Treavor Wagoner

Summer is here, and with the start of a new month, I’m bringing you my conversation with Treavor Wagoner, senior product designer, author, and quite the avid traveler! We spoke just as Treavor wrapped up his latest trip and right before the launch of the ebook version of his latest book, “So Much Trouble”.

Treavor talked about what drew him to working at Redfin, and from there he spoke about life growing up in a small Texas town. Treavor also went into his college days at University of North Texas, and shared how his love of writing drew him to teaching himself HTML and CSS. We also touched on a number of different topics after that, including how he’s unlearning harmful habits and how his non-linear career path has allowed him to indulge in a lot of his personal passions. According to Treavor, being Black and queer in tech is hard, but navigating it is possible — keep going!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Treavor Wagoner:
Hi, my name is Treavor Wagoner. My pronouns are he/him, and I am a system designer by day, and then a seeker, traveler by the rest of my life.

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

Treavor Wagoner:
I would say it’s been going pretty well. I moved back to Austin to kind of start going after my dreams. It’s been going well so far. Well, it’s been kind of going well so far. I just adopted a dog and so it’s a little bit of a harrowing experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. What kind of dog?

Treavor Wagoner:
So he’s a mutt, but we just got back his DNA results and he is German shepherd, Australian cattle dog, Shih Tzu, and a small poodle mix.

Maurice Cherry:
That is quite a mix.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, a lot of energy.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine. Yeah. Aside from the new dog, do you have any kind of plans for the summer I saw on Twitter, you mentioned that you’re touring US national parks. Is that still going on?

Treavor Wagoner:
No, actually, I did that last year, so that kind of ties into what I’m back in Austin for. But last year I did a seven month road trip around the west and where I was seeing national parks, as well as seeing friends who hadn’t seen in years because of the pandemic. And then also kind of keeping an eye out for land to buy or a house to buy or whatnot because Texas prices have gone up so wildly, so it’s been kind of difficult to find places to live. But I moved back to Austin to kind of reassess, save money, just prepare for the next five years of my life. But as far as this summer, no big plans. I think it’s just beat out the heat here in Texas, train my dog, take care of my dog and hang out with my friends who live here while I can.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now you were there for South By this year. This was sort of the first year back, I think, after two years, roughly of sort of remote South by Southwest. Did you notice like a big change in the city with South By coming back?

Treavor Wagoner:
Typically, before or BC, before COVID, South By would shut down the whole city and all the local residents would leave or just stay in the house until South by went away. But this year, it was very quiet. It was a slow ease back into city shutdown. Typically, when South By is going on, you can’t go downtown, can’t find a parking space to save your life. But I went down to downtown once or twice and it was like any other day, to be honest. No streets were shut down as far as I saw. So yeah. I mean, I didn’t really participate in South By, but just because I didn’t want to deal with crowds and COVID and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And you live there, so what’s the draw?

Treavor Wagoner:
Exactly. But the thing about South By which a lot of people don’t really realize is that you have South By film, music and all the other treks associated with South By, but there’s also a lot of free shows or peripheral shows that are happening that you can go to, parties and things like that. Restaurants and local vendors are doing cool things for all the traffic, all the South By people coming into town. So yeah, I mean, that stuff is fun, but like I said, dealing with traffic and parking, all that stuff kind of is a drain sometimes.

Maurice Cherry:
So currently I see you’re working as a senior product designer at Redfin. Tell me about that. What drew you to the company?

Treavor Wagoner:
Actually, I didn’t see it for Redfin initially. So I was the former head of design. Colin Gregson reached out to me on LinkedIn and he was like, “We’re trying to start up the design system at Redfin and we need someone like you.” I guess he had heard about what I did with Indeed. And he wanted to kind of do the same with Redfin, but at the time I wasn’t really looking for a job. I wasn’t working at the time. I was actually taking a break. I was on another sabbatical. I had just left a company where I had experienced racial discrimination and was taking some time to heal from all of that.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I let him know. I was like, “Hey, I’m not feeling it right now. I’m not feeling it right now. I’m healing from that. I’m dealing with COVID.” I mean, I didn’t catch COVID, but the pandemic was fresh and new. This was like March 2020.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. So I was like, “Uh-uh (negative), I’m not.” It was at a time where I was once again, wondering if I wanted to stick with the tech industry or just, I don’t know, do something else, but I’m a completist and obviously I decided to stick with it and he kept reaching out a couple of times to see how I was doing, where I was at. I think that the next time that he reached out was around June 2020, and of course around that time, it was not a good time at all because of protests and police murders and things like that. Which again, just kind of reopened the bullshit that I had experienced. And I was just very frustrated and angry and jaded and bitter and old.

Treavor Wagoner:
I think it was around December is when I told him, “Hey, I feel that I can jump back in and actually provide or do what I’m here to do when it comes to systems design and really help you out.” So we began interviewing and all that stuff, and it was probably the best interviewing experience that I’ve ever had hands down. They really made me feel comfortable, and in the past, what I’ve experienced with interviewing as a black person is that people don’t really see it for you, or they don’t think that you actually have the expertise that you do have. And with Redfin, I just felt like they allowed me to present my work and the stuff that I consider to be my craft, the things that I study, things that I love to do, which is signing a system and they heard me out, and they loved it. And they were like, “Yeah, you’re the on.” And then they offered me a deal. And I was like, “Yeah.”

Treavor Wagoner:
The story of trauma doesn’t stop there. In Texas, we had the winter storm maybe a week before I was supposed to start.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, with the power grid and all that stuff, right?

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. It was very bad. I was one of the unlucky few who did not have power or running water the whole time, and we’re talking single digits. Yeah. It was traumatizing. The whole time I was thinking, “Am I going to survive?” I’m checking in with friends and they’re telling me, I’m not going to say it here, but it’s pretty traumatic stuff that they experienced. We’re talking death and things like that. And I, like a crazy person who has experienced a lot of trauma in his life, I was like, “You know what? Sure, I can start a job following all that.” So I started the next week and I did it with a smile on my face, but definitely it was a mental wear down for me eventually.

Maurice Cherry:
You know, I think we’re going to look back in the history books and just see how much repeated trauma and shit black people had to put up with that summer of 2020, because I got laid off right around that time, in May, around Memorial day. And I remember I didn’t really feel like going back and trying to jump into finding another job. I had just been at this place for two and a half years and I sort of wanted to take a break, but I felt extremely guilty about taking a break at a time when people were out protesting in the streets for such a worthy cause. And I’m like, I really need this rest, though. I don’t know what I’m going to have another time in my professional career to actually be okay with staying still for a few months because we got severance and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
And what ended up happening, and I think a lot of black folks, again, during this time will mention this is that now you have this influx of companies that are not only pledging to do better in the face of all of this, but now all of a sudden I got work. I’m getting bombarded with offers and things to do and talking to companies internally about ways that they can change their DEI and all this sort of stuff. But then also being said, this is such a watershed moment, and do you think that this will continue? And I’m like, no, but also it’s not really up to me to do that because you, as the white people in power, it’s on y’all to continue this. It’s not on us. It’s not on the aggrieved to try to fix this. It’s on y’all. And of course now two years later, pretty much all of those promises have gone up in smoke.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, I think I would say with Redfin, you asked me about Redfin. I would say that I’ve really seen them try. Not trying to be the spokesperson for Redfin, because I don’t think I could do a good job at it, but I’m really impressed with how they’ve been leaders in the real estate industry of trying to do the right thing for not only black people, but marginalized individuals.

Treavor Wagoner:
They’ve removed crime stats. Because our researchers are amazing, they’ve removed crime stats from house listings or property listings because they found that the areas that see a lot of “crime” are over policed and are predominantly black or brown, it’s kind of skewed data that they’re getting. So why have that on there? It’s not clean data, it’s not representative of the actual neighborhood, so let’s remove that.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I think they’ve kind of put the pressure on other real estate companies to do the same as well. So that really impressed me. Not only have you cleaned up house, clean up your own house, but you’re also encouraging other people to clean up their houses too. I thought that was really great.

Maurice Cherry:
And I should mention, this whole conversation is not to bash your employer. So I don’ want them to think that we’re going in on Redfin or anything.

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh, no.

Maurice Cherry:
No, but I think it’s just worth mentioning that during that time in particular, there were so many friends of mine I know that were finally getting more speaking gigs, getting more design gigs, more companies were hitting them up. They were getting more job offers and it’s kind of bittersweet because yeah, it’s great that you see what I’m able to offer, but this is what it had to take for that to happen? And for it to not even be a sustained thing, it’s just sort of this one spike, and then that’s that. It’s crazy.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. It’s interesting because it’s like, finally. For me, someone who’s been in the industry for almost 15+ years, who has been around a lot of designers who get awards and things like that, or whatever or just get a lot of recognition; it felt good to finally be recognized in some way, but it was also bittersweet because I’ve been here, I’ve been doing the dang thing. I’ve been doing a great job at it, and in a sense, it’s like you’re not really recognizing me, the work. You’re recognizing me, the black designer. I’m more than that. I do more than that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Or if anything, they’re kind of trying to maybe wallpaper over some corporate guilt.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, not to dwell too much on work or anything, but I’m curious what’s a typical day like for you at Redfin? What’s your day-to-day look like?

Treavor Wagoner:
So my title is product designer, but our design system team is very small. It’s just mainly me and my co-lead, who is a designer as well. So we don’t have a direct manager. We don’t have a product manager in our “pod.” We work with an engineering team, but they’re a separate team. They’re not actually a part of our team, but we work very closely together all the time. So my day-to-day is looking at roadmaps and kind of filling in for the product manager role. It’s also doing some design tasks as well, so designing components, researching systems, checking in with my co-lead to make sure that we’re on track to meet our goals for our MVP of the design system and things like that.

Treavor Wagoner:
Sometimes we get questions from our design system customers, which are designers and engineers from the company. If I know the answer, which most of the time I don’t, I’ll chime in and kind of help out wherever I can. So doing support, thinking about educating, how we’re going to educate our customers about the new system that we’re working on, checking in with our stakeholders as we’re building the design system, to make sure that we’re in alignment and we’re doing fulfilling business needs as well as our customer needs. And then also making sure our partners we work with to build the system are happy and aligned with us as well. It’s a lot of engagement. It’s a lot of communication, which for me as an introvert can be a little draining sometimes. But I would say that I have a pretty good self care regimen. I could do better, but I try my best.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think especially throughout the pandemic, we’re all just trying to hold on. Especially with all these other things that are happening out in the world that are not pandemic related that are still compounding stress. I don’t want to specifically give name to any tragedies, but for folks that are listening, they know what’s going on right now in this time in the world. It’s heavy, it’s heavy.

Treavor Wagoner:
It’s like a landmine. You’re just walking through this really beautiful field and you come across landmines here and there. Like you mentioned, not to name any tragedies that have happened, but there’s so many, so take your pick. But each one of those, it affects me. It affects me in some way. I’m an empath, so I see people hurting and I want to do something. I want to take the hurt away, but I can’t do anything about it. Yeah. I feel like the closest I can get is donating money, but even that feels like it’s not enough.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here and learn more about you and your origin story. Like you mentioned, you’re in Austin, Texas right now. Is that where you grew up?

Treavor Wagoner:
I did not grow up in Austin. Austin was always this cool city, but I grew up near Waco, Texas. Which, if you’re not familiar with Waco for some reason, it is in the center of Texas, central Texas. I grew up in a very small town, maybe 15-20 minutes north of Waco. Very small town, we’re talking less than 900 people growing up. Yeah. I’m from the country. Right now, you’re probably not hearing my Texas accent, but it’s deep in there somewhere.

Treavor Wagoner:
At a certain point, my mother who at the time was a microbiologist, couldn’t find a job in the Waco area. She was also involved with the military. So we had our house in near Waco, but we also lived up in Arlington, Texas, which is in DFW. So we had a dual-residence type situation where we would live in Arlington throughout the week and then go down to the country on the weekends. So I had a city life and a country life at the same time, which I think hopping up and down I-35, sitting in a car for an hour and a half each way kind of yielded into me being a traveler when I got older, and just wanting to explore more of the world, more of our country.

Treavor Wagoner:
When I was at the age where I needed to start going to school, I started going to Christian private school in Arlington. It was non-denominational, so all walks of life were there. Catholic, baptist, Christian, Asian, black, white, Latino, et cetera. The neighborhood that we eventually settled in in Arlington was predominantly Hispanic, or at least it became predominantly Hispanic. And my babysitter who I went to hang out with after school was Hispanic, she was from south Texas and she taught me Spanish.

Treavor Wagoner:
So I was exposed to a lot of culture at a young age, but I was also from a small town, so I faced a lot of small town mindset, which is not being exposed to a lot of different cultures. So I was always met up with encountering people who did not realize that there’s a world outside of the small town, outside of where Walmart Super Center was the biggest thing, the happy place.

Treavor Wagoner:
So yeah, it was fun. It was interesting, but I eventually had to get out of there because I’m a queer person and it’s a small Texas town, so you can gather what that means for me. But I had to go find myself. I had to see what kind of life I could lead being a black queer person. And that’s where I ended up in Denton, Texas, going to UNT, or University of North Texas.

Maurice Cherry:
So before that, though, you started off at a community college at McLennan, was that in Waco or nearby Waco?

Treavor Wagoner:
It was in Waco. So I went at the same time. I’ve always been kind of an overachiever. I think it’s because of the private school education that I had. But while I was a, I think junior and senior at West High, which is in West comma Texas. We say West comma Texas because when we say West Texas people think Western Texas, and it’s a town called West. You may have heard of it. Speaking of tragedy, there was a fertilizer explosion that kind of almost demolished the whole town. It was around the time the Boston shooting happened in 2013, ’14.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. Anyway, so I went to high school there, but at the same time I did dual credit, which is when you take government and economics and some other courses, you also get college credit for them. So the local community college that was doing that was McClennan community college. So I didn’t actually do full fall spring semesters. I did summer school, summer classes. And then I eventually went to, I transferred those credits to UNT. So I consider University of North Texas my full on college experience, and McClennan, or MCC was my kind of interim exposure to college.

Maurice Cherry:
Was that a big shift, going from a community college to a four year?

Treavor Wagoner:
Yes. It was less of a big shift going from community college to a full on university and more of a big shift going from being very sheltered to just all of a sudden having no rules, no one to watch over me or keep me out of trouble or whatever. No one to keep me from figuring out what queerness is or my identity is. So yeah, it was a unique experience, I would say. It wasn’t something that I wasn’t used to, because I would say going from a private education to a public education was far more of a big shift, and that happened when I was in sixth grade, where all of a sudden you’re enforced to be very prim and proper, no cursing, to being in an environment where people are fighting, kids are fighting all over the place, cursing, having sex. Like, what did I get myself into?

Maurice Cherry:
It was a totally different world, it sounds like.

Treavor Wagoner:
It was a totally different world. No offense to Mormons, but I felt like I was a Mormon kid actually going into the real world.

Maurice Cherry:
Was your Rumspringa.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yes. But at 12, 13. Looking back, it’s funny and hilarious, but at the time it was kind of scary. So I would say when I transitioned from graduating from high school and attending some community college courses or doing some community college courses to full on living in a dorm, being on a college campus, meeting people from different parts of the world, I would say that was very exciting for me. I just felt very free.

Maurice Cherry:
I hear that you were dubbed “the guru” while you were there.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, that was a nickname that my manager at the time gave me. That’s funny. I started as a web designer, so I was designing blogs when I was in high school, and online blogs were my saving grace as a black queer person. I didn’t have any friends, really, in high school, so I would just write online and that was my escape. So in escaping to writing blogs, I started designing them and created a service out of that for other bloggers. So I would create their templates, their blog templates. I learned CSS from doing that, and I think a little bit of HTML at the same time, and also got to flex my creative muscle as well and creating color schemes and finding this rinky dink image creation software, editing software, and creating mass heads for blogs and stuff like that.

Treavor Wagoner:
But that led me into wanting to do that as for actually getting paid to do it. And so within a couple of months of being on campus in my freshman year, I found a job flyer for a web designer for the rec center on campus. And I kind of just begged my way into that job. They gave me the job and after about a year or so of doing that, the head of IT for the division that the rec center department was under saw my work, and he was like, “Hey, would you like to do this for the whole division?” And I was like, “What does that entail?” He was like, “That’s like, you get to be the webmaster, web designer for 30 to 40 websites.” And I was like, “Okay, sure.”

Treavor Wagoner:
He was grateful for it because it was cheap labor, but I think that was the first time that I learned how to be… Not learned how to be, but I think that’s where I adopted my skill as in what I call an octopus. Like I mentioned, I had to maintain design, develop 30, 40 sites and they all kind of looked the same, but they had all had to look the same because they reflected the division, not so much their department. So I guess in a sense, it was my first time working with multi-brand design systems, which is crazy, because I didn’t really make that connection until just now. Like oh, I’ve always been working on multi-brand design systems.

Treavor Wagoner:
But because I understood system thinking, even at that age, which was around, I think it was 20, 22, he called me guru. So I understood our process was important. It was almost necessary to maintain that many properties all at once. You have to have some semblance of organization. So he just saw my approach and the fact that I plastered this cubby hole wall that I had. I was working from the storage room because we didn’t have an office or a desk for me to work in. And so while I was in the storage room, I would just plaster all the walls with site maps and diagrams and whatever, just to keep myself organized with all these many different properties that I was maintaining.

Maurice Cherry:
So what was that early post-graduation career like?

Treavor Wagoner:
Because I had already had a lot of experience under my belt already having been paid to do web design, salary wise, I was able to get a high wage for my first job out of college. It was hard because it was at the time where we were having the recession in 2010, so it was very hard to find a job. But once I got a job, I was able to get a high salary. And high salary at that time for me for a, I guess, relatively kind of new designer was $45K in Dallas area. Yeah. I felt like I was going from ravioli eating every night to having a luxury apartment overnight, it felt like. It was interesting. It was a little bit of adjustment, and I don’t think I quite found the balance. Eventually I was let go from that job, and I think that was pretty devastating to experience that. But it led me to creating my own business with my former partner, romantic partner, which was a bad idea.

Maurice Cherry:
Was that business Braver?

Treavor Wagoner:
It was, yeah. It was a combination of our names, but it was also a representative of the kind of work that we wanted to do, which was a traveling philanthropic, but also providing web development solutions to small businesses in the Dallas area. So yeah, and we were able to do that. We actually started our company cash positive, so that’s always been a great accomplishment of my own. It’s not something that people know about, but it’s something that I’m really proud of, that I was able to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re also the co-founder and the executive director of a group called Black UX austin. Tell me about that, and what did you want to sort of get out of that group?

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh my gosh. So going back to talking about leaving a company that I was working for, that I faced some racial discrimination, a researcher that I was working with at the time, Carmen Brunes, she’s also black as well, but she saw what I was going through and she was like, “You need a release. You’re way too talented to be treated this way. And I want to provide an outlet for you to do what you do best.” Two other researchers had started Black UX Austin before I even came along and they just had never been able to get it off the ground, and so she told me that she wanted to actually take it all the way.

Treavor Wagoner:
She wanted to be nationally recognized and be the one stop shop for black people wanting to get into tech, specifically in the Austin area, largely because black people in tech are usually the onlies in the company. That’s the typical experience, whether you’re the only black person on your team, in your organization, in your department. And so you may experience things that if someone like you was around, they would tell you “Girl, you’re going through some shit right now. They’re treating you badly. It’s gaslighting.”

Treavor Wagoner:
So there wasn’t that community there before we came along. I don’t think there was that kind of community in Austin specifically, and if you’ve been to Austin, you know that it’s very white. There’s not that many black people here at all. It’s funny, because one of my best friends asked, I think he was asking someone else and I think one of his other friends had visited Austin and he was like, “Did you see any black people there?” And he was like, “No.” I told him, I was just joking, but I was like, “Yeah, I’m the only one here. I’m right here. You’re talking to the black people or the black community in Austin.” No, just kidding. There’s more than that of course, more than me.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. We started Black UX Austin as a means for black people in tech to have a community, to have a safe space, to not feel like you are being tone policed, to just let your hair down and just be yourself. We started right before the pandemic started and as we were reforming and making it kind of formalized COVID started. And so we were like, “Oh, crap.” So by that point, we had only had one in person event. And then we had to shift everything to be all virtual. And we got so good at it that other black organizations that were in and out of tech were like, “How are you guys doing this?” Because we got really good at it that people on LinkedIn, on maybe Instagram, too, or whatever were seeing what we were doing and were wanting to support.

Treavor Wagoner:
And these are not just black people, but also white people, organizations where they’ve seen or witnessed black people being oppressed or mistreated in some way. They just wanted to support. So there were other black organizations or organizations in general were just asking us, “How are you guys able to grow and thrive online as you’re doing?” Part of it was that I know a lot about creating online community, having been someone who grew up needing community when I was growing up in rural Texas and being the only very sensitive black person in probably a 20-30 mile radius. So I sought online community as much and as often as I could, and so I just learned from that and I think that has warmed its way into or carried its way up to now, which is providing community or safe spaces for other black people.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I feel like I’m mentioning all these aside, but as I did my research, I saw that you’re a poet and you’re an author. Tell me about that, particularly about the impetus behind your latest book. Where did the drive come from for that?

Treavor Wagoner:
My gosh. So first of all, I don’t call myself a poet. I do write poetry, but I don’t feel that it fits me well. I call myself a writer. Poetry is not the only writing that I will do. I want to do more memoirs and things like that, but actually I didn’t get my degree in design or web design or anything like that. I got my degree in creative writing. I had started to pursue creative writing and communication design, which if you’re not familiar, communication design, at least at UNT, it encompasses advertising and graphic design. So not web design, but it is design or the visual aspect of design. And at the time, it was the closest thing that I could get to a design degree.

Treavor Wagoner:
And my minor is in computer education and cognitive systems, which translation, that means a couple of courses in installing Linux systems and some Adobe Photoshop courses. So yeah, that was the closest I could get to having a web design degree at that time, which was between 2006 and 2010. But eventually I ran out of financial aid and I just stuck with the English creative writing aspect of my life. So growing up, I’ve always had, I guess, an affinity for writing. I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter, and so I started writing songs at 12, just because I had seen one of my favorite songwriters, Mariah Carey. You may laugh, but she’s a great songwriter. Obviously we know a lot of our songs. I’ve always just written lyrical poems. Yeah. There’s a floppy disk somewhere in my storage somewhere of maybe 500 lyrical poems I had written when I was a kid.

Maurice Cherry:
Not a floppy disc. You got to get it off the floppy disk, man.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, I know. You know what, I think at some point I did translate them to modern digital at some point, so they’re probably somewhere on a hard drive somewhere maybe. But yeah, I don’t know if I want to revisit those, to be honest. They’re probably terrible. But yeah, while I was at UNT, I got my English degree and like I mentioned before, I had started my UX product design career. Product design is kind of like a jealous mistress when it comes to my other abilities, so my writing kind of had to be pushed to the side, but eventually I was approaching 30 and I was like, “What can I do very quickly that I can be proud of my twenties for?” And that was creating or writing a book.

Treavor Wagoner:
And so I self-published my first title, which is called The Remaining Trouble and Other Battles. And then during the pandemic, I kind of remixed it and expanded it and republished it as So Much Trouble. And in terms of writing, it’s probably the project that I’m most proud of, because the way I was able to produce it is how I envisioned it, and the quality is great in terms of design and writing. I was just very proud of it. I think all creatives should have something that they’re just absolutely proud of that they did. I feel like that’s very rare. Even if you do great work that other people admire, this level of self deprecation that designers have, or they don’t fully love the work that they do, even if it’s great. So I think that everybody should have that one project where they’re just like, “I absolutely love the shit out of this thing.”

Treavor Wagoner:
So yeah, the book is about, it’s a book of poetry, a collection of poetry about based on a time in my life where I had experienced relationship trauma. What I aimed to do with the book was to really just tell a story of a black kid who didn’t know how, but just really wanted to be loved and to love. And I feel it’s intense at times, but I love how it came out and anyone who’s read it has told me the same.

