Tj Hughes

You may have been scolded as a kid for playing with your food, but with Tj Hughes’ new game Nour: Play With Your Food, that’s the primary objective! I had a chance to speak with Tj, the creative lead behind Nour, fresh off of the game’s release on PlayStation, Steam, and Epic Games.

We spoke a lot about the intersection of art and game development, and Tj shared how teaching himself and gaining knowledge working with a studio helped shape his perspective as a creative. Tj also talked about creating Nour’s unique gaming experience, the challenges and rewards of indie game development, experimentation, and what he wants to do next now that Nour’s been released. If you want to create something truly special, then be like Tj and think outside the box!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Tj Hughes:

Hi, I’m Tj Hughes, and I am the creative lead on Nour: Play With Your Food, which recently launched on PlayStation 5, PC, a few other platforms as well. Yeah, I just make 3D art and shaders and just colorful stuff on the computer. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. And I definitely want to talk about the game; we’ll get into that in a minute. But first of all, congratulations on the launch of the game! I know that the game dev process is arduous. It is often not linear. So congratulations on publishing.

Tj Hughes:

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It’s been a crazy and very long journey. It’s wild to see it just finished. Yeah, it’s hard to process and wrap my head around and also figure out next steps.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s the reception been like so far?

Tj Hughes:

Mixed, which I fully expected. Honestly, it’s a weird game. It’s a weird game and it’s a weird format for consoles, but I’m still confident in it because it works so well at events and stuff. Like, I’ve seen many people enjoying the game. I’ve seen when I was at PAX last this last month, it was super well received. Like, folks were really enjoying it and commenting on it. There was, like, sort of a crowd around it at the time at one point. The Panic booth was really cool and like really fun to be at.

Spaces like that, it really works. But the whole time I was making the game, I kind of feared, like, “oh, once it’s an at home experience that people can run on their consoles, folks might not get it” or they might not see the appeal, or they might have just, like, a different experience with it. Yeah, that kind of turned out to be the case.

We tried to do as much as we could to, design wise to, sort of curve that, but, yeah, it still kind of came across as just like, “oh, what is going on?” But then again, there were other folks…like, there were streamers that played it on stream to a Discord call or while having the chat open and they had a good time with it. And so it’s weird. It’s the kind of game where I feel like in a crowd of folks, it’s a really fun experience. It was an experiment, for sure. It got received like an experiment kind of would.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I feel like all games are kind of like that, right? Like you hope that the story and the gameplay and everything that you’ve envisioned as a developer and as part of the creative team, you hope that that’s going to be received on the other end by the player. Sometimes it is; sometimes it’s not.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s such an exercise in communication of just, like, how well do the concepts in this game communicate? Does it resonate with people? Do they enjoy it? And so, yeah, it’s an interesting thing because games are just such a weird medium in that just two people’s experience can be so different just because of how much is possible in games. There’s just infinite permutations of your setup or what you can do in the game. And so, yeah, it’s just really interesting to see that see folks kind of rate that experience because one person will have the best time ever and then another person is just like, what’s going on?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, that’s the way for a lot of games, I think. I watch streamers kind of play modern games versus retro games and things like that, and it’s funny how even I think the language in which people talk about games has changed a lot. I’m in my forties; I am a first generation gamer — I guess that’s kind of a good way to put it. And the way that we talked about video games, like when I was a teenager or in my twenties is totally different than how people talk about it now. People are obsessed about framerates and DPS — they’re spitting out all these terms and stuff and it’s like, “how about you just get immersed in the game and not try to technically pick it apart?”

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and there’s a lot of focus these days on bugs, too, and how finished the game feels and all that, which I understand, to an extent. Folks are looking out for their value and making sure that folks aren’t trying to penny pinch and whatever. But, yeah, I feel like that has kind of gone overboard and led to folks really technically picking apart a game where that’s not what it originally ever was about.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I just finished playing and beating two other Kickstarter-backed games. They’re both RPGs. One is called Chained Echoes and the other one is called Sea of Stars. And maybe this is my fault — I went on Reddit to kind of see what the discourse was, which…I went on Reddit. But it’s so amazing, like the spectrum of how some people love the game or how some people are picking little things apart. And some people love the music. Some people hate the music. “Why is the plot like this? Why are the characters like that?” It’s like…just play the game. If you don’t like it, don’t play it. Just put it down. Play something that you like. Maybe I’m looking at it too simplistically. I don’t know.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I feel that sometimes where it feels like the energy spent hating on certain games could be redirected to games that that person actually enjoys. Yeah, I don’t really know what that’s about. I think it kind of satisfies a lot of folks to kind of just, like, I don’t know, just heavily criticize stuff like that. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s something unique to the game space or not, but yeah, it surprises me too when it’s like an indie game that’s being picked apart where it’s just like, “hey, a dude made this in his free time. Maybe not fair to compare it to the game that’s made by a team of hundreds of people.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, like indie developer versus AAA studio. Of course there’s going to be a big disconnect in a lot of things just because of that, because of resources.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, just the medium of Reddit and Twitter kind of connects folks directly with the developer, which can be a double edged sword. I’ve received a lot of support and a little bit of hate as well, so that’s been interesting.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s like a media thing in general. Whether you’re a developer, if you’re a musician, if you have a television show, a movie, a podcast. I mean, in the early days when I did this, I would get so much hate on Twitter and it’s like…if the show is not for you, then don’t listen. People would call me a racist because I only have Black guests and I’m like, “what’s racist about that? It’s the focus of the show. Like, did you not know that’s what the show was about?” It’s crazy.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, that’s wild. It’s not like you weren’t warned.

Maurice Cherry:

Right? And also we’re not trashing anyone. I can understand it. Maybe if it was like a hate-filled kind of show or something like that, but that’s not the case.

People find fault in what they want to find fault in. I find — and the Internet and social media really particularly, I don’t want to put this all on just the Internet — but social media tends to just exacerbate that because it’s given people the illusion that their voice matters.

Well, let me walk that back. It doesn’t necessarily give them the illusion that their voice matters. It gives them the illusion that it’s sort of like “the customer is always right.”

Oh yeah, that’s not always the case. I don’t know who came up with that, but that’s not always the case. Just because you feel away about it and you express it doesn’t make it like law or anything.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly how I’d put it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s a delicate thing. I mean, a lot of creatives I know have sort of even walked back from social media because of that. It’s like, yeah, it can be a great thing for telling people about your work, but then the feedback you get can be just so caustic.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I’ve experienced that. And also, just, no folks who have experienced that firsthand, I completely understand it. It’s not for everyone. You do have to develop a thick skin about it. Just kind of learn how to not react to certain things.

Maurice Cherry:

We’ll get more into the game, but now that it’s out, do you have anything else that you want to try to accomplish before the year ends? I’m pretty sure a lot of this year might have been just all leading up to this launch date.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, pretty much all of this year. And I’ve been working on this full time. And that, first of all, is just really cool that I’ve been able to work on a passion project for this long because not everyone gets that opportunity [to] just sit down and just make what they want to make all day. And so that’s something about this project I’ve been super grateful about. It was able to be funded long enough for me to do that. It’s been awesome. But yeah, this year has been just leading up to just the launch of Nour and yeah, now that it’s out, I kind of told myself I was going to rest for a while and so that’s what I’m in the middle of kind of trying to do is just kind of take it easy. And of course we’re updating the game, like fixing bugs and stuff like that, but just in between that, I’m trying to just relax, take it easy as much as I can.

Also kind of let the next steps kind of naturally come to me because this project started out of just me messing around, having fun with a different kind of art medium. I think my best work kind of comes out that way, so I just want to kind of make sure I nurture that a bit.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, you earned a break. You definitely have earned a break. So if you get a chance to take some just R&R, please do that because you definitely have earned it.

Tj Hughes:

I appreciate that. I really appreciate that. Yeah, it’s hard in game dev to just tell yourself to take a break because it’s just like, oh, wait, but there’s so much I could be doing, could be updating the game, could be pushing out this and that. It’s easy to just kind of let it run your life. Yeah, I’m just trying to get away from that habit.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, let’s go more into the game. Like we mentioned, it just launched in September. We’ll put a link to the game website as well as the trailer in the notes. I’ve played the game. I have it on PS5. I love that it starts off with your face so people know it’s from you. It’s from a Black person. I love that. I love that when you start it up, you’ve got that little…it’s like a 3D model of you with the terrifying jellyfish.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s photogrammetry.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. So much of the game reminds me of, like, Katamari Damacy from Keita Takahashi. It’s kind of this unfettered play. There’s some ambiguity to it. You kind of just have to figure it out as you go along. I mean, granted, the subtitle of the game is “play with your food.” So that’s the premise. You play with your food, and you have a number of different sort of food-related scenarios that you can work through.

What was the idea behind that? What was the idea behind the game in general?

Tj Hughes:

The game didn’t start off as a game idea, necessarily. It’s kind of interesting how it came about. It was a very just, like, nonlinear path towards making a game. So Nour kind of started out as an art test. I was basically figuring out how to make shaders for the first time ever and just, like, practicing being a tech artist. And I needed a subject for testing out these new art techniques and whatever. I looked at food immediately because I just recently had started branching out as far as food goes.

I was traveling. I went to my first GDC. I had discovered bubble tea, and I was like, “oh, this stuff is great. I love this.” And, yeah, it was just the perfect subject because it was colorful, it was playful, it had all these different elements that had a kind of physical component to it. I was just like, “oh, I can make this in 3D, like, using 3D models.” And in doing that, part of my inspiration was also anime food and how lovingly food is rendered in 2D by animators and how, say, with Ghibli movies, like, how the food looks so good, you want to eat it, you just want to eat it. Makes you hungry. And so, yeah, I was just hoping that video games as a medium could give the same kind of love to food.

Because food is usually a background prop in video games. It’s usually this low poly thing that an artist spends maybe a little bit of time on. It’s not the focus. I always thought that was really interesting. And also shout out to the low poly grapes in Final Fantasy XIV, I believe it is. But yeah, to the point of them even becoming a meme is just, like, low poly background food in video games. And so I just kind of wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to be like, okay, what if it was just, like, high fidelity, super detailed, foreground food where just, like, everything’s, like, way too many polygons and just, like, HD and so, yeah, that’s kind of how it started.

It was me just making 3D models with different effects on them, different shaders and stuff, and as detailed as possible, and then just taking a screenshot and putting it on Twitter. And folks were super into it. The response was immediately just like, “oh man, that makes me hungry. That looks so good. Wow, that’s great.” Yeah, just super positive responses about it. And eventually I got to a point where some local friends of mine wanted to show…they wanted to show the art at an event, at an event about just, like, interactive art. Just saying anything that’s like art plus tech.

And I was like, okay, it’s not interactive, so it probably wouldn’t work at this exhibit. Not exhibit, but like, event, but I’ll see what I can do. And so I just hooked it up to some controls. Pressing a button on a keyboard just makes a food appear and fall down from the top of the screen. And that’s it. That’s all it started out as. The response was great. Folks were super into it, they were having a lot of fun with it.

That was kind of my moment where I was just like, oh, this is something. I’m onto something. And my background was already making video games, but I kind of didn’t expect this to really be a game. I was just like making stuff because it was pretty and just putting it out there. The game itself kind of evolved from folks, like sharing feedback, just being like, “oh, it would be cool if this food was in it”, or “what if this button did this? This button made the food fly up”, or like, “hey, you should add a meat grinder”, or whatever different things folks would say about the game. And then I would just be like, “oh, that’s great”. And I would kind of like, add it and then see how folks reacted at the next event. I was doing a lot of events and so it was this kind of back and forth of just like, I could directly talk to the folks who were playing the game and get immediate feedback about what folks really wanted in it.

And so, yeah, it was just like a really fun process and yeah, just like a weird way to make a game because I didn’t really start off with a premise or like a concept. I just started just making it from scratch, like no game design document or anything, just directly from my brain into the game engine.

Maurice Cherry:

So there wasn’t really like a story that you were trying to tell. It was just an experience you wanted people to have, it sounds like.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I had some visuals that I really wanted to make and I just wanted folks to kind of appreciate that without really needing a ton of context. Yeah, there wasn’t really much set up or anything like that. I was just kind of like, “hey, this is a really pretty food. Look at what games can kind of be and look like. You can use this medium to do a lot of crazy stuff. What if we just appreciated the visuals and textures of food?” So, yeah, it was just like an art exercise that was just really heavy on the visuals. That was really what I wanted to accomplish. It was just getting folks to kind of appreciate that side of things.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, is there an optimal way that you suggest people play the game? Because I played it on PS5 and I’ll admit that it felt like the controller was holding me back. I think there are certainly parts where if you, I think, pull a trigger, like a magnet will happen. Or if you press a button, it can change the color of the food or it can change the rate at which the food drops or something like that. It almost felt like, I don’t know if a controller is the right way to play this, and then I’ve seen videos of you playing it and you’re playing on this almost like 16 button, like MIDI controller almost. So I’m curious if there’s like an optimal way that you think people should play the game.

Tj Hughes:

The original version of the game played with a MIDI controller. The first first version was just like…keyboard, but then after that I started getting into MIDI controllers and just like music production and stuff like that. And I hooked up a MIDI controller to the game just for the fun of it. And it’s the Midi Fighter which is this board of 16 buttons and they’re like, arcade-like, fight stick buttons. So it was trying to be like kind of a reference to fighting games, but repurposed for music production. But then I’m kind of like taking it back into video games, which is sort of funny. That was originally how I presented it at museums and stuff. I would just bring out this controller and yeah, it was a really good way to play because it was just the satisfying nature of pressing a button and then seeing a really high-quality visual appear or being able to interact with it in some way.

It was a really satisfying thing. The initial release. We don’t have MIDI support in the current version of the game, but it’s something that we’ve been meaning to put back in because trying to support consoles and stuff, I couldn’t really have it, the MIDI tech back end, in there. But yeah, we’re trying to put it back in. It kind of just got broken along the way of making the game. Yeah, that’s something that we’re trying to get back to the roots of. It’s just like, okay, this game has been shown at a few exhibits with this controller. It would be great if folks could plug in kind of any controller of that sort and just play the game and just see what happens.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I like that experience, though, because it sort of reminds me of sort of like early gaming in the 90s, where I think developers were experimenting with a bunch of different types of input styles. I mean, of course, you had Nintendo with their standard controller. Sega had the same thing. But then Nintendo eventually also had R.O.B. the Robot, and there were like two games that you could use with the robot and then the Zapper. I think the Zapper came with when I got my Nintendo in ’85, I think it came with a Zapper. So it was like a combination [Super] Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, and so that’s an alternate way that you can play the game.

And then with Super Nintendo, you’ve got [the] Super Scope Six or whatever. And so there were all these sort of, like, alternate controllers for different games that you could play the games with. So I like that. This kind of harkened back to that for me because now everything is either Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, PC, like, it’s one of those four things and it doesn’t really give you a lot of variety onto how you play. It just the platform that you play it on.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and the folks would call all that stuff, like, gimmicky back in the day. And I always thought it was pretty fun, like, Nintendo would always try to be the ones to use those really alternative controllers. Yeah, I miss it. I genuinely miss that kind of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, this game, to me, like I said, it really kind of harkens back to that and I think it opens up creativity for the gamer in a different way that’s not just — it’s pressing buttons, but it’s not in like a standard type of controller-esque format. It feels like to me, when you mentioned that sort of 16-button thing, that almost kind of feels like a good way to play it, especially because you were play testing this at exhibits. So you weren’t like play testing this in a play lab or something like that. You were out in open spaces and mixed spaces with people, so people could really interact with it any way they wanted to.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and even though we were kind of just siloed off to controllers with the console release of this, we tried to do as much as we could with it as well. So with a DualSense controller, we’re just like, okay, even though you’re just controlling the game in a regular way, we still want to find alternative ways to interact with the game. So we use the microphone for that. And in the game, you can blow into your controller and that will blow all of your food away. Or if you make a slurp sound that’ll suck all the food towards you. And then if you whistle or in pitch with a song that’s currently playing in the game, all your food will kind of levitate. And so we just wanted to just whatever way you’re interacting with the game. We wanted to make it to where you just had options that were just kind of weird to kind of complement the MIDI controller back in the day. It was just like, okay, so at least with this controller, there’s something special that you can do that you couldn’t even do on the MIDI controller.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I could see certainly something like this doing well on VR or even something like I know you mentioned like, Nintendo with these different controller things. I mean, like the Switch controllers, you can kind of have each joy con in your hand or something like that. I could see definitely a future of don’t. Like, maybe I’m putting idea in your head, I don’t know, but I could see a future where you’re using that as the inputs as opposed to like button presses with some stuff. And that could be another way to unlock more gameplay for people, more appeal.

Tj Hughes:

Oh, yeah, VR is an idea I’ve had for a while. I would still love to do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk more about sort of the team and the game dev process because I know that the process can be long. You raised money on this via Kickstarter and you had a team behind you as well as you also worked with Panic for kind of helping to distribute the game. Talk to me about that.

Tj Hughes:

So it’s a fairly small team that we’re working with. So there’s Me. There’s Joey. He does programming. There’s Maximilian. He helps with initially music, but now it’s kind of just everything that he helps out with. Just programming just so much. He’s come a huge contribution to the game as well as James.

