John B. Johnson

If you were a part of last week’s State of Black Design conference, then you’ve already been introduced to this week’s guest — John B. Johnson. As the principal of A Small Studio in Seattle, he leads a team of creative professionals that specialize in authentic digital design.

We spoke about how his business has changed through the pandemic, as well as his process with new projects (such as DOSE). He also talked about growing up in Cleveland, studying architecture, and how these experiences led him to start his studio and his moves until settling in Seattle. This is a really thoughtful and deep interview, and I hope John’s story resonates with you all!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

John B. Johnson:
Hey, my name is John Johnson. I am a identity architect and principal of A Small Studio, where we use our gifts of design to bring peace to people’s lives.

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

John B. Johnson:
Maurice, the year is going well.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounded like a loaded question. The way you sighed made it sound like that was going to be a heavy answer.

John B. Johnson:
Every time somebody asked me that question, it’s always heavy because you can reflect on yesterday or you can reflect on the last 10 years that have brought you to this moment to even be ready for this year or ready for last year. And I take that deep breath because it’s an opportunity for me to really intentionally answer that question. For me, man, this year has been incredible because we’ve grown as a company, I’ve grown as a man, I’ve grown as a husband. We’ve grown to six people now. This time last year, we had three so we’ve doubled in size in a year. If anybody knows about growing an agency, every person you add, it adds another layer of complexity.

John B. Johnson:
We’ve already exceeded our revenue that we made last year, this year, which is incredible. We’re in three-and-a-half years in terms of our growth. But more specifically, and I’m turning 33 this year, I’ve been approaching this year very intentionally, because 33 is just a really incredible number for a number of reasons. Me and my wife are also planning on moving back to Cleveland, where I was born and raised, and actually building a home there, and really starting to put in some roots after being a nomad for the last nine years.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s your Jesus Year as the old folks would say.

John B. Johnson:
It’s my Jesus Year. That’s it. You’re right.

Maurice Cherry:
So growing from three people to six people, as folks know, for me, that I’ve done this podcast, I had a studio for nine years called Lunch. You’re absolutely right, every person that you bring on, it’s a different layer of complexity, it changes the culture, it just adds more to the business. Of course, you want to bring people on to help out with tasks. But it’s amazing how even just bringing on one more person can really change the dynamic of everything. What inspired you to create your own studio?

John B. Johnson:
Simple answer, I realized that I had a gift for branding and I realized that the people that needed branding the most, organizations that needed branding the most had very little access to it because of how inaccessible it was through the agencies. As you know, the cost goes up really high the more people you add. I actually set out with a friend of mine, Troy Thomas, who’s our creative director, and the co-founder of A Small Studio to create a agency that really made branding accessible to individuals and organizations that really were attempting to make an impact in the world. So you can say that I saw how ridiculous agency costs were to impact organizations and how inaccessible they were. And I decided that I was going to build an agency that made that work as accessible as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, given the name of the business, A Small Studio, is the goal to keep it pretty small?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah. In the typical sense of the word, small, we want to make sure that we stay smaller in size as far as the team, specifically. However, we know that through technology and through our skill set of design, that we can actually reach many people with our work with products, with services, with education, so on and so forth. So we want to stay small in the physical sense of the word. We don’t want that large overhead, we want to get rid of middle people, account managers, project managers, things like that. And we want to only have people in our team that are intentional about the work, and how they can use their gift to bring peace to our clients and to communities that we interact with. I can dive into that more, but we want to stay small physically so that we can make more impact externally with the resources that we will have and the resources that we can gain through that small nature.

Maurice Cherry:
You said earlier that revenues already exceeded what you’ve made from last year. So it sounds like business has really kind of, I guess, changed and improved over the past year or so given the state of the world.

John B. Johnson:
I don’t think it’s any shocker to people that technology is booming, especially when it comes to digital design. So that’s what we specialize in, is authentic digital design, I want to say. With these organizations and these technology companies, startups, money is still flowing through the tech space. A lot of money, if not more money, than before. And these organizations, they need designers, they need people that can not only help them get started but also help them grow to the next level. As we built our reputation over the last three years, we’re getting more and more referrals from people that we’ve served in the past and it’s been spectacular.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your process look like when you start out with a new project?

John B. Johnson:
We always say everything starts with identity. So when I start working with a organization, first off, we want to make sure that they are a good fit to work with us and we’re a good fit for them, and then we dive into who they are. I actually have started to make it a requirement for my clients to go through the Identity Architecture Workshop, which is a individual workshop to help people reflect on who they are as individuals. Say, “What makes you one in 7.8 billion?” I created this workshop to really help people reflect so they can live life on purpose or live more authentically, and align who they are with their passions and their motivations. I found that through agency, and you may be able to relate to this, Maurice, I really have no desire to work with people that are just doing their work for money or doing their work for things that really aren’t eternal or aren’t connected to their experiences as individuals.

John B. Johnson:
I’ve started to create these workshops to really start to filter out the nonsense or I like to say the clutter of the industry of the world and start to get to the core of who someone is. And that happens through the Individual Identity Architecture Workshop. And then we take the whole team through a Corporate Identity Architecture Workshop. And what that does is that gives me and my design team a authentic foundation to build off of and start designing the brand identity and everything that goes into a brand identity. And then now distributing that brand identity into the products and/or experiences that we will be designing for them.

John B. Johnson:
As of right now, one of our clients is ShearShare with Dr. Tye Caldwell and Courtney Caldwell out of Texas. They’re actually in Dallas and they are building a marketplace for the beauty industry. Actually, they call themselves the HAIRbnb. They actually help stylists and barbers to find seats or chairs across the country but also help the salon owners sell their chairs and make sure that they’re getting revenue from them. That is something that’s unique and core to who they are as people. Well, Dr. Tye is a master barber and they want to build a community around that. So we have taken them through that exact process that I shared with you and been able to apply their authentic identity to their mobile application in the marketplace that they’re building.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really interesting way of … Because I guess, in a way, you’re sort of also onboarding the client by kind of letting them see how you work and what your values are and why they’re important to how you do business. I can see that being a big clarifying step. Because sometimes you’ll get clients and they just want the work. They don’t necessarily care about the why behind it. They just sort of need a set of hands to do the work. And it sounds like those are not the best kinds of clients for you to work with. Which makes sense, because you’re spending the time to really sort of get to know them, have them get to know you and build something together.

John B. Johnson:
Exactly. That’s what makes this so fulfilling for me. I’m not going to burn out by getting to know people. That’s for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from working with clients, are there sort of projects that you initiate on your own through the studio?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah. Many, actually. There’s been projects that have come to me, most of our business has been built through relationships that I either already had or developed as I was building the business. So we’re very relational in the way that we’ve done business. We’ve actually have had maybe one client that wasn’t a referral from someone. So as I mentioned before, how do we make this work more accessible? There’s been many people that have come to me seeking support, thinking that they need a logo or thinking that they need a website. And I’ve been able to help people get through those early stages of their company or their startup or their idea because I’ve been able to do that myself.

John B. Johnson:
And I’ve gone through that process of building a startup, building a brand from scratch, building a mobile application from scratch. I not only helped them really assess what is their next step, simplify their approach, that MVP or lean startup model. But then I actually am able to spend that time coaching them, supporting them, and then use my team to maybe help them get started. Whether that’s a brand identity, whether that’s a website, whether that’s some mock ups of a mobile application to help them get some investments. And these are typically people that have nothing but a desire to help make the world a better place. Or like I said, bring peace to people’s lives.

John B. Johnson:
I’ve done this in the past when one of my buddies came to me saying, “Hey, I have this idea and I want to do it, I need to do it.” He’s actually building a marketplace to make the world more generous. And he was building a marketplace that would help people like millennials, maybe people our age, give more. And the way he thought that would happen is if he can actually allow millennials who have a lot of their money locked up in stocks, [inaudible 00:14:42] use with their corporations. I know that I’m like that with me and my wife. My wife works at Amazon so we have a lot of our wealth locked up in stocks. What if you can actually give one stock to a nonprofit that you loved, and what if you give one stock, that stock will continue to get gain value but that you don’t have cash. So give that stock.

John B. Johnson:
He was changing the way that people would give. I loved the idea and I believed in him as the leader. So me and my team helped him create a brand identity for his company, and we created some mock ups. He got launched. The next year, he was already doing, I think, $30,000 a month in reoccurring revenue. He had closed his seed round. And then he came back to us for some help to build out his platform further. We did that all completely for free just because we believed in him.

John B. Johnson:
And there’s been other projects that have come and gone. But we just do the work because we believe in the people not because they can pay or not pay. That’s the business but we have a responsibility as designers to help these products come to life and these people launched their products to the world, especially impact driven leaders. That’s something that keeps me on fire every day because what we’re doing is we’re building a creative studio that we can create anything with this team. Why would we ever say no when we know it’s going to make a huge impact in the world?

Maurice Cherry:
One of the projects that I saw that you created was this website called Dose. And I heard that you and your team built that in four days. Can you tell me the story behind that?

John B. Johnson:
Dose is one of those projects, I don’t know if you’ve ever had that moment, Maurice, where you just do something because it feels right. And the next thing you know, you’re like, “Man, that’s what we should be doing forever moving forward.” That was Dose. So Dose happened I want to say beginning of June, it was shortly after George Floyd was murdered, and was publicized all over the interwebs. I actually didn’t hear about George Floyd until a friend of mine called me and told me about it. He was really, really torn up about it. So I was able to be there with him in that moment because I had not seen the video yet. But then after he called me, I had to go and see the video.

John B. Johnson:
I’m sure many of us, I was nauseated. I felt a feeling in me that I don’t think I ever felt before, and I had no idea what to do. So I went back to work in my bedroom, as all of us were, in June. Protests were taking place, Seattle was on fire in many ways because me and my wife live right downtown. There were people that were storming the Patagonia that is literally right across the street from my bedroom. There are people shooting guns off to break into the stores, there are people peacefully protesting, and I had no idea what to do. I wanted to go out and protest, my wife did not feel safe or comfortable so I wanted to support her and make sure she was okay. Then I also have my team to deal with on a regular basis, talking through with them.

John B. Johnson:
But there was a moment when I was on a client call and while I was on it, I lost interest completely. I want to say I’m a pretty present person, and I could not stay present. I was like, “Why am I on this call and all of this is taking place right outside my doors?” I felt so inauthentic to myself. I remember getting off that call, and I laid on my bedroom floor, which is my office, and I curled up in a ball and I started crying. I called my mom. And I’m like, “Ma, I don’t know what to do.” Bless her soul, she sang me a song. That’s all I needed to hear at that moment. Then I went for a run, which running, for me, is my way of not only meditating but also releasing. I went for a run, and while I was on a run, I want to say I heard God tell me that, “John, you are acting inauthentic. I’ve given you this team to do something so use the team and do something. That’s what the team is here for, is to bring peace to people’s lives. Do it.”

John B. Johnson:
Through, I guess my nature, I literally stopped and I called my clients and I told them, “Hey, we got to do something about this. We’re shutting down the business for two weeks. If you have a problem with that, I understand. We’ll do our best to accommodate. And if you don’t have a problem with that, we really appreciate it because I need to do something and move this needle forward.” Every one of my clients was completely understanding about it. I called my partner and told him like, “Hey, this is what we’re doing.” I called the team, told them, and next thing you know, we had, I think, 12 people on a call that night to figure out what we were going to do to move this needle forward. How are we going to use our gifts to bring peace to people’s live. Dose came out of that.

John B. Johnson:
And one of the woman on the call, her name was Dr. Julia Garcia [inaudible 00:19:58] and she is a psychologist, she specializes in mental health. And she had a framework that really, she used with a lot of youth to help them work through how they were feeling. She calls these Doses. When we thought about that, we were like, “How do we create contents that can help people use their voice and share their perspective, share their Black perspective, and also help others listen to that perspective in an intentional way that’s not just absorbing content on social media?” We worked through that whole problem that evening. And then over the next four days, we had a team of, say, 10 people, all of the small studio and then others who were there to support. It was one intern and there was actually one of our employees who was planning to join us that next week or so, and he joined us early to work on this project with us.

John B. Johnson:
Over those four days, we built out this whole platform. We built out the brand identity, just like I told you, in our process. We built out the web application, utilizing Webflow in no-code. In four days, we were launched and shared it with our community. Over that time, we got so many stories of people sharing about a time when they got pulled over by the cops and how they fear for their life. A time when they went running after Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in the street on a jog and how that felt afterwards. We saw this change in this shift of people being able to hear the story in a new way, but also share their story in a new way.

John B. Johnson:
Now this day, Julia Garcia, who we built it for, it’s her product. It’s not ours, it’s hers. We built it with her, we built it for her. She now uses that in all of her presentations that she does the youth, that she does with corporate workshops. She still uses this platform to not only gather information to serve those people better, but also to allow them a space to deal with their emotions, just like I did.

Maurice Cherry:
The project is still up and running today, right?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah, the website’s still live. We built it for Dr. J and she is still crafting her life’s work to figure out how to use it in the best ways. So she’s using it, it’s still on there, giveadose.co. If you want to go on there, you can share your story or even participate in some of the activities that are on there.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s amazing how many things have arose out of last summer, really. You’re in Seattle, off the top of my head, I think about the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, and how much that was in the news in terms of the protests and people sort of creating this sort of, I guess, you could call it a safe space. I’m trying to remember from what it was during the summer, but creating this space of no police intervention and things of that nature. There’s a number of different initiatives and events and things. I mean, that time, I think really woke a lot of people up. Or at the very least, I think it just exposed them to long standing issues and things, which of course, you and I, as Black men know, have always been there. But because there’s no travel, there’s no sports, there’s no entertainment, now so many more people are forced to really confront it at face value at times when probably before they never did.

John B. Johnson:
And on top of that, I mean, I gave you a very vivid response to how I reacted to that moment. But I also did not just go and engaged in the way that everybody was doing it. I had to find and take a moment to figure out what was the way that I was going to get involved uniquely me, with my experience, with my guests, with my resources that I have in my family. And I think that that’s something that everybody I hope took some time to do during that time when we didn’t have all the distractions that we normally would have is say, “How can I show up uniquely in this moment?” Not to just run with the herd, but also like, “Hey, is this what I’m called to do?” If I am to protest peacefully or to go out and talk to a police officer that we know or to build them a website.

John B. Johnson:
Whatever it is, it’s just that space that you talked about, it created space for me to reflect on who I was. And it brought up some really, I want to say, deep-seated things that I never dealt with because I am mixed race. My mom is Italian, my dad is Black. I never met my father. But some of the things that I shared during that time with the team that was helping me build the Dose platform was that I was a product of racial tension. And I never actually thought about that until I started to see the nation and my family and my friends and the city that I was living in start to be torn apart physically right in front of me. Because I, like many other people, may have not had to deal with it in that way.

John B. Johnson:
So I started to reflect on who I was and my story and my unique perspective. And my unique perspective was the fact that I am a product of racial tension. And how do I use that to help others start to bridge the gap between races, whether it’s Black and white or mixed race and Black or whatever it is, I just use that as an opportunity. And I’m so glad that I had that opportunity because I don’t know if I would have ever taken that time to reflect on that moment, not only let alone use it, to start to project me forward in a more authentic and intentional way.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit, because you’ve brought up your family, your mom, your dad. Tell me about where you grew up.

John B. Johnson:
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, actually. Right on Lake Erie.

Maurice Cherry:
What was it like growing up there?

John B. Johnson:
I was born in ’88. So I grew up, most of my childhood was spent during the ’90s, early 2000s. Cleveland, in that time, I want to say was pretty poor. Do you know of Bone Thugs and Harmony? Which I hope you do. That was their heyday, during the ’90s. Cleveland was pretty rough, I would say, especially where we grew up. We grew up on the west side of Cleveland, on West 69th in Detroit. So we were just right outside of the city. To give you some context, I actually grew up in a, I want to say, a pretty much Italian neighborhood. Actually, there was a time people there were Puerto Ricans, there were a lot of different types of cultures in Cleveland, which is why I love the city so much. But they all didn’t really want to be with each other, so another part of that racial tension.

John B. Johnson:
Let alone my mom, being a single white mother. I have two older sisters and an older brother who are all mixed race also. When I was 10 years old, my brother ended up … Was involved in a gang, ended up shooting someone, and die the next day. So my brother ended up turning himself in. And he’s been in prison since then. That was in 1999. He was 17 years old. That, I want to say, was a big part of my childhood. 10 years old, the only guy in my life ended up going to prison in that way. It was one of those experiences that really helped me stay away from those things, the system, the temptations, the opportunities to get into that type of trouble.

John B. Johnson:
I like to say that my brother was somewhat of a sacrifice for me to stay out of becoming a statistic in that way. One in three Black men in America will end up in prison in their lifetime. My brother ended up there and I made sure, my sisters also made sure that I didn’t follow in his footsteps. So that was a big part of my childhood. And that was, I think, a good representation of Cleveland in the ’90s. And I want to say that it was a great place for me to grow up outside of some of those events. I think it’s a really Midwest, kind of small, big city to grow up in Cleveland. A lot of culture, a lot of experiences. But it also was a very poor and hostile environment during the ’90s and early 2000s. And I’m just grateful that I was able to have a supportive family like my sisters to help me end up going to a private high school. And ultimately, one of the reasons why I got into architecture school.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you grow up in Little Italy?

John B. Johnson:
We were the little Little Italy. So we were in Little Italy that typically people know of. We were just outside of there, but they had a strong Italian hold and they would paint the fire hydrants the Italian flag and the flag poles and all of that. They had a strong culture there.

Maurice Cherry:
I know a little about Cleveland. My dad’s side of the family is from Cleveland and Youngstown, in the sort of Cleveland-ish area. I’ve only been … How many times I’ve been to Cleveland? Once or twice. I want to say at least twice. I know I’ve been once as an adult, which was back in 2014, 2015 for an event there. Cleveland’s a great city. Cleveland’s a great city. I really enjoyed my time there. I like how scrappy the city is. There’s a certain grit to Cleveland that … I mean, coming from Atlanta, I sort of see that same type of grit, that same type of hustle. I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Maybe because it’s Midwest, it’s sort of buttressed by the railroad industry, steam industry, coal. All of that, I guess. It’s more industrious, I should say. I had a great time when I visited Cleveland. It’s interesting, you also mentioned that about your brother. I’m curious with your brother, I don’t mean to go too far into this or anything, but you mentioned that he was sort of this influence on you, even though he wasn’t really around. Did you feel like a lot of pressure being the only man in the house?

John B. Johnson:
I want to follow up with a question with you for asking that, because I feel like you would have to understand that to really even ask that question. Yes, 100%. I felt an immense amount of pressure to not only be a man, but also to be a support to my sisters and my mother, who also had struggled with men in their life. They are all single mothers, even to this day. So not only was I watching them go through relationship after relationship, man after man, that I had to observe and watch how they would respond because I was the youngest by seven years below my brother. So that made me nine years younger than my youngest sister, and 11 years younger than my oldest sister. So I felt that a lot of pressure, 100%, to attempt to be a man.

John B. Johnson:
Which actually, ultimately, after leaving Cleveland, which I want to say that pressure was the reason why I left, was I started to find out that that pressure even existed. Because before that, I didn’t know that that pressure existed on me. And I set out to only make them proud, make my sisters proud for taking care of me and being able to send me to school. Make my mom proud because I know she had a son that ended up going to prison. Even though my brother is my best friend, and I talk to him every single day, even today I talk to him every single day, because he’s a big part of my life, back then, I didn’t talk to him at all. I don’t even know him.

John B. Johnson:
I was just the kid, the boy that had all the opportunities and talent. I was smart, I was athletic, so on and so forth. And I want to say that that was a lot of pressure but I used it, thank God, I use it in the right way. Because that’s what got me through architecture school and ending up being the only Black person in my graduating class to get my master’s of architecture, to get my MBA. Also, at the same time to be able to actually move out of Cleveland. Because I’m the only one in my family to ever leave Cleveland.

John B. Johnson:
That pressure is exactly what I needed I think, in that time in order to grow into the man that I am. And now I’ve been able to release that pressure because it was all made on me. I made it up. And now over these last nine years after being away from Cleveland, I’m now returning to Cleveland with my wife and I’m ready to be there, and to be there for that city, and to be in that city and be there for my family because now I know what it means to be a man. I had no idea what that meant back when I was 10 years old, because I had no men in my life.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I empathize with that largely because my older brother also … It happened when I was 14, I think, he went to prison. I guess the relationship is different from what you’re mentioning with your brother in that you all are still friends. Actually, that time has completely estranged us. We are strangers to each other. He’s out now. He’s four years older than me. He’s out now. But we are complete strangers to each other. And the reason that I asked about that pressure is because I empathize with that not just the pressure of you now being the only man in the house that has to sort of provide, in a way, but then you’re also the baby, which I’m also the baby in my family, you can’t be the breadwinner and the baby. You can’t be both in that respect.

Maurice Cherry:
But then also going to school and being really smart and being really recognized for that … There are very few people I think, that really understand that sort of weird push-pull tension of being in school and achieving and doing really well and being recognized for that. And then you come back to this home life that is not that. You know what I mean? I don’t know if I’m really articulating it properly. I think you get where I’m coming from in a nonverbal way even though we can’t see each other.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s a weird particular kind of tension, because certainly, you’re achieving and you’re doing well but yet, you also have this societal pressure, this familial pressure to do well. It’s almost in a way, like you’re under a microscope. Every kind of decision that you do is scrutinized and looked over. When you said, “The pressure is why I left,” I felt that I felt 100%. “The pressure is why I left.” Because you want to break out from that crucible. You want to see what’s out there in the world past Cook County. Cleveland’s in Cook County, right?