Maurice Cherry:
Now when I asked you earlier about what you wanted to discuss, you had told me a few things that I kind of want to unpack a little bit. You said navigating a box-based world as an odd shape. You said unlearning harmful habits, and you said self parenting. Talk to me about it. What’s on your heart?

Treavor Wagoner:
It’s very woo woo, and that’s kind of where I’m at in my mid-thirties right now. This is not the case for everybody, but for a few millennials, we’ve grown up in and seen some shit. We’ve grown up in a time where our parents told us one thing and the world is actually another. So there’s a great deal of, at least when you identify as black and queer or gay, and so those are two communities that have seen a lot of shit go down and who have experienced a lot of things, a lot of terrible things we’re talking. If you’re black, you know what we’ve been through, but in terms of the queer community, AIDS, I grew up during the AIDS epidemic/pandemic and the fallout, the religious fallout of that. People who are religious saying you’re going to hell because you got aids or because you’re gay or whatever.

Treavor Wagoner:
And just living in fear of identifying as gay and over time, I’ve learned to unlearn all of the survival tactics that I’ve had to learn growing up in rural Texas or growing up in Texas in general. Age 35, I’m trying to just radically authentically be myself and love myself and encourage other people to do the same. Not living under any guises, any false pretenses or anything like that. Just be yourself and love in that. I’m finding that it is yielding a great improvement in your health, in your physical health and your mental health as well. It’s really important to just be yourself. So that’s where I’m at.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I think you mentioned self parenting, I was talking to a friend of mine who is also a black queer person and he was like, “We need somebody to speak on the unique experience of being a black queer cis male and the relationship with our mothers.” My relationship with my mother has been very rocky. When I came out to her at 19, I wasn’t under her roof. She maybe would have disowned me completely, so I’m glad that I had the wherewithal and the knowledge to just wait until I was out of her house to tell her who I actually am.

Treavor Wagoner:
After that, I think we were even more distant than we were already, because I think moms know, but once you say the words, then they actually know, and there’s no denying it, and so I think that created a bigger rift between you, too. And so because of that, there were things that as a, what we call in the community “baby gay,” or somebody who’s fresh to the gay community, there are some things that I experienced that I really could have benefited from having a parent there or some kind of mentor or something to kind of guide me through all this newness, and I didn’t have that necessarily.

Treavor Wagoner:
So I had to learn how to self parent. I had to learn how to look at the seven year old, who was scared to be himself and say, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” To just learn to love myself. And I think that plays out in every aspect of my life, even my professional career. There are times where I deal with imposter syndrome or just being in spaces where I wasn’t previously, and now I all of a sudden am because of the great shift in thinking in the industry. I’m specifically talking about summer 2020, where all of a sudden the gates that I wasn’t allowed to enter through, all of a sudden I am, but I have no understanding of how this new arena plays out or how to be or anything like that. So I deal with imposter syndrome.

Treavor Wagoner:
And then you know what I do? The kid who just felt very ostracized, very on the outside of everything, on the outside of blackness, on the outside of queerness, just because I didn’t have access to it, that plays out. And so what ends up happening is when that little kid comes out, the 35 year old bubbles up and says, “You’re okay, I got you.” And that is essentially self parenting, basically being your own advocate and standing up for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think you’re still trying to find yourself?

Treavor Wagoner:
I think if you’re living, you should be, because we’re always changing. I identify as a seeker. I think it plays out in my travel habit. I’m usually traveling by myself, and I prefer it that way, largely because traveling is not vacation for me most of the time. It’s me thinking and writing in exotic places, in dirty places or whatever, what have you. Just being here, there and everywhere, just trying to learn about myself in different environments.

Treavor Wagoner:
Also, I feel like growth happens when you’re out of your comfort zone, and so that’s why I do that. I want to learn as much as possible about myself. And I find it to be a common thing where people don’t want to do that either it’s from fear or they’re afraid of what they might find or lack of self confidence, which I totally understand. But I don’t want to live in fear in my life, so I put on a brave face and I go into the unknown. So, that’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like there was a lot of subtext in that inhale just then. But black person to black person, I felt that. I felt that. If you knew that you couldn’t fail in your professional life, what would you want to do? What would you want to try to do?

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh my gosh. That’s related to the question of if you weren’t a designer, what would you be? And I would say if I weren’t a designer, I would probably be a professional entertainer, a singer or songwriter or something. Being a designer in the tech world, it can be very technical, very heady stuff. I find I want to flex my emotional muscle more. I try to do that as a system designer. As designers, we’re empathic anyway, or we have a lot of empathy. It’s just a part of the job, but it’s in a technical space most of the time, so you can’t really go too deep with it and understand fully what your empathic abilities are. But with creative careers like music or writing or even acting, you get to explore that more and understand humanity more or better. That’s what I would be.

Treavor Wagoner:
But if I were to stay in this hypothetical situation, if I were to stay within the tech industry, I think I’m close to what I dream of being. This is going to sound very nerdy, but hey, we’re all nerds here. Kind of like a special agent designer in the realm of design systems where I help teams adopt the design system, where I basically do the dirty work for them of taking the existing product and essentially almost creating kind of a new version of that product with the design system and basically going “bippity boppity boo,” over amount of time, taking what was old and crusty and putting some shine on it, making it golden, saving the day in that way. I’m almost there.

Treavor Wagoner:
A part of it is trying to get business to understand what design systems even are, and then also getting them to understand the pain point of a feature team adopting a design system and how hard and strenuous it is. So if there was someone like me or a team that I was a part of to go in and do that hard work for them and essentially save the day, get some happy smiles in there, make the business feel like their employees are happy just because somebody came in and helped them out, then that’s what I would love to do. I’m a person who, I don’t care about promotion. I don’t care about money. It’s more about how I make people feel. I want to help people. And if I can help people with their jobs, their day to day, that makes me feel good. That makes me feel like my job is rewarding. So yeah, that’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
What career advice would you give to somebody, they’re listening to you talk, they’re listening to your story and they see that you’ve had this very, I think non-linear career path, is probably a good way to describe it. What career advice would you give to someone who is walking that same sort of path?

Treavor Wagoner:
There was advice that I’d gotten from design evangelist Steven Anderson, when I was, I guess, fresh out of college and at the height of being really unhappy with my first job out of college. He gave the advice of have fun with your career. And I’m going to expound on that and say, don’t just get a job get a craft, something that you can believe in, something that makes you happy and makes you joyful. It makes you want to wake up in the morning and get to it, jump into it. I’m so glad that design systems has become a thing, because when I wake up in the morning, I’m really excited to just jump in with design system stuff. I really geek out on it to the point where people don’t understand what the heck I’m talking about, because I’m speaking a different language, I’m speaking a systems’ language, and they’re usually speaking a product language.

Treavor Wagoner:
But yeah, that’s what my advice would be is have fun with your career. I think something that we didn’t talk about really was at a certain point, I was a career contractor, so I was kind of like a handyman and that meant I was taking on jobs three months or six months at a time in Austin, Dallas, Seattle, or if I wasn’t anchored to a city, I was traveling full time around the country, doing things. At times, I was working from Costa Rica while I was backpacking and things like that. So yeah, I’ve always wanted to just not do things the typical way, and it has always made it fun. My favorite thing is to tell people things like that and to see their face is like, “Really? What?” Just shock people. So have fun with your career.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Treavor Wagoner:
I’m going to ask a clarifying question. Do you mean professionally or do you mean in my personal life?

Maurice Cherry:
I mean any way that you wish to take it.

Treavor Wagoner:
I was hoping you would say one or the other, because that would make it easier. But I’m in my mid-thirties and I’m thinking a lot about my personal life. I’ve given a lot of attention to my professional life up to this point, and like I mentioned before, product design or my design career has been like a jealous mistress of anything else that I try to focus on. So I had the great ability during my seven month road trip last year to kind of do both. I think about where I want to go from here or from that point, and also foster my design career. And I see myself retiring from design. I haven’t really told anybody that. I don’t think it’s feasible, but I would love to.

Maurice Cherry:
Why don’t you think it’s feasible?

Treavor Wagoner:
I think because I’m thinking very realistically, I’m looking at my finances and I’m thinking, “Okay, you want to do this and this and this and this and this and this. How are you going to pay for that? Oh, right. You have to have a job, Treavor. Come on. Get real.” So I would love to get to a point where design is not my only main means of income. I’ll say it that way, where it’s not my only means of income. Maybe I’m still doing design systems in some way, but it’s not the only thing that I’m doing. I’m finding balance. That’s where I want to be in five years, is maintaining a balance where I’m loving life still, I’m loving doing design systems or helping people with design systems, but I’m also creating a family.

Treavor Wagoner:
I feel like with my career, I haven’t fully been able to do that. I’ve been very much a career girl. So yeah. So to be able to kind of invest more in, like I mentioned before, the emotional side of myself and have family and people. I guess just foster more relationships. It’s kind of a long-winded answer, but that’s where I’m at. I’m kind of thinking on the spot a little bit, but that’s where I want to see myself in five years, is feeling balanced, full of joy, and loving what I do in terms of work. And I’m almost there. I feel like I’m almost there, and it feels really good to be almost there, whereas before it felt like it was a long time away.

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

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. So you can find out more about my writing and my design@treavorwagoner.com. My name is spelled a little weird, I have some extra letters in there, so I’ll spell it for you. It’s T-R-E-A-V-O-R W-A-G-O-N-E-R.com, and you can go to my design page and you won’t have access to my portfolio, but you’ll see all the other nerdy things that I write about there as well. You can also follow me on Twitter @TreavorWagoner. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Treavor Wagoner, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I get the sense that you are someone that is at a crossroads right now. Usually when I give these post scripts, when I’m talking to the guests, I’m saying that you’re doing great work, which is not to say that you’re not doing great work, but I really feel this sense of tension within you, like you’re at a crossroads right now. I would be interested to see if in the next five years you fulfilled that balance that you’re seeking.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. I’ve been seeking, living that persona for years, and as a seeker, you eventually find. And so that’s probably part of the tension, is the realization, I would say, as a seeker is that you realize what you’re looking for, you have already had. And so now that I’ve kind of realized that I’ve always had it, now I get to actually discover it more, what I already have, and enjoy it. That’s where I’m at.

Maurice Cherry:
How profound.

Treavor Wagoner:
I am a writer.

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

Treavor Wagoner:
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

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Russell Toynes

If Austin, Texas had a contest for “Hometown Design Hero”, I think Russell Toynes would definitely win the grand prize! Russell is the founder and creative director of Studio Dzo, a multidisciplinary design-build studio that works with developers, architects, interior designers, and other business owners to elevate their work and help bring it to life. On top of that, he’s also an adjunct professor covering portfolio development at Austin Community College, and is a core team member of African American Graphic Designers, the largest collective of African-American and Black visual communicators. Talk about being active in your community!

Russell talked about rebounding and rebuilding during the pandemic, sharing how his team adjusted and how he changed his business focus to keep productivity high and focus on his employees’ mental health. He also spoke on growing up in Austin, working as an art director at Dell, and his love for giving back and helping the next generation of designers. Russell is living proof that you can find success and fulfillment right in your own backyard!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Russell Toynes:
My name is Russell Toynes, and I am the creative director and owner at Studio Dzo. I’m also a design educator. I teach portfolio design at Austin Community College. And I am a core member of AAGD, which is African American Graphic Designers. And I’m a mentor to a lot of either previous students or folks that wish they were a student of mine.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Russell Toynes:
I’m also a dad and a husband, but those things, those are all day, every day. And those are some of the best things that I do. We’ll see. We should ask them.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s 2022 been going so far?

Russell Toynes:
2022 has been good. We’re actually really excited. 2021 was a banner year for us, and 2022 is exactly the same. Our books are full, and the work just keeps coming in, and we have a good team. We had a little bit of an upset in 2021 where we had some folks get, what’s that bug that they caught? The great resignation?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Russell Toynes:
Some of them got some of that, you know? And so that left us in a little bit of a bind. So we had two new team members start in January, and so we’re still training them. So it’s a little challenging with that, with some new team members, but 2022 is starting out great for us.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you really want to try to accomplish this year?

Russell Toynes:
Really, we have a good processes, but I always want to get right and tight, right? So I really, really am looking at how do we streamline our business? My goal… Well, with the pandemic, we’re really… Before pandemic, we had a studio on East Sixth Street and it was great. We were there for three or four years, and we just moved into a new place. We did a $10,000 build out. We moved into a new place on South Lamar on February 17th on 2020. And then March 17th, 2020, we said everybody, “Hey, so this thing’s going on. We’re going to send you home. You’re going to work from home and we’ll check in every week or two, and we’ll figure out when we’re going to come back.” We were really naive, right? We just didn’t know. And I was scared. And we have a little blog on our website.

Russell Toynes:
And so, I just wrote a blog of just like a cathartic, being a small business owner during a pandemic is fucking scary. And so, I wrote this blog post just talking about like my biggest thing was just thinking about, not only do I have to keep food on my table, but I got to keep food on five other people’s tables also. And so, not knowing what that was going to look like was really scary.

Russell Toynes:
But what I realized was when we were in the studio, we were really locally focused. We did some state, some things outside of Austin. Lots of things outside of Austin, but lots of things in other states, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, and Arizona, and places like that. But we were really just thinking, “Oh, we’re Austin, we’re Texas.”

Russell Toynes:
When we went remote, all of a sudden opportunities just started just coming in different directions. And now, we really see ourselves as global. We have done work in Singapore, we have done work all over the United States. We have partners all over the world. So really, thinking about… we just wrapped up a project in Canada… just thinking about what we have done in the last year, it’s amazing that when we opened our minds up to thinking beyond our local borders, what we’ve accomplished.

Russell Toynes:
And so, really 2022 is just about, how do we keep this momentum? How do we move forward and continue to have a global presence?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really good to hear. I mean, the pandemic, it’s changed business for so many people. I mean, I’ve talked to several studio owners, big and small, that have all had to really adjust because they weren’t able to come together physically in an office like they did before. I mean, for the team, was it a big shift to make that change?

Russell Toynes:
Yes. So, we have team members of various ages. So we have seven team members. Seven in total. So me and my wife, and then we have five other team members. And they’re all employees of ours, but we call them team members because I don’t like the idea of people being an employee.

Russell Toynes:
So they’re all in different places in life. Some have families, some are single, some have partners. And so obviously, the pandemic hit everybody. So if you’re a family person and you have a spouse at home and children, they’re all affected. And so, that changed a lot for our team member in particular who has kids. It’s just, how do you work when his escape was getting in the car, driving to the studio, spending six to eight hours there and driving back, and having that decompression time and that transitional period?

Russell Toynes:
And now it’s get up, feed, clothe, put them in front of whatever Zoom classes they have, then get in front of his work Zoom and do work. And then their kids, they’re various ages. And so, that was the biggest challenge. Our big thing was, we wanted to focus on their mental health. We wanted to make sure that they had the freedom to take whatever time they needed just to process what the hell was going on. Because for all of us, we just didn’t know. It was scary.

Russell Toynes:
Especially in the very beginning when we just didn’t know what it was, but people were getting sick and people were dying. As time went on, the adaptations change. It went from, “Okay, let me just figure out just how to keep people, my team healthy and somewhat productive,” to this, “Okay, we can’t talk about going back. We got to talk about moving forward.”

Russell Toynes:
And so, it was like, “What do you need to be effective? What do you need to be efficient?” So, the team came back to the studio, we gave them their desk, their sit-stand desk. Then we got everybody… Our designers have desktops. Actually, almost everybody had desktops. And so, we were like, “Look, we can’t say you work remote, but then basically chain you to a desk.” So we got everybody all new laptops, and we were like, “Look, we don’t know what this is going to look like, but you have the freedom to work from wherever you’re at. So if you want to travel somewhere, you can work from there. As long as you’re able to be productive, work however you want to.”

Russell Toynes:
And so, for us, we really just had to figure out what was going to work now that we were in the long haul for this. So really it was just changing our work model. So changing it from in the studio to being remote. But then also from a clock in, clock out like you had in the studio where people come in and they’re expected to be in at 9:00, expect to stay till 5:00, and you had a good culture there. Where now it’s like, “We have to go to dentists, we have to get our car inspected. We have to do all the things while being at home.”

Russell Toynes:
So we switched to this get it done model, where it’s like, you know what you need to do. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, first thing in the morning, we talk about what we need to do and then you just go do it, however you’re going to get it done. So if you want to take out in the middle of the day to hang out with the kids, cool. You know what needs to be done when it needs to be done. I don’t need to babysit you.

Russell Toynes:
And so that’s worked out really, really well, both for my wife and I, Elizabeth, because sometimes we’re just not feeling like sitting in front of a desk. And so, we can sit with our laptop. And plus, we can do a lot of our work via our phone if we’re just calling or setting up meetings or reviewing work. So for us, this whole get it done model has really helped us all tackle life’s responsibilities along with work responsibilities.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like you and the team are really able to make a agile shift pretty quickly. Do you think that was just because of your tight-knit nature of the team? What do you really attribute to that?

Russell Toynes:
I was a creative… Oh sorry, I was art director at Dell for five and a half years, and I learned quite a bit of what to do and what not to do. And so, very, very quickly I knew that I wanted everything that we did to be cloud based. And so, I didn’t want the opportunity for someone to have anything on their local drive that we needed, or for a laptop to get stolen and work that I had paid for over months for them to do got lost.

Russell Toynes:
So we were already very equipped to work remotely, because everything was already backed up to the cloud constantly through Google File Stream. And we had been using all the Google suites. So everything from the calendars, to email, to everything. So we were already well-equipped to just work from devices, whether that be iPads, phones, or computers, or something like that.

Russell Toynes:
I think being that we’re a small team and it was seven of us, I think that allowed us to be nimble. And we’ve always prided ourselves on being nimble and being able to fail quickly. So we’ll try something. If it doesn’t work, let’s adapt. But honestly, I attribute it to having just a damn good team who really has a lot of faith in Elizabeth and I to just guide them. And they’ll follow us in whatever direction we ask them to.

Russell Toynes:
And we have an open-door policy. We ask people, there’s no hierarchy other than the fact that I’m responsible for making sure they get paid and everything. Everyone has the opportunity to make a suggestion. Everybody has the opportunity to talk to me or Elizabeth and say, “Hey, this isn’t working, or this could be better, or I ain’t dealing with something.”

Russell Toynes:
And unfortunately, during the pandemic, things happen. People die. Maybe it’s pandemic related, maybe it’s not. And we have to be adaptive to that. And so, we can’t just sit there and go, “Well, we’re running a business here, sorry.” It’s like, “No, we’ll figure it out. We’ll make it work.” And we just have a killer team that just everybody has everybody’s back. So it really has helped us move, and shift, and be nimble during this time of uncertainty.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you talked about going from being more locally focused with your client base to now having this global reach. What are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Russell Toynes:
So we work with architects, interior designers, and developers, and business owners. We work with everybody, but those are the best. Our ideal client… We don’t call our clients, clients. We call them partners, because this is a partnership. We have to work together. I don’t work for anybody. And so, we are working together to meet a goal and to create an experience. And so for us, we love working with interior designers because, A, they know the budget, and they’re realistic.

Russell Toynes:
They’re not developers who have a stake in how much money the project makes. And they’re not designers who are like, “Oh, I think I know how to design a sign or an installation,” and they have no idea. So when we work with… And architects are good, but architects always hire interior designers, and interior designers love us and we love them. So, they have a vision. We bring their visions either to life, or we just… They say, “This is an area that we don’t know what to do, but that’s where we call you.”

Russell Toynes:
And so, interior designers are great. So we work with lots of different agencies that have wonderful, talented interior designers who rely on us to do what we do well. And the crazy thing is, is maybe it’s the same in design, I don’t know, but there’s a lot of turnover. I don’t know if it’s just like, they go to a place, they’re there for a year. And then they want to just go to somewhere else or they move or whatever.

Russell Toynes:
So like pollinating, we make great relationships with one studio and then five of their interior designers over the course of a year or two go to five different other places. And then those five other places call us too. And next thing you know, we got 15, 20 interior design agencies all around the United States and whatnot that are calling us for project after project. So, I love them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I like that spread effect like that. I mean, I think you mentioned the great resignation a couple of times now. It’s interesting how because the pandemic has forced a lot of people to now work from home or work from remote locations, that a lot of companies before are just having to open themselves up to talent from a lot of other places.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, I think that can be both good and bad. Of course, for the company, I could see the downside of it because now that they’re working with employees from other states, they’ve got to think about, “Well, can we legally hire people in this state and what does that mean?”

Russell Toynes:
Exactly. That’s my wife. We had a team member in Atlanta, and she jumped through so many hoops with the comptroller there in Atlanta to just get this person to where we can offer them insurance and everything else. Yeah, it’s a huge undertaking when you bring on somebody outside of your state, and it’s a new state that you haven’t been in already.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And then for the worker, it can be easy because now so many gigs that before were just landlocked to a certain city, now you can work from everywhere. I’ve been working, personally I’ve been working remotely since 2009. And like you, when I had… I had a studio for nine years, from 2009 to 2017. And we did some work locally. We did a lot of national work, some international work. But I’d say for the past two years now, on and off for the past two years, I’ve mostly been working internationally. It’s worked out that I can now take my skills and I can work in Amsterdam. I can work in Paris, which is where my current job is headquartered at.

Russell Toynes:
So how do you deal with the time difference?

Maurice Cherry:
Not well.

Russell Toynes:
I was going to say. I went to Hawaii. I went to Hawaii in January and I didn’t think that was going to mess me up. But boy, did it.

Maurice Cherry:
Not well. I mean, so when I worked for the company in Amsterdam, I think it was a six hour time difference, five to six hour time difference. Because you know, daylight savings time eventually creeps in. But it was rough because by the time I’d start in the morning, it would be in the afternoon there. There would be some times I would have to be up at 4:00 AM for a meeting. And thank God they were not anal about having the camera on with anything. So I could just be halfway in bed on Zoom, like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” For the current job, it’s not that bad because we’re split. Where my time zone is, eastern time zone is sort of split between where the company is. So we’re between San Francisco and Paris.

Maurice Cherry:
So in the morning I work with the Europeans. My boss is in London. And then in the afternoon I’m working with more of the creative team that’s here in the US that are in California. So my day is split in that way. We do a lot, a lot of async communication just to pass the baton back and forth. But it can be brutal sometimes. Sometimes I am working a 12-hour day from 5:00 to 5:00. Sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes it happens, and it’s a lot.

Russell Toynes:
That’s our goal. That’s our goal is… My wife and I, I have a 20-year-old daughter, and so she’s very much into living her own life. That’s something I’ve been trying to adjust to. But we have aspirations to basically be digital nomads. And really set up our team to where we can… We have aspirations to make either a home or a temporary home in Portugal.

Russell Toynes:
And so, it’s the idea of, how do we do this? What would it look like? What time would we get up? What time would we be on? What time would we be off? And really just thinking about that. And we haven’t really put it to the test. The pandemic hasn’t really given us the comfort that we want to travel. Hawaii, like I mentioned, they had a really good COVID response.

Russell Toynes:
So, you have to have your vaccination, you have to have a 72-hour negative COVID test. You got to have everything right and tight or they won’t even let you on the island. And so we felt comfortable with… That was a trip we’ve been planning since 2019 for my daughter’s graduation. So, we did go to Florida during Delta. And so, we’re big Disney fans for the service and the attention to detail. And so we go to Disney World as much as possible. And we went in 2020… Or 2021, August. And that was not a vacation.

Russell Toynes:
That was like going to a neighborhood you know you don’t want to be in. It was like that. It was just, head was on a swivel. Everybody, I mean, Disney did a good job, but people do what people do. And so, people weren’t wearing their masks right. People were just being too close and all that. But it was really dead there. The crowds were nothing like they would normally be.

