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.

Queer Design Summit - July 7, 2022, 10am PST

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Rebecca Brooker

We’re closing out Pride Month with the second part of my conversation with Rebecca Brooker! (If you missed the first part, check it out here.)

We talked about Rebecca’s relocation to Argentina (after a stint back in Trinidad), and how she’s adjusted and found community in Buenos Aires. Rebecca also went in depth about Queer Design Club, the Queer Design Count, and the upcoming Queer Design Summit taking place on July 7.

Rebecca is proof that building community and staying true to yourself is a surefire way for personal and professional success!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
Now for this week’s interview. This is part two of my conversation with designer, art director and community builder, Rebecca Brooker. Let’s start the show.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. That’s a lot. I mean, from –

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s a long story.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it’s a long story, but I mean, there’s goodness. I mean, having to leave the country like that that quickly because the employer forgot to notify you and now you have to move back home, but then now you might be moving to another country, to Argentina. Oh my God. I guess I’m curious. Once you got to Argentina, what was that like?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah, I mean, I’d never been to South America at all before, so this was a completely new experience for me. I had studied a little bit of Spanish in Trinidad, but never used it in practicality. And so I was nervous. I ended up meeting two of my bosses, my would be bosses from that team in New York and they were telling me, “Eh, it’s a cool place. It’s beautiful. It doesn’t snow. You have so much fun. It’s a great nightlife, very young culture. The agency is growing.” So I was like, “All right, this is a totally new opportunity. What else am I going to do with my life?” I felt so beat down having to return to Trinidad and not know should I think about opening my own agency here? Should I think about getting a job at somewhere here?

Rebecca Brooker:
And then this job kind of just fell into my lap and I was like, “All right, we’re going to go on another adventure. We’re going to see what’s in store.” When I moved to Argentina, I was just in shock. I was like in a good way too, in a good way. I was in shock in a way that I was so open to every new experience, Maurice. I really had to put myself in a mindset that I’m moving to this place. I just lost a whole life behind me in the states. All my friends back there, my partners back there, all my coworkers, everybody. But I have to look ahead and I have to be open to whatever comes next, and I think that’s just the mindset that I had to keep going with.

Rebecca Brooker:
And for the first time in my life, it was like I was living in a studio alone. I would go out to eat at a restaurant and I’d sit alone. And I spent just so much time in the beginning of my move by myself, just having not made any friends yet outside of the people that I work with in this office. I think that was a turning point in my life where it was the first time I really had to do that in an environment where, it was different when I moved to St. John’s because I moved into the dorms and I was immediately put into a group of people that I could be friends with. And now I’m 20… God. How old was I? 24, moving to Argentina, by myself, don’t have anybody there. You go to a restaurant, you order for one, you take a book, you read something. And if I heard people speak in English, I would literally turn around and be like, “Did you just speak English?” Like “Where are you from?”

Rebecca Brooker:
And that was really how I started to make my friends. I would just be this like curious, observant person. If I heard people speak in English, I’d be like, “Tell me about you. What are you doing here?” And that was how I started to find my community. I ended up finding an English speaking gym. It’s run by an English guy and he wanted to create a community for English speakers to come together and train. And so I met these people and that put me into a new circle of English speaking people in Buenos Aires that led me to my own network now. In addition to this, the agency I was working at, I had a… I wouldn’t say I had problems at the beginning, but I had anxiety because I was one of the only native English speakers, right.

Rebecca Brooker:
Everybody at the agency could speak English, but we were usually trained to speak English for professional use. So in a meeting example, like we would send our clients communications in English, but everybody in the office would talk to each other in Spanish. So, they would say something and someone would be raising an issue and everyone’s talking in Spanish meetings in Spanish and I was just lost. I could not pick up anything that they would say. And especially also because Argentine Spanish, it has a little different of a dialect than Mexican Spanish or Spain Spanish. So I couldn’t even make out what they were singing. And so many times in my first year, I wouldn’t get the joke. People would be laughing. I’d be like, “I didn’t get it.” And it just made me feel othered. But when I started to learn Spanish and my coworkers, bless them, they made a concerted effort to keep me looped in.

Rebecca Brooker:
We would have a meeting in Spanish and then I had a coworker who would come over and say, “Okay, I’ll stay with you and explain everything we just said in English.” And I’m like, “Thank you, thank you so much.” And it was just a lot of awkward moments like that until I got better and I learned, and now I’d say I’m not fluid, but I could understand a lot. I can respond. So it was definitely a moment of growth in my life, I think. A moment of solitude, a moment of acceptance that sometimes things happen and you just have to go with it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow. I mean, I can’t help, but think now, also in the midst of all of this happening, you also co-founded Queer Design Club, which is also about helping to bring together a community while you were also, like in your own life, trying to find community. Talk to me about Queer Design Club.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I think Queer Design Club on introspection is a manifestation of me looking for a lot of things in my life. And you just named it where I felt motivated on one hand to make this community because I was in a real moment of my life of solitude, where I had my online friends. I had people that I could reach out to from New York, but I spent the majority of my nights, I’d go to the office and I’d come home and I’d be by myself. And I was just like, “There must be something I could be doing with my time right now, right. There must be something I could be doing.” And at the same time I was looking to connect with other queer African designers, right. Because I think the other side of my life, not to go back too far to the Trinidad thing, but not having that community in Trinidad, not necessarily having that community at St. John’s either, it kind of left me wondering, where are my queer friends?

Rebecca Brooker:
I don’t have enough queer friends. And I actually want to meet queer friends that I have something in common with. So maybe queer designers. And I started to Google and I started to look for spaces online for queer designers. Was there a community? Was there a place? And there was nothing I could find. I found Out In Tech, I found Lesbians Who Tech, but when I joined those communities, they felt huge, right. They felt like there were tens of thousands of people in there. And I don’t know who would be my friend. So that was really what drove me to have this initial idea of like, “Why don’t I start a queer community online?” And I’d started putting together some ideas, just very loosely. And one day I went on Twitter and I saw a different person had created a handle for LGBTQ People in Design, or something. And I was like, “What? That’s my idea.”

Rebecca Brooker:
I wasn’t really like that. I was like, “This is cool. Someone else is also thinking about this. I’m going to message them and let them know that I have the same idea.” And that’s how I met John, John Voss. And we began chatting. I shared my deck of ideas with him. He shared his idea with me and we came together to form QDC. And at the time John and I were not friends, we were just two strangers that met on Twitter. We began co-working. He’s in San Francisco, I’m in VA and working towards let’s make a Slack, let’s make a directory. And let’s see if other queer people will join. And we didn’t know who would join.

Rebecca Brooker:
I had a handful of friends that I knew were LGBTQ. He had a handful of friends. We knew some people on Twitter, but everybody felt really disparate and disconnected. So when we formed the community, it was really just a place for us to have a clubhouse to hang out in and talk about the experience of like, “Oh, I’m the only queer person on my team and I don’t know how to bring my partner to the work event,” or “I don’t identify as CIS and my boss keeps misgendering me.” We saw people having these experiences and we wanted to bring them together to talk about them some more. So that’s kind of how we founded QDC. And I think over the years, one of the things that I’ve really ,really noticed about the community is just that, this was not something that just John and I were looking for.

Rebecca Brooker:
This is something that many, many people needed maybe much more than I did. And the growth that we’ve had over the years, the constant commitment from our members to keeping the space fresh, giving each other advice, helping each other, just general resource sharing and like this communal online living, I think has really just changed my perception of what QDC is or what it should be. What started as just a side hobby for John and I has turned into a lifeline for some people. And I think that was when it was a turning point for me that I was like, “Oh shit, we did something. We got to do right by our people. Now that we’ve gathered them all here in this community, there’s thousands of them. They’re looking at us and I’m like, what are we going to do?”

Rebecca Brooker:
So I think that was the real question that we had is like, “Okay, now that we formed this community, what value are we going to bring to their lives?” And one of the early questions, well, we were like, “Okay, there’s all these people in our Slack.” We actually don’t know anything about them because when we let people join the Slack, we just ask them their name and their email. We don’t know anything about where they are, who they are, what titles do they have, how much money do they make? Who is our community, really? We know the people exist. We know that. We have proof of concept, but who are they in their identity? Right. And if we’re going to position ourselves to serve a community of people, we have to first find out who these people are and what are their needs. So that was the things that John and I were mulling over and so we decided to formulate the Queer Design Count.

Rebecca Brooker:
So the Queer Design Count is the only survey in the design industry that is specifically for LGBTQ people in design. And the reason we did that was because when we were looking for data about our own people, we couldn’t find any. There was no data out there about the community. The AIGA Design Census asked one question and it’s, “Are you LGBTQ?” And from that data, you can make a few inferences with the percentages, but there just wasn’t anything deeper than that one question, that one check box. So we decided to formulate our own survey. And in the first year at 2019, which was also our first year as a community, we ended up with close to 1,500 responses. And John and his loving partner, Lori, who is a data analyst, thank God, lovingly went through these thousands of responses and wrote the first iteration of the Queer Design Count, where we made a lot of interesting insights about the community.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think one of the things, the differences about our survey was while… It was both qualitative and quantitative. We got some hard facts, we got some data, but we also had opportunities for people to write in their own responses about why they felt certain things or why they chose a certain answer. And some of the written testimonials are just so powerful. I think that that was one of the things that really showed us the need for this space within the community and how we had a lot of work to do if we were going to plan to change anything in the design industry, it was not a singular problem. It was not any one person’s problem. It was a structural problem that LGBTQ persons were making less than non-LGBTQ people. They were leaving the industry much faster and much younger. So they were not making it to seniority levels.

Rebecca Brooker:
And they were experiencing more bias on a daily basis than other groups out there, especially when it comes to having an intersectional identity, right? So Black queer trans people were most likely to be discriminated against, left out and having to point out design decisions that went against their existence. A really great example of this is like when you are a product designer and your team may be designing some forms and they put options on a form for male female, there’s no inclusive lens. There’s no inclusive perspective to this that would include a trans person. Now a queer person working on that team has to point out and say, “Hey, this is not inclusive towards people who identify as LGBTQ. We need to change this form.” And I think there are a lot of instances of that nature that happen prevalently on a daily basis throughout the design industry, where people get misgendered, people get mislabeled and we can preach about it as much as we want.

Rebecca Brooker:
It all ladders back up to like, we need more diverse teams to bring lived experiences and unique perspectives to the work. And that is part of why we believe LGBTQ designers have a great opportunity to become champions in the workplace and they’re not currently given that opportunity.

Maurice Cherry:
That is fantastic. I mean, I think even just the fact that this Design Count that you’re doing is, in one way building, I don’t want to say it’s building on research that others have done, but it’s like you saw what AIGA was doing in terms of their sense of saying, you’re like, “Yeah, this isn’t enough. We need to do something that’s more for our community that we’re building here.” And so you did this Queer Design Count, and I guess what are some of the lessons you learned while building this?I mean, I know you mentioned that this community came about because you discovered that other folks wanted this community too. But even in building the Count and looking at the results from it, what are some of the findings or some of the things that you just learned throughout this process?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I think that one of the major things that I learned is that even within the queer community there’s discrimination. White gay men still make more money than people who identify as lesbian, right? So even within the queer community, we still have hierarchies of the patriarchy and gender wage gap and things that are prevalent outside of the LGBTQ community. They’re also happening within the LGBTQ community. So that was something that was a little bit surprising to us. But probably shouldn’t be because it exists on all levels, regardless of your identity. I think one of the other things that we found was just that people were so eager to participate in this Count because there was no other place that they could share this information. So I think this was especially true in 2021 when we did the second iteration of the Count in a pandemic world when we released it and we actually added a special section of the Count that year for COVID because we wanted to understand what the pandemic has changed about our data, right.

Rebecca Brooker:
So a great example of this is, we found that in 2021, 41% of transgender designers lost employment due to COVID-19, in comparison to 29% of CIS designers. So this is a huge gap, right? 41 versus 29. And on first glance, we didn’t know what that stat is really telling us, right. On one hand, is it telling us that trans designers got fired more than CIS designers because that could be one way to read it. The other way to read it could be, did trans designers due to the pandemic gain more autonomy in being able to work for themselves? Did they participate in quote unquote “the great resignation” and walk into this power of being able to work for themselves and make their own decisions? Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. But this was where now we would look at some of the responses and testimonials that we got as an answer to that question to try to make a better analysis, right.

Rebecca Brooker:
And one of the things that we found is that when we look at these testimonials, people are pouring their heart out to us. It was the first time that people wrote paragraphs of what they were going through. And I think for a lot of queer people, this survey was relieving and like an outlet, almost like therapy, because they didn’t have another place to talk about getting fired from their job. They didn’t have another place to talk about losing all of their clients and having to move back in with their homophobic parents. This was kind of a space. And I think this is important and why we do this work is because we want to create a space for queer people to feel seen and heard and understood. And we want to be able to take those findings and use that as a benchmark in the industry to say, “Hey, every single year you all corporate companies are talking about supporting LGBTQ people, right?

Rebecca Brooker:
You put up all these Pride parades, you put up all these Pride flags, rainbow your logos and when we survey the people that you say you’re impacting, the stats aren’t changing, LGBTQ designers are still making less than non-LGBTQ designers. We want to be able to use this survey as a biannual post check on the industry to really understand if we’re meeting our goals of improving and bettering ourselves as a space. And like I said, I don’t think it’s anybody’s one problem to fix. But as a design industry, we have to come together to hold hands, not just with Queer Design Club, but with all these different communities and movements that are advocating for their own rights, right? Where are the Black designers, [inaudible 00:24:19] design.