John B. Johnson:
Cuyahoga.

Maurice Cherry:
Cuyahoga County, sorry about that. You want to break out past the county and sort of see what’s out there in the world, see if the person that that society has sort of formed you to be can exist outside of that. Because I think it’s one thing when you’re like a kid, and you’re being recognized for all your talents and things like that, but you’re like, “Can you cut it outside of this sort of environment where you’re being praised and lifted up? Can you really do well outside of that structure?” If that makes any sense.

John B. Johnson:
I think that you articulated well, Maurice. There’s not only the pressure of the family and being the baby and knowing that you should do better than those that come before you because you should be able to learn from their mistakes. But the fact is, is that as a man, being raised by all women, I felt very alone in the way that I felt, in the way that I operate and the things that I was thinking and doing and so on and so forth. Nobody could relate to me because I was the only man in my life. The only role models that I had were all attempting to court, for lack of a better word, my sisters and my mother, and I couldn’t trust them. I wanted to, but I didn’t know them. I didn’t know my father, I didn’t know anything. So I had to find out who I was almost on my own because I had no other men in my life.

John B. Johnson:
And I think that that’s a common thread in America. Especially Black America, you find our generation, the millennial generation, is one of the most … We don’t have a lot of father figures and male role models that can teach us what it means to be a man. And the generation that come before us also. That’s something I’ve had to realize, I had to get away to realize those things. I was able to use the pressure in a way of helping me accomplish and overcome a lot of barriers, which would be getting my master’s degree and leaving and so on and so forth, which aren’t easy things for anyone to do and I know that.

John B. Johnson:
But the biggest thing is, what do you do after you overcome and release the pressure? What do you do with that? That’s where I think my journey started, was when I left Cleveland and started to actually understand who I was as John B. Johnson, and not who I was as the brother and the son and the uncle and all the other things that came with that responsibility, because I had no idea what all of that was. I didn’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, man, I feel you. I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s funny, I did an interview last year and someone asked me this very, kind of the same thing I’m asking you. They were sort of like, “How did you deal with it?” And it’s sort of like that, I guess, it’s like a parable or a tale about the frog in boiling water. And how the frog is sitting in the water and then you continually crank the heat up, and the water gets to the point where it’s boiling, the frog doesn’t know that the water is boiling, they’re just in the water. That’s what that experience is like.

Maurice Cherry:
You know that there are all of these psychosocial factors that are affecting you at the time but you’re not thinking of it in this sort of outside way, like, “I have to strive to do better and get through this.” You’re just getting through it. You’re just having to go through life. It’s something that you can look back on, I think, with reflection and introspection and hindsight. You look back and you’re like, “Damn, I really went through some shit and I came out on the other side.” But when you’re in it, you don’t really know that you’re in it.

John B. Johnson:
And that’s why I think it’s so important for people to leave their environments, at least for a little bit, to start to see it from a different angle and a different perspective, if possible.

Maurice Cherry:
So you ended up going to Kent State, you study architecture. What was your time like there?

John B. Johnson:
Well, Kent State was the first time I was able to go and be on my own even though I was only 45 minutes away from home. I went to all boys …

Maurice Cherry:
That’s far enough.

John B. Johnson:
That’s far enough, exactly. It’s far enough for my mom to come in and grab my laundry for me. So it was perfect. I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, Benedictine High School in Cleveland. After that, I think I wanted to rebel a little bit so when I left high school, I kind of rebranded myself, which actually is a interesting point of … I call these filtering moments throughout my life. High school and college was a filtering moment where I not only filtered the people and friends that I had, but I also filtered who I was and tried on some new John Johnson. One of those ways was just obviously being away from home. Another one was just filtering out the people that I hung out with. This was also a new phase, because I had no idea what architecture was all about when I went into it.

John B. Johnson:
I knew I was good at math, I knew that I wanted to do something in engineering and mechanical. Architecture was that balance of art and science that I found to be fascinating but I had no idea what it was truly. So when I enrolled and got accepted, I took it. I had to filter a lot of my habits because architecture, if you know, is one of the hardest Bachelors of Science degrees that you can get. It was not easy. So I filtered a lot of my habits of hanging out with friends and partying and drinking and all of these other things that attempt to be the good students and to get through the schooling, which was excruciating.

John B. Johnson:
Going from high school, which is pretty easy to me, to college was a huge shift, especially in this focus of architecture. So my first semester, I almost fell out, I got a 1.9 GPA. Thank God, I did not get kicked out but I was able to … that was a wake up call that I needed, “Hey, John, this is an opportunity that you squander,” which I think happens a lot to people, especially kids going into college for the first time. So I took that as a kick in the butt and I got my GPA up to 3.5 by the time I graduated, but it was an uphill climb from there. And my whole time there was all about architecture, because that was the only way I was going to survive.

John B. Johnson:
Studying, I was in a studio, I pulled many all-nighters to do the work there. I don’t think I had a very similar experience as many people might have at Kent State, which is known as being a party school in many ways. But Kent State has an incredible architecture program that is accredited and nationally ranked. So I was blessed with the opportunity to be a part of that program. And it gave me a lot of opportunities like studying abroad in Italy for my junior year. I actually got to study abroad in Florence, Italy, and that changed my whole perspective of the world. One of the reasons why I couldn’t stay in Cleveland after I graduated, I knew there was so much more out there.

John B. Johnson:
I got to go to the UAE, United Arab Emirates, and actually present a project there. I go to Amsterdam. I got to see the world. And that perspective really changed my life, it changed my perspective. And it’s no wonder that I’m the first one in my family to leave Cleveland, still one of the first people in my friends group to leave Cleveland because I got those incredible opportunities that I think are a privilege. I actually gave a talk about this, Maurice, before. I say that design thinking is a privileged way of thinking. And I want to say that, again, that idea of design thinking during architecture school, by going and studying in Italy, by going to UAE and seeing these different cultures and meeting with different designers across the world. And not many people get those opportunities.

John B. Johnson:
So you want to talk about pressure, I’m just thankful that I had those opportunities but I also know in my heart that my family didn’t get those opportunities. My brother didn’t get that opportunity. My mother, my sisters, even my nieces and nephew haven’t gotten those opportunities. But I did so what am I going to do with them? That was the question I kept on asking myself after I graduated when I decided to get my master’s in architecture and my MBA at the same time. Like, “What am I going to do with them?” I have a responsibility to do something special with these gifts. And I think that that’s really what Kent State really set me on the path to do.

Maurice Cherry:
I almost failed out my first semester of college, too.

John B. Johnson:
We got to hang out more, man. We got to hang out more.

Maurice Cherry:
I got to Morehouse and I lost my mind. It was so different from everything that I had known and had grown up around. It was a big city. This was right after the Olympics, and Freaknik was sort of dying out. It was right after the Olympics and Atlanta, I mean, Atlanta still has a reputation of being a party city. But back then, man, I tell you, the clubs would actually send charter buses to the college, they would pick you up, take you out to the club, you’d go to the club, do whatever, and they’d bring you back to the dorm.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I’m surprised I got through my first semester the way I did. I mean, it was wild. So I know exactly where you got it from. But you get to college, you want to try something, try a new identity, kind of see what else is out there. Because now you’re not who you are back home. For me, this is totally different state, totally different city. “I’m going to be somebody different. I’m not going to be the kid that they thought I was back in Selma. No, I’m going to be somebody different.” I know exactly what that’s like.

John B. Johnson:
I don’t know if I would have made it at Morehouse with those stories, man. Kent State, that’s all that was there. It was the university. Ma, way to get through it.

Maurice Cherry:
So you got your master’s degree from Kent State, you graduated. Is the experience of Kent State and studying abroad what caused you to move out of Cleveland?

John B. Johnson:
I want to say it had a big influence on there. Also, my wife now, we went to school together at Kent State. She was a big influence on me, and I’ll admit it. She ended up getting her master’s degree at ASU, Arizona State University, while I was getting my master’s degree at Kent. She, I want to say, was the biggest influence for me to move to Phoenix, even though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time.

Maurice Cherry:
So you get to Phoenix, and you create what is essentially your first startup called Feel Free. What drove you to create your own tech startup after spending so much time working and studying architecture?

John B. Johnson:
While I was working in architecture in Phoenix, I worked there for two years at a firm called Architekton. I had this desire to be an entrepreneur. I don’t know what it was, it was just like this gut feeling of I am not good at being an employee. I had this desire to start to do my own thing. I actually got my real estate license while I was working at the architecture firm and started to use that as a way of allowing me to leave my job. I also realized that I didn’t want to be an architect, in the typical sense of the word. I started to see up close the partners at my firm, and I didn’t see myself as them. So I had to make a big decision to say, “Hey, architecture is not for me.”

John B. Johnson:
When I realized that, I gave them 30 days notice and I left architecture. Right after I did that, my friend of mine talked to me about a project that he wanted me to design a building. And that building, long story short, ended up translating into this mobile app called Feel Free, which was a mobile app that when you walked into any built environments, you were automatically checked into that space and you will see a list of all the other people that were in that space also. And the idea was to create more organic face-to-face connections outside of the typical norm during that time, I think it was 2014, of connecting with people all over the world.

John B. Johnson:
It was taking people out of the space versus making them present to the space. Which the reason why I loved architecture so much was this ability to build the built environment, and to create the human experience within spaces. So when this idea came to life, it was like, “Wow, I could use this as a tool to enhance the experience of any built environment across the world. So it was that aspiration of using technology as a way to enhance, and I want to say multiply the impact that I could have on spaces across the world versus one building at a time. That’s the typical sense of architecture. That’s what inspired me to go down that path of building a tech startup.

Maurice Cherry:
So you started Feel Free, it’s out there, you’re helping people out. What happens?

John B. Johnson:
Well, me and my co-founder gained a lot of traction. I mean, we built a brand that expanded all the way to the UK of people that wanted Feel Free in their space for that specific reason I was just sharing with you. And me and my co-founder, this was our first time ever building a startup. We had no idea what we’re doing. We were learning every day. And after a while, a number of things happened. We didn’t make any money, we did not figure out how to generate cash flow for the app. We were in the process of raising capital for the mobile application. At that time, I was struggling. Remember, I left home.

John B. Johnson:
I was about to go bankrupt. I was back on my car payments, my mortgage. I was back on everything, and I needed cash. My business partner didn’t need cash as much as I needed it, and it caused some friction. It honestly caused a lot of hostility in me, because I was attempting to build this company and make this influence and close the round of capital. Didn’t seem like he was as eager as I was. And honestly, I would say that my ego got in the way, his ego got in the way, and we clashed. Next thing you know, we split up and everything failed. Just literally stopped right there. So that was about a year-and-a-half in. That was my first, I want to say, big failure as an entrepreneur.

Maurice Cherry:
What did that teach you?

John B. Johnson:
I learned a lot both from the failure but also from the successes of that venture. Specifically, with my co-founder, taught me the value of communication with other human being that’s in the business with you, the value of, I want to say, trust. But also the value of not leaving any room for gray area. We get into trouble in business when you leave room, gray area, because it doesn’t make it as black and white as it needs to be. Because the gray area is the fact that we’re human beings, the business is black and white. That’s just something I learned tremendously from that experience. And I will never enter into a business relationship again without a signed operating agreement, without very clear understanding of how things will happen if things happen. Things that we did not have in place when we broke up and when all that friction hit the fan. That was huge for me and it helped me have healthier business relationships moving forward from there.

John B. Johnson:
And on the flip side of that, we built an incredible brand of just a well-known brand across Phoenix. And it started building traction across the world. We built a beautiful mobile application experience. I found my passion for building those communities. Feel Free was when I realized that I had a passion for community building, and I was living that out. Even after we failed, that feedback from people saying that, “Hey, you live that community building piece that Feel Free represented.” That was just a really good piece of encouragement I needed after failing in my first startup but that’s what I used to drive me in all of my other endeavors. Even including A Small Studio now.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that’s a good thing to still be able to kind of draw something from what could be, for a lot of business owners, a really bad situation. You start your own business and it doesn’t work out. And you have to cash out or you have to sell it or you have to shut it down and you have to move on to what the next thing is. I know a lot of times in entrepreneurial culture, and I feel like this is probably specific or maybe endemic of Black entrepreneurs, this whole thing about having to hustle hard and grind and there’s so much emphasis put on making the business work.

Maurice Cherry:
That when it doesn’t work, it can really sort of cast a shadow over you and make you feel like you failed. But you drew something from that experience of the fact that, one, it showed that you know how to build a brand, which is what you’ve been able to use as the catalyst for A Small Studio. But then two, now you know what not to do next time, and that’s a lesson that you really, unfortunately, you have to learn the hard way of what not to do.

John B. Johnson:
I mean, failure is one of those ways of learning so much. I don’t even think failure is a bad thing. I think it’s a really good thing. We’re all going to fail at something. And I hope we do because that helps us learn just, like you just said. It just helps us learn what not to do, it helps us learn what we should do. Those opportunities to reflect are important. I want to comment on the hustle culture that you just shared, because I think it’s just a culture in general, hustle, grind. And that’s one of the main reasons why I want to say I failed at the beginning was I was constantly trying to get to the yes versus getting to the no.

John B. Johnson:
And that was one of the biggest things that I learned on my journey is that as I understand myself better, and I understand what I’m being called to do and what my mission is and vision and focus is, I don’t have to deal with trying to work with everybody and trying to get money from everybody, to try and get everybody to download my app or whatever it is. Now, it filters a lot of the nonsense and a lot of the distractions the more intentional and the more reflective you become on your identity. And that’s, obviously, a big part of my work now.

John B. Johnson:
But the more I understand myself, the less I hustle. Because I worked harder and now I work smarter, not harder. The more I understand who I am and what I’m being called to do, the less I try to get yeses from everybody. And I think what you were referencing in Black culture, what I’ve seen is that scarcity mindset of, “I’m not good enough so I need to show up in a way that people would think that I’m good enough and will give me the help that I need or the support I need or the money that I need.” Versus, “Hey, I’m good enough. I’m everything that I need to be. Here’s what I’m doing. Do you want to be a part of it with me?”

John B. Johnson:
That’s what I learned, is I was trying to get help from everybody because I needed help. And honestly, I probably, now that we’ve talked about it, it relates back to my lack of a father, lack of a male role model. So I was trying to get help from everybody, when actually, I needed to take time to understand what was I being called to, who am I and then present that to people authentically and to see if they align with that or not. It would have saved me a lot of pain, it will save me a lot of money, would’ve saved me a lot of time.

Maurice Cherry:
After what happened with Feel Free, how long did you stay in Phoenix before you ended up moving to Seattle?

John B. Johnson:
We were there for about a year-and-a-half. Feel Free ended, I want to say, early 2016, and we left at the end of 2017 so about a year-and-a-half.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. And you mentioned your wife works at Amazon. So that’s sort of what prompted the move also?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah. Jeff Bezos came with his checkbook and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. She was working at PetSmart and then got the opportunity with Amazon. We actually had just bought a home and settled into our townhome, furnished it, and everything. And six months later, we were in Seattle. So we kind of uprooted everything and moved there.

Maurice Cherry:
How has Seattle been different from Phoenix?

John B. Johnson:
Seattle is much less diverse than Phoenix, even though Phoenix is much less diverse than Cleveland. Downtown Seattle is a very, very unique place. I would say that I’m one of a handful of Black people that live in downtown Seattle because of how expensive it is to live here. The property values and the way Amazon has blown up the city has been uncanny. I mean, for the longest time, Seattle had the most number of cranes out of anywhere in the world. It’s blown up. Phoenix was not like that at all. Phoenix was actually the exact opposite from a density standpoint. Phoenix was much more spread out. We had Scottsdale, Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, all these cities, but Phoenix was, I mean, Phoenix is one of the longest, I guess, largest cities per square miles out of any other city. It’s massive so it’s spread out. There’s a lot less of, I want to say, resources in Phoenix, especially from a startup perspective. So much slower pace than Seattle.

John B. Johnson:
Seattle is a big city. I mean, it’s one of the biggest cities in the country. And for me, going from Cleveland to Phoenix to Seattle, I had to change my way of showing up. To the point of like, “Hey, I’m in a much more affluent city. These people really are doing things that are on a larger level than in Phoenix.” Phoenix felt like a early stage city. They want to be big but they’re still trying to figure out who they are. And Seattle was a little later stage. They’re a little more mature. And the dichotomy of the two was Phoenix had that welcoming, warm community feel of like, “We’re all figuring it out together.” Especially in the startup world.

John B. Johnson:
And then Seattle had none of that. It was like you either know people or you don’t. And if you don’t, good luck. There was no warm welcome. There was no place where you can go to get connected into the city, into the communities. None of that existed, which actually prompted me to build a 1 Million Cups Community here in Seattle and get into other things. Because I learned a lot from Phoenix where there they had this grassroots ecosystem of entrepreneurship and the startup experience. Seattle, there was no grassroots. It was all big players. You had Amazon, you had Costco, you have Microsoft, you have all of these huge players.

John B. Johnson:
I like to think about it from a conceptual standpoint, these are big trees. The monkeys hang out in the trees up above the ground. Phoenix was more on the ground level. They didn’t have big trees down there. They didn’t have any big players in Phoenix. So when I got there, I’m like, “Hey, where’s everybody at? What are we doing here on the ground level? What seeds are we planting?” I mean, coming in very optimistic and also naïve, I’m like, “Let’s try to plant some seeds.” And I just decided to start building things. I didn’t wait for people to tell me what to do or how to do it.

John B. Johnson:
I was meeting people. I’ve met 40 people in the first two weeks that I was there from all over the city. I learned a lot of what I learned attempting to find myself and build my career in Phoenix. I used all of that to move the momentum into Seattle and show up in a different way. I want to say that operating in Seattle has definitely matured me as a business leader. It’s also matured me, I want to say, as a man, as a husband living in, in a big city, downtown Seattle like this.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard about the infamous Seattle freeze. Sounds like that’s kind of a little bit of what you experienced when you started out there.

John B. Johnson:
Unfortunately, that is something that’s very relevant here. I think it’s just a lack of belonging, a lack of culture, a lack of community. It’s either you’re in or you’re out. Thank God, he gifted me with a gift of charisma and fearlessness because I broke that Seattle freeze real quick. [crosstalk 01:01:42]

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. I swear, Atlanta is the exact opposite of that. Everyone that comes here is welcomed, almost profusely, in some way. It’s interesting that Seattle still carries that connotation.

John B. Johnson:
You can’t even make eye contact on the streets when you walk down the street.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

John B. Johnson:
When I go home to Cleveland, I’m like, “Hey.” It’s nice to make eye contact with strangers on the street because Seattle, people don’t do that. It’s wild.

Maurice Cherry:
You wouldn’t get away with that in Atlanta. You try walking by somebody and not speaking and see what happens. Don’t do that. As I’m talking to you, as I’m getting a sense of your body of work, identity is a key factor in pretty much everything that you’ve done, pretty much in who you are. Why is that so important? Why is it such an important facet in your work?

John B. Johnson:
Identity is something that is core to each individual as a person. It’s only something that you can find as a human being. I think we all can agree that each and every one of us is unique in one way. We’re all one in 7.8 billion. Identity is one of those things that I found to be very overlooked and I want to say written off as not that important. Specifically, in my generation, I found people attempting to go after the hustle culture, the money or the success or the fame or the girl or the guy or whatever it is, before they even think about who they are. As you so beautifully walked me through my story, Maurice, you see there’s a lot of dynamic experiences in my life that have made me uniquely equipped to approach this work and help other people reflect on those experiences.

John B. Johnson:
Just like the ones I just shared with you, in order to realize, “Hey, you can use those experiences as motivation, instead of being motivated by money, instead of being motivated by success or climbing the ladder, or whatever it is.” So my brother is one of my biggest motivators because he is somebody that went to prison at 17 and has inspired me in ways that I can’t even comprehend. He’s been in prison for 24 years. What better motivator can I find than that? That’s a unique experience only I have lived through my eyes, along with my mother and my sisters, and my Cleveland experience and Italy and Feel Free and architecture and all of those things. All of those experiences give me a unique ability that no one else has in the world to show up and to impact people’s lives in a powerful way.

John B. Johnson:
And I started to realize how powerful it is for people to find that little bit of light that lives inside of them or what I like to call identity. Because they can use that as a candle that will never go out, as a flame that will never go out, and motivation that’s unlimited. And to use those experiences to help others, I believe that that’s the purpose for our life. Identity is something that I started to realize do my work of branding. That I was helping them brand their company. But what I realized was that that who they were as people was the exact thing that they needed to focus on to stand out in the marketplace, to find the motivation to grow the company from $1 to a million, to lead authentically and powerfully their people or to be innovative.

John B. Johnson:
Whatever it is, all of that came from within them. It didn’t come from outside, it never does. It always comes from within, I started to realize that. So identity architecture was a term that I came up with to utilize my $80,000 degree that I didn’t make $80,000 on, but I had to put it to use somehow. I started to realize how important it was to empower individuals with this. And by empowering individuals to understand who they are, it actually starts to strengthen the communities in which they belong to and ultimately starts to reshape cultural outcomes. So for me as a Black man in America, I’m one of the few that are agency leader. I’m one of the only one in my family to ever get married, I’m the only one in my family ever leave Cleveland.

