Anjuan Simmons

If you want to know what it takes to have a long career in this industry, then this conversation with Anjuan Simmons is just what you need to hear. As a staff engineering manager at GitHub, Anjuan has over 25 years of combined experience across consulting, startups, and big tech.

We talked about his work at GitHub, and he gave some insight into their AI tool Copilot, as well as the GitHub Sponsors program. Anjuan also spoke with me about the value of representation, and how it led to him attending UT Austin for electrical engineering, getting his MBA, and eventually becoming an engineer with one of the biggest tech companies in the world. He also dropped a ton of great advice on ways to have more of an impact in shaping your professional journey.

Anjuan’s intentional approach and personal story is extremely inspiring, and I hope it will help you recognize that you have the power to chart your own course in life!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Anjuan Simmons:

I’m Anjuan Simmons. And I am a staff engineering manager at GitHub.

Maurice Cherry:

So how has this year been going for you? Any highlights?

Anjuan Simmons:

Yes, I think one of the biggest highlights of this year is that my oldest son — and I have three children — and my oldest went to college. So we launched our first baby into university, and we literally, a few days ago, dropped him off at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is an incoming freshman. And we moved him into his dorm and we gave him hugs and we tried to not cry. And we got him installed in Jester West in his dorm, and we drove home without him. And it was a very fulfilling experience. It was a little bittersweet, but we’re super proud of him. And that has been a big highlight because a lot of this year was getting ready for that moment.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. Congratulations.

Anjuan Simmons:

Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:

I love how you say installed, like he was software. (laughs)

Anjuan Simmons:

(laughs) I am a tech person.

Maurice Cherry:

So outside of that, do you have any sort of goals or accomplishments that you want to try to do before the year ends?

Anjuan Simmons:

Yes, I think one of the biggest goals that we had as a family; I mentioned that I have three children. My wife and I, we’ve been married for 21 years, and we do, as you might expect, a lot of family things, right? And so we wanted to have a really reflective and relaxing and connecting summer because, again, my oldest son was going to college. My middle child, a son, is starting his senior year. They just started a few weeks ago. Then my daughter is a sophomore, right? So that kind of gives you an idea of their ages.

And one of the things that we did this summer and we went back and forth on, like, do we want to do something? Do we want something elaborate? Right? Do we want to go to Lagos, Nigeria, or go to Amsterdam or whatever? Then we…no, no. Let’s just kind of tone it back. And so we did just a very simple family vacation where we went to Washington, D.C. for a few days, and then we took this Amtrak Express train from Washington, D.C. to New York City. And we spent time there because none of my kids had been to New York City. And we did all the touristy things. We went to the Statue of Liberty. We went to the Empire State Building. We did all these things. And it was just a nice family time. And so that was a major thing that we did this summer. And that may sound a little bit boring, but it was a delightful little small vacation. My middle son went to a summer program at UT because he’s interested in business like his older brother. And my daughter is on the dance team at high school, so she did a lot of things with her dance troupe. And so this was very much a family summer. So I would say that on a personal level, that was the biggest highlight of this year.

I would say that the other big highlight is that at work I promoted a Black woman and an Indian woman at work. And that was something that is truly gratifying. Not just because of their ethnicity — they were ready to go. They very much, very well deserved the promo. But I’ve promoted a lot of people in my career, Maurice, and just as a person of color, it was really great to be someone who could come alongside them as a manager, help them honestly overcome some of the imposter syndrome that I detected in them and then do the work to make sure that the organization could identify and respect their accomplishments and what they were bringing to the team that, hey, these people are ready for promo. They’re already doing their work in to get that done. And so out of all the many people I promote over my long career, and I’ve been doing this for over 25 years, that was very gratifying.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. I mean, from the family end, I think a nice relaxing family vacation is definitely a great accomplishment, especially after the past two or three years with the pandemic. Like, even just being able to get out and do things tourist wise is great. So that’s good. And also you got to spend some time with your son before he went off to college. That’s a memory that I’m sure he’ll take with him. So that’s great.

Anjuan Simmons:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. And since you mentioned work, let’s pivot to talking about what you’re doing at GitHub, where you work as a staff engineering manager. Tell me more about that.

Anjuan Simmons:

Sure. So the team that I’m responsible for supporting is called GitHub Sponsors. And GitHub Sponsors is a program that started, I mean, really a few years ago, that is meant to allow open source maintainers to receive financial support. Right. So open source maintainers can receive financial support through GitHub Sponsors. And the reason that GitHub came up with this program is because GitHub one loves open source. But also we know that so many of the programs and the apps and the websites and the applications that run the world run on open source. There are so many dependencies that people have of these open source projects that make these projects that make these applications work.

And often the people who maintain those projects, they do it for free. They do it because they love the code or they wanted to solve a problem. And often they work an eight or nine hours at their day job and then they labor at night working on open source maintaining these projects that really transform the world and we want it. Or GitHub wanted to make the open source ecosystem sustainable so that these people who are really doing free labor can find reward for their work, but also ideally do it full time. And through GitHub Sponsors, I’ve heard stories of open source maintainers who were able to quit their day job and do their work full time, or perhaps they didn’t quit, but they were able to bring on a partner to help make the project better. And so that’s the team that I’m responsible for, the seven engineers on that team, I work very closely with the product manager, and so that is what I do at GitHub.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Is that a new program, or is that something GitHub has had for a while?

Anjuan Simmons:

We had it for a while. We’ve had it for about three years. It’s been in beta for most of its time, right, the time that it’s been available. But we recently took a GA in April of this year.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Very nice. What does your typical day look like? I’m imagining you’re probably working remotely, or are you going into an office? What does your typical day look like?

Anjuan Simmons:

GitHub is fully remote. It’s been fully remote for a long time, way before the pandemic. And so my day starts with me waking up, walking maybe 20 paces into my office, and then I am at work. And so it’s funny, I tell people that I worked at Help Scout before GitHub, and I’ve had remote work as the way that I work for several years now. And I tell people it would take a lot for me to have to work in an office. And I know one of my colleagues said that they basically put, like, $100,000 figure on working from home, right? That if you had an opportunity that you wanted to take, it would have to be, like, 100K over what you’re making now if it required you to go into an office.

And so, yeah, I wake up, I walk into my office. I put some beans into my coffee machine. I make my coffee. I get my water because I got to stay hydrated. And then I log on to my GitHub-issued laptop. And then the first thing that I do, which is I think not very unusual, is that I check Slack and see what happened while I was sleeping. Where are the things that are going on with the GitHub? What’s happening with my team? I also check email, and one of the things that I think people may not know is that GitHub uses GitHub. We use GitHub for our daily work, and so we do what’s called dogfooding, right? We use the tools that we build every single day. And so one of the things that I do with checking Slack and checking my GitHub Gmail account is going to GitHub and looking at all of the notifications about all the issues that my team is working on. Or I’ll check on the pull requests — we call them PRs — or I’ll go into Siscussions. And so I use GitHub every day, because at GitHub, we use what we build for our daily work.

Maurice Cherry:

Back when I worked at Glitch, it was very much the same way. Like any sort of project that we did, it was adamant that we used Glitch for the project. It was never anything like, “oh, let’s think about some third party whatever.” Anything we did had to sort of work within Glitch. So I’m certainly familiar with that concept of dogfooding. I’m curious though, because of that. And you mentioned before, this is one thing through GitHub Sponsors where you’re supporting other open source projects and things like that. Developers worldwide use GitHub for their work. What kind of problems internally is GitHub focused on solving?

Anjuan Simmons:

Yes, dogfooding lets you use the stuff that you build because you’ll see things, right, that customers are running. You know, I’ve gone in and said, “hey, the button on this form seems a little bit off center” and yeah, I can open up an issue and then send it to the team that owns that page and then they can fix. So, you know, a lot of the reason that we use GitHub at GitHub is to really make GitHub better, right? So that’s one thing, that’s one problem that we’re working on, because while GitHub’s been around for a long time, it’s not a perfect product, we know that, but we’re dedicated to making it a little more perfect every single day, right? One of the other big challenges that we’re working on, or a big problem, is what we call developer experience. The developer experience is what developers go through while they’re building code. And so we want to make the development experience one where you feel that the tools that you use don’t get into your way and that you’re able to do the best work of your day, every day based on the tool set, right? So a lot of that is based on how we design GitHub, and GitHub’s always changing. If you use GitHub, you know about GitHub, like I said, pull requests, you know about issues, you know about the other parts of GitHub. And we’re very much invested in their entire teams dedicated to those functions that I just mentioned. But one of the biggest things about the developer experience is Copilot.

And I’m sure we’re going to talk about this quite a bit, but Copilot is our AI tool that is your artificial intelligence peer programmer. It’s like having the best engineer that you ever heard of working with you to help your code become better. So Copilot is a key part of what we’re doing in AI at GitHub. It’s transformational. I think that we’re doing some amazing work. Again, we’ll probably talk about that some more later. One of the other tools that I think is super cool is called Code Spaces, which is basically your developer environment in the cloud where you can log in. And instead of having to do what I did when I started developing 25 years ago and installing all these tools and installed my IDE and my dependencies installed my database, install all these helper applications.

You just log in to basically browse, experience, it’s all there. You can start coding. And so we want to remove obstacles between the idea and the implementation and Copilot and code spaces and just GitHub itself are really some of the things that we’re working on to make that trip.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, yeah, let’s actually go into talking about AI. I know I mentioned to you before we started recording that it’s been sort of a running theme on this show for the past two years now. Like everyone that we’ve had on in some capacity, I ask them about how is this cutting edge tech, AI, machine learning, generative AI, et cetera. How is that sort of affecting the work that you do or what does it mean for the work that you do? So how do you use this sort of cutting edge tech? At GitHub? You mentioned Copilot, but are there other sorts of programs or initiatives that you all are working on?

Anjuan Simmons:

So, to go back to my team, right, GitHub Sponsors. So GitHub is a Ruby on Rails application, right? So at the end of the day, that is what runs GitHub. GitHub, for the most part runs on Ruby on Rails. And so we do a few things, right? We very much contribute to new versions of Ruby on Rails, right? We also upgrade our code, right? So we have entire teams that are kitted to that. So I would say Ruby on Rails as tools are really big at GitHub. We also use other tool sets like React, right, which is a popular front-end framework for building programs. I mean, there’s a whole host of programs and languages that we use at GitHub. We also obviously host a lot of the code for open source frameworks, right? Like React and Vue and Laravel.

And so GitHub not only uses a lot of cutting edge technology, we are also the home for a lot of the cutting edge technology that are used today. And so we take that responsibility very seriously. So we always want to make sure that we’re available, that we’re secure and so working on those functions, right? So it’s not just having a place or having a repository for your code UT. We also want to make sure that we’re highly available, we’re highly secure, that all those things are by default. And I want to spend a little bit of time putting maybe a pin on that. No tool is useful if you can’t get to it, and no tool is useful if it will expose your sensitive information. And so security and availability are like super core concerns at GitHub. And I want to make sure that it’s clear that we spend a massive amount of tools, a massive amount of people, and a massive amount of just thought space, all those subjects.

And so that’s really something that is really important to make sure that we understand. We also spend a lot of time on privacy because, again, a lot of personal information resides on GitHub. And so we do a lot of work around that too. So it’s more than just code. Code is obviously a core concept, but it’s all those things around code that we spend a lot of time thinking about and solving for.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m so glad you mentioned availability, because like you said, GitHub hosts a lot of code for other projects. And I’ve seen on the web, like, when GitHub goes down, that people freak out like other services because you never really know, you know, as a user, what’s connected behind the scenes. So if there’s a GitHub outage for some reason, then all of a sudden that’s affecting other websites and other tools that you use. It sort of is all like chained together in some way. So I’m glad you mentioned that about availability. I’m just remembering from my time being at Glitch how whenever the tool went down, it was always a very frantic time at the company because it’s like, “oh, no, the tool’s down. We’re hearing about it from people. How do we fix it? How do we get things back up?” And that’s I feel like especially now, because so many things are connected under just a handful of services like GitHub, AWS, et cetera.

When things happen there, it’s a ripple effect throughout the web about other things that get affected. So I’m glad you mentioned availability as being a big thing that you work.

Anjuan Simmons:

You know, GitHub, I mean, again, it’s a great platform. It’s been around for a long time, but it is a tool that runs on servers, right? There are data centers, that where GitHub is hosted. There are cloud providers. I mean, it is like any other system made by humans, and that means that you sometimes run into errors. And so while we work at this, like any other service, things happen. There could be a variety of reasons why something goes down. And one of the cool things about GitHub is that if there is an incident, right, where, hey, things are running slow, the system is not available. Again, we want this to be a very rare occurrence, but hey, it happens.

I can hop into a channel on Slack and just follow along what’s happening. We very much value transparency. And one of the super cool things about GitHub is that those incidents, again, we want them to be rare, are observable to anyone who’s a Hubber, right? We call ourselves Hubbers if you work at GitHub. And so that kind of transparency is a powerful feature of the company and really speaks to how we do want to embrace the open source model. And again, there are limits, to be honest, and there are reasonable limits, but for the most part, everything should be transparent, everything should be visible. And that’s really an open source principle that we hold very dearly.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you mentioned Copilot, and Copilot is like this tool that is used to sort of, I guess, help you code. Like it helps with suggestions, with code and things like that. Is that something that’s used internally or is that more of just like a customer facing product?

Anjuan Simmons:

Oh, absolutely. It’s an internal tool to give maybe a couple of examples of Copilot. Copilot integrates with popular IDEs like VS Code. And so once you have Copilot installed, you can say “hey Copilot, create a component” or “hey Copilot, add test.” So you can literally with your voice work with Copilot or you can add a comment to your code and describe what you’re doing. And then Copilot will put in. I mean, often, if not the scaffolding for what you’re trying to do, it’ll actually give you a solution, right? And so what Copilot is meant to do is to, like I said before, remove a lot of those friction points in the experience that developers go through. And instead of having to hop on Stack Overflow or Google a solution, all that’s built into the IDE, the development environment that you’re using.

But it’s smarter than Stack Overflow, right? It’s smarter than just doing random Google searches. It understands context and it’s able to understand, based on what you’re typing, what you want to do. So again, the analogy that I tend to use is imagine that you’re sitting next to the smallest developer that you’ve ever known and then they’re pair programming with you, right? You have your hand on your keyboard, you have your hand on the mouse, but they’re saying, “oh, try this.” Or it’s almost like that super smart pet programmer could immediately just paste code snippets into your IDE to help you along. Now, again, it’s not going to replace the human, right? It is very much meant to be something that instead of replacing human developers, it’s meant to be something that works with human developers.

And that’s the power of Copilot. I know that a lot of people are wondering, will AI replace developers? Will AI make software engineering a non viable career option for people? And I think that’s not happening at all. And I mean, that may happen, but it won’t be while I’m alive. Copilot and I think AI in general is really meant to be what can humans and AI do together and not what can AI replace what humans are doing right now?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, the tool is called Copilot, not autopilot. So clearly….

Anjuan Simmons:

Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s meant to be used sort of in conjunction with what humans are doing. I mean, the AI is not necessarily running itself in terms of prompts and things like that. You still have to have a person that’s sort of checking that. So it sounds like what Copilot kind of helps you do is just evolve your development in terms of, I would imagine productivity, like helping you out with maybe code snippets or things like that. I mean, I’m not a developer. I have done some front-end development. Like back in the day, you don’t remember everything, so you do end up looking stuff up. And that’s not to say that a great developer never has to look those things up, but at least what it sounds like Copilot does is it helps put those resources a bit closer to you to make that happen.

Anjuan Simmons:

Yeah. I mean, the analogy that I use, this used to be a revolutionary thing, but like spell check and grammar check, right? We all use word processors, whether it’s Microsoft Word, Google Docs, where if you mistype a word, it’ll put a little red squiggly line under the word, or if you do something that’s maybe like where the grammar is off, it’ll highlight that. You can click it, it’ll give you a suggestion. Oh, the spelling, try this spelling or try this grammatical construction. And that hasn’t replaced editors. That hasn’t replaced writers, right? People still have jobs as editors, as copywriters, all that stuff, but it just makes everyone’s work a little bit more correct when it comes to spelling or to grammar. So it doesn’t replace the need for people to actually write stuff, but it does harmonize and make everyone’s writing a little bit better. And I think that just like spell check and grammar check have done for writing and we’ve used these for years and they haven’t destroyed entire careers. Copilot as an AI prep programming tool, it’s just that it makes your work a little bit faster.

It removes really a lot of the friction of you having to go over to a web browser and go to Stack Overflow or to Google “how do I do this region” and “how do I do this? What’s the format for this again?” And so by doing that, you really increase the speed of development by removing friction. And I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about Copilot.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, it’s just like I’m glad you mentioned that spell check kind of analogy because when ChatGPT really came about and a lot of educators are really concerned about whether or not, oh, is this going to replace students writing and things like that. The language model is trained off of a lot of different data, but just because it’s trained off that data doesn’t mean that you’re getting a perfect output. I’ve used ChatGPT before and yeah, it gives you information. Whether or not that information is wholly correct is up to the human to discern. Now you can take it just like on its face, like, yes, this is exactly what it is because AI told me that’s the case. But you don’t know if that’s actually cognizant code that you’re actually using. If you’re using like Copilot or something like that, you still have to really sort of do that human check to make sure this is something that actually works. Just because the AI gave that to you doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s something that might work for the particular project that you’re on or anything like that.

So I see what you’re saying about that human element is never going to go away because just because the AI can give you the information that you need, you still need to check to make sure it works for your particular situation.

Anjuan Simmons:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

Now let’s kind know pivot here a little bit. We’ve talked a lot about your work at GitHub, so let’s learn more about you. Of course, you’ve mentioned your family, which we’ll talk about a bit later, but tell me more about you. I know you’re in Houston right now. Is that where you’re from originally?

Anjuan Simmons:

No, I am from a small city called Wichita Falls, Texas; not Wichita, Kansas, which people often confuse the two. And that’s where I grew up. That’s where I went to middle school. That’s where I went to high school. After graduating from UT Austin, I moved to Houston in 1997, and I’ve been in Houston ever since. That’s again, over like 25 years. So I am a Houstonian now. So I’m a Houstonian by tenure, not by birth.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s like me with Atlanta. Like, you mentioned that when we started recording, you’re like, “you’ve been in Atlanta for a long time?” I’m like, “yeah, I’ve been here since ’99.” I came for college. And I’m like, yeah, Atlantan by tenure, certainly not by birth. And I’ve seen how the city has changed so much since I first came here. So I get exactly what you’re saying.

Let’s go back to your time at Austin. You you majored in electrical engineering. Were you first interested in tech once you got to UT Austin? Or did you kind of have this sort of want to work in know prior to that?

Anjuan Simmons:

I’m going to tell you a story about why representation matters. So when I was in junior high, there was a show called Star Trek I’m sure most people have heard about. I find that most people like Star Wars now for these days, like whenever I mentioned science fiction, they typically say, Star Wars, that’s Star Trek. But that’s another podcast.

I’ve been a nerd all my life. I was into anime way before it was cool. I’m talking like 1995 Fist of the North Star, Akira anime. I’m OG Japanimation right here. And so I was into sci-fi. I read Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings way before the movie. So that was me. I played Dungeons & Dragons. I was that Black kid with the weird people in the corner playing Dungeons & Dragons. So that was my vibe circa like, 1985, just to be honest with you.

But Star Trek, you had the initial series of like, Kirk and Spock and all that. But then around my junior high school years, there was Star Trek: The Next Generation, and you had Captain Picard, who was obviously the captain of the Enterprise, but LeVar Burton played Georgdi LaForge. And the first season, he wasn’t in this position. But he became the chief engineer of the Enterprise for basically seasons two through seven. And so he was the key person in charge of all the technology on the Enterprise during this time. And so I’m in junior high then, going to high school while the seasons are going, and this wasn’t the only reason, but seeing LeVar Burton, a Black man, play a Black engineer in charge of this amazing technology was inspirational, right? Representation matters. And that very much was, like, part of the impetus for me seeing myself as an engineer.