Rebecca Brooker:
All of these different, if you want to call them, affinity groups, are all going after the same thing. And it’s changing the industry to be better for those who have been constantly seen as other. And we want to flip that narrative together, not just for LGBTQ people, but for people who really live at these intersections because our data and our research has showed us that people who have multiple marginalized identities are the most likely to be left out and left behind. So how can we gather together and all do this work together of changing the design industry for something that is substantial and not feel like we all have to target it in our silos. So that’s something that we recognize we need to do. We’re here to research and champion LGBTQ rights, but that is one part of someone’s identity, not everything. So we have to find ways to be intersectional. We have to find ways to continue to work together and elevate people who don’t have that voice right now, or are given that space to use their voice.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, I think it’s also worth just putting this in a greater context, like you’re also pulling this information together at a time where at least here in the United States, the rights of LGBTQ people are being stripped away through legislation, et cetera. So to really have this quantitative information, that’s not just… Because I think sometimes what can happen, and this certainly is the case, I think, with what I’ve done with Revision Path and talk with Black designers is that, a lot of the anecdotal evidence just gets swept under the rug as like individual experiences. And it can be hard to really put, I don’t know, I guess confirmation to what’s happening without numbers, without some concrete statistics to say, “This is happening. Here’s the study that shows that.”

Rebecca Brooker:
Exactly, exactly. And I mean, one of our goals, I think now in 2023, we’ll be going into our third year of the Queer Design Count, one of our goals is to make this an industry benchmark, like I said, biannually. So we want to do exactly what you said is align ourselves as the knowledge resource of that information and for people to know that we are here to understand research and advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people in design, because like you said, our rights are under attack federally on a high level, but also it trickles down into your every day, right? When you can’t be yourself outside in the world, how can you be yourself at work? How can you bring your best self to your job every day when your life is under attack? That’s not even just a queer thing.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. That’s true. And now this year, actually next month, since this’ll be airing in June, you’re going to be continuing this with hosting the Inaugural Queer Design Summit. This is happening on July 7th.

Rebecca Brooker:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Talk to me about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. Well, like I said, so this is our second year doing the Count and the first year we had a great response. The second year we wanted to go a little bit bigger. So we were really thinking about, how can we get this information on a larger stage? How can we have this information reach the people who may have the ability to change it? And in my opinion, that’s recruiters, corporations, people who do the hiring, people who do the firing, all of the people who have the power to be able to change the experiences that queer people have in design. Even queer people, because you’ll be surprised that when you’re dealing with your own shit, when you’re an executive leader and you’re not out, and you’re struggling to come to terms with your own identity, that trickles down to the rest of the queer people in your company who don’t feel like they have a safe working environment.

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s all of these things that we want to be able to reach. And we decided to do the summit as a way to bring this data to a bigger stage. And we wanted to, for the first time, really hear from other LGBTQ voices, other LGBTQ designers, and have them discuss some of the statistics that we found in the report and shed their own experiences on that. So we’re going to have a few panels that are based on sections from the report. So one of the panels that we’re going to have is about trans perspective in design. We basically found that trans respondents were consistently overrepresented in facing discrimination in the workplace. So we want to be able to talk through what are some solutions we can put forward to change this in the future? So the goal of all the panels is to really talk about some of the statistics, but also just share your experience as an LGBTQ person and have that feel, seen and heard.

Rebecca Brooker:
So we’re really excited about the speakers. I’m not going to drop some names yet, although they’re probably going to be out by the time this is confirmed this goes live, but I’m super excited. And I think it’s really the first time that we’re putting on an event for the community where they can see all of themselves reflected because all of our community participated in the survey and even people that were outside of the Queer Design Club community, people who aren’t members, per se. So we’re excited to bring it to a wider audience. We’re excited to bring it to a wider stage. And part of my secondary goal of the summit is to really align the organization as a research focused and mission based organization that is doing this work, not just today, not just tomorrow, but we’re going to be doing this work for our people for a while.

Rebecca Brooker:
And we want to be able to find a like-minded organization that will help us do that work. So we’re not professional researchers. I do this because I’m passionate about our community. I’m passionate about finding out who they are. I’m passionate about making sure that we have these data points to leverage when people talk about improving conditions for LGBTQ people, but I’m not a researcher. So maybe there’s a better way we could be doing this. Maybe there is a smarter way we could be doing this. So I think as we grow the study, we want to be able to align ourselves with a research based organization that can also help us and guide us to making this study even more sound than it is right now. And I think that would be our ultimate goal is to have this study be something that’s continued, something that is super serious and ask the right questions, a lot of questions, and helps people really understand the problems that we have in the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I know that we have a lot of companies and a lot of people that work at big companies that listen to this. So my hope is that once this interview comes out, people get a chance to hear it, that you’ll start to get some interest around that because I think what you’re doing is super important from a research perspective, but also just from a general community and society perspective, not just even the design community, LGBT community as well, to be able to not only put the statistics behind the incidents and things that are happening, but to really quantify it and then keep the work going to sustain the work. So people know that this is something that is like an industry benchmark to understand what the queer experience and design is and how, I guess people in general can bring more visibility and representation is super important. So I’m excited for the summit. I’m excited to see where Queer Design Club goes in the future. I feel like you’ve really tapped into something here.

Rebecca Brooker:
Thank you. Thank you, Maurice. I just want to say thank you to you. I know you’ve been a sounding board for us over the past couple years as well, just like in running a community and this being my first time being a community leader. It takes a village, it really takes a village.

Maurice Cherry:
It really does. Yeah. Now, even aside from all this, you’re working at Ghost Note, you’re doing the Queer Design Club with the Queen Design Count, with the Queer Design Summit. You also have your own freelance practice called Planthouse Studio. Tell me about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. As if I wasn’t already doing too much. No. I think one of my goals for myself just personally has always been to run my own design studio and I just feel like there’s a level of freedom that I get to have when people want to work with me. I am my own boss. I love to take the projects that I want to work on. Say ‘no’ to the projects that I don’t want to work on. And just generally be able to design things with no constraints of, what do other people think? So I was always a freelancer on the side of any full-time job. It started really after college because I was working at BAM and it was a nonprofit. So I was making some money, but I thought, “Okay, I could make a couple logos on the side and make a couple hundred bucks more.”

Rebecca Brooker:
And it started just doing that for some extra cash. And over the past five years, it’s really grown into just a consistent stream of people mentioning me, sharing my name, sharing my portfolio and getting people wanting to work with me. So it wasn’t until about three or four years ago now that my partner, LG and I had come together and decided we kind of wanted to formalize this business. And my partner at the time, LG was figuring out how they would plug into the business. I was doing all the design and they were handling all of the client management and it’s just grown over the years. So at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw an uptick in people wanting to work with us. And we had a really janky website at the time and nothing was super professional, but we saw this uptake in work.

Rebecca Brooker:
A friend of mine, who I was working at the agency was leaving at the time. And he said, “If you want a freelancer I’ll work with your studio.” And I said, “All right, sure.” So now we have another person working with us and I was able to give him some direction and do less more creative direct and he was producing the work. LG was managing the clients. So we started there and then more requests came and another friend of mine was like, “I’m looking for a job.” I was like, “Do you want to freelance with our studio?” She was like, “Yeah.” So then we had two designers working with us and now it’s become a full-time gig for everybody, right? So LG’s running it full-time. Our two designers are still working with us full-time and my goal has shifted to learning how to run a business and then wanting to do it for Planthouse on my own.

Rebecca Brooker:
So my short term goal is, like I said in the beginning, this is a hustle year for me, where I’m working at Ghost Note, one, to work on some of the awesome projects and the clients that they have. But two is to really also understand how to run a business. And that’s one of the things that I feel really grateful to Ghost Note for is like from the time I joined, I was very upfront about like, “Listen in five years, I’m going to be running my own agency. So I’m here to learn the business facts of what you all are doing. I admire your work. You all are about six years ahead of where I feel like I am. How can I absorb my time at this agency to really learn how to run an agency?” And at the same time, LG and our other two designers are working on client stuff in the background and I’m moonlighting and taking the knowledge I learn at Ghost Note, bringing it home and saying, “We have this process that we implemented at work. I think we should try it in the studio. It could really help.”

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I felt like I had to put in the time and learning how to run a business before jumping into running a business for the first time, right, because like, and I think that’s a thing that at times it’s tiring, at times it’s rough. But I feel like if I stay on track, hopefully in 2023, I can leave my full-time job and just pursue Planthouse if the clients keep coming and going the way they’ve been. We feel very grateful and lucky that people want to work with us. And I feel really grateful and lucky that people want to keep giving us great opportunities to grow. I think we’ve had a few contracts this year where they were bigger shoes than we were prepared to fill, but we stepped into them and I think we’ve grown into them a lot.

Rebecca Brooker:
So it’s given me a lot of confidence to say, “Okay, I’m doing Planthouse part-time right now and it’s doing really well. If I do this full-time we could be doing excellently. I just need to harness the knowledge of how to run this business full-time, because it’s not just full time by myself, right? It’s full-time with three other people as well that we’re sustaining. So I’m in my hustle year. I’m doing three jobs. However, I do feel like it’s really important right now for me to be a sponge and really learn how to do it right so that when I step into it, I can make, hopefully, a little bit less of the mistakes and go into it with some kind of knowledge.

Rebecca Brooker:
So that’s part of one of the things I love about Ghost Note is they’re very supportive of my own hustle. They’re very open and transparent about the workings of the company and how to write an extra W, how to make sure things stay on track. And I feel like I’m really learning the business angle of it alongside the art director part of it and making the fun stuff. I’m doing both things. So I’m excited for that.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. I mean, I think it’s good that Ghost Note is transparent in that way to let you all know this is how the business is. This is how it works. So it’s not just of course showing up and doing your job, but also you’re kind of gaining this almost secondary education in a way.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. And that’s something that I think doesn’t really exist in our design industry right now is like, there’s no course to go learn how to run your own studio. There’s no course to say, how to found your own agency. It’s all about you got to fumble your way into figuring it out. And that’s what Ghost Note told me as well. They were like, “We’ve been doing this for eight years and we’re just now figuring it out.” And I’m like, “Okay, so what can I learn that you can impart that knowledge on me and I can maybe not take years to figure it out?” And I really love that about just a community culture is that resource sharing is so important because I would love to help any other person who’s thinking about founding their own business, their own agency. We don’t have the resources out there. So we need to be in community with each other more and figure that out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now it takes a village to do all this, as you said. Who’s your village? Who have been the mentors and the peers who have really helped you get to where you are now?

Rebecca Brooker:
I have a list of them. One, I would say is one of the first people that I met in the design industry was a designer working at [inaudible 00:39:35] at the time. Their name is Kyle Richardson and they are an incredible designer and a friend of mine still and just someone who brought their authentic self to work. And me being a young, bright eyed, bushy-tailed intern, I was like, “Oh, you’re my role model. I like what you’re doing. All of your work is fire. Your personality is so dope. I want to be like you.” And it was really the first person who showed me that I could show up to work and be myself, be a little crazy, be a little funky, be funny with your coworkers. And Kyle always just gave me a sense of ease and the ability to just be you.

Rebecca Brooker:
Another one of my mentors, I would say is someone that has always helped me open doors. And this is a person named Liz, Liz Oh who used to be the head of design at Compass is now the head of design of Grammarly and Liz has always been someone who will give me an opportunity that I can grow into. And I think it’s really people like that who are in positions of power, who can see potential in you and open a door that will change your life. And Liz has done that for me a few different times. And I think that’s important to acknowledge people who are willing to take a chance on you.

Rebecca Brooker:
Another one of mine, a close friend of mine, Amélie Lamont. I love Amélie. She’s someone that has helped me navigate just the space of being a community leader and running a community and like navigating the world out there. And with someone who I really met online and we connected in real life for the first time at XO XO conference, where they invited me to be part of the POC House and I was just honored to be included in a space that like, there were so many amazing creatives and thinkers and people who were just so themselves. And I think that’s something that I’m really drawn to. I’m really drawn to people who can be unapologetically themselves, recognize that, and use that as their superpower and use that as the thing that can open doors for other people. So those are my three mentors.

Rebecca Brooker:
I can probably name a million more, but I can’t remember at the moment. But I guess something that I try to do is I try to learn a little bit from everybody. It may not be in a technical way of like, “This person taught me design,” or “this person taught me this,” but it’s more in a, what is it about you that makes you you? Is it your ability to show up and be yourself? Is it your ability to stand up for what you believe in? Is it your ability to take no shit and let people know that? I try to really learn some of these qualities from all of the people that I think are doing it right. And like I said earlier, I just want to be a sponge and learn about what I should be doing in my future what I think is right. So that’s how I approach the people that I look up to.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. We had probably on the show… Oh, that was a while ago. I think she was episode 148 or 149, something like that. It was in the 140s. I remember that. You mentioned XOXO. Was that in 2018?

Rebecca Brooker:
It must have been 2019, the year before the pandemic. 2019. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Year before. Okay.

Rebecca Brooker:
In 2019.

Maurice Cherry:
I went to XO XO in 2018 and I remember, Amélie and Kat doing the POCs [inaudible 00:43:05].

Rebecca Brooker:
Yes. Also another person that I love and is an icon and a role model for me. Kat’s a person who champions game developers of color and has been running that conference in that community for a long time. Just amazing people, amazing people that are out there, like showing up as themselves and making dope shit.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. She’s great. I love Kat. We kind of just talk over email, I guess maybe about a couple of weeks ago or something, because she’s about to make a big move. I’m sure it’ll probably be announced by the time this interview comes out, but she’s making big moves now because she just left Asana and is about to announce where she’s going next. So I’m excited to see.

Rebecca Brooker:
I could believe that.