John B. Johnson:
And as I move back to Cleveland, I know that I’ve overcome and changed cultural outcomes just by understanding who I was better and not attempting to identify or attach myself to cultural stigmas or stereotypes or stats that would actually put me in prison. You know what I mean? Specifically for Black America, our identity has been dismantled and raped and just crumbled for a reason. I feel like identity and helping people understand and check in with themself in ways that only they can to make them one in 7.8 billion would actually be the key to us creating a better society and a better world together.

Maurice Cherry:
I wanted to kind of dive into sort of that title of identity architect. But you did a great job there of kind of just explaining it. Like other Black agency owners, I mean, I don’t know sort of how it looks in Seattle in terms of other just Black businesses that you’ve encountered. But have you met any other Black agency owners, whether it’s through networking or anything like that?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah, I’ve met a few. Gus Granger, he’s actually down in Dallas. He works at VSA Partners now. He’s an incredible guy. I met a couple others that are a little smaller agencies but it’s been very, very few and far between. I didn’t set out to build an agency. When I started A Small Studio, it was just something that I felt like I could do. Next thing you know, I’m building a movement in the way that I’ve just shared with you. So I haven’t really tempted to follow the model of what an agency is, I’ve actually started to press into who I am uniquely as an agency leader and how I can help influence designers and creatives in a powerful way.

John B. Johnson:
It’s been few and far between, honestly, Maurice. And that’s actually a big part of why I found you and how I found you, how I found your work and the work that you’re doing. Also, it’s been a big motivator for me this year to make sure that I’m getting out there to not only find others that are just like me, that have gone through similar things, but also to make sure that others know that I exist, and that it is possible to build a million dollar agency to succeed in Seattle if you’re the only one there, to be the only one in your graduating class. Only this has been a common denominator throughout my life and I want to say it’s for a reason. I know that it’s still being fleshed out.

Maurice Cherry:
Given where you are now in your career with the challenges that you face, with the goals that you’ve accomplished, et cetera, how do you navigate expectations that others might have about you?

John B. Johnson:
The only expectations that I make myself navigate are God’s expectations that I hear as I continue to build my relationship with God, my wife’s expectations, and I want to say my brother’s. Outside of that, I think our expectations of others is something that’s really hard to navigate, period, for anyone. I’ve learned that over the years as I shared my story with you. I’m doing my best not to have expectations of others but to only have expectations of myself and I do my best to share that with other people that perspective. I’d say that as I’ve grown, I’m 33 this year, as I’ve grown as a man, as a leader, as a husband, as a brother, as a son, all of those things, I’ve started to, I want to say, release those expectations from myself, and release not even, I want to say, as Jay Z’s like, “I’m just dusting my shoulders off.” I’m not going to carry those expectations because those expectations create that pressure.

John B. Johnson:
Now, that I’m moving back to Cleveland, we touched on this in this interview, I’m moving back to Cleveland with that lightness that I don’t think I had when I left in the first place because I’ve released myself of those expectations. Not only were on me from my mom, my sisters, my brother, my wife’s family, my friends. And I’m going back there with one intention and that’s for me to have an incredible relationship with God, be a husband to my wife, and to be a citizen that cares for the city. But those expectations have come from something that are not from just people, those expectations have come from within myself as I’ve done a lot of reflection, a lot of growth.

Maurice Cherry:
When are you expecting to move back to Cleveland?

John B. Johnson:
May. Right after my birthday, May 5th.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So not that far away. Given that and we’re kind of wrapping up the interview here, but where do you see yourself in the next five years? I mean, besides in Cleveland, where do you see yourself? Or what kind of work would you like to be doing?

John B. Johnson:
Identity architecture is something that I feel is my calling, is the way that I live life on purpose. Actually, I see myself sharing this methodology and this philosophy with the world. In the next five years, I hope to actually be building a creative community of impact-driven designers, that specifically use identity architecture, and use this methodology in a way of being more authentic with the way that they design. Just like IDEO really coined the term design thinking, I really want to move identity architecture to the next level to be a tool that people can use to authentically represent themselves out in the world, but also I authentically represent others and serve others. In five years, A Small Studio will be thriving. I feel like we can be a community of 20,000, maybe even 50,000 creatives who focus on impact-driven design and want to use their gifts to bring peace to people’s lives.

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

John B. Johnson:
Our website is asmallstudio.com. I have been very, very intentional on Instagram @johnbcreating. So you can check me out there, listen, follow along with the things that I’m doing, engage with me there. That’s really the best ways of finding me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, John B. Johnson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, your story, I think, is one that hopefully will inspire a lot of people not just in terms of the adversity that you’ve had to go through, but the lessons that you’ve been able to pull from those situations, and how you’ve been able to turn that into really doing something for the greater community. I mean, even as we were talking, I’m noticing these parallels to myself in a lot of ways. So I know that identity is something that is super important to you, and I really get the sense that like this is a calling for you. It’s not just, “I just stumbled into it and I’m good at it.” This is what you kind of were put here to do. So I’m excited to see what comes next for you in the next few years. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

John B. Johnson:
Thank you, Maurice. It’s a pleasure and an honor, brother.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Miles Anderson

When I first chatted with Miles Anderson, he said that he’s “just a normal guy who works hard.” But then I heard his story and the growth in his career and well…Miles is no normal guy — he’s extraordinary!

Miles talked about his recent move to Seattle in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, starting on the Xbox team at Microsoft, and how he’s getting along during this time. He also spoke about his time at IBM and how it helped him grow as a designer, the power of self-education in tech, and what he would do in his career if failure wasn’t an option. Miles is finally getting the recognition he deserves, and I’m glad to have him on the show to share what he’s doing with you all!

Sponsor

Facebook Design is a proud sponsor of Revision Path. The Facebook Design community is designing for human needs at unprecedented scale. Across Facebook’s family of apps and new product platforms, multi-disciplinary teams come together to create, build and shape communication experiences in service of the essential, universal human need for connection. To learn more, please visit facebook.design.

Bekah Marcum

I first heard of Bekah Marcum when I talked with Tim Allen a few weeks ago, and I’m so glad I had the chance to connect with her for this interview! Along with being a product designer for Zillow, Bekah is a community organizer and the founder of Black Designers of Seattle.

We talked about how she’s adjusting to working from home and self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, and she shared the differences and similarities working at Zillow versus her previous role as an art director at Amazon. Bekah also spoke about growing up between the United States and Brazil, attending college in Washington DC and getting into design, and adjusting to life in Seattle and attending graduate school. Bekah is all about building authentic community, and I can’t wait to see how her work makes an impact in the world!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Bekah Marcum:
I am Bekah Marcum. I am a product designer at Zillow currently and also the community organizer for the Black Designers of Seattle Network.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Talk to me about working at Zillow. What’s a regular day like for you there?

Bekah Marcum:
Totally. It was a little bit more different than the environment that I’d been in before. It’s hyper, hyper collaborative in a lot of ways, so whether I’m working straight up with another designer or if I’m really collaborating with my content strategist and PM partners, everyone’s in the same space here in the same building, same floor together, so it’s a lot of walking around and chatting with people. But essentially, a day in of a designer at Zillow is, you get in, you have a fantastic view of the water in Seattle and then whether it’s going to a stand-up or any of those other type meetings, you grab a project. You might have some design critiques throughout the day with partners or other leadership. And, honestly, really just start collaborating on some pretty fun projects.

Maurice Cherry:
Now I have to couch this in our current reality of when we’re recording this for people that are listening, we’re recording this on March 19th and you mentioned at Zillow the view and it’s hyper collaborative and you’re working together. Seattle is, or at least you know a couple of weeks ago was one of the big hotspots for COVID-19. I’m pretty sure as other cities have taken suit with this now they’re forcing people to work from home, to socially isolate themselves. What is the vibe like in the city right now?

Bekah Marcum:
It’s been pretty weird. I think especially Zillow because although we do have people who work remotely, it’s not really a remote culture. And so it’s been a complete change from seeing each other and being in the office every day with each other to having to change everything into a online experience. So it’s definitely been crazy that restaurants and bars and other places were closed down. They’re only doing takeout right now. For us, we’ve been, along with a lot of the other tech companies in the area like Facebook and Amazon, we’ve all been working remotely for the last two, two and a half weeks. And so it’s definitely been, I think there’s a level of just stress that is definitely permeating everyone. We’re in such a lucky position to be able to work from home. But you have people who are small business owners here, you have people who can’t work from home and almost like the collective worry for our community has definitely been present.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How are you feeling with all this going on?

Bekah Marcum:
I feel that I was super lucky. I live a little bit outside the city. So for me, I have a yard I can just go out and escape to without having to worry about social distancing. There’s a bunch of stress again, from the small business owners and community. For me, I am so addicted to coffee and so I’ve made best friends with a lot of the different coffee shops and restaurants in the area and the baristas and so, just worrying about them and worrying about how this is going to affect not only the individuals but then also the small companies economically. For me, I was used to working remotely before in a prior job and so I had a space ready to flip the switch in that way. But it’s definitely taken a lot of, or I’ll just say it’s definitely been a transition into trying to work remote with all the stresses that are added onto it.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the team handling it, coming from this very hyper-collaborative environment and now being distanced in this way? How are they handling it?

Bekah Marcum:
I think a lot of people are handling it pretty well. We have a massive amount of Slack channels over random things. The other day we were sending weird childhood photos to each other just to bring some of that community online. In in other ways, I think it’s been really great to see the team give each other a lot of grace because other folks… I don’t have kids, but a lot of people are at home with their young children. Zillow is a very family-oriented company and we’ve had many a kid come and do a cameo. Sometimes it was someone’s puppy and so it’s been fun to almost see each other in their home environments. But even my husband, who’s over at Amazon, one of their senior leadership sent out an email that just said, “You know what, guys? We’ll be fine. Let’s just make sure that we give each other grace in this time because we know things might take longer because there’s so much other stuff happening, so let’s just be patient with each other and just get through it together.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I definitely think that grace is needed for many of the reasons that you mentioned, going from working in an office to suddenly having to work from home and also not really being able to leave the house. That’s a big, drastic change for a lot of people that shakes up their routine, it affects them mentally, it affects the output of work that they’re able to do. So it’s good that the companies are empathetic enough to say, “We know this is a tough situation.” Not being completely hands off, but certainly exhibiting some grace in what is a very stressful time.

Bekah Marcum:
Totally. Yeah, it’s definitely been very, very nice to feel like we have that type of support and understanding.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What sorts of projects are you working on at Zillow?

Bekah Marcum:
Totally. I work in the growth and acquisition space for a product called Zillow Offers. Zillow Offers is essentially only really available in a few different cities right now, but it’s a new product to Zillow and it’s a program where we’ll actually buy houses from customers and then also sell them. The goal, the overarching goal in Zillow, is to help movers get to where they want to be. However, we can make that process easier for them, let’s do it. The whole premise of our program is that you don’t have to do any home showings, you don’t have to do repairs, you can essentially just pack up and leave. Some of our customers have given a lot of feedback where people who, some of them might have been in the military, some were moving for a job and they just really needed to get to the next place sooner. By not having to go through that whole traditional selling process, it removed all those different barriers for them and they were able to move faster. That’s essentially my product that I work on.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Prior to Zillow, I know you mentioned your husband working at Amazon, but you worked there as well.

Bekah Marcum:
I did. I was at Amazon for four years or right around four years, first as a contractor the first few months and then I went in as a designer, then left as an art director. Funny thing, my husband came in a few years after I did and when he was interviewing I was like, “Hey hon, why does it say that your hiring manager is on the same floor as me?” And he’s like, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be on a different floor.” And we ended up being on two very different teams but being on the same floor for about six months. So we’re also pretty used to working in a similar space together.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s it like working at Zillow and how is it different from Amazon? Zillow is more of a startup, I would imagine. And Amazon is this big corporate behemoth.

Bekah Marcum:
It’s very different. The cultures, if you even look at the leadership principles of the two companies, they’re very, very different. It shows up starkly. For Amazon, it was this huge, huge, huge company and sometimes you may not feel like you have full ownership over a certain product. I guess scope is a big thing for Zillow Offers. I essentially own a whole section of the product and so what I decide, what I really work and help to create just goes up and is the entire thing versus a small piece of it.

Bekah Marcum:
Another thing is Zillow… If you’re talking about workplace things, Zillow is much more of a nine to five and so there is a great work balance there. It’s been listed on different lists as a top place to work for families. I was really weirded out that people left their computers on their desks and went away for the evening. I felt like the first times I did that I was like, “Oh, I’ll hide it in my little desk drawer.” And people were like, “No, you just leave it.” Have that work-life balance versus different times for Amazon it was very dependent on the manager that you had, on the project you were working on. So it definitely had a lot more creeping as far as your off time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That work-life balance is… I’ve found certainly as I’ve gotten older it’s more and more important to be able to really have that split and that separation and it feels like now, to go back, unfortunately, to talking about the coronavirus, I feel like everyone’s work-life balance is thrown off now.

Bekah Marcum:
Oh, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
So it’s a weird thing because it’s now all in the same place and you don’t really have a way to separate it. I’ve found a way to try to separate it. I told you before you started recording, I’ve been working from home since 2008 so I kind of have a pretty good way of compartmentalizing it. But then you just have all the added stress about everything that’s happening outside of your home and you’re like, “Oh, how do I focus? How do I try to concentrate on the task at hand?” So it’s, yeah, it’s…

Bekah Marcum:
Totally, I feel like, yes. Right. At home, you have the dirty dishes, you have the laundry that hasn’t been folded in a week. Or at least I do. You have the animals and everything else. For my husband and I, it’s like, “All right, who’s going to use the office for a meeting. If you’re having a meeting out there and I’m having a meeting in here, how are we keeping the animals quiet?” It’s a whole collection of stuff also. I find it super hard because it’ll get to 5:00, 6:00 and I’m like, all right, when am I actually going to close my computer because I’m not at work and I don’t have to leave work on time to be able to hit the commute right and get home. You’re already home. So I definitely have had to, for my own sanity, just shut everything down. Put “do not disturb” on my Slack so that after a certain time in the evening, I’m just not getting those messages.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s the best way to do it. Just shut it all down and physically try to go somewhere else, a different place, a different spot. That really does help out.

Bekah Marcum:
As long as you’re in your home because there’s still social distancing.

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. So where did you grow up?

Bekah Marcum:
I actually grew up in two very different places. My parents had a nonprofit that really focused on just community good. And so I was born in California and spent the first nine years fully there. But then I ended up going back and forth to Brazil for a month or two out of the year when I was nine. And then when I was 16 I actually moved permanently there for the last two years of high school. So, for me, my childhood was very much made up of two very different places, very different cultures.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. High school in Brazil, what was that like?

Bekah Marcum:
Oh, goodness. It was very interesting. When I first moved down there, I homeschooled for the first year because it’s very like a transitional year. Senior year I went to a high school that my mom taught at. For me, it was really, really interesting because my parents again were in the nonprofit space. And so my whole life there was working with kids in the slums. Some of my best friends were ex-street kids. That was what I was used to. But then when my mom started working at the high school because she’s a teacher, my sister and I went there for free. I think my graduating class was 17 people and those kids were essentially the richest kids of the area because I went to a “international” or American school. And so for me it also felt like I was straddling two very different worlds when I went to school, then when I went to the afterschool program that I would help run with my parents in the evening. So it was definitely a very, very interesting, interesting experience.

Maurice Cherry:
When you graduated high school, did you move back to the States or did you stay in Brazil for a while?

Bekah Marcum:
I pretty much went straight back to the States. I ended up going to DC for school, so I….

Bekah Marcum:
… dates. I ended up going to DC for school, so I was at American university for undergrad where I studied film and anthropology. Essentially I wanted to find a way to tell a story, but then I also wanted to tell it correctly and know how to do the research in order to portray it in the most unbiased way possible. And so I did that double major. So I was in DC for that and then stayed about a year after I graduated, and that’s when I eventually moved to Seattle.

Maurice Cherry:
Now I’m curious about the storytelling. Being someone that was going between two different countries growing up, were you kind of exposed to a lot of art and design that made you want to go into doing film?

Bekah Marcum:
So it actually wasn’t really the art, it was just the stories of the people who I met. I just fell in love with hearing different people’s stories and hearing the way that they saw the world. And so I think straddling those two very different socioeconomic classes made it so that I realized that the other one just had no idea how the other one lived. And I think especially in Brazil, that stratification is so great and also exists not only socioeconomically, but also racially. And so for me, I just wanted to kind of tell a story to demystify and de-other a whole group of the population.

Bekah Marcum:
And so it was actually a project I did it my senior year in high school where in art class we had to do a video project, where we’d film it, we’d edit, it and do all this other stuff. And so it was a group thing, but I asked the teacher if I could just do a solo project. And I ended up going and featuring one of … Essentially he was kind of like a sibling at that point. I’d met him the first year I’d gone to Brazil when I was nine, he was 10 or 11, and we’ve basically been friends since then. And he had been a street kid or lived on the streets from the time he was six to nine, by himself with other kids his age. And then he ended up at this home for ex-street kids.

Bekah Marcum:
And so for me I was like, “You know what, I just really want to tell this story. I just really want to tell where he came from, the amazing trajectory and this amazing change that he’s actually brought to his life.” He started in the slums and living on the streets when he was so young, but now he had been a part of a college prep program. There was so much, and it was just such an amazing story.

Bekah Marcum:
So I took my really, really crappy little point-and-shoot camera and I went and I just interviewed him. We went to the favela where he grew up, and he brought us to his mom’s house, and we met a siblings, he showed us where he had actually lived essentially in front of a shop, where he slept at night for the three years he was on streets.

Bekah Marcum:
He told stories over … He is kind of a hardcore-looking kid. He has this Nike scar, it looks like a Nike symbol on the side of his cheek. It’s huge. So he looked pretty hardcore. And when you actually talk to him you realize that no, he only got that from falling out of a tree when he was playing. And the only thing he actually stole ever was a Hershey’s bar, but he felt so guilty that he actually left money for them later on. So someone looking at him might think and really stereotype him in a certain space. But then the real story was just totally and completely different.

Bekah Marcum:
So that’s one thing I really, really loved. And I actually showed it at a little coffee house presentation thing with parents and stuff when I was in high school. And for me I was terrified because I was really showing this group of the richest people in the city, I was essentially throwing the socioeconomic differences and the racial differences in their face. But then it showed, I was in a cold sweat. But then afterwards people started coming up to me and they were like, “How can we help? How can we do things for him?”

Bekah Marcum:
And so it actually ended up helping him raise money for an English language trip over the summer in the US. And so it definitely made a huge impact even though it was really bad video, the audio was terrible. But the story really came forward and I just saw the impact that this could have.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. That’s quite a story. Do you still keep in contact with that kid?

Bekah Marcum:
I do. I do, yes. He’s definitely one of those folks who just became very much like siblings. And so now he’s living in Brazil again, him and a few others. It’s been really great to see how they kind of grew up and then are helping people who are in a similar situation. And so another person who I knew around the same time, all that he does is really go to the streets and really try to build relationships with other kids who live on the streets, or in the favelas, to essentially try and be a catalyst for some change in their lives.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So let’s go back to the time when you’re leaving American university and you’re about to head out to Washington. Was that a big change in terms of time? Or did you have a few design gigs between there, before you made the move?

Bekah Marcum:
So in DC, I didn’t get into design until a lot later on. I think it was the last two or three quarters of school. I essentially realized that if I was going to be some starving documentary filmmaker, I’d have to learn how to make my own poster. And so I took a design class, ended up really liking it, and then went from there. So at first I was able to mix it up with some of the storytelling internships I had. I had actually ended up doing a small animation and putting it up for, it was some type of awards thing at my school and actually won Best in New Media. And the prize of that was an internship at a design company.

Bekah Marcum:
So that was my first kind of design gig was me in a small basement making a lot of different illustrations for one of the Smithsonian’s. And so I don’t even think they actually ended up using it, I think they went a totally different direction after I left. But that was, I think for me a great experience. Just learning from the designers there, but then also learning a new program. I basically tried to do as many kind of small contracting stuff or freelance gigs. It was very nice having parents who were in the nonprofit sector because they always needed marketing work. So a lot of the early things I had was just making some marketing materials or teaching materials for them. So that definitely gave me a lot of practice.

Bekah Marcum:
And then for me it was a lot of, because I really didn’t know what a good designer was, especially what a good junior designer was, I really was just looking at different people’s portfolios online. I was going on Design Inspiration and also Pinterest, trying to find designs I really liked. And so I just gave myself projects that I could just try and emulate the style or something of, just to try and build that portfolio out.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really good idea. I tell people that a lot in terms of how do they find some kind of project or thing to work on that lets them do a lot of different skills. I’ll tell people, “You kind of have to make it yourself. A lot of those opportunities don’t just come to you pre-made. So if there’s something that you’re really passionate about, turn that into a project and work on it. And let that be the thing that you help kind of build your skills up for.”

Bekah Marcum:
Yeah, totally. For my parents, they would want, I don’t know, a presentation slide. And I was like, “You know what, it might be better as an animated video.” So I would just work through animation skills and learn animation while making them a video. Or I know there was a big wave of popularity for minimalist movie posters and stuff. And so I was like, “You know what, what are my favorite movie posters? Or what are my favorite movies? Let me just make a few posters for these different TV shows. How would I take this concept and then do it in my style? Or really, anything else.”

Bekah Marcum:
So it definitely helped to build that out. And people actually loved seeing all these little passion projects when I first got started. So at first I was worried that it wasn’t showing professional work, but people really, really tended to enjoy just seeing that I had that excitement for what I was doing and the passion to actually just go off and do it on my own.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely. Those are skills that employers, and I would say even people that just want to work with you on a collaborative basis, they want to see that passion. Because honestly the skills are, I hate to say transferable, but they kind of are. There’s a lot of people that can work in Photoshop or Sketch or what have you and make something that looks really nice, but is this something they’re passionate about? Or are they kind of just an adequate set of hands that are able to put something together?