And I was always good at Math and science. I was that kid that loved trigonometry, I loved calculus. I loved physics. And so that was what really helped guide my path to UT. And taking electrical engineering with all the circuit analysis and the math, like differential equations and vector calculus, that helped me see that that was possible. And so I became an engineer. And while I never served on the starship, I’ve loved working in technology for my entire career, and that was a big part of my story. LeVar Burton and seeing a Black man running tech in sci-fi.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you ended up going to UT Austin kind of, and we sort of touched on this a little bit before, like, right around those prime A Different World years. I think A Different World ended in, what, ninety…’92?

Anjuan Simmons:

I think it ended…that sounds about right, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

And you started at UT Austin in, what, ’93?

Anjuan Simmons:

I started in 1993. You got it right.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Tell me what your time was like there.

Anjuan Simmons:

Yeah, I mean, just to kind of put another finer point on that, I grew up with Dwayne, Whitley Gilbert, the whole gang on A Different World. And again, representation matters. I mean, I was a nerd, but I was also a lover of Black culture, right? I was a blerd — I think we call ourselves blerds now: Black nerds. And yeah, I mean, again, another area of representation was seeing these amazing Black people who were casted on the show about Black kids in college. And that really helped me further solidify that I wanted to be a Black kid in college and have that experience.

And so, yeah, I got to UT in 1993. I actually did a summer program called Preview. This was a program designed to give Black students who, for a variety of reasons, would sometimes struggle with the leap from high school to college. In many ways, they may have been the first people in their families to go to college. And there’s all these things about UT. I mean, I always tell people the year that my mother was born, in 1947, UT did not admit Black students. Right? So she was born into a world where Black students could not go to UT, right? So this is not ancient history. This is, like, within living memory, where Black people could not go to UT. And so Preview was meant to be a six week program. So before classes started freshman year, in that, like, September, we got to UT in July. We lived in dorms, we had events, we learned about college life, and that was an amazing program. And I will always owe a greater gratitude to the people who came up with Preview.

So after Preview, yeah, I started my time going to classes. I had a very hard degree, so I spent a lot of time studying. But UT is a huge campus. We’re talking 50,000 students, but when Black people are like, maybe roughly six or seven percent of 50,000, that’s a lot of Black people. And so I was able to find Black people who I could fellowship with. There’s a lounge in Jester West, which is like the kind of the main dorm on campus called the Malcolm X Lounge, right? Which was called the Malcolm X Lounge back then; I think still called that now. And that was a place where Black people went. We went there to play dominoes, play spades. If you were willing to risk your life, we would play Taboo, which can be a very…I’ve seen some people almost get into a funeral for Taboo, but I very much was able to marry my academic experience and grow as a college student with the very rigorous courses that I took as an engineering student. I was able to marry that with the Black experience. I mean, I went to a Black church that I found in Austin called St. James, and so my active experience at UT was really quite special, quite amazing, because I think we were at a time where that generation of Black students who saw A Different World in high school came together, and it was just really amazing.

Now, I will say that this was also the time when affirmative action was being challenged in Texas, right? There was something called the Hopwood decision, and I was the person who, before that decision was handed down, would protest. I mean, the newspaper of UT is called the Daily Texan, and there are letters that I wrote. You can write letters to the editor. Just anyone can write them if you’re a student. I wrote letters that you could find online to the Daily Texan about affirmative action and about Hopwood and why that decision was really wrong and would cause harm. And I took part in marches and protests about it.

So my college career also involved not only growing as a Black person and enjoying the Black experience, it was my first experience engaging in Black protest and really advocating for Black people as a Black person. So that was all wrapped around my experience at UT.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. I mean, it sounds like your whole time there was really transformative.

Anjuan Simmons:

Absolutely. Totally.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, after you graduated, you ended up working for Accenture, and you were at Accenture for a long time. You were there for a little over ten years. Tell me about that, because I think for people graduating from college now, working any place for ten years after that almost feels like a fairy tale. What was your time like there? And what made you want to go to Accenture?

Anjuan Simmons:

I should also mention that my wife, my now wife was going to — if she hears this — I met my wife at UT, right? That’s a big part of our story. We did not get married in college because we were young, but that came later. But to answer your question, so when I was in my junior year, my senior year at UT, you’re going into the job search field. And one of the things that I learned about myself at UT is I love technology. I love the ones and zeros, I love code, I love software and all those things are true. But I also really like people. Maurice, I’m not sure we’re talking about my public speaking career; so I’ve spoken on stages all around the world. In fact, I’m going to be in Copenhagen, Denmark next week to give a talk, right? So I very much engage hundreds of people on stage. I am not bothered by that at all. But I’m a classical introvert. I am a classical introvert. Most people don’t believe me because I’m a manager. I live with people all day long, I speak in front of huge crowds, but I’m a very big introvert. So I went to UT as that kind of shy, introverted kid. But being involved in what I just described, the Black experience, that really drew me UT of my shell. And I realized that I really like people.

I felt that one of the biggest things that I like about people is helping people. And so when I was looking at jobs to do, there were like the regular software companies, the people that made circuits like Intel and AMD, and then there were software companies that I was looking at and I got offers from those places. But one of the things I loved about Anderson Consulting — which was the name of Accenture before the name change happened — one thing I liked about the consulting model is that you could dive deep into the technology, but you could also dive into the people as well. Because Anderson Consulting very much was hiring engineers, not just business majors, but engineers to join their technology practice because they felt that you really get beauty when you can marry technology and people.

And so my transformation from this shy, introverted kid when I first went to UT, becoming someone who really likes people very much, informed my desire to go into consulting and to go to Accenture. And then one of the things that I really learned to talk a little bit about my early years there was all around consulting is a great way to learn a lot of things very quickly. I learned in the first two years of Accenture things I probably would have taken me three or four years to learn somewhere else because you’re donating these huge projects, you’re learning how to work with clients, right? People who are paying you to be there to communicate the value of the project, to guide the project. And that was really my first few years of working at Accenture.

I learned how to be a better software developer. I learned how to work on teams, I learned how to be managed by a manager. And that was really very much the early part of my Accenture experience. I was in the Houston office, and there was a very vibrant Black community of Black people who worked at Accenture Anderson at that time. And that also furthered the connections that I made with my fellow Black people in tech. And some of the people I went to UT with went to Accenture as well. And so my experience at Accenture was almost in many ways, like the next version of what I went through in college, right. Deepening my technology bonafides and also deepening my identity as a Black person and being in the Black culture, right? All those things really work together, and I was there for a long time.

I mean, let me pause here and say, if you want to know more, that’s kind of the first, let’s say zero to five years of my time at Accenture.

Maurice Cherry:

What were the other five like?

Anjuan Simmons:

That first five years was learning to be really to be an employee at a large company. I eventually became a manager where I was not being managed; I was managing teams. And so that’s a whole ‘nother level of responsibility. One thing I should mention, and I mentioned that I met my wife at UT, is that I got married around year five. I guess around when I made a manager, I became a manager. That point. My wife and I, who had honestly lost touch a little bit after college, we reconnected, we got married. And so it was learning how to be married, which is a thing, to be honest. I’m still learning how to be married 21 years in, Maurice.

I was learning how to be married, learning how to be a manager, and shepherding people’s careers, learning how to be a technologist. And so that last five year period was all that. But the reason that my time in Accenture lasted that long is that I was learning, and I was learning new things about myself all the time. I was learning new things about technology because the technology field is always changing. I was growing, but I was also traveling a lot. And so my new wife, who we eventually became a wife and my first born child, and then we got to child two. My wife was saying, “you travel too much.” When they’re babies, it’s not like that big of a deal. But when they begin to know who you are and they begin to miss you when you’re gone when Daddy has to go away Monday morning to fly wherever and then come back Friday night, I began to see that, wow, this travel thing is really becoming tough on my very young family. And so I began to think about what to do, right? Should I leave Accenture, go work for maybe a company where I don’t have to travel as much or do I do something else?

And so my wife and I talked about it and we made a family decision that I would leave Accenture and get my MBA. So I went to get my MBA. So that was like a two year period that let me get off the road, it let me also get a credential that would help my career. Those were a lot of the bigger decisions about why I left Accenture at around a kind of ten year mark and earned my business degree.

Maurice Cherry:

So I’m glad that you mentioned that sort of you leading up to getting your MBA, it sounds like each of these experiences just kind of like built upon each other. So it wasn’t oh, I felt like I was maybe edged out at work, so I needed to get more education. Everything is kind of built upon each other. In terms of your career up to this point, I’m curious because you sort of alluded to this a bit beforehand. Was this your plan to kind of structure your career in this way?

Anjuan Simmons:

I wish I could say it was a plan, Maurice, but no, I fell into…I mean, there are these things in this part of my life, right, growing as a technologist, growing as a Black person, and yes, very much going from UT to Accenture to my MBA were growing those things as well. Because a big part, like I said about Accenture, is you marry technology and people. And I would also say when you marry technology and business, that’s powerful, right? So my undergraduate degree in double E [electrical engineering], right, that kind of engineering undergrad was kind of getting the technology part in place and working for a technology practice in a big company. My technology credentials are very strong. I also wanted my business side to get stronger as well. So the MBA was a very nice kind of pair to that.

And so these tracks of technology and business and Blackness, I would say, they all kind of built along very well, but it wasn’t planned. I mean, I was, I think, a very smart person married to a smart person, kind of trying to figure this stuff out. But I have to admit, luck played a factor, right? I was able to stay at Accenture when we had a few rounds of layoffs during my time there. The economy took a nosedive, right? I joined in 1997. A lot of people — if you’re old enough to remember 2000, 2001 — was kind of the dotcom crash. I survived that, kept working. And so luck went my way and I was able to have these themes progress by avoiding a lot of the disruptions that a lot of people go through. I mean, I was thinking through this. Yeah, sure, absolutely. So, yes, I was a smart person, I think, making smart decisions, and I was lucky to be able to, like I said before, be married to a smart person. My wife is brilliant, who was my partner in navigating this part of my life. But I want the people here in this to know one of the biggest things that are so important in your career and in life is luck.

And I think that you can’t plan luck, you can’t schedule luck to appear, but what you can do is do your best to be prepared for when luck appears. And I think that I was very much, if anything, always prepared for luck to enter the chat in my life and then use that luck as the stepping stone to the next opportunity.

Maurice Cherry:

And now, since then, you’ve been pretty much working nonstop. Like looking at your LinkedIn, you’ve mostly worked as a technical program manager, in sort of the pre-GitHub years. What lessons did you learn from those experiences that prepared you for what you do now?

Anjuan Simmons:

Oh, so many experiences and so many lessons. What I would say is that, and I should say I did go back to consulting briefly at Deloitte after my business degree because I graduated in 2008. And the people again, if you want to remember, there was a big recession in 2008 — right? — that lasted through 2009. And so I got a couple of offers when I was studying, when I was applying for jobs, when my business school time was coming to an end. But the best offers, to be honest, came from big consulting companies because I had Accenture on my resume. And so I went back briefly, but soon after that I left the kind of big company model and I’ve worked at startups. So look at my resume. You see these names that weren’t nearly as recognizable as Accenture and Deloitte. You see Assemble. You see Allcenter Software. They’re all technology companies, but they were really startups.

And what I wanted to do and again, this was not entirely planned, but what I wanted to do is experience the startup life because I had friends and colleagues who went to startups, like way before I did, and I wanted to see what could I do in an environment where I didn’t have massive resources, right? When you work for Deloitte and Accenture, you have billions of dollars backing the company. You have a massive number of resources, but when you go to a startup, it’s scrappy, right? Everyone wears a lot of hats. I’m having to lead the technology team, but I’m also having to understand the business. I need to support the product, I need to support HR, I need to support recruiting. And these functions existed at the bigger companies, but they were way smaller at these startup companies.

And so that helped me to understand and really put my business degree to use because I was never going to be able to peer deeply into recruiting at Accenture, but I could at a startup. I could know the person running that function, I could really understand their day to day. I could understand how my technology function really interacted with their non-technology function and see how we can harmonize those things together. And so I would say that the lessons that I learned were all around, really, how do these functions interact with each other. And I also learned how to lead teams better, right? Because at Accenture, and the way as a manager, like, there’s massive resources. When I became a manager at Accenture, I went to something called New Manager School in Chicago, right? So they flew people to Chicago from Houston — really all over the world — to learn how to be a manager, right? I didn’t have that at the startup. It was like, “you better…here’s your log on, good luck.” And so I had to learn how to be a manager at that scale.

And I think that that deepened what I bring to management today, and that is people over process, people over technology. If the people are right, everything else really doesn’t really matter, right? Because if you treat the people right, any technology, any process will do. However, if you don’t treat people right, then no technology or process will save you. And that is a core part of my management style. And it was really birthed in that sort of experience where I had to deeply integrate with this team. Because at Accenture, I’m leading teams, but I’m working on projects that have a beginning and an end. So I have a team for maybe four months and my next team might be six months and my next team might be a month. And then we’re changing technology stacks, we’re changing the business problems that we’re solving, right? It’s all changing. But at these startups, I’m with the same group of people, the same stack, the same product, the same customer base for a very long period of time. And so those lessons were all around how to be really a people manager.

And I think that I’ve gotten feedback from multiple people — people who’ve worked for me, people who are peers, people who I reported to — that my people management skills are very strong and those skills were very much honed and sharpened in the startup world. So that’s a big lesson that I learned during that time. One of the other lessons that I learned is you got to manage up, right? I mean, when I started my career, I was thinking, “well, if the work’s good, then people go and notice, right?” I thought the work speaks for itself. No, work doesn’t have a mouth. It doesn’t speak.

You have to speak for the work. You have to make sure whether that’s in your status report, that’s in how you communicate to your supervisors, and that’s how you really take advantage of opportunities to be in front of leadership. You have to market the work. And so marketing the work as an engineering leader was a huge lesson that we can go into more, maybe later, but it’s very important that technology leaders are proficient in technology, in process, in people management. But you have to market the work, because if you don’t do that, the work is going to be invisible. And invisible work does not get rewarded; invisible work does not get promoted.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. That, I think, is something that’s super important for people to know, I think, in general. And I mean, one…that’s true, closed mouths don’t get fed, right? But also, just in terms of how much is out there, in terms of social media and user-generated content and things like that, you might hope that the work will speak for you, but it can easily, very easily get drowned out by other things. So I like that you’re saying that, especially for engineering, because I’ve been a creative on marketing teams at very tech heavy software companies, like tech startups and stuff. And yeah, getting the engineers to talk about any of the work they do is like pulling teeth. They don’t want to talk about it. They feel like, “oh, it’s enough that I just did it.” And it’s like, “no, we’re trying to build stories around the work that you’re doing so people know that you did it.”

Otherwise, people — I mean, that’s not to say that people have a negative opinion of tech; I think certainly people’s opinions around technology and the tech industry have kind of changed a lot over the years — but certainly being able to speak about the work that you’ve done and to promote it is something that is super important. That’s for developers, designers, whoever.

Anjuan Simmons:

Exactly. And I really think that goes back to what we talked about with my experience going to UT as an introvert, this shy quiet kid, and learning what you just said. Closed mouths don’t get fed, no matter how good looking you may be as a, you know, the ladies like the Hollywood dude who has game, right? I mean, it’s just little things like that. And so, yes, all those things kind of continue through UT, through Accenture, through business school…you got to market yourself. So many opportunities that I’ve received is because I did interesting things in public all along this timeline that we’ve been walking. Twitter came on, Black Twitter came on, right? And by doing interesting things on Twitter, interesting things on social media, I got speaking opportunities, I’ve gotten job offers through just being interesting in public, right? Marketing yourself.

And I think a lot of engineers — I mean, very much this has been my experience working with a lot of engineers — we very much skew introvert. We very much skew quiet, usually very intelligent, but also very quiet. And you’re exactly right, pulling things out of introverted engineers. And again, I don’t want to stereotype, but it’s an archetype that I’ve seen, and that for whatever makes an engineer engineer, often what comes with it is just this kind of maybe quiet nature. And so I realized that that would hold me back, that in my career, being quiet would not redound to my benefit. And I needed to learn to speak and present not only my work, but the work of my team. And that, honestly, has been a big accelerator to my career in technology.

Maurice Cherry:

What still keeps you interested in tech? I mean, you’ve been doing this now, like you said, for over 25 years. What still drives you?

Anjuan Simmons:

It’s a blessing and a curse. And that is technology is always changing. We didn’t have Copilot, we didn’t have Kubernetes, we didn’t have all these tools. When I started my career over 25 years ago, the tools that I had back then would be considered like rocks and sticks today, for the most part, right? It’s very primitive. I mean, not all of them, right? I mean, a lot of those languages still exist, but there’s so much I don’t know. There’re like so much…just sophistication, I guess, is what I’m looking for, in the tools that we have now.

And so that ever-changing landscape where you have to stay on your toes, the cutting edge, the state-of-the-art is always moving. That can be stressful because you have to keep upgrading yourself. You have to really re-invent yourself at least every two to three years in software development because things change that quickly. And so that can be stressful. It’s so compelling because there’s so many cool things that would be hard to do now using the tools I had when I started my career. I mean, spinning up a development environment with a click; all the tools that we have right now, they’re like higher order languages now that really didn’t exist now. I mean, I learned COBOL and C and all these things early in my career, and those languages are still used today, but there are so many more human-friendly languages like Python and other languages that, I mean, Ruby is a very human-compatible language, right? And so there’s so much power in the accessibility to get into technology now that I’ve seen grow over my time.

And so that evolution and watching it, that keeps me interested. That’s one big thing; it’s just the ever evolving nature of technology. And to be honest, I like people, right? I love helping people find capabilities and potential that they may not have found if I didn’t work with them, right? And I’ve seen in people that I’ve managed over the years, I’ve helped to help debug imposter syndrome. I’ve helped to support, I’ve helped to mentor, I’ve helped to sponsor people and then be able to be that force for what I hope is good is also compelling, right? So those are two things that have kept me intact and they add a bit of a bounce to my stuff every day when I walk into my office.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, I mentioned before how people’s kind of opinion about tech has sort of changed over the years. For developers that are listening,I’m pretty sure they might want to know the answer to this question. But what opportunities do you see out there now for developers? Are there certain skills they need to be learning to stay competitive? I feel like you’re like the sage on top of the mountain. From your perspective, where do you see the opportunities for devs now?

Anjuan Simmons:

The opportunity for devs is like…it has, I don’t think ever been stronger because of a couple of things. One, there are so many engineers that I’ve worked for and work with, right? So as people who were like VPs, or people who reported to me, who did not have the traditional computer science background, engineering background, the same background that I came from, but who were so talented, so brilliant, some of the smartest people who became my right hand as tech leads did not study computer science, right? I’ve had people who were speech pathologists, I’ve had people who worked in retail, worked in bookstores, but they went to a boot camp, they learned how to code, they were great at it, and they became developers. So I think one of the biggest opportunities — and I said it’s the people of color who I think are the primary audience for this podcast and the people who have very much been instrumental in my career — because we often don’t have either the funds or the opportunities to go get computer science degrees from the MITs and the Stanfords of the world. And I’m here to tell you that that’s not really required. You can even be like a self-taught programmer.

I’ve even had people who taught themselves how to code, right? So I would say that the barrier to entry to get in software development has never been lower. There are all kinds of opportunities for people to come into this field and there are people like me who are waiting for you, who are here to welcome you, who are here to support you if you’re willing to come in. And so I would say that these tools are so powerful and the things you need to know to be successful in software development oriented technology in general have never been more available, have never been as powerful. So I would say that’s one thing that you should know. The opportunity is so strong, I hope people feel that they can do it. Because if you’re hearing my voice right now, then you can.

I would say the other thing that is a key part of the opportunity is, yes, there are technical aspects of the trade. Yes, there are things that you’re going to have to learn. There are hard things that you’re going to have to learn. But the number one trait that will keep you in this field, that will help you get in the field and stay, is patience and curiosity. That’s it. It’s not learning object oriented programming or learning highly typed versus not typed code languages or learning the difference between these different things or learning Kubernetes or all these things. But it’s being patient and being curious. If you have those things, if you’re willing to go through…often the thing like this thing isn’t compiling and I don’t know why. Let me figure out let me put in a debugger. Let me figure out how to get it working right. If you’re able to just think, “oh, I’ve always wanted to learn about this,” and then taking time to do that, those attributes would do so much for your career. So if you’re willing to be patient, if you’re willing to lead with curiosity, you can do well here. And I have to say that open source, right? GitHub very much loves open source. I run a program that’s designed, you know, GitHub sponsors for open source. You can learn so much through open source software where you can, with almost no financial outlay, join a project, learn how it works, make contributions. There are so many programs that are basically designed to help people get into open source, where you can upgrade your skills. You can work with teams. You can become a valued contributor to some of the most powerful software on the planet.