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

Rebecca Brooker:
I think success looks like being able to feel confident in the things I want to pursue. I feel like I always have this yearning to be super secure before I make a big move, which is probably why I’m still at Ghost Note and not doing my full-time thing yet. But I think success looks like having the confidence to do that, make those decisions and live the life that I want to live, find balance between my work and my personal life and my free time and feel satisfied and nourished by the work that I am doing at work. So I think that is what success looks like for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I know you’ve given some sort of benchmarks for where you want Queer Design Club to go and I guess even with where you want Planthouse to go. But if you could forecast five years from now, it’s 2027, what’s Rebecca Brooker doing?

Rebecca Brooker:
Well, hopefully Rebecca Brooker is no longer the only person running Queer Design Club because then that wouldn’t be nice. But I think Rebecca Brooker will still be a fierce advocate and speaker or someone who is called upon to help champion LGBTQ rights. I want to be known for helping people show up as themselves, even helping myself show up as myself and I want to still be in the creative seat making amazing things that have impacts and that have the ability to change lives and change perceptions and make the world a tiny bit of a better place. So I hope in five years from now I’m doing that.

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

Rebecca Brooker:
So you can find me at rebeccabrooker.com. You can also find me on Twitter @Becky Brooker or on Instagram @Becca Brooker. And you can find Queer Design Club at Queer Design Club on all channels. And I’m an open book. So anybody who ever wants to reach out, feel free to email me. I would be happy to connect with anyone who wants to talk.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Rebecca Brooker, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I had a feeling that we were going to have a really deep, wide ranging conversation. I’m so glad that we were able to touch on. I mean, just so many different things, talking about representation, entrepreneurship, building community. I feel like you’ve done so much already. You’ve already had this very prolific career and I just want to see where you go from here. I hope that people are listening really support the work that you’re doing and really can help put some real velocity behind the plans that you have, because I feel like we’re going to be talking about the work that you’re doing years and years from now. And I’m just so glad to have had you on the show to really just explain like this is who I am. This is where I came from and this is the work that I’m trying to do. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Rebecca Brooker:
Thank you for having me, Maurice. It’s been an amazing conversation. It’s been an amazing time. Thank you for creating this space so that we could continue to have these conversations with myself and other people who are doing good work.

Queer Design Summit - July 7, 2022, 10am PST

The Queer Design Club is hosting their inaugural #QDCSummit on July 7! 🌈✨ Join the queer design community online to discuss two years of rich data. The goal of the Summit is to bring the community together and use it as a breakthrough for the industry as to why events like the Summit and groups like Queer Design Club are important. Be a part of it!

Tickets are available at QueerDesign.club/Summit

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Rebecca Brooker

Sometimes, the conversation is so good and so wide-ranging that I can’t contain it in just one episode. For the first time in over five years, we have a two-part episode on Revision Path, and it’s with the one and only Rebecca Brooker. She is perhaps most well known as the co-founder of Queer Design Club, but Rebecca is also an art director at Ghost Note Agency and founder of her own freelance practice Planthouse Studio.

In the first part of this interview, Rebecca talked about her “year of hustle”, including her work at Ghost Note Agency and the rewards and challenges that come with that. She also talked about growing up in Trinidad, LGBT representation in the Caribbean, and moving to NYC to attend college and study design.

Tune in next week for Part 2 of our conversation!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Rebecca Brooker:
Hi, Maurice, I’m Rebecca. I am a queer graphic designer and art director from Trinidad and Tobago, and I’m currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Maurice Cherry:
I have been trying to get someone in South America on the show for years. You are the first Black designer in South America that I’ve had on the show, so I’m really excited about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. Thank you. I’m excited. It’s actually kind of funny, because I feel like you don’t see that many Black designers in South America, in Argentina, at least. Maybe in some of the more Northern territories, maybe, but in Argentina, I feel like you rarely get to meet other Black designers. I’m not even from here, so even doubly so.

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

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s been going well for me. It’s definitely been a year of hustle. I have been grinding, working towards a few dreams, and really, just trying to figure out where I want to set myself up for the next couple years. I have a few really good gigs going on and trying to figure out, is this a hustle year and heads down and just do some work, and then next year can be a relaxing year? But 2022 has been very positive so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you seeing any big changes this year from last year?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I think one of the biggest changes is just my personal confidence and value, really. I feel like for the past few years and throughout the pandemic, I was really trying to figure out where I wanted to spend my time, spend my energy. Is it in my organization? Is it in my job? Is it in something else? So, I would say that the biggest shift has just been in that decision-making of what I want to do and how I’m going to move forward with the things on my plate.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I definitely want to talk about Queer Design Club, which I think most people that are listening to this know you from, but before that, I want to ask you about your current gig. Right now, you’re the art director at Ghost Note Agency. Can you tell me about that?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, Ghost Note is a Black-owned agency based in Washington, DC. I met them about a year ago because their creative director, Veronica Corzo-Duchardt, is actually in Queer Design Club. So, at the time I was working at a different agency, and Veronica had posted in our job postings channel and had said, “Oh, this amazing, Black-owned agency that I’m running the creative team at is looking for a senior designer to join the team.” I thought to myself, “Oh damn, that sounds like a cool opportunity.” I looked at their work and I was like, Oh, this is sick.” And so, I messaged Veronica being like, “Hey.” Veronica and I had probably had a digital coffee once before and we were acquaintances, but I messaged them just being like, “Hey, would love to learn more about Ghost Note,” and they were like, “Let’s hop in on informational with some of the team.” When I went into that first interview with them, it was just amazing, the energy in the room, the vibe, just it felt different to any of the other agencies I was working at.

Rebecca Brooker:
I had been, at the time, working at Media.Monks, which is a huge agency that was just a very different culture. So, it wasn’t until I had that first interview at Ghost Note that the potential of going to a different agency entered my mind, and I was like, “Oh wow. This is a really different vibe, it’s a lot cozier. They seem to be growing rapidly. For the first time, it’s a place that I feel like, really, you could bring your culture to.” The reason I said what I said in the beginning about Black designers being in Argentina is because when I moved to Argentina, I felt like the work environment that I was in was very homogenous. The majority of people in Argentina are white, and I wasn’t working with other… Probably just a handful of other people of color in an agency of 100s. So, I was finding it really hard to find diversity and find any semblance of culture, and along comes Ghost Note, which was just the complete opposite. They were all about the culture, which I thought was great.

Rebecca Brooker:
I did an in an initial interview with them for that role, the senior designer. Veronica said to me privately after, they said, “I think you were great, but you should be applying for an art director role. We’re going to open one up, if you’re interested.” I said, “What? I didn’t even start working and y’all going to give me a raise? Damn, okay.” So, I had a second interview and I met more of the team, I met the partners, I met the people who working there at the time, and everyone was just very chill. The day after the interview, Veronica phoned me and said, “I just want to let you know you got the job.” I was just like… This happened over three days, Maurice, it was so fast.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
My jaw was on the floor, because I wasn’t even really thinking about leaving my job, but now I was really thinking about it, because I was like, “Oh, the opportunity is in front of me. Okay, okay.” So, that was how Ghost Note came around, and I’ve been there for the past year. They’ve gone through incredible growth themselves. The partners are three Black friends that they have been friends since childhood, they have baby pictures together.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, they grew up together in DC and all went on to three different life paths, and then later in life reunited to start this agency. They’ve been around for almost 10 years now doing this work. So, it feels really great for the agency to be in a spot where they can really see their growth, we’re getting a lot of bigger clients. Most recently, they actually announced a strategic partnership with Godfrey Dadich Partners, which is… I don’t know if you know that agency, but they have aligned with that and entered the kyu Collective of companies, which I think really turned a new chapter for the agency, as well, just in the potential that we have to create outstanding work. So, it’s been really great to work with people that are like me and people that… Our entire creative team is queer-led, which I think is amazing, we’re majority people of color on staff. It’s just been a total 180 of what I was used to, so I’ve been really enjoying my experience there.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that you refer to it as cozy. You often don’t hear that word when people talk about their work experience.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I always stray away from using the term like, “Oh my coworkers are my family,” because I don’t like to think that way, but this is one of the first jobs that I would say where I feel really close and a real bond of friendship, more than any other place that I’ve worked, with the team that we have now. I think it’s because we all are striving towards this goal of… We want to work at Ghost Note because we believe we have a unique voice and a voice that not a lot of agencies get to have. So, I feel like we all are bonding by this experience of like, “What is the Ghost Note lens? What is the Ghost Note angle?” They’re hiring Ghost Note because we have a different perspective and we can talk about topics and things that other people can’t.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think that just brings a level of genuineness and authenticity to the people that work there. I feel like we’re trying to build a culture that’s really rooted in our humanity and not necessarily just in, can we make cool stuff? Can we get the biggest clients? We want to do that stuff, too, but it’s really more about bringing our humanness to the work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s a superpower, really, to be able to bring that perspective to the work.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I definitely see it. I think that we’re smart in the way that they don’t necessarily bill themselves as a social justice agency. It’s not about that at all, but it’s really about using our collective voice and this unique voice that we’ve crafted to be able to create impactful work that benefits other people. For example, one of the recent projects, actually, my first project at Ghost Note, was actually rebranding the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, DC. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but ACM is actually the United States’ first community museum. It was the first one that was ever established, and it’s one of the only museums I think, if not the only, to be founded in a historically Black neighborhood of Anacostia, Washington, DC.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, when I was first put on this project, I had never heard of ACM. You hear about all the other museums in the Smithsonian’s collection, but never ACM. It was a really unique challenge, because it’s not in Washington, DC itself. It’s not on Capitol Hill on the museum route with the rest of the Smithsonian museums. It’s out of the way, and it’s a different type of work that they’re showing, they’re always showing community-based work. So, a lot of the pieces that we got to interact with were actual historical documents from the community of Anacostia. So, the first baseball that was thrown on their community pitch, photos from families that lived there. ACM has been around and was founded by John Kinard, who had a very unique vision for the town of Anacostia. It was just such a unique project to be able to really meld all of that history and all of that deeply rooted culture of Black history, too, and work on that with a Black team.

Rebecca Brooker:
The strategist that I worked with, Georgie Arimah, who also works at Ghost Note, both of us really had to put heads down and say, “How can we really bring the story and the history and all of these years of deep-rooted community value into the work? How do we turn that into brand equity for ACM?” That felt like a really unique project that I don’t know if I would be able to do with everybody, so I really appreciated just having people who understood. Georgie, actually, at the same time, was moving to Anacostia, so it felt really personal for her. I think that it was just that Ghost Note gets unique opportunities like that because we have that unique skill, superpower, as you put it, to create impact where not every agency could.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I think it’s also about the fact that the culture really makes the work personal to the people that are working on it in a way that it probably wouldn’t with any other type of agency, so that’s amazing. I did hear about the investment recently from Godfrey Dadich, I’ve heard about them. So, I have a, I guess it’s a funny story, I don’t know. I ran across them… How many years ago was this? This was back when I was working at Glitch, so this was back in 2019. Yeah, this was 2019. We were looking at studios because we were building this lifestyle vertical website or whatever, and I remember I had reached out to them. I reached out to a few places, like them, Pentagram, Ali, a couple of others, just to get quotes and just see what might be available. I remember they had hit me back because they were like, “Oh my God, Jabari’s chair, we’ve heard of you from Revision Path.”

Maurice Cherry:
I was like, “Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s great.” But I’m really interested in like this quote, and they mentioned that they had recently done, I think, creative work for Abstract, which is the series on Netflix where they do-

Rebecca Brooker:
Design.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s documentary episodes of designers. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was so funny, because this was before the second season came out, and the person there was like, “We’re about to have the second season come out,” and she was like, “And you’ll be surprised about this, we’re featuring two Black designers this season.” I’m like-

Rebecca Brooker:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Wow. That’s amazing.” Telling me? I don’t know, I thought that was a weird thing to relate to me, like I would be impressed by that. But I’m like, “Wow. You talked to two Black designers, really? That’s great.”

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, I also hadn’t really known a ton about Godfrey Dadich before the investment. I had heard their name in passing, maybe seen a few things that they produced here or there. I think Abstract is one of the more notable things that they are produced for. But that’s such a wild thing to say, I can’t believe that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, with the agency joining the kyu Collective, has that impacted your day-to-day work in any sort of way?

Rebecca Brooker:
Not yet, I think that it’s still… So, they only made the announcement of the investment and the joining a couple months ago, I think in April, early April. So, it hasn’t affected my day-to-day yet. We actually are still, I think, figuring out how best we integrate. But Q recently, actually this week, held this internal collective conference that brought all of their agencies together, so I attended a couple sessions and got to meet a couple people from other agencies, SYPartners, ATÖLYE. It was an interesting experience. In one of the main sessions that I went to, they had over 300 people joining, so it was definitely a big work group. I think we’re still new to the Collective and trying to figure out what are some of the best ways that we could work collaboratively or side-by-side, or really partner with some of the other minds in the kyu Collective. I think that there’s a lot of great companies and probably a lot of really smart people working at those companies. So, I’m excited to see what happens, it’s definitely an unknown path right now, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, what does a regular day look like for you when work comes in? You come in on projects as the art director? Talk to me about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
I feel like this is really beneficial information because before I started as an art director, I thought I knew what an art director did, but I feel like we don’t have enough resources out there to tell people exactly what the job is about, so I think this is a great convo. But basically, my day-to-day really looks like, I’m probably on about two to three projects at the same time, it depends on how heavy those projects are. My role right now is half executional and half managerial, so I’m usually talking to clients, making decisions, but also working with the designers, our senior designers and our mid-level designers, to produce work for our campaigns. So, for example, we are, right now, working on a couple campaigns for Nike Chicago, and I am leading the art direction, so I will put together the look, the feel, talk with the client and understand, from the brief, what they’re trying to convey, what assets do we have to work with? Is it a new design system that we need to make? Is it something that we’re picking up from?