Also, like, on the music, we had like a two man music team who just kind of became developers over time. We have Mark who is on sound design and sound effects. So any of the foley or just kind of ASMR sounds that you hear throughout the game, that’s him. And so, yeah, just like small team of five folks just kind of making this over discord, basically. I’m kind of like leading the pack on that. It’s a really interesting process. Yeah, just like especially on a weird game like this, it’s kind of like anything goes type thing where there’s been just weird ideas presented to me, where I’ve just been like, yeah, send it, let’s do it. That’s how multiple things got into the game.

Like the jellyfish idea, just like having this character that comes and steals your food. When you say nonlinear, that describes everything about this game’s process from the funding to the idea, to its actual technical development. Yeah, it’s just completely nonlinear. But it’s been cool though. It’s been a really cool way to kind of make something because it truly felt like we’re just kind of playing around, really. And just like, any idea that sounds cool, we’re just like, yeah, let’s do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, we. Talked about this a little bit before recording. The game development process can be long, especially if you’re raising funds through a crowdfunding medium like Kickstarter. There’s been video games that I have helped to fund in the past that just took much longer, I think, than the developer originally might have thought of for it to come out. Like, we talked about Omori, for example. This was a game by an independent developer, Omocat. They got funding for it through Kickstarter in 2015. And I want to say it didn’t start coming out on consoles until like…I know it came out on the Switch in 2020. It might have been out on Steam in 2019, but it was years past when they initially said this is when the game is coming out. And Kickstarter, and you can probably attest to this, Kickstarter is a bit of a double-edged sword. Like, yes, you have people’s funding, but the people that fund it can be real assholes when it comes to, like, “where’s my game? Why don’t you have it now? You said it would be here by this date, I want my money back”, blah, blah, blah. Tell me about that, because I feel like the game dev process and then having to answer to backers kind of might have been a source of contention throughout this process.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s always tough dealing with folks who just really want the product. I luckily feel like I found a really nice corner of the Internet who backed this game because folks have been, for the most part, just super patient with it. It’s actually crazy because, yeah, we’re talking about Omori, but I think we took even longer as far as when the Kickstarter started versus when the game actually came out. It’s such a long process and through so much of it, I felt bad. I was just like, “oh, dang, folks are looking for this.” And I’ve definitely had folks kind of reach out when things were more silent because we’re just really heads down on the game and trying to make it happen. So folks have been super nice and super patient for the most part, but there are definitely a few standout folks that reached out and just weren’t so nice. I definitely had just like a few folks get in the Twitter mentions and it wouldn’t be like a majority by any means. It’s maybe like five people, but we kind of, as humans, remember negative experiences way more than positive ones. And so it was just really stand out how someone called it vaporware or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh no…

Tj Hughes:

I was just like, “okay, you don’t even have the game yet, so that’s an early judgment.” Yeah, just certain folks, someone got really extreme with it, but luckily we have what’s called the block button, and so that is a fantastic tool to curb these kinds of responses. But yeah, I don’t know. I’m super grateful to have found just like a really supportive fan base and backer base. It’s a hard thing because you kind of can’t predict how development is going to go. Because straight up, I thought this game would be wrapped up by 2020, and then 2020 comes around, boom, hit with a pandemic, right? And I was just like, “oh, okay.” So this is kind of a great time for games in general, but terrible time for [the] mental health of tiny teams working on very ambitious projects. That was an interesting hurdle that no one was prepared for. But it’s hard to make such an ambitious project around such an unpredictable hurdle, right?

Maurice Cherry:

For people that are listening, Kickstarter is not a store. If you pledge something and you get your pledge rewards, that’s great. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and I’m not going to spend time on it on this podcast, but there are a lot of campaigns that I have helped crowdfund. Where the money? I’ll never see that money again. The developer or the creator, whomever, has just took off with the church’s money, as they would say, you don’t know where they’re at.

I think one campaign I did, the person…it was for tea, of all things, this guy had a tea company and he was trying to raise some money for new blends, and then he just never sold the tea. And then he used the money to come out with an LP because he was starting his music career. It was so stupid.

You have to kind of vet, of course, how this goes. I tend to vet more projects where I can see the people have had some track record of success. But it’s tricky. I mean, I think whenever you’re crowdfunding, it can be kind of tricky, but just realize there are real people behind this. There’s real people behind this. And that if stuff happens, stuff happens. But curb it a bit. Don’t get all in people’s faces about it.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I think it’s very fair to be like, “hey, we’d like some communication about this” and all that. When it veers into the realm of harassment, of just, you don’t need to attack their character. I don’t know. You don’t need to send a death threat.

Maurice Cherry:

It was never that serious, especially for video games. It’s a video game! What are you getting that riled up about? It’s a game.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s a game, not a therapy session. It’s interesting. Also, he made an LP with the money?

Maurice Cherry:

I’m not going to shout out the name of the company, but they were making tea blends. I had gotten some of their tea before. I’m a tea aficionado and I really like tea. And so I was like, “yeah, I’ve had some of their tea before”, sure. And I think they raised maybe like $8,000. And then we just never heard from the person again. And you know how on Kickstarter you can see the person’s profile is sometimes connected to a Facebook page or like their Facebook profile. And so basically people in the comments had clicked through and was like, “wait a minute, he’s making music now?” Like, wait a minute. What? So we’re just never going to see that tea again because now he thinks he’s a singer?

Tj Hughes:

Okay, for a second I thought they posted their own backer update and was just like, “Actually…”

Maurice Cherry:

Oh no, they never updated or anything! They just went completely radio silent.

Tj Hughes:

Oh, okay. And people just kind of put it together. Okay, for a second I was about to say, that is so bold, bro.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s kind know switch up a little bit here. We’ve talked about the game and we’ve talked about development and stuff. Let’s talk more about you so people know more about just kind of your background and how you got to where you are now. You’re in St. Louis, Missouri now. Is that where you’re from originally?

Tj Hughes:

Yes. Yeah, I lived here my entire life, bro.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Did you sort of get exposed to a lot of creativity and design and stuff growing up? I’m guessing that you probably have.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. So my mom is a traditional artist. She does like acrylic and whatever medium she can get her hands on, really. And my dad was a jazz musician. Kind of just naturally got exposed to art super early on because of that. It was interesting because no one was really trying to push me in the direction of art. It just kind of happened just like naturally. And my dad was also really into tech and would have just like random trinkets and synthesizers and circuit boards just strewn throughout the house and yeah, I just kind of had this subconscious interest in tech that I never really noticed as being weird or different until later on when I just kind of said it all at once.

I was like, “oh yeah, I was kind of exposed to this stuff from way back in the day.”

Maurice Cherry:

That’s awesome.

Tj Hughes:

I grew up just like drawing comic books and stuff. Not to expose my brother and I, but we had our own Sonic characters and stuff. That’s how we started out. We just draw our own Sonic characters and that was huge for us. We would just make these comic books. That was kind of just the early influence. And then, I don’t know, just as the Internet was a thing, we started playing more video games. I was just interested in both those things at the same time.

And as a kid I would just always be like, “oh, I want to be a game designer when I grow up.” I said that without any kind of confidence at all. It was just kind of like a kid’s dream sort of thing. And I remember the moment where I kind of really questioned it, where I was just like, “oh snap, I’m not good at Math. How am I ever going to make video games? This is going to be so difficult.”

But then fast forward to when I was 13. I discovered Unity while procrastinating some homework. One day, I was like, “oh, what is this? It’s an engine that anyone can download. That’s crazy. Let me go and do that.” And, yeah, I just started going through these PDF tutorials on how to make an FPS game. I made this really crappy little first person shooter project, but I was learning the engine, and it was before I was even realizing it, I was just like, “yo, wait, I’m actually doing this. It kind of makes sense. It’s just like, logic.” Yeah, that’s when I kind of realized, like, “oh, snap. I have a really self-learning oriented brain” because I wasn’t particularly good at school. I wasn’t really good at Math, but just figuring things out and putting things together and disassembling them, I was just like, “wow, I’m great at this.” And so, yeah, it just kind of really worked for me. Just, like, teaching myself the video games and how to make them and how to make my own art really.

Yeah, that kind of just worked out.

Maurice Cherry:

First of all, I have to say that’s excellent that you were picking that up so young and that it was available for you and you were in an environment where I’m guessing it didn’t sound like your parents at all were trying to hold you back from doing that.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, that’s something I’ve always realized I’m super lucky about was like, they’ve always pushed me in this kind of direction or just been supportive when they learned what I was making. Yeah, they’re just like, “wow, that’s really cool.” They’ve always been okay with me going into art because they did it themselves. And anytime I would show them something, they’d be like, “wow, that’s really cool.” Even if my mom didn’t really understand it, to this day she’s like, “what do you do? You do, like, the computer thingy?” But she’s still really supportive. She set the donut from my game that’s her wallpaper on her phone. I’m just like, “okay, that’s really cute.” I feel really honestly supported.

The only hard part was when I decided to not go to college for any of this. That was something that was very controversial for a lot of the adults in my life. They were just like, “no, you need to go to college. You got to get a degree. You had to have a fallback, and you had to get the proper education”, blah, blah, blah. But it was also just like, “yo, we can’t afford that. Student loans and all that. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to have debt. I just want to make money and also create cool stuff.”

That was really hard. Part of it was just, like, convincing folks that, hey, I know how it looks, but I have a plan. Yeah, I think I can say that it’s worked out and that school wasn’t exactly necessary for this kind of work, but I know it is helpful for a lot of people to have a curriculum and go through that path. And so, yeah, I’m not knocking it by any means. Just with my set of circumstances, I don’t think it would have been the best move.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, that’s something that the prior generation, I think, is always going to try to impress upon the younger generation. Not necessarily so much the value of education because you were teaching yourself, so you were getting your own education. You were learning about this at a young age prior to college, you were creating projects. I mean, a lot of that is honestly stuff that you would do in college anyway, just with a price tag attached to it. But I think specifically for game development, that’s such a different type of field than say, being a doctor or an engineer or something like that. I mean, game development as we know it is still a very young field and so the ways that you get into it are not necessarily through a four-year institution.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. Another part of it is that things change so fast that by the time you get through your curriculum, it’s just like, boom, everything’s different. There’s a new tool that everyone uses. Everyone stops using this engine because of the weird PR or whatever. There’s so much that can change so rapidly. I think it really lends itself to self teaching because then you can just find all the latest, most up to date stuff and yeah, people make tutorials out. People make plenty of tutorials nowadays. Even when I got started, there was a lot of stuff, but I can’t even imagine having access to the amount of content there’s out there now. Yeah, I feel like you can kind of make anything nowadays.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, everything you mentioned is 100% like it was in the days of the early web. I’m talking like maybe 98 to from 1998 to 2008 was such a huge jump in web development because the browser went from being this tool of presentation to now a tool for development. And so you started having people developing tools in the browser, using the browser not just as a viewport, but also as your development environment and everything. And there were no programs back then to really teach web design. Like, I went to school and majored in computer science initially because my dumb ass was like, oh, if I’m a computer science major, that means I can be a web designer. Wrong. Absolutely wrong. Everything I learned about web design has been self taught because back then there were no courses unless you went to like an art institute or something like that.

And even then, as you mentioned, the technology changes so fast that the curriculum is out to date. It’s out of date as you’re learning it. So it sounds very similar to the early days of the web, is what you’re mentioning with game development. So it seems like you certainly went in the right. I mean, look, you have a video game that’s out now on PlayStation Steam. You’re doing something right. So I think the way that you went certainly is what’s worked for you, which is all you can ask for, really.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. Super grateful it’s worked out this way so far. It was also great just being like, “oh, hey, this is a possible route. You don’t have to fork over just like a bunch of debt just to get into this field and make stuff that you care about.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Now, you did start your early career at a studio. You were at Happy Badger Studio. How did you get started there? How did you find out about them?

Tj Hughes:

Once again, through Twitter. Weirdly. Everything in my career has happened through Twitter. Both getting this game out there, getting hired there. Yeah, it was a similar sort of thing. I discovered Unity when I was 13 and kind of just throughout the rest of high school, I’ve just been just making little experiments and learning. Every now and then, I would do a game jam. I would do the Ludum Dare 48 hour game jam a few times. I would just make things to show my friends and I would take screenshots of what I’m making and put it on Twitter. I had a bunch of projects that were way too big that I was never going to complete, if I’m being completely honest. But I was just like a kid in middle and high school, so I didn’t know what I was doing. But it was still really fun stuff to make and it was still really pretty — the different kinds of projects I was making just from those screenshots and stuff.

I would show off this company, Happy Badger Studio, they saw my work on Twitter and they hit me up. They’re just like, “hey, who are you? Want to come by our studio and just hang out because your stuff is crazy.” And so, yeah, we did that. And they offered me a contractor position and me being fresh out of high school, this was right after I graduated, I was like, “this is really cool. This is a dream job.” Like, exactly the kind of stuff I want to be doing. Yeah, absolutely. And so, yeah, I worked with them for a bit and then became a full-time employee there after a few years. It was just really fun. I got to do the exact part of game dev that I wanted to do, which is technical art. I really just like the art pipeline, the art side of things.

And so, yeah, that was just like a really good situation. And there we made SmuggleCraft, which is a hovercraft racing game with procedurally generated tracks and customizable ships. And yeah, it was a super fun project to work on and [it] really got me started with tech art. And I got to really control the art in the game, which was super fun. Like, all the colors and particle effects, that was all my domain. And so, yeah, that was just, like, super fun and a really good experience. I feel like that was honestly my college course.

Maurice Cherry:

I’d say that was your college course, your first real job…I mean, that kind of work right out of high school? I mean, that’s the dream. That’s the dream. Like, if you’ve been doing it, especially as a kid and you’re able to go right into working, I mean, that’s the best kind of education. Especially like, as you said, you learn by doing, so that’s perfect. That’s perfect for you.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it was a really good situation. That’s actually where I met Joey, who’s on my team as well. And he taught me so much of what I know about programming because we just have sessions of C# just sitting down and he just tells me that he’s a wizard programmer. He knows so much. I know just enough to get by and actually make a game, but he’s who I go to when I’m just like, “okay, I need to do this very specific thing. How?

Maurice Cherry:

What’s in the future for Terrifying Jellyfish? I mean, we’ve talked about the game coming out. We’ve talked about sort of how you’ve gotten here and everything. And now that the game is out and it’s getting that reception and you’re in this sort of rest period, I should say, what do you want to do in the future? What’s next?

Tj Hughes:

I’ve been thinking about this. It’s hard to say. I don’t really know. I definitely have ideas for projects, but I definitely need to take some time to think about how I would make them happen. Like what the ideal setup is, whether I have a publisher yeah, just what the setup would be. But right now I’m focusing on just kind of resting up and just taking a break and letting what happens next come naturally. I don’t really want to force a project. I want to make something that folks are actually genuinely interested in.

I think I’ll do a lot of what I did for Nour. I think I’m going to just kind of mess around a bit for fun and try to fund that as much as possible, but just mess around with a few different art projects, put it out there, show folks, see what they like the most, and then just see it evolve from there. I think that’s kind of my formula now, is not just taking bets on what I, as my ego thinking, is the best idea possible. I want to actually get feedback in real time of just like, “oh, folks other than me actually like this. I’m going to pursue this idea now.” I think that’s kind of going to be my approach. So, yeah, my plan is just mess around a bit, throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, see what sticks.

Maurice Cherry:

Basically that’s a good strategy. I like that. I mean, it’s certainly different from what you would see maybe, like, a bigger studio might do, where they might make — and I don’t necessarily mean a game studio, but like, say a television studio — might make a bunch of pilots and then they will do testing on them and then they’ll sort of go and see, “okay, this is the first one” where instead maybe they could put all the pilots out on YouTube and let people sort of see which one they respond to instead of going with what the studio might think. So I think that’s a good tactic.

Tj Hughes:

I like that, yeah, thanks. Also, like something I’ve been talking about because I want to put the seed out there. I feel like if I talk about it, that’s an easier chance of kind of manifesting it. I want to do more museum games because Nour started out as a museum game, just being installed somewhere with a controller and then folks can walk up and interact with it at an event or something like that. I really love that format of game. I kind of feel like I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to worry about the tech of it all. I don’t have to worry about performance and optimization.

I’m just like, “okay, it runs on the computer and it’s interesting and it’s wacky and attention grabbing” and that’s all I had to worry about. I love making stuff like and also I got to travel to a lot of really cool places with this project as well. I got to go to South Korea, Amsterdam, like South Africa, just bringing this game to different exhibits and stuff. And so yeah, I would just love to do more of that. I don’t know how much of that it’s going on post pandemic, but yeah, any events like that I would love to be a part of again and they would just kind of find me as well. I have no idea how these opportunities were kind of come to me, but definitely want to do more stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:

I think that’s awesome. I mean, I can certainly see this kind of thing being done in design museums. Like Atlanta has a museum of design. Atlanta. I think they just had a gaming exhibit earlier this year where they I think it was called Pixels and Code. I don’t recall it, but I could think like design museums, that would work. Conferences could work. There is a conference and it doesn’t go on anymore; maybe it will in the future, but there’s this conference in Portland called XOXO….

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, Nour was actually there one year. I think it was like 2018 or 2019.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh wow, okay. I was there in 2018. My team was there in 2019. The startup I was working at at the time, we did an event in 2018. We did like this art and code event, but they had this game expo that’s where I played, like, Hair Naw and a couple of other games. I assume they probably had it the next year, so if it was 2019, I wasn’t there, but members of my team were there. That’s cool. I could see it being done in something like that where people can really interact with it in an open space.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it was a really cool setting for it because the screen that they got, I guess it was a projector, it was gigantic. They really knew how to present the game. And so I thought that was great, seeing just this HD food up on this big, giant screen. And so, yeah, just more things like that. I just loved how just wacky and just different that convention was.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Tj Hughes:

I just hope more things like that exist, like post pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:

So for people that are hearing your story, they’re listening to you, how you came up in terms of learning about game dev, and now you have your own game out there. What would you recommend to them? If they’re looking to create their own game, what kind of advice would you give them?