Russell Toynes:
So, we made the best of the trip, but now we’re trying to get back to the swing of things. And we want to travel more and see what it’s like to work in foreign places and make that adjustment. So I envy you. I might have to call you up and get some tips on how to adjust with jet lag.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I do a lot of… It’s a lot of async communication. It’s a lot of scheduled emails. It’s a lot of, at least for me, and I don’t know if this is probably just like a general tactic, but I do a lot of managing up. So, I have a manager, but then I also manage someone. So for my manager, I give regular, regular updates like, “I just did this. This is what I’m working on now.” Because we may only get… Our schedules only overlap for 30 minutes a day. So we don’t have a ton of time to really get together and talk.

Maurice Cherry:
So I’m always letting him know, “This is what I have to do. This is what I’m working on. This is where I have a blocker or something like that.” And so then he can work on those things when I’m not at work. And it’s kind of passing the baton. I would say also the benefit is that he and I have worked together at two other companies now, so we know how to work together well, as opposed to having to figure that out with someone new.

Russell Toynes:
And that’s exactly. That’s what you were asking, how did we make this adjustment? Our team consists of, like I said, five additional to me and my wife. And so, three of those five… So the two new ones are the newest. But three of those five have been with us for years. One of them was a previous student of mine, he’s been with us the longest. He’s been with us for five years now.

Russell Toynes:
And when you work with somebody that close, there’s a trust there, but also there’s just this ability to understand what needs to be done and there’s not a lot of conversation necessary. And so, that’s why it’s always hard for us when someone decides they want to leave and go to something else is just that, the onboarding time’s a headache. But there’s a lot of just energy and gaining of trust and all that that has to be built with somebody brand new that you can’t do in your typical onboarding window of 60 to 90 days or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And with this particular thing, and hopefully I’m not telling too of much my business by saying this, but he and I, we started working together in 2017 at one startup. And then he left, and then a couple, I think maybe a couple months later they eliminated our entire department at the first place we worked at.

Maurice Cherry:
But then he got a job at another startup and was like, “Do you want to work here?” And I didn’t have a job, so I was like, “Sure, let’s do it.” And then he left there to another startup, which is where he’s at now, and then was like, “Yeah, I need help and I want do these things. Do you want a job?” I’m like, “Sure.” So for him, I mean, it’s just like, “Come on with me and make these things happen.” But also has increased my salary tremendously.

Russell Toynes:
There you go. There you go.

Maurice Cherry:
So for that I am very thankful.

Russell Toynes:
It makes dollars and sense, huh?

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. Yeah. So just to switch gears a little bit, we talked a lot about Studio Dzo. But let’s focus on you, because you’re the subject, of course, of this interview. Tell me a bit about where you grew up.

Russell Toynes:
So I grew up in Austin, Texas. I’m one of the few Austin Knights that are OOG. Not these people that came in from outside or from California. So I’ve seen Austin change tremendously over the last 38 years.

Russell Toynes:
I was born in Houston and we moved here as a kid. I remember the ride here. But yeah, I’ve grown up in Austin, and South Austin in particular, and still live in South Austin. And I have a love/hate with the city, because this is my city. And I say that because I’ve spent a long time more recently just trying to retrace my roots, and you know that can be challenging for us. And so, realizing my entire family is from Austin.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Russell Toynes:
My dad was born here in Austin. My great, great, great-

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, I was born here in Austin. My great, great, great grandfather was born in Austin and crazy thing was, just recently, a random phone call came to the studio, right? This woman’s like, “I’m cleaning up my property and there’s a headstone with Toynes on it, on my property.” And she was like, “I don’t think anybody’s buried here but there’s headstones here.” And it’s my great grandfather’s headstone. And so, he has a headstone in Evergreen Cemetery so I’m like, “What is this about?”

Russell Toynes:
And so, but we’ve always joked because the headstone in Evergreen cemetery’s incorrect, it makes him 150-years-old when he was dead. So whoever made that one, the numbers are wrong. But this one had the correct numbers with the wrong spelling of his first name. And so it was just all … I don’t know the story behind this but just to reiterate, my family has been here and everything about my family is Austin and East Austin, in particular. And so it’s hard for me to see East Austin different.

Russell Toynes:
It’s hard for me to see it where I don’t know what our black population is but it was 8%, I think, at its highest and it’s three maybe now. I don’t know, but it’s not what it used to be and the communities now are so transient. It’s starting to feel a little bit like New York where you just don’t know who’s going to be here for how long. So it’s been sad for me to accept what’s happening to Austin. And I think it’s also been hard for me to accept that maybe this isn’t my forever place. Even though my family has been here forever, this may not be my forever place.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that’s something a lot of people are realizing particularly over the past two years. Not just because of the pandemic, but because of gentrification, inflation, everything is more expensive. Atlanta is very much a transient city like that, as well. I’m originally from Alabama but I’ve been in Atlanta now for 23 years. I think I came in ’99. So I’ve been here for about 23 years now and even seeing how much Atlanta has changed when I came as a teenager to now being a full grown-ass man and seeing how things have changed, even just different parts of the city.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember when I first got here, I’d say maybe I was a junior in college. My first apartment was like$600 a month in Buckhead. That’s impossible now. And then I stayed in another place in Buckhead, it was a two bedroom. One room was my office, one was my bedroom and it was right off of Peachtree Street in Buckhead proper for like $750 a month or something like that. Now those are like $2.5 million condos. It’s wild seeing how the city has changed over the years. So I totally get what you mean.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah. It’s a hard pill to swallow and then also to see who gets pushed out and who comes in, right? And it’s not like everybody’s just winning, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Russell Toynes:
So it’s hard. It’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Especially here because Atlanta, of course, has a reputation of being a city that’s really … There’s a lot of prosperous black people here. A lot of affluent black people here, which is true. I totally don’t think I would’ve been able to accomplish what I was able to accomplish entrepreneurship wise in any other city but Atlanta because I had a lot of support from the black community here. But yeah, rents are getting more and more expensive. Everything is just more expensive. It’s tough to move here now and start out fresh than you could maybe even like 10 years ago because everything is just changing.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah. I love Atlanta. Me and my wife, we have friends and … We don’t have any family but we would like to think of them as family. But we have a lot of people that we know in Atlanta and we love going there and it’s just a huge, huge city. People think Austin, they think, “Oh it’s such a cool city.” It’s a small … When you talk about footprint wise, the city is small. And Atlanta, you got like seven lane highways and I don’t even know why you have a speed limit. Let’s be honest, right?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. That’s true.

Russell Toynes:
Everybody, even the police, man, they’re out there 80 on the highway and it says 65, 55. You’re like, you can’t even legally go this limit. Yeah, and I love what y’all have done unlike Austin, right? What y’all have done with Ponce City Market, how you took an old building and instead of tearing it down like they would do in Austin, you utilized it and I know they’re not at all affordable in any way. But they used to utilize it for housing in a development instead of just tearing it down and creating something brand new, which is Austin’s mode of operations here.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, we have a couple of places like that in Atlanta. There’s Krog Street Market. There’s a couple other places probably further outside the perimeter but Atlanta is good for tearing shit down, too, and just starting anew. I tell people, because I used to work in the tourism industry here and I tell people Atlanta’s a city that every seven years tries to find a new identity. It tries to find like what’s the new thing that we can latch on to and really make our thing. Because I was working in the tourism industry from 2005 to 2007.

Maurice Cherry:
And so during that time Hurricane Katrina happened. But when I first started in 2005, Atlanta was really trying to distinguish itself from say, Orlando or Vegas or New York because people like to come to Atlanta. But the reasons that they like to come to Atlanta were not … How can I put this? Family friendly reasons for wanting to come. Like, they’ll go to Orlando because of Disney World, they’ll go to New York City because of the culture. But there was no distinguishing thing that people would come to Atlanta for. At least not ones that you would put on a tourism pamphlet.

Russell Toynes:
Other than the World of Coke and the aquarium.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, we didn’t even have the aquarium then. This was pre the aquarium, yeah. I was at the groundbreaking for the aquarium. But this was even before then, all we had was World of Coke. We had the zoo and Turner Fields. That’s about it. There’s not a lot of places, really. People came to Atlanta back then because, one, it carried over this reputation of being a party city from the 90s but you’ve got hip-hop, you’ve got all kinds of entertainment. You’ve got clubs. That’s why people came to Atlanta to have fun, to have a good time. But none of those things … They’re not going to put strippers on a pamphlet and have that at the airport. Is that a reason people would come? Sure. But that’s not one that the Atlanta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau would get behind because they’re trying to get-

Russell Toynes:
If Vegas can do it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well. But see, they’re trying to get multi-million dollar shows to come here. And we had a huge show pull out in 2005 called, Home Builders. Something happened with like, somebody said the wrong thing to somebody and this million dollar show pulled out of Atlanta. And then there was another big show, T.D. Jakes, the evangelist, the preacher. Yeah. He used to do this big thing called, MegaFest and he would bring it to Atlanta. And it was basically like a two week, I don’t know, MegaFest. I mean it had carnival rides, it had speakers and panels and all this sort of stuff and they pulled out, as well. And so Atlanta was like, “Well, we don’t have any reason for people to come here.” Because the other thing was these conventions would all be downtown and downtown is a ghost town after five o’clock.

Russell Toynes:
Yes, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
People commute downtown and then they leave and the only thing that’s really downtown at night are homeless folks. And so because of that, conventions didn’t feel like they wanted to have people down there because they were getting accosted by people on the street and they didn’t feel it was safe and everything. And so, one of the things that happened was the aquarium opened but then Hurricane Katrina happened and a lot of conventions had to relocate to Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:
And so we had a big boom there for a while but then that died out as New Orleans tried to rebuild and conventions went back there. So then the Georgia Tourism Department basically worked with the state to get all these tax benefits for movies and television shows and studios and stuff to shoot here. So now that’s the big thing that Atlanta is for. Atlanta is like quote, unquote, “Black Hollywood.”

Russell Toynes:
I love it, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Because you have so many movies and shows and things that are here that people come and shoot for. I mean it’s rare now, well it used to be rare back then, but now it’s super common to watch a movie and be like, “Oh yeah, that’s in Atlanta.” Like I’ll watch Black Panther, that scene at the museum. I used to work at that museum selling tickets.

Russell Toynes:
That’s awesome. That’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
So, I’d look at stuff and be like, “Okay, that’s …” But even now that’s starting to die off because politics, now politicians here have certain views and then that goes against what the companies are here that are giving them … It’s a whole … Atlanta’s complicated, man. Really it’s Georgia, but Atlanta itself is a complicated blue dot in a very red state.

Russell Toynes:
That is, yeah, that is a whole message right there. Exactly. I mean, we’ve even talked about moving to Atlanta and they were like, “But it’s in Georgia,” you know? And I’m in Texas, so I can’t really say anything because both states are sitting in the same spot. But just like Atlanta, Austin is that blueberry in the tomato soup.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Russell Toynes:
But unfortunately, like you said, the politics of both states have gotten a bad reputation.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean, if you’re in Atlanta, it’s so funny. I remember this from, oh, I know what the show is. It was, Sex and the City. And there’s this episode of, Sex and the City, where Carrie and Miranda are double dating these guys. And one of the guys says something about how he’s never left New York and Miranda’s like, “Oh, he’s a weirdo if he’s never left New York.” There’s people here that have moved to Atlanta and have never left Atlanta. They’ve stayed right in the perimeter or right in inside the metropolitan area because anything outside of here is deliverance. It’s a totally different thing, if you go an hour in any direction from the center of Atlanta, like good luck.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, it is strange also. But the thing is y’all can travel for three or four hours, maybe not safely, but you can travel for three or four hours and be in a whole other state. With us, it takes eight hours to get to El Paso.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. That’s true.

Russell Toynes:
It’s like, you want to get to the coast, that’s a three hour trip. You want to get to Dallas, that’s a three and a half hour trip with no traffic. And so, Houston, same thing, three hours. And so everything just takes a long time and you’re still in the damn state.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So being from Austin and growing up there, were you exposed to a lot of design and everything growing up?

Russell Toynes:
Short answer, no. For me, designer was exclusive to jeans and fragrance. I didn’t know, no one ever told me. I think this just happens to being an 80’s kid. Having someone sit down and point to you in the library like, you see that crappy poster, somebody designed that. You see this book, someone designed it. No one ever did that, right? So you really only knew the jobs that you saw people do, you know? So my dad worked in restaurants and then basically did sales for Circuit City. That’s dating, right?

Russell Toynes:
My mom’s always been in insurance and then pretty much every single person I knew either worked for the post office or for some insurance company or had military history or just worked some random office job. So no one ever sat down with me, ever and said, you could be this. I was talking to my wife and I was like, “The first time I ever met somebody at a career fair or something,” and then that person was like, “This is what I do.” And then I said, “I want to do that.” The very first time that happened, I think I was in fourth grade and it was a lobbyist and I was like, “I want to do what they do.”

Russell Toynes:
I have no idea what was compelling about being a lobbyist. But I think it was the idea of convincing people, right? And so, no. No one ever told me. So design wasn’t ever presented to me. And it wasn’t until I realized when I went to school, that design is problem solving. And that’s all I have ever done as a kid, is I was that kid that woke up at five o’clock in the morning with a problem, right? With a problem that I manifested in my dreams and I had to find a solution. So I was constantly taking things apart, re-imagining things, putting things together, just making up shit for myself to do and I was always solving problems.

Russell Toynes:
I’ve always been a natural leader, too. I just managed to convince people to follow me in some direction. And thankfully I never started a cult but it probably wouldn’t been too hard for me. But I always had the knack of being a loner but having no problem getting followers, but never wanted to be a follower. So I was that kid that was cool with everybody, but really was kind of a loner in a way. Everyone knew me. I had lots of friends but I only let certain people in.

Russell Toynes:
So as a natural problem solver, I just found myself into lots of things, but no one ever gave me the design word to call it. And it wasn’t until my older brother graduated from school from ACC also with a design degree and a degree in politics, that I even understood that designers had software and they did things and it just wasn’t like … I don’t know, it wasn’t a word or it wasn’t painter, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you went to Austin Community College and you studied design and visual communications. How was that experience?

Russell Toynes:
Like a lot of black designers, I had a very unconventional journey into design. So as I mentioned, I didn’t know what design was. So my original entrepreneur efforts started when I was catching shoplifters for four years. And then my daughter was born and she needed round-the-clock care at home. So me and my wife had to decide who’s going to stay at home and take care of her and who’s going to go to work. And she had the better benefits so it was like, “Okay, I’ll stay at home and take care of her.”

Russell Toynes:
Well, money still needs to be had and so I always had aspirations to be a film director. So I started writing little films and things like that, but that doesn’t pay but I had the knowledge and understanding to cut video. And so I started out just cutting people’s home videos, taking people’s crappy home videos and removing all this stuff where mom left it on the table recording nothing and all that and just started doing that. And that led down to a very strange path to me working with lots of people, one being Vanilla Ice and-

Maurice Cherry:
What?

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, random. So yeah, I did a really, really crappy music video for a friend. I did it for $6, too. That’s just how you helped your friends for back then. And so, and then a promoter for Vanilla Ice saw it … I’m embarrassed to say that. But saw it and then they called me up and they’re like, “We have a whole bunch of raw footage from a concert in ’99 or 2000.” They’re like, “Can you cut it and put it to DVD?” And I was like, “Yeah.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Russell Toynes:
And so that got things started. So that got me out of doing the home videos. And then that’s when people were like, “Oh, can you do a music video for me? Can you do that?” And I ended up working on a big project for Text Dots, a training video for them. And I saw the future of me being in this film video game but I had no education. I had no knowledge, I didn’t know anything about anything. I was just doing whatever, how it worked and it worked okay.

Russell Toynes:
But then in 2006, I guess it was 2005, I was working with a rapper and they were less than honest with the people who were giving them money. And then basically, I always tried to operate with contracts. And basically he was trying to get out of the contract and made it quite dramatic. I’ll spare you the details. But let’s just say that, I had to act less than professional because he was acting less than professional, you know [crosstalk 00:39:51]-

Maurice Cherry:
Got it, got it. No, no, I know what you mean.

Russell Toynes:
… when you get grown. And so, I was just like, “I’m done with this shit. I’m done with this shit” And I just woke up January 1st, 2006 and I was like, “I’m a designer. That’s it, that’s it.” I just put that shit out in the universe, right? And so, my older brother gave me a bootleg copy of CS2 and I just started working in Illustrator. I had already been designing DVD covers and things like that for the stuff that I had been doing, but I didn’t know anything about it. And so, but what was crazy was like I said, I have never had a problem getting people to follow me.

Russell Toynes:
I just told the world I was a designer and the world just said, “Okay,” and the world just like, “so can you do this for me? Can you do this for me?” And so I had a nice little nest of construction people and concrete people who were just like, they didn’t know anything about anything but they could just pay me and they’d get their carbonless forms and business cards and mailers and their trucks with vinyl on it and things like that.

Russell Toynes:
And I was doing the worst design on the planet and it was awful, but it was paying barely any of the bills I had. And I was just making it each day. But I thought I was balling, too, I got myself a little … This tells you the time, too. I got myself a little one room office on Burnett Road in central Austin for $250 a month. That’s all it cost.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Russell Toynes:
So I thought I was balling. I was like, I got an office and this and this. I didn’t need no office, I could have worked from home, but this was just my excuse to give myself the tools to feel like I have arrived. And then I started mentoring young people at LBJ and I had gone to LBJ Science Academy at the time. It was called Science Academy at the time. Now it’s called Liberal Arts and Science Academy. But I started mentoring young people there and they were learning Illustrator Photoshop in design all in one semester.

Russell Toynes:
And I was like, these damn kids are going to take my job. I got to get more education. So I went to ACC and I was 27-years-old. I had a five-year-old daughter at the time. I was divorced. And I just saw that I had a lot of passion, I had a lot of drive, but I had no education. And this just winging it was proving not … I wasn’t going to be able to sustain myself if I wanted to make a life for myself at all in design. So I went to school and that was the best damn decision I ever made in my life.

Maurice Cherry:
So after you went to school and you graduated, what was your early career like? You mentioned earlier, you had worked for Dell for quite a number of years.

Russell Toynes:
You know, I still freelanced while I was in school and I very much have always been a person to take advantage of every single opportunity. And I meet somebody and I’m like, if I want to work with them, I’m going to make them work with me. I just have the ability to just manifest a lot of what I want. And so for me, I stayed very involved in design and design community and everything. And I had a great, great portfolio professor who later became a mentor, Owen Hammonds and, yeah, still is a friend of mine. I mean, I call him my mentor. He says, we’re just friends.

Russell Toynes:
But I still see him as a huge, huge influence to me. I attribute almost all of my success to him and it was honored to have him in my wedding. It was an honor to have him in my life and call him a friend. And we’re both very, very busy, but whenever we get on the phone with each other or see each other, it’s just an honor. So, but yeah, he really took me under his wing. He was my portfolio professor at ACC and he just saw this hustler in me and he was like, “This dude’s going to do it.” And he just plugged me in and just stayed on me and never, never bullshitted me, never gassed me up, always pushed me to be better.

Russell Toynes:
And so right out of school … I’m sure you have them in Atlanta. I’m sure you’ve heard of them, like various talent head hunters, right? Like Aquent or Liaison Resources or the Creative Group and all of them. So Aquent had come to one of our classes and talked about, they’d find jobs for creatives and all this stuff like that. So I just graduated, I mean, literally the day we finished class. So I hadn’t even graduated yet, just the class was done. I just was on in the car driving. I just called them up and I was like, “Hey, heard you can get me a job.” And they were like, “Send me your portfolio.”

Russell Toynes:
And then the next day they called me in. They’re like, “Hey, let’s talk.” And they’re like, “We have these jobs.” And so I started interviewing for people and I interviewed at Dell and it took them a little bit of time to see my magic. But after four months, basically interviewing with them two or three times, I interviewed with them for lunches and all this stuff. And I was like, “You like me, I like you. Let’s do this,” right? Like dating. I got put on at Dell and I started out as a designer and worked my way up to senior designer, art director, senior art director.

Russell Toynes:
And really, I tell people I got my degree in Visual Communications at ACC, but I got my Masters in the Business of Design at Dell. I had an amazing creative director, Tommy Lynn, who really, really, really taught me a lot, gave me a lot of autonomy, really trusted me. And I still see him as a friend and a mentor, even now. And we’ve both been gone from Dell for many years, but I learned the business of design. I understood how to handle clients, how to give them the level of service that brings them back. And I know it sounds weird because I’m was on the brand team, so we only answered to the brand.

Russell Toynes:
We developed the brand, we evolved the brand, but we had internal clients who used our team to create resources that promoted Dell’s brand. So it would be a corporate responsibility team. It really wasn’t marketing, we didn’t do anything about selling product. It was about selling the brand as a whole. And so having both Owen Hammonds, having the education, helped me land Dell but Dell helped me really take this entrepreneurial energy that I’ve always possessed and really, really hone it into-

Russell Toynes:
… kind of possessed and really, really hone it into where my next step was, was, and I didn’t really realize that I wanted to go back to being an entrepreneur, but they set me up tremendously and gave me a fat paycheck to learn over the course of five and a half years. So I’m not going to complain about that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there you go. I mean, when you had your time there working at Dell and learning about the business of design, was that the impetus for you to start your own studio?

Russell Toynes:
No, honestly, no. I saw myself like everybody else. You go from one place, you do three to five years, then you go to another place. And honestly, I didn’t see myself going back into entrepreneurship, because I had never had a nine to five salary with benefits and all that. I had basically worked an hourly job until my daughter was born, and then basically just like hustled in the worst way possible to make crumbs doing video and design and whatnot. So when somebody was like, “Here, here’s a paycheck and here’s some benefits and here’s a lifestyle you’ve never had.” I just figured this is it. I’ve just landed the jackpot. But then over five and a half years, you start to realize there is a ceiling, and it depends on who your manager is. It depends on who your executive is, and you start realizing, people start leaving and you start wondering, am I the last ship… Sorry, am I the last rat on a sinking ship?

Russell Toynes:
And so all my team that I had been with over the five and a half years, only one other person was with me. And so we had watched like 20 people over the course of the time come in and out that it was just like, okay, the writing’s in the wall, you either going to be a lifer here or you got to find something else. It was really my wife who said… She’s always been my greatest supporter, and I had talked about owning a business and her father had sold his business and was kind of always envious of design and wanted to do something with me. And so I said, “Look, we’ll do something, but we’ll do it on my terms.” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And so after basically I tried to bluff my executive at Dell to give me more money and to give me a promotion, basically I tried to bluff and be like, “Well, I’m going to have to go find something else.” And they were like, “Look…”

Russell Toynes:
So I was like, “Look, I just can’t blow smoke. I got to do this.” And so I left on September 7th. And I thought I was going to take the whole month of September off. And like two weeks later, started the laying the ground work for Studio Dzo. With my father-in-law and mine to be my partner, long story short, we realized quickly we cannot work together. My wife realized that before we realized that.

Russell Toynes:
And my wife was like, “Look, if… Because we were about to get married, she’s like, “If we’re going to get married. We can’t have this. I got to have a relationship with my father. I got to have a relationship with my husband. Y’all can’t be at each other’s throat.” We had very different mindsets of what this business was going to be. So we had a negotiation with him, had a conversation and we said, “It’s time for you to retire. Go and do your own thing.” And, and he’s a restless person anyway. So he had a software business. He’s now able to dedicate himself to that. And so he was with us for about the first seven months of Studio Dzo.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I mean, I guess you didn’t want it to be that much of a family business.

Russell Toynes:
He really wanted that. He only has girls. So he really wanted this family business with the son-in-law and all this stuff like that. And I think he had this idea, but in his head that he really wanted. But yeah, now it’s just me and my wife and it’s good. We have the same interests, both financially and the goal of the business. So we are in sync where if you have different people who have different lifestyles and different households, it gets complicated. It’s like, well, if you’re eating steak, I need to eat steak. Where it’s like now we got to afford two steaks, versus me and my wife having a steak kind of thing. And so, yeah, it’s really complicate when you have different households and the family business is obviously complicated, but me and my wife very much, we have professional backgrounds so we always operate very professionally, at least on camera.

Maurice Cherry:
What were those kind of early days like with the Studio?