Rebecca Brooker:
I, basically, get the work to a place where it is ready and executional for some of the other designers to take it into production. So, a really great example of this is on this Nike project that we’re working on, we’re going to be producing some reels and stuff for the Nike social handle on Instagram. Part of what I’m proposing to Nike is that we’re going to create a GIPHY sticker pack on Instagram, so people can go search Nike Chicago, and they get the stickers on GIPHY and they put them on their stories or whatever. I will probably put together a deck, along with some of my other ideas, pull some references of what those stickers will look like. My job is to really sell that idea to the client before it gets produced, so that the client buys into it. I prep it for the team, we’ll probably have a kickoff and say, “Okay. The client loves this idea of the stickers. Let’s put these into production.”

Rebecca Brooker:
Maybe our senior designer, who is also an amazing illustrator, he’ll help us draw out some shapes, he’ll help us draw out some stuff, maybe we pass it to a different designer who’s going to add some typography to it. It really depends on the project, but my role is usually a little bit higher level, a hybrid of client management and coming up with the overall look and feel of the work before handing it off to some of our other team members to bring it to life.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is probably the most challenging part about what you do?

Rebecca Brooker:
That’s a great question. I think one of the most challenging parts is really finding new inspiration all the time. I feel like sometimes when I’m working on multiple projects at the same time, sometimes my ideas tend to blend together, so all three of those projects may end up looking similar. So, I feel like finding inspiration and ways to keep things really distinct and unique in their look and feel of each campaign or each identity is a challenge, because you constantly have to be looking at inspiration, not just on the internet, but, really, all around you and in your world, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
I’m constantly thinking about how can I take some of the things I see in my everyday, whether it’s some graffiti on the street, whether it’s an old street sign, how can I take things that I see in real life and bring them into my project, so I’m not just lost in this world of Pinterest and Arena and Behance and looking at what’s already out there. I think trying to keep your work original when you’re working at speed and scale is really difficult, sometimes. It’s easy to lean on the internet to just see what else is out there, but I feel sometimes, it could make the work all feel really homogenous.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, staying inspired, it’s always a challenge.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s so interesting you mentioned that, I was just talking about that a little bit with… At where I work now, we have a creative director, and one of the projects that we have worked on for the past few months is creating a print magazine. So, we’re creating a print magazine from scratch for the company, coming up with the name, the brand, talking to printers. I joked, “I feel like Khadijah James in the first season of Living Single trying to put flavor together,” wrangling contributors and stuff like that. It’s a quarterly magazine, so we have a little bit of breathing room in terms of going from issue to issue. But right now, our first issue came out a couple of months ago, we’re currently in design on the second issue, and we’re starting planning on the third issue.

Rebecca Brooker:
Third issue, that’s great.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve already mapped out themes for the next six issues. So, up until issue 6, I’ve mapped out themes for that. Even looking at that, we’re looking at these covers and thinking, “Well, do we want this to tell a story?” Because even as we look at the themes itself, so far, the themes are usually around propulsion. The first cover has a jet on it, the second cover, when people see it, it has a city rising up through the clouds. So, everything that we’re doing here is not only about propulsion in some way, but also could tie into a theme of discovery or exploration, which ties into the theme of what we’re trying to do with the tool. Even as we look at that, because the company is named Orbit, so there’s a lot of space imagery and terminology and things that we can pull from, this next issue that we’re doing is all about Web3, which is a bit of a departure, just in terms of it’s a very new topic. Well, I’d say it’s a very buzzy topic.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if it’s necessarily super new, but it’s a pretty buzzy topic, because it’s all wrapped up in the metaverse and Dows and cryptocurrency and blockchain and all that stuff. It can be confusing to just think, “Well, how do we depict something like that?” It’s funny you say looking at inspiration, because we just did a working session recently and we’re looking at creative inspiration and we’re like, “We see this octahedron symbol everywhere, and I want to use that in some kind of way.” I’m like, “Eh, I don’t know. I don’t think we should use that because it’s used everywhere.” It turns out that it’s actually the logo for Ethereum, which is why it’s used so many places, because the person who came up with Web3 is also the founder of Ethereum, so it’s a branding thing, for them, at least.

Maurice Cherry:
But the theme that I think we’re going to settle on, we may change this by the time it actually goes to print, is actually going to be a retrospective from the 1920s to the 2020s in the theme of the movie Metropolis. It’s going to be about the… I forget what the name of the Android is in Metropolis, it’s the Metalnmensch or something like that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Oh, I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
So, it’s going to be like a human, but we’re going to have… Well, we’re taking inspiration from that and we’re also taking inspiration from RoboCop, so-

Rebecca Brooker:
Wow. Very different.

Maurice Cherry:
… so it’s going to have a helmet that’s a Oculus helmet, it’s going to have a shoulder plate that’s blockchain, it’s going to have another shoulder plate that’s… So, we’re thinking the person is whomever is on the internet, because Web3 is also very user-centered, and so we’re thinking of all these different aspects of what make up Web3 coming onto a person as an Android thing. It’s interesting, because when we were trying to think of inspiration, a lot of what we saw just all looked the same like, “Oh everything’s purple and blue and there’s the Ethereum logo.” We want to do something different from that, that stands out a bit. Trying to find an inspiration is tough.

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s tough. The thing I’ve been struggling with lately is when you work at an agency sometimes, and this is maybe what I miss about working in-house sometimes, but when you work at an agency, I feel like the speed at which you have to produce ideas, sometimes it’s exhausting. Every month is a different campaign, maybe two campaigns, and you’re constantly churning out ideas. And then what happens when you can’t be creative on demand? What happens in that moment when everyone’s like, “This is your sixth campaign this year, and sorry, but this idea sucks”? You’re like, “Yeah, I’m tired and burnt out.” So, I think that’s something that we’re also just trying to, as an agency, as a world, I guess, I don’t know if this is in other agencies, as well, but I think we’re just trying to find balance sometimes, where we have some downtime to rest and recuperate and generate some new creative ideas. And then other times, we’re working really hard and producing at volume. I think it’s a balance of both things, and part of why I feel like we’re in this moment of the Great Burnout where every…

Rebecca Brooker:
Burnout is a buzzword, and everyone is burning out, everyone is over Zoom, over being on the computer eight hours a day. I think people are right now just looking for some sense of balance in their life, and I think for designers, that can be draining when you have to wake up and produce a new idea every day. So, that’s something I’ve been noodling on for the past couple of months, is just how do we continue to have jobs that require us to exert creative energy, while still being able to find a refill and recuperation for that same creative energy? Is there answer, is there a solution? I don’t know. I feel like we’re all equal [inaudible 00:28:37] capitalism.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Look, it’s hard to pour from an empty cup, especially with everything else that’s going on in the world, political issues, we’ve had an ongoing global health crisis for the past two, almost three years. So many things have taken a toll just on people’s psyche that it’s tough to always try to come up with stuff, whether you’re in a highly creative role, I think, or not. But certainly with what you’re saying, as an art director, it probably is super tough to always have to pour from the well of imagination when the well is running dry.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah, yeah. I think that’s not just art directors. I feel like, even as a creative strategist yourself, you probably could relate to that at some level, where just idea generators, I guess, have to constantly be figuring out a way to continue generating ideas or having thoughts about these things. I think it touches everyone on some level. I don’t think it makes my job any different from a creative director’s job or a creative strategist’s job. But I think, generally, it’s a tough world out there to be creative right now, in the midst of everything.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Well, let’s switch gears here a little bit and talk more about your origin story. I know you were born in Trinidad and Tobago, tell me what it was like growing up there.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, I was born in Trinidad, in San Fernando, to be exact. I lived in Trinidad until I was about 18, before I went to college at St. John’s University in New York. I love Trinidad, I love my home. It’s my people, I will always care for them and always support my people. But I think really early on, when I began exploring my sexuality and just my awakening reality that maybe I’m not like my friends, maybe I’m not straight and I don’t know what that means. I think something that still hurts me to this day is just that there is not a lot of LGBTQ representation in the Caribbean. There’s a culture of homophobia, and there’s a culture of very religious-based homophobia, as well, that I think really scarred me. I came out when I was 16 to my parents, and my parents sent me to talk with a nun.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
At the time, I didn’t have the words to describe that. I guess, in 2022, we would probably describe that as conversion therapy, to some extent. But I remember having this conversation with this nun and going for a couple sessions. One of the things this nun said to me was, “You are feeling this way,” this way being gay, “Because you’re a child of divorce.” That stuck with me all my life, and it always made me feel like as much as you are Trini, this place is maybe not for you. So, it wasn’t until I left Trinidad and went to New York that I felt this ability to own that part of my identity, really, in a culture and a way that didn’t feel harmful, it didn’t feel unsafe. So, growing up in Trinidad as a queer teen was tough for me. I felt like I had to fit in a lot. I felt like I had to wear dresses and wear heels and flat iron my hair and do my nails and my makeup. It all felt like I was just doing this to be friends with my friends.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think now, years later, I don’t feel like any relationship to that part of my identity anymore, this part of myself that needs to present in a more feminine way or be more ladylike to be loved by my people. I think it’s taken me living outside of Trinidad for 10 years to really come to terms with that acceptance that this is a place that made me feel a little bit small in who I could be. So, that is always something that has stuck with me. I would love to return home one day and really find a way or find resources to change that mentality. I have a lot of friends in Trinidad who are doing work to create a space for LGBTQ people, and I want to be able to contribute to that work in the future, because I do think it’s important for people to feel safe when they’re growing up and feel like they can explore who they are and be themselves and not feel like, whether they’re religious or not, that they’re going to get judged. So, that was one of the major reasons that I wanted to leave home.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s really important, this point you mentioned about you had to leave in order to see the rest of the world and experience who you are outside of the confines of being in, not just, I would say, a small town, but also just a very closed-minded environment, overall.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. It’s not just a Trinidad problem either, it’s really a Caribbean culture problem, I would say. I know other Caribbean countries also have large percentage of homophobia, Jamaica is rampant with homophobia. You hear it in dance hall, you hear it in the music, you hear it in all different places. It’s almost casual to be homophobic, people joke about it, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I think that it’s a huge culture shift that we have to make as a society and as a people to be more accepting. It’s funny, because there are a lot of cultural ties to Trinidad that are inherently queer, it’s so funny how we’re selective in the way that we see it. I feel like there are just a lot of different spaces where it’s more okay, then it’s not okay, and then it’s okay in the way that we want you to be. So, it just feels like a culture that is accepting when it’s entertainment, but not when it’s your real life. You could go up on that stage and you could cross dress, you could sing about, you could do what you want, we’ll laugh, we’ll dance. Okay, great. You’re a great performer. But if you went on that stage and actually brought your partner, no.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I feel like it’s very much a culture of where you have to present a certain way, you have to act a certain way, you keep your business private. That’s how you survive, and that’s tough. I don’t think any LGBTQ identifying people, anybody who feels like they can’t be who they are, should not have to live that way.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So much of that, as you mentioned, just reminds me of… I grew up in a small town, I grew up in Selma, Alabama. To that point that you mentioned about how queer people are celebrated when there’s a certain presentational aspect to it, in a way. I remember, in high school, we had gay men in high school and one of them was our head majorette, ironically. One was, he was, I think, in the class above me, he and his sister… Well, sorry, me and his sister were in the same class and he was a class above me, but he also wore a lot of women’s clothes to school. I can’t presume to know what their individual experiences might have been like outside of school, but I know when they were at school, they were always celebrated because of that. It almost in a way felt mocking, I don’t know, but-

Rebecca Brooker:
Mm-hmm. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
For example, the guy who was the head majorette had his own suit made and everything that was just like the suit that the girls had. At least from what I could tell, nobody said anything, but then I wasn’t close to that person, so I don’t know what other sorts of discrimination or things they might have received. But to be in that small town and to try to express yourself in that way, I can’t imagine how just stifling and confining that can be, and you have to break out, eventually

Rebecca Brooker:
You have to, you have to. I think that was one of, like I said, one of the things that I’m so grateful for is the opportunity to break out. I have so many friends in Trinidad who do identify as LGBTQ, but don’t have, one, the privilege or, two, the resources to get out of that situation, too. I think that’s an important thing to acknowledge here, is that I feel like I got to embrace and explore that part of my identity because I was given this opportunity to leave the country, and travel the world, and find myself, and not feel unsafe with presenting the way I want to present. But there’s so many people in Trinidad who don’t have that same opportunity. I have a really dear friend of mine who I grew up with, know their family, they are super religious. For years, this person has been telling me, secretly, “I’m queer, I’m actually trans, and I want to identify this way, but I live at home and I can’t do that. I can’t dress the way I want to. When my parents go out, I try on different clothes.”

Rebecca Brooker:
It just reinforces this culture that not everybody has that opportunity, so that is part of why I feel really moved to find ways that I can contribute or ways that I can change the narrative about what queer Caribbean culture is, because it’s important that we redefine the context of what queer Caribbean culture is. It’s always been so tied to God and like, “You’re going down the wrong path and God doesn’t like that. Why do you want to change your body when God gave you this beautiful hair and this beautiful, feminine body? Why do you want to identify as a man?” It’s never come from a perspective of this is not a choice that I’m making. My identity is not a choice. I’m not choosing to wake up today and say, “I’ve decided I like girls,” or, “I’ve decided I like boys.” It’s something that you come to that discovery, it really is. It’s there all along, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, it’s who we are, it’s something that we’re born with.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I feel that in the Caribbean, there’s always been a sense of homophobia is equivalent with the devil is equivalent with breaking the law of God. It’s never been looked at from a perspective of this is a biological thing that is present in all living beings, to some extent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I feel like it’s just a huge culture shift that we still have to make. Like I said, I think that’s something that we have to accept and work on as a community, not just the queer people, but we need allies and we need people coming together to be able to advocate for those rights.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about St. John’s University. You mentioned moving away from Trinidad, going to St. John’s in New York City, and you studied graphic design there. Tell me what your time was like there, because I would imagine from the environment that you just described, going to New York City was a complete culture shock.

