work, the book? Of course, we’ll put the book in the show notes, but where can people find out more information about you if they want to follow you?

George McCalman:
Well, the book itself, the book was published in late September of 2022, so it is everywhere. And the book, I’m really happy to share, has gone into its second printing.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

George McCalman:
Thank you. Thank you so much. The response has just been … It has been a very emotional few months as people … Because you make a thing as you know as a designer, but then you don’t really know how people are going to respond to it. And so I have just been amazed and rendered mute many times by the messages that I’ve received and the responses of the people that I’ve met out on the tour. And so this book is everywhere. You can get it at any bookstore, anywhere, all over the country. Of course, I always tell people to support their independent bookstores, so if you are buying it, you don’t have to buy it from the devil, Amazon. There are lots of local bookstores that would love to have your support. And as far as just my social media feed, all of it is the same, whether on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. It is McCalman.co. M-C-C-A-L-M-A-N-C-O, McCalman.co.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, George McCalman, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show for-

George McCalman:
Thank you so much. Thank you, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. One, for just sharing your story of how you come into art and really studied it and then going on as an art director, but then also the process of the book. And I think to me, what is probably most important about this conversation is how you’ve taken that flame of creativity and found a way to really expand it out as far as you can into as many different places as possible. Like you’re teaching, you’re doing client work, you’ve got the book, you’re a columnist, and now I feel like this expansion into 3D space, even as you mentioned, definitely seems like the inevitable next step for where you’re going. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

George McCalman:
Your questions were incredibly thoughtful. I’m really grateful for your interest in talking to me, and thank you. That’s all I’m going to say. Thank you so much.

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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.