Russell Toynes:
Oh man. So really it was… Like I said, I got the business of design from Dell, so I knew what I wanted, but it was scary. I’m not going to lie. But I knew that I had set myself up financially thanks to Dell that if I failed, I was going to fail quickly and I was just going to go and work some at some other place. So I knew what I wanted. And so thankfully I was aware that couldn’t do it all. So I had hired a friend of mine to help me develop the brand. I had hired a student of mine to just basically be like the hands of things. I had really just put people in the right places so that way I can focus on the development of the business. Thankfully, my wife had already been doing books for her father’s business and she’s an accountant, that’s her education in accounting.

Russell Toynes:
And so she does all things like money side. So she’s thankfully was able to do all of that. So all I had to do was basically sell and do the work and that’s kind of what I’m really, really good at. And so it was scary at first, but we also were a smaller team. I guess we were five at the time, but I just didn’t know what it was going to be. But honestly like people have just trusted us and I hate to kind of keep hitting it over the head with it, but I’ve never had a problem with getting people to follow us. So being able to sit down with somebody and tell them what we do and why we do it and why they should choose us wasn’t difficult.

Russell Toynes:
What was difficult was disrupting design business, design industry. So we’re designers who design signage, wayfinding, and physical experiences. But the problem with the sign industry is they’re like the bastard child of construction. So what typically happens is a developer gives their general contractor a budget for signage. And so the general contractor is just trying to find somebody to stick something’s up on the walls so that way they can get their certificate of occupancy. And so no one is ever talking about brand. No one’s ever talking about experience. No one’s talking about that. These sign shops, some of them, not all of them, are just trying to basically put a piece of acrylic with ADA beads on and in whatever default typeface they can in the cheapest way possible. It’s like a race to the bottom. It’s like everyone’s trying to be the Walmart of signs.

Russell Toynes:
And so I knew that I did not want to do that. And after listening to my father-in-law, who owned a sign company for like 20 years and he owned Sign Tech International, which at a time was like one of the biggest manufacturers in Texas. He was like, “No, no people, that’s not how it works. We design it. We sell it. We mark up the price and that’s how we get paid.” And I was like, “So what happens when you design it and then they go and take it to somebody else and they get a lower bid?” And he’s like, “Well, that just happens.” And I was like, “No, it doesn’t. Not here. It’s not going to happen here.” I was like, “We’re designers. We get paid to solve problems. We need to be paid or we’re not going to do this.” And he is like, “You’re not going to get people to pay for design before they see it.”

Russell Toynes:
And I was like, “Well, then we’re going to be out of business real quick.” That was the weird thing is going into people who are used to basically, “Well, show me something. And if I like it, I’ll buy it.” We’re going to walk through this together. We’re going to talk about your problems. We’re going to talk about opportunities. You’re going to pay me up front and then I’m going to show you what that is going to look like. And that’s like I said, me and my father-in-law butted heads quite a bit. It was over that, because he was like, “Oh, I’ve been working with this person for years. We don’t need to charge him for design.” I was like, “No, you’re setting a precedent with everybody if you do that.” So we would butt heads and that’s when he was like, “Maybe this isn’t good for us to be in business together.

Russell Toynes:
And that’s when I was like, “Let’s do it my way.” My wife was already on board and we now have, that’s all we do. That’s what we do. And people know us for that is that we solve our problems with design first. And then if you like what we design, and we’re all done with the design process, we’re going to give you a quote for fabrication, installation. But because you paid for that design process, you can take those files and share them with anybody else. You’ve already paid me for my work. This is now in your hands. So if you want to go out there and get a quote from somebody else, you can. No sweat off my back. I just keep it moving and go on to the next project. But if they do go with us, then we’ll fabricate and we have partners all around the world we fabricate with. And then we have partners both locally and all around to install.

Russell Toynes:
And 90% still go with us. I would say more than that. 95% stay with us to do the fabrication, installation process because we don’t cut corners. And so they know that if we spec this particular material, we spec this particular lighting temperature, whatever, that’s what’s going to be. It’s not going to get in the hands of somebody else that then chops it up to make more profit. And then gives them a subpar product. We don’t do that. And so we have no problem getting people to commit through the whole entire process, but we put those breaks, because some people have to get multiple bids. Some people think that they’re not getting the best deal. And we tell people, we will never be the cheapest, but we’re the best, is what I say.

Russell Toynes:
We do good work. That’s our motto. We do good work for good people with good people. And so first and foremost is that, like I said, I don’t work for anybody. I work with people. We call all of our clients partners because I pick and choose who I want to work with. If they’re not a good person, we don’t work with them. And there’s been times where I’ve had to dig in on somebody just for a second, like they call us up and want to work with us. I Google everybody, and if I find anything that doesn’t agree with our values, I just say, “Hey, I don’t think it’s a good fit.”

Russell Toynes:
Because we believe that everyone should be treated equitably, fairly, and that this world is unfair and we’re not going to contribute to that in any way possible. We want to support all those, especially those who are not supported. We want to support the weirdos, the people who are aren’t typically accepted. And we want to support obviously our black community, our underrepresented community. And so we do a lot to make sure that our good work extends beyond what actually earns us money, but also we do a lot of work with nonprofits and we donate a lot of hours and times to people in organizations.

Maurice Cherry:
And I have to say one of the best things about having your own business is running it exactly how you want it. Like if it’s a bad client experience, you don’t have to work with them. You can fire the client. Or if you have a certain intake process where you know exactly the kind of people you want to work with, that’s the best part. That was the best part back when I had my studio of really picking and choosing the clients that you want to have, knowing that just because any work comes across your desk, you don’t have to take it if it doesn’t feel good.

Russell Toynes:
That’s the freedom. And that’s what I tell people is that I left Dell to have that freedom. And a lot of people think freelance comes with freedom. I say, there’s nothing free about freelancing at all. You have to decide, do I want this money or do I not want this money? And for us we’re not dollar driven. As long as we’re able to pay all of our team members and pay ourselves a salary that we have dedicated, that’s it. Anything extra’s great, and we really typically roll it into the business one way or the other, but I don’t want to have to say yes to every project and know that it’s bad work, but it’s paying the bills.

Russell Toynes:
And so I’m a firm believer that just like free work leads to more free work, same thing with bad work. Crap work leads to more crap work. And so if it’s not a right fit for us, the project’s not a right fit. If the timeline… That’s the biggest thing is some people just don’t understand the process and the timeline. And if they don’t want to adhere to our process and respect our process, that’s a big red flag. So exactly, being able to pick and choose who you work with is really the reward for owning the business. The rest of it’s still work. It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s work. It’s not called fun.

Maurice Cherry:
But the best thing you can do though, because you know it’s still work is at least shape your own ideal work conditions.

Russell Toynes:
Exactly, exactly. And that’s the thing too like I said about what I learned about Dell is, I had a great creative director who taught us the work life balance. And I will say that Dell actually has a really good work life balance throughout the entire company. So never did I feel like I had to be… I was on the edge of burnout or anything like that. When it was weekends, no one called you. When it was holidays, no one called you. You didn’t get woken up in the middle of the night having to do this or that. So there was a really good work life balance. So I knew I did not want to take that away from myself. And I didn’t want to create an environment where my team felt that way. We offer 27 plus paid holidays to all of our team members. Doesn’t matter if they’re part-time or not. We just went through the holidays today or yesterday, they get two weeks off at the end of the year. I’m like, “I’m paying them for two weeks?”

Russell Toynes:
But we want them, and that’s on top of their PTO too. They get two weeks PTO on top of the 27 holidays and for us, and then they still have the get it done model. So if they want to travel somewhere and work three days and then be off for two days, then they only use two days PTO. And so for us, we really just want them to have a reason to be with us. And that do good work motto is really what it’s all about is that we want them to do good work, but we have to do good work by them. And we have to treat them fairly. We have to give them a reasonable salary. I can’t compete with the Googles and the Apples and these people who are throwing stupid money at all these people.

Russell Toynes:
I can’t compete with that. We’re a small business. But what I can say is I can give you a work life balance that’s fair, treat you like a human being. You’re going to speak with another human being who’s also a father, who’s also a husband, who’s also an educator, who’s going to understand what you’re going through, and we’re going to make a compromise. If you got to take some days off, let’s figure out what it’s going to work. If something’s got to be moved around, let’s figure out how to make it work, so that way you can be efficient and we can be efficient.

Maurice Cherry:
With Studio Dzo, I mean, of course, clearly you’re doing a ton of great work, but you also do a lot of community work as well. And one organization that you work with is one that our listeners, I’m sure, know about. They’re probably members of it. And that’s AAGD, which is African American Graphic Designers. Tell me about that. How’d you get involved with them?

Russell Toynes:
So it’s funny. So [Owen Hammonds 01:00:55] had kind of twisted my arm. So I’m a designer, I’m not an artist. And I make that very, very clear. I don’t express myself through art or at least through design. I don’t. I doodle, I do some things to be creative, but I’m not an artist. But Owen kind of put me up to this challenge. They were doing a gallery thing at [St. Ed’s 01:01:16], and he kind of said, “Hey Russ, I want you to participate.” And like I said, he’s a mentor of mine, so anything he asked me to do, I’m going to say yes. So he was like, “This is a self-portrait gallery and you have to basically draw or create an image of yourself.” And it was like the worst project ever for me to have to do.

Russell Toynes:
So in there, we’re presenting our work at the end and it’s a gallery opening and everything. And [Terrance Moline 01:01:42] was also part of that gallery. And so I hear him talking and he’s from New Orleans and he tells a little bit about his story and all that. I, like I said, I’m kind of a person who just says, I’m going to make this happen. I immediately looked at him and I was like, We’re going to be friends.” I’m going to make this man my friend. And so I introduced myself and he told me a little bit about AAGD, I think we followed each other on LinkedIn or on Facebook or something like that. And then we just kind of bumped into each other a little bit off and on. And I was really, really interested. And I think I pinged him a couple times about it and asked him about it.

Russell Toynes:
He had had the Facebook group for a couple years. I think 2006 is when he started it, maybe. Katrina forced him to move to Austin. So he had had it for a while, but it was just like a social thing. It was just a community based thing that was more about sharing the work. But he had visions of it being kind of a business model, but didn’t really know where it was going to go. So I guess probably 2019, he really started doubling down on it being a business model and creating more benefits for its members in exchange for a membership fee. And so pandemic hit early 2020, and I don’t know how we kicked off, but we just like, we hit the ground running. He was just like, “Hey, you’ve been really involved in AAGD like with me, I’d love for you to look over some of this stuff and just tell me what would you do?”

Russell Toynes:
And I had been involved in AIGA, quite a bit. I was the vice president. Owen Hammonds being the president at the time, too, when I was vice president. I had kind of understood like basically AAGD is kind of like a black AIGA. So I understood what was working for AIGA, also what wasn’t working for AIGA, and what I saw could be an opportunity for AAGD. So we just kind of like together just worked on how do we build this out to be a membership model. So another core member is [Dave McClinton 01:03:40]. And me and Dave met at that gallery too. And I looked at Dave and I was like, “We’re going to be friends,” too. So Dave got really involved. So it was just one of those things, like these two gentlemen that I met one night, and I said, “I want to be friends with them,” fast forward a couple years here we are we meet every Tuesday. We joke around. We hang out, and it’s just it’s an absolute honor to call these very, very talented, passionate creatives friends of mine.

Russell Toynes:
But then meeting all the people through AAGD, that I’ve met, it’s just amazing. It started up with just the need to create community for himself because transplant from New Orleans to Austin, not finding the black community that he had New Orleans wanting to find those, he needed to find it online. Now to this international organization that the one thing that we have in common is that we’re all black in some varying degree and that we are all creatives. And the creativity spans from film, digital UX UI, all across the board. And just as a design educator and as a person with my experience, I am constantly sharing my knowledge about both the business of design and then also helping them empower them with the confidence to charge more or to get contracts or to understand this idea of freelancing sounds great, but you have to set goals or you’re just going to work yourself to death.

Russell Toynes:
You got to set a salary. You got to tell yourself this is how much money I want to make. And then divide that up by 12 and then divide that up by a day and figure out how much money you got to make every single day to make that salary. So a lot of people don’t understand that right off the bat when they’re like, “I want to be an entrepreneur.” And then unfortunately too, a lot of black creatives don’t see themselves in the work space. And so they think entrepreneurship is the only path for them, because they’ve never seen anybody like them at a major creative agency. And so, a lot of them have no understanding of the business of design, because they’ve never worked at a agency, they’ve only done it freelance, they’ve only done it their own way.

Russell Toynes:
So I try to meet them where they’re at and share with them both my experience from Dell, but so my experience as a owner of Studio Dzo, and just try to tell them, if you are finding these challenges, these are some of the solutions. So AAGD has been a great endeavor of Terrance’s and I’m just honored to be trusted with some of it.

Maurice Cherry:
And so kind of bring it back to education, we sort of alluded to this before we started of recording the interview, but you’ve talked about being a design educator. You also now teach at where you learned design, which was at Austin Community College, that you’ve kind of had this full circle moment. Talk to me about that.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah. So really, again, I’m no stranger to anything. My whole life has just been like this one long story of, surely you’re going to be a designer, but I have always taught in some capacity. So while I was freelancing back in like 2005, I needed additional income because freelancing wasn’t doing it. And so I started working with an organization called No Kidding, Straight Talk from Teen Parents, which was funded by the Attorney General’s Office, which was a nonprofit organization that basically utilized the stories of teen parents to use a teaching tool for middle school and high school students. And so I technically didn’t fall under the category of teen parent. I was 20 years old when my daughter was born, but we had a very unique story. My daughter needed lots of medical care. And so my story was unique in the sense of as much as you thought you had everything planned, plan for the unexpected.

Russell Toynes:
And so I go to middle schools and high schools and give presentations and talk and that ended up putting me on national stage at the National Child Support Conference. So I’ve always had presentation and teaching opportunities. And then while I was in school to supplement my income, I used to teach defensive driving. So I tell people, if you can take a room people and for six hours and make them enjoy it, you could do anything. Because they don’t even want to be there. They bought tickets to a show they don’t even want to be at. But everything I do, I do 113%. That’s my motto. And so no matter teaching defensive driving or talking to young people, I just pour my heart into it, because I’m just kind of one of those people that just, I can’t half-ass anything.

Russell Toynes:
And so it was just only natural for me to see myself as a design educator, but really what it was, and I attribute this 100%, was Owen Hammonds. To see another black man teach and to be passionate and understanding at the same time, but also pull no punches and really give it to you straight and push people to be the best designer they can be. He gave me that vision of like, “I could do this.” And so I made it my goal after starting at Dell, I said, “In five years, I want to teach,” like that’s my next rung. And it only took me three years later after saying that, that I started teaching. So I started teaching in 2015, I think, 2015. I’m like, man, we’re going up on seven years now. I can’t bel-

Russell Toynes:
Man, we’re coming up on seven years now, and just I can’t believe it’s, yeah, 2015, I started teaching, and I started teaching Portfolio. I have been teaching Portfolio for seven years.

Russell Toynes:
I started a new course because I was finding that my students had no knowledge, including myself. When I left school, when I graduated, I started at Dell, I never knew what a project manager did. I thought they were just like the pretty people who sold our designs. I didn’t know what they did.

Russell Toynes:
Then when you get an amazing project manager who has your back and is that buffer between you and the client and really helps elevate your design and keeps you on track, but keeps them focused and not, “Oh, I want to see this. I want to see that.” When you have a really good project manager, it just changes your life as a designer. So at Dell, I had the whole kit and caboodle. I had great project managers, and I had terrible project managers at various times.

Russell Toynes:
So I was finding that my students were getting into Portfolio, which is a capstone class. They graduate after my class with no knowledge that there were other roles other than designer and creative director. For some reason, they all know creative director, but they didn’t know like associate creative director, senior art director, art director, senior designer, junior designer, production designer. They didn’t know anything about those. Those roles didn’t even pop up in their heads.

Russell Toynes:
So I had basically harassed my department chair that I’m, like, these students have no idea the various areas of design that they could find themselves in, and a lot of the project managers, the best project managers I ever worked with, all had degrees in design. They just didn’t have either the passion or the skills to hack it, but they understood design, which makes a really great project manager.

Russell Toynes:
So along with Rachel Wyatt, colleague of mine, we wrote this course called Studio, Design Studio. Basically, it’s a simulation course where students come in, and they play the role of a project manager, or an art director, or senior designer or creative director, or something like that. They change roles throughout the course, but it gives them a real-life experience. Then they have three projects over the course of that semester, and all those clients are real clients so they have to deal with somebody not liking their work. It’s not about the grade. It’s about did you solve the problem? Did you meet your client’s expectations?

Russell Toynes:
I remember the first time I taught that class was 2020. We wrote this course during the pandemic, and we delivered it in the fall of 2020. I had two teams. I have eight students, and I had two teams of four. One had their presentation buckled up, and it was right and tight, and they knocked their socks off. Then the other team, they just couldn’t get their shit together. They presented, and it was just falling apart and everything, and it was all over.

Russell Toynes:
I meet with them, the teams, and I was like, “How are you feeling?” And they’re like, “Shit, this is an awful feeling.” I was like, “Remember that.” I was like, “Get your shit together, get it right and tight. When you’re presenting in front of a client, this is the opportunity for you to sell your design. This is everything. You’re building trust and all that.”

Russell Toynes:
So this course is really doing what it’s designed to do is to give them that experience. That way, when they go out and get their first job at an agency or at a studio, these roles, these requirements, these things that they’re going to be asked of aren’t foreign to them that they’ve like, “Oh, I presented my work.”

Russell Toynes:
Because a lot of designers aren’t forced to present and sell their work. They just hand it to a project manager or to a creative director. They don’t actually get to engage with the client and be able to talk of about and articulate their design thinking. Instead, they’re just like, “Do you like it or do you not?”

Russell Toynes:
So I explained to my students like, “You have to be able to sell your work,” and so by the time they get to Portfolio, they’re able to talk about their work in a much better way because of that Studio class. Now we have Studio One and Studio Two, which just is kind of a repeat, but just more responsibility and more expectations.

Maurice Cherry:
What do your students teach you?

Russell Toynes:
Man, patience. But, honestly, like I tell them, I get paid to learn from them. They teach me more than I could ever teach them.

Russell Toynes:
What I’ve realized more than anything is that we often only see life through our own lenses, and you asked me how did I get started in design? Did I know about designing? I didn’t. To this day, I meet people in 2022, who they’re the first person in their family to pursue a creative career or got college degree, and so I meet so many people from so different backgrounds.

Russell Toynes:
I’ve had students as young as 19 and as old as 65, and what I’ve realized more than anything is that age, experience, life experience makes you a better designer. You can be these 30 under 30s, or these kids that are just like designing the heck out of stuff and are just killing it, and these young guns, and I think there’s like a whole young guns thing or whatever. I can appreciate that.

Russell Toynes:
But if you just haven’t seen enough design solutions, if you just haven’t been around the world enough, no matter how talented you are with the software, you just can’t be a great design problem-solver without that time. You’ll get better every single day, but it’s the people who are older in that sweet spot of like their late 20s, early 30s, early 40s, new collars who are going back to school that I’m starting to find out they have just enough life experience, they’ve seen just enough shit to say, “I don’t want it to be like that.”

Russell Toynes:
But also I’ve learned quite a bit from them of just the resilience. I’ve had students who school was the only safe spot for them. When they went home, they had to deal with outside real-world problems, whether it be addiction, whether it be homelessness, whether it be a number of things and school was a place for them.

Russell Toynes:
So it really taught me to kind of understand that we are all coming from different places, but we all have the same goal, and that is to be financially independent, hopefully, but to pursue a career in a very scary, scary realm where I tell my students, “You have the greatest job in the world. We get to create something that never existed, and we get to solve problems.”

Russell Toynes:
But it’s scary to pick a career where it’s like, “I’m going to do something where every single day I’m going to be judged, judged by people who have no education in this, judged by the masses.” That’s scary as hell, especially if you’re an artist who’s trying to pursue design.

Russell Toynes:
I tell them what makes me feel comfortable as a designer and not an artist is that I can objectively defend all of my work and all of my design decisions. That’s kind of my security blanket is that as long as I know why we did this, as long as I know the problems that we’re solving, I can defend that all day long, but it’s the subjective. It’s the stuff that just because I like it, because it feels good, because it’s me, because of this stuff, that’s the stuff that’s hard because it’s just judgment, and you have to accept that somebody just doesn’t like it.

Russell Toynes:
So I try to help them kind of create a bigger gap between those things and I said, “If you don’t want people judging your art, don’t put your art into your design.” Leave that for the special people that you choose to share that with, but use your design as a tool and do your problem-solving objectively. Then if you want to add a bit of your spice on it, do that, but understand that they may not like it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a word. That’s a word right there, that last part. I hope people caught that about if you don’t want to be judged for your… What’d you say? Say that again?

Russell Toynes:
Judged for your art, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Russell Toynes:
I mean, I think that’s the thing. I mean, I don’t know about you, but a lot of people get into design because someone told them that you’ll never make a career out of being an artist, and so they hear the word design and they think that. So I got a lot of artists in front of me every semester, and I’m like, “Separate your art from your design.” So that way you can be a better designer, and you don’t have to worry about changing who you are as an artist.

Maurice Cherry:
Something that I think I realized kind of early on with my studio was that a lot of designers design for other designers. Like, they’re not necessarily designing for the client. They’re designing because they want to be featured on Brand New, or Under Consideration, or something. Like, they’re designing for awards. They’re designing for accolades for their peers when the client may hate it.

Maurice Cherry:
Like, I’ve seen, oh, God, I remember, especially in like the late 2000s, there was so much design that was just the client hated it, but I did blank doing these kind of wild out-of-the-box stuff. And yeah, if it’s not in service of the client and that’s what the actual thing was for, like, yeah, it is arts that you’re kind of trying to put out there and then you’re putting this design sheen over it in that sort of way.

Maurice Cherry:
But that’s a word right there. When that clicked for me, that’s when like, honestly, the business and the work just became so much easier because it’s like just design for what the client is looking for. It may not look the best, but then that client is going to keep hiring you, and you’re going to keep getting paid, and your studio is going to stay in business so you kind of have to like… It’s a compromise in a way. I mean, I think once you get that relationship working, you can then sort of add a little something here and there, but it’s tricky. But that’s a real word right there about judging.

Russell Toynes:
I mean, you hit it on the head. Designers, especially in school, start designing for the approval of their peers, and they want to get these awards. They want to get recognized in design community, and at what cost? At the cost of, like you said, the clients or the vision?

Russell Toynes:
Sometimes if you’ve ever had to do something like wedding invitations, doing your own wedding invitations is the hardest damned thing. I went through like a whole existential mental breakdown designing my own wedding invitations because I started designing them, thinking about all my design friends that were going to be at the wedding, and what are they going to say when they get this in the mail, and you start really questioning yourself. I had to stop for a moment and just realize, “You’re designing it for you and your wife on this moment and this day. This is what you’re capturing. You’re not trying to get the approval of somebody else.”

Russell Toynes:
But you’re exactly right, and the problem with that is, is that if you forget who’s paying you. It’s not in that way of like, “I’m going to do bad work because this person’s writing me a check,” is “Are you solving their problems?” If you’re not going to bat for them and you’re only going to bat for yourself, then it’s art, and you’re doing it only for you. It’s selfish, and you’re asking them to pay you to do something that makes you feel good at a disservice to them.

Russell Toynes:
So, first and foremost, you have to serve. Like I tell people all the time, design is a service. Just like waiting tables, just like anything, we have a duty to serve them with the best solution possible, and sometimes it’s telling them that they shouldn’t have something.

Russell Toynes:
I give the analogy, forgive me for the crude analogy, but it just works, I tell people if you owned a restaurant and someone came to you and said, “I want a shit sandwich,” you wouldn’t serve them a shit sandwich. Not because you don’t make shit sandwiches. It’s because that if they ate a shit sandwich and you know it’s going to taste bad, they’re going to tell all their friends that you served them a shit sandwich and what people won’t know is that they asked for that.