Bekah Marcum:
No, totally. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So we’ve had a couple of people on the show who have moved to Seattle, and they’ve often talked about the “Seattle Freeze”. Which for those that are listening it’s kind of this, I don’t know, I guess you could call it a-

Bekah Marcum:
Constant social distancing?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, constant social distancing. We’ll say that. When you first moved to Washington, did you experience any of that?

Bekah Marcum:
Oh, totally, totally. I’m from California where you just call someone up when you’re on the way to their house. Or like, “Hey, let’s go grab something to eat right now.” And then in Brazil it’s a very kind of warm culture, you’re always hugging people, doing kisses on the cheek, all that stuff. And then in DC there’s still that environment if you’re heading to the Southeast where there are mostly black people. And so people are always talking to each other in the grocery stores and everything else. And then you come here and it’s like crickets.

Bekah Marcum:
It was definitely hard in the beginning just trying to break into a field that I had no idea how to break into while also trying to deal with, what is networking? How is everything not awkward? Also, how do I actually build both connections and friendships in a place that is known for being very cold? So I would say that Seattle has been practicing for the social distancing for awhile, I swear. In some ways we’re a little ahead of the curve on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you did a recent interview with another podcast called Designer&Designer, and you were talking about your experiences working as a black designer, working on designing things, but often being the only one. I can only imagine, one, you’re coming to this new city where people may not be super hospitable, and then you’re also working in a place where you’re the only black person there or the only minority there. What did that feel like in those first few, I guess months or so when you were in Seattle? Did you feel like you had a community that you could turn to?

Bekah Marcum:
Honestly, no. For my husband and I, we moved to Seattle without really knowing anyone. And so it was a very, very isolating experience. And also to add insult to injury, I was freelancing when I first came here and still trying to build that portfolio and find a job. Because we were able to move with his job, but I was still looking one.

Bekah Marcum:
And so it was absolutely isolating. I would go to networking events and there would be no one who looked like me there. I would go to like open houses at different design firms or anything else, and I would be the only me in the space. And I would like to say that that changed a lot. But throughout the first job I got as a marketing assistant or a production designer to the time that I spent at Amazon, I had not worked with another black designer in that entire time.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And this was the impetus behind you starting Black Designers of Seattle?

Bekah Marcum:
Yes, in a lot of ways. So as a designer I kind of had always heard of the other elusive black designer somewhere in the company. There was always another one, you just didn’t know them. “I know that they’re out there somewhere.” But then I ended up getting promoted to art director, and then I started looking around, and I was like, “Wait a second. Where are the other black art directors?” And no one really knew where they were. And so I did some digging and I was like, all right. I was able to find one other black designer in the entire company.

Bekah Marcum:
And so I think I started to realize at that point that the thing that I was experiencing wasn’t just my story, but it was evidence of a larger trend. And so from there, before starting the group, I actually had only known two black designers. One of them was my little brother, and so he barely counts. And so I essentially just started to reach out to other black designers that I knew or could find technically, within the company. I was like, “All right, I think there’s a few of us because I’ve heard about you, but I’m actually going to make the effort and reach out now.” And then I just started doing that on the larger, LinkedIn scale, going through many pages of designers in Seattle being the filter and trying to find other folks in other companies.

Maurice Cherry:
See, I’m so glad you mentioned LinkedIn. Because people will often ask me how I find people for Revision Path, and they’re always surprised when I tell them I look on LinkedIn first.

Bekah Marcum:
Oh yeah, totally.

Maurice Cherry:
I go look at someone’s connections and look at their connections, and try to find who I think might be a good fit or who might be a good guest and reach out to them. People sleep on LinkedIn … I’ve long since the deactivated Facebook, LinkedIn is kind of where I am now these days in terms of social stuff. But how is the group going so far?

Bekah Marcum:
It has been insane. It’s grown so much. Like I mentioned, at first it was just me. I had a Google Sheet of all the different bios of people I was finding who are black designers in the city. So I just called it my “black designers black book”. And so I’ve essentially just been reaching out to people. It’s like, “You know what? We just need to have a happy hour.” So a year and a quarter ago or so, I just reached out to 35 people that I was able to-

Bekah Marcum:
… they just reached out to 35 people that I was able to find. I was lik, “Hey, I’m Bekah, we’re going to meet up. Let’s all meet up at this date, this time, this place.” And I was expecting for it to only be me and one other black designer that I had gotten to know over the course of me finding people. But then 25-ish people showed up and all of us were shocked. All of us were like, “Wait, there is this many black designers in Seattle? Period. What?”

Bekah Marcum:
And so, that was amazing. And then, since then we’re actually, so we have a LinkedIn group and I think we’re around 75 strong at this point.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations.

Bekah Marcum:
Yeah, thank you. It’s definitely been a very crazy, exciting thing to actually start to find and build that community.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you heard of the Bay Area Black Designers group?

Bekah Marcum:
I have. I have. I’ve actually been really bad and not reached out too much to them, but it’s definitely on my to do list, maybe with all this extra time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So I know the woman who started it, Kat Vellos, she’s been here on the show before, and then also Kendall House, who is, I think he now heads up the group, but he’s also been on the show as well. And just recently, I’d say maybe a few weeks ago, we had Fonz Morris, who’s a growth design lead at Coursera, who also spoke really super passionately about the group and how helpful it was and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
But I’ve also spoken to some Seattle designers who honestly spoke super highly of you.

Bekah Marcum:
Oh, wait. What?

Maurice Cherry:
Just a few weeks ago we had Tim Allen on the show who’s VP of design at Airbnb, and then Timothy Bard Levins, who’s at Microsoft was like, “Oh, you’ve got to be interviewing and talking to Bekah. Oh, my God.” So the work that you’re doing is definitely being seen by people and being congratulated out there in the community. So that’s great.

Bekah Marcum:
Oh, that’s funny. Well, okay, funny story abut Tim. He’s actually now at Facebook, and between that, between Microsoft and Facebook, he was at Zillow. So he actually was the one who pulled me over to Zillow.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh really?

Bekah Marcum:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Look at that. Small world.

Bekah Marcum:
It’s a very small world.

Maurice Cherry:
So, how long has the group been going on now?

Bekah Marcum:
Just about a year and three months, honestly. So it’s been the first year we were really focusing on just getting each other together and having sporadic happy hours. We had one big event the first year, and then this year we’re focusing on how we can actually start to bring some order to the madness and have consistent events. But yeah, we’re definitely still in infancy.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I know there’s a group in Seattle, you may have heard of it, called HERE Seattle. Have you heard of them?

Bekah Marcum:
I don’t think I have. I do not think I have.

Maurice Cherry:
So HERE Seattle is a, I guess it’s more geared towards tech, I’m not 100% sure, but I know that four guys run it. Seth Stell, Todd, Todd Bennings and two other people who I can’t recall, but I know that they do something not necessarily similar to what you’re doing with Black Designers of Seattle because you’re focusing more on design. I think for them they focus more on DNI and tech in general. And so, design sometimes ends up being a subset of that, but that might be a group worth reaching out to connect with, HERE Seattle.

Bekah Marcum:
Totally. Yeah, it’s been a really amazing, I feel this year I’ve really started to connect with other groups like that. There’s a few other ones who are doing similar things and so, as we are upping our cadence on events, it’s been fun to see who we can partner with, who have similar initiatives, and then also how we can then go back and reach out to the community.

Bekah Marcum:
There’s a few arts-based organizations that work with K through 12 schools in the area, and so it’s, how can we actually come together as a community, as a group, and then start to help out these other organizations as they do stuff?

Maurice Cherry:
I really want to make it back up there to Seattle one of these days.

Bekah Marcum:
You should.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, hey, once this global pandemic thing blows over.

Bekah Marcum:
Don’t come now. I will not come and see you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I do want to try to make it back up there. I was talking to some people at AIGA Seattle, right before all of this COVID-19 stuff broke out about possibly coming up there and doing a live show. But I feel like now everything is canceled until further notice.

Bekah Marcum:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
In the future I definitely do want to make it back up there. I’ve been to Seattle only once. I was in college, and this is actually a funny story. So I was in college studying math and my junior year was when 91-1 happened, and when that happened I had zero prospects lined up for jobs because the scholarship program that I was in, I was interning at NASA.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, I was thinking as soon as I graduate I’m going to go work for a NASA facility and that’s what life is going to be. But then 9-11 happened, they pulled the funding from the program and now all of a sudden it’s my junior year of college. I have no job prospects lined up.

Maurice Cherry:
So I started worming my way into these different interview books, which different departments would have books that you could sign up for, put your resume in and you would interview with certain companies, but it has to apply to whatever your major was. And for math they didn’t have that. They were just lik, “Oh, you should go to graduate school.” And I’m like, “I don’t really want to go to grad school right now. I’ve been going to school for 15 years in a row. I don’t really want to continue to do that.”

Maurice Cherry:
And they’re like, “Oh well, I don’t know what to tell you.” So I snuck my way into the computer science department, got in good with people there and managed to get into an interview book there. And I did an interview at Microsoft, and I remember that being, they talk about these techie interviews always being something that throw you for a loop? Like Google, I think at one point in time there was a rumor about there being this infamous one question, one interview question that they asked you.

Bekah Marcum:
Oh gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
And when I interviewed with Microsoft, they did that. So I remember, Oh God, I don’t know if she’s still there. I remember her name was Chesca. That’s all I remember is that her name was Chesca. And we did the interview and she asked me only one question which was, “How would you design an alarm clock for a blind person?”

Bekah Marcum:
Oh my goodness. Tim asked me the same question.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you serious? Wow, okay. Wow, that’s a big coincidence. But yeah, she asked me that question and I’m like, “Huh.”, and she slides over a piece of paper and a pen. Just talk through it. Talk through how you would do it, and keep it mind, this is, what year was this? This was 2001, maybe 2002 I think. It was 202 because it was right before I graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
So this was 2002 and I’m like, “Oh my God.” This is way before Siri and Alexa, and what have you. So I’m trying to think about voice this and you could do the commands, and all this stuff. And I write it out, sketch it out and she’s recording all this and so she’s like, “Oh, okay, thank you so much for coming in. We’ll be back to you.”

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “Wait, is that it? That was the only question?”, but I did get an interview at Microsoft based off that question. So they flew me up to Seattle.

Bekah Marcum:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
And I remember the way that they did it was this almost like a game show. You did the first interview and if you passed the first interview, you went to the second one, and then the second to the third, third to the fourth, or whatever. And it was all day.

Bekah Marcum:
Yeah, totally.

Maurice Cherry:
Maybe nine a.m. to seven p.m., or something. And I was losing steam somewhere in the sixth interview. I remember they were asking me about Notepad and how would you change Notepad if you were someone that wrote in a language that went right to left instead of left to right. And I don’t know what my answer was, but it clearly was not the right answer because I didn’t make it to the next interview.

Bekah Marcum:
Oh no. Oh no. Yes. Oh my goodness. Yeah. Tech interviews are definitely, they’re very legendary as far as being an incredibly long day. So I’ve done interviews at, I went through the process at Facebook, I was at Amazon, Zillow, and it was all pretty much the same in a lot of ways. But with Amazon I was actually, after I contracted, I was thinking that my team who I was contracting with wasn’t going to hire full time.

Bekah Marcum:
So I actually started talking to another team at Amazon, and so they decided to put me through the loop, and then my team found out, I was like, “Hey, just FYI. They’ll reach out to you to see about my performance and stuff.” And so, they actually hurried up their hiring process, then joined my loop. So I was actually interviewing with two different teams on the same day in the same room. And so, that just made my interview process even longer. I think I had seven back-to-back interviews or something crazy.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Bekah Marcum:
It was so much information too, the portfolio review at the beginning. It was, in the same way, a very, very long day.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I didn’t know that that interview question is something that was still being thrown around in that way. That’s wild.

Bekah Marcum:
Yeah. Yeah. Tim actually, when I went over to Zillow, he handled the white boarding and product thinking session, or part of the interview. And he did ask me, he was like, “You need to,” I think he added complexity. He’s like, “All right, you need to design an alarm clock for a blind person that only has one button.” And so, I couldn’t do boys, I couldn’t do, oh there’s a tactile interface. It was supposed to be an analog alarm clock.

Bekah Marcum:
So part of the beginning of that conversation was like, “Wait, what? It’s just an old one that you your grandparents would have with red numbers.” And he’s like, “Yes.” And then, I had to essentially just whiteboard that out. But I find it so hilarious that you also got that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and I’m trying to remember how I answered the question. I think I was saying something about eye tracking because the person is… No wait, no wait, not eye tracking, because the person is blind. I said something about doing a lot of voice prompts. I remember that.

Maurice Cherry:
Something about voice prompts and being able to talk through how this would go. So you’d have to have some conversation flow chart of how to set the clock and all this stuff, and then maybe it would have some type of a haptic feedback because you would be able to touch it.

Maurice Cherry:
So maybe not necessarily braille but a series of vibrations or something like that to let you know that commands are being done properly, or things like that. And this was so long ago up here. I mean they liked it, but it wasn’t enough for me to actually get a job there.

Maurice Cherry:
But that was years and years ago, 2002. I also interviewed for Real Player that year.

Bekah Marcum:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
And no one uses Real Player anymore. So that let’s you know how far back that was.

Bekah Marcum:
Oh, I love that they’re using it 18 years later though. Or at least Tim is using 13 years.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Bekah Marcum:
So much later.

Maurice Cherry:
So now you’re also in grad school, is that right? At the University of Washington?

Bekah Marcum:
Yes I am.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s that going?

Bekah Marcum:
It is going well. I actually took this quarter off just to, there was a lot of changes at work so I decided to really try and focus in on that. And so, it’s been going really well. I essentially went back to grad school because I saw the lack of black designers and I was like, “All right, can I not only build a community but also do some research to actually find out why that’s the case.”

Bekah Marcum:
And so, I also was thinking that people are also a lot more willing to open up to someone as a grad student, if I’m a grad student versus, “Hey, I’m an art director at Amazon asking you these questions.” And so, I was also very aware of my own positioning, actually going to folks in different companies and asking what their experience was.

Bekah Marcum:
Being a student definitely helped me maintain a certain level of, I know. They just weren’t scared of me, and so, but also it gave me that space to do that research, and then to start exploring things, and then also have it not directly associated with my day-to-day job.

Bekah Marcum:
So it’s gone great. For one of the first projects that I did was a quick and dirty research over why there is no black designers, where they are. And then, I was actually like, “Okay, if there’s no black designers, whether it’s because of culture, socioeconomics, just our racial history here in the US, what can we actually do to start to change that and change that story?”

Bekah Marcum:
And so, part of that solution was building a community, because I feel like there’s a lot of people who were super excited about giving back to the community as far as like, “Oh, I went to go volunteer for an arts-based organization.” or, “Oh, I want to go be a mentor for folks.”, but people don’t know where to go for it.

Bekah Marcum:
And so, my thinking was, if I build a community then I’ll bring a lot of passions into a certain space and from there, people can then organize and start to have these larger conversations. And so, really the first event that I ended up doing over at Amazon last August was a direct result of some of the research and solutioning that I did as part of one of those classes.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. That’s interesting that the work that you’re doing with Black Designers of Seattle in a way came out of the research that you’re doing at grad school.

Bekah Marcum:
Yeah, no, it definitely, definitely did. I mean, that was the whole reason I wanted to go back. I think a lot of times I just wanted the accountability of actually doing the research and the actually having time set aside to really focus on this design, and diversity and inclusion, and so really going to school, having classes. I would essentially pick to really fit a need that I saw in my own journey as I explore diversity in design, and all that stuff.

Bekah Marcum:
And so, as I went I was like, “All right, this will really be good for this, that will be good for that.” And so, I really tried to pair up what I needed in the real world with the classes I was taking so those projects and those outputs from those classes would be immediately applicable.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. Can you talk a little bit about, I guess some of your research? I’m curious to know what you do have found from researching the lack of black designers in the industry.

Bekah Marcum:
Totally. So a big part of what I was doing was just trying to capture and just hear the stories of current black designers, and then how they got to design-

Bekah Marcum:
Stories of current black designers and then how they got to design and all that stuff, and so a lot of designers I found didn’t go to school for design. And that pretty much corresponded with a lot of my research where a huge percentage of African Americans, blacks in the US, when they go to college, right now in our generation, they’re first generation. And so their parents didn’t go to college, and so if you have 40% of those folks were in college, they’re probably not going to go for an arts degree. If their parents, their community are really sacrificing to get them to college, they’re not like, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to go for an arts degree.” It was like I’m going for finance or business or something along those lines because there’s the larger kind of view of design is that a business degree will get you where you want to go economically.

Bekah Marcum:
Whereas, like an arts degree historically, it’s like, “Oh, you’re doing an arts degree, so you’re going to wait tables or something.” When I even went to film school, I got some side eyes from some people be like, oh, really? Are you sure you want to go to film school? Really? You’re not going to make any money. But it’s the perception of design just even within our community can be so different. Whereas now, because I did get an arts degree and then I am also in the position I am now, I’ll go home, and then I’ve aunts, uncles who are like, “Oh, my gosh, you should really talk to your little cousin who draws abstractly because like they could be a designer, too.” So their perception of success has definitely changed just by seeing someone go through it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I always will say on here you can’t be what you don’t see. So being able to kind of see someone else that looks like you in a position like that really makes such a big difference in knowing whether or not this is something that you can actually do for yourself. So yeah, I feel where you’re coming from. Tell me, what lessons did you learn this past year? How do you feel you’ve grown and improved?

Bekah Marcum:
I feel like even though I started a community of black designers, I feel like I didn’t really realize the benefits of it. And right now just seeing how there’s subgroups that have come off of the Black Designers of Seattle community, I think I’ve seen and really just loved and been built up by a huge group of people. Even in this social distancing time, I was just texting a group of folks who I’ve met through the Black Designers of Seattle network because on Monday we’re all going to get together and drink wine over FaceTime. And so, it’s just I think the importance of community is one thing I’ve really realized, and also it doesn’t take much to have an impact. You just got to do something. You just have to give life whatever, just like something to work with.

Bekah Marcum:
When I first started the community, I was like I can’t organize a bunch of stuff but I can tell people to show up at a restaurant or at a bar where I’ll make a reservation. And so that was, honestly, the bare minimum that anyone could really do, and that small thing had a huge impact. And so I think just doing something has really been big. Even when I was first trying to get into design, I was so paralyzed by the amount that had to be done. But just by doing little things like finding a design I really liked then emulating it, I was able to take small steps into the place that I wanted to be.

Bekah Marcum:
I guess other than that I was at Amazon for four years, and I’ve been at Zillow for around, I think, six or seven months now. And I have definitely just enjoyed being in a different space, learning fully different things, kind of being out of my element. I think I’ve kind of forgotten, because I was on the same team for about four years, what that was like. But I definitely see huge benefits because of it. So I think that was more a reminder.

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

Bekah Marcum:
Yeah, my husband and I, we actually recently bought a Sprinter van that we’re tricking out. It’s kind of like pit my ride for vans, to make it more adventure vanny. So I’m like, not only the only one, sometimes of my being black at work, not so much anymore at Zillow, but I’m also the only black chick in the forest usually. So I do a lot of rock climbing, mountain biking, camping and all that stuff. And so right now, we’ve been using the time that we would normally be commuting just trying to build out our van. So a bed’s going in there, a kitchen’s going in there, well, bathroom’s going in there. And so we’ve just been doing a lot of woodworking and all that stuff to get that together.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That sounds like a really cool project to work on.

Bekah Marcum:
It’s really fun because being a digital designer, I can build out like a CAD model of what I want the van to be, what I want a small house project to be. But then actually getting wood, getting metal, whatever else and actually just physically building it is a whole other level of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
And also with everything that’s happening now, great timing.

Bekah Marcum:
I know, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Great timing because… I mean it’s one thing to be socially distanced in your own home, but if you have a van now that you can at least kind of go around to other places, get some fresh air and stuff, that’s a benefit.

Bekah Marcum:
Yeah, I know. It definitely is. It’s a little kind of rugged RV is what it essentially will be. And so there’s a lot of places where it’s like, well, we have a full kitchen. We don’t need to go say hi to anyone. I can get my coffee here, my lunch here, everything else. So we’ve definitely been scoping out different state parks, national parks in the area and trying to find what’s open. Because it’s like, oh, yeah we could go to, I don’t know, Yosemite and social distance or something and just be in our own space. We wouldn’t drive that far because that’s 18 hours. But being able to have or feel like that freedom is possible, it’s been nice.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So one of the kind of ongoing themes that we have here on Revision Path for this year is equitable futures. I got this idea, actually, last year. I went to a conference at Harvard called Black and Design, and one of the sort of things that they were talking about a lot was black people in the future. Where do we see ourselves, et cetera? We’re coming up on 2020 that’s a very kind of big futuristic year as people think about that with pop culture, et cetera. So how are you helping to build a more equitable future through the work that you’re doing?

Bekah Marcum:
I think a big thing facing Black Designers of Seattle, or just in general, is awareness. And so a lot of, in building community, is just increasing that awareness both of each other, but then also have different jobs. It’s been really great to be able to connect someone who is just trying to get into design, or they’re super young just out of college trying to find a mentor, and connect them with someone who is very established in that field. And to build that relationship there, to start kind of helping each other get to the places that we want to be. So I think just providing opportunity is a big part of what I’ve been focusing on.