Rebecca Brooker:
Exactly. Yeah, it was. So, context. People are probably like, “If she’s so against religion, why did she go to a Catholic university?” Well, I can tell you a couple things about that. So, I went to Catholic school all my life, actually, from primary school to secondary school. When I was applying to universities, I had actually, coincidentally, visited St. John’s a couple years before at a conference that I was attending in the States. This wasn’t my first time in New York, either, my grandmother at the time was living in New York, so I was always traveling between Trinidad and New York to visit and was fairly familiar with the city. But when I was applying to universities, I applied to St. John’s just because it was one of the only US college campuses that I’d ever visited. I was like, “All right. I kind of know that place, let me just apply and see what happens.”

Rebecca Brooker:
The other schools I applied to were SCAD and other design schools, because I was like, “I need to go study design and I want to go do it at SCAD. I don’t know what St John’s program is about. They have a graphic design program, but whatever, that’s a throwaway option.” St John’s, coincidentally, came back with almost a full tuition scholarship. On top of that, they were like, “Oh, you’re a Catholic? We’re going to give you an extra scholarship for being Catholic.” I was like, “Damn. For the first time, it came in handy,” I was like, “Okay.” So, that was how I ended up making the decision, because while I did get into SCAD, it was four times the price, my parents were paying this out of pocket. Just the opportunity to go to St. John’s almost for free versus pay money that we definitely didn’t have to go to SCAD and possibly take out loans, it didn’t make sense in that way. So, reluctantly, I chose St. John’s, not knowing.

Rebecca Brooker:
I was like, “Okay, I’m going to have to put my best foot forward, because I don’t know what type of design program they have.” I’ve never heard anybody say, “I got a graphic design degree at St. John’s.” They’re known for law, they’re known for all different other things. So, I was a little bit skeptical, but like I said, it was a new opportunity. In Trinidad, we didn’t have a ton of tertiary education to pursue design. We had a field of art that you could study, but there wasn’t a huge design industry, and there still isn’t a huge design industry in Trinidad to have made it worth staying there. So, I knew that if I wanted to study design, I had to leave. This is sexuality aside, I was just thinking about career-wise, how was I going to pursue design? I had really even gotten into design in high school because I had a cracked version of Photoshop on my computer, and just started making posters. In high school, they asked me, “Oh, do you want to make our school yearbook?” I was like, “Yeah.” Maurice, I designed an entire yearbook in Photoshop.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
They sent it to the printer and the printer was like, “We cannot print this file. You need to use InDesign,” and I was like, “I don’t know what that is. I’m a graphic designer, I use Photoshop.” The school ended up having to pay the printer to redesign the thing I had designed in a principle way. But I was so convinced, I was like, “This is amazing, I’m a designer. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.” That was really where my inspiration started, just playing on Photoshop making posters, doing design tutorials from the internet, and teaching myself how to design. So, fast forward, I get into St John’s, start there. I’m honestly really surprised by the design program, I had no expectations. It was a small program, there was no more than 20 of us in my classes, but some of the professors changed just what I thought I knew about graphic design. I knew nothing about graphic design.

Rebecca Brooker:
Here I was, making my yearbook in Photoshop, and you get into your first graphic design class, and I realized, I was like, “Oh wow, I am starting from scratch. I know nothing.” That was an amazing feeling, to be able to go to school and have just the time and the ability to just play and do what you want and learn so much, different techniques, learned from other people in class who were making cool stuff. It was just an eye-opening experience for me. I feel like that was when I really fell in love with design, was when I started really learning it and learning the concepts, learning how to not just make something, but how to really bring an idea to life. To think about a concept and to then bring that to life through design blew my mind, it blew my mind in 2015 when I started school. That was my experience, St John’s was four years, and I came out of it with a ton of connections.

Rebecca Brooker:
My professors were working in the design industry in New York. We were always going to visit different studios and museums and galleries in the city. So, I felt like being in New York really helped me to make the industry connections and the network that I didn’t know I was going to have.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You were there at the right time. In college, not just being a fish out of water coming from another country to the States, but then also relearning what you knew about design, what you thought you knew about design in this program. College is always touted as a time where it’s really transformative, but for you, it really sounds like it was a good starting point for you to build the career that you have now.

Rebecca Brooker:
Definitely, definitely. I think that was part of… Something that always drove me in college, was I think I knew that I didn’t have another option. My backup plan was going back to Trinidad and really figuring out how would I be a designer in Trinidad when I don’t know anything about design, I don’t have any industry contacts, I don’t even know where to begin to do my own design thing, even as a freelancer? So, I feel like it was really a transformational moment for me, where I had to push myself to be some level of successful so that I could stand on my own two feet and I could make this career that I doubted myself, I didn’t even know if I could do. I think that determination, that drive, really, is what gave me the confidence, Maurice, to just ask people anything.

Rebecca Brooker:
I feel like it comes across as outgoing, but I was always just so curious to, “Why did you do that? Why did you make that decision? How did you meet that person? How can I meet that person? What do they do? How do you know them? Is there an idea here?” So, I was just constantly hungry, and I think that hunger is really what led me to getting my first job at BAM as an intern.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I see that after you graduated, you worked as a curatorial assistant at a couple of art galleries and such.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, at the time, I had an on campus job at St. John’s in the student art gallery. I took that job because it was a unique opportunity, not just to learn about the art, but one of the early assignments that I would do was design some of the vinyl and design some of the material for an exhibition. So, that was a lot of like, “Okay, we’re going to do an exhibition, let me design the wall text, let me design the logo, let me put together the postcards, the flyers, put these around the campus.” So, I took that job because I wanted some hands-on practice of making stuff that wasn’t just for my classes. I started at the art gallery at St. John’s and I met a contact there, someone who came in once, and this guy was a friend of the curator at the time. He said, “Oh, I have an art gallery in Bushwick,” and I said, “Wow, do you need an intern?” He said, “Yeah, why not?” So, I got this internship at Outlet Gallery in Bushwick and, really, I became the curatorial assistant.

Rebecca Brooker:
It started just like, “Watch the gallery, talk about the work if someone comes in. We have a new show coming up, can you design the poster? Can you design the catalog?” So, I was getting a little bit of design experience, but I was also really, at this time, really into the art, and just learning a lot about art. I felt like there was a lot of similarities between the art world and the design world, just in the way that you present ideas on a page. So, I spent a lot of time in my senior year of college really going to a lot of galleries and really immersing myself and learning a lot about the art world. At one point, had another doubting moment where I was like, “Damn, do I want to become a curator? I don’t know,” and thought about that for a little bit. But art has always had a special place in my heart. I get a lot of inspiration looking at art and finding ways to translate that into design.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think that the two have a lot of overlap and it was something that I just really enjoyed looking at, generally. So, I did the curatorial assistant gig for a couple years, both at the St John’s gallery and the internship in Bushwick, and then I got this internship at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which was the perfect melting of the two worlds. Now, I was working at BAM and I was actually designing the programming for some of the opera shows, some of the festivals, and the programming that they would have at their venues. That was definitely the first job that I was working on a team with, and I was starting to learn the dynamic of being a designer in the design world, and working with a creative director, working with other designers on the team. I was the intern and just learning even the process of working in a studio, they’re like, “Oh, we have all these softwares, and I’m going to assign you a ticket, and we’re going to change the status.”

Rebecca Brooker:
For the first time, I was like, “Oh my God, you don’t just want to email me the file that you need? Damn, okay.” So, that was really my first experience, as well, with formalized design in a professional sense, outside of the classroom. That was an incredible learning experience for me, just being able to work with some of the best creatives. I think BAM was a great exercise in finding ways to be creative in a design system. They have a very tight design system that they use, and it was the first time I had to learn a design system, it was the first time I had to understand how to be creative within these constraints of the same logo, the same type base, the same everything. I felt like that just unlocked a whole new world for me. So, I worked there. Unfortunately, at this time, I was starting to think about my post-student visa status, and I had to get a job that would sponsor me a work visa.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, after talking to my boss at BAM, he said, “We’re a nonprofit, I don’t think we’re going to be able to sponsor your work visa. I have a friend who runs a team at this company called Compass, and they’re hiring a lot of designers. They’re growing really fast. Why don’t I send your portfolio?” So, I said, “Sounds good, do it,” and he sent it over. The guy from Compass called me and he said, “I’d love to bring you in for an interview.” I met with them, the recruiter that I met there was actually Trini, and she was like, “Oh no, this is a great place to work.” I was like, “Okay, okay, okay. I’m going to work there.” Surprisingly, they gave me an offer. So, I worked at Compass and things were going really well. That was a huge switch, because I was at a nonprofit where budgets were tight, and then I went into this new startup tech company, beautiful building on 5th Avenue, overlooking the city. It was just a different world. I was, again, a fish out of water.

Rebecca Brooker:
I was just not sure what to do and going along with it, but it was a great paying job, it was a bunch of new contacts, and the design work was pretty cool. So, I worked at Compass for a year and they agreed to do my work visa, we got that in place and started moving. In about July of 2018, I hadn’t heard back about my work visa status. A friend of mine at Compass, actually, who we applied at the same time, she had come over to my desk and was like, “Oh, I got my acceptance of my H-1B, did you get yours?” I was like, “No, didn’t get mine at all yet.” She said, “Oh, I’m sure it’s going to come. I’m sure it’s going to come.” So, I emailed my manager, I emailed the lawyers that are handling the case, and I don’t hear back for about two weeks. They come back and they say, “Unfortunately, your application wasn’t picked in the H-1B lottery, and you have three weeks to leave the country.”

Maurice Cherry:
Whoa.

Rebecca Brooker:
I said, “Wait a minute, but usually when you get the denial, you have 60 days to leave the country. Why is it three weeks?” They said, “Oh, I’m sorry. We forgot to inform you earlier-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh God.

Rebecca Brooker:
… that your application had been denied.” So, there was all this time that was just lost between the time of the notice and the time I was notified that I could have been preparing to leave the country. By the time I got the news, they were like, “You basically have three weeks left. You have to leave by the end of August.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
I was like, “Oh my God.” That was my whole life turned upside down, Maurice. The next day, Compass was like, “You’re no longer employed here because now that we found out your H-1B is denied, you have to stop working.”

Maurice Cherry:
Damn.

Rebecca Brooker:
I had just signed a new lease a couple months ago with my partner and another roommate, so I was like, “I’m on the hook for at least another eight months on this lease,” just a lot of big life changes. I was like, “Okay. So, I have to go back to Trinidad. What am I going to do? I have $4,000, $5,000 saved in total. I don’t know what that’s going to get me in this next life, but we’re going to find out.” So, I left the States, I went back home to Trinidad. My parents at the time were actually on vacation in Europe. It must have been two or three weeks, maybe a month after I got back to Trinidad, my old boss at Compass called me and he said, “Hey, I want to let you know, we’re about to sign a deal with this agency in Buenos Aires. They need a designer who knows our brand to go down there and help them build a team of 15 production designers.” I was like, “Okay. So, you’re saying I should go do the job?”

Rebecca Brooker:
They were like, “Yeah. We put your name in to go do that, and they’re going to call you.” I was like, “All right.” [inaudible 00:55:14] are done, just a really lucky break and a real opportunity, where my boss from Compass, shout out Jeff Lai, he threw my name in the hat. I was still just one year working there, there were people working at the company years who could have probably done that job, but he took a chance on me, proposing me for that gig, and I ended up getting the job. So, that was the thing that moved me to Argentina at the end of 2018, was this new opportunity with Media.Monks to help them build a team of designers for Compass in Buenos Aires, and help lead that team to understand the brand.

Queer Design Summit 2022

Queer Design Summit - July 7, 2022, 10am PST

The Queer Design Club is hosting their inaugural #QDCSummit on July 7! 🌈✨ Join the queer design community online to discuss two years of rich data. The goal of the Summit is to bring the community together and use it as a breakthrough for the industry as to why events like the Summit and groups like Queer Design Club are important. Be a part of it!

Tickets are available at QueerDesign.club/Summit

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André Elijah

Virtual reality used to be a science fiction trope in the 90s, but now, virtual reality is actual reality! Take it from this week’s guest: the one and only André Elijah. His work building games and doing marketing projects as an immersive director is sought after by brands and celebrities worldwide, including Google, Meta, Snap, Drake, and Beyoncé. And that’s not all!

Our conversation began with a slight nerd-out moment about VR Troopers — shout-out to Michael Hollander! — and then André gave a rundown about AR, VR, the metaverse, and the ins and outs of immersive experiences. He also shared a bit of his origin story as a child actor, Ryerson University grad, and becoming one of the first people in Canada to use RED cameras (which are now a worldwide industry standard). André also gave some great advice for people looking to get into the immersive space.

There’s more than one way to success, and André proves that you don’t have to chase VC funding to do it!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

André Elijah:
My name is André Elijah and I’m an immersive director working in augmented reality and virtual reality.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the year been going for you so far? I can hear from in the background that you probably have started off this year with a pretty big announcement.

André Elijah:
Yeah, my twins are born in January. So yeah, I guess you can hear them in the background. I’ve got noise canceling headphones on.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no. You’re you’re all good. Congratulations.

André Elijah:
Thanks, dude. Yeah. It’s been a bit of a shift, but no, it’s been good. It’s been good.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been juggling work and family? Are you sort of finding that balance now?