Russell Toynes:
So the same thing goes with design is that if your client ask you for something that you know isn’t going to solve the problem, but you just give it to them, they’re going to blame you for when that problem still is there, and you just took their money. Where if you sit down with them and you say, “Hey, let’s go back real quick. Are you hungry?” And they go, “Yeah.” “Well, we serve a lot of other things. Have you tried this?”

Russell Toynes:
So I try to always reiterate to my students and my team and to anybody that we, as designers, have a duty to serve our clients, first and foremost, and to solve their problems. Sometimes that means pushing back on them and some of the design decisions that they want, and then sometimes it’s swallowing our own pride and realizing maybe this isn’t what we want it to be, but it still does solve the problem and in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look at where you’re at now in life with the studio and everything, is this how you imagine your life would look like when you were a kid?

Russell Toynes:
No, it’s way better. I am making 13, 14, 15-year-old Russell just, I mean, I’m just killing it. Like, 13-year-old Russell is like, “Dude, who are you? Who are you?” And I never would’ve saw this life for myself because I never saw it, to be honest. We grew up in a middle class-ish household, played with financial illiteracy and a lot of things that unfortunate that I never saw anybody doing the things that I do, living the life that I live so I couldn’t even have imagined it.

Russell Toynes:
So to look at where I’m at now… My nephew, today is his 13th birthday.I called him up and I said, “You remember what I told you when you were little, I said what happens when you turn 13?” And he goes, “I get to go to Disney World?” I said, “Yeah,” and he’s like, “You remember that?” I was like, “Yeah. You think I was just bullshitting?” I was like, “You know what I mean when you can talk about it, you can be about it.” I was like, “Yeah. It’s still pandemic right now so we got to figure out a date when we all feel comfortable.” I said, “But, yeah, you’re going to Disney World.”

Russell Toynes:
The fact that I can do that for my nephew and the fact that I can take my daughter and my wife and… We just went to Hawaii, and I took my whole family, 10 of us to Hawaii, and me and my wife, we were very appreciative of all the work that we have done and all the support of our family to be able to do this for them. The life that I live now and the team that I have and the work that I’ve done and the amazing people that I’ve met and the opportunity to teach and the opportunity to get up every day and create something new, I could have never imagined it, and I am so very thankful.

Russell Toynes:
I honestly attribute it all to design. Design, literally, saved my life and made my life. Like I said in the very beginning, going to school at ACC, literally, was the best decision I ever made. It set the trajectory of my life and set so many things in motion that, had I’d never gone to ACC, had I’ve not had the people in front of me and had the mentors and the educators in front of me, I would’ve never gotten to where I’m at now. So yes, in short, no, I would’ve never been able to imagine this life and, yes, design, I give all of it to.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing either through the studio, or personally, or anything like that?

Russell Toynes:
I mean, I don’t want to work, but I have plans and, hopefully… I love teaching. I really do. I think that I’m a natural educator and a sharer of information and experience, and so I hope to continue teaching on a wider scale.

Russell Toynes:
I mentor a few people now, and I’ve toyed around with the idea of professionally mentoring and offering those services on a regular basis. Right now, my mentees, I feel weird taking money from them so they just pay for my coffee. So I’m like, now it’s pandemic so they just send me… they’ve been owing me money for coffee.

Russell Toynes:
But I think that I have a lot to share with young professionals and budding entrepreneurs. I mean, designers, I think that through a longer relationship, a mentor relationship that I can help really guide people who might feel like they haven’t received the education and knowledge of the business of design and where to go and how to capitalize on opportunities.

Russell Toynes:
Then with the studio, as we were kind of talking about this kind of international work model, me and my wife have goals of finding a place that’s a little less tumultuous for people of color. Where that place is on earth, I’m not quite sure. I don’t think we found Wakanda yet, but we don’t know if the United States is necessarily our forever home. But our goal would be to really take our business global, honestly, so wherever we end up being, creating a team there, a local team there that would continue to do the work that we are doing and then have our current Studio Dzo team basically lead that team.

Russell Toynes:
So that would be less of a requirement of me and Elizabeth on our day-to-day, and then take this very seasoned team that has been with us for five years and turn them into leaders to guide maybe this international team to create the good work that we’ve been known to do. So that’s where I hope to see ourselves in five years is where I have five or six other people somewhere else in the world who Zoom in with my team here, and we’re just cranking out the same good work, both night and day. One team’s working while the other one’s sleeping.

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

Russell Toynes:
Well, you can always find us at studiodzo.com. That’s studio, D as in dog, Z as in zebra, O as in Oscar, the D is silent, and you can find us on Instagram, studiodzo.

Russell Toynes:
You can follow me on Instagram, Russell Toynes, that’s Russell, two SSs and two Ls, never trust a one L Russell, and you can follow me on LinkedIn.

Russell Toynes:
Please, please, please check out aagd.co and see all the good work that we’re doing for our community there.

Russell Toynes:
Check out Austin Community College also. I know community colleges get a bad rap, but I have personally hired more designers from ACC than any other school from UT, from Texas State, from St. Ed’s. ACC, hands down, has a better design program and the designers come out stronger. So if you’re curious about that, if you’re looking to change careers, ACC might be an opportunity for anybody who’s local to the Austin area.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, Russell Toynes, T-O-Y-N-E-S. There’s only a few of us out there. So if you just Google that last name, you’ll be sure to find me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Well, Russell Toynes, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, I’ve heard of you for years. I probably didn’t mention that before we started recording, but I’ve heard about you for years, just like you were saying, my name has been kind of bandied about in the design community. I’ve heard about you for years. I was really excited to do this interview and really just kind of hearing your story, hearing your passion for design, and really even just your passion for just giving back to the community that has given so much to you is just super inspiring.

Maurice Cherry:
So I hope people, when they listen to this, they really can kind of feel where your passion comes from with this, and also see how they can maybe pay it forward in their own communities as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Russell Toynes:
Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it, Maurice.

Omari Souza

February is our anniversary month, and we’re kicking things off with an interview with design educator and researcher Omari Souza. Longtime listeners of the show may remember Omari’s first appearance on Revision Path back in 2017, and let me tell you, a lot has changed in four years!

We start off talking about Omari’s latest venture, the State of Black Design conference, and he went into the ins and outs of organizing it, and even gave a sneak peek on what to expect from this year’s event. He also spoke about teaching at Texas State University, his latest research focus, and the state of design education and how he’s grown as a designer. Revision Path is proud to work with State of Black Design, so you can definitely expect to see more of Omari’s contributions in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Omari Souza:
Hey everybody. My name is Omari Souza. I am a professor of design and design research at Texas State University. And I also organized the State of Black Design conference.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve been on the show before the first time you came on the show was back in 2017. How’s the year been going for you so far? This is 2022.

Omari Souza:
Man. To be completely honest with you with being in the middle of COVID these past three years all feel like one extended year. So it doesn’t even feel like I’ve started a new year yet. It just feels like I’m still ending 2019.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I guess it all has blurred together. I was online earlier today and I saw where people were making these comparisons, like January 2020 to January 2022, like how people were first starting to talk about the coronavirus and all that sort of stuff. But it does feel that way. I know a lot of folks now that are just trying to get their bearings so far. At the beginning of the year.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. That’s exactly what it feels like. It’s just being up and down, well, being up and down in terms of figuring out how you’re maneuvering through COVID and educating and working. Whether you’re at home whether you’re allowed to wear a mask or not wear a mask based off of how the population is doing with COVID at the moment, it’s all pretty tough.

Omari Souza:
And granted, I say that living in Texas, I know in some other cities and states that have taken it far more serious in the state that I’m in, things have been a bit more constant in terms of mask wearing and some of those other things, but it’s been a lot to adapt to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I know you’ve got a lot on your plate now because you’re also organizing an event while you’re doing all of this. You’re organizing this year’s State of Black Design, which begins next month. Tell me about how this event started and where you got the idea for it from.

Omari Souza:
It started in a lot of places in all honesty. I normally tell people that it started as a response to the George Floyd murder. There was a lot of civil unrest at the time and a lot of people wanted to have these conversations about race and the intersectionality of race with practice, regardless of what that practice was.

Omari Souza:
But also at that same time period and before there were a lot of designers in the BIPOC community that felt that they weren’t being represented at the majority of design related conferences. Whether it be HOW, or HOW Conference or several others, you would look at entire like 20, 30 person lineups, and maybe not see any person of color in that lineup, or maybe one or two, when in reality there was so much talent out there doing so much amazing things.

Omari Souza:
So this moment after George Floyd’s murder ended up being this huge boiling pot of emotion, a lot of the designers feeling like they didn’t have a space to be heard or to be seen, or that their contributions to the industry and to the field weren’t being recognized or appreciated. And there being this overall desire to learn more about how race is impacting these different pockets of society. So initial, I took that as an opportunity to hold something on my campus.

Omari Souza:
So what I thought was going to be on my campus, I created an Eventbrite page, hired a student to do some of the marketing material for us and anticipated we may only get a 100, 200 students that attended our program. Low and behold, we ended up getting roughly 4,000 people who registered for the event. And we’ve just been continuing since after realizing that there was a demand and really a need to have some of these conversations that weren’t happening prior.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting about… Well, one, I guess the timing of all this came about in an interesting way, because one, it did, as you said happen, because you were hearing from so many people that there’s a lack of events around Black designers. And then of course the summer of 2020 was this big racial reckoning, so to speak, which I guess for a lot of people activated them into doing something and for you, this was one of those things.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. And it really felt nerve wracking but gratifying is actually put together. You were one of the folks that actually came out and spoke with the initial one. And wanted to make sure I take my time to thank you for that, because I know that you’re super busy and you sacrificed your time to speak at the events. But one thing that we all spoke about afterwards was the response that we got on Twitter from it.

Omari Souza:
There were studios that tuned in live and actually created visual graphics of what was being discussed. There were people that tweeted and sent personal messages about how they never felt so seen or heard in the field itself. There was just such heartwarming messages that were coming in response to this at a time period where there was so much anger and anguish. So it felt really good to put that together.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember seeing, I know Webflow was one company that did these sketch notes right along with it. And for those that are interested the 2020 event, I think it’s on YouTube, right?

Omari Souza:
Yeah. It’s on YouTube.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And it was myself, it was Renee Reed, a couple other folks who had been on the Revision Path Podcast, but that was a really great event. It was just this one day thing that we all came together and spoke and it was a lot of fun. And I’m glad to see that you got that kind of feedback from it.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. I needed that as well. Timothy Brad Levis who’s also been on the show, spoke with me before programming, before I began planning the second event and he said to me planning a conference you typically do it in four stages. The first stage is, oh my God, I’m so excited. I can’t wait to do this second stage. Oh man, this is so much harder than I thought it was going to be.

Omari Souza:
The third stage is I can’t believe I agreed to do this. I’m never doing this again. What was I thinking? Then the fourth stage, once you start getting the response says, “You know what? It wasn’t that bad. I can do that again.” All the positive messages that I got at the time period, put the battery in my back to be able to do it again, the following year.

Maurice Cherry:
So given the popularity of the 2020 event, what can we expect from state of State of Black Design this year? Because you’re putting it on again.

Omari Souza:
So there are a couple of things that I am trying to do differently that I think people can be really excited about. The initial event was really my attempt to give people a space and a platform and not necessarily do so in a manner that felt control or contrived. I really wanted everyone to be able to speak their truth and talk in a way that other conferences haven’t allowed them to.

Omari Souza:
And I think that was a part of the success of the initial event. The sheer rawness of some of the discussions, the second event was really making an attempt to continue that on. But part of the response that I was getting was really from companies that were trying to figure out how do we then create this pipeline for designers of color, into industry that we are struggling to fund. So I used this event as a mechanism to create this pipeline.

Omari Souza:
I was going to use donations and sponsorships to keep the cost of the event free to students, but then leverage that money to pay our speakers as well as make attempts, to offer scholarships to students that are studying design as well. So for this event, the conversation that I had with a number of the sponsors and stakeholders was really along the lines of what are some of the areas that our participants can be best served going forward.

Omari Souza:
And one of the things we talked about is it’s great to have these avenues open up where they can interview then IBM, if they’d like to, or an Argodesign or materials or PayPal, Adobe, and everyone else that sponsored the event. However, especially considering that a lot of these participants are coming from programs that may not have the funding to give the same level of education within design and some other institutions or some folks are participating that are self-taught, it would be amazing to give some professional development opportunities.

Omari Souza:
So this year I’ve been speaking to a lot of folks about hosting workshops in order to teach the people that are tuning in some new skill sets that they can use to improve their portfolios or to add new weapons to their utility belt. When not to make a comic book fund to improve their skill sets on a day to day basis, something else that they can pull on to solve complex problems. Additionally, we’re speaking about hosting projects that can be worked on with particular employers to gain exposure to what particular assignments are like.

Omari Souza:
So not only can you interview, let’s say for example, with an NBC Universal, whom will also be a sponsor of the events, but they will also be giving competitions where you can design a movie poster for a film that doesn’t exist, but it then becomes an opportunity for you to engage with art directors in this particular industry and talk about potential internships or ways that you can improve that work. We’re also making steps to expand our target base.

Omari Souza:
And we’re beginning to invite and have additional programming for high school juniors and seniors. So if you are getting ready to go into a college and your visual creative in your high school, K through 12 education, which you don’t know what a career will look like as a designer. How to begin it, how to start searching for a community on campus or even the right campus or program to go to. We’re beginning this process of attempting to educate some of those students as well, to try to set folks up for the success that they’re looking for.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like this expanding almost into this career fair. I mean, of course there’s going to be the different talks and stuff, but you’re doing also a lot around making sure students are set up with interviews and other opportunities to network with companies.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. I really want… I’m sorry. I’m backtracking. After the initial event, there were a lot of companies that, as I mentioned prior that were looking to find ways to diversify their workforce. And if that’s a discussion that they’re having, I want to be able to bring people to them, especially when a lot of the participants of these events are also saying that they would love to work for some of these fortune 500 companies.

Omari Souza:
However, I also want to make sure that I’m providing an avenue by which they can continue to improve the skillsets that they have in between this, the attending our conferences and in between their potential interviews for one position to the other. So, my hope is if a student who begins to attend from their junior year of high school takes advantage of some of the workshops that are there.

Omari Souza:
If they continues to attend these workshops and listen to these panels and interview with these companies that have been sponsoring their exposure and the connections that they would’ve made by the time they’ve graduated would put them further ahead than it would have if they’ve never attended and never worked on anything outside of what was in their classroom.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the speakers for this year?

Omari Souza:
Man, we have a ton of great speakers this year. This year, we will be headlined by Nikki Giovanni, which I’m super excited about. We will also have Jelani Cobb who will be speaking. We will also have Anne Barry fellow Kent alum. That will be there. We will have Regina Gilbert, Lacey Jordan will be there.

Omari Souza:
Theresa Moses, Silus Monroe, Maryam Moma, Mike Nichols, Kalina Sales, Roberta Sampson, Raja Shaa, Trey Seals will be giving a workshop on type design. We will have Jennifer White Johnson. That’ll be hosting a panel on disability design. Kelly Waters will be there. Shelby Zinc from Microsoft will also be there as well, and this is just to name a few. The list is really extensive this year.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to say, that’s a lot already.

Omari Souza:
Yeah, it’s an amazing list of people. And I I’m really fortunate that they have all been willing to participate in this.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting, we talked about 2020 just earlier. One thing among many things that stuck out for me that year was just seeing how many Black designers found community online that year. I think because of events like State of Black Design and so many others that started that year. Black designers came around these events and really formed this sense of community. Have you felt that since the State of Black Design?

Omari Souza:
I feel like the year of the State of Black Design, there were so many things happening within the community and people attempting to build their own table. That I think that year in general, when the first State of Black Design happened, we also had Where Are The Black Designers hosted by Mitzi. Black Ignite, which was hosted just a couple months after that, by Heather Lee. Hughe also had their events as well as myself, which I believe was the last event of the year.

Omari Souza:
We were all in communication with one another, especially after our initial events happened. And we’ve all leveraged one another in order to keep everyone going. We each serve a different role, but have each come together as a family, just to keep things going. So for the second events, I know we had Jasmine Kent from HOW, Heather Lee from Black Ignite and Mitzi all sit on a panel together.

Omari Souza:
I’ve consulted with Mitzi and Heather Lee on a number of things that I was doing for Black Ignite Heather Lee brought me on to give a keynote. And I say all of this to say, there’s not only been a community in terms of the following, but the folks that have been attempting to lead these separate initiatives have also been coming together to assist one another. So it’s a fight and champion for the things that they view as important.

Omari Souza:
And I feel like that’s something that’s been extremely beautiful and powerful when considering three, four years ago, a lot of these spaces weren’t available. There was no State of Black Design or Black Ignite or Where Are The Black Designers and the followings for each have been extremely impressive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. They really have. I mean, of course, for folks that have been following Revision Path around that time, I talked all about Where Are The Black Designers had Mitzi on the show and everything, but yeah, it is interesting seeing how all of that has… And I mean, I have to say it has come together very quickly. Even from my somewhat limited perspective of looking at the landscape of the design industry from 2013 to now and seeing how few events and things there were around black designers.

Maurice Cherry:
Even just media, like when I started Revision Path there was not any other podcast that were talking to Black designers about the work that they’ve done. And now of course, nine years later, there’s several others besides myself. But just to see how things have grown in such a very short period of time, I’m curious to know, why do you think these other events just don’t get it?

Maurice Cherry:
Because what I find interesting aside from the speed of all of this is how I don’t want to say how limited the resources have been, but y’all really pulled all this together from nothing. You put out a webpage or you put out a call on Instagram or something and you have thousands of people flocking to you registering, signing up for your event, spreading the word fostering community. And you see a larger slash other design competitions or events and things like that don’t even come close to that. Why do you think that’s the case?

Omari Souza:
I think it’s a number of reasons. Going back to my thesis research that I know we talked about in the initial interview, they’re a large percentage of Black college students that end up going to these. So they end up going to social serving programs because based off of the research I did in my graduate year of college, there are a lot of students that when choosing a major will choose majors that help them either contextualize things they’ve experienced or choose majors that help them advocate for others. And I think that advocacy piece for a lot of people comes off as being politic. I think with design, while it can be a tool that’s used for advocacy, it’s often communicated solely as a tool of luxury.

Omari Souza:
So even in terms of how conferences typically communicate themselves. So if you go to, not picking at any conference in particular, but if you visit Hughes site, it’s really all about how to learn the latest and greatest in designing for a fortune 500 company or a major firm that’s dealing with a fortune 500 company, but it’s never articulated.

Omari Souza:
It’s never really given any attention to areas that maybe of concern for people of color. And the reason being is that design always wants to come off as being apolitical. In my thesis research, I voted Melissa Harris Perry in her book Citizen.

Omari Souza:
She had the segment where she talks about whenever people think of politics. They’re often thinking about Democrats or Republicans when in reality, the art or of being political is really attempting to pull one person’s attention from one thing to something else. So if I’m trying to get you to look somewhere that you’re not currently looking, that happens to be political.

Omari Souza:
And then she then makes the argument that being Black in America is really a political act within itself because you’re consistently attempting to get people to recognize your humanity, so the discussions that we have at a lot of these events are not just about being a better designer or what you can do in the workspace, but it’s really these difficult discussions around the nuances of being marginalized.

Omari Souza:
How do you exist in a space being a Black person where you might be microagressed or the racism that you experience may not be as subtle all the time. It can be subtle, and sometimes it can be very direct, what can you do to protect yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically? What are the courses? How can other people be there for you to support you through these types of things? And in many cases, these are conversations that aren’t really had in your traditional conferences, but their topics of discussion.

Omari Souza:
And there there’re things that Black signers are speaking about whether or not these conferences are including them and not to mention traditional design programs typically tend to keep things very Eurocentric, and they don’t typically provide much room for cultural relativity or exploration into the cultures that a lot of people of they come from.

Omari Souza:
So if you now have workshops that are being done. So for example, Trace Seals will be giving his workshop. A lot of his work is predicated on designing typefaces of marginalized audiences. That’s not something that would traditionally be taught at a design school currently, but if it’s something that’s being provided at a workshop, it now becomes something that deals in that nuance and becomes interesting to people that have been marginalized.

Omari Souza:
That want to know more about that history but also how do I leverage that history and culture into my professional practice. Black Ignite, HOW Design, Where Are The Black Designers and the State of Black Design each give you an opportunity to have that conversation safely, and also learn to explore visually things that you may not see traditionally in the classroom.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I will say each of those events also are very different. Like State of Black Design is this conference slash career fair Hughe is like a family reunion kind of feel almost Ignite, at least from what I’ve seen from Ignite is just a bunch of straight up short talks, almost like a, I forget the name of it. What’s it called PechaKucha. I might be mispronouncing that I’m…

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s sort of a series of short talks and things like that. And then you may have a conference that’s got more longer, more didactic talks or something. But no, I like that each of these events also has their own flavor. They all feed on each other. They work in concert, at least from what I see with other Black design events that are out there.

Maurice Cherry:
Like, of course the four that you mentioned, which are fairly new, that doesn’t preclude also the existence of Black In Design, which takes place at Harvard University or Creative Control Fest, which takes place in Columbus or it doesn’t shy away from those events. Or try to pit one against the other, it’s all one community, or at least it’s all one shared community. I should say. If you’re a black designer now this is probably the best time in history for you to attend events that specifically speak to you as a Black designer, like it hasn’t ever been, I think this good in terms of variety.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. At least not that I can recall. And yeah, I feel that wholeheartedly. It’s really interesting, the entire idea of these separate organizations that really are in support of one another. And aren’t looking to pit anyone against anybody.

Omari Souza:
Like no, one’s asking attendees of one, not to go to the other. And in fact, we’re usually co-promoting whenever Where Are The Black Designers, HOW or Black Ignite has something if they send it to me, I’m always promoting and pushing people to attend. And they’ve done the same thing for me. And it’s really been appreciated.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re juggling State of Black Design, of course, with teaching. You’re a design educator. You’re an assistant professor at Texas State University in Austin. When you were back on the show, the first time you were teaching at Laroche College, which is in Pittsburgh, what is it like teaching at Texas State? Tell me about your classes, your students, how is it?

Omari Souza:
Texas state is a really interesting place. It’s about 30, 40 minutes South of Austin, and also about 30, 40 minutes in north of San Antonio. So it’s sandwiched between these two major cities and in terms of diversity, it’s probably the most diverse institution in terms of student base that I’ve ever taught at.

Omari Souza:
And it’s really beautiful to see in terms of things that I I’ve taught there. I typically teach a few design research classes, both at the graduate and undergraduate level, and I’ve also taught foundations and typography, but I consider myself more to be a design researcher. So I’m always happier teaching the former than the latter courses.
Maurice Cherry:
And now, do you have a specific focus of your design research while you’re at Texas State?

Omari Souza:
I would say yes and no. So at the graduate level, in the past, I’ve taught a class called communication seminar, which is an introduction to design research methods that students can use for their thesis. So I begin educating students on research methodologies, like quantitative research methods, literature reviews, so forth and so forth. How do you build your design direction, map out plans, constructing logic models, so forth and so forth. Identifying stakeholders, yada yada yada.

Omari Souza:
I teach a class called design for experience as well, where I typically tend to leverage some of my own graduate based research around using design not only to using design classroom, not only is a space to develop new skill sets, but also expand considerations on what things could be applicable for. So I’ll teach design research methods and some UX techniques, but rather than using them for digital artifact, I ask students to expand their thought process on what an interface is.

Omari Souza:
It doesn’t necessarily have to be strictly digital, but it’s anything that anybody interacts with. So if we’re designing for behavior purposes, how could we use these research methodologies in order to bring about a particular behavioral change versus doing it strictly for additional clicks or site visits or things of that nature? Sometimes we will work in collaboration with other organizations. One summer, I saw the course, we worked in collaboration with Kyahokas Municipality Housing Authority. They were applying for 50 million grant to improve the quality of life for residents in a lower income community.