Bekah Marcum:
But then also a lot of my role with the group has not only been the community organizing, but also the event organizing. And that’s been mostly on kind of the community plus allies or community plus conspirators is what I like to call it, where we not only have the Black Designers of Seattle community, but we also have other folks from the diversity inclusion space and then also the wider community in some ways. And so I think just having discussions around being the only black designer and all that stuff in that space is super, super important. So I think just having that discussion on a larger level and just building awareness of this is a problem. If you only have one black designer, that is an issue. You should be focusing on having a diverse workplace, not just racially but age-wise, socioeconomically, everything. And so I think just creating spaces for those conversations to happen is one of the other ways I’m trying to help contribute to more equitable future.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Well, it’s 2025. Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Bekah Marcum:
Oh, that’s so hard. There’s a lot. I’m not sure. I feel like so much of my life has… If you asked me five years ago where I would see myself now, it’s so completely different. It’s so very different, and I’ve just been really enjoying that journey. I really hope that five years in the future our community is not just larger, but it also has greater impact. I hope that I’m in a place where I’m able to see the community be a space where people are going to find mentors or mentees, and finding different ways to get involved with schools and stuff, or just having awesome conversation.

Bekah Marcum:
I think for me, personally, I don’t know. I definitely love being a designer. I don’t think I want to be a manager, so that’s definitely not in there. But just having a larger scope on projects and just really being able to have a position where I’m able to strategically really kind of look at the future of a project would be super exciting. And hopefully, by then my van is done and I’m just traveling around in some ways working from the van from a lot of awesome locations.

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

Bekah Marcum:
Totally. So my website is rebeccamarkham.com, and I’m on LinkedIn, Instagram@Bec’s. Yeah. And also there’s a Black Designers of Seattle group, both on Facebook and LinkedIn. It’s just Black Designers of Seattle, so it should be super searchable.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Well, Becca Markham, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. When I first heard about you, it was, actually, I mentioned this during the designer and designer interview, I first heard about you when I heard about the group, and I was like, I got to have her on the show because I feel like there’s more of a story there. And so getting to learn more about how you grew up and the work that you’re doing right now. And even with the work that you’re doing through the group that you started at Black Designers of Seattle, there’s two things that really stick out to me. One is that building authentic community is something that is super important for you, but I think also just super important for all of us. But also really kind of owning your identity is what has made you such a unique person and has made you someone that people are kind of flocking to.

Maurice Cherry:
So I really applaud the work that you’re doing behind BDS. If there’s anything that I can do or anything that Revision Path can do, definitely let us know. This is more of the kind of community stuff that we really need to see. I mean, even in the midst of coronavirus, take us from online to offline, but being able to foster that community is something that’s really important, and I’m glad that you’re really kind of able to shepherd the cause. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Bekah Marcum:
Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.


RECOGNIZE is open for essay submissions for Volume 2! The deadline is April 30 – enter today!

Sponsors

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Tim Allen

Design can be a powerful way to bring people together, and Tim Allen embodies that as the VP of design at Airbnb. He oversees several teams at the popular online housing marketplace, including their newest offering Airbnb Experiences, and we spent the first part of our interview talking about how Tim got started at Airbnb, as well as the company’s open culture.

Tim also shared how growing up and living around the world as a military kid helped inspire his early design work, talked about attending NCSU and working his first design jobs at Interactive Magic and IBM, and spoke on the importance of design leadership and designers as business leaders. Tim truly wants to be a beacon for more Black designers to enter the industry, and he’s leading by example!

(NOTE: This interview was recorded before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Check out the Airbnb Newsroom to learn about how Airbnb is helping relief efforts, including providing housing for 100,000 COVID-19 responders around the world.)

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Tim Allen:
Hi Maurice. I’m Tim Allen, VP of design at Airbnb, and I look after design functions globally across design, research, UX, writing and creative.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s a lot to look over.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, it’s quite a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a regular day like for you at Airbnb? Does that exist?

Tim Allen:
I don’t know if it does exist in terms of a regular day. It’s a lot of context switching, I can tell you that. Sometimes I’ll have a day where I try to avoid these, but it’s just back-to-back meetings with wildly different contexts for each meeting.

Tim Allen:
But typically there’s some combination of our creative culture. How do we feel that? How do we calibrate it? What does quality look like? Which leads into product. How are we impacting customers’ lives through our product and maintaining quality? Again, that’s a pretty constant theme.

Tim Allen:
And then creatively, how are we creating resonance with our brand? So in some variation, sometimes all three, sometimes just focusing on one, like people. I’ll have one day where I’m focusing just mainly on one-on-ones and connecting with folks, making sure folks are being enabled to do the best work.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get started at Airbnb?

Tim Allen:
I got started through a conversation. Much like many other positions I’ve had. I had a conversation with Alex Schleifer who is our chief design officer and we just hit it off immediately. Our sons are about the same age, so he was actually on his way to pick up his son the first time we chatted. And we started talking about our design ethos and what we believe in. And that pretty much rhymed and that was a great way to start a relationship.

Maurice Cherry:
So just had the conversation and then before you knew it, you’re working at Airbnb.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s pretty good.

Tim Allen:
It was a snowball effect.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the best thing about your job?

Tim Allen:
I guess the best thing about my job, I think it’s just being creative. Just thinking orthogonally about business challenges, customer and community challenges, and then applying my own sense of tuition and background to those challenges is pretty exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the team. You mentioned you are doing a lot of context switching. Talk about the teams that you oversee.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. You have experience design, which is a pretty broad function. We have generalists here, so a good range of folks that either index on visual design or interaction design. Or mostly a combination thereof, but with varying levels of capability on either side of that. You have research and insights, survey science, data science and UX writing, information architecture. There’s quite a bit of variance there.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting that there’s all those positions at a company that is… I don’t know, would you call Airbnb a tech company since they’re mostly deals, I would say with… I don’t want to call it hospitality, but with lodging in a way?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah. Accommodations is one big part of our brand. We’ve recently expanded into just Airbnb experiences where you don’t have to own a home or have a home in order to be a host basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me more about that.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. So Airbnb experiences is all about the best in class experiences. So when you arrive at a location you can feel like you’re at home and you feel like a local as opposed to feeling like a tourist. We have different categories such as animals just launched recently to a lot of a fanfare. We have a couple of categories that are getting ready to launch soon as well. Cooking is another category that’s very popular.

Tim Allen:
We also have adapted experiences too. So just in terms of inclusivity and accessibility, a lot of times people with mobility impairments or people that are disabled, have a tough time when they’re traveling, being integrated into experiences. And so we have a whole host of adaptive experiences that are specifically catered towards disabled and the combinations that are required.

Maurice Cherry:
So, it’s not even so much… It almost sounds like a built in almost a package in a way. Of course with Airbnb you’re renting out someone else’s space, but it sounds like with this it also lumps in different activities you could do, like maybe going out to eat or I don’t know, seeing a play or something like that. Is that a good way of describing it?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I mean mostly my job is about innovating around the entire consumer journey across digital and offline experiences. From the moment you think you want to go somewhere, as an inception moment through planning, through booking. Obviously through hosting is a big experience in terms of your commendation and the experiences you have while you’re traveling. And so it’s like how do you create the best trip possible and make it as magical as possible?

Maurice Cherry:
I never thought about it, I guess in an end-to-end sort of way like that. It’s not just that you’re providing lodging, you’re also providing entertainment. You’re providing… It’s almost tourism, I guess, in a way.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah. A big part of our brand is around tourism. We have ecotourism category of experiences as well. So yeah, that’s a good way to think about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Let’s see. So one thing that I’ve heard a lot about with Airbnb, we actually have had someone from Airbnb on the show. This was years ago. I don’t even know if he still works there anymore, but he talked a lot. His name is Ariem Anthony. I think he was in the production design department, but he talked a lot about Airbnb and it’s very open culture. Is that something that you’ve experienced since you’ve been there?

Tim Allen:
Yes, one of the biggest things that drew me to Airbnb was my perception from the outside of the community. And then now that I’m a part of Airbnb, it’s definitely rung true. That open theme is definitely there. I think it’s because of the company mission is resonates so deeply with so many people. It’s usually the number one reason people join or want to be a part of the company.

Tim Allen:
And company missions can be fluff sometimes. Right. But I think the actual intent of delivering on the mission of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere, so intentionally going after that and then also having the means to deliver against that. I think those two factors create this culture that it’s like a baseline understanding that people have. This shared purpose that allows people to be open in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that’s something that and really I think in a lot of big tech companies, having an open culture is something that’s really important because diversity and inclusion is important. They want to make sure that people can bring the notion of bringing your whole self to work. Is that something, I would imagine in your position being a VP, that’s a really big deal.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. I mean, if you think about the long game, the way I think about belonging is almost synonymous with creativity. I think when you overlay the factors that add up to belonging with the factors that enable creativity, they’re very similar. To a sense of safety with this fearlessness of not creating errors and the openness of communication, feeling like you can contribute. All of these things that when you feel like you belong, it’s very much a way of cultivating creativity too, which is basically my job.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you help to enable that throughout your teams that you oversee?

Tim Allen:
Well, one thing I start with is just this foundational representation. I think homogenous teams usually make homogenous products based on homogenous strategies. And that’s definitely not what we’re aiming to do. Again, we want anyone to belong anywhere.

Tim Allen:
And when you say anyone, how can your team stretch as much as possible across the breadth of human diversity in terms of gender, race or gender identity, orientation, background, ability, disability and so forth? We’ve got a good range of folks. So you start to get that diverse perspective built in. We don’t have it solved. I think we still have a ways to go as many organizations do but that is definitely our intent at our foundation.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So let’s switch gears here a little bit. Of course, people know you from that not just your work that you’ve done while you’ve been an Airbnb, but also a lot of your other design leadership positions, which we’ll get into later. But let’s take it all the way back. Tell me about where you grew up.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, so my father was in the military, so we moved quite a bit. I actually spent a lot of time growing up in Japan, several years in Okinawa and several years in Iwakuni. And then we moved to California, South Carolina, D.C., Northern Virginia area. And I ended up going to high school and settling in North Carolina. And yeah, went from high school to college and design school in North Carolina as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I saw as I was doing my research, you got your undergrad and you got your graduate degree from NCSU, which we’ve featured on the site before. We’ve talked a lot about how great the program is. We’ve had a few NCSU alums on the show too. What was it like there for you? Paint a picture. What time period is this when you’re at NCSU?

Tim Allen:
Oh man. So this was a while back, at NCSU. It was called the School of Design rather than the College of Design. It was… I want to say it was one of the top 10 design schools or so. So coming into it, for me, was a very big deal. I was so excited to get in. When I first got there, I did feel like a fish out of water though. I was like these are real designers around me. My background is airbrushing so I had my little airbrush compressor and airbrush all ready to do some design work and-

Maurice Cherry:
Wait wait, hold up hold up, back up. Airbrushing? Like how people airbrushed T-shirts or something like that?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah that’s actually… So how I got into I guess design or I would say art back then was in high school. Yeah, I had my own airbrush company.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, T-shirts. In sophomore year in high school, my dad got me a airbrush set as a gift because I just drew all the time. I was a big drawer and I just drew cartoons and stuff all the time. And then he was like “You should try this.” And before he knew it I was making T-shirts for the basketball team and football team and all my friends. And then that blew up into cars and boats and then I started doing businesses in the area and stuff. And by the time I was a senior had just a whole portfolio of business. Which I use that as a portfolio, which I didn’t even know what a portfolio was, to get into design school.

Maurice Cherry:
So you were airbrushing T-shirts in the South? I’m imagining this is probably mid ’90’s probably.

Tim Allen:
Yeah you’re talking about mid ’90’s.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You were cleaning up, you were cleaning up because airbrushed T-shirts were pretty big back then.

Tim Allen:
Huge, man. I had a pretty nice business man as a little high school student. It was good. I just loved doing it. I’d just stay up. Literally I’d start, I don’t know, after dinner ish and just airbrush all the different, I guess clients I had until 2:00 AM or so. Get some sleep and then go to school and handout all the merch.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So it sounds like your parents were pretty supportive of you using your talent in this way.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I mean even just introducing the airbrush. It was just really, really supportive of art in general. I know that’s not always the case but yeah. Yeah, that definitely was the case with my family.

Maurice Cherry:
Did they introduce you to art and design at an early age or was it something you just picked up?

Tim Allen:
Well, it’s interesting because both my… Well, my mother used to teach art and then my father was just a doodler. And I just would see him doodle and he’s actually a really good artist and he taught me how to draw when I was super young and then I just kept doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And then that of course inspired you to end up going to North Carolina State. So tell me about the program. Do you feel like it really helped you once you got out there in the world as a working designer?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah, I mean I’d say there was a couple of very fortuitous events that happened and some mentors that sprinkled in there that just fueled the passion I already had around art into design. And not only helping me understand what design is but also how it relates to art. I think I was very fortunate to be in a curriculum that was labeled art and design. So it was this intermix of subjective emotion and then objective problem solving and how those things relate. Still to this day is foundational in the way I approach design. But yeah, the opportunities I had really were straight coming in. One of the professors saw my airbrushing and airbrushing is very volumetric. And that was one of the things that drew me to it. It’s so easy to shade and so forth.

Tim Allen:
And so he’s like “You know what, 3D design and CGI is probably something you would gravitate towards because you just have this natural instinct towards objects.” And I was like okay cool. And so eventually, that relationship blossomed and he got a grant from NSF to create character animation and pedagogy for what they used to call multimedia back in the day. So this is basically like CD-ROMs and stuff. And so he just paid me for a summer to learn CGI. It was these silicone graphics machines that were down in a basement and no one that knew how to use them. They were built on Unix and he was like “Crack the code on these and learn how to create 3D avatars and animate them and there you go.” And so I literally again, it was sort of deja vu with the airbrush. Because the same thing I did was for the next three months I just holed away in that basement learning 3D. And then yeah, that started… That was my path of how does art relate to design?

Maurice Cherry:
Self taught.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So once you graduated from North Carolina State, what was the first design job that you had?

Tim Allen:
First design job was at this game company called Interactive Magic.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tim Allen:
And they were known for this flight simulation game called Apache and it was just… Apaches are these huge helicopters in the military. I think it’s like… Well, I don’t know, one of the most feared or destructive helicopters in the arsenal or whatever. So we played that up in the game and basically you got the experience of flying an Apache helicopter but we also did first person shooters and a couple other things as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And now as I was looking through your extensive LinkedIn resume, I saw that you were a product design lead at IBM for five years and this was back during a time when product design certainly wasn’t as widespread as it is now in the industry. I’m curious to know, what did you take away from that experience?

Tim Allen:
Oh man, that was foundational as well. I was fortunate enough to have Chris Paul as a manager coming out of the Interactive Magic. He recruited me into the team within a year I was already managing folks just because he just believed in my capability. So not only was I learning product design at a very early time but then also learning how to manage people and so forth early in my career. Yeah, it was a pretty cool time. I was working on WebSphere, which is like a enterprise web development IDE. Yeah and a couple other projects there.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that I saw recently, I was reading through, I think it was FastCompany. I was reading through and they were talking about this study. I don’t know, you probably might’ve read this, the study from McKinsey about CEOs and design leadership. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Tim Allen:
Yes…yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So you probably know where I’m going with this. So you’ve held down a lot of design leadership positions at a number of different companies and agencies. I mean we’ve mentioned IBM, of course you’re now at Airbnb but I mean, Adobe, Amazon, Microsoft, RGA. That’s a huge swath of experience there. And to sort of refer back to this study, the study basically was saying that CEOs don’t understand design leadership at all. When you look back at your career, have you found that to be the case?

Tim Allen:
I think there’s been a progression. I wouldn’t say where we’ve reached the Nirvana yet but there has been a progression. And I could describe my early career as trying to get a seat at the table as a designer. And then as a team lead trying to get your team to have a seat at the table. You’re the voice of your team, at the seat of the table. And then human centered design and design thinking. Being the voice of the customer and having the customer have a seat at the table. Table being like executive forums, decision making forums and so forth. And then I think now, if you’re fortunate enough to be in a successful company, most likely there’s some notion of design as a strategic asset in there.

Tim Allen:
I think the extent to which that’s true probably varies. But yeah, I think we’ve grown. At the same time, I think designers as leaders are very rare. And I think at the point of my career that I’m in now, what spoke to me quite a bit, getting back to Airbnb a bit is the fact that the founder, two of the three founders are university grads and Brian and I have a good rapport. Brian Chesky is like a designer’s designer if anything. He leads the whole company as CEO. And the way to approach problems that we learned very early on as designers is just thematic in how Airbnb just runs in general. And I find that fascinating.

Maurice Cherry:
So you just dropped a little something there I want to go back to. You said that designers as leaders are rare. Can you unpack that a little bit? What do you mean by that?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, designers as business leaders.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tim Allen:
Are rare. Yeah. I think there are very few CEOs with design backgrounds. Typically even at the executive levels, design reports into engineering. Typically there’s very little design organizations that end at CEO level or report into sort of a C level position. Again, that’s just representation, that’s sort of quote unquote, seat at the table. So I just find that interesting. I think that at a certain level, we plateau a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think would need to happen to change that?

Tim Allen:
I think that design… Approaching design with a business lens without sacrificing the ability to be creative is one way to do that. I think there’s a balance to be had there. But understanding and even building this into design curriculums at a early phase in people’s development is key. Like how did decisions get made in business? And how can design play a part not only in what’s delivered but how it’s delivered and why it’s delivered? In relation to the business and the reason why the company even exists.

Maurice Cherry:
Given your design leadership positions, have you found that designers are starting to come more into that business sense as the years go on? Are they improving, I guess? That’s probably a better way to put it.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I think that design has just… It’s been democratized by technology a lot more. So I think when we bring folks in with varied backgrounds, so folks just out of undergrad while they were going to school or even not attending undergrad, that have had their own brand agencies or have been contracting and understand-

Tim Allen:
Agencies or have been contracting and understand business at a level of basically putting the food on the table. I think it enables them to have the same, a different level of rigor in terms of how they impact decisions at work as ICs or even managers.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I’m curious about that, because I feel like certainly as technology has made it so more and more people can enter into design at pretty much any level. In a way it sort of forced some people to be almost more entrepreneurial and more businesslike in their design, because they may not necessarily be doing it for a business, but they have X number of clients. Say if they do a bunch of design for a marketplace website or something like that, I don’t know. I’m thinking like 99designs or something to that effect where they didn’t have to kind of talk to a number of different clients and weigh the business cases and not just creates for the sake of creation I guess.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Even just bringing it back to my own story of having an airbrush business and understanding clients and briefs and however crazy they were either in high school or sort of like, “Hey, just hook me up with a T-shirt with the Wu-Tang Clan symbol on or whatever. But you still need to understand like, “Okay, what is this person’s sensibility and what are you’re trying to do with?” It’s basically what this person’s brand is. That enables a different level of … A different way of seeing the world when you hit the corporate or agency roadmap.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you’ve been now at Airbnb, we spoke about this before recording. You’ve been there for about seven or so months now. What lessons did you learn this past year? How has this new experience improved you or has it helped? How has it helped you grow?

Tim Allen:
It’s been for me just refreshing to be in a company where creativity and design is an extreme asset. I mean, I think I probably took that for granted earlier in my career working with Nike at RJ and just being in sort of an agency for so long of like, your purpose or what you believe in intersecting or overlapping with your talent or kind of capability as a designer. And so I didn’t understand how rare that was until after I left RJ and wasn’t working on Nike.

Tim Allen:
And I think now, I’ve worked with a lot of companies that have great missions, but being at Airbnb, it reminds me of early in my career where it’s just like a lot of people believing in something, a lot of people with extreme amounts of talent. And I think that belief mixed with the level of creativity and talent that’s cultivated here is just, it’s one the things that just it’s really refreshing and it’s a delight to be here.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. When you look back over your career at all the places you’ve worked at, what are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned?

Tim Allen:
The biggest lessons I’ve learned I think is that in some ways I think creativity in terms of design is an act of kindness. What draws me to design the most is when that’s quantified and calibrated against. What I’m saying is, I think that creativity by itself is an inservice of something. Creating a better world or impacting people’s lives in a positive way can start to feel a little self-indulgent. But I think a mission like empowering every person on the planet to achieve more. When you mix that with creativity, there’s kindness involved in that. I think a mission like anyone feeling like they belong anywhere, there’s a notion of kindness in that. And design in the right circumstances can impact people’s lives if people are committed to it.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like for you now?

Tim Allen:
For me it is just authentically committing to a purpose and kind of propagating that commitment among team members. So attracting people to that mission, fueling that mission, and then delivering on that mission, which is basically our products and our innovation. So I think success is all about understanding that purpose and just being a catalyst for belonging at this point.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I know just started at Airbnb not too long ago, but I’m curious, are you happy kind of with your current work-life balance? Is it good?

Tim Allen:
Work-life balance is interesting because I don’t know, I don’t know if I create a binary between the two.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I don’t know if I’d necessarily say it’s a binary, I guess think of it more like a see-saw. Like the balance is where you feel it’s the most balanced, so it’s not necessarily taking one from the other. And I’m curious, if it’s not balanced, what would that look like for you?

Tim Allen:
So I have a two-year-old now, which is a new thing that’s very inspiring as well, and a five-month-old.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, congratulations.

Tim Allen:
Thanks a lot. So I think I’m happier in my career, just in terms of where I am and the people I’m working with. I think so that makes me a better spouse, better father and so forth. I think in doing that, the balance is, I think when you’re passionate about something, you’re compelled to do it quite a bit and go above and beyond. So it’s like how do you calibrate against responsibilities as a new father while still stimulating yourself and improving yourself? And just along that, is it just being on a journey of an improvement as a person and then, how does your career fit into that as well? Let’s that being a new father, those are some new variables that I hadn’t had to deal with before.