Tj Hughes:

I would say just use what resources you have and go for it. It’s completely okay to just google everything. That’s basically what I did. I just googled my way into a career. I have no formal education about any of this. And so use your confidence and ask people as well. Ask people who’ve done it before. There are so many folks that are more than willing to share expertise.

Mentorship is kind of how I really got through most of this. Just folks from Happy Badger Studio just being like, “oh, here’s how you do this. Here’s how you start an LLC and get your business organized. You want to start your own bank account as, like, that’s separate from your personal funds.” There’s just, like, a lot of little pieces of knowledge that aren’t actually hard to execute, but once you know them, it just sets you up. Yeah, I don’t know. Just like tax organization. Don’t ignore that stuff.

Like, taxes. This is if you’re making it commercially, like, if you’re actually trying to make money from it, I would say the biggest thing is start small and ramp up incrementally. Think of it, I guess, like. working out. [That] sort of thing. You don’t go right to 300 pounds on your first deadlift or whatever. You want to work your way up there because you don’t want to tear a muscle. You don’t want to burn out. You want to do what you’re capable of. That was something that I really had to just learn.

It had to just be nailed in me because, yeah, starting out, I wanted to make the biggest FPS project ever. I wanted it to be multiplayer and have, I don’t know, like, be an MMO at the same time. Just a ton of players on the same server, zombies everywhere. It was just like I was in way over my head. I was never going to do that. But still fun to start out and mess around with.

Then I scaled it back and my first game, Feesh, that’s when I made that. I made that during a Ludum Dare game jam, like in 48 hours. That was the tiniest possible little arcade game. I released it on Steam for like 99 cents and with no marketing; folks bought it. That was a great experience. And so I think there really is something to keeping it simple, scaling it back and cutting things. If you have an idea for a feature, just imagine the game without it. I can’t stress that you can never cut too much from a game.

Just actually done is so much better than having it be perfect.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about Nour, about the game? Where can they find that information online?

Tj Hughes:

Terrifyingjellyfish.com is the main spot, but social media-wise, Instagram is the most active — @terrifyingjellyfish on there. I post anything I’m working on to there. I’m on Twitter, X, or whatever the heck you want to call it, at terrify– @jellyoccult or at @_Teejay5 online, everywhere. Food.game, if you just want to look up Nour and buy that game. Yeah, everything’s linked. So if you just look up “terrifying jellyfish”, you’ll kind of find everything all right.

Maurice Cherry:

Sounds good. Tj Hughes, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you, one, for just…I mean, you’re such a creative force. I mean, I feel like I’ve learned a lot just from hearing your story and hearing you talk about game development and your process. I think what you embody is kind of the core thing that I try to put forth with Revision Path is to let people know that there’s more than one way to get to what your definition of success is. And I love that for you. You’re really creating what you want to see in the world. It’s coming from this really pure place and I’m really going to be excited to see what you do in the future.

But yeah, definitely take your rest now, but in the future I’m going to be so excited to see what you accomplish. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, thanks for having me on here. Yeah, it’s been really fun talking about games and through the whole process.

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Shanae Chapman

Sometimes in life, you’ve got to do what you can to make the best out of a bad situation. For Shanae Chapman, that meant using a bad post-graduation job market to launch her own agency, Nerdy Diva. Now she’s setting her sights on bigger goals and doing what she can to help others achieve success in tech and design.

We began by talking about how Shanae started her agency, and we discussed the current state of AI tools and the changing landscape of UX research and design. She also spoke about growing up in St. Louis, attending college, and shared how she used her collective work experiences to dive deeper into the world of UX. For Shanae, hard work and motivation have been the keys to her success!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Shanae Chapman:

I’m Shanae Chapman. I am the CEO, founder, and managing director of Nerdy Diva, a consultancy that specializes in UX research and design and training services and building community for people of color in tech.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. How has 2023 been going for you so far? Any special highlights?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, it’s been an up and down journey. So in addition to having Nerdy Diva as my business the past five years, I also typically worked a day job in tech as well. And I went through a layoff, as many people did earlier this year, and just have been processing, going through layoffs and thinking about what’s next in my career and in my business and getting support for myself, and then also sharing those resources out with the community.

Maurice Cherry:

I know last year there were just sort of this huge wave of layoffs from tech companies and it felt like, a little bit, that wave had sort of abated because you hadn’t heard about it much this year. But people are, unfortunately, still getting laid off from companies. So I’m really sorry to hear that. But you have now, kind of…your full focus is on Nerdy Diva, is that right?

Shanae Chapman:

That is correct, and I’m very excited for what the future holds. I’m currently working on a partnership with LinkedIn. I’m teaching a design course that will be released hopefully in Fall 2023.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh nice. So hopefully by the time this comes out — this will air in September; right now we’re recording it a bit earlier — but maybe by the time this comes out, then it’ll correspond with your course.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, it’s going to be exciting. Definitely going to be out in Q3. Later in Q3 or maybe early Q4 this year.

Maurice Cherry:

Very nice. So let’s talk about Nerdy Diva. You mentioned you’ve been doing it now for about five years, how did you get started with it?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I have always done freelance projects during my career. I’ve been working in design in some way and fashion for the past sixteen years and started out as a college student taking design classes at St. Louis University and learned the basics of graphic design while studying from professors who were working in the field and who had businesses and were also teaching as adjunct instructors. So that was a big insight for me to see that, oh, people can have their own businesses, do design, be creative and teach. And that’s something that really stood out to me and led to me trying it out myself as a 19-year-old saying, “you know what, I’m going to see how I can do this.” And I would go out to small businesses in the area and go to campus departments and ask if people had any design projects that they needed help with and that’s how I started my career.

Maurice Cherry:

Now I’m looking at the Nerdy Diva website now and it’s great that you have your values, you’ve got your mission, vision statements, stuff like that. How has business been going so far?

Shanae Chapman:

It’s been an interesting year. I have seen more of the teaching and training projects come in, like the LinkedIn course that I’m working on currently. And there are some other organizations that I’m in talks with about teaching and training on design and research. It’s been a little slow on actually doing the design projects. I think there’s a lot of economic instability at this time with a lot of companies. The layoffs persist. So the layoffs have been going on throughout this year across design, and that brings in a lot of unknowns and a lot of uncertainty about what’s next. So something that I’m doing is reaching out to organizations that we may not always think about who need design as well, like our government agencies and our nonprofit organizations who may also need support and design.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. With the way that the economy has gone now — we’re kind of recording this right now, near the beginning of some companies, like fiscal year — I think at this time, companies might start thinking like, “oh, well, what could we possibly spend money on this year?” But a lot of places are still just kind of waiting to see how the economy will bounce back, if the economy will bounce back. I know in my case, I was laid off last year and what it felt like was that companies really were just seeing what other companies were doing and just following suit. So in some ways, it wasn’t about, “oh, we need to cut back to save money.” It’s like, “well, if all the other businesses in our sector are cutting back, then maybe we need to cut back too.” But in that respect, it’s kind of been a bit of a good time if you’re freelancing or if you’re doing contract work, because companies might be more apt to do something short-term than long-term.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, and it’s good to have options. It’s good to have multiple streams of income and being a freelancer, but then going the step higher to that and incorporating your own business. And I’ve had my LLC since 2018, incorporating my LLC, and then being able to take on projects and design projects where I’m able to work on that, but also have the opportunity to hire contractors and interns who also get opportunities to be creative and to grow as designers and grow their careers. That’s really empowering and really something that is rewarding for me as a business owner.

Maurice Cherry:

So what does a typical day look like for you now?

Shanae Chapman:

There are no typical days, but generally I’m checking my email from people who are potential partners and looking at ways to get more visibility for the work that we do on design and training and connecting more recently with the local chamber of commerce here in St. Louis, but also growing in Boston, which is my second home. I went to grad school in Boston and Northeastern University and started my career in design and technology and the corporate level in the Boston area. So being able to connect more with the businesses there and definitely taking advantage of opportunities for minority owned business contracts and contracts for women business enterprises. And I think that’s something that’s really important for design businesses to also get those certifications so that we have those opportunities that come up.

Maurice Cherry:

Was it difficult for you to get those for your business?

Shanae Chapman:

It’s a process. So it’s definitely something where you have to do your homework and do your research. And for me, it’s something where I’m still in that path of finding all of the resources and tools to get certified in Boston. And I think it’s definitely worth it because it opens up more doors for you to have bigger clients and take on bigger projects. And for me also, that sense of being able to work on projects that impact everyday people. So being able to work on civic tech projects is something that is really important to me. And having those opportunities come in…yeah, it’s what I want to do. So being able to work on the things that you want to do and not just that you have to do, definitely is a game changer.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked about civic tech. Are those like the best types of clients that you want to work with or do you have kind of a broader set that you’d normally like to work with?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah. Definitely looking for more opportunities to work with government agencies, city level, state level, around building up more intuitive resources for communities, whether that’s increasing the usability of websites and apps for services, whether that’s helping people find information who are looking for ways to get around the city, as with transportation or for healthcare resources, being able to connect people to the information and tools that they need to have a positive quality of life. That’s something that’s really what I want to focus on in the work that we do. So design for good, using technology for good.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, I know a lot of Black business owners, especially those that kind of work, I guess you could say, in the DEI space — I’m using air quotes around that. But I found a lot of Black business owners kind of had a bit of a bump during the summer of 2020 when companies were pledging like, we’re going to work with more black businesses or BIPOC businesses, et cetera. I’m curious if you’ve noticed any trends with your clients over the years.

Shanae Chapman:

Trends in terms of what?

Maurice Cherry:

In terms of the type of work they’re looking for or types of services, things like that. Are you finding that as time has progressed that clients are asking for different things, wanting different things, stuff like that?

Shanae Chapman:

It kind of stems back to something earlier in this conversation about the budgeting. So there’s still a need for design and for training on how to do design, especially equitable design. So I run a two-hour workshop on designing anti-racism, and I use the EI and anti-racism frameworks in that workshop and apply it tactically to how do we use this to create more inclusive and equitable designs. Whether that is UI, whether that is using voice technologies, whether that’s using AI and understanding what it means to have representative harm and allocative harm in technologies, and how can we design more equitable solutions that are not harmful? So I think the need is still there, but it’s a factor around the budgets. Who has budgets for these projects? And I can’t speak to the industry as a whole because I’m not privy to all of that information. But I know for myself, it’s tougher to find more businesses that are able to have the budgets that can sustain this work long-term. And I think that’s something that needs to be addressed. Like, if this is really important, then this work needs to have adequate budgets in order to support the work going forward.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked just a little bit there about AI. Are you using AI now with any of your clients or any sort of AI tools?

Shanae Chapman:

I think it’s something that has potential. I think design and AI can form a partnership where we’re using AI to help with some of the more tedious things, like copywriting, for example, but also thinking about the data that goes into those tools — is it secure? Is the information that would be okay to share publicly, for example? And also during the critical thinking of determining if the information from the AI tools is equitable, is it sharing information that is actually stereotypical and being able to see that and address it? So it’s something that I think has a lot of potential, but we also have to have checks and balances with it. And going forward, working with clients who will use AI, I think that’s something that is really important to continue having those discussions about not just using the tool, but being observers of it and also being able to step in and make changes if it’s not producing what it should in an equitable way.

Maurice Cherry:

I’ve encountered some clients, I’d say probably within the past year or so, that have been…they like AI because they feel like it’s sort of like a magic machine to them, like they can put in a question, get out some sort of answer or something like that. But like you said, is the information equitable? And honestly, which tool they’re using, it matters in terms of what the information is that you’re getting out. Like, if you’re using just, like, the base [ChatGPT], I think it’s version 3 or 3.5 or something like that. Its corpus of knowledge only goes up to, I think, to like, September of 2022 or something like that. So it’s not like completely up-to-date and even how it puts it together. It’s sort of just like grabbing information from a whole bunch of different sources and sort of like, smashing it together to say, “hey, this is what I think you want based on the query that you’ve given me.”

Of course it’s AI. So it’s not thinking about it, but depending on the tool they might be using ChatGPT 4.5, which is supposed to be up-to-date and brings in current search engine data and stuff like that, but AI is getting kind of added into so many different tools. It’s getting added into search, it’s getting added into even like Google Docs and Word and stuff like that. So I agree about the checks and balances. I think it is being kind of implemented really fast and that we’re not taking time to think too much about the ethics of usage and the ethics of using what you get from it, just sort of, on its face. Like, I agree with what you say about it being sort of a good jumping off point or a starting point, but it shouldn’t be the answer.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s a big misconception that many people believe that AI tools are factual, they are the truth, they are the end all, be all, and that’s not the complete story. So knowing that these are tools that have been created and have biases and have bugs and have issues that are still being worked out, understanding that and taking that information with a grain of salt, so to speak. So I think there’s still a lot of miseducation about how far along the industry is with AI because we’re really just getting started and there’s still a lot of risk. And security is another big issue. Like, taking data and not crediting the sources happens as well. So just being aware of that is something that I encourage folks to think about.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I know, especially from educators that I’ve talked with, it’s been a big thing because students will use it to write papers or pull in information and research. But like you said, there’s no citation with it. And even if there is a citation, citation may not be correct because it’s pulling all this stuff from different parts and just sort of spitting something out that might look like it’s right doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing.

One of my good friends — my best friend actually — he works at Ohio State University. He’s a professor and he was talking about how one of his students has submitted a paper and it had all these citations from, I think, like the University of Chicago Library or something like that, but none of those citations actually existed. Like, he followed up behind the student and contacted the library and they were like, yeah, none of that stuff is here. But apparently ChatGPT said, “hey, we pulled this from these sources from the library.” And maybe part of that was maybe a fraction of it, but not the entire thing. So it is dangerous, I would say, not so much in its usage, but moreso, I guess, in how humans are using it. Like if we’re just taking it like we said at face value and not changing it at all or fact-checking it, like you said, just assuming that it’s right is not good because it’s most likely not going to be.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, definitely. And I read a story the other day of a college student who got reprimanded from a professor who thought that they had used AI to create their paper because it was so well-written, but the student actually had not used any AI tools to create their papers. So now they’re getting dinged because the professors are having a hard time differentiating between when is AI being used and when is it not being used. So it’s a tricky place to be in right now as educators and as students as well.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Where do you want to take Nerdy Diva in the future? Like, what are your future plans?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I definitely want to continue to grow. And I mentioned civic tech earlier. So one of my goals is to complete all of the certifications that are necessary MBE/WBE and do work with City of Boston, City of St. Louis, City of Chicago, working on projects that impact everyday people and being able to use technology in a way where we’re able to share information throughout our communities and share knowledge and create more resources and more equity and also continue to grow. My presence as an educator. So very excited for this partnership with LinkedIn. First course will be complete by the fall of this year and excited to continue to make more courses with LinkedIn around design and research and emerging technologies.

Maurice Cherry:

Now let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. We’ve heard a lot about your business, but let’s learn more about you. Tell me about where you grew up.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. So I grew up in a working class family. My mom was a teacher’s assistant, before she retired, for over 32 years. And so education was very big in our family. My dad was a care mechanic and very hands on and was literally solving problems with all kinds of vehicles, and it was a lot of turning lemons into lemonade and taking what you have and making the most out of it. So those are some of the things that I have carried throughout my life is being able to see the good, find gratitude, be able to think quickly on my feet and keep learning and trying new things and being able to take inspiration and finding out how to walk in new paths and being able to be open to new opportunities. So that’s something that has stuck with me. And St. Louis — if you haven’t been there — very much a midwest city with Southern influences, so a lot of rich cultural heritage with music, a lot of blues and jazz has come out of St. Louis. Scott Joplin [the] composer; very famous in these parts as well, and a lot of appreciation for good food and breaking bread with family and friends and getting to know people and sharing what you have even if you don’t have a lot. So those are things that I still hold dear and that’s still part of who I am now.

Maurice Cherry:

Were you exposed to a lot of design and tech stuff growing up? Was that something you were around a lot?

Shanae Chapman:

You know what, I was not. So my parents were not technical folks and my parents divorced when I was younger. So just definitely being a young person, dealing with that experience of going through ups and downs and challenges, and what always inspired me was creativity. And I would see that with the art classes that I took in school and reading books and learning about new places and new people and cultures and just having the ability to learn how to use computers and new technologies as they became available at school were things that opened my eyes. Like I’m old enough to remember when we first got the big iMacs in elementary school and they had them in elementary school and taught us how to use those, and that was like top tier computers back in the day. Yeah, just being able to see that and having the Internet go from dial-up what we had when we were growing up, where you had to either choose to be on the phone, the landline, or be on the Internet, you couldn’t do both at the same time. So thinking about that and then seeing how things have evolved and now we have these fiber optics and we have such high speed 5G networks and it’s complete changes just in my lifetime of being 35 years old. So just being able to see that and see it as a user but then also now as a designer, being part of creating what those systems do and how other people get to use them is pretty cool.

Maurice Cherry:

Now you talked about going to St. Louis University and you said you took some design courses there too, is that right?