Omari Souza:
And we asked to be a part of the project. So we jumped in while they were performing the research and began asking questions to identify certain things that were happening in the community that design could be used to leverage as a solution to improve quality of life. One of the problems that we ended up finding was given the conditions that folks are living in.

Omari Souza:
One thing that they definitely were missing was adequate opportunities to build community with one another and communicate with one another while also bottlenecks around communicating with the leasing office and people that managed the property.

Omari Souza:
So we proposed a number of solutions that had nothing to do with digital components, but were more so interfaces that we can build on the community grounds themselves to improve that person to person and person to business interaction on these grounds in order to change some of the cultural issues that were happening within that particular space.

Omari Souza:
This year, there were a few projects that we’re going to be working on as well, that are all about community engagement, interacting with a group of people, but then attempting to solve a problem for behavioral change while using design as the so, and for me, I find this a lot more interesting than working along the lines of an arbitrary design brief, because I feel like the strictly giving students a brief, doesn’t give them an opportunity to meet people and expand their thought processes.

Omari Souza:
And if, as designers we’re supposed to be this empathetic group, but we never get an opportunity to meet or engage with the people that we’re designing for. We’re strictly designing within our own locked in biases. And that can also be very dangerous for marginalized audiences.

Omari Souza:
So putting them in a position where they have to get out of the classroom and interact with an audience, puts them in a space where they’re challenging their own perceptions and what a problem is. And if they’re designing with this audience and as they’re working, as they’re meeting them, as they’re engaging them, it puts them in a, in a process of thinking, my best results or realizing that my best results can come at hand when I’m working directly with the person who the solution is for versus working behind a desk without ever having to engage with them.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, you’ve been there now for about three years. How would you say things have changed since when you first started there? Because it sounds like what you are doing right now is something you maybe have to work up to getting to.

Omari Souza:
I’m still at a point where I’m attempting to recommend changes and then get buy-in around those changes, which isn’t a slight against Texas State. I think the reality is I’m an extremely young professor. I’m only 35 years old. And many of the professors around me have been teaching for just as long as I’ve been living in some cases.

Omari Souza:
So for me to be this young and come and make attempts to challenge the way that certain things are being done, even if I’m citing that in new research or things of that nature for any program would be a lot to take in because that whether directly indirectly illuminates that for potential changes to come they’ll need structural pedagogical changes as well to make room for some of these changes. So I think, for myself there’s still this need to get buy in or to prove the benefit of particular things that other folks may not be too familiar with.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say you’ve grown as an educator since you first started teaching?

Omari Souza:
I think there’s a number of different things. I think naivete is something that I’ve shed a lot. Have you ever seen the… There was a documentary on charter schools? It was called Waiting On Superman.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I saw that.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. I’ve watched it again recently. There’s a section of the documentary. One of the educators who started a charter school in Harlem was talking about how he went to get his degree at Howard and he’d learnt so much and felt like as soon as he got out, he’d be able to change and improve the entire education system within two years, three years, if he was being lazy, but he had all the information necessary and he was going to get in there and make all those changes. I think that’s where I was when I first started teaching, I was really enthusiastic about the education that I got.

Omari Souza:
I felt super empowered about it, and I immediately felt like I’m going to jump in and make all of these changes. The longer I’ve been teaching, the more I’ve realized that it’s never an immediate change. You can never change the flow of the river that you’re in, but you can disrupt the water.

Omari Souza:
And if you make these minor disruptions over time, you can make an immediate impact. Well, not immediate, but you can make this impact for that immediate space, but you might not be able to change the flow of the water that you’re currently in. And I think that’s something that I’ve had to sit with and I guess be more strategic about what impact can I have and what impact will I be okay with having, if I can’t change the entire flow of the rigor itself?

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think about this state of design education now as it relates to diversity? Because I’d imagine with the years that you’ve put on this conference now and even changing to different schools that maybe you have gathered a bit of a reputation, a good reputation, I mean, but from your perspective, how do you see design education?

Omari Souza:
I think design education is at this really interesting spot. I think there are topics about decolonizing design practice and there are a lot of people that are doing a lot of work on plural versatile approaches professors such as Leslie and Noel that continue to do amazing things and encourage me in a lot of the stuff that I do.

Omari Souza:
I think there are a lot of folks like Cheryl Miller and her collaborations with designers off of the continent of America and working with Afro based designers and attempting to bring their aesthetic and their design language onto the forefront, I think is also something that’s really interesting from an institution standpoint and a university standpoint. I think a lot of the difficulty ends up being in people being threatened by that change or being uncertain, how to handle the new wave of demands that are coming for design institutions and programs, especially as the student populist becomes browner from one generation to the next.

Omari Souza:
I think in a lot of ways, it’s an exciting time to be a student. And it’s an exciting time to be a professor and see universities make room for these things to happen. I would imagine a difficult time for those that have no idea what steps to take next. Like if I’ve never had to consider anything other than Swiss design or anything other than the Bowhouse.

Omari Souza:
And now you’re saying that there are all of these other visual languages or aesthetical approaches or cultures that I should include in my curriculum and give equal amounts of respect to this one thing that I’ve made my bread and butter over the last 30 to 40 years. I can imagine that there’s a lot of anxiety, but still it’s necessary. And anxiety is never a reason to be paralyzed by anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you encountered any of that? Like from other educators?

Omari Souza:
Yeah. All the time. It’s usually not as direct as this makes me feel nervous or I don’t necessarily know how I can stack up to attempting to do this, but a lot of times it may come off in passive aggressive terms of we’ve done it this way for so long. And maybe you should just learn how to do it the way that we’ve been doing it before you make re for changes.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. I don’t think people ever come out and say that, “Hey, this makes me feel uncomfortable or insecure about approaching this particular subject matter. Can I work with you on this?” It’s usually this attempt to stopping the clock or slowing down change. And that’s not necessarily me saying a Texas State thing. I think that’s something that that’s happening in a lot of places within the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve had a few other design educators on the show particularly last year that spoke to that as well. And also speaking to how, I guess students are looking for more from their design curriculum. They’re looking for more from their design educators in terms of how they see the world now and the work that they’re doing, they want to know how can they be more, I guess, involved in different causes and stuff like that. From your perspective, have you seen a similar kind of change over the years from your students?

Omari Souza:
Yeah, definitely. So my graduate research, when I was at Kent State University, there were a few interviews that I did where I asked students how they ended up choosing their majors. And there were a number of students that ended up choosing a major just because some of the course material was interesting to them. So there was one student in particular, the group in a predominantly white neighborhood, but that a student was Black.

Omari Souza:
So that student felt that there wasn’t enough access that he had to finding out more information about people that looked like him within the city and neighborhood he lived in. So he ended up taking a few African American history courses, and then that ended up becoming his major because he fell in love with the subject matter. I feel like there are a number of visual students that I’ve taught that have been a part of design programs, both at Texas State and Laroche.

Omari Souza:
And Tri-C when I taught there. And also at Kent State when I was a graduate assistant and there’s this interest in exploring visual languages that relate to them culturally, that they can see themselves in. And I think it’s really amazing for them when they find that, but it does create a space of pedagogical opportunities for professors. If we’re willing to bravely lean into it. One conversation I had with a few of my cohorts recently, especially considering that Texas and the university is within the Southwest of the nation.

Omari Souza:
I mentioned, I think it would be a really good idea to start doing research and creating coursework and materials around the influence of San Marcos has a huge Mexican population as is Texas in general, but trying to do this course on the influence of Mexican and Southern American aesthetics on the design language of the Southwest, I feel like you teach a course like that to some of our students that are looking for something different than Swiss and Bowhouse design or your ecentric perspectives on things.

Omari Souza:
I think that’s also another opportunity where you can then teach something that allows a student to have a greater appreciation for a culture outside of themselves. Or give a student an opportunity to further contextualize their own identity and have a greater appreciation for some of the things that they were exposed to without having full knowledge of what the richness of these things were

Maurice Cherry:
Now, along with those kinds of opportunities. You’ve also managed to network with and meet a lot of other Black design educators. Tell me how that’s been.

Omari Souza:
It’s been amazing to be completely honest with you. I’ve been able since the first State of Black Design to meet a number of people and try to find ways to collaborate and or talk about new pedagogical approaches or projects that are being offered in classrooms. I’ve met consistently with Kalina Sales, Dr. Perry sweeper and Dr. Oji in our biweekly DFA meetings and some of the stuff that they’re working on.

Omari Souza:
And some of the insights that they share with me are super invaluable in terms of my growth as a professor, I meet consistently with Teresa Moses, she and I are curating a State of Black Design book. And of course, during these meetings where we’re talking about the book assignments, they’re consistent topics or the discussion points around what’s being done in our classroom, Dr. Leslie Noel and I are working on a book called Restorative Design.

Omari Souza:
I’m learning a lot about her practice, not just through writing with her, but even some of the experiences she shares and what we’ve been writing, all of which enriches me in a lot of ways that I may not say to them consistently, but it’s been an amazing opportunity to see and hear other people that look like me that are dealing with students similar to who I’m dealing with, give me some of their master tips, or even seeing some of them just blow up and shine in their own career. Professors like Jennifer White Johnson, every time I look up, she’s doing something else amazing. And the community that she advocates for and the work that she’s been getting has been amazing to sit back and watch.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to see this year? Is there anything you want to accomplish outside of course, of State of Black Design, but what do you want to see this year?

Omari Souza:
I think the thing that I want to see this year, that I’m hoping that I can pull off is really this professional development. Well, not really professional development. I’m hoping that these tables that we build, whether it be Where Are The Black Designers, Black Ignite, [HUE] and the State of Black Design, that we find a way to continue to pouring into our collective audiences, outside our annual conferences.

Omari Souza:
I know where the black designers has a really good community. They keep in touch via Slack, but trying to find a way to continue growing people in their own personal endeavors, not just through professional development methods, but also just through personal artistic explorations.

Omari Souza:
I think having a space where we allow other creatives to learn more about what it is that they want to do, but make it give room for people to explore new avenues and develop aesthetics and techniques in their own visual approaches would be something that I would love. And I think it’s something that we need currently as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And also you teased this book idea a little bit earlier. Tell me about that.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. So after the first State of Black Design, we did a CFP called proposal for essays, from anybody who was interested in contributing. We’ve gotten the number so far and a commitment to print from Intellect Publishing. So currently Theresa and I are reading through it and making attempts to decide what changes need to be made if there are essays that need to be lengthened and things of that nature, but we’re hoping that’ll be published by next year.
Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations on that.

Omari Souza:
Thank you kindly.

Maurice Cherry:
So overall, and this may be a tall order from where you’re at now, but aside from this year where do you see yourself in the future five years from now? What sort of work do you want to be doing?

Omari Souza:
Five years from now. I’m hoping I have tenure, but the work I’d like to do, I think it’s similar to what I was hoping to do in my initial interview. I would to begin a design for social good innovation practice that I do alongside my teaching. I’m hoping that the traditional classes that I’m allowed to teach that over time, I’m given room to change them slightly.

Omari Souza:
So it’s not just commercial focus, but we’re giving them techniques and tools that they can use for commercial entities if they choose to, but also allowing them to advocate or contextualize their own experiences through these methodologies as well. I’m hoping that I can continue to write these books. I’m hoping that yeah, five years down line, all of these books that I’m working on currently are published, that I can continue to evolve the State of Black Design to meet the needs of its audience.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you, about State of Black Design, about everything you’re working on? Where can they find that information?

Omari Souza:
You guys can find me on LinkedIn. I’m pretty active there. I do have a site omarisouza.com, and finally, I’m, I’m pretty active on Instagram, which is just Omari.Souza.

Maurice Cherry:
And the event?

Omari Souza:
The event is stateofblackdesign.com.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And by the time this comes out, tickets will be available so people can register to sign up, correct?

Omari Souza:
Yes, sir. Please register. We’d love to see you guys there.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Omari Souza, I want to thank you so much for coming back on show. We’ve kept in touch since we have done that interview back in 2017. So it’s been amazing to just see your growth as an educator, as a researcher, and really getting more involved in doing community work with what you’re doing with State of Black Design. So I’m excited to see what is going to come next for you in the future. And of course, I’ll definitely be tuned in for this year’s event. Hopefully, People that are listen will tune in as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Omari Souza:
No problem at all. I appreciate you as well for having me and all the advice that you’ve given me as well since 2017.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Sponsored by The State of Black Design Conference

The State of Black Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xalavier Nelson, Jr.

In the early 90s, there was this show on ABC called Phenom about a tennis prodigy. If Hollywood were to reboot that for the digital age, Xalavier Nelson Jr. would no doubt be the star of the show. His body of work rivals those of people in the gaming industry for decades!

We kicked off our conversation talking about his studio, Strange Scaffold, and he spoke about several of the games he’s either worked on or created, including An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs and the popular 90s Internet nostalgia title Hypnospace Outlaw. Xalavier also talked about his newest game, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, and he shared how his work as a pre-teen game journalist helped him become a narrative designer. Xalavier’s prudent vision for finding better, faster, cheaper and healthier ways to make video games is so important, and I think that if he’s making waves like this now, just imagine what he’ll do in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Hello. I’m Xalavier Nelson Jr., I’m a studio director at Strange Scaffold, a frequent writer, narrative designer, collaborator, working on dozens of things. I’ve worked on over 60 games in the past five years. And now my current mission is not just finding new and exciting ways to collaborate with people at my own studio and at the studios and projects of others, but also finding ways to advocate for making games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier than they are currently assumed to be made.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2021 been for you? Have you learned anything about yourself over the past year?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think one of the primary things I learned over the past year is just how much I cared about production. I do love telling stories. I do love of putting things into a video game. I love creative content production. Writing a killer page or scene is a thrilling experience, but when I look at the things that consistently get me out of bed in the morning, that make me passionate about waking up and getting to work and collaborating with other people, it’s getting into the nitty gritty of how something comes together.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The scope of a project, defining, reducing, and defining that vision of a project and how it’s accomplished in very calculated ways. The exercise of finding new and interesting formats and arrangements for artists coming together to build things together, that makes me feel alive. And so exploring those paths myself, sharing what I find along the way, and as much as I can, opening those doors for others is something that I’ve discovered I love. Now my mission is finding ways to do that again and again and again, as consistently and healthily as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you thought about what you want to accomplish for this year coming up for 2022?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the big thing I want to accomplish is, we’ve talked about this in a few forums thus far, but Strange Scaffold is moving into publishing and to have at least one of our published signed projects come out. And the exact thing that the developer wanted to bring into being hopefully substantially de-risked and shipped at a scope and form that made the project better while also making it something that they could accomplish without destroying themselves in the process. That’s something I’m really excited to do.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
If we establish ourselves by the end of 2022, as having a perspective that allows us to not just develop intriguing things in unexpectedly small or efficient packages, but provide those resources and that perspective to others on a consistent scale and timeline, I’ll be very happy. And it’s by all indications that were well on our way to already accomplishing those goals.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. Congratulations on that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk more about your studio, Strange Scaffold. First, I want to know how you came up with the name, but like, I just want to hear more about how you started it, how it’s going, things like that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I started Strange Scaffold primarily as an engine for exploring what happens when your explicit goal for a studio is not to build a dream project, but instead to bring as many things into the world as possible in a healthy, consistent and efficient manner. So exploring how, defining the structure of your game ahead of time and considering that to be set in stone and improvising within those lines and constraints that you’ve set, essentially putting a strange scaffold in place. And then making an interesting thing in between that foundation, that was the starting point.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And it pretty quickly evolved from bringing that perspective to the projects of my clients, to bringing that into projects that I originated and directed, and now sharing those resources that we built to make games in that very specific way with other developers who also want to make incredible things, but not ruin their lives in the process. Because we have so many examples of the desire or dream of what a thing could be running someone into the ground as they pursue a path towards it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I feel like game creators and really creative professionals of all forms deserve the right to pursue and contain the same joy in their working processes that they seek to deliver to their player, users and audiences on the other side of that creative process.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I’m looking here at the Strange Scaffold website. I see you’ve got three games that are showing here.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
[crosstalk 00:08:31] finished by the by.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. I see you’ve got El Paso Elsewhere, you have An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. I think I heard about that also on Kotaku. And then Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. Those are some pretty interesting names for titles. And I like that each one of them is very different. You’re definitely trying to, I guess, tell different stories with each of these games, it looks like.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah, the idea is, again, nothing that we bring in into the world will be perfect. We are flawed human beings doing the best we can to bring encapsulations of our souls into being, that process is going to get a little messy. So coming from the starting point of none of these things is going to be perfect, but how can they be interesting? How can they be built in a way that is itself joyful? And how can they deliver and experience you couldn’t get anywhere else, is something that we want to explore in as many ways as possible.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
So sometimes that takes the form of an inherently joyful universe, a first person open world comedy adventure game like An Airport For Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. Sometimes it’s a sci-fi body horror market tycoon like a Space Warlord, which at the time of this publication will have come out pretty recently on Xbox Game Pass and Steam. There’s a lot of ideas pinging around our heads and finding the shortest point from A to B to express those things and move on to the next project that allows us to deliver the next piece of our souls is my priority.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, the first time that I heard about your work was through a game that currently out. I played it on the Switch called Hypnospace Outlaw. And that is such a unique… I’ll put it like this, the Switch often has very unique games. That’s one reason why I really like the Switch over say PlayStation or Xbox. But Hypnospace Outlaw really for me, just hit that sweet spots for early internet nostalgia, like the late ’90s, early 2000s Web 1.0 aesthetic, just like, “Oh, I loved it. Love it so much.” How did you get involved with that game

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
As a teenager actually. I met Jay, as in Jay Thole, the creative director of the game when I was a teenager playing an early version of one of his previous games. Dropsy. Dropsy is a game about a misunderstood, horrific-looking clown who wants nothing more than to bring joy and love into the lives of the people he meets, no matter how much they despise and/or fear his initial appearance. And playing that game, delivering feedback that he took into consideration, and I saw coming to being in the next versions.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And coming to understand how myself and Jay Thole are both Christians. I’ve been raised around a lot of Christian media, which tends to have mixed results, and finding something that was such a perfect encapsulation of what is intended to be the spirit of the faith, sacrifice and deep unconditional transformative love. And how that could be conveyed in a game about something else entirely different, when all I’ve been raised around was for the most part art, where the only thing that justified its existence was that it had a Christian label or would uphold dogma.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
That changed my life, changed my perspective, had a huge impact on me. And we stayed in touch, continued to bounce off each other creatively. And when he revealed Hypnospace Outlaw and continued to go down the path of developing it, eventually he was kind enough to bring me aboard and I got to directly collaborate with him and the rest of the team as a narrative director to serve a double purpose. The first being, writing a whole lot of stuff and doing a lot of narrative design to convey the themes and stories that they wanted to tell in that world.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
But also how to structure those stories in the game flow and progression such that it delivered those themes and made a game of infinite scope. Because when you’re simulating the internet, you can just keep going forever, finding a way of taking existing material and material yet to be created in creating a flow that made it to where we could make all of these things within a human lifetime, in a way that was faster, cheaper, healthier, and more efficient than we originally considered in my it even be possible to do so. We ended up pulling it off.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It got rave reviews, it got nominated for a lot of awards. I’m still friends with the team and we still talk about potential collaborations in the future. So as much as you can judge a collaboration be successful, I certainly am happy with what happened coming out the other side of that.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you unpacked a bit about what narrative design is, because that’s what I was about to ask. But as you put it, it’s not just, “Oh, we’re writing the dialogue,” but you’re also looking at how that fits into the overall structure. So it’s like writing and almost producing and directing all wrapped up in the one, it sounds like.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It depends on the role, when you’re a narrative lead, it certainly gets more into the structure and vision of the overall project as well as potentially managing elements to accomplish that. But narrative design, being the practice of looking at all aspects of a games experience to tell a story. And then collaborating with people to bring that into being as opposed to a writer, which in many teams can also hold narrative design duties, but their primary job is to write dialogue, write things that will be depicted as text on the screen.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It’s a big part of the ambiguity here, because there is a lot of overlap, but there’s very distinct ways in which if you have a killer writer or a out of this world narrative designer, and you put them in a position to focus on their particular intersection, it can genuinely transform the way in which a game comes to life.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, the game that you’ve been working on that just came out recently, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. I love have to hear the inspiration behind that. Just from the title alone, it sounds a lot to digest at once perhaps. No pun intended.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The pun is very much appreciated though. The inspiration point, it’s twofold and there’s a lot of different rabbit holes that can be taken. But at its basis for warm, I was sitting in a doctor’s office, a man not wearing doctor’s clothes walked in, closed the door behind him and said, “Well, I’d like to see my insides.” And in that moment I had one of two decisions. The first was, do I run and get out of here and start screaming? Or two, do I keep going along these lines because whatever happens, I’m going to get an interesting story out of it?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I ended up going the story direction and I didn’t end up getting murdered. Turns out this was a nurse practitioner, someone who was in process of doing their rounds and I guess accomplishing their residency and they needed practice with ultrasound machine. So I got to watch my heartbeat, my lungs breathe in and out, my liver function, and being connected to the tangible reality of the invisible processes that made up my life. Every moment of every day was such a point of perspective, of being exposed to something bigger than yourself.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It sounds odd, but looking inward can be as perspective-broadening as looking outwards. So looking at this marvelous, complicated fleshy machine that we are and seeing it working had a big impact on my perspective. So, years later, that ends up culminating in a game about buying, selling, and trading the one thing everyone has and needs in a strange and evolving universe, organs. Because if there’s anything that is as large as space or the universal language of commerce, it is how much our equations of value or inherent value change as soon as you slap a dollar sign on something.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It can be a plush beanie baby, it can be a green piece of paper that says one on it, or it can be a human heart. But as soon as you assign and agree upon a shared belief and value, the world changes in some small and inexplicable way that is very hard to reverse once it happens. And exploring those implications has been a very fun and hopefully compelling… Has been a very fun process that I hope has resulted in the compelling result.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know why for some reason, when I first heard the name and then I saw it on Steam, and we’ll have a link to it down in the show notes so people can check it out. I saw that and the first thing I thought of was Spaceballs. Have you seen Spaceballs before?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I am familiar with Spaceballs, but I’ve never properly seen it.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That’s your homework, you have to see Spaceballs. I want to see what you think about it-

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Got it.

Maurice Cherry:
… after you watched it, but-

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Putting it on the list.

Maurice Cherry:
… I don’t know. I saw it and for some reason it got me to thinking about that movie for some reason, even though I’m sure the game is not… Spaceballs is clearly a parody of Star Wars, but your game is not a parody of anything, but for some reason my minds made that connection. I guess, because it’s space and it’s trading and all this sort of stuff. But what does your process look like when you’re creating a game? Because as you’re explaining both this game, as well as the games that are currently on the Strange Scaffold website.