So those are the things that I would let people know about this field. The barrier to entry is lower than you think. If you’re willing to be patient, if you’re willing to be curious, if you’re willing to be involved in open source, and I can absolutely help you do that. Please reach out. Please come in. The industry needs you to be honest, and there are many people like me who are here to help.

Maurice Cherry:

Now who have been some of the mentors or peers that have helped you out in your career? I mean, I feel like with everything you’ve mentioned, you’ve probably had a really strong community of support behind you.

Anjuan Simmons:

I’ve been super lucky. I mean…so I was a resident assistant at UT. I was an RA, that person who worked in the dorm, who had maybe the bigger room, who was there to tell you, “hey, turn your music down”, or…I’ve honestly walked in on people who drank too much, helped them stumble to the dorm even though they were underage, right? I was that person. UT, I remember when I applied for the RA job, right? I’m probably 19 years old, right. When I first became an RA, maybe 19, 20.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Anjuan Simmons:

And the person who interviewed me, I think they were the head of housing at UT. I remember her office. If I close my eyes, I can remember sitting in her office, and she said, “you know, everyone who talked to you liked you, but you seem a little bit quiet, right? You seem a little bit reserved.” This person was absolutely right. “We want to give you this opportunity, but you’re going to have to lean into the people part of this because as an RA, you are responsible for residents. Residents are people.” And that was amazing. I mean, that little bit of advice, getting that job helped propel this shy, introverted, nerdy kid into being someone who loves people, right?

And I remember — just kind of fast forwarding a little bit — like, one of the managers I worked for at a project at Accenture was very much, again, similar, started the speech like, “hey, we really like you. You’re doing good work. And if I walk over to the place where you’re working with your team, I can see it. But hey, you need to find ways to let other people know about what you’re doing.” And that goes back to the work that speaks for itself. Like, that manager very much was a mentor to me, and so I’ve had people all along the way give me nudges, give me advice, give me support for things that most people can recognize. If you’re involved in Twitter or in technology, Scott Hanselman has been an amazing mentor of mine, and a friend is a very well known person at Microsoft. Kelsey Hightower, who recently retired from Google, is an amazing person, amazing friend.

They’ve mentored me without knowing it, just by having conversations. I’ve met them at speaking gigs, I’ve met them at different places, and I would say that they have been mentors to me. Neha Batra, who is a VP at GitHub, who’s very well known on the speaker circuit in fact, has been a mentor of mine. She really was one of the people who helped me get into GitHub. I’ve learned so much from her about being a better people manager. I mean, I thought I knew what I was doing when I joined GitHub, but she helped me navigate all the special sauce at GitHub, how to be an even better people manager, better technology leader. So I want to make sure people who you can find on Twitter, you know Scott Hanselman, Kelsey Hightower, Neha goes by nerdneha — I guess we’re calling it X now — on X now, and tons of people who you couldn’t find if you looked for them. But at Accenture, at UT, at Deloitte, at startups…they have been all instrumental in my growth and they all saw the potential in me and they saw where I needed a little bit of a nudge to kind of get to the next level.

They basically helped me receive that nudge. And so I really try to pay it forward. And a big part of what I do in my industry, whether that’s the people who report to me at GitHub or other people within the company, whether it’s being someone who is on the speaker circuit and I meet a lot of people out. When I’m on the road, I look for people who like, oh, that person needs a little bit of a nudge. And that same nudge that people gave to me, I try to give people that nudge and just help them see something that they need to do, give them a map for how to do it, and then supporting them as they find their way to higher success.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you have three kids you’ve just mentioned at the top of the episode. First one is now in college, second one’s a senior in high school. Third one is a sophomore. Are they sort of interested in tech like you are? Like, do they want to follow in your footsteps?

Anjuan Simmons:

Maurice, I did my best, but you know, they’re into, you know, technology toys, the iPhones, the iPads, the Apple Watches and all. And you know, they play on their Xbox and their PS. But when it comes to a career in technology, like helping to design an iPhone, helping learning Swift to create apps on the iPhone, they all did computer science courses in high school. Like, they learned JavaScript and they learned even just regular Java and all that. But I think that my wife is just more awesome than me. And my wife was an MIS major from the business school at UT for undergrad, and they all want to do business work. So I’m like, “okay. All right.”

Hey. My wife is simply more compelling. And so my oldest son at UT is in the business school. My son, who’s a senior who you mentioned, is also looking for doing business. My daughter is kind of…she’s my only hope. She’s my last hope for maybe getting an engineer out of the family, but I think she’ll probably go to business as well. But, yes, I would say that I failed as a father to launch technologists, but I think that from my household will emerge some amazing business people. I’ll take solace in that.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, you never know. I mean, I think if there’s one thing that people will kind of get from this interview, is that you can kind of take control and take charge of your career at any given point in time. So I think even just with this show in general, there’s no set path to get to where you want to go in terms of your end destination, based on what your values are, things like that. So there could still be time. Don’t count them out yet.

Anjuan Simmons:

That’s true. I should be more hopeful. So, yeah, you’re right. I’ll never give up on my kids and their future. So you’re exactly right. And you’re exactly right with your career. I mean, one thread that I’ve learned, that I wish I learned earlier, is that your career is not something that happens to you, right? You have agency, you have volition, and then you can take that next step, right? And so, yeah, there may be people who support you. Hopefully the people give you the safe nudges that I receive, but you also can study the game and learn how to play it better.

And that’s something I’ve been lucky to do.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Anjuan Simmons:

That is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. So if you think about just the career ladder, right? So I’ve gone from individual contributor — or IC, as we say — to manager or eng manager, to senior eng manager, to staff eng manager. And so if you look at most ladders, the next level would be like director, VP, maybe going up to maybe above that. So I think that that’s probably where I want to go. I mean, like I said earlier, what’s kept me in this industry is the way that it’s always changing. There’s always new toys, always new tools, and then there’s also people, right? People to help and people that hopefully that I can impact in a positive way. And so I would say that’s probably from a career perspective, what I’m going to do with my professional career, which is go up that level. I’ve been honestly a little bit hesitant because I do think that the further I get away from the technology, from the people doing their work, the more I may be less motivated.

Because again, I love code, I love software, I love helping people build software. And as you go up toward VP, you’re really far away. I mean, the technology is like a speck on the horizon, and then you’re seeing politics and business and all that stuff. And while I can do that, I’ve been reluctant to do that. But that’s where you have impact, right? That’s where you can impact not just a team of maybe ten engineers, that’s where you can impact a department of hundreds. I think from a professional standpoint, that’s where I see myself going outside of work. I mean, I love public speaking. I have a lot of cool gigs booked for the rest of this year.

I think doing more of that, that’s really what I love doing. And I still love writing, a fair amount of technical writing that gets published. But if I could wave a magic wand and then kind of change the percentages, I would make work maybe a smaller percent of what I spend doing, and speaking or writing a bigger percentage of what I spend doing.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Anjuan Simmons:

One of the things that is really lucky about having a fairly unique first name is that you can find me at Anjuan at a lot of places, right? That’s Anjuan. Anjuansimmons.com is my website. That’s kind of my home base. But you can find me on Twitter, or — sorry, X — or Threads or wherever you go. If you search for A-N-J-U-A-N you will probably find me and please reach out. You can follow me. You can connect with me again. I’ve grown into a person who loves people.

I’m always happy to do what I can to help people become better versions of themselves because my entire career has been becoming a better version of the person that I am. And so please reach out. I would love to connect and continue this conversation on other platforms.

Maurice Cherry:

Sounds good. Anjuan Simmons, thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, one, thank you for just sharing your story about how you’ve gotten to where you are, but also from talking about the work that you’re doing at GitHub. And like we sort of mentioned throughout this interview, the thing about your career is that you’ve really kind of owned it, you know what I’m saying? At any place where you’ve been, whether it’s been just getting out of college or getting your MBA and then going to what the next step is, it sounds like you’ve really owned your career, like, every step of the way. And I hope that that’s something that when people listen back to this, they’ll get that they can do that for themselves as well.

Anjuan Simmons:

Absolutely. Like I said, there was a fair amount of luck, but there was also a lot of intentionality. If you listen to this, you can be more intentional in your career. I hope that what you’ve gotten from this interview that that’s very much possible. Let me give you your flowers. Maurice, I want to tell you before I leave, Revision Path matters. It’s important. You’ve done an amazing job.

Please keep doing it. You touch lives in ways that you will probably never, ever know. So I love what you’re doing here. Please keep doing it. And I love being here. Thank you so much for giving me space on this podcast.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, well, thank you. First of all, thank you so much for that, and thank you for being here. I really appreciate it.

Anjuan Simmons:

Awesome.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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

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

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Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton

I first learned about Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton way back in 2015 when I interviewed Silas Munro. Since then, Tasheka has gone on to become one of the leading voices behind discovering Black people omitted from the graphic design history canon. Even design legend Dr. Cheryl D. Miller has sung her praises, so I knew I had to sit down with Tasheka and learn more about her remarkable journey.

Tasheka spoke to me about her experience as an educator and researcher, including an examination of her teaching philosophy. She also talked about growing up in New Orleans, her shift into design, working for the Navy Reservists, and even starting her own studio, Blacvoice Design. Lastly, she discussed her upcoming book Black Design in America, and shared how the different aspects of her work keep her motivated and inspired.

If there’s any lesson you learn from Tasheka, it should be this one: you have control over your own path as a designer, so work hard and you can make your dreams come true!

Interview Transcript

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

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Hi, and first, I want to say Maurice, thanks for having me here on Revision Path. I’ve been a listener for a long time now, so I feel really grateful and honored to be here. My name is Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton. I’m a designer, design educator. I run a design studio called Blacvoice. I also am a researcher, I guess, or design historian in regards to Black designers, as well as design writer.

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

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Very busy, but good for the most part. It’s been a really, really good year with lots of new projects on the horizon. Exciting and exhausting, all at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
Any plans for the summer?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes, family vacation is one of the plans. I will be attending Typographics, and I’ll be a speaker there. So it’s exciting because I’ve never been to the conference before, and it’s kind of strange to have that my first attendance there would be me actually giving a talk, so I’m excited about that. I’m going to be teaching, I guess, this summer. I don’t normally teach in the summer, but I’m co-running a design residency program at the University of Texas, Austin where I teach. So I’m looking forward to that as well. And I have a couple of writing projects that I’ll be working on over the summer, and some design stuff as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Sounds like you’re going to have a busy summer ahead.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of teaching, you are teaching at two universities right now. You’re at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and you’re at the University of Texas at Austin, which is pretty new. You’ve been at VCFA what, for 10, 11 years now?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, it’s been 10 years in April. 10 years. I started there in 2013.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
It’s kind of crazy to think that I’ve been there that long, actually.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
What has the experience been like there?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Wow. The experience at VCFA has been truly amazing and transformative, and I think a lot of it has to do with the amazing faculty that’s there, that I teach with, who are not only colleagues but longtime friends now. It has to do with the sort of non-traditional structure of the program. We don’t have any classes or any courses. The program is, if you think about it as a two-year-long independent study, basically it’s a self-directed program where students decide on what they want to study and what they’re interested in. And the faculty is there basically, to sort of guide them and offer them resources, but it’s a self-directed program.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s really interesting. No classes or courses?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
So you don’t have to put any curriculum together. That’s great.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
No. So yeah, it’s definitely a different experience. So you do work with the students during the residency to come up with a semester plan on what they’re going to be working on throughout the semester. So as a faculty, you are there to help guide them and shape that semester plan. But again, it starts with what they’re interested in. We meet once a month. Students send their work via email, and then we have an hour conversation through, usually Zoom, and to talk about the work and sort of reflect on it, and kind of give feedback on how to move forward over the next month.

Maurice Cherry:
I love how sort of open that is, especially I think during this time when I know we’re not out of the pandemic, but certainly, I think it’s still a time where some schools are trying hybrid models or things. That sounds like the way that it’s set up at VCFA, it allows you to really still be able to learn in that type of environment.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes. I think the one thing that at the core of the program is, first of all, it’s really tailored to, working professionals are people. You don’t have to quit your job for two years to get an MFA. You can still work or run your business, or whatever it is you’re doing and still go to school. And this is something that we’ve been doing prior to the pandemic.

So when the pandemic happened, not saying that it didn’t change the program and how we teach, but we were already sort of interfacing in that way. So the only thing it stopped was having the week long residencies that we would have twice a year in person. Then that programming got moved to Zoom. But as far as the interaction between the student and the teacher, or we say the student and the advisor, that was already happening.

Maurice Cherry:
Now one of the professors that’s also there, we’ve had on the show. Oh God, that was a long time ago. We had Silas Munro on the show. This was I think, episode 85, 86, something like that. But he’s also a professor there, I believe.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah. So Silas, so you brought Silas up. Silas is one of the reasons, that’s how I ended up at VCFA actually.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
He’s one of the founding members of the program and Silas and I, we overlap by a year at CalArts. And so yeah, when the program was starting up, he sent me an email and asked me to join the faculty. And I wasn’t able to join at the time because of obligations with teaching. But then the following semester in April of 2013, I was able to come on board as a visiting, as a guest. Sort of a preliminary or, I wouldn’t say probationary period, but just to test to see if it would work out for me and if it would work out for the program.

So yeah, I credit Silas to bringing me in to a community in the program that’s, like I said, it’s been really transformative. Especially, the sort of approach to design pedagogy, this openness and not having this one idea of what design is. That sort of shift and change and marks according to the students, and the type of work that they’re interested in, and the type of diversity and the faculty and what we study and research, and type of work we’re engaged in. So that’s the thing that I really like, and it’s probably one of the few places that I’ve worked where I really felt a sense of family with my coworkers. Not that I didn’t have that relationship with other places, but there it’s really genuine. It’s not forced, it’s not fake. We actually truly do like and love each other.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, first of all, props to Silas for bringing you in, but it sounds like it is a great environment because you’ve been there for 10 years. Nobody’s going to stay there for 10 years if it’s not good.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, no, that’s true. Actually, you saying it, it’s technically the longest job I’ve ever had.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
When I think about it, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’re also teaching at University of Texas at Austin, which is fairly new. Tell me more about that. How’s that experience?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Wow, it’s been great, to be honest. I haven’t been there that long. I just moved to Austin, so I’m new to Austin and I’m new to UT. It’s been a really good experience as far as working in an environment with, I guess kind of similar to VCFA, where you don’t feel like there’s this sort of one way that the faculty or the program is trying to teach design. It’s a little bit more flexible, it’s a little bit more nuanced where students get to dabble in a lot of different areas of design. Graphic design, industrial design, interactive design, design history, product design. So it’s really sort of flexible in that way and that’s one of the things that sort of drawed me in into UT.

The program itself was revamped around 2017, 2018. So the program as it is today, design, it’s the Department of Design and Creative Technology, is fairly new in a sense compared to a lot of other programs that are out there. So I think there’s something about that sort of newness. There’s a lot of vulnerability and a lot of questioning about the direction of the program. So it’s kind of exciting to be somewhere where we’re constantly thinking about ways to evolve and improve the experience for the students.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What is your teaching philosophy? I would imagine, between the work you’ve done at VCFA and are currently doing, and now with teaching at UT. And you’ve taught at some other places as well. What’s your overall teaching philosophy?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Well, one is, I try to approach teaching, one of the things that probably on the first day of class, I let my students know that, “Hey, I’m interested. I’m more interested in what you’re interested in learning, and what you’re interested in general out there in the world.” Not that I don’t have anything to impart or to give to them, but it’s less about me walking into the classroom saying, “Hey, listen up, I’m the expert here. You all need to learn what I have to offer.” Obviously, there is an important exchange that’s sort of happening, but I’m not interested in the hierarchies that traditionally plagues, I think, academia. So that’s the first thing is, to let my students know, “Hey, I’m curious about you, who you are as a person, and what you’re interested in.”

The other part of my teaching philosophy is, so how do I nurture that? How do I give them assignments, and give them projects and things to learn, to help nurture those interests? So often, I give projects and things that are about to help students investigate their community, and their environment and their identity. I think it’s really important for students to feel a connection to the project brief, to what they’re working on. And to figure out how to sort of channel their life’s experiences, as well as who they are into their projects. There are some practical exercises that are given to topography to talk about kerning and leading and that kind of stuff. But the start of bigger projects, I really try to figure out how to give assignments to help them sort of explore who they are in their environment and their community. Also, really, I think it’s important, one of my other goals is to make sure that I’m giving them projects or I’m giving them things to read and write about, and to consider about what’s going on in the world.

I like having discussions and I don’t shy away from, I won’t say controversial conversations, but I don’t like to shy away from, there’s always a group of students that have a certain perspective about another thing, and then you might have another group that have a different perspective. So I like having those type of conversations so we can learn from each other, because too many times that we all are always listening to and engaging in conversation with people who have the same perspective as we do. So, I always often give reading assignments, or articles or essays, or just come up with topics or things that might make some of them feel uncomfortable sometimes, where they have to talk about things that they don’t know how it’s going to be received by their classmates. And also, try to give them a sort of sense of agency and responsibility when it comes to their own learning, and not just take everything at face value to question, even question me, right? But obviously with the mutual respect, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
I’d love to hear an example of something you would cover in class with your students.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Sometimes, it’s as simple as, I think this project isn’t something kind of, out of the park, but giving them … One time I had students design sort of protest signage. So they could approach it with whatever topic, anything that they felt really strongly about. Some people feels really strongly about, you should have solar panels on your house. Some people still feel really strongly about abortion, which sometimes for me, some of these topics that are still surfacing are kind of surprising. And some people feel strongly about police rights and things like that.

So any type of way I can give them some kind of assignment that addresses these issues, usually I try to get them to think about stuff that’s relevant in the media. Things that people are on opposite sides or sort of butting heads about, just to see, how do you handle that in the design context? Even, how do you handle as a designer having conversations about, “Well, if you have a very specific social or political agenda, what does it means to do design? Or could you do design for somebody to have a different perspective than you do?” So those type of conversations I think, are important to have.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I totally think that’s important because at any point throughout your design career, you’re going to encounter some conflict. I mean, I think we know the goal is to try to not have this sort of conflicts with clients or prospective clients or anything like that, but it’s going to happen. I mean sometimes you’ll have a client, you think they’re one way, and then you start working with them and it’s completely different. And even as you’ve said about personal views and such like that, it can get really tricky because the world is not just, I mean, not to use this as a racial thing, but it’s not a black and white place. There’s all sorts of ambiguity and things in there. So the fact that you’re able to work out those scenarios and issues with students in a learning environment is really important, because then they don’t get out there in the real world and have greater consequences for those sorts of scenarios.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah. So that’s one of the reasons why I do it, because I feel like if we can’t have these open discussions and conversation and academic space, then what’s the point of education or school in that environment? At least, that’s how I look at it.

Another project that I did when I was working at NC State last year was, I tasked my students with doing some design research in their hometown. So if they were from Charlotte, if they were from, I don’t know, somewhere in Germany, it didn’t really matter where they were from, but they had to do research about design in their particular community, where they were from. It was up to them if they wanted to pick where they live presently or somewhere where they were raised. And I gave them some sort of guidelines or places to start, I would say, because obviously if you said, “Okay, go research Charlotte, they may not know where to start.”

So I gave them four different areas to start. So I said, “Hey, why don’t you research the educational institutions, find out what schools offer design programs and research their faculty to see who’s working there? What type of design work or research that they do? Research the history publications in your particular area,” because I think newspapers and those type of print media is a good place to find the history of a place, sort of like the pulse, right? Design studios, talk to people there, make a list of all the ones that exist, maybe find out information about ones that used to exist. And I think the last place was printers. If they’re like print shops, go talk to those people. So those were the different areas as far as starting points that I gave them to start their research.