Shanae Chapman:

I did, yes.

Maurice Cherry:

Now you majored in communications. Was this just kind of part of the program?

Shanae Chapman:

In general, design courses were part of a suite of electives that you could choose as part of the communication degree. And that’s something that I highly encourage people who have opportunity to choose their own electives, to choose something that is creative, choose something that you may not have thought about studying before. Find that as a resource for you to test out if you want to get involved in something. So at least you can say, “oh, I’ve tried that and I know it’s not for me,” or in my case, “I’ve tried that and yes, I want more of that.” So the design course is important, my electives and once I took a class and had the opportunity to use Photoshop and saw how you could use design to convey messages and meaning. I knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of and just kept taking more electives and ended up doing an emphasis in communication technology overall.

Maurice Cherry:

How was your time there?

Shanae Chapman:

There were pros and cons of that experience for me. I had a really good experience learning about design and communication and public speaking, had some excellent professors and adjunct instructors who really valued sharing knowledge and helping students grow as people. So that was really empowering for me. I met a lot of friends there that I’m still close to to this day. And I worked on campus in the business school in the entrepreneur center. And they were at that time working on a beta project for Black business owners where they were building a facility in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr…or Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in St. Louis, and they were working with Black business owners to help them get their businesses ready for moving into this space. So I got to see these Black business owners come in and talk about their businesses and work with the university’s resources and learn what types of challenges they face and what types of tools are helpful for them. So I got to see, like, okay, they need accounting software. Oh, they have questions about hiring. Oh, they have questions about financing. I got to hear those questions, solutions during that process, which was really educational for me as someone who had seeds of, like, “oh, I might want to try this entrepreneur thing.” But some challenges were being at a PWI — predominantly white institution — and not having that sense of feeling known and feeling a sense of care, being in some classrooms where I was the only Black person in the room, and being asked, like, “what is your opinion? What is the Black perspective on this particular opinion?” And this is something where I, as a 19-year-old, educating my classmates and my white professor as to “this is my perspective. This is Shanae’s perspective. This is not the perspective of all of Black America.” So being able to stand up for myself and share that knowledge is something I get from that experience. But it definitely was challenging and [I] definitely had some hard days.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Colleges can be one of those sort of interesting places. It’s like, on the one hand, you mentioned, yes, try to seek out these more creative courses and things like that, but sometimes, just depending on the school, you often are put in these other sort of trying environments and situations. I can imagine that had to be pretty tough to deal with overall, though.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah. And then just being broke. That’s the thing about college. You have no money all the time.

Maurice Cherry:

When you graduated from St. Louis University, what was your early career path? Did you go right into trying to become a designer, or did you sort of kind of have to get your feet wet doing other stuff first?

Shanae Chapman:

I wasn’t able we were in a recession when I graduated with my undergraduate degree, it was 2009. So again, there was economic instability and it was really tough for me to find full-time work just in general, not even design. It was just tough to find any full-time work, being a college graduate and not having corporate and industry experience yet. And those were really tough times. And I went to my school after I graduated. I went back to the university and went to career services and did career counseling. And that was the first time that I had the opportunity to talk to someone about the shame I felt and not being able to find work immediately after graduating. And it opened up perspectives for me to hear someone say, like, yeah, “of course you would be frustrated, but understand that this is not you, this is the economy. This is competing with people who have more experience and maybe more education, who have connections. There’s other things happening that are outside of your control,” and being able to take that in as information and understand that, “okay, I’m okay, I can keep going.” And it’s not a situation where I’m doing things wrong and something’s wrong with me. And being able to have that support was really helpful. And that’s something that I definitely highly encourage folks to do.

Like, talk to someone if you’re having tough times in your career. Everyone’s had tough times. There’s definitely been times when I’ve wanted jobs, I didn’t get them, or there’s times that I took jobs that I know were not for me ended up leaving. So being able to have those conversations and also get some perspective because our careers are great, they help us support ourselves and take care of ourselves and our loved ones and do purposeful, meaningful work. But your career is not the only thing that you have going on for yourself, and being able to have some perspective about that is helpful too.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, I am so glad that you said that. I’m so glad you mentioned that because I think a lot of folks need to hear that, especially now. Especially, I think, if you’ve been laid off over the past year. And this is not to say that I feel like — and this might be a controversial statement, so rock with me here if it gets a little out of hand — but I feel like particularly in BIPOC communities, particularly in Black communities, we’ve kind of been sold this fantasy about getting into tech and it being like the solution to everything. Like, you’re going to get that good tech job and you’ll be able to pay off your mother’s bills or get your grandmother something. And I mean, yeah, you can do that with what the salaries are. But I think what gets wrapped in that is sort of your self-image is so intrinsically tied to not just the work you do, but where you work, that once you lose that, it ends up being this huge hit to your self esteem. Like, who am I if I don’t work for insert big tech company here? You know what I mean?

I really feel especially, like, oh my God, you said you graduated in 2009. Right around that time, I want to say it was like between maybe 2009 and 2011, there was this big push about getting Black folks to go to Silicon Valley. It was like, “go to Silicon Valley. Be the next Mark Zuckerberg.” CNN even had this whole special about folks like going to Silicon Valley and they had like a house and everything they were working out of. It was part of their Black in America series. And I think it was good to see that sort of like, upward mobility and prosperity. But then you had a lot of organizations that came about that were just sort of selling this notion that you get this big tech job and you’re set, you’ll be able to live the life of your dreams once you work for Facebook or Amazon or Google or whatever. But then it’s like, when you get laid off from there, then what?

And I think people need to hear this right now. One, because of all the layoffs that are happening, but two, we’re in this weird economic period now, just like back then, in 2009, and that there’s this uncertainty. It’s hard finding full time jobs. I know a lot of people that have been out of work now three months, six months, up to a year, and it’s really messing with them. They have the skills, of course, to do the type of work that they do, but it’s so tied into their self-image of like, “well, how am I a good person if I don’t work at this company, if I’m not doing XYZ?”

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, those are all good points. And I was reading Essence magazine the other day, and one of the women they interviewed, she mentioned that titles are rented; your character is what stays the same. And I was like, “girl, yes. A word.” That’s important. The titles are rented, but you’re still the same person. You’re still creative, you’re still a problem solver. You still know how to bring things together from different parts and bring them together in a meaningful way and create something that has a beautiful outcome. You can still do that no matter if you at Microsoft or Google or wherever. So you still have those skills. And I think that’s something that we forget about, that it’s not just about having the name recognition. It’s about who you are. Who do you show up as?

Maurice Cherry:

Titles are rented. I love that. And that is so true. That is absolutely true. Because who you are or who you were at one place may not be who you are somewhere else.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, in 2012, you started out as an intern at Red Hat. And then after that you started working at IBM as a UX/UI testing specialist. Given kind of the background that you had before starting there, like, what drew you to UX?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, so I was in the tech industry because my master’s degree is in informatics study of information systems and there is some overlap with UX. And like, I took UX courses as well, classes and understanding how to evaluate and how to audit for usability. So I learned those fundamentals as part of my master’s degree program and found that to be really interesting because that combines design know how. So having some graphic design, web design background, web development background, but then also understanding the psychology piece on how do people use systems and tools and how to prevent errors and how to help people get unstuck was also something that was enlightening to me. And then the technical side of it and understanding, “okay, you want to build something, how do you actually know what’s possible, what’s feasible, what could you actually build?” And being able to use the things I’ve learned in my master’s degree, that was more technical to bring that together as well.

So I applied to so many internships and entry level positions and interviewed for Red Hat and everything was in person at this time. So interviewed had presentations about why they should choose me and just waited, just waited and then heard word back a few weeks later that I was going to have this offer of this internship. And for me, it was the most money that I had made up until that point at $30 an hour to be a summer intern. And I thought, “this is great, this is great.” Now I get to start my career in tech using what I have learned in school and being able to have this big name at the time — all into the big names — have this big name on my resume as well. So it was a starting point for me. And I learned a lot. I learned a lot about how large organizations work and didn’t know before I started there that there’s so much people involvement, there’s so much. And you think about design and technology, it’s like, “oh, okay, you just kind of do your own thing.” No, that’s not how it works. When you actually work for a company, you have so many meetings, you have so much collaboration, you have so much discussing what gets designed, what gets built, understanding analytics and behaviors of trends and patterns. And there’s a lot of this back and forth and seeing that for the first time and being engulfed in that. Yeah, just definitely it was a sink or swim situation and had to learn quickly how to pick things up and just had to be unafraid to ask questions. So I asked a lot of questions and did really well in that internship. And that was a good starting point for me to move forward into other positions in technology.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. And some of those other places that you worked at. I mean, I was looking at your LinkedIn, I was like, you have gotten some great experience.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Kronos, The MathWorks, Akamai Technologies, Boeing, SmartBear, most recently HashiCorp. When you look at those experiences as a whole, collectively, what do you remember the most? Like, what do you pull from when you look back at those experiences?

Shanae Chapman:

Every place I’ve gone to, I learned something new. I learned something new about what I wanted in my career. I picked up some new technologies. I studied many places. I was also offered certifications, so I would take the time to do the work to earn those certifications. Just investing in myself. And I think that’s important.

Everywhere you go in your career, you should be learning and you should be earning. And that’s something that was also important to me as I continued to move up in my career, that I had to learn how to negotiate my salaries and benefits and RSU stock packages. And these are things that I didn’t know about. Again, my mom was a teacher assistant. My dad was a car mechanic. They didn’t have those types of conversations, so I had to lean heavily on the people that I trusted.

I’m in a chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. And so being a part of that chapter when I was in grad school and after grad school in Boston helped me a lot to understand how does this all work. So leaning on people who have been through these situations before and getting outside of my comfort zone and learning how to negotiate by taking webinars and in-person trainings and bringing that into conversations and not being afraid to have difficult conversations. For me, it’s a pattern of going to each step and going higher, learning more, growing, taking in knowledge, sharing knowledge. And that has been something that has evolved over time.

So that now I have this career where I’ve been in technology for the past eleven years and have learned a lot about cybersecurity, have learned about data analytics, have learned about creating tools that scientists and engineers and developers use, but also can take that skillset and also apply it to creating tools for healthcare or for community systems or for knowledge sharing, for education. So being able to take that information and translate it for different audiences, I think that’s something that’s really important and crucial.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, because I would imagine each of these different companies are serving different–I mean, one, different just audiences based on what they do. But like you said, as you’re going on, you’re learning more, you’re earning more, et cetera. But also the industry is changing. How have you seen UX kind of change over the years in the industry?

Shanae Chapman:

It ebbs and flows. So there’s times where UX is really top of mind and people want to bring in researchers and designers and everyone’s looking for that sense of building the right products. And then sometimes you get into situations where it’s a more “let’s build something first and see how it goes” and take a step back from actually doing the proactive work of the research and design and getting the feedback. And I think that’s where we are now.

So we’re in a place where people are tighter with their budgets and they’re trying to get the UX research and design in multiple roles. So product managers are now doing product discovery and research, and developers are doing some discovery and research, and it’s getting to a place where they’re trying to combine roles across different teams. And I think that it squeezes out having people who are dedicated to UX research and design. And I think there may have been a big push earlier on for people to share that, oh, anyone can do research and design. And I think that was overemphasized because it takes away the credibility and it takes away the practice of having the know how and the education and the experience to do quality research and design. Like, sure, everyone can go to Figma and create something quickly, but being able to actually create something that’s meaningful and that’s impactful and that takes something complex and makes it intuitive is not something that just anyone can do.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, with the work that you are doing with UX, does that also extend into voice or even AI stuff? Are you finding any sort of changes with the UX industry in those cases?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I think there’s room for UX to work with these tools. So working with voice, working with IoT, working with AI, and there’s definitely experiences that go beyond the interface. So the experience when you are speaking to Siri, for example, and what is heard and what’s transmitted back, that’s an experience also. And I think that UX has a benefit of having that awareness about human centered interaction and human centered design to be able to help teams understand how to make seamless and frictionless experiences, whether there’s an interface or not.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, what advice would you give to someone that’s listening to this podcast or hearing your story and they want to start their own UX career? Maybe they’re like a fresh grad out of college, or maybe they’re like in the middle of a career change because they’ve gotten laid off and they want to go into something new. What advice would you give them on getting into the UX industry?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of kind of get rich [quick] schemes out here where people are saying many pathways and not to put down boot camps, because some boot camps are sharing quality knowledge and it’s a step for some people to get some education and start their career. But if you do a boot camp, don’t let that be the only time that you are educating yourself.

UX is a career path where you have to continuously learn. And if you don’t want to have to keep learning every day, every year, then it’s not going to be a good career for you. You’re not going to find it enjoyable, you’re not going to find it to be that get rich quick scheme that you thought it would be so you can’t learn everything about UX in six weeks and then be an expert. It doesn’t work like that because you also have to have the lived experience, you have to apply it, you have to make mistakes, you have to learn from those mistakes. And it’s really powerful when you as someone who’s new to UX, partners with someone who’s senior and you can just observe how they do their roadmapping, how they talk to clients, how they collaborate with product management and engineering, how they set themselves up for success with their research and design process. So being able to give yourself grace and being able to be patient as well is something I would share. Many times people think like, “okay, I want to just do things quickly,” but just because it’s quick doesn’t mean it’s right. So those are my two cents.

Maurice Cherry:

Who are some of the people that have really helped you out to get to where you are now? Like any mentors, any peers, or anyone like that?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, so definitely have had community of mentors and sponsors over the years. I’m mentioning National Society of Black Engineers, previously Boston chapter, was a big resource for me. So being able to connect with other Black people in technology and some people were developers, some people were product managers and there were a few other designers there as well. And being able to share experiences working in corporate and working on teams, building software, building tools that millions of people use across the world, and being able to share those tips and lessons learned and also learn about financial literacy from some of the events that they had. Also the AAUW — American Academy of University Women — they had a lot of salary negotiation trainings when I was earlier in my career that helped me out when negotiating. And also just friends and people who take the time to listen in when I’m having a bad day when things are hard. And having your tribe of people who you have in your back pocket when things are hard is essential. So being a good friend and staying connected to your friends is something that’s really important as well. And making that time to do that so that you can show up for your people and that they can show up for you.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s bringing you joy these days?

Shanae Chapman:

I have really enjoyed learning new recipes. So I like to cook and I like to bake, and my husband is very happy to be the person who’s taste testing. Yeah, so that’s bringing me a lot of joy. And reading as well and thinking about ways to grow Nerdy Diva that are not just focused on technology. Some are thinking about creating a children’s book and a comic, like an anime book as well. Yeah, just thinking about some of these creative ideas and exploring what’s next.

Maurice Cherry:

What would you say, like, you’re still in the process of unlearning?

Shanae Chapman:

For me, that’s unlearning the need to say yes to everything and being okay with saying no, being okay with setting those boundaries for myself on my time and my energy and practicing putting me first and what I need first. And that’s unlearning the habit of putting others above myself. And I think that’s really important to remember that you have needs and you have to take care of your needs also.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, what do you want kind of the next chapter of your story to look like? Say it’s five years or so from now. What do you want to be working on? What kind of things do you want to have done? Stuff like that?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I want to continue to do the things I’m doing now and just continue to grow those partnerships. So I really want to continue to share knowledge on platforms like LinkedIn and other edtech programs for people who are getting involved in design and technology and want that to be a place where people are able to see someone who has some representation that looks like them, who they don’t often see in those spaces. Talking about design and analytics and technology and being able to share that knowledge. Also want to continue doing design work for government agencies and communities and be able to create more jobs and opportunities for contractors and interns as well.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about Nerdy Diva? Where can they find that information online?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, you can find Nerdy Diva at nerdydiva.com, and we are on LinkedIn and Instagram as well.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Shanae Chapman, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I think what I’ve gotten the most out of this and what I hope others get out of it, too, is that there’s no substitute, I think, for hard work. There’s no substitute for putting in the work to get to where you are, to sort of put in those hours to get to some level of mastery or information. Because what it definitely sounds like I’ve gotten from your story is that you’ve had these experiences, you’ve worked at these different companies, and now you’re gaining that knowledge and putting it into your business and using that to also kind of give back through the work that you’re doing with, like, civic tech or even with these courses and things like that. I’m going to be really excited to see what comes next for you in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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

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Reggie Tidwell

It takes a lot of drive and determination to chart your own course, and no one embodies those qualities better than this week’s guest. As the creative director (and founder) of Curve Theory, Reggie Tidwell has provided beautiful and effective design, branding, photography, and videography work to clients for over 20 years.

We talked about the secret to Reggie’s longevity as a creative entrepreneur, and he shared his story about growing up in St. Louis, studying graphic design, and his early post-grad career as a Flash designer in the beginning days of the World Wide Web. Reggie also spoke about what brought him to North Carolina, and about his work in bringing an AIGA chapter to Asheville. Reggie is a prime example of what being a steward of design and giving back to your community looks like!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Reggie Tidwell:
Hey, I’m Reggie Tidwell and I am a graphic designer and a professional photographer as well as a videographer, which I do on occasion as well. I tell stories.

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

Reggie Tidwell:
Wow, it has been a great year. Bought a house.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

Reggie Tidwell:
Thank you. I also have had my best financial career last year. Everything has culminated to that, and this year seems to be on track to even beat that, so that’s super exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s real good. That’s real good. I mean, even with all of that, is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish before the year ends?