Maurice Cherry:
What keeps you motivated and inspired these days? I mean, aside from your kids, I would imagine.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, kids definitely. I would say that’s probably number one. I mean, without being cliched, you see that everything is new in their eyes. You see everything that comes in comes out in some way. You see a reflection of yourself, both the best parts of yourself and sometimes the worst parts. So that’s definitely an area of inspiration. I read sci-fi, I’m a sci-fi fanatic. I love Octavia Butler. So I read her stuff a lot. I think mainly it’s a combination of fashion, sci-fi, and just being enamored with my kids is probably the biggest inspiration for me.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I heard you are quite the sneakerhead too. Somebody told me that. I mean, you let me know if I’m wrong there, but.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I have a big, large collection of shoes from my days working with Nike and I feel like I’m a reformed sneakerhead a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that possible?

Tim Allen:
I think I probably have way … I don’t know, but I don’t have as many as before. And so I have just a few, a smaller inventory than I did before. But I try to make them count.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like a nice warehouse set aside for them.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, [crosstalk 00:35:38].

Maurice Cherry:
Climate control. Do you feel like you’re living your life’s purpose right now or do you think you’re still searching for it?

Tim Allen:
Oh wow. That’s deep Maurice. Yeah, at times I do feel like that’s the case. I love what I’m doing right now in terms of purpose. I love how it’s being directed and delivered. I love the impact that I have on people’s lives, or the impact I want to have on people’s lives. And yeah, it’s cool to be a new father. And so there’s a lot of things that are in line right now. So yeah, I hadn’t really thought about it like that, but yeah, I’d say I’m starting to live my purpose.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you want to do? This can be career-wise. It can be life-wise, anything in particular?

Tim Allen:
I’d want to learn how to fly, fly planes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, for one of my recent birthdays, my wife got me flying lessons and it was pretty amazing. So I just started, but I haven’t been able to keep it going. But yeah, I’d love to just be I guess a novice pilot.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I feel like we’ve had someone on the show that was a pilot. Well I don’t know if they were a pilot. I think they were just into flying planes, like model planes. I’m thinking of Dantley Davis. I don’t remember if he told me he was into planes or if he did fly recreationally. I don’t remember which it was. But I would imagine that’s probably pretty well within your grasp right now?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. I mean it’s just amazing to be up there and how you feel when you’re actually in control of the plane, how complex it is. But in some ways it’s fairly simple as well. Just seems like extremely challenging but very peaceful at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
Will probably make your commute easier.

Tim Allen:
Oh indeed, yeah. Going from Seattle to San Francisco man, you wouldn’t talk about work-life balance. That’s one thing that’s off balance is like, how can I make that commute less painful? So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
How far is it? I mean, I’m assuming you’re flying, but it’s what, like a two hour flight?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, yeah. Sometimes a little less. And then yeah, I’m trying to make it a science to get in and out of the airport and to the office as quick as possible so I can get my day started at 10:00 AM starting from Seattle, which isn’t too bad.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. See Airbnb needs to work on the air part. They got the bnb part down.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
They get the air part down, get you a private jet or something back and forth. Make it happen.

Tim Allen:
There you go. I like the way you’re thinking Maurice. We should have a transportation division as well. I got to hit them up.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, so what is it like, I’m curious because Seattle is a pretty big tech city. I mean Microsoft is there, Amazon is there, and Nintendo is there, bunch of other probably smaller companies and stuff, but you’re working in Silicon Valley. Do you feel like that’s a big shift for you in any sort of way?

Tim Allen:
For me personally, no. I mean we have an office, Airbnb has an office in Seattle as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a office here and so I work out of the Seattle office as well as the San Francisco office. So we’re quite a community here in Seattle. And I think what’s interesting, really interesting in terms of the black design community here, woman by the name of Bekah Marcum has just recently just used LinkedIn to literally just knit together a community out of thin air over the last couple of years of black designers in Seattle. I just spoke at one of the events not too long ago, but being a part of the design community just at large in Seattle, it’s great. And like you said, there’s a ton of tech companies here. There’s a ton of agencies here as well. This is a nice creative climate.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me more about that local Seattle design scene. Black design scene I guess if we want to put a finer point on it. What is it like for you at this stage in your career?

Tim Allen:
I like to be closer probably to the black design community or design committee in general. So fairly busy. But yeah, just being able to meet with young early in career designers and folks who’ve been in the game for a while as well is just super interesting. I mean, iron sharpens iron and sometimes it’s just representation, like this being in a room of people that look like you, especially when that’s not often the case is cathartic in and of itself. And if all those people are also within your function and are passionate about what you’re passionate about as well, it’s like paradise.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s something that I found interesting when I started doing live shows with Revision Path is that oftentimes just the fellowship aspect alone of being in the same room, like for attendees, for me too really. Just being in the same room with a bunch of black designers, I don’t want to say that’s enough. It feels like a disservice to say that’s enough given sort of the dearth of spaces that are available in the design community that speak to us, that are for us, that cater to us, et cetera. But just being in the space, every time we do a live show, people are like, “When’s the next one?” I’m like, “Ah, I don’t know.” But they love that opportunity so much and they’re able to talk to people that look like them, that are in the same field as them. It’s such a rarity when it does happen.

Tim Allen:
Oh my God yeah. It’s so rare. I mean basically we couldn’t stop talking about it. After we finished up with the event, people were just constantly remarking about how rare this is and how good it feels. And yeah, I mean just like you said, it just speaks the dearth of opportunities, places, times when we are together. And so we’ve got a long way to go in our industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve been a design leader in this industry for a long time. You’ve seen designers come and go, you’ve seen trends come and go, et cetera. What is something that you’ve …

Maurice Cherry:
Seeing trends come and go, et cetera. What is something that you think most designers don’t worry about but they should? I have an answer. I don’t want to seed your answer but I want to listen to what you have to say.

Tim Allen:
I would say the why, I think the more senior you get, the more experienced you get, it gets better. But I’ve even seen more senior designers not really understand why they’re making decisions and be able to articulate the rationale behind it. And it goes back to just art versus design. We’re not artists necessarily. We should be artists, but our job isn’t art, as a designer at least. You are solving problems, so understanding how to articulate why you’ve made a decision, down to every design decision. Even some of the design decisions you’re probably making intuitively or instinctually, I’d love to see designers focus more on that.

Maurice Cherry:
That was actually pretty close to my answer. Yeah, I was going to say writing, but for the very same reasons of being able to articulate sort of why you made a certain design decision or why you decided to go a certain way. I mean look, I’m a designer that can sit out and vibe for hours over fonts and find what the right typeface is to get a vibe and all that. But being able to articulate the why behind it is so important because otherwise people just think you’re some woo woo hippie designer just pulling stuff out of nowhere. And it’s like where is … what’s the rationale behind it? What’s the thought process that goes into the decision? Because it feels like without that then yeah, you are an artist because artists don’t necessarily have to explain that. But as a designer you’re in service to the user, to the company, to the client, et cetera. So that rationale becomes paramount.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I couldn’t describe it better. I think … and then as you rise in seniority, you have this whole notion of accountability. So as you define that, you either create accountability because of those decisions or you’re given accountability because of those decisions. And if you don’t understand what you’re being held accountable for, you can’t measure it, you can’t tout it, you can’t … When calibration performance reviews come around, you’re sort of like, well I did this, but why did you do it? How does that track against the business impact? Can you make a … I think there’s several ways to use that as ammunition and one of them is through performance reviews. I also see that as an area where writing and everything we’re talking about comes in handy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What advice would you give to, let’s say I’m a mid career designer, I’m even loath to use that term because the middle of a designer’s career, it’s often a very weird nebulous period of time. You know what I mean? I mean certainly if you look at titles, you can be a junior or senior whatever, but mid career, is that three years, five years, 10 years? How long is a designer’s career, et cetera. But let’s say a mid career designer, say five years or so in the game, they’re listening to this interview, they’re looking at your work, they’re looking at your resume. What advice would you give them if they want to get to the level where you are?

Tim Allen:
Sometimes I’m a little old school, I don’t even know if this really still applies, I haven’t thought about it as much, but when I was coming up and it was again, my father’s influence, he had the whole adage of you got to be twice as good. He didn’t really necessarily add the whole expect half as much thing. He just … they definitely instilled that, understand where the bar is and then just double it. So I’d say craft and just excellence. If you can just be as scary talented as you can be, I think that starts to speak for itself. And also it reflects your passion, whether that is interaction or XD or communication design, visual design, graphic design, whatever it is. Even gathering insights, just that notion of excellence and understanding where the bar is and always trying to push it is a gift.

Maurice Cherry:
So one of the things that we have for this year, for 2020 is basically a more equitable future. I mean 2020 is sort of this year that’s been driven into pop culture as the future in many ways, whether it’s the new show or just the notion of a repeating year of some sort where this is the future. How are you helping to use your design skills or even just kind of your station at where you’re at in life, how are you helping to create a more equitable future?

Tim Allen:
One of the things we just started to do is to work with companies, like the Inneract Project, I’m sure you’re familiar with the other Maurice Mo and even beyond that how can you create more awareness of design as a viable path. Not only viable but extremely lucrative in some cases, path as well, to underrepresented marginalized groups. I think that’s key. I think for me, in terms of contributing to a more equitable industry and talent pool, it’s just like getting folks in and then understanding the barriers there. I mean it’s not just social economic but it’s also cultural. I think we talked about my background where my parents were very supportive of art just as a means to … as a way of living but that’s definitely not always the case. You see that all the time.

Tim Allen:
So overcoming those barriers, so awareness. I think access is another one. And then also just tilling the soil as it were, as a leader myself in propagating the understanding of representation, diversity and having a diverse population feel like they belong as well and how that puts jet fuel on creativity. There’s tons of research on it, I won’t go into all that, but it’s tangible what happens when you get a bunch of different voices singing the same song.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s 2025, it’s even further in the future, what is Tim Allen doing? What’s he working on?

Tim Allen:
Oh man. 2025 in the future, I’m probably a host of some sort. Either a super host, in terms of an experience or my home or both. I’m working on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Oh, an Airbnb host. Okay.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know why my mind went straight to game show when you said that, but okay.

Tim Allen:
I could be a game show host. That could be interesting too.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey, nothing wrong with that.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. No, I feel like I would want in five years to be … to have provided some pathway of access to increase our numbers as black designers in the field. Definitely within Airbnb. But not only us racially but numbers of other underrepresented populations as well. Just being a beacon of inclusion and belonging. Yeah, I think if in five years, somehow in the orbit of what it means to create a creative team or produce creative deliverables that are inclusive and that inspire people to want to be more inclusive and host and make people feel like they belong. That’s what I would want to do in five years.

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

Tim Allen:
You can definitely check me out on Twitter, Tim Allen Design. Hit me up on Instagram as well. I’m just Timothy Allen there. LinkedIn is always a good route too. I’ve got a couple of portfolios out there, but they’re super old. So take a look at those if you want to, but just to kind of see my path and some old work like-

Maurice Cherry:
Any of the airbrush shirts up there?

Tim Allen:
No, I need to put some of those up there though.

Maurice Cherry:
You should, I feel like that’s making a comeback now. Fashion design comes in 20 year cycles.

Tim Allen:
True, true, true. And we’re … that would be right for right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey look, think about it.

Tim Allen:
Okay [inaudible 00:08:44].

Maurice Cherry:
All right Tim Allen, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, one, giving us kind of a peek behind the curtain at Airbnb, what it’s like to kind of be at your position, but also just talking about your path, your journey as a designer, how you’ve come up and also really, I think it’s good to have that sort of introspection once you get to a … I don’t know, I think once you get to a certain level in your career to kind of see this is where I’ve been, this is where I’m going.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s always good, I feel like to have those sorts of insights and reflective moments because not only does it help you out and help you grow as a person, but also it helps out others as well because you’re able to kind of impart that knowledge on the next generation and certainly it looks like with the work you’re doing at Airbnb, through your teams as well as this work that you’re talking about with the black designer community in Seattle, et cetera, that you’re making that happen. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tim Allen:
Thanks for having me, Maurice. I appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure.


RECOGNIZE is open for essay submissions for Volume 2! The deadline is April 30 – enter today!

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Dwight Battle

What does it take to work for a company like Amazon? Well if you’re Dwight Battle, it’s all about forging your own path. As a self-taught designer, Dwight has honed his design skills at agencies from Atlanta to Seattle, including product design at HBO.

Dwight started off talking about his work at both Amazon and HBO, and then we talked about his live growing up in Ohio and moving to Atlanta to start his career. We also had a pretty spirited discussion about the changing tech and design scene in Seattle, the need for representation for Black designers, and why saying yes until he could afford to say no has been instrumental to how he works. Dwight’s living proof that success in tech is within your reach as long as you allow yourself to find your own way!

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Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dwight Battle: My name is Dwight Battle. I am a senior UX designer at Amazon working on the Kindle team.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. You just started at Amazon a few months ago, right?

Dwight Battle: Yeah, I started at the end of August. Yeah, it’s-

Maurice Cherry: Oh, wow.

Dwight Battle: Yeah, it’s been-

Maurice Cherry: What has-

Dwight Battle: It’s been a crazy time.

Maurice Cherry: I was going to ask, what’s the experience been like so far?

Dwight Battle: It’s very much… The phrase I use a lot the first couple of weeks there was drinking from the fire hose, and it’s very true. I think people go in with a preconceived notion about what Amazon is and what working at Amazon is like, and it’s fairly accurate. You do hit the ground running, and your head kind of has to be on a swivel. It feels like… I’ve been there six, seven weeks now, and it feels like six, seven months. I’ve done too much stuff in that time.

Maurice Cherry: Wow. You say you’re on the Kindle team, like as much as you can discuss, can you talk a little bit about just the kind of work you’re doing?

Dwight Battle: Yeah, I am on what we call the reader team. We manage the, as it sounds like, the reading experience across our various platforms and the e-reader. Specifically, I am the main designer for the core app experience team, so really, the overall IA of the product and how things look, work, and feel on a very high level before you dive into a specific book or piece of media.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. What is a just a typical day like meetings, things like that?

Dwight Battle: I’m still so new there, I don’t feel like I’ve really gotten to normal yet. We have our usual standup meetings and sprint planning things and things like that, but I’ve been really focused on one particular feature at the moment so I’ve been really heads down trying to solve what is turned out to be a fairly meaty challenge for most of this time. I don’t actually know what an average day at Amazon is like yet because it’s been a very… I feel like it’s been a very unique experience right now.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. I know beforehand Amazon, you were at HBO. That’s when we first-

Dwight Battle: Was. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: We met in 2016 at HOW Design Live here in Atlanta.

Dwight Battle: This was at HOW. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, and you are a senior product designer at HBO. Can you talk about what your time was like there?

Dwight Battle: My time at HBO was amazing. I was there for just under four years. We worked on the HBO Now and HBO GO streaming products here in the Seattle office, so that’s everything across phone, tablet, TV, desktop. I touched a lot of different things. What I really liked about that team, especially early, it was that it was a fairly small team so I got to do a lot of different things, and then as the design team started to grow, that focus became more and more narrow, but even then, it was narrow to a point where I could focus on things that I found interesting within the product and areas where I could affect change and make improvements to the product. They gave me a lot freedom to explore those things, so I got to do a lot of really cool things there.

Maurice Cherry: It sounds like you were there at the time when these big streaming services got off the ground. Of course, people knew about Netflix, but I mean, of course, HBO has HBO GO, HBO Now, like you mentioned. Amazon has its own Prime Video and things like that. How was it learning how to create those interfaces for TV because that’s so different from the web?

Dwight Battle: It was… When I made the pivot from print design into digital design, I made a focus on, or I focused on digital product experience in screens and TV screen to particular because I felt like that was a really interesting opportunity, and there wasn’t a lot of people doing that at the time. Coming into HBO and everything that that was, and yes, Netflix was around and Hulu was around and Prime Video was starting to kick up, and now everybody’s got some sort of a TV experience, there was a weird window of time where no one really had it figured out, and there was a lot of opportunity to say, “Hey, this is what navigating a screen with five buttons should look like and should feel.”

Dwight Battle: There’s so many interesting challenges there because you don’t have things like hover states or you don’t have long presses like you have on a phone or something like that. I think when Apple came out with their new swipe remote, that opened up a lot of possibilities with how you interact with a piece of content. It was a really fun and interesting time to be working in that space.

Maurice Cherry: I remember Android TV from around that time, and it was so clunky to use, not just because I think of the overall, at least back during that time Android was ugly, but aside from that, just the tools that you use to navigate, it wasn’t remote-friendly. I remember the Android TV I had, it was a keyboard. It was like a keyboard, and then on the right where there would be a number pad, instead there’s a track pad with a little, like buttons. It was a very odd experience, and it’s like-

Dwight Battle: That was a while ago. You’re, like-

Maurice Cherry: It’s like you can’t really lounge-

Dwight Battle: … Google TV, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: … on the couch. Yeah, you can’t really lounge on the couch with a keyboard and try to do certain things because of just ergonomics and such, so it has really come a long way.

Dwight Battle: I think a lot of times people tried to translate, especially in those early days, tried to translate the keyboard/mouse/monitor experience to a living room experience. I’ve always been really fascinated with media servers like Plex and Xbox Media Center and things like that, so I’ve been looking at that for a long time. That’s all it was, was taking that mouse/keyboard/monitor interface and throwing it on a big screen TV. That’s not how most people interact with a screen of that size. It’s much more of a lean-back experience, and you’re just kind of grazing the content, finding something to watch.

Maurice Cherry: I would say it’s also more of an audible experience, like you want to be able to hear those beeps as you go from menu to menu, from item to item where, like on my main computer, I don’t have speakers. I have headphones, but I may not always be wearing my headphones, but I can still navigate the web silently just viewing. It can kind of be hard to do that with television, especially if you’re not really looking at it. Sometimes you’ll be on the remote, you just point in the air and you hope that it did the right thing, but at least you hear that little audible cue that’s like, “Okay, it’s moving. It’s doing something.”

Dwight Battle: Yeah. I think that feedback is so critical, so when you hear the bloop, bloop. It’s funny, when I’m watching TV with my wife and where commercial hits, she’ll do the bloop, bloop, bloop, which is the TiVo sound, and that’s the sound for me that, “Hey, you should fast forward through these commercials.” That’s something… We haven’t had a TiVo for 10 years, but that has become such a known paradigm. That audible indication that something is happening is so much more important on a TV space.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, like the rise of audio branding as streaming services have grown has been really interesting. I think TiVo and Netflix really come to mind with that. When you hear the Netflix, like… you know, “Okay, this is Netflix, the show is starting, the episode is starting,” whatever. That’s the cue for you, the non-visual cue to say, “I need to pay attention.” I don’t know if any of the other services really have that. I don’t recall if Amazon or Hulu have it.

Dwight Battle: I don’t, I-

Maurice Cherry: I think Showtime might have something. Something, they have like-

Dwight Battle: Showtime’s got their little chime, but it’s tied in with their programming. It’s funny, everyone knows the Netflix, but what I grew up with, and honestly when I took the job at HBO, I posted this video, but back in the ’80s when it was the Saturday night movie premiere, the night, and they had that pan through the city, and then the HBO theme would play and the-

Maurice Cherry: Oh, yeah.

Dwight Battle: … HBO logo would come spinning, that was the sign that was like, “Oh, yeah,”-

Maurice Cherry: I remember that. Oh, my god.

Dwight Battle: …. “it’s about to go down,” it’s Saturday night, and that has always chimed. That’s always been a trigger in my head. When I took the job at HBO, I posted that video to say, “This is where I’m going next because that was so iconic to me.” When I see things like Netflix’s chime or Showtime’s chime, those are the things that I think about.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I think the broadcast channels have all picked up on that. Of course, NBC has the xylophone… and CW has like a little, I don’t know, like a soft rock riff or something, but all the networks have their little visual thing… or not visual… audio thing where you hear it, and it’s like, “Okay, this is something from that network or from that [inaudible 00:08:49].” It’s a really interesting kind of a branding thing.

Dwight Battle: It’s-

Maurice Cherry: I find that really interesting. You’re currently a Seattle, but you grew up in Columbus, Ohio, right?

Dwight Battle: Yes. Columbus, Ohio, home of the Buckeyes.

Maurice Cherry: Home of the Buckeyes. What was it like there?

Dwight Battle: I loved Columbus, Ohio. I have so many memories of what it was like growing up in Columbus. It seems kind of crazy to say that it was a small town, but at the time, to me, it was my world. I don’t know. I just remember… I don’t have a good answer for that question actually.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. When you think about that time, was design and art, was that a big part of your world growing up?

Dwight Battle: Yes, absolutely. That was one… I used to draw a lot. I think I always knew I wanted to be in some kind of a creative role, even if I didn’t know what that meant. I was always drawing. I was never really big into sports as a kid, which is crazy to people who know me now, but the thing that I used to always get excited for was a Super Bowl, not because of the game, but because of the commercials. I have distinct memories of being excited to watch the Bud Bowl and Spuds MacKenzie and things like that. I was always drawn to that, those type of experiences. I remember having a drawing of the old Camel mascot, which-

Maurice Cherry: Oh, Camel.