And then they had to interview people to help fill in the gaps of trying to create that sort of storyline. Because part of what they had to actually design was some kind of information design, but this wasn’t about charts and graphs. It was more like a storytelling or narrative sort of based research project, if you will. And then it was all the data, information was sort of collected in this zine that each student sort of designed together, and got it professionally printed at the end of the semester.

And I think it was a really good project. They learned a lot about design from where they were from, that they didn’t know, that they probably wouldn’t have even thought about if they didn’t have this project. And they learned something about themselves. I think for some of them, it was confidence boost. If you’re from somewhere or you come from an area where maybe design isn’t talked about or there are not a lot of people you see in design that look like you, and I think this project sort of helped them do some research and some discovery in those areas.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what do you learn from your students? I mean, you mentioned earlier that you tell them at the beginning of the courses that you’re interested in learning from them. What kind of things do you learn?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I learn a lot from them. I think I can admit as a seasoned educator professional, but sometimes I go into the classroom with certain types of assumptions or misconceptions. So a lots of times, I might have assumptions what I think they might be interested in or what they should be. But then I learn actually, what they’re actually more interested in, and that sort of shifts and change sometimes. So for instance, a lot of students, now what I’m seeing, maybe something that’s trending because of technology is that, this sort of longing for tactile things, this longing to create and print things. Lots of times I think that students wouldn’t be interested in learning about letterpress, or screen printing or these sort of, or electroset. Electroset is something I love, doing electroset exercises with my students. And I really enjoy being able to talk to them about the history behind these all ways of printing.

But I find they’re really interested in these things. And I mean, you do have some that are like, “Okay, I’m really more comfortable in a digital space, and that’s fine.” Again, I’m not there to try to not nurture what their interests are. But, I feel like I’m also there for to say, “Hey, look over here. There are these other ways of making and approaching design that sort of outside of maybe what you think you should be doing.” Or lots of times, I feel what I have learned is there are very specific things that sometimes students think, “Okay, design should be this way or look this way.” And a lot of it has to do with the tools that they’re using, because everybody’s using Adobe Sweden, everybody’s using Illustrator or whatever. And I try to tell them, “Well, if we’re all using the same tools, then everything starts to look the same. But why not take your ideas, and have your ideas and the content have to dictate what type of tool you use.”

So a lot of times I learn a lot that I shouldn’t make assumptions, about technology or different ways in which how they’re interested in making, or what they actually want to make. Sometimes I assume, “Oh, they’re probably interested in developing an app,” and they do have those type of interests, or they’re interested in AI. But then I find so many of them when it comes to technology, they’re like, “No, I don’t even want to touch that stuff over there. I want to get my hands dirty.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That is so fascinating to hear that students want to do kind of tactile things. I do a lot of different types of judging throughout the year. I’ll judge design competitions. I look at portfolios and things like that from students. And I have started to see more actual tactile work books, or pamphlets or zines or something like that. It’s such a stark contrast to 20 years ago. Now, I didn’t go to design school, but I knew people that were in design school at the time that I was also in school and everybody wanted a piece of digital. I guess it’s because it was just coming about at that time. I mean, when I went to college, there were computers. I remember vividly wanting to, I majored in computer science, computer engineering, and then switching my major over to math. Because I told my advisor I wanted to learn web design, and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s a fad. No one’s going to be into that sort of stuff.” And the school that I went to didn’t have an arts program, didn’t have a design program, so I just switched over to math.

But I knew people that were at the Atlanta College of Art, which existed back then, and the Art Institute of Atlanta. And everybody was just clamoring to try to do something with digital because they were tired of print. They were tired of, I guess, I don’t want to say they were doing maybe more traditional things like electroset or things like that. But everybody wanted to get in on the newness. And now, 20 years from then when technology is everywhere, now students want to get tactile, they want to make stuff. Yeah, I think that’s pretty cool.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, I think the thing that I have to keep in mind is that the way they’re growing up and how they’re entering these spaces in this world is very different from how I entered it, where I was there prior to computers and then post. Not that, to be honest, I don’t have the pay stop experience. I mean, I was in school at the advent of, Adobe was already there, Photoshop was already there. The Mac computer was already there in the early two thousands. So I was sort of a little bit post the desktop publishing area. But I think the thing that I forget is that, well, they’re so consumed, this is all they know. So for them they need a break. They are exhausted from the screen is what they tell me. So they’re kind of exhausted from it. And so when you show these other analog processes, they really light up. It’s really nice and encouraging to see that they still have these interests.

But again, there are some that are really interested in the technology. A lot of them are interested in the 3D sort of space and the digital space, but also the physical space. There are sort of a range. But I think that’s what I learn. The more I teach, the more I learn about what the sort of dynamics to what they’re interested in. And they have various interests and it’s not good to even put them into a box and assume what they’re interested in because, it’s a lot of different things that are out there.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I love that. I love that. Students are tired of screens. I’m loving hearing that. Now, let’s learn more about you. Let’s hear your origin story. You’re originally from New Orleans. Is that right?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about what it was growing up there.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, I grew up in the inner city, not on the outskirts. I grew up in New Orleans, we sort of identified with the wards, which are actually voting wards. So I grew up in the seven ward, New Orleans, which the time that I grew up was predominantly Black or all Black maybe, don’t know the statistics on that, but a very urban inner city. Grew up poor, single mom, family. I’m the oldest of four siblings. Had a good childhood. I remember going outside and play, making games up as we go, just started using resources and things that we had around to play different sports, so to do different things. My mom was always really supportive in whatever it was I wanted to do. So when I was younger, I wanted to go to law school. Actually, I wanted to be an attorney. And so, I actually approached going to college, thinking that I was going to go to law school and practice law, actually.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow. What interested you about law?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
To be honest, Maurice, it was, the part of it that was probably really superficial, meaning I watched a lot of court shows growing up, and I got sucked into the drama of the investigations. And this aha moment when the real person, suspect was revealed. And the banter in the court and the back and forth between the attorneys, all the drama. So that seemed exciting because I always felt like, I’ve always had a strong voice, I guess, and a strong personality and perspective in that way. I can be very argumentative about things that I’m super passionate about. So I just thought I would be a good attorney. Why not? I was a good student, usually brought home good grades. So yeah, I could do this law school thing, and I can go to law school and do that.

The other side of it is, I also saw law as something that oppressed us as a people for a long time, and I wanted to understand it better to help us. So that was the sort of flip side of my interest in going to law school. But yeah, that faded when I actually, I mean I was really, up until my last year in college, I was still pursuing going to law school, to be honest.

Now, I was at Loyola, I was an English writing major. And the reason I picked that major was because I was told … I can’t remember if it was a job fair or a college fair when I was in high school and somebody said, “Oh, people who do really well in law school, they major in English because of all the writing and research you have to do,” whatever. So that’s really how that came about. And I did a lot of reading growing up. So the idea of having to read and write was kind of made sense, something I was sort of interested in. So yeah, that’s how that came about was because I wanted to be a good law student, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:
So you had been on this path, I mean, to the point where you went to school, you were studying in it, you were getting all the way up to your senior year. Was there a deciding incident that kind of changed your trajectory?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
The incident was preparing to take the LSAT, I would say. So it was more like a process. So I want to say the first semester of my senior year, I was preparing to take the LSAT, researching what schools to go to. And all of that became extremely overwhelming and stressful, but it wasn’t exciting in a way, how things could be really overwhelming, but you’re still sort of excited about it, and if it’s you’re anxious. And so then I did some soul-searching and it was like, “Well, why do you want to do this Tasheka? Why do you want to go to law school?” And so, one of the things that is at the time it was really hard for me to admit, was that I honestly didn’t think I was good at anything, or I didn’t know what I was really good at. So because I was always sort of a good student, I just kind of looked at it as that way. I can go to law school, I’m going to be a good student, and then I’ll get a decent job.

I have always been a very goal driven oriented person. And so for me, it was always just sort of scratching things off the list. So go to school, major in English writing, do well, go to law school, take the LSAT, get a high grade, study. It’s just this constant thing. But when I actually really looked within, I realized that, well, I didn’t want to do it for the right reasons. You shouldn’t choose a career path just because it’s sort of checking off the list. I can accomplish this thing, but it’s not something that, I mean, I had a genuine interest in the law, but when I look back, yeah, it definitely wasn’t the right path for me.

So I just remember there was this one day, I used to do work study in the library. I just started going online and doing research about what do creative people do. So copywriter came about because I’m getting a degree in English, but at the time I didn’t feel too confident about my writing skills. So I was like, “Eh, I don’t really want to do that.” And then I remember, topography kept popping up, and this isn’t a time where in the early two thousands, when they had a lot of portfolio schools, like Miami AD and those type of schools.

So I was doing research and those type of schools kept popping up, and then I kept seeing topography and I’m like, “What is topography? I don’t even know what that is.” So I looked in the school course catalog and I saw topography one and two, and then it was graphic design and I didn’t know what any of these, I wasn’t aware of any of this stuff, or what that meant as far as a career. And so the more I read and the more I did my research, I was like, “Oh, this design thing sounds really interesting.”

So the next semester, I just went head first. I signed up to take a type one and a design one class, the year, the semester I was supposed to graduate. And then I fell in love with it. And then I pushed my graduation back about a year so I could get a minor in graphic design. And I didn’t get a true minor. I kind of had a relationship with the director of the art department at the time, because throughout my time in college, I took drawing and painting classes as my elective, because I’ve always had an affection for art and drawing. So I talked to her at the time and about getting a minor, and so they sort of told me that, just take the main classes. I didn’t have to take the foundations and stuff like that. So they sort of fast tracked me into design one and however many classes I could take within a year, because Loyola is a private Jesuit liberal university, just very expensive. And I was on a scholarship, so that extra year, I could only go to school those two extra semesters.

So I did that. After that year, it was like, “Okay, I’m a graphic designer now. That’s it. This is what I want to do.” Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really interesting turn. I mean, you were already set to go along this way, and then you kind of just had another idea and there you go.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah. It wasn’t something that was obviously planned out in that way, but I’ve never looked back. I can’t honestly imagine being in any other field than design, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s really awesome that it sort of came about that way. I’m curious now on what Tasheka the lawyer would be like, if you would’ve went there.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I think about it, too. I don’t know, honestly. I mean, I think there’s a way that I would’ve found my niche. I would’ve found an area of law that would’ve been good for me. I don’t know how lucrative that would’ve been, especially if you think about going to a private undergraduate school, and then law school and then student … It’s just sort of the bills and student loans to pile up when you think about it. So yeah, I don’t know. I think I would’ve found my way, but I think that it definitely wasn’t the right path for me. And I think the sort of activist in me, I would’ve found whatever I guess sort of industry I would’ve ended up, I think I would’ve found that sort of angle.

But I do remember this one conversation I had with a lady at a job fair my senior year, and she said that her husband was an attorney and that he had a studio in their attic and he was a painter. And she said that, but once he started really getting into law, he stopped painting as much as he used to. And so I started thinking that I never wanted art to not be a part of my life. So that was sort of a reality check where I was, “Oh, I don’t want to go into law if this is going to prevent me from being creative or being a maker,” I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you graduated from Loyola, and I know later you went and got your MFA from CalArts. Between then, did you get out in the working world and experience a little bit of what it was like to not be a student for a while?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes. It was a very short time. It was exactly a year and four months to date. So yeah, after I graduated, I end up working as a designer at the Navy, which was such a strange thing for me personally, to end up working for the military. But yeah, I worked for the Navy Reservist Public Affairs Office, and they hired me because they saw my resume, that I took topography classes, which is kind of funny when I think about it. Because it’s like, well, when you go to, you study design, you take topography. It wasn’t nothing special. But anyway, but one of the other reasons they hired me was because they wanted somebody young with fresh ideas. And at the time, they were publishing and producing a tabloid newspaper. And so they wanted me on board to help transition that newspaper into a monthly magazine.
I actually stayed there long enough just to do that, basically. We had a few firsts. I guess half the time I was there, we were publishing the newspaper. Then the second half, we transitioned over to a magazine, and that’s my first job. I will say that it was a really great learning experience in school, as far as print production and that kind of stuff. You don’t necessarily learn. So the Navy, I would drive to Panama City to go see the publication on press, that kind of stuff. So I learned all the production there. So yeah, it was a really good experience for me, as far as my first professional design job.

Maurice Cherry:
And you were able to get that, I mean, one right out of school because you had this small amount of design experience just from studying, and they were like, “Yeah, we’ll go with that.” Nowadays, for entry level position, they already want you to have three years experience somewhere. So it’s good that they kind of took a chance and said, “Yeah, we’ll move forward and see what you have.”

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, I will say it was actually a head hunter that found me, or like a temp agency, I would say. And they put me in contact with the Navy. And I think that they were, because they were producing a publication, it was probably a time crunch. And so, I don’t know if I was the first person they referred them to. I don’t know if they had interviewed a bunch of other people. I have no idea. But I just knew that, oh, they were also impressed that I studied abroad. I’m trying to think of the things that they said to me during the interview or that made them sort of intrigued or want me to come in. They liked that I had spent some time abroad and that I took topography courses, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Where did you study abroad?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I studied abroad in Prague, in the Czech Republic. And it was mainly, it was more of a printmaking study abroad than graphic design. I mean, the graphic design aspect of it, was it that there was this workshop or this class that we took to set up design posters by hand. All analog, which was great, but it was really for printmaking, like lithography, learning to do aquatints and that kind of stuff.

And it was interesting, because it was actually with a program that was through NC State, and one of my professors at Loyola at the time was the person who was in charge. I had started that study abroad program. So it was kind of weird last year when I worked at NC State, it was like, “Oh, I did a study abroad program at this place and now I’m teaching here.” So I don’t know, it’s just kind of funny how things kind of happen that way in life.

Maurice Cherry:
So tell me how your experience was getting your MFA at Cal Arts.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
That in of itself was an experience. CalArts was tough. I mean, I definitely went there knowing that it was going to be difficult, that it wasn’t going to be easy. Actually, I was there for three years. I got accepted for the three-year track. So a lot of schools now have a three year and a two-year track, and normally the three-year track is reserved for students who don’t have a traditional graphic design background. And so since my degree wasn’t in design, it was in English. And then, I had that limited experience, that year and a half working for the Navy. So I actually did three years instead of two. So the first year was, I guess an adjustment and challenging, in and of itself. For one, I was the only Black student there in the graduate and the undergraduate program, which for me was pretty shocking.

And the reason it was surprising is because I think, to be honest, at the time I was just starting, right before grad school and doing my first year of grad school. I was just starting to notice how there was a lack of visibility of Black people in design, or how the design profession didn’t seem to, or the lack of diversity that existed. Honestly, I don’t know why it took that long for me to actually realize that, but it wasn’t until, I think it was the 2004 AIGA conference that I realized that, where I saw maybe four or five other Black people at the conference. It was in Vancouver, I remember that. And then that’s when, that was not long before I actually started school at CalArts.

So that experience, and that was the thing that I think started me on this kind of trajectory, or the path into doing the research that I do, was looking around, not seeing anybody like me. Not learning anything about anybody who looked like me with the history class, or so, yeah, that’s sort of where I started. And me being at CalArts as a student, sort of asking the question, talking to faculty or just saying. Even sometimes it was in my work, I was questioning, where are the Black designers? When was the last time CalArts had a Black student in the MFA program? Nobody can answer that question. Or can you tell me something about Black people in design history? Nobody can answer that question.

So it became this thing where, and I know we’ve done similar sort of scavenger hunts. It’s like, “Where the hell are all the Black people?” So anyway, that is where my research started. So because I couldn’t find anything out there that was tangible to hold onto, I just started doing my own research and investigation. Because I was like, “There’s nobody who’s here to tell me or give me that information. I have to discover it from myself.”

But I will say the faculty there was all, for the most part, it was, I felt supported. Although it was tough. It was like bootcamp, going to CalArts. It was a really, really tough, intense program. But I did feel encouraged most of the time for the type of projects that I had. And some of them was filled with a lot of emotion and anger, and aggression and frustration, and a lot of times that came out. But I will say that they sort of helped me nurture and cultivate my voice, and they also always encouraged me to be true, to keep that investigation and then that energy, and to being inquisitive about my design, Black design history, and culture and identity.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s such a good thing now that it almost feels like, I’d say maybe within the past, I don’t know, 10, 15 years perhaps, we’ll say that. But we’ve started to see more Black design educators out there, and we’ve also started to see community efforts. I mean, Revision Path is one of them, but we’ve started to also see community efforts with making sure that Black people, and I would say Black and brown, I mean, I would kind of widen that lens a bit. But we’ve started to see now more people of color in general, being talked about, recognized, showcased, researched as it comes to design. I mean, I don’t know if we’ll get to a point where there’s full equity with regards to that, but I think within the past 10 years, we’ve seen a lot of headway in that direction, where we’re starting to now see more Black students, or at least more talk about Black designers throughout history. You know what I mean?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yes, I would agree with that. There is definitely some sort of shift. I mean, if I’m honest, I’m not seeing it enough or as much as I would like to see it. But I’m also aware that things do take time, and especially when you have things that are so systemic and that’s a part of system that’s been there for so long that it’s not, it takes a long time to sort of dismantle it.

If I’m honest, I do believe that it doesn’t have to, or it shouldn’t take it as long, but I understand it. I try to understand it. I do think that things can happen a lot quicker, but I do realize that there are still certain structures that are there, that’s way more difficult to dismantle to where it takes a lot longer. But I am happy to have colleagues. I didn’t think that I would see a day where I could name at least three other Black women that are doing similar type of work or things like that. So I am happy to see that there’s a change, and there’s a lot of work and way more work that needs to be done. But yeah, I agree. There are more efforts, I guess, and more initiatives that are happening at different places.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think with schools, it’s just always going to take longer because schools are just such, these large institutions. Of course, they get funds from different philanthropists and foundations and stuff like that. But I agree with you, in that I think the change could be happening a lot quicker. I a hundred percent agree with you there.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah. I just think that one of the things that I liked about UT was they started changing their admissions process. I think there are still more work to be done, but they have done away with the traditional portfolio. And so, their admission process is more a design prompt, so a student could … So the design program looks at just that one particular piece that they’re doing, and then they submit a 60-minute video that sort of talks about their process and their ideas, alongside the piece that they made for admissions.

So I think that, that takes a lot of pressure off because you still have so many students that, they don’t have the resources in their high schools to submit even a fine arts portfolio, let alone something that’s specific to design. Where you need all these different, you need a computer, you need the Adobe software, you need all these digital tools that a lot of high schools still don’t have those type of resources. So it’s nice to see that they’re at least trying to change that process a little bit, to make it more equitable for students of color to have access to the program.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, along with you being a design educator, and you mentioned this a bit earlier, you have your own design studio called Blacvoice Design. Tell me more about that. What are some of the projects or other work that you’ve done through your studio?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Well, a lot of projects I would say, first start off with the type of clients that I work with. So most of my clients are educational institutions like universities, colleges and things like that, nonprofit organizations, as well as kind of start up or small businesses. And I actually like the work that I do within those spaces. The type of projects that I do, format wise, most of them are books. I design a lot of books, but I don’t like to just consider myself a book designer because I do do identity projects and things like that. But a lot of the books that I do design, because a lot of my clients have modest budgets, usually I’m given texts and that’s it.

And so, I think that’s why I wear this hat of an image maker, because a lot of projects might call for me to take photos and I’ll take my own photographs for a particular project, or I do my own illustrations and create my own imagery for them. And so that I actually like. I like that whole process of generating the imagery, and doing the type setting, and doing the layout and the design. I really do enjoy being a part of that process from the beginning to the end. I thought at this point in my career that I would want to be in a more creative director sort of role, but I actually like and still enjoy being hands on.

So some projects that I’ve worked on in the past that are really kind of dear to my heart is, I used to do some work for a nonprofit organization. They’re now called 826 New Orleans, but they used to be called Big Class. And Big Class is a nonprofit organization. They started off basically sort of reaching out to the inner city public schools. And so, they would have writing prompts or writing projects for students to engage in after school. And so they would come up with themes, the students would come up with themes or topics that they wanted to write about. Usually it had to do with their feelings around their culture and their community.