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I mean, once you own a house, there’s always house stuff that you want to accomplish, but professionally, man, things have just been falling into place and sort of a beautiful way that I feel just very excited. I’m going to be doing all of the photography for… So I’m a huge fan of the outdoors and nature landscape photography. I do a lot of that for Explore Asheville, which is our big tourism division here in Asheville, and the Gray Smoking Mountain Association has reached out and they’re going to have me do all the photography for their new book on Cade’s Cove, which is a really beautiful spot in the Smokies. So if you’ve ever been to Great Smokey Mountain National Park, it’s our biggest and most visited national park in the country and it’s absolutely gorgeous. But I’m super excited. I’m going to be doing all the photos for the book, so I’ll get a book cred.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. Congratulations on that.

Reggie Tidwell:
Thank you, sir.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about your company Curve Theory. Now, Curve Theory has been around for over 20 years, which I definitely have to tip my hat to you. I ran a studio for nine years and I know how much goes into that. So 20, over 20 years, I think. What, 21 now, right?

Reggie Tidwell:
21 years. 21. I’m in my 21st year. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What’s been the key to your longevity?

Reggie Tidwell:
Quite honestly, it’s building relationships. I’ve never advertised. It really is a combination of building relationships and being passionate about the work that I do. I love designing photography, I love being a creative, I love people. And so it just makes sense that I would be able to maintain this business because it’s all the things that I love and things that I would be doing anyway. I’m always building relationships. I always tell people, and I always think it’s a funny little bit of a factoid about me. I don’t typically just add people on Facebook that I don’t know, and I’ve got 3000 plus connections on Facebook and every single one of them is someone that I know. I had either a meaningful conversation with and align somewhere, or they’re friends in real life or I served on the board with them, or whatever the case may be. They’re all real connections and when you think about that, that’s a lot of… Exponentially the more people, the sort of more you can grow your network. This business for me is really about being present and available.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really good for Facebook. I think Facebook and probably a lot of social media networks now have really enabled this way to just collect friends, almost like you’re, I don’t know, collecting trading cards or something like that without really having any intentionality behind it. The way that you’re about connections on Facebook. That’s how I am on LinkedIn. I’m really, unless I’ve worked with you or I know you personally or something like that, we met at a conference or something, we’ve had a conversation. That’s usually the only way that I’ll add people. Although now, lately I have gotten a little lax and well, partly because I let them stack up. So I’ll go months without adding anyone on LinkedIn and all of a sudden I’ve got a hundred connections. I’m like, “Oh, I should probably go through these and see who I know.” And I tell people, write a note to let me know how we know each other. And I mean some of them are just sales calls and what have you, but…

Reggie Tidwell:
So many of those.

Maurice Cherry:
But in terms of the power of the network, I got laid off recently and I posted I think two posts on LinkedIn about it and I was flabbergasted by how my network showed up and spread the word and put me in connection with other people. And I’ve had some great conversations and such, so…

Reggie Tidwell:
That’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there’s this author Porter Gale who says your network is your net worth. I totally believe that. Absolutely.

Reggie Tidwell:
Totally. Yeah. I get so much business from those connections on Facebook. I mean, quite honestly, it’s just doing stuff, especially from the photography side of my business. I’ll post a photo and I’m constantly posting photos and I do also on LinkedIn. Ultimately what ends up happening is because you’re constantly putting content out when someone thinks a photography and someone says, “Hey, do you know a great photographer?” You should be in someone’s very short list of their mental Rolodex. And that’s what happened. I get calls all the time. Hey, so and so… I mentioned on Facebook that I was looking for a drone photographer or a lifestyle photographer, a commercial photographer, whatever, and they mention you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What’s a typical day look like for you?

Reggie Tidwell:
So for me, it’s nice being a designer and a photographer because on any given day, I never know it could bring me being out in a field on a photo shoot, it could bring me in a brand strategy session with a client, or a discovery session with a new branding client, whatever it is. It’s nice because my days aren’t always the same. I get to travel, I get to, for instance tomorrow I’m going to be in another area of North Carolina for a commercial shoot for pretty much much of the day, starting at Golden Color. And it’s nice. And then Friday I’m in the studio all day, probably editing photos from that shoot and rounding out a logo for another client.

Maurice Cherry:
So you include your photography as part of your design service, so I guess company services, I should say?

Reggie Tidwell:
Kind of. Occasionally the two will intertwine, usually the two intertwine when I’m doing web designing. So if I’m designing a website for a client, a lot of times because I know exactly what kind of images the client needs, I can add it as part of my service to do a lifestyle shoot of their company or their clientele, and then that can get baked into their website. And I’m working with my own images. I can control a lot more effort that way. But yeah, it happens. It doesn’t happen as much because I don’t do as much web design as I used to. I’m probably doing about two or three sites a year where I used to do quite a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Back when I had my studio, I wound things down from the design end, I’d say roughly around in the mid 2010s because there was certainly a market for bespoke web design. They want, people wanted a particular website theme or something like that. But now with all these website builders out here, people are taking the design element, or at least the modular parts or the design process into their own hands. And it’s like, yeah, I don’t really need bespoke anymore. And so I ended up doing more consulting because you were able to shift like that. So it’s interesting now because I’m looking for work at the moment and people are like, “Oh, okay, you redesign a website?” I’m like, Ah. I mean I haven’t done it in a long time maybe.

Reggie Tidwell:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I’m probably not your first choice for that, but I get what you mean. People, they hear design and of course if you have an online presence and a website, that’s the first thing they think about is, “Oh, can you design a website or can you redesign a website?”

Reggie Tidwell:
I think depending on the client, I do still see value in bespoke. I feel like ultimately I’ll end up doing a completely custom website where I’ll get to work with a developer and I’ll design the front end and we can work beautifully and make something really amazing. But that doesn’t happen as often as I would like. But I do find the builders have actually worked for me because especially if you know them, there’s Divi and Elementor, there’s a handful of other ones I’ve been using Divi for a while, and though it can be a little bit verbose in it’s code, I find that the flexibility of me being able to do something completely custom using mostly you doing custom CSS to some of their built in modules.
So I can build the content and lay out the content really quickly, then go in with CSS and really start to fine tune and make it exactly what I want it to be. That’s a nice, because I do work with very large clients and also small clients, that’s a really nice option for clients that don’t have six to 10 grand in their pocket to do a website. It’s just nice to have that as an option and for them to still get something that’s custom.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of which, what are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Reggie Tidwell:
Quite honestly, I’ve got a soft spot for the mom and pop shops, either they’re startups or they’ve been around for a while and it’s time to change things up. I love that transition of being able to help them renew their own passion in their business through that process. I’m working on the branding right now for an auction house that’s been around for decades. They’ve been on Antique Roadshow, so they’ve got a presence, but their brand look is a bit dated and they’ve started resting on their laurels a little bit because everything is just so tried and true. It is what it is. It’s been what it’s been. And they realize this time to shake things up a little bit. They want to expand their market a little bit, they want to… And so going through that process with them, it’s so rewarding because they’ve been living with the same logo for 20 years, or longer.
And to be able to see them embrace something that’s different, and it’s a fun process too with this particular client because they were like, “Yeah, we want some completely modern and avant garde.” And I went there, they were like, “Oh no. We love it, but we’re not ready yet.” And so, okay, that’s good. At least I know what your comfort level is. And so now I can dial it back and land exactly where we need to be. And then feeling them working through the resistance but then initially, not only acceptance, but oh my God, this is amazing. This is going to be really great for our company. We’re excited. That’s a great feeling.

Maurice Cherry:
So when a project, let’s say, comes in your inbox or something like that, what does your process look like when it comes to starting on new work?

Reggie Tidwell:
So I usually have a quick little meeting with the client just qualify whether or not we’re going to work well together and whether I’m the guy for the job. But then once that decision is made, I set up a discovery session where we really actually start to dig deep into the typical discovery questionnaire where you learn a little bit more about their business, their aspirations, what’s working, what’s not working, so I can better provide exactly what they’re looking for. I feel like, for me anyway, I feel like the key to being a good designer that makes happy clients and solves the right problems or solves problems in the right way is asking the right questions at the very beginning. So I’m all about being inquisitive. I want to know everything. And if you feel like it’s too much, it’s not.
Because at the end of the day when I’m digging into sketching out logo concepts or I’m coming up with a tagline or whatever that information that I’m going to be so thankful that I have it because I can go through and dig in for inspiration to recheck the direction that I’m going to make sure I’m headed in the right way. But yeah, it’s all about the Q and A, at the beginning.

Maurice Cherry:
So I see here on your website that you do a lot of volunteer work. You worked also with Leaf Community Arts. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. So, Leaf Community Arts for me was a big part of, I did service work before that, but it probably to date was probably one of the biggest chapters in my life in terms of giving back. Leaf Community Arts is a nonprofit here in the Asheville area that they have teaching artists that go into the public school system and the neighborhood centers and basically recreation centers and they work with youth, teaching them poetry, dance, how to play the Djembe, how to do different types of art, visual art. It’s pretty amazing. And it gives kids this sense of ownership of something which I think is quite necessary, especially for the age range of students that they work with. But then they also have this other part that I was actually more aligned with was they do cultural preservation in First Nations, third world countries like [inaudible 00:16:38], and Uganda, and Rwanda, and Cuba, all these different places where there are cultures that have been around for ages and First Nations tribes that as the youth are becoming more westernized and the elders are dying off, these cultures are just vanishing.
There’s no evidence of their songs, or instrument making, or costumes, or any of it. And so what Leaf Community Arts did what they were partnering with an agency on the ground that was trying to do that cultural preservation and help raise money to do things like build recording studios, or hire artisans that know the native language to native songs, the instrument making, the dances. And they actually make it really cool for the youth where they’re putting their phones down, and totally engaging, and dancing, and singing. And I found that particularly interesting. I love the beauty of cultures, and how different cultures are, and how you can learn something completely and different from a culture that you never had experienced before.

Maurice Cherry:
And now are you still doing work with them? I know that now you’re also the new president of AIGA Asheville, the founding president, but have you waned your work with Leaf Community Arts?

Reggie Tidwell:
I have still a supporter of it. I worked all the way up to my presidency in 2017 and then my term ended. So I’m now board president emeritus. I’m still, the Leaf Community Arts people are family, they actually put on a huge music festival three times a year. I’ve met Arrested Development, Speech. Now we know each other by name. I’ve met, gosh, we’ve had Angelique Kidjo, and Mavis Staples, and Indigo Girls, and all these amazing bands that have come played. The Family Stone. But they put on this music festival in the spring and in the fall and this really beautiful place out in Black Mountain called, Black Mountain, North Carolina, called Lake Eden. And then they do one in downtown Asheville in the summer. And that basically raises money for all of the work that I mentioned before that they do with cultures and with the youth.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. Nice. And we’ll talk more about your AIGA Asheville work a little bit later on in the interview. With everything that you do through Curve Theory, what gets you truly excited about your work?

Reggie Tidwell:
Man, I love to solve problems. Quite honestly. I love working with clients and trying to find out exactly what’s not working with them and helping come up with solutions that one, inspire and excite them. But then also they continue to propel me forward in my love of the work that I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now let’s dive a little bit into your personal story. You talk about this I think a bit on your website, but you grew up in St. Louis. Is that right?

Reggie Tidwell:
Born and raised?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Tell me about that.

Reggie Tidwell:
So I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I was raised mostly by my grandmother, an amazing dad too, that was also in the picture. But most of my time was spent with my grandmother, who was an educator. She taught for 36 years and she was a huge supporter of education. And so in the summers where all my friends were out playing and running around, I had to do homework before I could go out and join them.
And of course I hated it then, but on some level I understood the importance of it and it would come into play in many periods throughout my life, just being someone that is studious. I ended up testing the highest in the seventh grade in language and math in the entire school that I was in seventh.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
In seventh grade. Which that said a lot about my grandmother’s dedication and how she worked it with me, but it wasn’t with a heavy hand. She just understood that she wanted me… I grew up in a very, I would say mean, just put it bluntly. It was a poor neighborhood, lot of gang violence, a lot of break-ins and theft. And I saw some pretty horrific things in my own neighborhood, just in my own alley. It wasn’t a place that I wanted to definitely grow up and grow old.
And so education for me was the key of being able to get to a more ideal situation. So I wouldn’t say I was a first generation college student. My mother had a degree music, actually two. She had wanted music and art, possibly three maybe in education. But my grandmother, of course was educated. And so it set me on my path to discover who I really wanted to be in the world. I think you had mentioned very briefly what was it that made me choose this path of design? But all that didn’t come quite easily.
I ended up pretty much blowing away my first couple years in St. Louis at a junior college called Florissant Valley. I think I had a 1.9 GPA because I wasn’t inspired. I picked business administration because I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But you’re asking a 18 year old, 17 year old, 18 year old kid to decide what they want to do for the rest of their life. And yeah, of course I want to run a business. Oh yeah, business administration, that’s what you should do. But that’s such a broad topic. I wasn’t inspired.
I actually went from that student, at one point I was the student in the back of the class nodding off, not very inspired. The teacher would call on me and not only did I not know the answer to the question, I wouldn’t even know what the question was because I was probably asleep. So I ended up taking a break after four semesters of that, I said I got to do better. This isn’t going the way I wanted to go. So I ended up taking a semester off and really doing some deep diving and soul searching. I talked to my counselor at the school. I really thought long and heavy about what I liked and the things that I knew I liked were being creative. I was always drawing from the time I could hold a pencil, I was sketching and doodling. And so I always loved art. My mom was an artist, is an artist. And so that was an inspiration.
And so I went back to school. I decided at the time that I wanted to be an interior designer or a architect. And the path to both of those were mechanical drawing and a lot of drafting. And so that was all I needed to be inspired. I went from that student that I mentioned before to the student making the top score on every test in every class until I graduated. I went from a 1.9 GPA to a 3.2 GPA, graduated with honors and got my general transfer studies to go on to a four year college.

Maurice Cherry:
I know there’s that saying that goes, sometimes you have to do things that you don’t necessarily want to do to try to get to do the things that you do want to do. But I think also to that end, just from what you’re mentioning, that whole period of high school going into college, there’s so much pressure to try to decide exactly what it is you’re going to do. And I mean we also, I think have to put this in the context of just where the world was at this time. Because I’m guessing this is around early nineties. Early nineties.
And there was just this push, and I was mean I was in elementary school then, but I mean still there was this push to know exactly what it is that you’re going to do with your life at fairly early age. Look at the state of the world with what’s going on, what is it that you want to do? And for a lot of people it’s tough. I mean, even when I started out in college, I ended up switching majors because I thought I wanted to do one thing just based on societal norms and such. And then I was like, eh, I don’t really like it.

Reggie Tidwell:
I know. That’s a big part of it. I mean, thinking about it nowadays students take what they call a gap year. I am a firm supporter of that because I do feel like somebody that young needs to go out into the world a little bit and understand who they are. I mean, up to that point, they’ve just been a student studying all the basic electives. There’s nothing in that that would potentially produce career inspirations. Maybe you like math and maybe you like biology, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be a mathematician, or a scientist, or a biologist.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Reggie Tidwell:
So yeah, I feel like that would’ve served me well. But thankfully I was able to make that comeback and find that inspiration.

Maurice Cherry:
You ended up going to Maryville, University of St. Louis and there you studied graphic design. Talk to me about that time.

Reggie Tidwell:
So yeah, actually Maurice, I started, remember I said I was interested in just interior design or architecture. That’s what got me to Maryville because they actually had a nice interior design program. And I got there in those first two years I thrived. I was still inspired and I was still being a great student and loving the experience. But at one point I got, so the way Maryville’s program was set up at the time was you did all your art electives and got all those out of the way, and your art electives as well. You got those out of the way the first two years and then you dove into your concentration.
Right as I was about to make that transition, I talked to my counselor, Nancy Rice, at the time and I was like, I don’t know if I want to do interior design. I like the sketching part, I like the conceptualizing, but then it’s all floor plans and elevations and it gets super technical and that’s the part that’s where I get lost. And this particular teacher who, it is funny because I’ll tell you this in a second. She basically told me, Reggie, you’re great at computers. You love computers. I’ve been working on computers since I was 15. My grandmother bought me a Commodore 64 and I was programming in basic, I was playing games. I became very comfortable in that computer world. The nerd, the invention of the nerd. I took that as a compliment. She’s like, yeah, you’re big in the computers. And then she said, and you also love art, so you should consider graphic design.
And for me that was a new term. I hadn’t thought about it. And once I did the exploration and thought about it and understood what graphic design was and understood that I’d already seen it all around me all the time already and thought about how I could be someone contributing to that. Yeah, I was like, you’re exactly right. This is exactly what I want to do. And that’s where it started. I feel, I feel really fortunate that I’m someone who got a degree in something that I’m actually still doing.
I guess it was a few years ago, I reached out to her because we’re friends on Facebook. I thanked her. I didn’t remember if I’d ever thanked her, but my whole career came from that decisive moment where she told me about something I didn’t know about. And then I ran with it.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m trying to think, I’m trying to place this in time because we talked earlier about early nineties. So this is mid nineties or so.

Reggie Tidwell:
So this is mid nineties. Yep. Mid nineties. Actually…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When you said…

Reggie Tidwell:
…ended up graduating with my BFA in graphic design and December of ’97.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Tell me what it was studying design back then, because you also have the big advent of the personal computer. You’ve got the coming of the internet as we know it. What was it studying design during that time?