Maurice Cherry:
It seems like you put a whole lot of thought into like the ethos and the soul of what the game is about and less about maybe the final product with graphics and all that sort of stuff.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Going into the process of how a game or any creative production comes into being is potentially very complicated, but I do try to think of any creative work, which I embark upon. I’ve worked in comics, I’ve worked in other mediums, sometimes in forms that I can’t talk about because of NDA. But I’ve worked in a lot of different mediums, communication styles, genres, and the thing that binds my approach to all of them together is a sense of what brings this to the finish line? And how does every piece of this experience reflect the perspective which birthed it?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
So the term I like to use for this idea is a prism. Ideally, at least when you’re working on tightly scoped projects, filtering every element of the game through a central prism or perspective. Following those logical conclusions, those leaps of perspective that are grounded because they remain in the same foundation. That drives everything in terms of how I at least approach the directing process. So in An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, the question emerged inside of the team at the beginning of the project, how do we handle currency?”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
How does the player get more money? How do they spend money? How is money and currency represented? And at that moment, I took a step back and I thought about it for a moment and I said, “There is no money in this game,” because the prism, the perspective of the game world is what does it look like for a truly utopian society run by stock photo dog? A universe that is inherently joyful and cares about you specifically. A game that’s playing with you as much as you’re playing with it. How does it communicate with its players?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
What are the elements of its world? What is the logic it runs upon? There’s a lot of interesting things you can do with currency or money in that world, but for me in that moment, the truest reflection of the world we wanted to create was one where dogs don’t care about money. A dog isn’t going to not give you a ticket to a FOBO just because you’re $1 short. If anything, they’re just going to give you the ticket or they’ll give you 50 tickets, just because you asked for it. Because they want to be helpful, because they want to see you happy.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Because your joyful existence is more important than exchange of goods and services. Following decision processes like that, of what is this world attempting to express and how is it communicated through every layer and element of the game has become an essential piece of any of my work whether I join as a director or as a contractor. So I really value at this point, the idea of cohesion and how much agency I’ve been allowed in my different assignments to bring that perspective to bear, because sometimes you don’t have that ability.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can run into a project or string of projects or a career of projects where not only are the products disjointed, but your ability to bring any unity to them is nearly absent. So there’s a mixture of skill and execution here, but I’m also just deeply thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity and specific scenarios in which my skill in this area has been allowed to shine.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting when you say that about the dogs not needing money, because I guess, yeah, that makes sense. But to have no currency, what about treats? I don’t know. I guess it’s your game, but I’m curious when you said that about the money, that does make sense now that you’ve pulled back and really explained it in that way. Because what are they going to spend it on? Is there also a supermarket run by dogs? How does that all work? So I get that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And the dogs would just give each other stuff at the supermarket if they have it [crosstalk 00:23:27]-

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
There’s different tree treatments you could do of this definitely. There is a world where there’s much harsher dogs. There are dogs who do demand things in the game. A lot of it is a straight up barter in the project as opposed to using an abstract concept like money. But all in all, yeah, at every single step we ask, “How would this work in a joyful universe? How would this work if dogs were deciding how this should function?” And in many cases, the solution was one that was more kind and more interesting than anything that existed in the real world.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And that caused a moment of reflection, at least for myself, whenever that occurred in the project for even how rarely we get the opportunity to imagine a better world. It can be very cathartic to create work that allows you the opportunities to explore that because Lord knows with the 24-hour news cycle, it can be difficult to bring yourself to that point when you’re scrolling through Instagram and it feels like the world is on fire.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that makes sense. So I want to switch it up here, but of course we’re hearing about you as a game developer, studio owner, narrative designer, but I want to know where this all originated from. So tell me more about like where you grew up.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I grew up all over the place. I was a military brat and that perspective in itself traveling so many different places seems so many different perspectives and cultures, has been in a massive contributor to me becoming who I am.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you talk about some of the places where you grew up?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah, I was in South Korea, I was in Italy, I was in Germany, I was all over the United States. And I’m now based in the Southwest, El Paso, Texas, so been a lot of places.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Now I guess while you’re of course traveling all about with your family because of being a military brat, did you get to experience just a lot of different design and tech and all that sort of stuff growing up?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. And to top it all off the fact that my dad was so interested in tech when I was growing up, had no doubt a massive impact. One of the earliest photos that exists of me is I am an extremely chubby baby sitting on my dad’s lap with a unplugged controller in my hand, wrapped attention towards a screen that isn’t in the frame while my dad is looking towards the exact same thing, because I thought in that moment that I was playing the game right with him. And in a sense I was, and now, I send him free video games. So, it all works out.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you know what game it was that your dad was playing?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
No, but I do remember certain games for my childhood in a lot of different contexts.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, like what are some of those games?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
One of the big ones was Morrowind.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
My dad played it on the original Xbox, the first console with a built-in memory. And he played hundreds of hours of that thing. And I would watch him be enthralled by this world and I, of course wanted to be like my dad. I was like, “Can I play? Can I play? Can I play?” He finally let me do it. And I was like, “Yes, I’m in the world of Morrow ind. I have read this manual from cover to cover dozens of times.”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I make a little bit of head way through the game, not really understanding it because it’s a more classic RPG and still having a good time with it, but not really understanding what I’m seeing. I save my game and I log off, a few hours later, I hear this on earthly moan. I walk into the front room and there’s my dad just staring at the screen, because I have overwritten his hundreds of RSAs with all the armor and all the weapons and [crosstalk 00:27:36]-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, no.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
… with almost half of his own everything with my misspelled main character in his underwear in the middle of the town square that you first get to. And he was like, “Did you do this?” And I was like, “I do what?” And he explained to me, “You deleted my save.” I was like, “Oh, oh no.” So he went back to it, and if anything, he went back to it harder than last time, it was like the Rocky training sequence, I was so proud of him. He put a blanket over his head, he put a blanket over the TV, he went for it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
He’d work, he’d come home, he’d get it in because he is a good dad. At some point he says, “Yes. Okay. You can play again.” And I start a new game and I get a little bit of weigh in, and I meet an elf who I really hate. He’s just a real son of a bitch. I close the game and I come back out, and it’s very rarely that I’ve seen my dad look defeated, just deflated as a human being nothing inside of the husk, that is his body. But he was sitting, he didn’t even, there was not even the sound or really a conversation, he says, “Was this gone?” And he just like Sisyphus was rolling the boulder up the hill again. And he-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, what, you saved over it again.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yes. I believe [crosstalk 00:29:03].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The third time he didn’t go for it as hard, I think he knew what was coming. Eventually, I asked him, “Hey, can I play the game?” And he is like, “Are you going to delete my save?” I was like, “No, I know how to do it this time. I’ve seen you save, I’ve been watching. I know how to do it.” I didn’t know how to do it. I deleted his save again. And when he stopped playing it in defeat, he’s never turned to that game ever since. I lost interest because it was cool because my dad was doing it. So lesson of the story here is, one, this is on him because he shouldn’t have kept letting me play it. And two, it’s even more on him because he never showed me how the save menu worked. You can tell a five-year-old how games saves work.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can explain the concept. I’ve thought through this for years now, there is a way five-year-old me could have been told about how save games worked. But that process was not undergone, and so consequences were followed and I do feel very bad about it. Every time I can’t log onto my Xbox because he is using the console profile in a different location to have access to my game pass. I’m doing my little bit to pay back the horrible price I incurred by destroying his dreams early on.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good son, that’s what a good son should do. That’s good to hear.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Although now I feel completely old now that you mentioned Morrowind. I was like, “Jesus.” I was in college when Morrow ind came out. I remember the game though, I probably didn’t get as far as you did though. When did I start playing? Not in 2002 certainly. Probably like in maybe ’05, I think I had an Xbox then. And I don’t know, I could never get out the first town. I kept getting killed by rats and I was like, “Eh, forget it.”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Because it had a D and D chance to hit. So you would hit it and you wouldn’t know, you’d have to look in the bottom left corner of the screen to be like, “You missed. You missed, it’s before.”

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. That’s not all my fault. So no, I.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
What we’re learning in this episode is that abdication and responsibility is good actually. It was my dad’s fault, it wasn’t your fault. It was Morrowind’s fault. We can always find someone to blame and that’s the real takeaway of today’s show.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And speaking of that, when it comes to games, you first got into, well, it sounds like you first got into the gaming industry as a games’ journalist as a 12-year-old. Is that right?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Pretended to be an adult.

Maurice Cherry:
You got to tell me how that happened.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
That’s the story in a nutshell, I was 12 years old. I found out that games journalists get games for free. I thought, “Oh wow, there it is. It’s the perfect job, free video games.” And I, as a very driven and precocious young man, pretended to be an adult and somehow I got away with it, and that started what has now been a… Oh, it’s been over a decade in the industry. And people I met back then I have since worked with, and I’m now colleagues with, and everyday I am thankful for not just that journey, but how clearly I can see the journey at every step in my life. I can see the impact that God has had in directing that path, whether it was good or bad, everything came together to produce the person I am now, and the perspective I have.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And so much of what I’m trying to do is without having to go through similar pain in part, any of the things that I’ve learned or discovered along the way to the people that I meet, if I manage to… I think it’s really important to put on your own air mask before you assist other passengers to use an airline reference or metaphor. But I also think none of this stuff really matters if it only goes to benefit me. If I just, even if I make hits, if these games come into the world and all they do is make money.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Money is important, it pays bills, it allows for agency and freedom and a quality of living that’s important and aspirational. But if I work with someone and they don’t come away having learned something, if I come away from working with someone and haven’t learned something, if I am not through my working processes, enabling the people around me to do their best work in the healthiest environment possible, it doesn’t matter what we’ve produced, because the purpose of making that thing has already been lost. What point is a perfect game, If you lose your soul along the way? Or if you never make another thing again.

Maurice Cherry:
I was curious to know, as you started out so early in this industry writing about it, reviewing games and such, did any of your colleagues know that you were that young?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
From what I understand, most didn’t and I don’t know what that says about either my skills for disguise or about my industry in terms of maturity level, but yeah, I somehow skated by.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think that your work as a journalist really helped you out as a narrative designer?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the work I did as a journalist helped me as a narrative designer in a few ways. The first is, I did all of my professional bad writing very early. I got all the bad words out, hopefully, so now I can write good stuff. But the second major thing that I think about in terms of journalism is, when I got older and really leaned into attempting to understand artistic intents and artistic processes and how and why things came to be, or when the creator intended something, why that didn’t emerge onto the screen. And the things that led to that course of events, that gave me an inherent empathy for the people I would come to work with as well as an ability to examine, what was something trying to communicate?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Like reverse engineering, what was something trying to communicate and how, and what pieces of an experience didn’t contribute to that process, led to me now attempting to bring those things to life myself in as cohesive a manner as possible. And I certainly won’t claim to get it right 100% at the time, but I can see how my history as a journalist coming to treasure these things and learning how to form these opinions and thoughts in such a way that I could share them with others and have them be disagreed with or agreed with or spark interesting discussion. It was an incredible training ground, and I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to come up through that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you ultimately want to accomplish as a game developer? It certainly sounds like, one, your faith factors a lot into your work, just in terms of how you approach the games and it sounds like even the mechanics and the whole ethos behind it, but then also you’ve mentioned earlier about wanting to provide just a more holistic game development experience. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, I’m using a bunch of different metaphors here, but what do you want to accomplish as a game developer? Is there like a bigger goal or message at play here?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The average game developer career lasts about three years. If there’s anything I accomplish in my lifetime as a commercial artist, as a creative professional, I want to see the average career length for someone working in games to be 20 years, 30 years just like Martin Scorsese, says he can be 70, 80 years old, still making interesting films. I want to see games professionals have the same ability to discover what their next story is going to be, what the stories they could deliver if their careers just lasted a little bit longer.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
If they had that ability to hit that next rung in the ladder, if they had that ability to fashion their craft that much more. The fact that we get the games of creative potency that we have now, given the relative lack of seniority, we have the ability to crew in, in the industry because our mentors, our elders are few and far between. I treasure and look forward to a future where we find out what breathtaking things can come into being when people have been making these for 30 years instead of three.

Maurice Cherry:
So overall, what are you excited about at the moment? Of course, you got a new game that just came out. Of course, congratulations to you on that, but what are you really the most excited about right now?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the thing is I’m most excited about are honestly the projects. This sounds corny, but it’s the projects made by my friends and colleagues and peers in the industry right now. Games is legitimately a more vibrant, diverse, creatively executed and broad communicator of artistic intent than it’s ever been. The golden age of games is happening right now. And it’s because of the people I often find myself having the ability to work with, no major end point to that other than, “Dang I’m thankful.” And wow, I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like 10, 20 years from now, especially if we can create working conditions to where the folks who are doing this amazing stuff now can continue to evolve their craft and be making things that far into the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Now for people that are listening to this that want to also get into developing games, what would you recommend to them? Any resources or any kind of course of action that they should take?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The most important thing I would recommend is make games or make anything really with the resources you have right now. If you don’t have money, find out what kind of game you can make with no money. It’s possible. That’s to where I started. If you are a fantastic artist, look at how a game can uniquely leverage your art. If you’re a musician, look at how within the resources you have, you can express things that no one else would think to do.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Or frankly could if only because they have more resources, we tend to forget how sometimes having more resources can be a limitation in itself because it forces the solutions you are finding to take pretty similar forms to things that are successful right now, or that have been done in the past, depending on the environment and which you’re working. So yeah, wherever you are, whatever you have, look for how you can be making something right now, because not only will that advance your portfolio, but whenever you bring something into the world, finish and release it, you learn something about yourself, you learn and what to do, you learn what to not to do, you learn something about who you are. I say you deserve to learn as fully as possible who you are, wouldn’t you?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, sure. Why not? What do you think you would’ve done if you hadn’t gone into game development? It sounds like you had such an early start. Was there anything else that you had in mind even?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
My very, very first job was doing landscaping for a cult. Do not recommend it.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, landscaping for a cult?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
We’re going to move on from that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
But after that, what I got into and what I loved was librarianship. Library science, the practice of serving customers in a community through libraries. I found opportunities with the resources I had and the place that I had in the communities that I was in to end up being a children’s librarian, not just one time, but multiple times. And I loved it. I love what libraries represents. I practically grew up in libraries. The role libraries have in society, the continuing relevance they have, as well as the impact you have on patrons in that environment.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Sorry, I’m getting a little bit emotional in this end, but I loved every single one of those kids who walked in through the door. I loved every single person who came in and didn’t know what they were looking for and came out with a book that ended up changing their lives. I loved every single one of those ridiculous ass romance novels that ended up being, this is a fun fact. Romance novels are the most checked out thing in a library, at least in my experience. Romance readers read voraciously, they’re constantly cycling through those books, same books going in and out, in and out. They’re the secret lifeblood of any library circulation.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And yeah, every single one of those books and the joy that they brought the people who read them. I loved those books and I loved every single one of those people, and I loved everything about that profession. If it didn’t require that master’s in library science to become a quote unquote proper librarian, I might have still even having started my career in games so early, I might have still done librarianship anyway, because if it’s not creative production, if it’s not making games or comics or something in linear media, like film or television. I’ll tell you what feels like home to me, it’s the walls of a library.

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Aside from in a library?

Maurice Cherry:
Sure. Why not? I’m sure there’re more games out down the horizon. I’m sure.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. In five years I see Strange Scaffold as a vibrant constellation of projects and people that are sustainable, healthy, and unexpectedly ambitious and well positioned to remain so for the foreseeable future. If I could do exactly what I’m doing now for the next five years and the rest of my life, I would be very happy indeed.

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can find my ridiculous Twitter at twitter.com/WritNelson. When I’m not posting puns, I am talking about our projects and how and why we bring them into the world. We have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangescaffold where you can get early access to our work, as well as do things like get pictures of your dog, into the games that we’re bringing out now and get custom content into some of the projects we’re still developing, such as Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And lastly, I work on a lot of games. So if you look on a PlayStation or an Xbox or a Nintendo platform or on Steam, running into something that I’m working on is, or have worked on, there’s a better chance than not that you’ll find it pretty quickly. So Strange Scaffold is the name for a lot of my collaborations, but for a step outside of that, like Skate Bird or Hypnospace Outlaw, if you like one thing we’re doing, there’s a vibrant thread of work to be followed.

Maurice Cherry:
Xalavier Nelson Jr, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, thank you for sharing your really unique look into game development and your very, I think honestly inspiring story about how you even just got involved into games. I love that you really are thinking about not just the stories that you want to tell throughout games, but also how you can make the industry better as a whole. I think that’s something that probably, I don’t know if many other game developers are doing that, but it seems like that’s something that you really tapped into and are trying to put forth. And the games that you’re creating are fun and unique, and I just want to see more of what you’re going to accomplish in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The kind of words mean an immense amount. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Terell Cobb

Back in the day, the path to becoming a designer might have meant attending an expensive art school, interning at a design studio or an ad agency, and then working your way up the corporate ladder. But this week’s guest, Terell Cobb, illustrates how you can become a successful designer by carving your own path!

Our conversation begins with a look at Terell’s work at Microsoft, and he talks about his day-to-day schedule, working with his team of designers and researchers, and gives a peek into Black Designers of Microsoft and how they work as a group. Terell also spoke about how his athletic career as a football player taught him about design, and shared with me some mentors who have helped him become the designer he is today. With his drive and ambition, Terell Cobb is definitely someone to keep your eye on for the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Terell Cobb:
My name is Terrell Cobb. I am a design lead over at Microsoft as part of the Digital Transformation Studios.

Maurice Cherry:
Digital Transformation Studios, that sounds super lofty. And I’m sure we’re going to get into that. But before we do, how has 2021 been for you so far? How have things been going?

Terell Cobb:
2021 has been a great ride for me. I believe that last year during the pandemic, it was learning how to be more self-sufficient at home and also taking care of a fam all while taking care of myself as well. And I think within 2021, I’ve gained the appreciation of changing states and moving, and then also starting to center life around just taking care of me and also taking care of the family. It’s been a good ride so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Also you moved to Texas this year then.

Terell Cobb:
When Microsoft had the opportunity for flex work, I took advantage of that and got an opportunity to come back to the Dallas area and get to some familiarity and also just enjoy the atmosphere that we’re in right now. Sorry to rub that into Pacific Northwest folks.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to ask what’s changed for you last year, but clearly location’s been a big part of that.

Terell Cobb:
Yeah. And the sun, and being able to see the sun.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Being a design lead at Microsoft over the platform that you mentioned, can you tell me about that? What all does that entail?

Terell Cobb:
The Digital Transformation Studios is conglomerate of several spaces within that Microsoft. One of those spaces in which I work in is the business applications group. Business applications group are the parts of the business that actually build applications for large enterprise customers. And being able to sit in that part of the arena of Microsoft, it allows me to see how businesses are, specifically using supply chain and provide certain intelligent solutions to that supply chain space.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your team make up look like?

Terell Cobb:
My team today is made up of a couple of designers and also a researcher. However, one of the things that we kind of anchor to within Microsoft is being able to go with an A1 Microsoft mindset. So I also consider my engineers and PMs as part of my tetra or my team as well. I have an amazing group of people that I get to build amazing things with on a daily basis.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like that’s been a fairly new development within companies to have a researcher on the design team, as it relates to what you’re doing, how does that work?

Terell Cobb:
I appreciate research so much. I believe I’m one of the biggest advocates for research and also content design. But specifically research, I believe that they’re the silver lining of experiences and if we don’t have their heartbeat of what the experience should be, we’re building in the wrong direction and that could be expensive over time.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see how certainly if you feel like you’re going in one direction and internally, you might think that’s a good a thing and then your users are using it and it’s something completely different. They’re not responsive to it or receptive to it like you want to and you have to go back to the drawing board.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. I think just being southern and being from the south, you hear those proverbs like it’s wrong to run 100 miles per hour in the wrong way. You would want to go in the right way so that you’re not making further mistakes. Start of the project, they’re essential to the midpoint of the project and they’re essential to the delivery part of the project.

Maurice Cherry:
Walk me through what a typical day looks like for you.

Terell Cobb:
A typical day for me these days are just a bunch of new negotiating. It’s either negotiating confidence of how much confidence a user is going to be exposed to by the options or things that we’re building. It’s also the negotiation of time of how much should the team be leveraged against a certain initiative? What are we talking about six months from now? What are we planning for a year from now? How do we engage the team itself? And I think recently, really taking a step back away from just design as a delivery, as a process, to more of enjoying the process of actually designing and the delivery will get there, but actually taking the time to enjoy the process of discovery, going into definition, going into actually defining from the research and actually delivering something that’s powerful.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’d imagine in that process, you’re also working in sprints and making sure everyone’s up to speed in other parts of the company or maybe other parts of your team, because you mentioned engineers as well that you’re working with.

Terell Cobb:
Indeed. It’s a healthy balance of speed and quality. And I know not a lot of other designers out there have to deal with most of that. But being at a large enterprise company like Microsoft, there’s nothing new under the sun and you have to bring in your best pudding on what that solution could be next, if that makes any sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. Now, also at Microsoft, you’re the co-founder of an employee resource group there called Black Designers At Microsoft, which is for black designers at Microsoft. Tell me how that whole thing came about.

Terell Cobb:
Yeah. So the amazing story behind that is that I came into Microsoft and previously started other groups like Dallas Black UX. And also while I was at Capital One, worked with a couple of folks to kind of co-found the Black and Design Employee Resource Group there. When I got to Microsoft, it was more of, hey, I’m just going to focus on my career and a climb. I’m going to leave the Employee Resource Group to the side. I’m going to just stay focused and do this. First day walking in, I meet another black designer and she basically says to me, [Cherryanne 00:09:37] Porter from Houston basically says to me that, “Hey, I’ve never worked with a black designer before you are my first black designer that I’ve ever worked with before.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Terell Cobb:
And that was the inkling of, okay, here we go. We’re about to do it again.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re like the Grand Theft Auto meme , you’re like, “Oh, shit here we go again.”

Terell Cobb:
Here we go. It then intensified by both of us being on the same team and actually going to orientation. And when we went to orientation, we saw on the screen another black designer that was a part of the studio. We were like, “Wait a second, where is she?” And this is Zoe and she’s been inside of the studio, but pretty much could not find her. And then low and behold, the next all hands we meet with each other and we’re like, “Huh, okay. There has to be more of us. Where are we?” I think along with that and just how big the company is, along with some of the understanding of designers being disenfranchised from not even being inside of the world of design from a black designer standpoint, we took that as an opportunity to build something ourselves inside of Microsoft and grow the talent that’s internal but then also attract talent that’s external to the company as well.

Maurice Cherry:
That sort of feeds into what I was going to ask. What sorts of things is the group doing internally and in the larger community, but recruitment sounds like a big part at least of that external, I guess, outreach of the group. Is that right?

Terell Cobb:
Indeed. I think if we look at just some of the general grounding of the group itself, it’s based in on not just looking at one form of design. That’s one of the biggest differences there. It’s not just a UX designer and you’re a part of the group. It’s more so of design with the capital D as it’s reference from our fearless leader, Jonah Sterling, it is design, it’s research, it’s producers, it’s data science, motion designers, audio designers, front end development, illustration. All of these people are a part of the group and the key points there is getting into the intentional community to influence diversity. Influencing diversity internal to therefore make it external, just creating that ripple so that we can continue to build from the inside out and doing that, it was growing the community itself by creating teams channel in safe places along with the opportunity to do share outs, hackathons right now anybody in the group can kind of spin up a opportunity for someone to have a quick review and they can basically get started and you’ll have multiple people join in to give them feedback.

Terell Cobb:
And it’s different because you’re getting feedback from friends in that sense. I could tell you, “No, bro, that’s not going to make it. That may not make it bro, or I like that, that’s going to be amazing.” And it’ll be a little bit different because it feels that it’s coming from that place that we get most of our things from that feels safe for us. Continuing to drive that type of community was important to us and doing it internally through the community piece, but then also reaching out to external to the community and going after middle schools and high schools and also HBCUs. Last year we had a couple of events where we actually partnered with some of the HBCUs out there to kind of expose the craft of design to them.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. When I was in an HBCU some twenties years ago, one of the first company, one of the first tech companies I interviewed with was Microsoft. And actually, I mean, I think I’ve told this story on the podcast before I’m well outside of college now, so I can sort of tell the story, how I scan my way in there. But essentially I was a math major in college and my whole thing was I was part of this program that was sponsored by NASA, my scholarship and everything. And so the goal was like, oh, well, when you graduate college, you’re going to work for one of these NASA facilities. I had interned at two NASA facilities. So in my mind, I’m thinking, boom career set when I graduate NASA. 911 happens.

Maurice Cherry:
And when that happened, the funding for my program got pulled and it went towards Homeland Security. And so this whole guarantee of, oh, well you’re going to work for NASA when you graduate completely gone. I’m like, damn, I got to find a way to … I don’t know what I’m going to do when I graduate because I was working at the high museum selling tickets for $8.70, not making real kind of money and really had no prospects of career stuff. But I had sort of gotten in really good with the computer science department, with the secretary there, shout out to Mrs. Banks. I don’t know if she is even still there or not, but got in really good with her, started hanging out in the computer lab and stuff, started hanging out in her office and that got me access to this interview book.