And so, what I would do is basically, I would come in, talk to the student editorial board, find out what ideas they have about the design and the design process, and basically use that as information or inspiration and design a book for these individual projects. And so Big Class would take those books, they would have these readings, they would get people, they had their own press and their own imprint. And so they would publish and sell the books, and then they would just feed and go back into the sort of program. And I really like that program, because it not only gets students excited about writing, and writing is a form of expression, writing can be creative, right? Writing, I think gave them a sense of agency because they get to write, they get to publish, they get to put it out there, they get to have open mic and spoken words.

And so, I really love to see the sort of confidence that it gave these students, that maybe in their school, they may not ever have that type of experience. So for me to provide a platform for them to express themselves through words, through writing, I really did enjoy working with them. But now they’re part of this larger, more national collection of programs, that’s like 826 New Orleans, you have 826 Valencia. So 826 sort of exists in a lot of different cities. And my hope is to, there isn’t an 826 in Austin. Honestly, have no idea how to even start one. And it’s not that I even want to be in charge of one, but I would love to try to figure out how to create a rapport with some of the schools, some of the public schools here in Austin to try to get one started here. And then that way, it’s something that I would like my students at UT to be involved in that process, of helping those students design and get their work printed and published.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m a big advocate of designers needing to do more writing. A hundred percent. We had at one point in time, kind of design anthology called Recognize that we were doing through Revision Path, where we had designers just like, we would give a particular prompt or theme. I think the one we did before we shut it down was reset. I think reset was the theme. And so based off of that, we wanted people to submit essays up to 3000 words, centered around reset in whatever way that they wanted to. But it had to be design focused, like design writing. We didn’t get great ones. I’ll be completely honest. I think a lot of people rather wanted to design something than write something.

And even the first year that we did it, we would get some pushback from people, “Well, why do I have to write something?” I’m like, “It’s a essay.” I mean, you have to write something because that’s the structure of it. I do want to bring it back one day if Revision Path can get the right funding and all of that. Because, I’m still a big proponent and believer of designers, I think, need to be, they need to know how to write because of course, it just helps you get your ideas out there. But it’s just so helpful for, and I think this probably ties into your research focus. It ties into your work being part of the cannon. If you can write down what you did, the work you did, case studies, et cetera, if it gets put out there in some way, if it gets preserved in some way, you’re now part of the cannon.

One thing with me, when I try to find guests for the show, it’s very hard for me to book a guest when I can’t find anything on them. I could maybe find-

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, you could maybe do some research.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, yeah, because I can maybe find a website or there’s maybe a blog post or something somewhere, but I need to be able to see what you’ve done so I can get a sense of who you are as a designer, if this is going to be a good fit, that sort of thing. But I say all of that to say that I’m a big, just huge fan of designers being writers, and write it down, write down your work, show your work.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I agree with that too, Maurice. And even as a person, I still think I have a very strange or uncomfortable, I think it’s a better word, relationship with writing. It’s something that with my teaching, I always make sure that there’s some writing component in a project for students, whether it’s a reflection to something they read or something they saw. I think it’s really important. I see a lot of similarities in the writing, in the design process. So for me, it’s been, although it’s still a place where I’m super uncomfortable in lots of times, a few years ago, to be honest, I think it was back in 2017 when I was teaching at Southeastern Louisiana University, and I had just gotten tenured there. And I didn’t realize at the time that until I was at NC State during that interview process, that up until that point, I had got tenured because of my creative work, because of doing exhibitions and things like that.

And at that point, I realized that with the research that I was doing, and then at that time, my research was startup, sporadic, how I was engaged with it. I started this research in graduate school, and then I would start to engage with it from time to time when somebody would ask me to give a lecture. And at some point, going back to what you were saying about the importance of the canon and sort of writing things down, that became a real turning point for me because at that point, I wanted to change my practice a little bit, and have it more focused on writing and publishing. Because in my mind, I’m like, “Well, I can continue to do these lectures and talk about this stuff, but then what?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
What do you with it? And so I knew at some point I always wanted to write a book about Black design history. I knew, even from grad school back at CalArts, that’s something I wanted to do. I think, not until that point, I became more intentional about it. I was like, “Okay, if I want to shift,” not do away with making, not do away with freelance, not doing away with that work, but I wanted to be more intentional about the scholarly part of me, I guess, in that work. And sort of getting it out there and not have it just be through lectures. And I think, oral history and that stuff is valuable. I’m not trying to devalue that at all, but I do think there’s something about having something written and on a page, and printed and sort of documented. Right? I mean, I think it’s really important for our work and stuff to be documented, so it can be passed on.

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. I mean, the oral storytelling, and I realize we’re saying this on a podcast, but is mean that is important. But being able to write it down, pass it on, put it in a book, have it stored somewhere, that is what is really, that is the canon. That’s what you end up preserving. Speaking of books, I mean, we’re both working on books, but part of the research that I find is trying to find these writings and trying to find where people have talked about stuff. And you know what we’re doing now? Interviews. We’re having to talk to people because we can’t find where folks have written stuff down. So to that end, about books, as I mentioned that just now, you’re working on a book called Black Design in America. Talk to me about that.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, so I’m a co-author of Black Design America, African-Americans, and African Diaspora and Graphic Design, 19th to 21st Century. My co-authors are Silas Munro and Pierre Bowins. And how this book came about is not a linear kind of trajectory of story. So back in 2020, when George Floyd was murdered and you had the protests going on, and a lot of things were sort of happening online, VCFA had started this sort of virtual programming. I believe they contacted me and asked me if I was interested in doing a lecture or something about my research. And so at the time, I want to say around that time, I can’t remember exactly, but I know at some point, me, Pierre, and Silas had created a Google Doc, and we just started populating it with our research. And some of our focus on our research was slightly different. There was some overlap, but we started this Google Doc, and I think we started it with the intent of writing a book someday.

So the idea was that, “Okay, we want to have this document populated to start working on the outline.” So VCFA came to me. I decided that I didn’t want to just be the only voice talking about Black design history. So I invited Pierre and Silas to also give a lecture. So they call it these micro lectures. So still had the same amount of time that I had to give my lecture, but instead of me talking for an hour or 45 minutes, we each had 15 minutes to do a micro lecture, a mini presentation about our specific research.

So again, around that time, I met Dr. Cheryl Miller, and she was just starting, or had already started her archive for Stanford, a Black design history archive. And somebody gave her my name. And so, I met with her about sending my work there. And something that I still feel weird about saying was that was my first time hearing about her and her work, but I’m glad I did. I’m glad that we had that opportunity to talk and connect. And now she’s a huge mentor and influence, inspiration in my life. But that conversation with her sort of gave me a little focus. So I was like, “Oh, I’m really interested in the history of Black women in graphic design too.” So my portion of the lecture was about that.

So we’re in the midst of the pandemic, and Silas had this idea. And so we all talked about how this information needs to get out there. I don’t know if we have time to go through the process of writing a book and getting published, and trying to do all the stuff that you have to go through, as you you’re working on one yourself. It’s a huge timeline. You don’t just do it overnight. It takes a lot of time. So Silas and his studio, that’s how they came up, and they put together the BIPOC Design History Classes, went live January of 2021. And so again, it wasn’t the intent to have the classes. And that sort of happened first. That idea, we thought, prior to the pandemic and whatnot, that we would be working on a book first. So that happened. That was the success. And so then after the chorus, then we felt like, “Okay, now we have to write this book now, because we kind of already have a structure. We have content.” But little did we know, Maurice, that it was not that easy.

These small classes. Okay. Yeah. There are chapters in the book, but I don’t know. It’s just, yeah, they’re still talking to people. There’s still more research to be done. There’s still more archives to visit. So it wasn’t just that simple to just make that transition from the series of classes, and then to make it into a book. So we’re still in the process of writing now. We have a hard, hard deadline coming up on June 1st, where we have to really turn over the manuscript. And we’re all also collaborating on the design of the book, too. So yeah, it’s been an interesting process.

And I think the thing that, I know for me, and I think from my co-authors as well, the thing that’s been most difficult is that it’s a design history book, but we’re not approaching it like a Meg’s book in a way, or this book came out a few years ago, it’s called Graphic Design Pioneers, or Pioneers in Design, where it’s focused on individuals. So we do talk about individual designers and sort of their impact, but it’s more about the diaspora, it’s more about Black experience in a way, and what we had to go through and deal with. It’s more about how we’ve been represented through visual culture, and who’s responsible for that and that kind of stuff. So it’s not necessarily about a clothesline of designers, although we do talk about individual people, because you can’t write a history book without acknowledging individuals. But, it’s not just about highlighting people, I guess in that way. It’s more about the different movements that happened, throughout time and throughout history.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because I mean-

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
And we’ve been affected by it, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Because you’re, like you said, it’s set up with, it’s in the context of America during that time, and so there’s been wars, there’s been civil rights movements, there’s been other sorts of radical movements. And so, being able to talk about how Black design has been a through line with all of that in this country, we don’t learn it in school, in K through 12 schools. And based on what you’re saying, and probably from others, it’s probably not even something that’s really readily learned in colleges.

So having a book like this is super important, I think, not just to the design canon, but just like to American history in general. Because everything that we go through in this country has been designed in some capacity. That don’t necessarily mean that it’s been done with a pen and paper or in some visual aspect, but the systems of oppression that are in this country and many other things that sort of hold people back or push others forward, these are designed constructs. And so being able to talk about Black design in this country is super important to, I think, informing that for a lot of people. So, I’m excited to see the book when it comes out. Congratulations to you, because I know it’s a lot. I know all too well. Yeah.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I mean, I think writing a book is a challenge, in and of itself, but I think history, and I think we have a special challenge in the type of history that we’re trying to bring to light, because it hasn’t been well documented or readily available. So it’s a lot of things you have to do to discover these stories. That’s definitely been a challenge. I think, one thing that I want to say I’m proud of about how we approach the writing in this book is that we sort of try to do away with … we’re being ourselves. We feel like using I, then we use I. If we want to throw in a little snarky, something that maybe a long time ago would be unorthodox for a history book, but we are just throwing it and putting it all out there. We’re not sort of concerned about our voices being the same, and we like that our voices are fluid and they’re sort of interchangeable.

We collaborated and wrote the introduction together, and there are parts of it, it’s like, I don’t even remember what I wrote. And we do have our chapters that the three of us have been responsible for, and we have contributors to certain chapters as well, but we’re not sort of concerned with the more traditional approach to this type of book. We don’t even call it a textbook. We’re not really approaching it in that same traditional way, I guess, if you will.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you’re teaching, you’re running your own design studio, you are working on a book, you’re doing this research and your research focuses on, as we’ve talked about throughout this interview, Black people being omitted from the graphic design history canon. Given all the different spaces that you occupy, designer, educator, et cetera, what does the path forward look like for you?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I think about that a lot. I think it’s going to continue in this realm of writing and publishing, and designing. I think I like the idea of being a content generator and being the one to design that content. So I see more books around the same topic, but in different iterations. So for instance, I’m completely obsessed with Louise E. Jefferson. She is a Black woman who was one of the first art directors in the publishing industry at Friendship Press. She started working in the mid, late 1930s, and she was a designer, a calligrapher, a cartographer, an illustrator, a researcher. I mean, she was a real true renaissance woman, and she rubbed shoulders with all kinds of people during the Harlem Renaissance. But I’ve been doing research on her for a really long time. And so, I envision writing and designing a book about Louise E. Jefferson. And right now, I’ve been in touch with Friendship Press where she worked at as an art director for 20 years, and they’re interested in me writing a book about Louise and her work.

So those type of projects I see still continuing. The past few years have been great. The writing, the lecturing have been amazing, meeting amazing people, and have been great with giving me more opportunities to write into research. But I would like to hopefully, have more of a balance between that and my making, especially maybe even more so personal projects. I really enjoy doing small collaborations with other designers, whether it be zines or just random, creating compositions and giving files, going back and forth between digital files and things like that. Well, not really knowing what the outcome is. I think I just miss making and playing, and having fun.

Not that the design work that I do isn’t enjoyable, but it’s just a different type of making, I guess it’s different. You’re doing research and you’re writing. That’s a lot different than like, “Okay, I have this idea for making this thing using these materials, or even this tool or this technology. Am I making?” I’m really interested in this sort of synthesis, and analog and digital tools and how they sort of come together, and how to expand our uses in ways that they weren’t actually meant to be used. So I would like moving forward to be able to engage more, and just being a maker and not thinking about what I’m making so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, being a designer and an educator and all these things, you’ve talked now about how you want your path to go forward, but in your current work, how do you balance these different aspects? Do these different roles inform each other in some way?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Yeah, I mean, I definitely see there are so much overlap in … For a long time, I actually didn’t know how to bring all these things together, especially in the classroom because it took a while before I started teaching design history, and actually I’m not teaching it right now. I haven’t taught it in maybe three years. But I think, that doesn’t mean that I can’t still bring that into the classroom. So to me, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care that I’m not teaching design history. Whatever I’m teaching, you’re going to learn something about Black design. Some kind of way I’m going to insert my agenda, because I know that these are things that are, in part, it’s not just Black design history. I talk about queer history. I talk about other areas of design where people are marginalized or we don’t know a lot about, and I know a little something. I still try to impart that to my students, so I make sure that I’m trying to be equitable in that sense.

But yeah, I’m just starting to see where these roads and where these things are starting to overlap. So am I making? Now I think about, well, how could, besides designing books about Black design history or whatever, and the publishing aspect, but I start thinking about, well, what are other things that you can make that sort of has to do with your research? So I’m starting to think more about that, like timelines and things like that. So to me, the crossover is starting to happen. It’s slow and maybe not as fast as I would have liked them to be. And then I see them in the projects that I give to my students too. So it sort of reverts back to the classroom in that way.

Maurice Cherry:
So, I like that it all feeds into each other then. That’s good.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Kind of makes less work for me in a way, as opposed to try to compartmentalize everything. So for a long time, everything used to be in these separate buckets. Black design studio, freelance here is writing and lecture. But now, they’re just starting to morph together, and that has been good, and that’s how I would like things to continue in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey, look, work smarter, not harder. I get it.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to someone out here that’s hearing your story, that’s hearing about all these different things that you’re interested in, and they want to follow in your footsteps? What would you tell them?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I would say, learn how to be comfortable in your voice, in your skin, and how to … I didn’t always feel comfortable being Tasheka, being authentically me, because sometimes I had moments where I didn’t want to step on people’s toes, but I noticed moments where I did do that, and I was just kind of myself and just kind of put it out there. Those have been the best experiences.

And I would say that we all have control. You have some kind of control over your path, and so if there’s a certain direction that you want your practice, or your craft, or your skill or whatever it is you are into to take, that you can kind of plan for. Talk to people who are doing the thing that you want to do, align yourself. Reach out to them. I know sometimes, we think and we look at people that we admire and we put them on this pedestal, but if they’re the right people, they’ll talk to you and they’re not full of themselves. And lots of times, people are more than happy to talk to you about your path, and this is especially to younger designers. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who you admire, and have conversations with them about what they do and how they got to where they are. But yeah, I just say be bold.

Maurice Cherry:
Be bold.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Be bold and intentional about how you move through this world.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want the next chapter of your story to be?

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I do see myself still teaching. I do see myself still being at UT, and I’m hoping, my hope is that in five years, I have a couple of books under my belt by then. Maybe, I’m just going to throw it out there, Maurice. I would say at least three of them, because I have a list of projects that I’m really like. It’s kind of like these have to be done before I die. No, maybe they don’t have to be done in five years. That’s pretty ambitious of me, but I’m already working on one, so I can get the other two at least in the works by that time, that would be great.

I do have sort of a passion project that I’ve been sitting on on for a while. I have a collection of drawings, maybe it’s like 200 and something drawings, that I would like in five years to have their own sort of brand, where it’s a collection of, whether it’s greeting cards or home decor or apparel. Not or. I should say and. So I’ve been procrastinated on this project for a really long time, and I hope in five years that that project sort of sees the light of day.

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

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
I’m probably most active on Instagram and Facebook. So Facebook is Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton. On Instagram, it’s Blacvoice. I am on Twitter under Blacvoice, but I’m not that engaged with that platform as much. But, I’m on there and I tweet every now and then. I’m on LinkedIn, which is, you can find me under Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton. Again, that’s not a platform that I’m super engaged in, but I’m there, and you’ll probably find me multiple times under LinkedIn, but I’m there. But Instagram, I would say, it’s probably the place to see me. I’m more active there. I would hate to throw out my crappy Adobe Portfolio website. That’s just a bunch of stuff that’s thrown on there right now. But hey, why not? Blacvoicedesign.portfolio.com. That’s just something that’s there right now, just to have an online presence, until I have time to do something else with it.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. You and your work have been on my radar for many years, I think probably, maybe since 2015? For a while now. And it wasn’t until recently, I had spoken with Cheryl, had Cheryl on the show for 500th episode, and she sung your praises to the high heavens. And I was like, “I feel like I reached out to her before. Let me reach out again just to see if she might be interested.”

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Actually, you did, Maurice. I thought about that. I was actually just telling my sister right before, and I was like, I feel weird because you did reach out to me a long time ago, and I think at the time I was just not ready, and something that had nothing to do with you or the show. I love the show and listen to it, and I think that was just like, “I’m still in my boldness. I’m kind of shy too, and more of an introvert.” So I think that, yeah, it just took a while, but you did. You did, but I’m glad you reached back out again.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but I mean, I also just want to say from hearing your story and hearing about everything that you’re working on, I think it’s evident that you have a passion for design. You have a passion for honestly getting the story right, whether it’s through writing, through education, through your visual design work. I’m really excited to see and hear more from you in the future. I feel like you’re one of our bright shining stars that are really going to help represent us, as we move forward in this crazy world that we’re in right now. I feel like the work that you’re doing is really going to stand out and help showcase what Black designers are doing everywhere, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton:
Thanks again for having me, Maurice.

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Justin Shiels

How are your plans for this year going? Good? Not so good? Luckily, it’s not too late to reset, break any unhealthy patterns, and get on track so you can live a life rooted in passion and purpose. And guess what? This week’s guest, Justin Shiels, is just the person to help you make that happen.

We talked about his theme for this year — intentional growth — and Justin spoke about the big life change that inspired him to not only take a break, but to write a book to help others experience their own breakthrough. Justin also shared what it was like coming of age in New Orleans, how his stint as a creative director in the advertising agency shaped his current work, and talked about how he finds joy and maintains his creativity. Justin is a real ray of sunshine, and his energy for changing hearts and minds is what we need more of in this world!

Interview Transcript

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

Justin Shiels:
Hey there. My name is Justin Shiels and I’m a creative consultant, a speaker and an author. Honestly, what I love is solving complex problems using the lens of emotional intelligence. And so a lot of my focus is on how to use empathy and design and illustration to create cultural moments.

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

Justin Shiels:
Ooh, 2023 is a good year so far. I feel like 2022 for me was my year of the pivot. There were just a lot of changes. I got a book deal, I switched to a new job in marketing, and I feel like through that time of working on the book, finishing the book, writing and illustrating, I changed as a person. And so 2023, I stepped into this new year focused on intentional growth. That’s kind of my theme of this year. How can I be centered in my vision as a creative professional and continue to grow in a sustainable way?

Maurice Cherry:
In what way does that intentional growth look like?

Justin Shiels:
Intentional growth for me is really focusing on delivering incredible content via social media platforms. This was my year of embracing video and not being afraid to show my face on camera. That has always been a little bit of a scary part of my creative process. It’s been opening myself up to new speaking opportunities, and it’s been teaching workshops around emotional intelligence and how to reset your life as well as how to be a better creative professional.

Maurice Cherry:
And so let’s talk about this book deal that you mentioned. The book’s coming out later this year, right?

Justin Shiels:
Yes, that’s correct. In December 2023, my upcoming title, The Reset Workbook will come out with Spruce Books, which is an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Justin Shiels:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, as much as you can. I mean, we want people to buy it, of course, but tell us a bit about it.

Justin Shiels:
The Reset Workbook is a guided journal that utilizes emotional intelligence to help readers discover their inner magic. It includes some original content created by me, lots of beautiful illustrations and really meaningful questions that help you on your self-reflection journey. I like to say that the book really came from my experience of having a total life reset.

In 2016, I went through a really intense breakup, and that breakup was profound for a number of reasons, but the reason that I think it changed my life is that it opened me up to the idea of going to therapy for the first time, and therapy for me was transformational. Reading books, journaling, creating new habits around how to be a healthier person all came through this experience, this transformational life experience, and I wanted to take the things that I learned along the way in that journey and build it into something that is meaningful and useful for people.