Reggie Tidwell:
Man, it was wild. I mean, first and foremost, we’re working on Apple Performs 4500s I think was the model number.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
And I mean these things were tanks and dinosaurs. You could have Photoshop open, only, or Illustrator, but not both. And if, we’re talking 32 megabytes of RAM and I mean lots of crashes, so you had to frequently save your work. We definitely did some cut and paste stuff because that was just not too far out of the rear view mirror that people were still making the migration to computer. So there was still a lot of manual cut and copy and paste, cut and paste design, lot of assemblage, a lot of that stuff was still going on. So of course it was part of our curriculum.
And I’ll tap into my photography side as well. I always find it a little bit of a, for me, I paid my dues. It was a rite of passage that I actually got to do photography. I got to take photos using film and understand the value of the frame and not just take in 450 shots and hoping there’s a good one in there. And then actually developing my film in the dark room, all that stuff was happening around the same time, which all feels of course very archaic now. But that was the start. That was what it was like back then.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean it sounds like it was just really hands on because the computer couldn’t do everything. I mean, it could do some things, but you still, like you said, have to do copy and paste, or cut and paste, or you still have to take photos and develop them yourself. It’s so wild now when I think about digital cameras, because I remember in high school having Fun Saver cameras. You go to the party, you have your Fun Saver camera, you take all kind of shots, you don’t know what you’re going to get back until you get it back from Eckerd or wherever that you got them developed at. But yeah, and I took a photography course back then too, so I know about developing in the dark room and stuff, which now seems… It’s funny. I’ll watch a movie or something and they always paint it as this, I don’t know, old school way of doing things. Developing. And it’s not that far away from now.

Reggie Tidwell:
No. No. And honestly it’s become of a niche for some people. I know a lot of people that actually I say a lot, but a handful of people that are still shooting film and still developing in that handful of dark rooms that are left. And it’s something, I think maybe they embrace it, not because they’re too stubborn to switch to digital, but it’s a craft for them. Some of them are people that have embraced digital, but they also still really love film. I admire that. I think it’s great. I don’t miss it. I don’t miss the smelling the smell of fixer and then and not knowing what you’re going to get until you are dropping it into the developer and hoping that you nailed it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I could imagine even doing design back then because computers were changing and software was changing and everything. Were there trends back then? I’m just curious because I feel like a lot of stuff still carried over from print, but were there specific graphic design trends that you remember from back then?

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I mean I think there was a time where decorative fonts were really starting to become prevalent. And you started, I mean this was quite honestly, I think this was when fonts like Hobo were actually still being used.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
Oh yeah, yeah. Papyrus. Yeah, I feel like there was a exploration… Fonts just exploded. And with the advent of the computer, fonts started off trickling in and then they exploded. And I think designers had to be really disciplined to not, I feel like most designers were going really far out and using all these crazy decorative fonts and still having their design disciplines about them. So they may only use one decorative font and a nice San Serif that balanced it. But those fonts were not elegant, at all. And it of course, depending on what you were trying to do with it. And I think what has happened, we’ve seen from a time where people were trying to get away from using the tried and true fonts, the Adobe Garamond, the Futura. People were feeling like those were overused or they were too basic and so they had to expand their typeface horizons. And then I find these days, man, some of the best brands go back to basics and are going back to some of those tried and true fonts and looking for things that are a little more elegant.

Maurice Cherry:
I didn’t even think about the proliferation of typefaces as something that was part of design back then, but it was. I mean really because you had, of course, greater displays that were coming out and you could just do more than what you could do with print in terms of the types of typefaces. You just had different things.

Reggie Tidwell:
I think that was it. I think it was so many people were used to doing manual print design and then all of a sudden you’ve got access to 3000 fonts. Hold me back.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
That’s exactly what it was.

Maurice Cherry:
So you graduate from Maryville. You’re out there in the real world as a designer. What was that early postgrad career like? Talk to me about that.

Reggie Tidwell:
So the first thing I did, so going back to that whole wanting to be an entrepreneur thing, that still was in me. I still definitely wanted to have my own business and I started actually working with clients before I graduated. I worked at Office Depot, so I met a lot of people and there were people coming in that needed business cards, but they were really awful designs that they had or they didn’t have one at all. And I said, “Well this is what I do.” So I started developing a clientele before I even graduated and then spent the first year postgrad being an entrepreneur, working in the basement of the apartment that I lived at in at the time, it was actually a townhome, doing branding work. And it was mostly just branding and identity systems that I was doing early on. But about a year into that, being someone that’s super social, I started to get that cabin fever and wasn’t around people as much as I’d like to be.
And so I had a side job working at Circuit City. On one particular day I was venting about, man, I really think I want to work in an agency or a company. And there was a guy by the name of Mike whose dad headed up a division of Lid Industries, which Lid is a Fortune 500 company and they had a division in St. Louis called PRC. The acronym got dissolved, so I don’t know what it ever originally meant, but it was in PRC. Anyway, they were hiring a resident graphic designer and at the time, you’ll appreciate this, in terms of historical relevance in the design and web design world. They had a Macromedia authorized training facility and I got the interview, got the job. They wanted me to teach Flash and Fireworks.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
So I ended up being the only guy in St. Louis teaching Flash through a Macromedia authorized program. And so that really just kicked off all kinds of just awesome awesomeness in my career.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I know you were in high demand back then. Cause Flash was everywhere. Everywhere.

Reggie Tidwell:
Everywhere and everything. And that was right at the onset of its popularity. So I stayed with that company for about a year, ended up, gosh, being in a big metropolitan area, teaching Flash was awesome. So I ended up getting hired away by a information graphics company called Xplain. And I ended up being their interactive team leader. That was pretty exciting. Did that, ended up teaching at Washington University while I was there because the Art and Design faculty at Washington University wanted to learn Flash. I did a summer workshop for the Art and Design faculty. They loved it so much they invited me to create a multimedia class as part of their visual communications curriculum based on Flash and other video and other multimedia applications. And that was amazing. And I ended up partnering with a lot of design agencies in the St. Louis area, fairly large agencies because they didn’t have a web team or division.
So that was cool. I ultimately got laid off from Xplain. They went through four rounds of layoffs. I went in the last round and because they still needed the work that I did, they became my first client. So that’s how I started Curve Theory in 2000, and or in 2001. It was just one of those things. I was still popular, the work was still necessary, the company was needing to make some pivots. And that was a blessing on my end because I always wanted to have my own business business. And that’s how it happened. I started, I launched Curve Theory with them as my first client 21 years ago.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I mean, I can’t think of a better way to roll into entrepreneurship like that. You were already super highly sought out for your design work in another medium. The company you’re working with goes out of business. You start your own business. That’s perfect. That’s a perfect handoff.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, it was. And they didn’t go out of business, thankfully. They did go back to their original, I think they grew to like 45 employees at one point, but they went back to the original 13 and they’re still around a day and they’re still thriving. But yeah, it’s getting kicked out of the nest but then given a nice little mattress to land on.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
It was great. And I really love St. Louis, but I definitely knew that at some point I was going to want to leave St. Louis.

Maurice Cherry:
So what brought you to North Carolina?

Reggie Tidwell:
So at the time, the woman that I was dating was also in that same head space that she was ready to leave St. Louis. I was still teaching in Washington University and then actually had just been encouraged by the design chair, the Art and Design faculty chair to apply for this tenure track position that was opening up in the Art and Design department. And so I was at this crossroads where in my heart I knew I really didn’t want to stay in St. Louis that much longer. Things… I had envisioned leaving St. Louis almost as soon as I graduated but things kept falling into place career wise, which was great because those things were setting me up. But at one point my partner and I, ex-partner and I, were having these frequent conversations about where we would ever relocate to and at one point I mentioned that a good buddy of mine had in passing talked about moving to North Carolina.
And so I asked her, “What do you know about North Carolina?” And she said, “Oh my god, Asheville. Asheville is absolutely amazing. You would love it. Check it out.” And of course, since we had the web then, I looked it up and I mean, I think within 20 minutes I knew it’s where I wanted to be. It wasn’t landlocked. There’s a four hour drive to the ocean. Mountains, waterfalls, streams everywhere. Hiking trails, mountain bike trails, you name it. That’s the kind of guy that I was. I mean, thankfully had a father who raised me. In the time I spent with him, we would go camping and hiking. And so early on I garnered a love or appreciation of the outdoors.

Maurice Cherry:
And so you had the job that allowed you to do this work from anywhere. So why not go to a place you really want to go?

Reggie Tidwell:
Absolutely. I actually, I had to finish that first semester at Washington University and then I had the whole spring semester. So this was in 2023. Loved that semester, loved my students. Finished that semester, turned in my grades in May and the following weekend was Memorial Day weekend. I’d literally moved a week after I turned in my grades and never looked back.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And you’ve been there ever since.

Reggie Tidwell:
And been here ever since.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You’ve been a part of the Asheville design community now for such a long time. You mentioned your community work earlier and you’re the founding president of AIGA Asheville, a new chapter. What was behind bringing an AIGA chapter to Asheville?

Reggie Tidwell:
That’s a great question, Maurice. So for me, one of the things I did mention that I was on the board for the St. Louis chapter in the mix there. I think I joined the chapter while I was, might have been while I was still at Lid in PRC, but I know I did two or three years on the board as their web chair for the St. Louis chapter. And I really love that community of design, the comradery, the people that you surround yourself with understand your day to day trials and tribulations, they get it. So that was, I really appreciated that as it pertained to the design community in St. Louis. And I got to Asheville and we didn’t have that. As a matter of fact, I was trying to find designers just to connect with, just to network with and they just weren’t around.
I think I had maybe three or four design friends at the time, but we knew there were more designers in and around the area, there just wasn’t anything in place to help bring them out. Out of the woodwork. And so we had a lot of early conversations about, I would reach out to these other designers that I knew in the area and tell them how much I wanted to have a chapter in Asheville, because the closest chapters were in Knoxville and Charlotte. It’s a couple hour drive each way in either direction. And so for me, just selfishly, I’m like, God, I want that here. I don’t want to drive two hours to have community. It took a while. Originally you had to have 40 sustaining members just to even be considered to have a chapter. And I think given the fact that we were having a hard time finding 20 designers in Asheville at the time, that was a tall order.
So we ended up creating this thing called Design Salon, which ended up being a hang for designers in the area. And the more people gathered, the more the work got spread out, and the more designers you realized were here. The more you understood that there were some really talented people that were in Asheville. And because Asheville is such a draw for people all over the world, somebody that’s here now probably wasn’t here two weeks ago. That’s how’s how it works. There was a woman named Jamie Farris who’s also a really good friend of mine that took Design Salon and started adding programming to it, and that made it even better. And so the more program she added, the better. The more it had an actual format instead of just being a creative hangout, the more I saw that we were there, it was time.
And so 2019 was when I had a feasibility meeting. I just called a bunch of people that I knew and they invited other people and I said, “Hey, I think it’s time to finally start a chapter.” I didn’t actually know the requirements had changed in my mind. I was still thinking 40 sustaining members. So half the way through, we learned that it was only 20 sustaining members, but we actually turned in our petition to become a chapter with 43 sustaining members, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice.

Reggie Tidwell:
Just because we are a little bit of a smaller city and I wanted to show how bad we really wanted to be a chapter.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
And from that first meeting I was able to build our first board of really awesome and engaged founding board members. So yeah, we started literally the year before the pandemic and have thrived through the pandemic and we’re still kicking it.

Maurice Cherry:
That is amazing. That’s amazing to hear that. And now when you say sustaining members, is that members at a particular membership tier? Because I feel like they had that at one… I feel like sustaining was one of the, if not the top, but one of the top tiers you have to have.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I think Design Leader was the one after that. I think the sustaining member was at the $250 giving level and then it went to Design Leader, which doubled to 500.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
And so that is, especially for a professional association, that was a lot to ask, but I was just elated that many people wanted it to and believed in us having a chapter that much that they signed up. We still have a tremendous amount of sustaining members. We probably have more sustaining members than we have in any other giving level. And they have changed the price structure and the names of the giving levels a bit. And so it’s, I think easier now than ever to join the AIGA and I feel like that was part of the reason behind just sort making it a little simpler, especially after the pandemic. But yeah, it’s quite wonderful to be in a city that now has a chapter. We have great programming. We’re putting on our first design weekend, which is a mini design week that’s coming up at the end of the month.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh. Very nice.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, first weekend of October, so it’s September 30th through October 2nd. Super excited about that. We got David Carson coming to speak at our annual meeting in November. That’s going to be pretty cool, Mr. Masterclass himself. So yeah, we’re happy to have a chapter and we’re happy to be able to have such a positive impact on our design community and that means everything for me.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career and all your experiences, is this how you imagine yourself when you were a kid in St. Louis?

Reggie Tidwell:
No, not at all. And it’s funny because I think being a kid in St. Louis and growing up where I grew up, I feel like my grandmother knew and saw my potential, but I didn’t see it because it’s hard. I’m surrounded by the things that I was surrounded by. And I think it’s hard to see the forest through the trees when you’re in that scenario. And for me, I don’t think, honestly, I still get surprised. I think at some point in your life, Maurice, when you’ve accomplished a lot, when you’ve done a lot, when you’ve had this longevity of experiences and learning, at some point you start to realize that people see that in you and they see all the experience and all the leadership and the guidance and they start to seek it out.
I get called to be on boards, I turned down probably seven board positions last year. I’m publicly a leader. And so I think it still surprises me sometimes where, and I think it also surprises me that sometimes somebody asks me a question and I think I’m still that 25 year old in school and still on his path figuring things out, and learning, and discovering. But then I start to answer, I hear the question and then my head just gets filled with all of this relevant information that you don’t even really think about. You’re not just sitting around thinking about all the stuff, but when someone calls and asks for mentoring or it’s a colleague you’re just shooting a breeze with. You start to realize how much of that stuff is in there and it’s quite amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
What gives you purpose to keep doing the work that you do now?

Reggie Tidwell:
I think for me it’s those relationships and experiences. I’ve always said that if I won the lottery and had all the money that I would ever need, I would still be a designer. I would still do design, I would just do mostly nonprofit work, and do it pro bono, and just take a select number of projects a year. I love the work, I’m passionate about the work, and I’m passionate about the people that I get to work with. I’m very particular about the clients. If a client doesn’t seem like they’re the right fit or I’m not going to have a mutually enjoyable experience, then I’ll pass on a project. And I’m pretty thankful to be in a place in my career where I can do that.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give for someone who, they’re listening to this interview, they’re hearing how you’ve come up throughout your career. What advice would you give somebody that wants to follow in your footsteps?

Reggie Tidwell:
I would say, and I talk to young people all the time, I actually mentor. And the thing that I feel like is the most important is to really keep exploring who you are and what you like, and don’t follow the money. I feel like it’s very easy to, I’ll talk back to a time in my life when I worked at Office Depot when I was Florissant Valley in Junior College, I was asked to get into the managerial track at Office Depot where at the time I might have made, once becoming a manager, I may have made $35,000 or $30,000, which at the time seemed like a lot of money. And that’s a very easy distraction. That’s a very easy temptation. And I had a friend at the time who also was a really, really talented artist. He also was wanting to go to design school.
He ended up getting in that track and hated it. It just completely dominated his life. He wasn’t fulfilled. The money at some point wasn’t even relevant because he never had time to spend any of it because he worked so much. I turned it down because I knew, I think at this point I was already at Maryville University, so I was already in the graphic design program. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. So in order to get to that point, you have to do some self exploration. You have to understand who you are, what it is that you really value and set your sites on being able to do that for a living. And don’t waiver.

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

Reggie Tidwell:
Man, I would love to retire in five years. I’m 51. So that’s definitely a tall order, but in a perfect world, I might completely crush it for the next five, six years or so and retire early, or at least partially retire. But I do see myself in leadership. I do see myself still trying to bring positive change to communities in whatever way I can. Through social justice, through design leadership, through, I’ve hinted at the thought of being, it’s been mentioned and it’s been a internal conversation and conversation I’ve had with colleagues about the AIGA trajectory, and perhaps maybe serving on a national board at some point. I have friends on the national board. I love the organization and I love what the organization provides to the design community. And I always see its potential is limitless and to be able to serve in that world at a higher level, definitely. But yeah, that’s probably something that I would look to within my five year trajectory. And more than anything, I always want to make sure that the work that I’m doing continues to be meaningful.

Maurice Cherry:
I think you should definitely consider it. I mean, I’ve done work at the volunteer level, at the national level, and it’s great. It’s been great. I highly think you should do it. And I’m sure other people have probably mentioned this to you as well, but there’s a book in your story. There’s a hundred percent a book in your story.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I don’t know if anyone’s outright said that, but I definitely know there’s stuff in there that I always find it intriguing to look back in my past and see where I’ve been, and where I am, and how I’ve been inspired, and how I’m now able to inspire. That all is important to me. But yeah, thanks for saying that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, there’s a hundred percent a book in your story. I mean, one, I think just because of how you have managed yourself through how design and technology have changed, but then also I think your personal story added in as a layer on top of that. And with the work that you’re doing now through volunteering and giving back, that’s the best seller. You might want to think about it. You might want to think about it. I’m just saying I’m putting it out there.

Reggie Tidwell:
Thanks. You’ll get their first copy for sure.