Maurice Cherry:
And the interview book was basically juniors and seniors that were interviewing with all these companies and all you had to do was just kind of slip your resume in, put your name down. And I was like, “I’m just going to slip my resume in there and write my name in it.” And I interviewed with real player to show you how long ago that was, that went nowhere.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I interviewed with Microsoft and I remember, God, I don’t remember the woman’s name, who I interviewed with, but it was a black woman interview with her and she gave me one interview question. She was like, design an alarm clock for a blind person. And she slid over a sheet of paper and a pen. And I was like, just walk me through your process. And I’m like, “Oh, okay.” So I was talking through, oh, we should do this. And it should vibrate and maybe have sound and all this kind of … She was like, okay, all right, great. And she took it and she put it in a folder, shook my hand. And that was it. That was the interview. I was like, “That’s it.” Apparently it was good enough because they flew me out to Seattle to do an interview with Microsoft and they had it in this sort of almost an elimination style.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if the interviews are like this now, but you do the first interview and if you pass the first one, you go to the second one. If you pass the second one, you go to the third one. And this was all day for an internship. I remember because this started at maybe 8:00 AM and it was getting until around maybe 7:00 PM. I was tired. And I forget what the question was, it was something about notepad and right to left text or something. And I think it was at that point that they realized, oh, wait a minute, you’re not a computer science major are you? Because it was some programming stuff and I was like, I don’t know. I don’t know how to do this and I didn’t get the internship, but I remember vividly being on the campus and everything and when I think of companies that have sort of given me a chance in college, like Microsoft was that one company.

Maurice Cherry:
The fact that you all are still doing HBCU research now some 20 something years later is a testament to the fact that you all have put skin in the game and that it’s not just, oh, we need to look for a diversity. Where should we look? Why do I look at black colleges? You all have been doing this now for a long time.

Terell Cobb:
Indeed. It’s incredibly rewarding not just to win by yourself, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to see others win and see that spark in a high school as I, that, wait a second, I can become a designer. I could be a researcher, I can work at Microsoft is like, yeah. Actually, one of the previous workshops with CodeHouse, shout out to CodeHouse in Atlanta who brought in 29 students from Morehouse and Spelman at the time. And we ran through just roughly about a six hour to seven hour workshop with design. And you can kind of see the amazing minds that are there and applying design thinking to those amazing minds, our leaders coming behind us are going to be crazy good. And I think that is the reward that most of us get from that because there’s a great chance that, hey, we will be working with these leaders later on in life. It’s extremely rewarding.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say the fact that you mentioned high schoolers and middle schoolers, you’re going past just reaching them while they’re in college. You’re getting them at a really pivotal age when they can make a decision on where do I want to go in terms of, I want to say my career, I really think it’s unfair to sort of burden an 18 year old with that anyway. But the fact that you’re showing them that this is an option because now social media and technology is ubiquitous. When I was a teenager in the nineties, there was Game Boy, there was Tomagotchi, there were Super Nintendo. It was all consumer electronic sort of stuff. Certainly no smartphones or anything like that. But now you can show them you can be more than just a consumer or a user. You can be a creator. You can be someone that makes this stuff and to show them that at such a pivotal young age, at middle school and high school is really something.

Terell Cobb:
That is so key. I mean, and even if they choose not to become a designer, we still win because we just taught them design thinking. So now from that point on, they have that emotional intelligence or that critical thinking mass to take with them to the next adventure. And I think that’s part of the reward back to us as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Now, let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. You mentioned being in Texas, is that where you also grew up?

Terell Cobb:
No, actually I grew up in South Florida in a small town called Boynton Beach, which is roughly about 40 minutes north of Miami.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Growing up there, were you exposed a lot to design and everything?

Terell Cobb:
Not at all. I like to tell the story this way, that growing up in Boynton and also just South Florida in general, you’re growing up in a football arena. And there’s not much else to do outside of football. You got the notoriety that you had from football. There’s countless of times of pretty much kids starting playing football at four years old. And you could see those kids training and practicing with parachutes at four or five, just trying to get faster and trying to get better there. It’s still to this day, I believe the, South Florida is leading in the most NFL prospects within the country. And it’s not by chance. It’s just simply because of the arena of how important football is in those areas. Because of that, that had gave me an opportunity to be exposed to being a football player, but just doing it a little differently.

Terell Cobb:
I still had some of the tenacity of being on the D line and knowing how to use my hands and knowing how to be fast and running 707s with different people. But I also found a unique ability of me actually setting up the field. I love the aspect of walking each five yards and putting a cone or a shoe or a hat down to say that this was a first down or this was a yard marker. Or this was going to be the goal line, even down to cones. I’ll never look at orange cones the same ever in my life, because I would take these orange cones and you would create different patterns a pentagon, a triangle, a square, a circle, depending on the pattern that’s on the ground, that’s where your feet or your toes would interact with in order to beat the drill.

Terell Cobb:
I got really good at setting up these cones. I really started to understand well, wait a second, I’m good at this. I can also draw a little bit, where is this leading me? I just said no, don’t worry about it. I’m good. I’m going to just put that to the side and continue all with life as is. But the opportunity presented itself when I got into college once leaving the Boynton area. But I appreciate the hardships of Boynton because it taught me the lessons that were needed to be a champion on the things that came to me afterwards.

Maurice Cherry:
I know what you mean about sort of growing up in that crucible of football. I mean, I’m from South Alabama, well, South central, Alabama, and it’s either Alabama or Auburn. One of the two. I know what it is about … And I remember, there were like those Pop Warner football leagues and stuff like that. And I wanted to be, and my mom was like, “No, you’re not doing that.” But I remember there would be six-year-old, seven-year-olds in pads tackling. I remember that vividly exactly about growing up that whole thing about just really getting into football.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. I mean, that’s exactly it, but I think this is how I attribute back how football taught me design because being one of those four-year-olds out there with the helmet that can’t hardly hold myself up, but making tackles, it’s not just the football field, it’s the people, it’s the cars around the football field. It’s the atmosphere of the lights being on at a certain time. It’s the concession stands as part of food trucks before food trucks were food trucks. It was all of that atmosphere that kind of gave me a sense of how not knowing at that time, but how designed was working or things were designed around me.

Maurice Cherry:
I was in the margin band too in middle school and high school. Every Friday night, it’s a whole production. It’s a whole production. The whole thing. Absolutely. Given that football kind of taught you design in that way, that’s also why you ended up studying it I would imagine in college and you went to Washburn University.

Terell Cobb:
Well, the interesting thing, I went to Washburn University but I think prior to Washburn University, I like to tell the story this way that I earned my way to the middle of Kansas at a junior college called Butler County Community College by not getting great grades in high school. That also earned me the opportunity to see a deer for the first time, see a cow for the first time, didn’t know turkeys could fly found that out.

Maurice Cherry:
And they’re mean, they’re very mean bird, probably because we eat them every year.

Terell Cobb:
It was so interesting to have that culture shock from being from the city and brick and hardship and going into country immediately. The school itself was a college, a cemetery, a Walmart and an oil field. The rest was just the school. It was a stark reality of, hey, if you want to excel in life, there are some things that you will have to do. And that stark reality basically helped me understand what the direction I wanted to go into next. And so as part of the Juco experience, you get an opportunity for teams from across the country to come in and actually draft you or actually pick you up or recruit you from that location. It’s actually high school part two. And during that process, the school Washburn drove about maybe three to four hours down the road in Kansas and actually picked me up and took me to the campus.

Terell Cobb:
And it was one of those moments where you step in and look around like, man, this is nice. I think I could do this. And it was slow and it feel like academia that you saw in the movies for my aspect. And I think that’s what drew me to it because I saw a calmness or a piece around it. And I think heading there starting out, it wasn’t immediately designed. It was jumping directly into psychology. And I thought for sure that I was going to be a psychologist actually getting up to somewhat of my senior year in psychology classes and actually stopping and actually working as security as part of the design as part of the work study football job, making sure that people log off the Mac lab, I guess, I got the opportunity to play on the computers from every once in a while. And the classes that were more of the later classes were the illustrator, the photoshop. I’m going to date myself now, flash multimedia or SWiSH Max classes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. SWiSH. Oh my God, you took it back. You really took it back with SWiSH.

Terell Cobb:
Being able to see those classes actually happen gave me an opportunity to be like, “Wait a second, they’re doing what I was doing, but drawing, but they’re making stuff move. They’re making their drawings move.” How is that happening though? Wait a second, and think after talking with the professor that night, I actually went in the next day and changed my major to art and then started to go down this path of being the football player, leaving practice with an easel, running across the football field with an easel and all of my art materials and running into the art lab and of course sitting in the corner because pretty much I’m just leaving football practice and fresh hour, but still just leaving football practice, four hours of practice.

Terell Cobb:
I dealt with that dynamic for two more years and it was incredibly beneficial for me just simply because it started to introduce me into graphic design. I was always exposed to graphic design on via bubble letters, airbrush tees, just drawing certain things for certain people, but just didn’t know that it was actual profession behind it. And being able to make that correlation there kind of sparked my career into the design world.

Maurice Cherry:
Getting that exposure to it, knowing that this is something it’s an option that you can take because prior to that design was something that you just sort of consumed, like you mentioned in these sort of bubble letters and stuff like that. But now knowing, oh wait, I can do that too. I can make that. I mean, even that whole setup about leaving football practice and going to our class with a easel, sounds like a feel good holiday movie or something. I mean, if you ever want to transcribe that to a story, I bet Hallmark can pick it up. That sounds pretty dope.

Terell Cobb:
I may have to do that. That’s a good idea. I receive that.

Maurice Cherry:
What were those early days post-college in terms of your career, you’ve graduated now, you were majoring in graphic design. What was next after that?

Terell Cobb:
It was the real world posting its first challenge to me. I think that first challenge to me was getting into an internship. Well, as a football player, you’re spending 40 hours a week on football. So you’re not able to kind of go and market yourself to other agencies and say, hey, I’m a designer. I could do these things. It just wasn’t acceptable or it wasn’t available for you. But in my case, the real world slap that was put in front of me was in order to work my internship, which I finally got at a local ad agencies, Joan Youths And Partners there in Topeka, Kansas, I was only able to do that into on Fridays from roughly 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM. In order to be able to do that, I’m finished with school, but of course I have to make money somehow.

Terell Cobb:
I hustled my way into talking to a Topeka Youth Project, a local small school that taught kids that were 15 to 21 jobs and life skill readiness. It was my job to go out to the local fast food restaurants, the local libraries, anybody who had a job for 18 and actually become a business representative and pitch the school to that company to say, hey, I know you manager, and I know this kid that I just taught this class, you guys sound like you’ll be a great match. You should probably hire this kid. Getting the kid hired, that was the first indication of negotiation and stakeholder agreements. Knowing how to actually have those conversations. While doing that, I was only able to work. I believe it was 28 hours a week or 25 hours a week with that company. In order to do that as a business representative, I bargain to say, hey, let me help you with your website and your logo as well.

Terell Cobb:
I’ll do your website and your logo, and I’ll also be your business representative. I was doing that. A normal day for me post college, and this is how bad I really wanted to be in this world of design. I worked from 8:00 AM to roughly about 3:00 PM, Monday through Wednesday at the Topeka Youth Project. On Tuesday through Thursday, I was working overnight shift at FedEx, unloading trucks. Pretty much from roughly about 3:00 AM to 7:00 AM. And then in between the Thursday to Friday, I was also unloading packages to Target and basically being a Target shelf, stocker. All so that I can get the internship completed and also get the first level of experience out of the way.

Terell Cobb:
Now, I’m not saying that most design now coming out of college, don’t have to worry about those types of stories and those types of hustles but it was just a slightly different for me being in a small town and just wanting to make this work so bad and not wanting to go back home and say hey, I didn’t do it, I didn’t make it. That was the start of hard work makes something out of you. But then also hard work creates the character that you need as you continue to progress.

Maurice Cherry:
You were hustling.

Terell Cobb:
It had to happen.

Maurice Cherry:
That reminds me a lot of, there’s another guest we had on the show several, several years ago, his name is Ben [Lindo 00:32:19]. He’s a industrial engineer out of, I think he’s out of Philly or Pittsburgh, one of the two, but he was mentioning how he would do design school. He was doing design school and it was UPS driver at the same time. And would come to class in his UPS uniform and the teacher would always have something to say and that kind of thing but he made it work. I mean, when you’re out there on your own, you have to hustle to make that happen. You have to make those sacrifices, those compromises. And it sounds like you really, really hustled to make that happen. Props to you.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. And I think it benefited me a lot just because I was exposed to so many different conversations, so many levels of small talk. Many levels of strategy. I knew that I can unload a semi truck of boxes from FedEx in under 56 minutes, holding that record doing that. But I also do the pattern of, if I unload the boxes too fast on the belt it could stop the belt and then pretty much that makes the day longer for other people that are behind me. It’s just so many lessons that are there through that first year out of college.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it really teaches you the value of hard work too. I mean, I think it’s one thing, if you’re going to school and you manage to land that super cushy gig right out of school, and it’s not too hard, but not too easy. It’s kind of Goldilocks kind of situation but I mean, it’s another thing when you get out and you really have to hustle to carve your way into a position or to get to a point where you’re going to be you hopefully setting yourself up for the future in a good way.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. I think, just being the first of the family to go to college, first of the family to graduate college, you knew and understood you are your help. It wasn’t something else that you can wait on, you were your help. You were ascending this next avenue in arena so that you can then help your family on the back end of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like you said, it’s that thing where you don’t want to go back home defeated. You don’t want to go back home like, oh, I couldn’t make it. That also pushes you and drives you to succeed as well, that feeling.

Terell Cobb:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
So you worked for a number of companies between being in Kansas, being in Florida, being in Texas, worked for a lot of places. When you look back at your career, now that you’re at Microsoft, do you feel like there was a particular moment or a particular job or anything where you felt like you had leveled up?

Terell Cobb:
I think it was the first opportunity to leave South Florida in working in the banking industry down there at the credit union where I started to see the shift from design as more so as a graphic or tangible color or button style to design as a product experience element moving forward. And I think that was the transition from working in South Florida at the credit union to getting a first big break at working for Barclays Bank here in the Dallas, Texas area. One of the mentors that I had at the local ad agency who saw the drive of what I was doing actually called me up from the South Florida area like, “Hey, you want to try this out?” It’s like, “Well, no, I’m pretty good. I’m building websites. I’m doing club flyers. I’m good.” I’m around my family, but not too close because I don’t want them to get on my nerves, but pretty much I’m close enough so I can go hug them and come back.

Terell Cobb:
But it really was at that point in which I saw the level kind of change because it went from me being just a single designer/webmaster slash business representative at that local credit union, continuing that trend to not just being a slash, but being a focused disciplined designer. And that was coming into that first level of product design at Barclays there with that company.

Maurice Cherry:
Now also prior to Microsoft, you worked for two other pretty large companies, you worked at Capital One, you also worked at FedEx. Was it a big sort of culture shift going from those two companies? One’s logistics, one’s banking. Going from that to a strict tech company? Was that a big shift?

Terell Cobb:
I mean, the amazing part of my pathway is that each one of those companies had a different element that I’m using today in firms of my leadership and moving forward. Within Capital One in the FinTech arena, you’re constantly thinking about how could you do things as a group? It’s all about innovation, how to be … And I greatly appreciate just being there in that arena because Capital One didn’t consider itself to be a bank. It happened to be, as they say, a tech company that so happens to be a bank. And that opportunity of being with instant innovation all the time and blue sky thinking and being able to stop projects from releasing and saying like, “Hey, wait a second. Was that innovative enough? Are we really proud of this thing.” To the introduction of service design and the introduction of critical thinking and the folks from Adio coming in and merging into that as well.

Terell Cobb:
Capital one taught me somewhat of the college of product thinking and design external to school, external to that other layer of just design as a button color or movement. Capital One gave me the piece of grounding then moving into FedEx it was like, “Wait a second, I’ve learned all these things. I can put these things to use. Do you want to see them?” And they’re like, “Now we’re a little bit more safe here.”

Terell Cobb:
We’re just a bit more safe. But I think the logistics side of FedEx taught me the technical aspect of what an engineer actually has to do in order for packages to arrive at a certain time. Understanding, and I’ll never forget this quote, from one of the engineers he basically said to me, “Terrell, how do you build a tank?” And I was like, “What do you mean? Military builds, tanks? Send a request to the military, they build a tank.” And he was like, “No, if you had to build a tank yourself, how would you start?” And then I think this is similar to your clock challenge here, where an engineer thinking about a tank is going to be the larger items first and then start going into the cogs of the tank and building the cogs to get back out to the larger things, having a base building in, and then starting building out the shell of the tank and the color of the tank, none of that matters to them.

Terell Cobb:
And that gave me the perspective of how an engineer thinks versus a PM thinks versus a designer thinks. Wrapping all of that around and kind of turning the corner here and going back to where I’m at at Microsoft, it was the critical thinking and also being able to take chances at Capital One, also along with the technical understanding and saying, “Hey, I can’t go build this tank without these particular cogs. They’re important to somebody they’re important to the experience. And then they’re also important to the team that’s building it.” So how do I become a technical designer/team player and then entering into one of the largest tech companies in the world, it’s how do you mash up all of that experience into something and make sure that you can speak the engineering language, you can speak the PM language and you also provide the quality and also the confidence within a customer using this product moving forward. Hopefully I’m answering that question in the best way.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. I mean I think that you always want to think about how you can transfer skills when you’re going from one really big, I think, type of company to another one. And granted all of these do have tech sort of at their core in some way, you’re just using that tech to solve different problems.

Terell Cobb:
I think doing that and also keeping the duality of going back to football, no man left behind or no person left behind and going back and sitting having lunch with the engineers, sitting next to them and saying, “Hey, show me what you did because that was kind of dope. How did you do that.” Spending the time to get to know your teammates, getting the time to actually make this analogy football there’s 93 plays to a game. How many times have you talked to your coworkers in a week? How could you start to understand what they’re going through? How could you start to extend to your team and actually give them the same type of comradery that they’re looking for because you are spending a lot of time with that person. Just anchoring back those principles inside of the duality of also having the technical chops to talk workshop, if you needed to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And one other interesting thing, and you sort of talked about this, I think a little bit at the top of the interview was that you’ve also, maybe not at each of these companies, but certainly you did this at Capital One and now Microsoft, you started these black ERGs. Was it important for you to sort of build that community as you started? How did that manifest itself?

Terell Cobb:
It was incredibly important to see other people like me within the design world. I think like most designers starting out, you’re constantly looking for mentorship and sometimes you have to be the mentor as you rising yourself and you’re providing advice to people, however, you are looking for some advice yourself. And I think within the different groups, it was the opportunity to not only see people that look like you doing amazing things and being able to connect with them and saying or resonating against saying, “Hey, I’ve gone through that as well or I have had this conversation as well,” to more of just that comradery of, have you had an ethics conversation about this design? What did they say about this ethics conversation and being able to just talk shop with them in that way? I think the pleasure that I have within all of these groups is they’re all unique and all based on just different stories of how they got started.

Terell Cobb:
I think within the Capital One space, there were roughly about six of us that stood up at an all hands and were like, hey, I see you. I see you. And it was like, “Well, maybe we should stay in touch.” And then it went from, maybe we should stay in touch to maybe we should have meetings to maybe we should influence more recruiting and to maybe we should have somewhat of a council or somewhat of a type of event. And then with the Capital One piece, it was then like, how do I extend that outside of the company because I can’t just do it from Capital One. How do I also extend inside of the Dallas area? So then it was working with the Bobby Lloyds, the Michael [Tingling 00:44:03], the Labora Willis, the Adrian [inaudible 00:44:06] to kind of expand just create a ripple here in the Dallas area but then also move around to the Houston area.

Terell Cobb:
Just trying our best to create events and also create community for us here. And I think that just followed me just going into the Black Designer space at, at Microsoft because it was so welcomed by other people in that community too. And also the aspect of being able to create something that you know 20 years from now will still be there is something that I get chills over just simply thinking like, hey, that group is going to be amazing because we set it up in that way and they have their heart in the right place.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think back throughout your career, you mentioned mentorship. Who have been some of the mentors that have really helped you out in your career?

Terell Cobb:
Oh, wow. I think there’s some really awesome people out there. I say, some folks like Ty Griffin comes to mind, then there’s, people who were helping that didn’t even know that they were helping, that were just more friendships, right? Like the Tim Allens out there, the Danley Davis is out there. The folks like Dr. [Oco 00:45:30] who was pretty much the person who kind of helped me shift from saying I’m just going to work in a hospital to, hey, I’m going to go to college. I’d say those people along with the Pastor Hicks in Topeka Kansas, the Lisa Carters that are out there and all the football coaches associated with it. Those are some of the people that kind of gave me the drive, but also instilled that I cannot just keep this to myself. I have to also throw the rope back for somebody else or leave a breadcrumb for somebody else behind me so that how I can help them would be beneficial to the future.

Maurice Cherry:
In recent years, what would you say has been, and the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

Terell Cobb:
I would say that I’ve learned that I am incredibly a nerd when it comes to setting things up and being deeply in process. I read some of the similar books throughout the week. I have my coffee and sit on the stoop and actually bask in the sun, but also just that appreciation of designing the little things. And I think this recent trip that I just took to Denmark for a designed workshop there kind of reminded me as I saw enabled person, actually leave the train with with a wand who was basically visually impaired, actually get off the train, stumble on the little ground stubbles and pretty much make their way like a boss to the escalator without any help. It was a reminder to me of, somebody thought in process of this person leaving the train in this way, somebody thought about the doorknobs that’s in front of me. Somebody thought about the angles that in front of me, what are the processes that I’m creating for people behind me as well.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

Terell Cobb:
I define success a little differently from other people. And I say that just to say that I look at success as an opportunity to succeed. As long as you have that opportunity, I don’t believe that you fail. I believe that you learn. And if you have that opportunity, you started in part of that success you’ve already … To start is success.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. Because oftentimes really, it’s just that first step that you have to make.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. You have the thought and you have a couple of seconds to go about that thought or a couple of minutes or that first step. I think we’re a little bit hard on ourselves sometimes and I think just to start in itself is success.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you like the next chapter of your story to be?

Terell Cobb:
I have this grand dream of creating pillars of design practices across the country and their anchor inside of some of the experiences that I’ve had over in the past of the different tech companies or the different businesses that I worked for. But I think mostly the desire to have those communities or those practices is kind of related back to just one in the lead break grounds. My desire is to work on the next 20 years now. There’s an amazing book out there Called What The Forecast. And I look at it almost every week because it kind of puts these brain like exercises in front of you that says it’s five years from now. I am doing this, I’m driving this. I am living here. And it goes from five years to 15 years to 20 years. And I’m constantly thinking about those 20 years just because if you don’t start on it, it’ll just sneak up on you.

Terell Cobb:
That’s my next step here. Just continuing on that path of thinking about those next 20 years. And I have breakfast with some amazing guys, almost every other weekend. And we joke and say, well, we’re talking about our 85 year old self and what our 85 year old self is eating. What could we do now to help our 85 year old self? Are we at 85 and we’re riding motorcycles to eat for breakfast? Are we pulling up in our wheelchairs? Do we have scooters? How mobile do we want to be when we get to that age? I’m constantly thinking about the future in normal yet intriguing terms of life now.

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

Terell Cobb:
Yeah. So if anyone wants to find me on LinkedIn, definitely reach out to me. If I can’t get back to you, I promise you, I will find somebody that can get back to you. Terrell Cobb, T-E-R-E-L-L C-O-B-B on LinkedIn. If you want to follow me on Instagram, it’s a vintage_424. I’m always there. And those are some of the main channels right now where people can find me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Terrell Cobb, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One for just giving a peak behind the curtain as to what it is that you do at Microsoft and even how you’ve helped to create community not just inside of Microsoft or designers there, black designers there, but also the help out in the community as well, but really sort of showing the fact that perseverance really the way. There’s so many paths into design, there’s so many ways to be a success or to do anything really in this industry. And I think what your story really illustrates is that there’s no one single way to do things. There’s no one way to be a success. And so hopefully people will get a chance to hear your story and we’ll take that to heart. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Terell Cobb:
This was incredible. Thank you so much, Maurice, I really appreciate it.

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