Maurice Cherry:
So with that in mind, what do you want readers to take away from the book?

Justin Shiels:
The biggest thing that anyone should take from The Reset Workbook is that you can break free of unhelpful patterns and live with more passion and purpose. I like to think of this as a gateway for people that maybe aren’t used to journaling regularly, that want to do some internal reflection and some self-discovery and learn more about themselves. And for some people that end up purchasing the book, my hope is that this is your gateway to trying therapy. I know that in my past experience and especially with my family, the idea of going to therapy was controversial, and I’m trying to normalize the idea that mental health and mental wellness is important specifically in the Black community, in the LGBT community, and it’s a tool, a useful tool for us to grow and change and develop.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like a lot of conversations around therapy now are, I think they’re starting to become a lot more commonplace. I hear about it in videos and podcasts, et cetera. It’s starting to become, I should say, a pretty common talking point from what I hear that folks are like, “Are you in therapy? Are you going to therapy? You need to go to therapy,” that kind of thing. So it sounds like your book is going to help really facilitate that. That’s good.

Justin Shiels:
Oh, 100%. I feel like millennials we’re much more open to doing that deep reflection and understanding how we can grow and change. I still feel like there’s the opportunity for more people to explore therapy, and I am very thankful to be an advocate in this space, encouraging people to step outside their comfort zones and open themselves up to some new opportunities.

Maurice Cherry:
Now the book comes out in December. Do you have some things that you’re doing leading up to that?

Justin Shiels:
Yes, absolutely. Leading up to the book launch, I’m hosting a number of workshops and doing speaking engagements with the variety of organizations, and my hope is really to just spread inspirational stories, give encouragement and also to teach people how to make meaningful change in their lives.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about your overall work. You said something earlier about last year kind of being this pivot, and part of that was going into marketing and how this whole process of doing that with the book changed you, and it sounds like one of the outcomes of this was creating your own company, your media company called SoCurious. And you wear a lot of hats in that. You’re a creative consultant, you’re a speaker, you’re an author as you mentioned, you’re a coach. Tell me more about that transition.

Justin Shiels:
Yeah. I think so much of being a creative is learning how to wear many hats. For me, my creative journey started in advertising, and so I started as a graphic designer at an ad agency and was able to work my way up to being a creative director at an ad agency. That was an incredible experience, very, very stressful, very, very intense. But what was beautiful about it was that I learned how to become an incredible storyteller as well as have the capacity to work under intense pressure. It also was useful in learning how to manage teams and how to be an advocate for my employees. I feel like working in advertising was really my first step in learning emotional intelligence. So I transitioned from my position at the ad agency and started a job as a creative director for a tech company.

What was different about this experience was that it was much more of a marketing role, and so my focus instead of just coming up with the creative concepts, I did that as well as ran the ad campaigns or utilized agency partners to run ad campaigns and other freelancers, and it’s like the culmination of all these skills come together to kind of help me become the person that I am today, someone that loves storytelling, that loves to create, and that also loves marketing. And so I’m using all of those skills now trying to spread this idea that emotional intelligence matters and that we can reflect and grow and change.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like from the name of the company, curiosity is a big part of the work that you do.

Justin Shiels:
Yes, 100% curiosity has followed me at every step of my journey. As a kid, I stayed in the library. I love reading books, and I as a child would just sit and read and read about anything that I could. Similarly, I feel like creativity has always been at the heart of the work that I do. So learning to draw as a young person, focusing my attention on learning skills like Photoshop and other animation programs, it’s all been a part of who I am as a person from the very start.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned with your time being a creative director in the advertising field, how that taught you certain skills with running a team, et cetera. What are some important lessons you’ve learned on this leg of your creative journey, creating this inspirational content for curious and thoughtful people?

Justin Shiels:
Yeah. I feel like we live in a time where people are overwhelmed by the amount of information that we get in the day, and specifically, we receive so much negative information in our day, primarily from the news, sometimes from our social feeds. It just comes from a variety of ways, and I wanted to focus my energy and my intention on creating positive content that encourages people. My focus with everything that I do is how can I give just a tiny little spark of joy to someone’s day and encourage them to think about the deeper questions of what it means to be a human being in this world.

Maurice Cherry:
So you’re currently in Austin, right? Austin, Texas?

Justin Shiels:
Yes, that’s correct.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me what it’s like there for you. Are you tapped into the creative community there?

Justin Shiels:
Now, I’ll tell you one thing that I am loving about my experience in Austin is that it is a wonderful city that has encouraged me to get outside and do things. I have never been an outdoor person at any point in my life, and I moved here and now I’m going on hikes and exploring new outdoor terrain in ways that I have never done. It’s actually pretty incredible. Another really great benefit of living in Austin for me is the people here are genuinely incredible, and I’ve been able to connect with a lot of like-minded Black creatives primarily that work in tech, but that also are doing their own set of interesting projects. And so being able to cultivate a community in a new city, I’ve only been here three years, it has been great, and I feel actually pretty proud that I was able to do that, especially with the constraints around living through the kind of strange and unusual times of the past few years.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the pandemic, I feel like really threw a wrench in a lot of people’s just general social activities, but we’re starting to get out there and do things again. I haven’t been to Austin since… God, when was the last time I was in Austin, Texas? It was for SXSW, I know that. It might have been. Yeah, that was the last time. It was 2015 was the last time. I was supposed to go in 2020. The company that I was working for at the time, we had a presence at SX [South By] and we were going to go, but then Coronavirus.

So then all of that got canceled and we were all waiting to see if it was going to happen. I already had my tickets and everything and then just all got canceled and shut down, so I need to try to make it back. Austin’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun, especially during SXSW, but then there’s just so many folks and it’s just mad crowded. I think it came back last year. Right? Last year was the first time it was in person for a couple of years.

Justin Shiels:
It did come back last year. And you are 100% correct. It gets so crowded here in Austin during SXSW. It is packed, but definitely make your way down. You got to come back and enjoy some of this music and food and just some of these outdoor experiences I was telling you about.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I need to come during the non-SXSW season. It’s a nice conference. I mean, I used to go really back in its heyday when it was really something, but now I’m just like, I’m old. There’s too many people. Like y’all need to. It’s a lot, but I need to come during the off season. So you’ve been in Austin for three years, that’s not where you’re from originally I would take it.

Justin Shiels:
No, I’m actually from Memphis, Tennessee originally. Grew up 901 proud, but I left when I turned 18 to go to college in New Orleans. I went to Loyola University, a Jesuit institution, and I ended up staying in New Orleans after I graduated for 16 years. And so New Orleans is one of those places that just is still very, very near and dear to my heart. I literally just got back from a wonderful one week vacation there where I got to catch up with all of my old friends.

I’m not going to lie, I miss New Orleans. I miss New Orleans a lot, but I feel like a lot of the significant life changes occurred because I was confident enough to move away. Honestly, I feel like stepping outside of my comfort zone pushed me to become a better creative and encouraged me to push myself in some new and exciting ways.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, taking it back to Memphis for a second, I mean, you grew up there. You went to high school and everything there. Were you really a creative kid into design and illustration back then?

Justin Shiels:
I’ve always been a super creative person for sure. I learned to illustrate very, very young, and as a kid, my mom got us a computer. I think I was in the fourth or fifth grade, and that computer was incredible. I don’t know if you remember AOL days.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

Justin Shiels:
We got that CD in the mail with AOL, and it opened my mind up because it went from, oh my gosh, my entire world is Memphis to, oh my gosh, my entire world is the world. And so way back then I started an email newsletter before email newsletters were a thing. It was called Iconoclast. That was the very first kind of side hustle project that I had as a little person sending out this monthly email about art. And so creativity, developing content and doing storytelling has been a big part of my life. In high school, my focus was really on visual art. I did a little bit of theater, but I feel like the computer was really their turning point because I loved Photoshop and building little tiny animations during that time period, too.

Maurice Cherry:
So you were a real pioneer back then, sounds like.

Justin Shiels:
I don’t know if I would’ve thought of myself as a pioneer, but I feel like the ideas around communication and media have always been central to my identity.

Maurice Cherry:
So like you said, you ended up moving from Memphis, going to New Orleans, went to Loyola, like you said, studied graphic design, but then later after that you went to the University of New Orleans and that’s where you got your master’s degree. When you look back at those times, what do you remember the most? What stands out to you?

Justin Shiels:
Yeah. What I think is beautiful about the city of New Orleans is there are no barriers of entry. Every single person in this city is one degree of separation from the mayor probably.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Justin Shiels:
So if you have an idea, you can start it. There is nothing that will stop you from starting it. During my time in New Orleans, a lot of my core focus was on building brands around culture. So I ran an online magazine called InvadeNOLA for six years. That was a passion project of passion projects, and it kind of came from, there was an article in a local magazine that said that all these invaders had come and they were ruining New Orleans, and I was a transplant to the city that fell in love with the city.

I moved to New Orleans before Katrina. I of course evacuated but came back after Katrina and stayed, chose that place as my new home. And so I felt really passionately about the local culture as well as our capacity as transplants to create positive change. So I focused my content on the millennials living in the city, doing creative projects that were interesting, and I was able to build it into a pretty popular and successful organization, writing regular content, sending out lots of email newsletters and publishing a few printed books and magazine issues.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, look at that. So what’s you’re describing with InvadeNOLA… That’s what it was called? Invade New Orleans?

Justin Shiels:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it sounds a lot like, and I don’t know if this even still exists, but do you remember, or does the phrase Not For Tourists sound familiar?

Justin Shiels:
Oh, yeah. Yes, yes, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Not For Tourists had something like that in some major cities where they would… It was almost like a guide to that city in every city, almost like Frommer’s, which I guess is old school. I don’t know if they still make those, but they’re like these city guides, but it’s written by the people that lived there, the locals, so they can tell you what’s good, what’s bad, do this, don’t do that, that kind of thing.

Justin Shiels:
Yes. Actually, the book that I published during that time period was called The Invader’s Guide to New Orleans, which was a tourist guide for under the radar things to do in the City.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. So you were, again, another pioneer in publishing, email, books, magazines. And just to give a sense of when this is, so people know, this was what, mid 2000s?

Justin Shiels:
Yes. This would’ve been, I think I started the publication in 2010.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Justin Shiels:
Actually, it would’ve been 2009 to 2015-ish. That should be the right timeframe.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. Yeah, no, that’s thinking of what all else was going along culturally during that time. So after you graduated, you’re big in this project, Invade was one of them. Another one that you created was called Venture Pop, right?

Justin Shiels:
Yes. So actually as I decided that I wanted to step away from the event culture, I as the founder of Invade, I ended up having to do so many local events, and a part of it was that I wanted to cover it for the magazine. A part of it was because I had made all these great connections and friends and wanted to support them, but it was actually taxing, right? I was going out almost every single night, and that just was not a sustainable lifestyle, especially because even though I’m an extrovert, I need a lot of time to recuperate, and my favorite way to recuperate is through my creative practice.

And so I was like, I really want to lean into my creativity more, and it was just the perfect confluence of events. I went to a conference in Texas and ran into a woman that I knew from New Orleans at that conference, and we spent that weekend together going to all these really great speakers and seeing these really incredible workshops. I was so encouraged by that experience that I was like, we need to have this in New Orleans. And so I partnered with two women to start Venture Pop, and we successfully held three live conferences. They ended up being regional conferences that invited a lot of incredible creative talent to the city of New Orleans, and they were fun informational experiences that allowed people to grow in their creative journeys.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like there used to be this conference in Ohio in Cleveland called Weapons of Mass Creation Fest. It sounds like it was similar in scope to that where it’s not necessarily a design conference, it’s more like a creative conference, so it’s people of all kinds of creative stripes coming together and learning from each other and networking and fellowshipping and stuff like that.

Justin Shiels:
Yes, that is 100% true. While my experience has been in graphic design and web design and then advertising, I think instead of having it focus on any one specific discipline, a big part of our goal with Venture Pop was to create experiences that allowed people to push their creativity to its limits, to learn new skills, to create new things. In many ways, we were kind of a part of that content creator movement that we’re living in right now.

Maurice Cherry:
In what way?

Justin Shiels:
I think in many ways we were bolstering the idea that in order to become an incredible creator, you have to find and define your own creative voice and share that message with the world. I feel like that actually encouraged me on my journey of having a public facing persona that spreads positive messages on the internet.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve worked for some agencies as well. You alluded earlier that you were a creative director in the advertising industry, so you’ve worked for FSC Interactive, you worked for Springbox, you worked for Fragment Media Group, and we don’t have to spend a lot of time talking about them because that was in your past, but when you look back at those experiences, when you think about them, what did they kind of teach you that you really still carry with you to this day?

Justin Shiels:
Through my time working in advertising, I had the opportunity to work with a variety of incredible clients in New Orleans. I actually was fortunate enough to do a rebranding of the City of New Orleans, the New Orleans Tourism Focus campaign where we did a full rebranding of the visual identity as well as creating commercials. I also had the opportunity to run the social channels for Visit New Orleans and here in Austin as a creative director, I worked with really awesome B2B clients, the most notable one, being Amazon Business.

As a full-time creative director, a lot of my focus was on how do you tell a compelling story through advertising and how do you communicate that information effectively? But the value of that experience more than anything is that it really exposed me to emotional intelligence. Naturally, I am kind of a chill guy. I have resting smiley face. I tend to be a little bit of a people pleaser. And so the experience of being a manager of people challenged me to learn about myself and grow. I had to recognize, understand, and manage my own emotions, but then I needed to also do that for other people, and that’s the heart of emotional intelligence. I really had to focus a lot on building my own self-awareness so that I was prepared for the relationship management that goes into managing a team of people.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine just in the advertising industry, having to do all of that on top of working with multiple clients and deadlines and changes, that’s a lot to pile on.

Justin Shiels:
It is so much hard work to create consistently under those circumstances, but it also is incredibly profound and awesome. I became a creative director, and this is crazy to say, because I saw the movie Boomerang. Have you seen this movie with Eddie Murphy?

Maurice Cherry:
Of course. Of course. Of course. It has been a constant… I mean, for me, it’s been a constant inspiration, but there’s so many people I’ve had on the show, and I plan to write an article about this one day about the impact of that movie in the Black creative industry. But no, go ahead. Go ahead, go on.

Justin Shiels:
Well, I mean, on rewatching, it’s incredibly problematic for a number of reasons. But eight-year-old Justin saw Boomerang, and I knew that I wanted to be a creative director before I knew what a creative director actually did for a living. I only knew if I can learn how to do the art for commercials, I can become a leader of teams. And so it put that bug in my ear that it was possible for someone like me, a Black man in America, to be able to lead advertising campaigns for big companies.

Maurice Cherry:
But of course not to be a Marcus Graham type.

Justin Shiels:
I am definitely not a Marcus Graham type at all, but it was such an influential movie because it just exposed me to the idea that that was even possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How have you seen the creative industry evolve over the years?

Justin Shiels:
I feel like the biggest thing that has shifted and changed is the way that we disseminate information. I feel like early in my career, it was heavily focused on TV commercials. TV commercials, and print media were at their height when I graduated school in 2007, and then by 2008, the magazine industry was essentially shuddering because of the proliferation of internet media, new blogs, as well as the introduction of social media. So early in my career, I was like, there’s something special about social media, and I worked to be a part of that early on. So I’m signing up for all the services, making sure that I’m regularly posting content, and made that a big part of how I grew InvadeNOLA and how we worked with Venture Pop. I think the biggest change that we’ve seen over the course of the past few years is that it went from very few voices being able to control the narrative, to now it’s literally endless voices controlling the narrative.

Now, with that, I feel like there are some interesting challenges that have popped up. And so for example, when you look at how Instagram was five or six years ago versus how Instagram is now, not many people see the content that an individual produces. It’s just like, you can have, like me, nearly 10,000 followers and you’ll have a video that only a hundred people actually get to see. That is insane to me. It kind of takes away from the beauty of that platform, but I feel as though there is still this democratization of information, and in many ways it feels like everyone can have a voice and share their message to the world, even if it is being slightly dampened by these kind of changing norms on the platforms.

Maurice Cherry:
First of all, let me step back from what I was about to say. I hate how these different creative fields have been condensed into the term content creator. I hate that so much, but I say all that to say I see so many creators, and by creators I do mean podcasters, folks that make TikTok videos, et cetera, expressly saying that they’re doing what they’re doing or that the pitch that they’re doing for their audience is to appease the algorithm.

If you watch YouTube videos, it’s like, “Make sure you subscribe and hit the bell to get notifications,” or if you’re on TikTok, they’re like, “Could you please comment? Because I’ve been shadow banned.” It absolutely sucks how telecommunications has evolved to the point where we can take a message, broadcast it across the world, and yet we’re still beholden to these weird algorithmic things to get the message out to people. I mean, I understand it. I just don’t like it.

Justin Shiels:
Yeah. I think at the heart of that is we are always in a consistent battle between humanity and technology. I think as we continue to develop and grow, I’m obsessed with artificial intelligence right now, partially because I think it has the potential to upend the creative industry in many ways. But the only solace that I have is that people want to connect with people. They don’t want just information. And so it’s how can I be a real human being that shares parts of myself with the world as a way to connect with the people in my audience?

Maurice Cherry:
What I’m starting to see now, especially on some of these platforms that people have built, I wouldn’t necessarily say built content on, but certainly have built a following off of are starting to erode. Facebook ain’t what it used to be. Twitter for damn sure ain’t what it used to be. And so now people are having to go back to email, hey, there you go, go back to email or live events or other ways to try to connect with folks, because as you said earlier, there’s just so much information out there and it’s hard, I think, for people to try to really, I don’t know, grasp all of that, but I also think a lot of that information is pushed to us. There’s certainly information that we go out there and see and obtain on our own, but so much of information… I don’t even want to say gathering. A lot of stuff is just pushed to us.

I think I noticed this particularly this year. I mean, it’s not a new phenomenon, but I’ve started turning off my phone on Sundays. Saturday night before I go to bed, turn my phone off, I turn it back on Monday morning when I wake up, and that Sunday is so peaceful. I get stuff done, I cook, I catch up on a show. It is so peaceful. But it reminds me of how much information is constantly pushed to you and notifications and Twitter feeds and Instagram feeds, and so much stuff is coming at you in a way where you’re like, it’s relentless. You’re kind of bombarded with it.

Justin Shiels:
Yes. I feel like so many of us are addicted to doomscrolling, sitting on our couches and just absorbing information, absorbing information, absorbing information. I feel like so many of us actually need opportunities to create, and I tend to believe that everyone is creative. Sometimes that can be a controversial statement because many people are like, oh, I’m not creative. I work in accounting, or I work in tech and I don’t know how to be creative. But to me, creativity is using the skills that you have to come up with interesting solutions for problems. You can be creative while cooking or cleaning your home, or you can do it in the traditional forms like writing or illustrating or simply doing tiny doodles on the edges of your notebooks. That creativity is the impulse that I think we need to bolster in order to have a more beautiful world. That’s why I’m doing the work that I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
I imagine you’re also going to continue to explore that in the book that’s coming out.

Justin Shiels:
Absolutely. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
See how I tie that together? See how?

Justin Shiels:
I feel like so much of why I published The Reset Workbook was around how can we go through these life changes that we’ve had and come out of the other side with hope and inspiration. I think it’s really about pushing people to find new inspirations, pushing people to step outside their comfort zone, and really it’s focused on how can you design a life that you love.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve mentioned though a lot of your journey as a creative and even I think growing up and always being into drawing an illustration how that’s really shaped your current path. What do you find to be the most rewarding part about what you do?

Justin Shiels:
The most rewarding part of what I do in my career and in my communications online is that I’m able to connect with real human beings by sharing parts of my story with the world. There is nothing more profound or interesting to me than to say something that feels like is totally niche and just me and have somebody connect with that on a really, really deep level and reach out to me via DM and message me saying, “Oh my God, you mentioned that you love Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel because you can fall asleep during them and wake up and still know what was happening.” I always do that. That’s why I love them so much.