Dwight Battle: … the Camel cigarettes, met Joe Camel, and which probably isn’t great for an eight-year-old to be drawing, but I always knew I wanted to do this and something in that realm. I remember doing a shadowing experience. I followed, I shadowed a photographer for the day, and I went to his studio. I’ll never forget, he had this beautiful brick building, and he had this huge studio. He was showing me how to work the cameras and such. I was… and the thing that stood out to me was he was wearing jeans to work. I wanted to do that because he wore jeans to work because I saw my mom going off to work in her suit and sneakers and I saw my dad going off to work in his business attire. I was like, “I know… That guy is wearing jeans. Whatever he’s doing, I want to do that.” I’m always in this space, so.

Maurice Cherry: So you knew from an early age, this is exactly what you wanted to do?

Dwight Battle: Yeah, I didn’t know how it was going to manifest itself. I was really into comic books as a kid. I tried to draw. I’m a terrible drawer, but I tried to draw. I was really in a lettering, so I was trying to do something with that. It wasn’t really until, I think, high school when we moved to Minnesota that I even learned what graphic design was and started looking at that as a potential opportunity.

Maurice Cherry: Was your family supportive of you going in that route?

Dwight Battle: Oh, yeah. My parents have always been very supportive of this, of me doing this. I don’t know if they always understood what it meant, but I remember them putting me into art programs when I was young, like the summer school like at CCAD, Columbus College of Art & Design. I did a couple of summer camp things there, so they’ve always been really supportive of this.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. You’re in high school in Minnesota, right?

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: You graduated high school, and then after that, you went back to Ohio.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: University of Dayton, right?

Dwight Battle: Yes.

Maurice Cherry: Tell me about that.

Dwight Battle: Wanted to go to Ohio state, and I didn’t get into Ohio State, and so I thought, “Well, I’ve got family in Ohio. University is the next best thing.” They had a really good design program. I remember going out to visit the campus and being really impressed. For being a Catholic school, one, the number of black faces I saw around. It wasn’t a ton, but it was more than I was expecting, and the design program was really, really, the art and design program was really very good.

Dwight Battle: I took a year off after high school because I wanted to work, I wanted to save up some money for school, so I actually took a year off before I went off to University of Dayton. I started there, and honestly, when I look at it now, I was there for a year. I probably enjoyed the partying a little too much. I enjoyed the social aspects of college more than I enjoyed the class aspects of college.

Dwight Battle: But in hindsight, I think I was making decisions about my future from a very, very poor perspective. It was, “Hey, this is your… You’re 18 years old. You’re supposed to go to college. Go to college. This is what you’re going to do.” I knew I wanted to do something in design, but the idea of alternative pass for that never crossed my mind and the idea of I could’ve moved down to Atlanta early and done something. I wasn’t coming at it from the right space, and I don’t think, honestly, it was the right time for me to go because I went into it, and I kind of blew the opportunity. I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity that was in front of me.

Dwight Battle: It was kind of a sobering experience when I got the… At the end of the year, I looked at this next looming bill for the next year, and I was like, “I can’t afford this. I can’t afford to take out another loan for this, so I need to go figure it out something else.” I moved to Atlanta, moved in with my parents, which started a nice long period of moving in and out of my parents’ place for a number of years until I figure things out.

Maurice Cherry: It’s so interesting, the first year of college because… and I don’t know if it’s like this at other colleges, but it feels to me… and maybe it’s just a combination of freedom from the parents and being in a new environment, but it feels like the college throws everything they can at you to make you not go to class and to make you not want to study or do anything. It’s like there’s so many extra curricular activities, there’s football games, there’s parties.

Maurice Cherry: When I went to Morehouse, they had charter buses. The clubs would send charter buses, pick us up, take us to the club, and drop us right back off on campus. It’s like you don’t even have to worry about transportation to get to and from places. I don’t know. Maybe it’s different at other colleges, I don’t know, but it felt like, I mean, I had that experience freshman year. I think I’ve talked about this on the show where my freshman year Morehouse was rough.

Maurice Cherry: It was rough. I mean, I got kicked out of my dorm. I had to get into another dorm, and it wasn’t even so much because of the partying and everything, but it’s just there’s so many other things to do that have nothing to do with class, and you have complete total unfettered freedom to do those things, and there’s nobody to snap you back in line or tell you, “This is what you need to do.” You have to go in with this level of self-discipline that I don’t think a lot of 18-year-olds have.

Dwight Battle: It’s kind of crazy that we sit 18 year olds down to say, “Here, you need to decide what you’re going to do for the rest of your life over these next four years. You’re going to take out hundreds of thousand dollars in loans to do this, and we’re going to give you zero support. You’re an adult now. Figure it out.” It’s crazy to me that we do that because that was how it felt. It was like, “I’m an adult. I can do whatever I want to now,” and the switch never clicked that was like, “Oh, I also have to do these things because it’s going to move me forward and to the path that I think that I want,” but again, what I wanted at 18 years old is dramatically different than what I wanted in my mid-20s or even mid-30s.

Maurice Cherry: Right, and I mean, oh, my god, that’s so true. I racked up credit card debt. I just did dumb shit. I had a job. I did get a job. You remember College Club? Do you remember-

Dwight Battle: That sounds familiar.

Maurice Cherry: … their website?

Dwight Battle: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: It was a precursor kind of to Facebook, but College Club had this interface where they gave you a number, and you could call the number, and it would read your email back to you. They had all these little campus sites, so whatever school you went to, there was a site just for your school, and you could meet people at your school or at other schools. I ended up working there as a like a campus representative from Morehouse for College Club. Then I was hustling on doing that because I was getting paid to do that. The way that they had the pay structure set up was you got paid like… and this is wild now for people that are listening that are hearing this. We got paid $3 per picture and like $5 per new account.

Dwight Battle: Wow.

Maurice Cherry: Every time you took pictures, like you went around and you took pictures of campus life and uploaded them, I’m just counting in my head, “3, 6, 9, 12,” boom, boom, boom, boom. Same with accounts, 5, 10, 15, 20. I was in the computer science department at the time because I had majored in computer science, computer engineering that first semester, and I remember talking with a friend of mine… Actually, the same friend I told you about who teaches at Ohio State.

Maurice Cherry: We put together this macro program that we could basically just take pictures, and we would upload all the pictures to a folder, and then run the macro, and the macro would upload everything, and it would give us a total of what it would be at the end because the digital cameras we had… This is 1999. The digital cameras we had took a, like one of those hard floppy disks.

Dwight Battle: Oh. Wow.

Maurice Cherry: It was a Sony Mavica, and I remember it having like a box of disks in my backpack just like slotting them out, taking pictures and stuff, and the macro, we made another macro that would just make random accounts. We were getting money like hand over fist like every month, $4,000. What am I going to do at 18-

Dwight Battle: With [crosstalk 00:18:37]-

Maurice Cherry: … with… you think that I’m about going to class, and I’m making this much money now? I almost flunked out the first year. I was so just not even focused on it. The other reason also was because I wanted to do web design, and my advisor was like, “If you want to do that, you need to change your major because you’re not going to be able to do that here.” He’s like, “The web is a fad. There’s no way that people are going to be doing stuff on the internet in five years. What are we going to do on the internet? Play solitaire?” So yeah. So yes, so after-

Dwight Battle: Well, that person was right.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. After Dayton, you said you moved to Atlanta?

Dwight Battle: Yeah. Yeah. I was living with my parents. I got a job, bounced around, was working retail, just really trying to figure out what my next step was. I knew I still kind of wanted to go back to school, but I didn’t know what that path was. I think it was… I did that for a couple of years, and I think it was, ’99, 2000-ish that I found the Art Institute of Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry: Oh, wow.

Dwight Battle: I went and checked it out. At the time, with a couple years of post-Dayton, I said, “Let me make sure that this is the right place for me,” and did my due diligence. It seemed okay. Then I got in there and realized what we all know now about the Art Institutes, but I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I remember, and I only remember this because this is what kind of kick-started my career was I had a class, and the teacher… They made such a big show about the teachers are working professionals, and so they’re going to their jobs and then they’re going to come teach these classes in the evening.

Dwight Battle: Well, the professor was never there. This woman basically wound up teaching us. It was a Photoshop class. This woman who was a classmate there basically just started teaching the class. She told me about this company that she worked for that was a small… It was a publishing company. They made apartment magazines. She asked if I was interested in a production job, and I said, “Well, sure. I need a job while I’m going to school, so this is perfect.” I started working for the apartment guide, which is such a quaint idea now, but they were little books-

Maurice Cherry: I remember those.

Dwight Battle: … that you can pick up at the grocery store, and you would have listings of apartments, and you would pick out your apartment. That was how you found where you wanted to live. I started out as a production artist there. By this point, I realized I was giving the Art Institutes a lot of money. I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I think there was one class I only showed up for three times and still got an A, so I said, “This is not the right thing.”

Dwight Battle: So I left there, and that was the start of my career. I started out as a production artist pumping out those books, and did that for three years. I was starting to think about what the next step was going to be. I started having conversations with what they called art directors, what was the next step after being this production artist, what could I do next? They said some of the cities were large enough to justify having their own in-house artists who basically ran the, quote-unquote, “art department” for these apartment guides. Originally, he was going to send me that Vegas, and thank god he didn’t. That sounded amazing at the time. Thank god I did not wind up there, but-

Dwight Battle: It didn’t. That sounded amazing at the time. Thank God, I did not wind up there. But he said, “We need an artist for the Puget Sound book,” and I had no idea what that was because I don’t know what the Puget Sound is.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And he said, “It’s Seattle.” I said, “I don’t know what Seattle is.” And so in 2003, I moved out here to Seattle. I knew exactly one person. I knew a girl I went to college with who was living here, so she was the only person I knew here. And I moved here in 2003 and did that for a couple more years.

Dwight Battle: Realized fairly quickly that print work in the Seattle market was drying up quickly, and I was trying to make this move into advertising because that was what I knew I had always wanted to do. And I talked to a friend/colleague at it, at an ad agency here, and I took him my sad, pathetic little apartment guidebook and poor portfolio and said, “What could I do here?” And he looked at my book, and he said, “Did you do these ads on a Mac or a PC?”

Maurice Cherry: Hmm.

Dwight Battle: And I said, “Oh. I did them on a Mac,” and he said, “So, it’s not completely worthless.”

Maurice Cherry: Oh, wow.

Dwight Battle: “I can work with you here.” He was like, “You need to get out of that job because this job is not going to get you where you need to be.” And I think it was shortly after that that I gave like two weeks’ notice or two months’ notice, and I said, “I’m going to go find something else. I’m going to go find something that is closer to what I want to be doing.”

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And that took a while. I did some exhibit design. I worked for a company that did all of Microsoft’s conferences and trade shows. So, it was their CES exhibits and their E3 things and things like that. I freelanced for a while doing a lot of logo branding work, websites, and things like that. And then it was about 2010 where I kind of saw the horizon of what was coming down, and it was the iPad. And I was so intrigued by the potential of that device and that screen and what it meant and what it could be that I immediately went out and bought one and changed my focus and said, “This is what I want to do,” and started focusing on that and made that pivot.

Maurice Cherry: So, I want to go back because you just covered a lot of time. The early part where you’re talking about you’re working in an apartment guide. I’m just curious. What was that time like for you? That’s three years. That’s a long time to be at a place for design, especially back then because there wasn’t really a lot of variance in what you could do for digital design like there is now. You can be product or UX or what, you know?

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Interaction and what have you. What was your mind frame like during that time when you’re working at the apartment guide just doing these print ads?

Dwight Battle: Honestly, it was a time where I said, “This is the time that I’m going to put my head down and grind.” It wasn’t design work. It was very purely print production work.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: So, it was throw headphones on and grind through these ads and grind through making these copy changes or whatever they were.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And so, I knew that that was a means to an end. I knew I didn’t want to do that forever.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: But I knew that I needed to pay my dues, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know because again, I was coming from basically two years of college separated by five years. So, I knew I needed to learn a lot. And so, I’d work on stuff during the day. And then, I would go home, and I would read books on design. I’d mock up my own ads, and I would do as much learning as I could on my own even with the limited resources that were online at the time. And just trying to read and soak up and inhale as much as I could so that the next time I was doing these print production things, I could do it a little bit more efficiently so that I could get through more things so I could go home and do more of this other thing.

Dwight Battle: And so, when the opportunity to … And I started having conversations with the people who would be my bosses about becoming an art director for a book about a year before it actually happened. I went to them and said, “What do I need to do to get here? Because this is what I want my next step to be.” And so, doing that was a big help because they basically provided the roadmap for me, and when the time came to interview for those roles, I had done everything they were looking for anyway. And I had shown that I was capable of doing all that work anyway. So, it really became more of a, not formality, but I had shown I was able to do the work. So, getting the job was easy.

Maurice Cherry: So, it sounds like that was your education.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: That was your college basically.

Dwight Battle: Basically, yeah. That’s kind of how I’ve started referring to it, yeah. My career started in earnest in 2003, and it was such a dramatic shift from what I was working on because I went from working in a production office pumping out things to having to support salespeople and having to work with people who had completely different priorities than I did and having to work with people who thought about things completely different than I did.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And so, it was a very strong fundamental shift in how I thought about design work because I was so used to just like, “Hey. I can design all these things in a vacuum, and it doesn’t really matter what happens outside of this.” And I moved here, and it became very much, “No. These things have a purpose.”

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: “We need to … There are numbers that I need to hit, so I need to make sure that this content matches that.”

Maurice Cherry: What was Seattle like during that time, during those early 2000s?

Dwight Battle: It was crazy. I knew Seattle because of Microsoft and Amazon and Starbucks and Nintendo. I lived … My first apartment was right across from the Microsoft campus, and it was like driving onto the Microsoft campus was I remember being shocked that it was literally a campus. I just, I guess for some reason in my head I always thought of a building, a big, tall building downtown that had Microsoft on the top, and that was Microsoft. And to see how much, how ingrained in the community it was was kind of mind blowing for me.

Dwight Battle: But I never really thought about Seattle as a tech city. It was just a city that had some tech companies in it. I stayed largely away from it because I didn’t want to work in tech. I wanted to work in advertising, and I wanted to work in design. So, I stayed away from all of that. I remember turning down interviews at Amazon, so it’s like, “I don’t want to work. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to work for Amazon.”

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And so, it’s crazy to me when people say that Seattle’s always been a tech town because it didn’t really feel like a tech town to me really until about 2010, 2011 when it was like, “Okay. Now, Facebook is here, and Google is here. And companies are starting to move here to take advantage of all the engineering talent.” And so all of a sudden, you would look around, and Uber’s over here, and Lyft’s over there. And Facebook’s down the street, and Google’s taken up like several city blocks over in Kirkland. And you looked up one day, and you’re like, “Oh, wait a minute. Yeah. This is now a major tech city.”

Dwight Battle: In 2003, it felt much smaller. It felt much more of a community. I loved my early days here. I felt like I knew a lot of people. I made it a conscious effort to get out and meet people because I didn’t know anybody here. And so, I had distinct friend groups of my design friends and my friends that I would go out to nightclubs with and my friends that I would play sports with. It just felt a lot smaller than it does now.

Maurice Cherry: Mm, interesting. I knew about Seattle from The Real World.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: And now, I remember that because that was the year we first got cable, and I had heard about this stuff because we had magazines. I grew up in the deep South in Selma, and so anything that I knew about pop culture and everything came in the mail. We had magazines, and that was pretty much it. And I think when we first got cable in like ’97, ’98, and I think Real World Seattle? Was Seattle?

Dwight Battle: Yep.

Maurice Cherry: So, yeah. Seattle. Yeah. That was the one with where Stephen slapped Irene, yeah.

Dwight Battle: Yep.

Maurice Cherry: That was the first one I saw, and then I went to Seattle. It was 2002. I had got an opportunity to do an internship interview at Microsoft. Actually, that’s the only time I’ve been to Seattle now that I think about it. It was my first time there, and I was like, “I got to see The Real World house.” Never found it, but I got to see Pike Place Markets on the Space Needle. And I saw the Microsoft campus that you were talking about, and I just remember going there and seeing all the Segways and thinking, “This is like the future.”

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Like, “Oh, my God. People are driving around on Segways? I’ve only read about Segways. What?” Didn’t get the internship, but it was a really interesting experience. I’ve been trying to get back there ever since, so hopefully 2020 can make that happen.

Dwight Battle: Come in the summer.

Maurice Cherry: But, yeah.

Dwight Battle: Come in the summer. This is my-

Maurice Cherry: Come in the summer?

Dwight Battle: Yeah. This is the part that I think people who know me would be remiss if I didn’t say it. Don’t come in the winter. The weather here is terrible. I hate it.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: I would have said that summers are beautiful, but it’s about to start raining for the next eight months.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Dwight Battle: So, just fair warning.

Maurice Cherry: So, now that Seattle is kind of, I guess, changing into a tech city sort of like you’re saying, how has the culture changed? Have you felt that shift as well?

Dwight Battle: Yeah. I remember a couple of years ago. I remember reading an article about things that were happening with long-term residents of Silicon Valley and fighting against the … There are long-term residents of San Francisco fighting against Silicon Valley and stopping buses in the street and doing all these things to disrupt what was happening to their city. I remember, I think it was three or four years ago, the same thing happened here in Seattle, and Microsoft, I think, was using street bus stops or something like that. And somebody literally held up a sign and was stopping one of those Microsoft transit buses because you were like, “You’re destroying this neighborhood.” And so I’ve felt that. I’ve noticed that.

Dwight Battle: I remember, I mean my starting day, my first day at Amazon, and I think I was in a room with 300 other people. And that was their day one along with me, and I think it was 300 people. And they told me it was the smallest one they had had this month.

Maurice Cherry: Mm. Okay.

Dwight Battle: So, Amazon is bringing in a ton of people. Google brings in a ton of people. Facebook, obviously, is bringing in … I think Facebook’s second biggest campus is here. So, yeah. It definitely has had an impact on the community both in terms of obvious things like the cost of living and housing, but also in the way I feel like when I moved here there was care for, this is going to sound really out there, but it felt like there was care for other people. You didn’t hear a lot of talk about people as “they”, or at least I never did, you know?

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And I’m sure there was NIMBYism floating around back then, but it’s been very apparent here. We need to do something about the homeless problem, but we don’t want it over here. Do it somewhere else.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And I think that’s come from a lot of that, a lot of people coming from Silicon Valley up here, people coming in from other places because this is a more affordable place to be compared to some places in California. And so, there’s been a … And in the weather here is pretty moderate most of the time. And so, it’s become a destination, and so it’s become a destination, but there’s nowhere for anybody to live. And there’s people who have been living here for 30, 40 years that are fighting against all of that. So, yeah. I definitely feel it. I’ve definitely noticed it.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I’ve heard that from … There’s this video channel on YouTube that I really like that’s based out of Seattle called Cut, and they often will show, well, they feature Seattle people because they’re in Seattle. But every now and then, they’ll have something which sort of talks about the city, or they’re interviewing people in the city. And they’ll talk about how things have really changed with sort of the encroaching of tech upon, I guess, the Seattle culture and everything.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: So, that’s really interesting because I think about that with Atlanta, also. I mean Atlanta is a city that has been changing a lot over these past 10 years, mostly because of entertainment.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: Because a lot of film and TV that is done here, and that has certainly not just, I think, changed the culture, but also it’s changed the cost of living, et cetera. It’s not as expensive as a New York or a San Francisco or L.A., but it’s affordable enough where people are starting to move here, and that influx of people is changing the culture. I’ll admit I’m not super involved in the local sort of design scene for many reasons, but I’m wondering. Now that you’re at the position where you’re at, especially having done so much in the field, do you feel like there’s really a design community there in Seattle, or is it just all tech?

Dwight Battle: I don’t. I’ll say that with an asterisk. I’ve become an old man living in the suburbs. So, I go to work, and I come home. And I play with my dog, and I watch TV. So, I’m sure there are things happening that I just don’t know about. But I know when I was younger, I struggled a lot with going to trying to go to design events here, not feeling very welcomed, and getting frustrated and leaving.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And so, that happens enough times, and you give it another shot. And it happens again, and you give it another shot. And it happens again. Eventually, you just stop going.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And so, part of that’s on me. Part of that’s on the design community here. I feel like the things that I go to now have been more tech-focused, but I think that’s also because my career has been more tech focused.

Maurice Cherry: Mm.

Dwight Battle: I haven’t been to a design-focused event in a while here, and I feel like when I go to other cities … I was in Minneapolis for the IGA conference, and I went to a bunch of different design events and felt immediately welcomed in, and it was a great time. And then, I tried to come back to that same one here after that event. It just wasn’t very welcoming, so I’ve just stopped trying to go, and I do acknowledge that I need to be better about that because I also grumble about the fact that I don’t have any peers that I can talk to. So.

Maurice Cherry: I remember that from when we met in Atlanta. You were sort of telling me that. Do you think part of that is just the infamous Seattle Freeze?

Dwight Battle: You’re going to get me in trouble, Maurice, because I have very strong feelings about that. I think the Seattle Freeze, I’ve actually come around on a little bit on that idea a little bit. I think people here are you have to work to make relationships here. I don’t think that’s ever been in question. The way I always describe it, it’s a hard nut with the super soft center. And so, you’re going to take a lot of work to get through that nut, but once you get into the middle of it, it’s this very welcoming, great place.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: But you got to do the work. And if you come from somewhere like an Atlanta or Minneapolis or places where it’s very outwardly, like you walk past people on the street and then the next thing you know, you’re over at their house for Sunday dinner. That can be a hard transition to make.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: I fight against it myself. I don’t want to become that person. I don’t want to become that person that I have complained about for 15 years now. So, when people reach out to me, I do my best to try and follow up to them because I can’t complain about the Seattle Freeze and then freeze people out myself.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: So, I think my perspective on that has changed a little bit as I’ve been here for some while. I think Seattle might get a little bit too much of a bad rep for that. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely possible to meet people here.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I read a recent article from, I don’t know if you know this guy, Timothy Bardlavens. Does that name sound familiar?