André Elijah:
No, it requires a really good partner that can take care of things on the home front while I work maniacally at all hours of the day and night.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s jump into that work a little bit. You have a studio, André Elijah Immersive, and you just recently celebrated your five year anniversary. Congratulations on that.

André Elijah:
Thank you, sir.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about it.

André Elijah:
It’s basically a studio where we build everything we want to see in the world. There’s multiple parts to the company. We’re building games. We see games as the major catalyst to enable these new mediums and platforms. And so we want to be there and kind of build the content that we think will sell units and sell headsets and make this augmented reality and virtual reality future pervasive. And then on the flip side, we also work with a number of agencies and brands doing marketing projects, ad campaigns, that sort of thing, building interactive elements of that, or activations, augmented reality activations, metaverse activations, all kinds of stuff. So we’re constantly busy, probably a little bit too busy, some would say, but no complaints. This year’s been absolutely mental. I think I’m really lucky in that I was able to survive this long in this industry.

André Elijah:
A lot of people thought that VR in particular was going to pop off multiple times already and it didn’t and really kind of found its footing during the pandemic. There’s a lot of things that came together. Everything from Oculus Quest 2 or I guess now Meta Quest 2. Everyone being at home with the pandemic and needing something to do, the rise of VR fitness was really another thing that popped off and helped sell headsets and find a user base. And so all these things coalescing at the same time allowed for me to still be here and be in business all these years later. Definitely one of the lucky ones in that regard.

Maurice Cherry:
VR as a technology, I feel like has been trying to pop off since at least, I guess at least the ’90s, right, the mid ’90s.

André Elijah:
Yeah, that’s correct.

Maurice Cherry:
It has tried to gain some footing. The first, and this is probably weird, but the first thing I think of when I think of VR is VR Troopers. That really horrible, horrible show.

André Elijah:
That show. Yeah. In the ’90s it was basically a riff off of the Power Rangers because there was the three VR Troopers. I remember that. There was a TV station called the New VR and they carried VR troopers. Yeah, it was a station based at a Barrie, Ontario.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow. So, interesting thing. Do you remember the black guy that was on there that played JB?

André Elijah:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
He works in gaming. I’ve had him on the show before.

André Elijah:
What?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

André Elijah:
That is wild.

Maurice Cherry:
He told me all the behind the scenes. That show is so chopped up. It’s like the video form of, I don’t know, scrapple or something. It’s like a whole bunch of stuff taken from different shows that they cobbled together and it’s wild. It’s not even from one show. It’s from five different shows that they put together to make that show because they have different outfits in VR grid versus when they’re fighting the monsters. And it’s so funny. There’s a video on YouTube, if you want to check it out. There’s a video where the cast got drunk and did a voiceover of one of the episodes. It’s so funny. It’s so funny.

André Elijah:
That is awesome. This makes me really happy to hear, I’m not going to lie. It’s funny because no one knows what the hell VR Troopers is. You can mention Power Rangers and everyone knows that. Occasionally you can mention Masked Rider and people will get that because it’s just Kamen Rider. You mention VR Troopers, no one ever knows what the hell you’re talking about. So, you made me really happy right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But to go back to my earlier point, VR has really tried to pop off since then. You had Nintendo with the failed Virtual Boy. You even had video games that had virtual or virtual in it, like Virtual Fighter. There’s been all these attempts to try to make virtual reality really a big thing. And it seems like, as you said now-

André Elijah:
Even the Metal Gear Solid VR missions. And I think it was Metal Gear Solid 2. It was all these simulated missions that were, quote unquote, in VR.

Maurice Cherry:
But even now, as you said, there’s been this perfect storm of I guess the pandemic and the technology becoming at a enough of a consumer price point where it’s starting to become commonplace now.

André Elijah:
Yep. Hundred percent.

Maurice Cherry:
So with your studio, what does a typical day look like for you?

André Elijah:
I don’t really think there is a typical day. It’s everything. So, right now we’ve got multiple VR games in production. One is kind of midway-ish. One is at the tail end and we’re about to go into certification. We’re working on a number of augmented reality projects and advertising campaigns and things like that. So, every day is kind of a mishmash of touching base with my team to see where things are at, play testing our products and projects and giving some feedback there, investigating new technology that we might be called to use in a campaign of some sort or an activation, pitching projects that we ultimately want to build and do. It’s a mishmash. Every day starts early and it goes late, but there’s really no set formula, just whatever we get time to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now we’re talking about VR virtual reality, which again I’m pretty sure most of the audience knows about. But I also just kind of want to level set the conversation because there’s a lot of terms when we talk about these immersive experiences that get thrown around, like AR, XR, the metaverse. Can you give us a couple of definitions of terms that are widely used in this space?

André Elijah:
Yeah. The three that I use are AR, VR, and regrettably metaverse because those are three biggest ones. XR I throw out the window because that just opens up its own can of worms. So, augmented reality is basically digital information overlaid on top of the physical world. So, whether that’s virtual screens that exist in your room, virtual pets that exist in your space and navigate your space that you interact with, things like that. Virtual reality is an entirely virtual space. So, you put on a headset. There is no pass through. You’re not seeing the real world. You are immersed in a fully virtual world with virtual interactions and virtual environments.

André Elijah:
And then we’ve got metaverse, which is basically a think ready player one basically networked experiences with other people in a virtual space. Doesn’t necessarily have to be in VR. You could make a case that Fortnite is a metaverse of its own with the way that people are able to express themselves with various designs and skins and way you can customize yourself. And you’re communicating with people and you have shared tasks and goals or you can just hang out remotely together. I think that’s the perfect example of a metaverse. And so those are really the three that I try and stick to because otherwise you get way too in the weeds with all the different terminology and you lose people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Why do you regrettably say metaverse?

André Elijah:
Ever since Zuckerberg changed the company’s name, Facebook’s name to Meta, everyone’s been jumping on the metaverse bandwagon. I think in some ways it’s good that we have a shared language finally because if you’ve been working in this space for years, the terminology got pretty hardcore. You had AR, you had VR, you have XR. And then there’s a whole debate online as to what the hell XR even stands for and where the origins of it come from. That’s literally a Twitter battle every other day. And then we’ve got spatial computing, which Magically tried to use to differentiate themselves. And we have Microsoft with Mixed Reality.

André Elijah:
And so there’s all these terms and everyone has their own branded version of the same thing, which made having that common language difficult. So, here’s Zuckerberg blowing $10 billion a year, whatever to make the dream happening. Renames the company Meta in the spirit of the metaverse. And so everyone now is using metaverse for everything. But I just think if you’re building this content, you’re building real time content with networked interactions and expressiveness and personalization, all of things like that. Now we have everyone saying that Web 3 projects are all the metaverse. You buy an NFT and it’s for the metaverse, even though you can’t use that content anywhere else. I saw an article the other day about an audio metaverse and it’s like-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh God.

André Elijah:
Everyone is just… If you do a Google search every day, it’s just nothing but metaverse this metaverse that. And most of it’s bullshit. If people are selling you stuff that will be used in the metaverse, 99% of it can’t be used anywhere because there’s no interoperability with any of the platforms. So it’s kind of disingenuous I find when people use the term metaverse. I think it’s great because it grounds the conversation to a degree. And if anyone with real understanding will know that we’re talking about networked multi-user experiences that are digital. But for the most part, I think it’s become a bit of a hype train thing and I’m waiting for it to die off again.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like Meta, Facebook, whatever, they muddied the waters a bit by calling what they’re doing the metaverse because right after that, everyone of course is asking, “Well, what is the metaverse?” But they’re associating the metaverse with Meta and think that everything metaverse related has to do with Meta the company.

André Elijah:
Yeah, that’s true. But I was watching an interview this morning on the Breakfast Club with Charlemagne, and DJ Envy, and Angel Yee. And they had a Ja Rule on there and he was talking about how he’s building a Madison Square Garden for the metaverse. And I’m like, dude, what now? And so then he said two things later, he had said that he was building inside of the platform called the Sandbox, which is a crypto platform. But one Web 3 real time product isn’t the metaverse. He needs a certain level of interoperability between the different platforms and we need to be able to jump to and from them easily before I would ever consider it to be the metaverse. But it’s common parlance now. It’s to the point where 46 year old rappers are dropping the metaverse now in interviews.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. It’s funny. At work where I’m at now, we just released a print magazine and our next issue that we’re doing the theme for it is Web 3. It’s geared towards product communities. And so I’m trying to find what that intersection is going to be between Web 3 and product communities and stuff. But we were initially going to call it metaverse because of that kind of large encompassing, I guess, general definition of it as so many people jump on the bandwagon. But I think narrowing it to Web 3 hopefully will help with that. But I wanted to get those definitions because I think that along with NFTs and DAOs and all that stuff gets thrown in together and people just get confused and I almost feel like that’s on purpose.

André Elijah:
Yeah. I think the running joke right now is if you want to raise a bunch of money, maybe not right now because things are on a downturn, but certainly a couple months ago, if you wanted to raise money, you just say Web 3, metaverse, and DAO and a pitch deck and all of a sudden you’re valued at $50 million. And I was even thinking about doing some stuff in the crypto space and I talked to a couple investors. And honestly, dude, I didn’t have anything solid. It was pretty shaky. The idea that I had and the investors were like, “Yeah, your company, if you started right now, it’s valued at $25 million. I can help you raise $5 million tomorrow.” And it’s like, “Say what? Dude, I don’t even have a deck. I don’t have a company. What are you talking about?”

André Elijah:
I felt a little bit dirty having those conversations. I’m like, you know what, I’m just going to keep on doing this VR AR thing for a minute and just ride this out. But that was the thing. You throw enough of those terms around in a deck and you got a really big valuation and chances are Andreessen Horowitz is going to jump in and value it at a billion dollars, which is those things that was happening. So, it’s interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
So, I was going to ask this question. I’ll still ask it, but I can’t help but notice in your profile picture you have these Snapchat, AR Spectacles. And that’s one way that people can experience these immersive experiences. You also mentioned Meta Quest 2. Are there other ways that people can start to get a sense of what these immersive experiences are about?

André Elijah:
Yeah. So in the case of the spectacles, those are very much developer only or creator only, as Snap’s terminology would be. So, there’s only a handful of people in the world, maybe 600-700 people in the world that have Spectacles right now. They’re early. They’re very cool. I love using them, but they’re really for us to figure out what the capabilities in a lightweight headset need to be for augmented reality to be real and to go mainstream. So, there’s a lot of dialogue between people like myself and Snap to eek out the most performance and have an understanding of how we want to use these things in the first place. I think in the coming years they’ll hit mainstream and you’ll be able to buy them. But right now those glasses are very much for developers to spell out what the future is going to be like.

André Elijah:
In terms of what can you use today to get a sense of what all the stuff is going to be like, Snapchat is huge when it comes to AR. There’s hundreds of millions of active users right now using AR multiple times a day. So, a lot of the marketing projects that my team engages on are all Snap based just because they have a high number of users, the retention is really high, and people just love using the platform. And so my team has built projects for Direct TV and AT&T and Google and probably some others that I can’t even think of right now all on Snap.

André Elijah:
And typically when we get a request for breaking down the project, it always starts off with, “We’re going to target every platform. We’re going to do Spark AR and we’re going to do Web AR so you can hit the stuff in a web browser. And we’re going to do Snap and maybe even a dedicated app.” And two weeks into any of these processes, they’re like, “We’re just going to go to use Snap because they have the highest amount of users, the highest amount of retention, and the capabilities of the platform are dope. So, I think if you want to experience AR right now, Snap is probably the way to go on your phone.

André Elijah:
And if you want to experience virtual reality, Meta Quest 2 is basically the best headset you can get, best platform you can get. It’s a few hundred bucks. You can go to Amazon or Best Buy and pick them up and bring them home. And it’s honestly the best experience that you can get right now all in one standalone headset. You don’t need a computer, which I think VR was really held back for a while by the fact that you needed a gaming computer for the longest time to be able to drive these things. And so here we have a standalone device that’s basically Android phone on your face. And you get really compelling content. You get, if you want to work on your fitness, you got Supernatural, which is probably the best workout app ever. And I’m really into it for the boxing. We’ve got, if you’re into shooters, they’ve remade Resident Evil 4 in VR and it’s only available on the Quest and it’s probably the best VR game I’ve played next to Half-Life: Alyx.

André Elijah:
And so you’ve got all these games that are being able to run in a standalone form factor. And then if you want some of those PC only experiences, then you can connect with a cable or even wirelessly to your PC and have it be a PC headset as well. So I think if you want to get into AR, it’s going to be Snapchat on your phone for the time being. And if you wanted to get into VR, then it’s going to be Meta Quest. And even with the Quest, they’re enabling augmented reality and mixed reality experiences now, too. It’s black and white pass through, but all your content is color. It’s really compelling. It’s really compelling.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I have a client that bought me, well, actually I had requested him to get me a Meta Quest 2 instead of paying me a deposit, it’s still in my closet. I haven’t broken it out yet. I need to give a spin.

André Elijah:
Yeah. Well if you open it up, which you need to, we can play together and you can add me and I will onboard you. That’s a promise.

Maurice Cherry:
No, you mentioned-

André Elijah:
[crosstalk 00:19:12].

Maurice Cherry:
All right. You mentioned these earlier clients that you’ve worked with. You said Snap, you mentioned just for some of the others I’m looking at your website here, Uber, Sony, Drake, Beyonce. When you’re working with these brands, are you seeing any specific trends when it comes to the type of immersive experiences they want to create?