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

Reggie Tidwell:
Absolutely. So curvetheory.com. C-U-R-V-E-T-H-E-O-R-Y dot com is my commercial website. There is a link to my print work on there, which yeah, prints are great, but if you want to see the bulk of my commercial photography, landscape stuff, nature, and cityscapes, that’s a good place to go. I also am on Instagram Curve Theory on Instagram. And there I don’t really put a whole lot of design work on. I do have a separate account that I’m hoping to start building up my, putting all my design work on, but really photography… Years ago I had a mix of photography and design and it always just felt all over the place for me. And one of the things I always noticed when I go to other Instagram accounts and I see these really nicely curated feeds that everything just, there’s something nice about the continuity and you’re like beautiful landscapes, and then there’s a logo. It just feels odd placed. And so I took all my design stuff off of there and it’s just my photography on my Instagram account. But those are the best places to find me. And I’m also on LinkedIn. Reggie Tidwell on LinkedIn.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, Sounds good. Well, Reggie Tidwell, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, of course, like I just mentioned about there’s a book in you, your story and the passion and the service that you’ve given back to the design community is something that I think is really inspiring for a lot of people. Certainly your local community. But I hope that people that listen to this interview also pick up on that as well, because you mentioned being raised by your grandmother and her being a teacher, those values that she instilled in you, you’re continuing to give those back out to the community, which are really the basis of your success. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Reggie Tidwell:
Hundred percent agree about my grandmother, and thank you so much for having me on, Maurice. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

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Steenz

If you have been a listener of the show for a while, then you know I love cartoons and animation. So having a chance to sit down with this week’s guest, Steenz, was a lot of fun. Steenz is one of the few Black women syndicated cartoonists in mainstream funny pages for her work on “Heart of the City”, and her work on previous titles has netted her several coveted awards, including the Eisner Award, in the cartoon industry.

We talked about her picking up the torch from Mark Tatulli for “Heart of the City”, and she walked me through her creative process for starting on new projects. She also talked how she first got into comics, her teaching at Webster University, and one of her dream projects — a re-imaginging of Encyclopedia Brown! Keep an eye out for Steenz — I think we’ll be seeing her work in the world for years and years to come!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Steenz:
My name is Steenz, and I’m a cartoonist and editor and professor of comics.

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

Steenz:
So far, we’re still in the pandemic. So, we’re doing the best we can on that front. But in terms of work, pretty good, still working on Heart of the City as well as my new graphic novel. We just started the production on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about Heart of the City. What’s it about?

Steenz:
So, Heart of the City is a comic strip that had been going on since 1999. So, the original creator, Mark Tatulli, he wrote it back then and had been doing the art form and writing for it for the following 21 years or so. And so, he decided to retire and the syndicate, Andrews McMeel, decided to, instead of retiring the entire comic, to get a new artist and take the story to a new place for 2020.

Steenz:
Heart is about a young girl named Heart Lamarr who lives with her single mom in Philly. And so, the stories are about her and her friends’ lives as they grow up through middle school.

Maurice Cherry:
And how has it been inheriting such a well-known comic like that?

Steenz:
It was super intimidating to begin with just because if you pick up something that’s been going on for 20 years, that’s a long time to kind of make a name for yourself and really put in the backstory into a comic. And so, it was intimidating to jump on and start anew especially since my background was traditional comics like single-issue comics and graphic novels and not so much syndicated comic strips which are definitely a bit more… You have dimensions that you have to work with. You have types of terms of phrase that you can work with.

Steenz:
So, it was definitely a lot to get used to at the very beginning. But thankfully, my editor, she had a lot of confidence in me and rightly so because I ended up getting on the train pretty quickly. So, I didn’t really have anything to worry about in terms of actually doing comic strips.

Steenz:
Well, that’s good. I mean I think it’s one thing to slip into something that’s kind of well known already has an environment built around and then trying to discover that as you go. But I’m curious how have readers been taking it? What’s the reception been like?

Steenz:
Yeah. It’s a little hard to tell. Syndicated comics, the way they work, typically, you don’t really see them going one and done. They usually are comics that last for a very long time. And, usually, the creator is the same for a very long time, and it was the same thing for Mark Tatulli 20 years. And so, the fan base is definitely not one to greet change very nicely, I guess, is the best way to put it.

Steenz:
When you work with a graphic novel or a single issue comic, there’s so many ways and avenues for someone to read your book whether they picked it up from a comic book store or Barnes & Noble to whether a teacher recommended it or a friend recommended it, whether they read it right when it came out or years after. You always have so many different kinds of people that tell you this is what they thought of the book whether it’s on panels or over Twitter or anything like that.

Steenz:
But when it comes to syndicated comics because they are so specifically in newspapers, really, the only way for you to read it is if you are reading that the newspaper that has purchased that comic or if you are reading it on gocomics.com which doesn’t really have a very well-moderated comment section. And so, like I was saying about the fans who are not very welcoming to change, that’s pretty much where you’re going to see that.

Steenz:
So, I don’t usually go on to go comics because why head towards negativity, right? But I’m not really sure what people think of it. Occasionally, someone will come up and say like, “Oh, this is really good,” or if they like this arc. And that’s really nice to hear. But I think I’m going to find out more what people think about it when it’s collected and more widely available.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good idea. Never read the comment section.

Steenz:
I know. I know. It’s just like it’s so strange because the kinds of things that they had issues with was not even like in terms of storytelling. It’s just because I’m not Mark Tatulli. There weren’t even any real issues people had except for the fact that I wasn’t him.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, some of the other titles and comics that you’ve worked on include Rolled and Told, Witchy, Archival Quality, Quincredible. What do you sort of remember the most from each of those titles?

Steenz:
Well, they’re all very, very different in that how I’m attached to them. So, Rolled and Told, Witchy, Quincredible, those are all books that I’ve edited. So, my connection to those are in the form of I need to get the story out in the most effective way possible, so that not just the writer is happy, but also it is an entertaining read for people.

Steenz:
Meanwhile, Archival Quality was the first graphic novel that I did with my co-creator, Ivy Noelle Weir, and that, it took us many, many years to complete as graphic novels do. So, I also had a huge hand in creating these characters and creating their mannerisms and how they interact with each other in addition to the storytelling that Ivy brought to it. So, it’s just an entirely different process, and I definitely feel a lot closer to Archival Quality than I do to the other books for that reason.

Maurice Cherry:
So, with some of the work that you’re doing now, it sounds like you work in different roles. Sometimes, you’re editing. Sometimes, you’re creating. Let’s say from the creation process like, say, you’ve got an idea for, I don’t know, a comic or a strip or something like that, what does that process look like to go from start to finish?

Steenz:
I think it really depends on if it is something that’s longer or something that’s relatively short. For example, so, the other night, my husband and I, we have been watching the Riddick universe movies because we love them, and I was thinking as I saw him working the next day, that he was on the Riddick IMDb page. And so, in my head, I was like, “he’s still thinking about Riddick.”

Steenz:
And later in the day, my husband was like, “I’ve been thinking about when Riddick 4 comes out,” and I’m just like, “I need to know when we’re going to see it.” And then, he reminded me of this meme that’s going around where this woman is in bed with her husband, and she’s like, “I bet he’s thinking about other women,” and in his head is like whatever the punchline is, is what he’s actually thinking about.

Steenz:
And so, I was like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I did a comic where we’re sitting in bed and my head is I bet he’s thinking about Chronicles of Riddick 2004 and the punchline is [Kia 00:11:28] is thinking when does Riddick 4 come out.” So, it’s like on the one hand, a lot of my jokey strips come from just conversations that I have with my husband or things that I see online, and I want to make a joke about or a situation that I thought was hilarious and wanted to share with others.

Steenz:
Meanwhile, if it’s something for like Heart of the City, I think about an entire storyline, okay. So, if they’re going to theater camp, what’s something that they’re going to get out of going to theater camp? What is Heart going to get out of it? And so, then I think, “Okay. Well, if she’s going to get an idea of knowing when to stand up for something versus how to pick your battles and how can I show that kind of story,” and then, I’m just break it down further and further and further to how does the story get played out, which part of the story is going to be my Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

Steenz:
And then, also remembering how am I going to make sure that this punch line is delivered as well because, for the most part, comic strips do have to be funny as well. So, it really just depends. If it’s something longer, if it’s something short, I just wait for inspiration to come pretty much. I’m just thankful that I get inspired by a lot of different things. I have a lot of different hobbies. I watch a lot of different types of media. I played different kinds of games. I read all kinds of books. So, I think I’m always going to have something to pull from when I’m creating these stories whether it’s real life or other people’s creations.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting that, I don’t know, decomposition is a part of the process to start with something bigger and then break it down because it almost feels like it would be the opposite.

Steenz:
That’s what most people think. But I always say that work smarter not harder. It’s very scrooge things to say, Scrooge McDuck thing to say. But it’s true because if your idea is this magnum opus of a story that spans hundreds of years and goes across all space and time, where do you begin? So, you have to deconstruct to even find a starting point.

Steenz:
So, usually, when I’m working with my students or with clients, I really like to get to the base of the story. I know you want to tell a story about this witch and her interactions with her brother. But what’s the conflict? Who is the person? Let’s get down to the bare, bare bones and get it as deconstructed as possible. And then, we can build on top of that because if you go the other way around, what you’re going to do is you’re going to fill in the space with things that you think will solve plot holes. But you don’t get that problem if you start small and add on to it because you can always go back and say, “Well, if I add this, how is it going to interact with everything else that I’ve already created?” It’s just so much easier to start smaller and go bigger than the other way around.

Maurice Cherry:
Great advice. I like that. That’s really good. So, you’re based in St. Louis. Is that where you grew up also?

Steenz:
So, I was actually born in Detroit, and we moved into St. Louis when I was around 10 years old. So, I did go to high school in St. Louis, and that’s pretty much all you need in order for anyone from here to know that, “Oh, you’re from St. Louis.”

Maurice Cherry:
Is St. Louis a big comic city?

Steenz:
Yes and no, I guess. we don’t really have a comic convention that comes to the city that isn’t wizard world. But wizard world is great value conventions. [crosstalk 00:14:57] better than it is. But there was a lot of comic book stores here. There are a lot of creators here. Marie Enger lives here. Matt Kent, Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurt, there’s a lot of creators that are here in the St. Louis greater area.

Steenz:
So, I always felt like I had something to go to whether it was ink and drink or a collective to put out comics with or drawing groups. So, I never felt like I didn’t have that sort of thing. The only thing that St. Louis lacked was corporate “jobs” around comics. There wasn’t a publisher for me to work at. In New York, there’s publishers on every corner. And when you have a very specific industry comic books, they’re just not going to be in every single city. So, yes and no for St. Louis. Yes and no.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. It’s interesting as kids, we’re exposed to so much animation and comics and cartoons and everything. When did you start making comics?

Steenz:
I didn’t start making comics until I was an adult. I was 21, 20 when I started making comics because that was never an option for me, not because I didn’t think it was something I couldn’t do. It was something that never occurred to me. And when you don’t see something, you just don’t believe it. If someone’s like, “Why don’t you be a comic book creator?” It’s like, “What?” What black women comic book creators are there? Especially when you’re nine years old and you’re watching Justice League, the idea that that’s something you could do growing up just isn’t there unless you see it.

Steenz:
And I never saw it which is why I didn’t even go to a comic book store until I was an adult as well. I didn’t really believe that they existed because I never saw them where I live. So, I started my interest in fandoms and comics industry. I really, really loved superhero comics. I loved reading standalone graphic novels. I was hugely into manga growing up as well. That sort of thing has always been a part of my life. I remember the first purchase that I could have ever made on my own was choosing which shoes I wanted to buy at Payless, and I chose the Sailor Moon shoes.

Steenz:
So, on the one hand, I’ve always been attached to entertainment. But on the other hand, it was never something that I considered as a career until I dropped out of college, and I saw people doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of college, and I don’t know maybe you just answered my question, I mentioned that you dropped out. But what was it like there? You went to Maryville University of St. Louis.

Steenz:
Yeah. I mean I like the college experience. I like not living with my parents and getting drunk and meeting new people and figuring out who I am as a person. That’s the college experience. But did it prepare me for comics? No. I mean I would say it prepared me for nothing. I think with college, you really need to know what you want before you go. So many kids, they’re 16, 17, 18 years old when they’re told to go to college and figure out a career for the rest of their lives. But they don’t even know who they are. And when you’re that young, you don’t even know what the right questions are to ask.

Steenz:
I was in the art department, and I knew that I liked drawing, and I liked reading comics. And the question of what do I do with this, how do I succeed at this, what can I do with my talents, those sort of questions, you just don’t know to ask when you’re that young. I went because I was supposed to go. That’s what you do when you graduate high school in the suburbs. You go to college, and that’s what I did.

Steenz:
But as I went and as it was getting more and more expensive, and I don’t come from money, so it was all financial aid and figuring out what I could afford. And at a point, it was like this is getting too expensive for me to pay on my own, and they’re not really helping me with any sort of direction. So, I’m leaving. What’s the point of me staying here? So, that’s when I just got into the industry and just started working. So, I was working at Victoria’s Secret. I was working at a Hallmark Store. I was working at all these different part-time jobs just to make ends meet.

Steenz:
And eventually, I ended up getting a job at the local comic book store, and that’s where things started to take a turn was when I was more exposed to creators and the actual process of creating comics and selling comics. I was in comics retail for four years. I was a manager there. So, I learned a lot about how to sell a comic, and what sort of things you need in order to be successful in the comics industry. And so, all of that knowledge was there, and that’s where I got it from the actual job of being in a comic shop. So, no. College did not help, not that it can’t help because I do teach cartooning at college.

Steenz:
until we get to a point where college is not a money farm, I don’t know if we’re going to find a lot of programs that are appropriately preparing kids for the real world. The fact that a lot of colleges don’t have a mandatory this is how you do taxes course, tells me enough. So, hopefully, when people are going back to school or they finally decided that they do want to get that education, if they decide to get it Webster University, you’ll have me as a professor, and I’ll teach you the basics of cartooning. But for me, it was I had to be hands-on because that’s all that there was.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s a great point about knowing what it is that you want to do once you sort of get to college. For me, I went to an HBCU. I went to Morehouse. And even when I was choosing my major, initially, I went because I had a scholarship. And then, I was going to do computer science, computer engineering and started out doing it, but really wanted to make websites.

Maurice Cherry:
And I remember my advisor telling me like, “If this is what you want to do, you need to change your major because the internet is a fad.” I should mention this this is in 1999. So, the internet literally just was starting to become a thing, and people really didn’t know the depth or breadth of what could be done on the internet. And I switched majors to something that I liked which was math which probably sounds weird to say. But I went-

Steenz:
No. [crosstalk 00:21:19] math too.

Maurice Cherry:
I went all through college and majored in math. But by the time I graduated, I had nothing lined up at all because I didn’t want to go to graduate school which was really the only thing that my major was sort of preparing me for was to be a professional, not a professional mathematician, but to at least go to graduate school. That was the next stop, and I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t want to do that.” I did 12 years of school plus four years of this. I’m done with school right now, and they’re like, “Oh, well. Good luck. There was nothing to do.” I also did a bunch of just retail jobs and customer service jobs before I ended up falling into my first sort of design position. And even then, yeah, it was sort of you learn on the job because, unfortunately, you didn’t really pick it up in college.

Steenz:
I mean you also learn what you like by finding out what you don’t like.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s the truth.

Steenz:
I mean when I was in school, the art program was studio art graphic design or interior design. I knew for sure I wasn’t interested in interior design, and I didn’t know if I was interested in graphic design because all I knew is that I like to draw, and I like to use a tablet to do it. So, does that mean I need to get into graphic design since they focus on digital work while studio art focuses on gallery art?

Steenz:
And so, I went to graphic design thinking, “Well, this is probably the right direction, since I use a digital tablet to draw my comics or my illustrations.” And then, I get there, and it’s just, “Oh, this is all just working for somebody else. This looks shit. I don’t want to do this at all.” I went back to studio art. But now that I’m back in the studio art is like, “How am I supposed to be using my digital illustration in this course that is trying to teach me watercolor and oil paint which I like?” It’s fine. But it is not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Steenz:
So, yeah, that’s why I think it’s so important for people to actually just go out and work. Everyone needs to do at least one retail job, one food service job so that, A, you know how to treat people who take those jobs and then also so that you can find out is this something that you’re passionate about. What did you like about being in retail? What did you like about working in food service, because what I liked about being in retail was to be able to actually hear what someone wants and to help them get what they want to get.

Steenz:
So, while I may have been a beauty lead at Victoria’s Secret, yes, cool. I learned about makeup. But I also found out what people wanted to see when they put on makeup, what they’re looking for when it comes to their skin care, actually having those conversations with people and figuring out what they needed. And I think that sort of thing led me towards being a better editor and teacher because I can actually hear what people are saying and figure out what are you getting, what are you not getting, what can I help you with?

Steenz:
So, in a way, even the jobs that you don’t think are going to be stepping stones to your future. They are. Everything you do matters which is why I’m like, “So, be careful when it comes to taking out life-altering loans.”

Maurice Cherry:
I tell people sometimes that your expertise is sometimes the sum of your experiences. It may not necessarily just be, “Oh, I went to this school, then this school, and that.” It’s a lot of things just like you mentioned. It’s food service. It’s retail. It’s things outside of what you think you want to do that end up informing your overall view of what it is that you want to do. [crosstalk 00:24:47]

Steenz:
And then, everything moves forward as well. So, I was doing four years at comics retail. And so, yes, I had experience with retail management. But I also had experience with books and learning about the BISAC codes and the reason things are produced a certain way so that they fit on shelves. That information and knowing about doing events for the store, that’s community event building. That’s event organization. All of that information helped me be a better librarian. All of my information about being a librarian helped me to be a better marketing person at a publisher.