It’s like that kind of direct connection with people is just so profound and interesting to me. I would say though, the thing that is underscored throughout my career and specifically my persona online is that we are empowered to change our lives as frequently as we want. We can all have resets whenever we see fit. And I really want to underscore that idea that change is possible and it’s a good thing. It’s okay to embrace change, it’s okay to learn new things, and your life doesn’t have to be in total shambles to kind of need to reevaluate where you are in order to continue to be on a path of joy.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of that, how do you stay creative and inspired in your work so you can keep on that path?

Justin Shiels:
I am incredibly disciplined when it comes to my creativity. I try to either write or draw every single day no matter what. I have been doing this for the majority of my career, and so it started very early on. I would wake up before work and spend one hour of just creating for creativity’s sake. That has continued for years and years and years. Now that I’m working for myself, I don’t have to wake up as early. I can wake up at 7:00 and kind of get going, but the very first thing that I do every day is I journal. While I’m drinking my coffee, I read a little bit, and then based on what I read, I either write a reflection on what I read or I will create a piece of art related to how I’m feeling that morning. And that practice has been transformational in that it allows me to come up with new ideas and it serves as kind of the impetus for the content that I ultimately post on my social feeds.

Maurice Cherry:
So for people that are listening and they aspire to become creative professionals like you, what you’re doing, what advice would you give to them?

Justin Shiels:
If you want to be a creative person, you have to invest in the actual activity of creating. That’s all. It’s really that simple. If I see myself as a writer, all I have to do is write and I am a writer. The hard part is you have to figure out how writing fits into your schedule. We all are busy, busier than we’ve ever been and everything in our life is competing with our creativity. In order to commit to your creativity, you have to be willing to practice. And so that practice should be daily. If you can’t do daily, it should be every other day. If you can’t do every other day, it should be once a week. If you can’t do every week, it should be once a month. But the more that you flex those muscles and commit to practicing, the better you get. A part of getting better in my journey, at least, it’s being confident enough to share my work. And so you make regularly, you share regularly, and then through the course of that, you become the thing that you say that you’ve always wanted to be.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like it’s just this continual process of working till you get to that point. I mean, I don’t want to say fake it till you make it, but you’re kind of continually pushing yourself forward towards that goal.

Justin Shiels:
Yeah. I mean, it’s really a question of outcomes versus inputs. In many ways, when we’re setting a goal for our life, we always will focus only on the outcome of the goal as opposed to the things that we need to do in order to achieve the goal. And so following that same realm of as a creative professional or as a person that aspires to be, in this case, a visual artist, how do I become a visual artist? Well, the only way that you become a visual artist is by painting every day. When you paint every day, suddenly you are a visual artist.

Maurice Cherry:
It kind of sounds a little bit like the old, well, it’s not old, but the whole 10,000 hours thing that sometimes gets kind of tossed around. You have to do something continually to kind of build up to that.

Justin Shiels:
Yes, yes. I love that concept that if you’re willing to put 10,000 hours of effort into something, you will become an expert in that. It’s interesting because I don’t know that it… 10,000 hours seems arbitrary of course.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Justin Shiels:
It’s sticky. That’s why it’s so popular, but that’s arbitrary. I think it’s committing to daily practice, putting it out there regularly, and then through that process, growing and developing and changing. I feel like even over the course of my own career, I have had moments where I was creating things that I liked but I didn’t love, and I’m finally in a stage in my creative process where I’m like, “Wait, the things that I make are pretty dope, and I came up with this myself. It came from my brain specifically.” That has not always been the case, but I think it’s because I’m willing to put in the daily effort to continue to maximize my skillset, find my own voice, and also to just regularly develop new takes on things that I’ve made before.

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

Justin Shiels:
At my core, I am an artist and I am a teacher. Those are the two most important parts of my year of intentional growth, and so my focus is to continue to make great content to come out with a bestselling book, The Reset Workbook coming out in December, 2023. And I want to continue to teach both through workshops and through speaking engagements where I can help people amplify their lives, find joy, find peace, and encourage people to step into building their own version of happy.

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

Justin Shiels:
You can find me online on most platforms at justinmadethat or at Justin Shiels, but the best way to connect is really to visit socurious.co. That’s socurious.co. From there, you can see many of the articles that I’ve written and you can sign up for my newsletter that I’ve been sending out since 2019 called The Weekly Reset. It helps people live a more intentional life, and it kind of pairs my personal philosophy with illustrations that I’ve created that give you a little bit of a pep talk during the week.

Maurice Cherry:
And the man writes some email newsletters. He’s been doing it since he was a teenager, so you know it’s good. You know it’s good. Justin Shiels, I just want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for just sharing your authenticity. I mean, I can really sense and feel the passion that you have for this behind your work, and I think that certainly in this time that we’re in, I’m sort of waving my arms about here, but with all the stuff that’s going on in the world right now, it’s good to have some sort of a way to know that while things may feel out of control, at the end of the day, what you can control is how you react to them. So whether that’s having that life reset or breaking unhealthy patterns, I think it’s really important to always know that, and I’m glad that the work that you’re doing is helping to get that message out to more people. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Justin Shiels:
Maurice, thank you so much. I really appreciate this opportunity.

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Gus Granger

Gus Granger has been a staple in the Dallas design community for over 20 years. Not only that, his design work has reached international acclaim, earning honors from Adobe, AIGA, Communication Arts, and many other groups. But perhaps Gus’s biggest honor is his tireless advocacy work helping eliminate barriers for Black designers and empowering them for success in the world.

We caught up and talked about his recent career shift back to entrepreneurship, and he shared what he’s learned through that transition and how he brings those insights to his current work. Gus also gave some great advice for any designers looking to strike out on their own, spoke a bit about the current state of the design community from his perspective, and discussed some of the moments of joy in his career.

Hopefully this interview inspires you to find a way to help lift others up as you grow!

Interview Transcript

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

Gus Granger:
Hey, my name’s Gus Granger, I’m a designer, by that, I’m an epigraphic design roots, going brand identity messaging, positioning, web, print, really everything that a brand needs to show up and be seen and memorable in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, we’re recording this kind of right before the year ends, so I’m curious to get a sense from you, what was 2022 for you?

Gus Granger:
Yeah, 2022 was a rollercoaster ride, I think we’ve got, with all things, the personal side is, which is kind of most prominent in having three kids and career changes going on, I’ve got a daughter that just started college this fall and that was exciting, which means she graduated from high school in the spring and that was exciting. And I had the amazing experience of joining a partnership team at VSA Partners based out of Chicago, which was a dream job of mine when I worked there as a designer in the early 2000s, and I wrapped up my tenure there this summer, wanting to get closer to my design roots and being more hands on, so that was a big change in the summer and getting back to working as Gus Granger design again and just getting into the trenches with clients and designing and having these in-depth conversations and just being able to walk that journey with my clients while doing the work has been really exciting and something that I’ve missed.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a lot. Well, congratulations definitely on your daughter going to college.

Gus Granger:
Yeah, yeah, it’s wild, the first few weeks was really difficult and my mom said, she’s like, “The first month is the hardest,” and I was like, I wonder what she’s doing now, and da da da, but she’s doing great, she comes home for the holidays pretty soon.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Is she far from Dallas where you’re at?

Gus Granger:
Oh, as far as possible, I’m in Dallas and she’s in upstate New York at Syracuse University.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Gus Granger:
Yes. She’s a double major in political science and photography and I think is just tapping into her creative side as well as wanting to change the world and change the systems and make the society better and learning the building blocks of tools and how to make that happen from the inside, so that’s exciting to see her grow in that regard as well.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s awesome, that’s really awesome to hear. So you mentioned with VSA this kind of was a full circle moment for you in a way, you started there many years ago as a designer and then now going back and being a partner, what was that experience like for you?

Gus Granger:
Oh, it was amazing, going back to… I’m having to embrace my kind of elder statesman’s status, which is terrible, but for one, going through design school in the mid 90s VSA partners was a dream, I think the were shops at that point was in VSA and Pentagram, which really kind of helped set my kind of goals for what I wanted to do in the profession, and when I ultimately ended up working there as a senior designer, we came across some of the just most talented and really interesting projects that I’d come across in my career at that point, and it was from there that I went off into the wilderness and started my own agency and drew that for me, working by myself on an extra bedroom to a 50 person studio on the 30th floor of building down here in downtown Dallas to selling it to a client and then going in-house and leaving that.

It was definitely an exciting bookend, kind of not just from having worked there before, but also looking up to the work that that studio was doing in just groundbreaking, just design, in depth understanding of clients and delivering business value while just doing just stunning work, getting to go back and join the leadership team there as they kind of enter this new digital era that everyone is getting their bearings with was really a great opportunity and honor and something that I enjoyed a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re working for yourself as a consultant, has it been kind of a big shift going… I don’t know, I guess maybe this is another kind of full circle thing, going back to working for yourself, has it been a bit of a shift?

Gus Granger:
Oh, for sure, I think that, as I mentioned, going from running a large agency, starting it from scratch, and I always say, every time your team doubles in size, it’s a different job, so when you go from one person to two person, you’re like, “What is this?” I’m like, this is completely different from two to four, from four to eight, from eight to 16, I was doing that for about 15 years and it kind of felt like the math isn’t right here, but it kind of felt like six or seven jobs, working at six or seven different places, but during the last few chapters, so much of my time was focused on just running a business and being so distant from the work that I really, certainly wasn’t designing, there were times that I may have been wearing an executive creative director hat, but it was more just business operations and payroll and HR and cashflow management and sales and all the things that were not what I was passionate about in the first place, it’s an essential part of running a large business.

You just missed what you were passionate about in the first place, ultimately, that’s what led me to we transitioning the agency to in-house situation through that acquisition to our client, Cyxtera, at the time, that was a brand new gigantic global technology company, data center, cybersecurity that had been a client of ours that we’d been part of naming, building their brand identity from scratch, and that they had been growing so large as a client, just sat down with the CMO and it was like, let’s look at how this could look if we just took our team and kind of became your in-house group, and then all of us are dedicated, and ultimately, that’s what we did, and that allowed me to get back to being more hands-on and with the same group of amazing people that I had in the 70kft days, but we were kind of on the other side of the client curtain.

And what’s fascinating there is that there’s so many different problem solving challenges that you can confront as a designer, as an art director, as a creative director, as a product architect that would not necessarily be sent to an agency and I’d never been in-house before, and it’s just a very different and fascinating ecosystem when you’re working directly with sales teams, when you’re working directly with product teams, and the pace of work is very different, the way that you manage work is very different because there aren’t, “Budgets,” for your hours and your team’s time, and you’ve got to find different ways to manage capacity and how much time should something take, but it also opens up opportunities to, we’re designing wayfinding systems for least 60 data centers around the world, to graphics for interior sales displays, to events, to video work that just the sheer volume and depth in the brand experience was really, really, really exciting.

But seeing how our clients would have to socialize that and sell that work and get the information gathered, that all of those things that we missed out on that we weren’t necessarily as exposed to being on the agency side, just giving a much deeper appreciation for our clients that sometimes we can have fun kind of teasing our clients and being difficult, make the logos bigger, blah, blah, blah, we can’t get them to sign off on something, yeah, I still have my agency chip on my shoulder of that regard, but it’s much more empathy, I’d say doing the two years there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, back when we had you on the show in 2015, the firm that you’re talking about is 70kft, and I mean, I think it’s important to… a couple of things that you mentioned I think are important, first, the thing about every time you kind of double your staff, it’s a different job, that is so true, it does distance you from the work a bit, and the more that you have to be the CEO running the business, it takes so much time away from actually being hands-on with the work, sometimes you can do it, I mean, depending on the type of business that you have, you’re able to do it, but it does get a lot harder because you just have to be aware and present about so many other things that have nothing to do with the projects at all that you’re working on.

Gus Granger:
Absolutely, and I don’t say that to scare people off from starting or growing their own design firm or agencies, and there’s certainly ways that I could have grown the agency differently to keep myself closer to the work in leading it, I think at the time, there was just enough fatigue and wanting to do something different that when that opportunity came up with Cyxtera, it was like, look, here’s a way for me to continue doing the type of work that I love doing even more of it and being more hands-on, keeping my team together, and then happened to also be a client that we adored and we’d had done a lot of work with over the years when he was in different companies.

And so there was a lot of just trust and alignment for the business value of great design and what it looks like to advocate for that within groups in a large growing organization, and so that made that change a lot more attractive, so I say all of that, the attractiveness of that moment was like, you know what? This is more interesting than trying to go through a wholesale reset of how I have organized in bringing in different leadership to handle the types of aspects of the job that I didn’t enjoy so that I could be more hands on, it was just like, you know what? Let’s go this way because this looks like fun and something fresh and new and it was, and I’m glad we did it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Because I mean, at the end of the day, you’re running a business, so especially if you’re a designer that maybe came up through design school or if you don’t have that kind of business acumen, you’re either sort of learning it on the job as the company grows or you have to find some way to, like you said, supplement that with bringing on folks that do know the business end so you can build and scale things out hopefully in a healthy way, and I think certainly you grew 70kft, like you said, the 50 people, I mean, that’s a testament to not just the work that you’ve put in on the brand, but also the people and the team that you built around it.

Gus Granger:
Oh, a hundred percent. I forget who said this first, it actually may have been one of my first bosses through VSA, I think it was Dana Arnette, it talked about so much of growing a great team, it’s about curating talent, and that my philosophy through this was just trying to find and attract the best and most talented people possible, and then just finding opportunities for them to do their thing and get folks to work well together, and that was the most fun part of that, in creating an environment where they can find just joy in working with each other and pushing each other and finding new and inventive ways to sell our clients’ story, and we had a whole mix of things that we were very much leaned into business to business technology, but we are also working with a lot of startups and some retail work.

And we also reserved a percentage of our time for non-profit work, which ended up being a lot of work for the Dallas Holocaust Museum, which kind of helped us satisfy this more mission-centric priority for the agency, it was from the leadership standpoint on my side and wanting to make sure that we’re putting our skills to use to benefit society, and that’s something I still try to do with my own time, but that it’s like there’s so much that we are creating that’s just fleeting, make a website and it might be live for a year or less, the client gets acquired and the identity that you just love just gets wiped away, and then what’s left? What impact did you make on the world? You helped someone sell a business and that’s great, you put three more dollars in their pocket.

But I think what we have unique superpowers in capturing people’s imagination and attention and persuasion through our gifts as artists, as creators, as communicators, and too often those skills are not put to work for the most important communication challenges that are holding the world back today, whether it’s just racism, just bias in general, climate change, we can just go right on down the list, and that for us to isolate our gifts for corporate interests is a tragedy, and notably, but we’ve got to eat, we got kids to put through college sometimes, there’s a whole number of things, and finding the right balance of that is key, but yeah, that’s part of my soapbox.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I mean, I feel like that’s been a growing awareness of the industry over the, I don’t know, I want to say at least over the past three years, but I would even go back as far as maybe ’15, 2016, you’ve started to see this sort of unfold in different ways, I would say definitely in the 2016 to 2018, 2019, it was more about, I think, civic design and making sure that people were using their skills towards maybe improving government services and understanding the election process and voting and all that sort of stuff, and then certainly with 2020 and a lot of the protests that happened around the murder of George Floyd, then you started to see a more active presence around social justice issues, and I think it’s definitely going to increase as more, I hate to say, just as more bad shit happens in the world.

But that’s kind of the reality of it, is like as more things happen, we, as designers, are tasked to come up with more solutions that are not just product focused, in a way, it almost feels, almost, I’ll say, it almost feels a little dismissive to just focus on product as a designer almost, I mean, I think there’s utility in it, certainly even as you mentioned with doing stuff with Cyxtera, doing things around cybersecurity and things that’s important, that feeds into product. But I think of the designers of 2011 versus the designers of now, and how the focus back then was so much on product and UX and interfaces and all that sort of stuff, and now it’s about how do we use our skills to solve the problems that are facing our society and our planet?

Gus Granger:
Yeah, there’s definitely a different mindset today, and I think I totally agree that sadly, something has to really go wrong to get people to wake up or enough people to wake up because even you mentioned things like government services and election design, I got involved with that going back in 2000, there’s an organization, I was part of AIGA Design for Democracy that came out of the problems around ballot design in Florida in the election between Al Gore and George Bush, that’s an effort which continues today around how to make sure election systems are better designed to protect the integrity of the vote, and there were many people that were rallying to the cause back then, but there’s the problems that we can be attacking with our skills are ever present, yeah, it’s a matter of we could also wear ourselves out trying to do everything, so you have to, I think, in my mind like, all right, pick your space, I’m like, where can I be the most effective and make a biggest impact?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What is a typical day look like for you now? What does the Gus Granger workday look like?

Gus Granger:
Gus Granger workday, you know what? I think these days I’m so much more guarded with for my health, my mental health, and that I talk about joy and wanting to be in a good space, and I’m like, even though I’m working from home, I’m like, I start each day… I’ll go to one of my favorite breakfast spots and it’s my commute and I have carefully curated and found the best chocolate croissant places in the Dallas metroplex area, I will rotate through those locations and I need to start a chocolate croissant blog, but that’s a whole other podcast, but I say all that, that that’s my happy spot, and I just know that I’m like, I’m listening to comedy podcast, I’m not going to wake up in the morning and to start listening to the grim news of the day because I need to start the day in a positive space.

But from there and I get back and start work back in my pandemic inspired office, which didn’t exist back in early 2020, but now I’m so much more comfortable and cozy there, but I’m working with having a number of different conversations around projects that’ll come to fruition months from now, working with clients that I’m in the middle of right now, and it’s a mix, some of these things are in a design phase and we’re going through looking at identity explorations or design system explorations, others are in a brand strategy phase, and we might be doing interviews with subject matter experts and other internal contacts to really start figuring out the right ways to differentiate the brand and looking at how to start the conversation in the right place and to elevate the right values and principles that are going to help define that brand at its best because we try to do that before we even start designing anything, before we start writing anything.

But I’ll go through that brand strategy and messaging phase with amazing copywriters that I’ve been working with for years and we lay that foundation, and so I’m in different stages of that work. And I’m about to start a web project next week but what’s great is that there’s just enough of it that it’s not a 9:00 to 5:00 type thing, I can go and have a leisurely breakfast and go and walk four miles and come back and I can start my day at 10:00 and if I feel tired, I can take a nap and wake back up and do some of those things and the next day it’ll be completely different, that’s the great part of being the home-based consultant, at least at this moment, talk to me a month from now and you might get a more frazzled version of me, but hopefully I’m able to keep that at bay.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it’s always, I think, an ebb and a flow with entrepreneurship, some days are going to be better than others, some months, some years, it just sort of ends up happening that way, but it sounds like you found a deliberate way to put joy just into your everyday work life in general.

Gus Granger:
Yeah. And it’s a lesson that I’ve taken I think from the more intense days of my myself in the kft experience where they were… I think from my standpoint, I’m like, I could go through just joyless months and just trying to hold teams together and dealing with all kinds of just different operational headaches, HR headaches, team conflicts, and when you’ve got dozens of people working for you, not everybody gets along, and there are times when that the job becomes camp counselor and couples therapists, and it’s not just for its own sake or it’s like, look, I’ve got to get these folks to work together so that we can get this project completed so we can build it on Monday, that’s an intense part of the experience, and that’s definitely not something they teach you or even allude to in design school and in talking a bit earlier it was like there’s so much that gets into… they’re designers that are ready to start working for themselves as soon as they know how to design, whether they’re coming out of a four year program or if they’re self-taught.

And they’re like, “Now, I’m going to start working for myself,” and I’m like, I am so regularly trying to steer them clear from that, and be like, “Please don’t, for your own sanity,” but there’s so much that needs to be learned at that point from other people, and go and find a creative director, art director, somebody that’s going to take you under their wing, whether you can work for them directly or they’re going to mentor you, that you are going to just make a ton of mistakes, find ways to solve problems that you never even thought of, that you got to kind of go through that for years to really learn how to design at your best, and then once you figure that out, you start working for yourself, it may start being familiar when it’s just you or when you start collaborating, but it will start growing to a point where you’re like, “Oh, this is why people go to business school.”