André Elijah:
Early days VR was very much driven by hype. So, you basically wanted to have a very basic project. Keep in mind the capabilities when this wave of VR was popping off a few years ago, five years ago, the capabilities weren’t really as fleshed out as they are now. So it was basically you could look around in a headset. If you were lucky, you had motion track controllers. But you’re still tethered to a PC that wasn’t very powerful, especially when it was driving a stereoscopic two views at 90 frames per second. So, you were.

André Elijah:
Limited in what you could do. And early days it was basically let’s build this thing, attach a celeb or a big brand to it, and get press. And so basically you were building projects just to get press because there really was no market to make money. So, you were getting paid to build the experiences and your metric was how many views and how many articles did you get? And I think that did a lot of harm to the industry because weren’t creating anything really of value that stood the test of time. People weren’t getting much utility out of it and it hurt the space. And that’s why when I say I’m one of the lucky ones that’s still around, I mean 90% of my peers have died off in this industry to go to adjacent industries or something completely different because there just was no way to make money in VR for the longest time until the last couple years with the advent of the Quest and Quest 2.

André Elijah:
So, I think now we’re at a point where we have enough data and we have enough users that we can make a go of this, if you do it right, and really create value for people, whether it’s through an entertaining experience, like a game, or something that provides utility, like a workout app that actually helps people with fitness. Maybe it’s a meditation app that helps with people’s personal wellness and that sort of thing. So, I think we’re at a point now where we’re trying to identify what are the opportunities to create value for people? As opposed to what’s this flashy headline that I can get with a celeb or a big brand attached just for shits and giggles? And it’s a very different way of working. That’s why I pitch a lot of projects because I don’t necessarily have all these clients coming to me. But it’s like, “Hey, I see an opportunity because I’m working with the platform. I have some insight as to the numbers or percentage splits of who’s engaged in what kind of content. And I see an opportunity here if we do it right.”

André Elijah:
And I think that’s the key thing is doing it right because you don’t want shovelware. You don’t want to announce something that never gets out the door and you ultimately don’t want to fail the platform. As much shit as they take, Meta’s done a really great job in building a platform that succeeds for the developers and that you know that if you manage to get to that store and they push you in front of their audience, you’ll live to fight another day. You won’t have to close up shop, you can pay your mortgage, everything is good.

André Elijah:
And I think part of that responsibility is creating content that stands the test of time, that shows up and does well for its audience. And ultimately, I say this every time we take on a project, we got to come correct. I don’t want to build a thing that we ship on day one and we forget about it. I don’t want to ship something that people forget about. It’s like come correct, create value for the platform, create value for the users, and then identify the next opportunity, and rinse and repeat. But the key thing is to come correct.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you mentioned shovelware because first of all, that immediately took my mind back to late ’90s, early 2000s when companies were just starting to get on the internet. And they were making just trash just to say that they had some sort of presence, like Pepsi world or something like that. Where you go and it’s like, “Oh, you can view our latest commercial.” Why would I want to view a commercial? It wasn’t any sort of intent behind it, I guess, outside of it being just another commercial, another ad. But I think that was also because brands then, this was such a new technology and a new space, they didn’t know how to operate within it. I would imagine now with the metaverse, maybe companies are a little smarter about the type of experiences that they want to have, maybe, possibly, not really.

André Elijah:
I don’t want to anyone under the bus, but no. There’s group chats with people and we see the latest headlines every now and then from the Verge or Engadget and we trade it around. We say, “Why does this even exist?” There’s a lot of that going around still. That’s kind of the nature of the beast to a degree. You got these huge multi-billion dollar companies that are trying to create platforms and they want some big names attached and the people that have access to those big names. It’s the traditional agency model in a lot of ways where agencies aren’t really run by creative people. There’s a million levels of abstraction involved and everyone takes a meeting on every little thing and it’s designed by committee and none of it is breathtaking. None of it is new. None of it’s innovative. And the end product hurts.

André Elijah:
So, I think a lot of these projects and products that come out that are associated with a big agency and a big brand, you can probably guess that it’s not going to be the greatest thing ever. But if you have a really small, nimble team, that’s dope at what they do and they’ve studied the space and they’ve worked at it, they’ve put in those hours, and they get a hold of something valuable, like a brand or IP, then they’re going to knock it out of the park. That’s been the game with everything from the internet to we saw what happened in last year with the NFTs and Web 3 and all this stuff. Did we really need a Matrix Avatar project that’s basically just a rebranded version of Unreal’s Meta Humans? No, I don’t think we needed that. So I think, VR, AR none of it’s really all that different. I think you just need the indies kind of lay the groundwork for everyone else to follow. And you just make sure that the indies get their flowers and they get their paycheck so they can live another day.

Maurice Cherry:
That makes a lot of sense. That makes a lot of sense because what you are seeing are a lot of small studios and independent developers trying to stake their claim. And now the larger brands are kind of trying to rush in. And now that they see that, oh, this is something that I think we can be a part of in some way, now they want to try to rush in and get a piece of it. So, that makes sense. But some of these considerations you’re talking about, there’s so much to think about with, quote unquote, the metaverse there’s virtual wellbeing, there’s economics around NFTs and stuff, there’s intellectual property. How do you factor in these other types of considerations within your work? Do you think about that stuff?

André Elijah:
No, I try and limit the scope of what I do to exclude all that or else I wouldn’t get anything done all day. Our business right now on the games front, we’ve got a couple original games that we’re working on and we’ve become the master’s of porting games. So, we have access to the IP. We don’t have to worry about any of that. So, we’re in a good spot there. And then when it comes to the agency side, obviously we’re working with the brands and agencies. So IP again, isn’t really a concern for us because they’re coming to us and saying, “Use our name and do this thing.” So, I think the way I’ve tackled this, we kind of get around all of that. I don’t think I have, as well as the studio’s doing, I don’t think I have enough dollars for all the lawyers that would be involved with everything you’re mentioning.

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. Let the big companies sort that out. That’s what they’re paying for, right?

André Elijah:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I love that you’ve got this portion on your site with rejected projects. Why did you decide to show those?

André Elijah:
Yeah, so it’s weird, man. So, a lot of what people do when they’re indie is build products and projects and prototype things. But if you take a look at their portfolios, they only have the finished projects, the sexy ones, the ones that shipped. And you never know about what happened in those three months or four months between them shipping stuff. You never know what the backstory is. You don’t know the genesis of so many of these things. And I found myself for a while not shipping projects and doing a lot of prototyping and having a lot of discussions. And I just wanted an avenue to show it off and put it up as in a way that’s like, “Hey, this is not final. It’s not shipping. It’s not representing anyone. But these are the things that we’re thinking about. These are the conversations that we’re having behind closed doors.” The people that we’re talking to are probably people that you would want to want a product from or at least the conversation with to figure out what this would look like.”

André Elijah:
And ultimately I just said one day, “Fuck it. I’m just going to post all of this stuff sitting on all of these decks and all of these ideas and all these email threads and conversations that I’ve had. Why shouldn’t people know about it? They’re not secret.” I did the work to come up with the idea and get it in front of the right people and pitch them. So, maybe people should know that I’m not just kind of sitting around playing Fortnite all day, but I’m not shipping stuff, but I’m actually trying to get things done. I’m trying to build alignment behind the scenes with big brands and stuff. And so just kind of decided one day I got enough material, let’s do it.

André Elijah:
And to be fair, I’m probably showing only a 10th of the rejected pitches that are pretty decent. Just a matter of I need to find the time to throw all that stuff up. So I think we’ve got, what do we have in there, dude? We’ve got some People stuff. We’ve got Title and RocNation who I was talking to for a while about doing some stuff. I think we got Dead Menace in there. So, there’s enough cool ideas and content in there that it just kind of made sense to put it out there and say, “Hey, yeah, I know all these people.” And if we have something strong, I can take an idea back to them as well. And maybe we’ll do something in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s probably also just a learning experience, hopefully, for people that are like, “Oh, we just got pitched on a similar project. Maybe we don’t do it this way, or something like that. So it’s kind of a learning tool.

André Elijah:
Yeah. A hundred percent

Maurice Cherry:
Now as these immersive technologies become more readily available, now we’ve got, like you said, Snap Spectacles, we got Meta Quest 2. I’m sure there are going to be more peripherals that come down the line in the years to come. What do you think is going to set each experience apart as these technologies become more readily available?

André Elijah:
I think part of it is understanding the tech and how to make it work and understand the limitations and polish everything that you do. Like I said before, you got to come correct. So when we’re creating these different experiences, some of them are games and some of them are applications, mixed reality applications that add a layer of utility on top of your physical space, your home or whatever. I think user experience is really important. Onboarding users that have never touched a headset before is really important. Letting them feel comfortable and getting them to a point of comfort where they can share with their friends, “Hey, put on this headset and try this thing out.” We need to stop getting away from these high end technologies because this kind of tinkerer space or this hardcore technology space and realize that it’s for everyone. So I think polish and onboarding and taking the ego out of it is really important to grow that adoption.

Maurice Cherry:
Now we’ve talked a lot about your work. We’ve talked for the past 30 minutes about your work. Let’s kind of switch back to the real world. Let’s learn more about Andre Elijah, the person, the man. Tell me about where you grew up.

André Elijah:
Yeah. I grew up in Toronto, middle class family, parents working their asses off to give me a future. Initially wanted to be a child actor and got into that for a little bit. And that kind of kicked off my whole film industry thing. So, did a lot of auditions, was in some commercials and couple small movies and that sort of thing growing up. And really loved the energy of being on set really loved being creative with people. So, that I think set the tone for the rest of my career and seeing how people collaborated and worked under really stressful situations on a set to create something really, really dope.

André Elijah:
And grew out of that a little bit. Just the auditions were a lot with everything I had going on at school. I had a lot of extracurriculars and bands and drama and all that sort of stuff. Kind of aged out and then there was an opportunity when I was in, I think grade eight, seven or eight to do what was called an options program and I sucked at sports. So, it was basically an opportunity to do more creative things. So on top of doing debate, there was an opportunity to be part of the film club. And that piqued my interest immediately. My first time shooting and editing, it was a… My first camera that I used was a Canon and GL1 camera, which is a 3CCD or three chip semi-pro camera from Canon. And my first edit suite was I think Final Cut 3 on a Power Mac G4 with mini DV capture deck and external monitors and all that sort of stuff. So I started, they threw me in the deep end and I got to play with the pro stuff first.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

André Elijah:
It was probably seven or eight years before I ever touched iMovie. After I started in Final Cut, I found that whole process of shooting projects and editing them and taking them through post production really, really interesting and fascinating. And I picked it up quick. That just kind of became my thing. And I was always a geek and loved playing with computers. So, the fact that I could create the stuff that people would watch and enjoy while geeking out on these really hardcore computers was a dream from true.

André Elijah:
A lot of the older students, I was grade seventh, grade eight and a lot of the older students that were in grade 11, 12 when they graduated, they went off to work in the big leagues. We had some guys that went off to New York and worked on the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. We had a couple guys go off to work at visual effects houses. We had some that went off to China and worked in documentary films there. And so I guess they all kind of took me under their wing and I got to see life through their eyes for a while and they onboard me to their projects. So, I was this young kid that was getting really shitty duties on their projects, but it was dope. And eventually I got good at editing. So I became an editor, freelance editor while I was still in high school and all that.

André Elijah:
I ended up working with Radio Television Hong Kong. I was editing some of their documentaries and a buddy of mine that I worked with in the corporate world, we were both moonlighting in the film industry. He ended up going to the American Film Institute. He became a directing fellow there and I edited the three short films that got him accepted into the American Film Institute. So, that kind of set me up. And then I worked at my first agency ever I worked at as a video editor initially cutting together demo reels for them and content for their clients. And then they turned me into a flash developer before flash got killed off by Apple, Steve Jobs, and one letter. They turned me more into a dev than anyone else. And let me see what happened when you press a button and something bounces on a screen. They did that. And I think in a big way kind of set me up to where I’m at now.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you got introduced into tech at a early age, but through media. I think that’s pretty cool.

André Elijah:
Yeah. I really just always love the creative process and being able to geek out to pull that process together. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a lot of fun. You see a lot of stuff and yeah, I think the common thread in my career though has been being on the cutting edge of technology. So whether it was the film and using janky ass versions of Final Cut Pro on these ridiculously powerful computers. I did a stint at Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. So, I was a systems analyst for them working on some hardcore service stuff. Years later, after film and agency stuff, working in AR and VR, again, cutting edge of technology. So, I think that’s always been kind of the constant in my life and in my career.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you went to Ryerson University, which I think by the time this interview comes out, people know it’s now Toronto Metropolitan University. But you majored in fine and studio arts as part of their new media program there.

André Elijah:
That’s correct.

Maurice Cherry:
What was your time like there?

André Elijah:
It wasn’t great. I went to Ryerson because the founder of my first agency, he was actually in the first batch of new media graduates at Ryerson. That guy has always been my hero and I love him to death. Shout to Spencer Saunders. I wanted to be like him, so I went to Ryerson and hopped into the new media program over there. And it was very different than when he went to school. I was one of those people, man, I like doing stuff. I don’t really like the theory of things. I like getting my hands dirty. It just didn’t click for me, which is fine. Maybe it clicked for some others, but I like getting my hands dirty. I like building stuff. I like doing the work.

André Elijah:
So, sitting in a class and watching someone code on a projector doesn’t really teach me that much. Hearing about a VHS fine artwork from 20 years prior when we’re doing stuff online didn’t really connect with me. It’s just one of those things. I think that’s been another constant in my life too. I just like doing, I don’t really like the instruction. I Just like getting my hands dirty with the code and seeing how things react when I change things around. So, Ryerson wasn’t really my bag.