Steenz:
All that marketing knowledge, all that library knowledge, all that retail knowledge helped me be a better editor because I knew what was already out there, and what works, and what doesn’t work, and why. So, it’s like everything that you do leads to something else. You just have to trust the process that things will work out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, eventually, you ended up working for a comic book, a publishing company. But in 2019, you struck out on your own as a cartoonist. Talk to me about that.

Steenz:
Yeah. So, that was really scary because when you’re used to getting an income from a W-2 stable income, it’s scary to have to be your own boss. So, that is something that I always want to tell people that it is not not going to be scary. It’s okay to be stressed because it’s stressful. When you are a freelancer, there’s a lot of stuff you have to take care of. But I knew that there were certain things that I wanted to do.

Steenz:
I was talking to, I consider her, my editorial mentor. I don’t know if she knows it. But she was saying, “What’s something that you want to do when you wake up in the morning? What’s something that you know that you want to do every day, not a job title, not a company you don’t work for? What’s something you want to do?” And so, I said, “I want to make comics. I want to continue to edit comics because I love helping people bring their visions to life.”

Steenz:
And I also want to teach because I’ve done a bunch of different kinds of workshops and getting people to understand comics. But the reason I want to teach is because I want to open that door for more people to get into the industry because it is so difficult, and she was like, “Then, that’s what you need to do. That’s what you need to find a way to make lucrative so that you can keep a roof over your head and work that way.”

Steenz:
And so, I first started off by doing editorial pitches. I was helping people with their pitch PDFs and giving them editorial feedback on not just the story but also the entire pitch as a whole. And so, for the first part of my freelance life was that last half of 2019 was a lot of that doing a ton of editorial for small publishers, for individuals, for groups who were working on magazines and then also doing comics for magazines, illustrations for businesses.

Steenz:
So, I was doing a lot of things that I was already doing while I was working at the publisher and while I was working at the library. But now, they’ve just moved into the forefront, and I’ve just been doing even more of that because there was a lot of stuff that I would turn down because I was busy. I had a job. I can’t just say yes to every creative endeavor that comes to me. But also, I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted. When I was working at the library, when I was working as an editor, I loved it. I loved editing comics. I loved helping people, and I did not ever think, “Man, the goal for me is to be my own boss.” That was never my goal.

Steenz:
I was like, “If I can find a way to get a steady pay in for the rest of my life, and I can still make comments on the side, that would be ideal.” So, yeah, it was never my goal to just be a freelancer because that’s a lot of work, and I don’t like doing a lot of work, I mean in the nicest way possible. When I finally started doing freelance, it was a lot. It was very hard, and I’m really thankful that I have an agent, and I’ve been able to get so many different opportunities from not just illustration but editorial opportunities.

Steenz:
And I even had someone say, “Hey, I can’t teach this class at Webster because he got a promotion.” And so, because of his promotion, he couldn’t teach one of the classes, the cartooning class at Webster. And he saw that I had a lot more free time now, and he reached out to me, and he said, “Would you want to teach the cartooning class?”

Steenz:
And so, that’s how I ended up with my job at Webster University which is another thing that they don’t tell you in school, is that you don’t have to go to school to be a college professor. You just need to have the experience. And so now, that’s what I do. I teach cartooning, and I edit freelance. And then, I also do my art as well.

Maurice Cherry:
So, yeah. Let’s talk about Webster University in your class. Tell me about it.

Steenz:
Yeah. So, I teach cartooning which is the class you have to take before comic-book making. So, it is a prerequisite course. You learn about the basics, basics, basics of comics. I mean we’re talking about simplifying your illustrations to one panel comics to silent comics, to strip comics and not only do I teach them the basics and the fundamentals of cartooning. But I also teach them tools that they’ll need to succeed in the future. So, whether it’s taxes or a little bit of knowledge about copyright law, just those kinds of things that will help them when they get out there.

Steenz:
Anytime I think about my college experience, I just get so mad that I wasn’t prepared more. And so, I do the best I can to prepare them for what I can whenever we have the time in between big sections in my class.

Maurice Cherry:
What do your students teach you?

Steenz:
Man, honestly, how to be funnier. Honestly, I laugh so much not at my students but with my students because they’re just… I don’t know. It’s nice to see young creatives because they have not yet been brought down by the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Fair. Yeah.

Steenz:
And it’s depressing to say it. But that’s what it is. So many times during the finals which is to create an a 10-strip booklet, so, it’ll have 10 comics. They have an overarching theme. They individually can stand on their own. But they all go together. With that project, I find so many fascinating stories, so many different styles, so many ways to story tell that it’s nice to know that the knowledge is all there. It’s easy for anyone to make comics if they put their mind to it.

Steenz:
So, there’s so many students that come in and like, “I can’t draw, or I don’t know if I have the right tools to make a comic book.” And I just want to be like, “You’re starting too far ahead. Just think about storytelling. Think about what makes you laugh. Think about how words interact with images. That kind of baseline thinking is all you need to make comics. And if you slow down and you put your sights right, you can create some pretty incredible stuff without even realizing it.

Steenz:
I’ve read some comics that I just loved. And no, they were not Michelangelo’s David in terms of illustration. But it didn’t have to be, and that’s one of the best parts about comics, is you don’t have to know how to draw, be an incredible draftsman. You don’t have to have created comics for 20 years to be able to make comics. And I’m reminded of that every time I teach.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine, like you say, what I sort of get from this conversation with you so far is that you really have this immense capacity for helping people. And like you said, you really love to make people bring their vision to life. And so, I can see how teaching would be sort of a natural extension of that.

Steenz:
Yeah. I mean I someone to walk away with something when they finish their interaction with me. So, if I’m teaching them comics, I want them to be able to walk away feeling a little more confident that they could make comics, or if I am editing them, I want them to walk away feeling like they’re a better writer after they’ve worked with me than they were before.

Steenz:
If someone’s reading my comics, I want them to walk away with that was funny and gave me an iota of happiness for a half second. And so, it’s just like I want people to get something out of things because I guess it may just be my history of going to school and feeling like I wasted a lot of time because I didn’t really have a direction. That’s why I always feel like I need to make sure that you get something out of this especially if you’re a student, especially if you go to any college, they’re not cheap. If you get a scholarship, that’s great. But they are not cheap. You cannot deny how much money people are putting into these schools. And so, I want to make sure that they get something out of it because there is nothing that infuriates me more than people wasting their money.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, one thing that I’ve mentioned before we started recording that I’ve had a few cartoonists and artists and such on the show before. And something that we always end up talking about in some respects is representation which I think something it’s a huge thing right now, I think, especially as people look at comics and animation not as a juvenile thing. But it’s just another medium to tell stories. It feels like representation always sort of comes into that conversation particularly within the past, I don’t know, year or so that the larger world has woken up to the fact that black lives matter and all this sort of stuff. Do you ever feel like that you have to sort of “represent” in the work that you do?

Steenz:
No. I feel like I have to just represent myself. And the more authentic I am, the better that is for younger people who look to me because when I was growing up, I’m sure we have a similar… Anyone that likes anime and manga or punk music or alt style, that sort of thing, oftentimes, isn’t really embraced in black families.

Steenz:
For me, it’s really nice to be my authentic self so that people who do not feel like they are enough or doing the right things the right way to show that their way is the right way. There’s always this question of like, ‘Well, I don’t know if I’m black enough because I don’t listen to X, Y, Z or I read manga a lot or whatever.” And I it’s like that’s not the way it has to be, like, “Are you black? Yes. Do you read? Manga. Yes. Okay. Well, then you’re a black manga reader.”

Steenz:
So, I think for me, I’m not really trying to represent blackness as a whole. I’m trying to represent authenticity and knowing that who you are is who you are, and that’s why you are who you are. I don’t know. I know that sounds crazy. But I mean I don’t know. I want people to feel okay in their own skin. And oftentimes, that happens when you see authentic stories. And so, for me, if someone is, for example, one of the strips that I did for Heart of the City was Charlotte and Dean are supposed to be watching the stream of the Street Fighter competition, and she forgot that she had wash day on Sunday.

Steenz:
So, she’s got to get her hair done all while holding up her phone so that she could still watch the stream so that she and Dean has something to talk about. So, the story was just really cute where she’s like, “Mom, watch gently,” and she’s trying to get her hair blow-dried, and she’s like, “Oh, I can’t believe that guy isn’t even blocking.” She’s just being herself. She’s doing the things that she likes to do. She likes to watch Street Fighter competitions, and she’s also black which means she also has to do wash day every once in a while.

Steenz:
And so, when you do that sort of storytelling, it shows people who are not black that we are just like everybody else. Yes, we have these cultural things that we must do like wash day. But also, you can catch me watching Twitch to see who’s doing the best when it comes to Street Fighter. I think it’s important to just be yourself, be authentic, and that is enough to show people that there is more than the stereotypes. There’s more than the box that you think you have to be in.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s a good point. I like that. I need a wash day myself actually now that I’m thinking of that.

Steenz:
Oh my god. I’ve been just putting gel to hold it back. So, I’m like, “Hold on, guys. I just…”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve been holding off because I’m like, “Do I want to do this in the middle of the week or do I want to wait till the weekend?”

Steenz:
I know. I know.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a pain.

Steenz:
[crosstalk 00:38:16] in the weekend, then, you feel like you wasted a large part of your weekend.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. That’s true. I don’t know. I’ll figure it out anyway. [crosstalk 00:38:25] Yeah. So, do you have a dream project that you would love to do one day or that you would love to work on?

Steenz:
Yes. So, I actually started on this dream project, and I believe that’s what got me in my job at as Heart of the City. I want to do a retelling of Encyclopedia Brown as a comic. Do you remember that book?

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. First of all, yes. I am very much of the mind that Encyclopedia Brown is black, very much so. I mean his first name is Leroy. So, I’m like, “Come on. He’s got to be black.” But no. Go ahead. I didn’t interrupt you. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Steenz:
Yeah. So, I want to do Encyclopedia Brown. And back in 2019 when I had all this free time, [crosstalk 00:39:10] I literally was like, “I have no excuse for not doing this mini-comic. I have no excuse at all.” It was before I was too busy, I got work, I’m too tired. But now, it’s like, “What are you waiting for? What are you waiting for?”

Steenz:
So, I just made a mini-comic where I took one of Encyclopedia Brown stories. And the only thing that I changed was that Encyclopedia Brown was a black girl, and they kept everything else so their turn of phrase definitely still sounds like they’re in the ’60s even though they’re dressed today. So, I was leaning towards that whole Romeo plus Juliet Baz Luhrmann style where it’s current, but they’re also using older turn of phrase. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Steenz:
And so, I made that mini-comic, and I loved it, and it was so much fun. And I want to be able to do a full book of those. But I sold that mini-comic at SPX. And at SBX, was the editor of Heart of the City, and she saw that. And I think me showing the retellings and the re-imaginings that I really, really love to do, once I actually did them because I love to do them, people saw them, and they saw the Heart went into it, and it led to bigger and better things.

Steenz:
So, yeah, my goal is to make an Encyclopedia Brown comic. I definitely want to do that. I also have a comic that’s been on the back burner for a while. It’s a comic about how to buy a house as a freelancer which is super, super important because it’s hard out there, and it’s especially hard when you’re in the creative field, and you’re trying to prove to people that you’re legit, and you actually make money. So, that’s another thing. I’ve got all sorts of comic goals and whatnot. But I’m working on a graphic novel right now. I have to pace myself.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I think both of those ideas are great. I mean I would love to see that retelling of Encyclopedia Brown. And actually even as you mentioned that how-to comic, it sort of reminded me of these sort of comic explainers that you see. I see them sometimes on the Nib or on similar types of publications. And those are super helpful.

Steenz:
I love that.

Maurice Cherry:
I was a freelancer.

Steenz:
[crosstalk 00:41:30] favorite things.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was a freelancer for a long time and renting. And I’m still renting now. But I do, at one point, want to have my own separate little studio space whether that’s a house or whatever and like, “Yeah, it’ll be good to know what that process is like.” And now, as comics and things are being seen as more of a medium to tell stories, that’s a great way to do it.

Steenz:
Yeah, for sure. And I think those are the kinds of things that I really like to do. I mean I like telling goofy one-off stories. But the non-fiction stuff is the stuff that really excites me because I get to really break down information in the easy-to-understand way. That’s the goal, is to make it so that it’s easy for anybody to be able to do because it can be done. You just have to know the information. And for you, if you want to buy a house, the best advice that I can give you is to, once you decide you want to buy a house, give yourself two years before you apply because the first thing that a loan person is going to want to see is that you have stable income from the past two years.

Steenz:
So, if that’s getting all your 1099s together, making sure you’re completely organized when it comes to the money coming in and the money going out, if you do that for two years straight and have all the records for it, getting a loan for a house is not going to be hard for you. It’s really all about keeping track of all of your information. So, think about that.

Maurice Cherry:
Good information. Thank you for that tip. On a personal level, what have comics really done for you?

Steenz:
I think it has helped me figure out who I am as a person. As we’ve been talking about how much I really enjoy helping people and getting their stories out and making things easy and simple and giving the information away, all that stuff, I don’t think I would have learned any of that without comics. So, I think knowing what I think my master goal, my reason for being here, I think I don’t know if I would have figured that out if I didn’t have comics.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say has been the best advice that you’ve been given about what you do? It could be about just life in general. It could be about comics in general, anything like that.

Steenz:
Well, as someone who had always been very anxious about what sort of projects I should or shouldn’t take on based on whether it was good for my career or whether it was the right step. There was always a lot of anxiety about which direction should I be going, and what direction is the right way. And a friend of mine, Shivana Sookdeo, who is a designer, she said that everything that you do is a stepping stone to where you’re going to be, but you do not need to step on every stone to get there.

Steenz:
And I think that made me a little less anxious about opportunities about trying new things, about saying no to things, about passing on things because when you’re a freelancer, saying no or passing on something means you’re not going to get that money. And so, your first thought is, “Okay. Well, where else am I going to get that money?”

Steenz:
But if it really feels like something that you don’t want to do, if it feels like something that’s going to make you really anxious or take up a lot of your time or be hard on you physically, then, don’t do it because there will be another chance for you to get that money. So, just knowing that I don’t have to say yes to every single thing that comes my way, in order to be successful, has helped with that anxiety, freelancer anxiety.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to anyone out there that’s listening to this, your story is resonating with them, and they want to sort of follow in your footsteps?

Steenz:
I would say keep very organized records whether that’s getting an external hard drive, investing in a printer and a file cabinet, keep good records, and that isn’t just records of boring work stuff. I mean records of things that have made you happy, records of letters that you have received. I think it’s really important to always have those records so that if you want, you can go back to them, and you can look at those, and you can feel those feelings again.

Steenz:
I always think about memento mori. We’re all going to pass this mortal coil. But while we are here, we should be able to reminisce on the things that were and also the things that you want in the future. So, keeping those records, what have you done? What do you want to do? What are you doing currently? Sometime in the future, you’re going to want to look back on it. I don’t know when, and I don’t know for what reason. But you will, and you’ll be happier knowing that you have those somewhere.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five year? It’s 2026. All this pandemic stuff is behind us. Where do you see yourself? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Steenz:
Well, by 2026, my second book will be out and as well as my collection of Heart of the City. So, I hope that I’m filthy rich and an island of my own with a diamond suit. Now, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in the next five years. I mean I like what I’m doing right now. I would really like for this pandemic to be over so that I could continue to do what I like right now which is traveling for conventions, meeting new people. Traveling for conventions is such a huge part of the comics industry that I really, really, really, really, really wanted to come back.

Steenz:
But five years from now, hopefully, doing the same stuff because I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing right now. Maybe, I’ll have even more mentees and new students that can take my advice, and I’d like to see them succeed as well. So, doing what I’m doing now, I’m pretty happy.

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

Steenz:
So, you can find me on social media as Oheysteenz. That’s O-H-E-Ysteenz. You can find me on Twitter, on Instagram, TikTok. And then, if you want to reach out to me for work, my email is oheysteenz@gmail. And then, also my website is oheysteenz.com. I like to keep things simple. So, it’s the same across the board. But yeah, that’s where you can look me up and find me. I’ll be there.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Steenz. I want to thank you so much for coming on the show for really, I mean one, sharing your story, but also really putting forth. Like I said earlier in the interview, I really get the sense that you really love helping people, and that’s something that definitely I got from listening to more about your background, hearing what you do with teaching even what you’re doing with helping with editing and things of that nature. It definitely feels like comics is a calling for you, and it’s a way for you to tell stories to the world. So, I’m glad to be able to interview you and to share your story with our audience. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Steenz:
You’re so welcome. Thank you for having me.

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.

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Antionette Carroll

I can’t tell you how excited I am to share this conversation with Antionette Carroll with you. Longtime listeners of the show may remember her first appearance here back in 2014. In the six years since then, Antionette has risen to become one of the design community’s most outspoken advocates, and one of its fiercest critics. As the founder and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab, her advocacy work has been shared around the world.

This week’s episode is a bit different than usual. You’ll learn about the origins of Creative Reaction Lab, hear about her new venture &Design with Timothy Bardlavens (another past Revision Path guest!), and get some candid talk about the country’s oldest professional organization for designers, AIGA. Antionette is proof that one person can really make an impression in the world through hard work, honesty, and determination!