And you start realizing, all right, do I start reading more business books and all these other things or start hiring for skills that I may not have? Because when you’ve got a dozen people and you’re dealing with at least negotiation, and that’s a different animal these days, because I mean, with remote and hybrid work, it’s a very different atmosphere than when I was growing my agency, but I think those days I’m like, you kind of had to have an office in order for a client to take you seriously, and that that’s like, all right, we’re looking at commercial real estate, downtown Dallas, seven year lease, but how do I grow? How do I contract? Is that even possible? And looking at business insurance and all kinds of… it’s again, stuff that you wouldn’t even get into at design school, but you may find great relationships from other designers, which I did, that had run studios, to be able to pick their brain and to figure out what things that they did and who did they seek out for consulting.

And you start finding consultants that just specialize in working with design firm principles or marketing firm principles, and that’s such an important resource that I feel like just gets overlooked a lot, whether we look at our design conferences and our design groups, we’re talking about how we can be better problem solvers, be better designers, better collaborators, and that’s all essential and that’s central to what it is that we do, I think we’re kind of a naturally entrepreneurial group of folks and want to create our own thing, we enjoy the independence or the autonomy, but the other aspect of it is there’s a lot that you need to learn that we don’t talk about enough in design circles that I’d love to see change in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’m laughing only because as you mentioned that I’m thinking how back when I had my studio, particularly I think in the first four or five years about trying to have an address was so important and to let people know, oh yes, we are a real business, and I remember, I think I got some little tiny office space because I’m in Atlanta, it was important for me to have an address that was like, “Peach Tree Street,” so people know, oh, he’s official, and I had some little tiny office, I think I got it through Regis probably, the real estate company, got it through Regis, some little tiny office in Midtown that I never went to, but I just wanted to have the address so people knew like, oh, this is official, in the grand scheme of things, did it make a difference? Absolutely not, but in a way sort of like you mentioned, it would’ve been good to have had some knowledge to know maybe I don’t have to have this, maybe I don’t have to waste money trying to do this to prove it to customers I’m never going to get.

Gus Granger:
Well, I don’t know, man, I’m like, it’s kind of tough to prove a negative because you think of-

Maurice Cherry:
It’s true-

Gus Granger:
How many folks reached out to you because you had an address during those days where it’s like, oh, this isn’t in a PO box or somewhere in the suburbs, but just by seeing that you were there on a Peach Street, no one’s going to call you and be like, “I saw that you had an address, let’s talk about the [inaudible 00:28:58].” I think it’s definitely one of those things where I’m like, I think when I had moved from… I’d been working in South Bend, Indiana for some time, my wife was running marketing and PR for Whirlpool Corporation, which was based near there, we were about to have our third kid and we wanted to move closer to friends and family, and we came back to Dallas and the agency was growing at that point and I was like, I’m going to go ahead and get a space in, I think at that point it was like West End in Dallas, it’s a historic district, pretty creative space, and I just knew that the clients that I was wanting to work with were going to want to come to an office and see me and see the space.

And frankly, and I think at that point where I was also just thinking about just as a black designer period, that I’m like, if I’m constantly trying to meet clients in a Starbucks when I’m trying to get them to pay me a hundred grand for a website that what we’re talking about in the 2010s, I think that was a tougher ask at least in the circles that I was moving in then to get where when they could come and be in our conference room and I can bring my director of development to the table, to bring the account manager, to bring the designer and the copywriters and we can put stuff up on the screen.

All of that can happen through Zoom today, but as far as that confidence building, just having an address is one step, I think there’s absolutely types of work that you need to at that point, I’m not sure kind of what the equivalent would be if those barriers were just erased, but you just needed to have a space for the types of clients that we were working with, just that they could see and come and realize this is the real shop.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think certainly in the earlier days, I started my business in 2008, some clients or potential clients, they really sort of frowned on, oh, you’re just doing this from home now everyone works from home, but certainly back then, I felt there was a much stronger bias, especially to try to get larger clients and larger budgets, they’re like, “I’m not giving you this money if you’re doing this at home,” they want, it’s almost like a social proof of business in some kind of way.

Gus Granger:
Yeah, no, totally.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you’ve been a design leader and a business leader for over 20 years now, and you’ve already kind of shared some thoughts about what you’d like to see from designers, but what are your thoughts on just the design community today? How do you see things?

Gus Granger:
It’s funny, as I keep looking at, whether it’s LinkedIn and different discussions that are going on at conferences and events, it’s like what we mean by design today is different than what we meant by design 10 years ago or even 20 years ago, and that I’ve come to realize, I’m like, all right, I’m kind of a brand and marketing designer where in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily have carried that label, because even then I’m like, I will rewind back, I’m a graphic designer at my core, and I think I even mentioned that early on, and people are like, “Oh well that’s an old sounding term,” but we always have these labels, whether commercial artists, graphic artists, graphic designer, web designer, but in starting at the foundation of graphic designers, the way I was educated and being hyper passionate about conceptual thinking, typography, composition, understanding audience, adventure, discovery, being inventive and creating surprising and effective work, that in my experience design was kind of medium agnostic.

And so I’ve always had an allergy of, are you a graphic designer or are you a web designer? I’m like, stop, it’s all graphic design in my worldview, and I understand there are people that look at them very differently, but I feel like if you’ve got a masterful command of typography and you can understand a medium, that the world of creating a elegant website can be very similar process to creating an amazing book, but you need to understand what you’re working with, you need to understand your materials, you need to understand the people who need to collaborate in order to make that happen, not to say that web development’s the same as working with the printing press, but there are certain rules that you need to know how a book is going to function, what type of experience someone expects when they pick up a hardcover book versus a paperback book to be able to navigate that content elegantly.

And I think if those same muscles are put to place, the digital experience is the same, so I think things have become even more fragmented today, and that there’s… because we will say design and what will mean is UX design, which may not involve visual design at all, or just UI design using a component library, which is not the same thing as kind of the more commercial artist view of creating something from scratch that may be a step earlier in the process to be like, who is the person that’s actually creating that component library and deciding how that brand is going to show up in the product experience, and what is its relationship with the overall brand as a whole? Is there relationship between how the brand shows up in marketing and how it shows up in product?

But those that are kind of working with a preset component library that may be less involved with aesthetic decisions and more about flow and kind of using existing building blocks to create compelling experiences, it’s a different process entirely than staring at a blank page in the screen and be like, here’s brand X and here’s what they’re trying to solve for in the world, what should it look like? I’ve come through my view of design, my background of design, the version of design which gets me excited is the blank page, or perhaps it’s the existing page which is messed up and the client that comes in is like, “Help me make sense of this or make it better.”
But there’s a lot of design work that’s out there that I hesitate to say it because it almost seems like it would be controversial, it seems to be less creative, which I don’t understand as much, but which is not to say that it’s not a matter of problem-solving because I would have debates with one of my creative directors about design as art or not, and we can go back and forth until we’re blue in the face like, what do we mean by arts? And I’m like, look, we’re in a profession and our roots as commercial artists, and that the whole notion of us creating experiences that people want to engage with, that they feel connected with in a way which is an emotional type of experience, whether it’s bringing them joy or they’re attracted to it or it’s bringing them calm peace.

The skills that we bring to the table there are the same innate gifts, in my view and experience, that are at the core of an artist, and whenever I would review portfolios, I’m like, what can I see in this person’s aesthetic gifts? I’m like, how innate are they able to create compelling compositions? And it’s not just to be like, all right, I’m just going to go ahead and decide that this app needs to look like a Salvador Dolly thing because this is what inspires me today. But one of my favorite architects today is Zaha Hadid and just Google her work, it’s insane, these buildings are beautiful and arresting and shocking and very functional, but there’s a very different thing, you can’t tell me that there’s not artistry, or at least the way that I’m defining art and the way that team or that architect, she’s no longer with us, viewed designing spaces for her clients.

You can say the same thing to be like, all right, if she’s going to create a post office as opposed to someone’s like, “Look post office, look like a gray box, we’re going to put some tracked out Futura on the side, it’s going to be one story, it’s going to do this and it’s going to do the job,” those buildings are going to look completely different, but the cultural impact, the emotional experience of people going into Zaha Hadid post office is night and day to the gray box, and it’s like that’s the view of design that I hunger for, I don’t see as present in the digital space today. I think accessibility and user experience is definitely benefiting it from a bunch of artists anarchists going out there just creating a bunch of chaos, which was exemplified in the flash era, but there was a lot more beauty and discovery, I think, happening in the digital space that was there again, but it’s a whole other rant.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I completely agree, in terms of the kind of less creative, and I see what you mean about it could be controversial by saying that, but correct me if I’m wrong here, but I feel like when you say that it’s sort of like, I don’t know, there’s less kind of verve, there’s not that sort of spirit or enthusiasm, you mentioned Zaha Hadid, I’m thinking also of, and this is probably a bit of a stretch in terms of an analogy, but look at things like AI generated arts and how yes, you can input the right functions or whatever and it spits something out that looks good, but it doesn’t have that human nuance to it, it doesn’t have that sort of certain je ne sais quoi that would make it really, I wouldn’t necessarily even say attractive, because these things do look good, but it just doesn’t have that something, I’m not sure what the word for it is, but I know what you mean, I think, when you say that.

Gus Granger:
Yeah, well, or even in the instance of the AI generated art, I’ve seen some of it, which does have that je ne sais quoi, but it’s getting the prompt of to be influenced by a human being that created that, it’s still leveraging human ingenuity, it’s like a collage, a seamless collage, and that I can just go in there and be like, I want to see the Zaha Hadid Tesla truck, and then it’ll just spit out and be it’ll be this amazing thing and that okay, but I’m like, it’s still going to have this aesthetic and it’s going to also be inspired by what seems to be a proto fascist, anyway, I can start getting into it, Elon Musk read, we’ll back away from the Tesla discussion, technology monsters person.

Maurice Cherry:
I was just trying to maybe extrapolate a little bit on what you were sort of saying, I won’t say the lack of creativity, but I see what you mean about it possibly being less creative because it’s about, I don’t know, the output is just different, you’ve said before that creating great design is easiest when it’s infused with joy, so maybe that joy is not necessarily in the final product in the same way that it would be if a human did it, I know that there’s a lot of conversation around AI generated art, chat GPT and all these sorts of technologies that are mimicking what humans have created by hand, but it’s a really interesting time for seeing where technology can take design, but back to what I said before about what you mentioned with joy, have there been moments in your design career that have been particularly joyful?

Gus Granger:
Oh, absolutely, absolutely, and I think there are times that I look fondly at the times when we’ve got just a group of us and we’re just trying to, it may be my developers and writers and designers and we’re just at our magnet wall and we’ve just got layouts up and we’re just trying to figure out how to solve a particular problem and that there’s the joy part of it, and it’s like, I don’t mean to just to make it simple, be like, well, just somebody tell a joke and that work is going to get better, there’s the ability to have fun with people and to challenge each other is all that comes from a foundation of trust and that we’ve got good relationships with people, that we can now start to critique the work and riff off of each other and cut to the chase and be like, “You know what? This sucks and here’s why.”

And that we can kind of laugh about it like, “Yeah, yeah, I was trying to do this,” and da da, or, “This is amazing and it would be even better if we did this,” that there’s this kind of lens of bringing more candor to a conversation when you have a trusted group of collaborators where you can push and play and make it so people aren’t afraid to bring new ideas to the table because nothing is personal and it can be fun, and coming up, I hadn’t seen this replicated, nor I didn’t never really embraced it, but in one of my early jobs before I started my agency was at a studio called Group Barnet here in Dallas, and there was a brainstorm room and there was an entire shelf that was just full of hats, bunch of just silly stupid hats like biking hats and clown hats and policeman hats, ship captain hats.

There weren’t chairs in there, they were all beanbag chairs, right? And so people would need to sit on these beanbag chairs and oftentimes people would go and put on these silly hats, and it was a culture at the agency of it was family-like, and it was fun, but it was definitely served a business purpose and that it was seeding creativity and openness and not taking each other too seriously, and I think it also just kind of keeps you grounded when you’ve got a stupid clown hat on your head when you’re saying, “What if we did it this way?” So that’s the utility of it, and otherwise when we’re just kind of the opposite and we’re defensive or protective and we’re not sharing our work and we just kind of work in isolation and just present something when we feel like it’s perfect and honed and may not be as open to feedback, it’s just much more difficult to great work that way, in my mind.

And the opposite, it’s when you’re wanting to pursue experimentation that I want to be able to just go over to developers and be like, “What if we did this way?” And when the page loaded, all these images just exploded and here’s why and here’s why it would make sense, and I’m like, “That’s impossible,” to be like, “Well, look, here’s a link which did it,” and I’m like, “Ugh, that’s ridiculous, that can’t happen,” and they come back 10 minutes and then they figured it out, that’s the kind of stuff that has happened throughout whether my VSA days from the 70kft days to being at Cyxtera, that that’s the type of atmosphere that I find the most fun and interesting work kind of came out of it.

Just as a closing thought, and we bring that same energy to whether we’re working on an identity system for a juice bar or helping clients sell cloud computing, to we’re doing exhibition design for bringing boosting awareness of genocide, which it’s not to say we’re not taking it seriously, but this whole notion of building an atmosphere of trust and experimentation so that the team that you’ve surrounded yourself with, which are hopefully people that are there as your cheerleaders, can be there during critiques or while you’re working to push and cheer you on, so that’s that.

Maurice Cherry:
Something else that you do is you maintain an active presence in social justice efforts through a variety of nonprofits, and you’ve mentioned that you’ve focused on eliminating barriers for marginalized designers in the profession and empowering them for success, now, you’ve kind of spoken a little bit on both of these things earlier, but did you have any sort of more thoughts around either of those?

Gus Granger:
Yeah, and I think that’s important, and I continue to do work locally with the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, which is, I think that was a large relationship that we had in the 70kft days, and we were doing all of their exhibition design and worked on naming and identity work back then, but now I’m working with them on their marketing committee and on their new facility, and they’re doing important work here in north Texas to mentoring, whether working with the Adobe Design Circle and helping the scholarships for marginalized designers and mentoring the scholarship designees, other mentoring programs and on continuing relationships with mentees, as I tell all my mentees over the years and I was like, look, you’ve got me for life if you want me, because I think that’s where I’m like, I get the most satisfaction, out of seeing their careers just sore.

But I think when something more tactical and urgent is happening locally that might have gotten involved with political candidates and protest movements, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s like, look, how can we bring our skills to the table to make sure things are effective? And we kind of worked with a bunch of folks and the local resistance movement back in 2016 to oust the problematic congressman and was bringing my design skills to bear there in a way that made sense, I think we just have to find whatever’s possible, and I think in as well as within professional associations and mentioned, whether it’s online groups, whether I try to stay present with black design groups as well, which each had a bit in the past about AIGA and other groups that there’s just in the design profession period, it’s important for us to push.

And I try to do that where I think it’s important that we’re taking our talents and putting them to use, I’m like, yes, could I sit down and do a phone bank for my local congressman? Sure, am I going to be more effective by bringing my skills as a designer? Probably, and that I’m like, what unique skills are you blessed with in this life? What’s your highest and best use to make that particular cause come to fruition? And so to that part, whether you’re helping movements, that’s key, whether you’re helping talented designers to navigate early career challenges, pitfalls, advice, and I get such satisfaction out of that, and that’s a high level summary of the stuff that I’ve been up to.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s something that you’ve let go of that once meant the world to you?

Gus Granger:
We’ve talked a bit about it, but I think it was that agency, I talked a bit about the importance of mental health and how I prioritize starting my day with a ritual that’s going to kind of make sure that I’m in a good mood, that starting and growing my own agency was my dream job, that was my dream going back to college, and I did that and I grew it and I was very proud of it, and in the last chapters, I think from there was just enough things that just caught me off guard, clients that let you down, betrayals from people you thought you could trust, that it became such a burden and a drag that I was like, I’m not happy, and when you look around at all, even looking around at dozens of folks and I’m like, I’m the only person at this place that cannot quit their job.

Anyone else here can give their two weeks notice except for me, and it’s definitely the first world problem, right? I’m like, oh, you’ve got your own design agency and you’re sad, that was very much the reality and I realized it was something that in that moment I needed to let go of and I’m glad I did, and that it’s definitely something where it’s a lot of trust where a lot of people can get into, did all this success happen by chance? If I give it up or I’m going to be able to do it again? It gives you a lot of a key moment of just self-analysis of like, all right, it’s a giant leap of faith, if I take this change, is this next chapter going to be as rewarding and successful for me? And if I have to do it all over again, can I?

For me, it became important to do that, and that I found a way to make a change with how my team was doing work and to protect their jobs was important for me because I think there had been enough just challenges in the years prior to that that we’d gone through just things of having a business of that size and going through just firings and layoffs and things where it’s like business ebbs and flows, it’s like it’s just a different animal entirely and it just ate me up and I didn’t want to go, I just didn’t want to do anymore, and so letting that go that was probably the answer to that question.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like now at this stage of your career?

Gus Granger:
I’m still trying to figure that out, I’m quite happy working for myself again, there’s conversations kind of going with really interesting companies that have reached out to me about roles that are a surprisingly compelling fit for my background and passions that I would never have imagined before. But I look at it all, I’m like, what? One, I’m like, is it going to bring me joy?

But what’s key for that joy is knowing that I’m making some kind of positive impact, that I have space to make a positive impact on the world, that I have the ability to make a positive impact on my family and keep kids in college, one’s there, I’ve got two more on the way, to continue to be a good dad and to be a good husband and just to prepare for just a well-balanced life where we can just travel and spend time with friends and family and do what I love. Somewhere in the middle of that is a definition of it, but that’s very much what I’m trying to figure out because I spent most of my career focused on that agency, either preparing to start it and grow it from college, and then having done that, I don’t have that north star anymore, so I’m trying to figure that out and that’s kind of exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I have to say there is a certain, I don’t know, exhilaration to not knowing what’s coming next in a way, there’s certainly, don’t get me wrong, stability’s great, the lore of having a stable paycheck and knowing where the work is coming from is good, but there’s just something really freeing and exhilarating about just not really knowing what’s coming up on the horizon, but I don’t know, to me it’s very empowering, so I get where you’re coming from there.

Gus Granger:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work would you like to be doing?

Gus Granger:
In my dream, I was just having a great conversation with this black-owned real estate developer in Portland, and she’s doing amazing work, and she just started this firm that is just focused on mission-based projects and affordable housing for the black community, and that is their whole focus, and I’m like, maybe something like that ends up being the goal, and I’ve mentioned all those things that I would want to have be part of that, but I’m like, that is kind of the fantasy, right? And that knowing that every aspect of my work life is helping improve society and the black community would be amazing, and if it ends up being a percentage or a portion of my time that’s going into that, that could be the case too, I think if I can unlock away to kind of have that be the main thing, that would be the fantasy, but in the meantime, I know I’m going to be heads down working hard, putting these kids through college and hopefully I having some fun along the way.

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

Gus Granger:
GusGranger.com, that is G-U-S-G-R-A-N-G-E-R.com, and that’s also my handle on the socials, so you can find me on Instagram, we’ll see if I’ll continue to be on Twitter, but it’s the same handle across the board, so you can find me, I’m pretty easy, if you find another Granger, it might be my dad, but he’s pretty cool if you want to talk to him.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Gus Granger, thank you so much for coming back on the show, of course, you’ve been on the show before, but I know we didn’t talk a lot about kind of, and it was something that we purposely wanted to avoid talking about, but that’s how we first met, you know what I’m talking about, I’m not going to mention it, but-

Gus Granger:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I just want to say thank you for being just such a positive influence and role model and mentor and everything, just the work that you’re doing across design and business, of course, is impressive, but even more so that you’re really about giving back to the community is something that I certainly look to and I hope a lot of other designers emulate throughout their career, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Gus Granger:
Well, Maurice, thank you, and I hope you keep this in here, but I want to thank you in the same regard for all the work that you’re doing, and I know I’ve been talking to you about this for a while, I’m like, this podcast is so essential, and I think back to that designer that was in design school that I’m like, I went through four years and I don’t think I’d been exposed to another black designer other than myself and maybe two others that were in my design program, but the whole notion of being able to be sent a link which has in-depth interviews with now hundreds of black designers, that is amazing, and I’m so glad that your work has been recognized, whether it’s with the Steven Heller Award by the Smithsonian, it is impressive and it’s well deserved and just kudos and I can’t wait to see what’s going to come next. Keep doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, thank you, thank you so much, thank you.

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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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