Dwight Battle: Yes. I know the article that you’re speaking of.

Maurice Cherry: You know what one I’m talking about?

Dwight Battle: Uh-huh (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. It’s-

Dwight Battle: I have not met him.

Maurice Cherry: Oh. I haven’t met him either, but, yeah. He’s been on this show before, actually for an article he wrote back in 2016, also about AIGA.

Dwight Battle: Hmm.

Maurice Cherry: Back then he was talking about why he quit AIGA, and this recent article that he wrote was about how AIGA upholds white supremacy, which I mean, whoo.

Dwight Battle: That’s, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Right out the gate. Right out the gate. I was like, “Oh, shit. Let me sit up.”

Dwight Battle: Coming out swinging, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: Now, I sat up in my chair when I saw that headline. Like, “Oh, okay.”

Maurice Cherry: And it’s interesting because when you talk about sort of design community and when I think about design community, AIGA invariably does come to mind because it’s the professional organization for designers, and there are chapters in every city. And I know that there certainly are some cities that are more welcoming and open than others, but then it seems like as a whole, the organization just sort of has this issue with diversity. And design events tend to be tied to AIGA in a way where it’s like unless it’s coming from that chapter, you really kind of don’t see it in a way.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: I think Atlanta is unique in the respect that we’ve always had a really strong arts community here. It may not specifically be digital design, but you can meet people who write, paint, sculpt, what have you, and it’s not within the confines of a sanctioned professional organization, that sort of thing. Have you found that kind of community in Seattle? Just the creative community not necessarily digital design.

Dwight Battle: No, and I would love one. I really would. I wish, and if someone’s listening to this and knows about one, find me on my website. Please tell me because I would love to have a community to talk about just general design stuff and period. That article in particular I think encapsulated a lot of the frustrations that I had with AIGA both local, and, man, I don’t want to say nationally because I don’t have a lot of experience with nationally, but definitely locally. I just, I never really ever felt welcomed there except when they were trying to like, “Here’s our diversity event.”

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: “You should come to this.” But if I went to just a regular event, I just, it never felt right. And I have this group of friends that I’ve met through actually through the HOW Conference, and they all have a diverse set of backgrounds. There’s photographers. There’s artists. There’s entrepreneurs. We don’t have anything in common other than the fact that we met at the HOW Conference, and those are the relationships that I value the most because we come from such different backgrounds and because we have such different specialties that I value those relationships. We get together once a year, and it’s great. But I would love something like that locally.

Maurice Cherry: Well, if any folks in Seattle are listening, make sure to hit up Dwight about that. Absolutely.

Dwight Battle: Please do.

Maurice Cherry: There’s a post that I saw that you wrote on LinkedIn a few years ago. It’s called, Where’s My Ari Gold? Ari Gold for folks who might not know is from Entourage, right?

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, from Entourage. That’s a good show, right? In this post, you were asking about like, “Where are the agents that are representing designers?” You’re saying that like, “Musicians have agents. Authors, et cetera, but when it comes to designers, there’s often no one that’s advocating for the designer for better work and things like this.” I really want to get into that because, well, one, I’d love to get an agent.

Dwight Battle: Dude.

Maurice Cherry: I would love to have someone that could advocate for me about that, but why do you think that exists? Why do you think there’s that dearth of, I guess, representation for designers like that?

Dwight Battle: Well, let me start by talking about why I wrote that.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: At the time, I was in that transitional phase when I was looking for trying to get into the digital space. And so, I was working with a lot of recruiting agencies, and that’s a very frustrating experience.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And I remember having a conversation with a friend who is an illustrator, and she’s written a couple of books. And she was telling me about her agent and so on and so forth, and then I was having a separate conversation with another recruiter who flat out told me, “I don’t work for you. I work for the company that’s trying to hire you.” And that really changed my perspective of how I engaged with recruiters because they don’t really have our best interest in mind. They need to fill a role, and they’re looking for the best person to fill that role. But if I where I wasn’t at that time in my life, I’m looking to make the next step in my career, and I make looking to make a pivot in my career, I have no one that can advocate for me.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And I don’t have anybody that can say, “This is what this person is.” I’ve got my website, but I don’t have a person that can say, “Here’s why you should consider Dwight for this role.”

Maurice Cherry: Right.

Dwight Battle: And that was where it came from was I would happily pay somebody to go out and advocate for me and to help me negotiate salary, which is something I think all designers struggle with. I think underrepresented designers probably struggle with that as much if not more because we’re always making on the low end of the scale.

Maurice Cherry: People aren’t checking for us anyway.

Dwight Battle: Right, yeah. I don’t have somebody that can say, “Hey, on Twitter, hey, come work for me. Here’s a bunch of money.” That doesn’t happen. I just read this. It’s on as a tangent. I just read this article about the Game of Thrones guys.

Maurice Cherry: Oh, God, yeah.

Dwight Battle: How they basically were like, “We don’t know anything about this, but here. Here’s a bunch of money to go make this this fantasy show for 10 years.”

Maurice Cherry: Right.

Dwight Battle: And that’s not something that happens to designers in particular and underrepresented designers in general. So, that was where that came from was I’m trying to make this pivot into a space, and I want someone that can advocate for me. Not just advocate for me but help me get to that stage where I can advocate for myself.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And I had to do all that. I had to, again, find all that information and work through that stuff on my own, and I finally got it all figured out about six months ago when I was having these conversations with Amazon. So, that was where that came from. As to why we don’t have them, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s because there’s a lot of people out there who want to be designers and are willing to call themselves designers and-

Dwight Battle: … who want to be designers and are willing to call themselves designers and will take anything that’s given to them salary wise, job wise that there just doesn’t seem to be a market for that. I don’t know, but I know that there’s a lot of talented designers in this world that aren’t being found because they aren’t in the right circles, they don’t know the right people. And that seems to be a hole that could be fixed.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And you hear all the time, “Well, if we could find talented black designers, we would have talented black designers”.

Dwight Battle: And my response to them is always, “Well, you’re not looking”. You can’t ask your employees to go find talented employees and be surprised when they all come back looking like the people that you already have working there.

Maurice Cherry: Right.

Dwight Battle: And still wish I had an Ari Gold.

Maurice Cherry: I feel that one. It must be it for real because it’s one of those things where, I think the general thing that I get from you is there’s a lot of figuring out, and oftentimes as designers, and especially digital designers in this field, there’s already so many other things we have to figure out in terms of the right tools, and the techniques, and working with the clients and all this other kind of stuff. You want to be able to, I guess, offload some of that in a way, to an agent. I think that would be a good thing and I hope for people that are listening, they don’t think that this is coming from some kind of elitist state.

Maurice Cherry: I think anyone, once you get to a certain level in your career, you don’t want to have to keep fighting for the same things that you did when you started out. You shouldn’t have to go tooth and nail with someone on salary or on certain benefits or things of that nature. Maybe that’s just sort of the nature of whatever market that you happen to be in, if you’re in a big city, if you’re in a small city, et cetera.

Maurice Cherry: I know illustrators often have agents, so they are a part of an agency and that’s who tends to get them gigs. I don’t know if there needs to be something like that for designers, or if there’s just not … I don’t know. I would love to know what that is because I’ve certainly had folks on the show who are, what’s the best way to put it? They’re creative consultants or something. They work with designers, almost in like a collective sort of sense.

Maurice Cherry: So I’m thinking of one person, off the top of my head, Ian Davies, who I think I interviewed him back in 2017, 2018 something like that. And he has a collective of people that he works with and helps them out with gigs and stuff. But it’s very much a closed door sort of thing. You have to know someone who knows someone. I know of different creative collectives. Laci Jordan, whom I’ve had on the show, I know she’s part of the [inaudible 00:46:44] collective, which is made up of designers and writers and artists. So it’s a number of different types of creative people. I don’t know if maybe that’s the model that needs to happen, like a bunch of us just need to get together and be super friends. I don’t know what that would look like.

Dwight Battle: The Avengers.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. No seriously, because I’ve had designers of all stripes that have been here on the show and that’s a common thing. They want to be able to have people that are going to help push them to whatever the next thing is in their career. And that’s not necessarily a mentorship kind of thing. I won’t even say coaching or sponsoring, but it is sort of an agent thing because this is something like you mentioned in the post, you’re willing to pay for that.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: You would pay for someone to help you do this, whether that’s a percentage of the salary or what have you. And I think headhunters kind of do that, but even that’s tricky because the headhunters are not really for you, they’re for the company that they work for because they’re probably getting paid on commission or whatever.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Oh man, it’s real tricky. I hope there are folks that are out here listening who are in the creative field, that might know someone who does this. Please reach out to the show or something like that because I feel like that’s a really big need, especially for underrepresented designers, because what’ll end up happening is someone puts out a call on Twitter or something.

Maurice Cherry: I feel like that’s how I see a lot of these sorts of opportunities crop up. “I’m looking for such and such”, and then someone starts a Twitter thread with 50 people in it or something. And I don’t know if someone’s going to look at all 50 of those people or whatever, but it’s like a sort of lazy man’s way of aggregating that kind of information. But man, I would love to have an agent. Really just someone that could help out in that respect because as you get to a certain point in your career, the recruiters are just trying to hit quota. They don’t really care whether or not … I still get recruiters that will contact me for like, “Oh, we have a six month content writer position”. I’m not looking for six month contract gigs. Get out of here.

Dwight Battle: Yep.

Maurice Cherry: First of all, I’m employed full time and secondly, I’m not going to do contract work at this stage, especially for like … No, no, absolutely not.

Dwight Battle: I actually put that on my LinkedIn. That says, “I would rather not be contacted by third party recruiters”. And it doesn’t stop them.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. It doesn’t stop them.

Dwight Battle: But yeah, it’s just that. And I respect it. Listen, you have your roles to fill, you’ve got your numbers to hit. I get it. But I’m at a stage in my career where I would rather honestly take that energy that I’m spending trying to find my next job, and put it towards helping someone that is where I was 15 years ago and help them get their career started.

Maurice Cherry: Right.

Dwight Battle: And so when I spend all this energy trying to find a job, I can’t also do that. I get lots of emails through my website all the time, asking, “How do I do this? How do I get into this career?” And I try to respond to every one that I can. But that takes time, it takes energy, that takes your spirit. You’ve got to get into a mindset to do that.

Dwight Battle: I love that idea of collective. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I think one of the things I’ve always done in my career, and this has probably been because I spent so much time contracting was, I’m always looking at what the next step is. I took Amazon for very specific reasons. So once my time in Amazon is done, what’s the next thing?

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And I’ve been thinking a lot about that idea of having some sort of collective where a bunch of designers can be in one space. It can be a very creative space, you can run your own thing, you can come together. But then also provide opportunities for young designers who don’t have those contacts and who don’t have blue check marks next to their names, and who don’t have this huge network of people that are willing to just throw opportunities out into the Aether. I feel that strongly. I want to do that. I want to be in a position where I can do that because I didn’t have those resources when I was starting my career.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So just to shift gears just a little bit here. We’re talking certainly about the energy that it takes to put all this together, and certainly what I’ve gained from listening to your story is that you’ve had to really, and I’ve said this on the show before, but you’ve had to make the road by walking. You had to forge your own path through all of this to get to where you are right now. What do you think helps fuel that ambition?

Dwight Battle: I’m always looking forward and it sounds kind of silly to say that I’m never happy, but I’m never happy. I have this vision in my head for myself and so I keep moving towards that thing. So I take steps that I think will help me get there. I just started doing some motion design work because it’s something that I’ve always found interesting, I thought it’s something that could help me and somewhere down the line in my career, so hey, let’s start doing some motion design work.

Dwight Battle: And I think that may have come from the fact that the way I started out my career, I didn’t have the tailwinds of coming out of school with a degree and an internship and all these different resources and references and things like that. I had to do that individually, step-by-step and trying to find help where I can. And to be clear, I did not do this by myself. I couldn’t have done any of this without lots of support from various different people.

Dwight Battle: But I think that drive, always thinking about what my next thing is and thinking about, okay, once my time here at Amazon is done, I’m going to be however old I am and starting to think about the next step in terms of retirement. So what is the next thing that going to get me to that point? And what do I want to do? Do I want to be driving through Seattle traffic to go into an office at 55 years old? So if I don’t want to do that, what do we need to be doing now to get to that point?

Maurice Cherry: Can you afford to take a break?

Dwight Battle: No.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: I couldn’t take an extended break. I took a month off between HBO and Amazon, and got a lot of things done and did a lot of different things. I don’t know that I’m built to take a super long sabbatical. I don’t know what I would do, I think I would go crazy. I know I drive my wife crazy.

Dwight Battle: I don’t think I could and I don’t know that I would want to, unless I was doing something very specific like traveling. I’ve never been overseas so that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. But, no.

Maurice Cherry: The reason I asked that, I wasn’t like trying to like poke a hole in what you were saying, but I do feel like, particularly for underrepresented designers, especially when you get to a certain age, like late thirties, early forties it’s like, what’s next? Do I still want to be doing this 10 or 15 years down the line? Because if the industry has changed … Well, the industry will change. That’s just inevitable. What is my place in it?

Maurice Cherry: Much like you, I was self taught. I was doing all this design stuff as a hobby and lucked into my first design job in ’05 and have managed to build on skills and opportunities to get where I am now. And that’s great, but I don’t have a formal education in design, I’ve got my experiences in my projects which have helped me out. And it’s interesting even to have that.

Maurice Cherry: If I try to look at what the next thing is, then it’s like, does this transfer? Can I use this? Do I have to go back to school? What is the next thing? And part of me is like, well maybe I should just like take a break. And it’s not something that I think underrepresented designers, when we get to this stage in our career, really even this age in life, is not something we can really afford to do. We have to keep going and it sucks.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: It sucks. I would love to have just three months. I would get so much stuff done. If I could have just three months to not have to worry about what the next thing is I have to do, what the next step is. Like what’s the next project? Oh, yeah.

Dwight Battle: If you said, “Dwight, you have to take three months off”, I would spend most of that three months figuring out what I was going to do on day 91. And maybe that’s coming back to design, maybe it’s not.

Dwight Battle: I’m big into these home improvement shows, and so I was watching this show last night and the designers said something that really resonated with me, and I’ve always tried to put it into words. She said, “Always say yes until you can afford to say no”.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And I feel like I’m starting to get there. Over the course of trying to get to this job, I said no to other jobs. But when I think of that, holistically about my career, is there a point where I don’t want to be a designer anymore? She went from a fashion design career to being an interior designer.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: Is that a shift that I can make? And what does that shift look like? So I think if I took three months off, I would do basically that. Figuring out what that 91st day looks like.

Maurice Cherry: Always say yes until you can afford to say no. Wow.

Dwight Battle: I might get that tattooed on me.

Maurice Cherry: I feel like I’m starting to get to the know part, but even when I give the nos, it’s sort of like a, maybe. It’s a soft no. I haven’t gotten to that point yet.

Dwight Battle: I feel like it’s hard, especially for us. It’s hard to say no because you don’t know if you’re going to have an opportunity to say yes again.

Maurice Cherry: Exactly. Oh my God. Yeah.

Dwight Battle: So you feel like I have to take this thing, even though it might not be the best thing for me or for my career. I have to take this because I don’t know if there’s going to be another opportunity.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I’ll give you a prime example. So, two years ago I publicly was like, “I’m not speaking at conferences anymore”. The last one I think I spoke at was after How. I forget what it was. Whatever the conference was, but it was a pain in the ass to deal with the conference organizer, and travel, and accommodation.

Dwight Battle: I remember you telling me about this. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: I was like, it’s not worth it to go through all of this to do 45 minutes on stage, for what? And at this point in time, I also was kind of thinking to myself, where’s my agent? Who’s advocating for me so I don’t have to put up with all this bullshit?

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: And I was on a podcast called Working File with Andy Mangold and and Matt McInerney. It was the two of us. It was Cap Watkins who was VP of design of Buzzfeed at the time and myself, and I was like, “I’m done. I am capital D done with speaking at conferences”. Have yet to get a conference invite since then. But I don’t know if it’s because I said no or if they’ve just stopped coming.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: And recently, I spoke at Bowling Green State University and that was really my first time giving a fairly big talk, I’d say there was maybe about 150 people there. It was students. And I’ve done little things around town, here in Atlanta, but it’s like 50 people at a morning coffee thing or 75 people at a … Actually, I wasn’t even speaking about design, I was speaking about podcasting. I wasn’t even talking about my design work. This was the first time I really got back on a stage and talked about design stuff in like two years, and I was like, “This is good”.

Maurice Cherry: And I told myself then that I would like to speak at more colleges or universities because I just feel like I would rather impart this knowledge on students, so they can take it into the future, than on working jaded professionals right now, who are just here on a professional development budget.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: I’m thinking of like what’s the impact of what I’m putting out there? As opposed to just being on the stage, so I can add a credit to my CV or whatever. I don’t care about that. But yeah. Oh man, always say yes until you can afford to say no. That one hit me deep. Oh man.

Dwight Battle: Yeah. I had to pause it and had to think about that for a minute because it hit me the same way it hit you. Man, that puts it all into words.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And the bulk of my journey this past year was that. Was okay, can I say no to this? Is it the right thing for me? And if I say no, is there going to be another thing? Because if I had just taken the next thing, I wouldn’t be sitting here, working at Amazon. I’d be doing something less interesting.

Maurice Cherry: Right. All the could have, would have, should haves.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Take a look back at your career, if you could put up a billboard, or a manifesto, or something to say anything to anybody in your field, what would that say? What would you want to put out there that you want everyone to know?

Dwight Battle: That path isn’t a straight line. Or I would say, the path that people think that you need to be on isn’t always your path. And it’s okay to take a left turn, even though the GPS says to go straight, and see what happens when you do that. You may wind up where you were originally intending to go. You might wind up in a better place. So feel free to get lost, I guess.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Feel free to get lost. I like that. When you look at other work from your peers or anything like that, is there any projects that you’ve seen lately that have really inspired you? That made you wish that you had done that?

Dwight Battle: I don’t know if it’s lately, but a couple of years ago there was an ad campaign. I think it was the Old Spice guy. The guy with the towel around his waist and was riding a horse with the diamonds or whatever. And this was when I was super trying to get into advertising. They had just rolled out this character and I think the guy went on Twitter in character and just started answering questions in character, and making commercials and putting them on YouTube in real time in this character. And I just thought that was so brilliant and such a good use of all of those mediums, instead of going forth then and building up this big, expensive ad campaign, something that’s going to air a handful of times for three months. Reacting to people in real time.

Dwight Battle: And that has always stuck with me, and I try to think about what are the things that I can leverage that are happening right now? Whether that’s, Tik Tok would be the thing now, but it would have been Snapchat last year. But, can I be ready to jump on a thing that people aren’t even thinking about, to communicate things to people? If I were to take this to the extreme in my role at Kindle, how could I leverage Tik Tok to get people reading more books? That’s always stuck with me. And that campaign was a while ago, but that’s always stuck with me.

Maurice Cherry: So one thing that I really have been trying to focus on for 2020 is how can we use the talents that we have to really, I guess, build the future. There has been campaigns and art installations I’ve seen about, there are black people in the future. Have you seen these before?

Dwight Battle: Mm-mm (negative).

Maurice Cherry: It’s like a billboard. I think there’s one in Detroit, or maybe it originated in Detroit, where a woman has a billboard and it says, “There are black people in the future”. Because when you see science fiction, we’re normally not there. It’s like, Uhura and Worf and Geordi, and whatever to do was on Deep Space Nine, that was the Vulcan.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Deep space nine. I’m showing my Star Trek nerdery here. But, when you look at the future, the next five years or so, what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Dwight Battle: If I look five years into the future, I think I want to be helping the next generation of designers get work and get paid. Those are the two things that I see in the future for me, as my career gets to wherever it’s going to be. I feel like I almost have that responsibility to bring people along and again, because I didn’t have those resources of opportunities. I hope I’m in a space where, whether it’s at Amazon or elsewhere, that I can be in somewhat of a position of power to bring people into the room because I think that’s also important.

Maurice Cherry: So you’ll have the Battle agency? Is that what it’ll be? Something like that?

Dwight Battle: I have such a fortunate last name that I really should leverage it more than I do and in a more creative way that I do. But yes, something around the Battle agency.

Maurice Cherry: I need to see how much it is to trademark though, because I come up with all kinds of stuff from my last name all the time. Some of it I see makes it out into the world, some of it doesn’t. I need to get on that.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Well just to kind of wrap things up here, Dwight, and this has been a great conversation by the way, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?

Dwight Battle: You can find my work at dwightbattle.com. You can find me all over various social medias at Dwight the mayor, and that’s Twitter, Instagram, Dribble, LinkedIn. All those links are on my website too.

Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well, Dwight Battle, I want to thank you just so much for coming on the show. Like I said, when we met back in 2016 and I heard about your story, and even hearing it again now, I think it’s really important for folks to know, as you said before, that any of the success and things that you see in the design field, in tech, none of it is unattainable. You don’t have to follow a specific path of this school to this company, to get what you have to go. I think you’ve been a prime example of someone that has really worked their way up through the ranks, paid your dues, learned as you went, made the road by walking to get to the success that you have today. And I hope that that becomes an inspiration for people that are listening.

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

Dwight Battle: Thank you for having me. I had a great time.

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