André Elijah:
First couple years, I think I was in school full time. And then the last couple years I was working down the street at Canada Pension while I was doing my classes. So, Canada Pension was really cool. They let me slip off to class when I needed to for an hour or two here and then go back to work. So, I start my day early. I’d end it kind of later in the day, probably five, six o’clock. And skip out for, instead of taking lunches or whatever, I’d just go to class. So, at least my last couple years I had real work that I was doing to kind of balance it all out.

André Elijah:
But yeah, go get your degree. That’s the thing that gives you credibility I guess. But I can honestly say, at this point in my career, I don’t think I’ve ever looked back at Ryerson and been like, wow, they set me up for this or everything that I did there led to this. God, no. It was me just kind of downloading Unreal Engine when they announced Unreal Engine 4 and being able to play with those content examples and build my own stuff that really kind of got me here.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. I have I guess similar experiences to when I was in college. I would imagine that college is still set up this way where your first two years you’re just slammed with classes because you have to take your humanities and all the general stuff before you can really get into your major. And then once you get into your major, there’s not so many classes hopefully. So, you have more time just outside of school to do things. My first year at Morehouse I was ready to go. I was like I don’t know if this is what I want to do. And I stuck it out because eventually I did have part-time jobs. I actually started working in the computer science lab at Morehouse and that’s how I got into, not necessarily how I got into technology. I was into it before then. But I got to spend so much time in the computer lab teaching myself HTML, basic JavaScript, et cetera, reverse engineering webpages, figuring that stuff out on my own that had nothing to do with what I was actually learning in my major courses.

Maurice Cherry:
And so I think if I look back at my time, similar to what you’re saying, I don’t know if I would really recommend it. I could say, “Oh, I went to Morehouse.” And that means something to people in the world. To me, eh, it was okay. It was all right. I got my degree. I got out, no debt. I can say that proudly.

André Elijah:
Key part, right? You got out, you survived, you did it.

Maurice Cherry:
We had our graduation outside. They normally have the graduations outside and it stormed on my graduation, lightning hitting electronics stormed. And I’m sitting there in my cap and gown drenched because the person next to me had an umbrella and he wouldn’t let me get under the umbrella because he’s like, “I don’t know who you are. Our last names just happened to be together in the alphabet. Get away from me.” Yeah, I get what you’re saying.

André Elijah:
At least you went to you graduation though. I skipped mine. So yeah, that tells you everything.

Maurice Cherry:
So after Ryerson, you started out as a freelancer. You were working as a production artist. You were doing a lot of post production work. Was that kind of where the education for you really set in, doing the work?

André Elijah:
Yeah. But even what I was doing half the time there was no template for, there was no real learning other than doing it. So, I was fortunate enough that I got my hands on the first couple RED cameras that ever landed in Canada. So, for the people that don’t know-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

André Elijah:
Yeah. So that was a big deal. But for people who don’t know, the RED camera was really the first 4K digital camera that film productions could get their hands on. So, it’s from a company called RED and Peter Jackson was the first director that would create a project with them. And it was a short film that he created specifically for the company. And since then, they basically redefined Hollywood and they’re kind of the norm now. And if you watch videos from any of the big YouTubers, like MKBHD, or iJustine, or Jonathan Morrison, any of these people, they all have REDs.

André Elijah:
And back in the day, REDs used to cost as much as a house. So the guy that went off to be a directing fellow at American Film Institute and someone else that I was working with, they both happened to get REDs at launch because they could spend as much as a house on a camera and they were directors. They didn’t want to know how these things worked. They didn’t need to know. So me kind of being the post-production guy and ultimately becoming an onset workflow person, I learned how the camera worked. I learned how to get the footage off the cards, transcode it.

André Elijah:
I could see a camera shooting and know whether or not it was going to die. And in the early days reliability wasn’t that great. And I just became the guy that knew how these damn things worked. And so I was consulting a lot on RED productions. Known as the RED whisperer because I just knew everything about them. I figured it out on the fly. There was no real support network for these things. No one had them. So, we just had to figure it out by the seat of our pants on a really expensive production on set. And so worked with those cameras for years.

André Elijah:
And then that’s kind of what led into me working with Beyonce. So, we were shooting a commercial, a real estate commercial, completely unrelated in New York City. And on the last day of the shoot, I got a message from the director of the Beyonce project saying we’ve got 10 REDs on the floor at a place called Off Hollywood and we don’t know how to set them up. And my partner and I went over there and we got all the cameras on the same firmware version. We set them up so they could do multi-cam shoots. And we got them all up and running at the facility or at the location, which was Roseland Ballroom in New York City, which I think is closed now. And we got those things up and running for four nights and in a day basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

André Elijah:
For a live via satellite, quote unquote, live via satellite segment for the Michael Jackson tribute concert. We got through that shoot and it was the first 10 RED multicam shoot ever. And we did it for Beyonce and that just kind of we hacked that together. It wasn’t supposed to work and it did. So all of this stuff, it’s you learn by doing. You learn by throwing yourself into really uncomfortable situations and just saying, “Fuck it, let’s just figure it out.” So, that’s kind of led me from thing to thing and it hasn’t failed me yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you founded a studio back then, Last Step Studios. And based on what I’ve heard, your current studio evolved out of that over the course of a weekend. How did that happen?

André Elijah:
Yeah, I’ve had multiple studios. I guess, multiple studios under different names. And I keep on using up all the cool names. That’s why it’s Andre Elijah Immersive now because I just can’t come up with any more cool names that should be the name of a company. So in that company, I founded it with another student from Ryerson and we wanted to make video games. And on day one we realized, oh, crap, video games are very expensive to make, very expensive. And we don’t have money because we’re broke students. And so we pivoted immediately to doing architectural visualization work using real time engines. And so it was initially Unreal Engine.

André Elijah:
The work that we were creating in Unreal, it looked cool, it was realistic looking, and we could change material on couches and on walls and stuff. And that impressed some people, but they ultimately came to us for more traditional rendering work or dollhouse renderings and some static renderings, that sort of thing, because game engines was so new to the real estate market. It didn’t really get a lot of pickup. Ultimately, I think we wanted to do different things.

André Elijah:
I saw the demo of the HoloLens. I think it was at E3 where they showed off the Minecraft demo in AR. And I thought that was really kind of awe inspiring. And I wanted to try my hand at making something like that. I didn’t have the computers to do it. I didn’t have the know how to do it. I just wanted to do it. And at the same time, the Oculus Kickstarter had popped off and VR was trying to find its footing with Palmer at the helm. And there was something new and sexy and crazy about it that I really wanted to be part of. And it just reminded me of the same energy of so many other things that I chased over the years, whether it was doing the post production stuff in Final Cut or I was getting hands on time with the RED.

André Elijah:
It was just kind of new and unexplored and I wanted in. And I saw it. I saw it pretty clearly in my head what it could be. And I just figured I had a chance. So, literally two founders kind of going in different directions and we dissolved the company over a weekend. And by Monday my new company was spun up and I started trying to land that kind of work. And so tried to figure out ways to differentiate myself from everyone else. And I didn’t really know what to do. And I had never 3D modeled in my life. I was the engine guy, my old co-founder was the modeler.

André Elijah:
And I figured, you know what, if I’m going to do anything, I’m just going to go build Drake’s house and see what happens. And so I learned to 3D model and I built out Drake’s house, which I think was I don’t remember now. I think it’s 25,000 square feet or something ridiculous like that, his new house. The floor plans have leaked on the BBC. And so I had the floor plans and I built it out. I made a website for it, sent it out to a couple places, a couple media outlets. It wasn’t anything… I didn’t do a full court press for it or anything.

André Elijah:
And all of a sudden everyone picked up this goddamn house and there were stories everywhere. Teen Vogue picked it up and the Verge or Polygon picked it up, everyone. And I got millions of views in record time. And everyone started hitting me up, platforms and technology companies and other brands. And they’re like, “What are you going to do with this thing? Can you do product placement in this house? Can we roll it out to our platform?” Et cetera. And it took on a life of its own for a while there, trying to figure out what it could be.

André Elijah:
And that kind of gave me the legitimacy in a weird way. It was a horrible project technically. My computers were really weak, so I couldn’t render shadows properly. Couldn’t render post processing. My processors were too weak so I couldn’t even bake the shadows. It was God awful. But again, you have a big name, like Drake, who he’s huge now, but he was big then. You take his name and then you add on something crazy like VR and all of a sudden that’s the perfect combination there for some headlines.

André Elijah:
And so from there, I got a bunch of companies and agencies reaching out to me to do some work and then created the first new home sales suite in real estate for Canada off the back of that. And it actually happened to be for Drake’s agency, the agency that represented him for a bunch of stuff and worked with him for a bunch of stuff. They hit me up to do the first new home sales suite in Canada using VR. And so we rolled that out and prospective home buyers actually went into VR in the sales office and checked out their future homes. And so we rolled those out. And I did some stuff out of Miami. And then all of a sudden I’m doing VR for real estate. The thing that I was intending to do with my old co-founder I’m now doing on my own. And from there other companies started reaching, startups started reaching out to me saying, “Can you prototype ideas of ours? Because we don’t have the talent in house.” So, that was a stepping stone.

André Elijah:
And then suddenly bigger companies are more amenable to me working on their stuff or they’re reaching out. Pretty gradual growth until a couple years ago. Epic Games gave me a MegaGrant for an educational project that I’ve been working on called Innocence in the Fire. And that was the first major co-sign that I ever got. And they were really great. And so as soon as I announced, “Hey guys, I got an Epic MegaGrant.” Bam, life went into overdrive and Snap took me in and has been really supportive. And they keep on shining a light on me with different profiles and different features at their conferences and stuff. And then now I’m working with Meta. I’m working with some other companies. So, it’s been, the last couple years have kind of everything’s gone into overdrive, which I really love and appreciate. But yeah, it took a minute and some craftiness to get in position for that in the first place.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like things really kind of snowballed after that. I think it was Drizzy Manor, that was what you called it, right?

André Elijah:
Yep, exactly. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Things kind of just snowballed after that. And now you’re also on the AR, VR program advisory board at Vancouver Film School. How has that experience been for you in a way entering back into education? Although not as a student this time, of course.

André Elijah:
Here, we’ve got a school that has some really amazing graduates. We’ve got Neill Blomkamp went there. End of story, Neill Blomkamp, it’s done, it’s a lock. We’ve got this really amazing traditional film school that wants to explore new media and a new platform. And they’ve really crafted amazing programs and talent to foster that growth. So, initially there was a buddy of mine that was teaching there. He had me just give a guest lecture. The students were really into it. They asked really great questions. And I was honestly impressed because I think certainly myself and my peers weren’t solid students like they were when we were younger. Just talking to the staff and the program coordinator, I was like, “Wow, this is legit. And let’s figure it out.” They just kept on calling me back to give talks.

André Elijah:
And for the project that ended up getting the Epic MegaGrant, we actually used some of the students for their thesis project. We let them build a prototype of the game. The work was really great. And so just in conversations of how do you teach the next wave of people how to get into the space and teach them to prepare for the future. That just kind of became the onboarding to bring me in as advisor for the program. And it’s been great. They take our ideas seriously. The students that they have are amazing.

André Elijah:
The talent they have teaching, they’re all practicing professionals. It’s not those who can’t teach. It’s like that’s not the situation here. They’re all professionals in the space. They’re all people I work with in the space doing really dope shit. And so the students are really lucky. I wish all these teachers were at Ryerson when I was there because maybe I’d take something from it. But no, it’s been a really great experience working with the school and seeing the impact that it’s had on these students and seeing where they land after they graduate has been really dope.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve been quoted as saying that your biggest goal for the future is to set the standard for interactive and immersive education. Where does the passion for that goal come from?

André Elijah:
I went to private school when I was a kid and the best we had were VHS’s and DVDs that were horribly boring. And I think that if you’re paying that much in tuition, maybe there should be a better learning experience there. And I think with the accessibility of the Meta Quest or Snap on your phone, the level of access to content has never been more amazing and higher. And I think that if we, instead of doing shooty, shooty games all the time, we tried to engage people in new concepts and ideas and reinforce learnings, I think we’d be further along. So, I just think ultimately that if we were to use all these skills to build something dope, maybe the future has a chance, particularly around climate education.

André Elijah:
We keep on putting people into videos of this is a polar bear dying or this is the world on fire and it hasn’t really made enough of an impact. You just kind of see the trajectory that the world is on. It’s not great. So, I think that if we were to engage people more and actually show them the effects of their actions in a digital environment or in a simulation, that maybe it’ll hit different. The study’s have proven that if you experience things in VR, your retention is way higher. You understand concepts way more clearly in VR. And I think that if we were to use that for some good, maybe the world would be on a better path. So, that’s just one of my weird altruistic things. But I’m hoping that by making these games that are mainstream and onboard more users and get more people there, there’s a viable path to creating really dope immersive content for education. And then maybe we can turn this world around in a decade from now. That’s the hope anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Now your career to date, as you’ve described it just in this interview, has been extremely prolific. Who are some of the people that have really helped you out over the years, whether there’s been mentors, peers, anyone?

André Elijah:
Everyone, man. I think this whole industry. I would say the immersive industry is more open and friendly and awesome than any other industry I’ve been part of. I think at the heart of it, we’re all a bunch of misfits trying to find our way and trying to lock in and create the future that we all want. And so it’s been ultimately way more collaborative than any other industry I’ve been part of. So, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a major executive at a company that’s doing immersive stuff or it’s a lowly developer that specializes in some weird thing. The whole industry has been really collaborative and really cool. And there’s you basically check your ego at the door. So, to single anyone out would be kind of weird because I’ve literally gone up to the top execs at Meta, formerly Facebook, and been like, “Hey, I really want a meeting with so and so.” And then they send a message and the next day I get a meeting with that person.

André Elijah:
It’s just one of these things. I think VR and AR, I don’t think anyone that’s in it, really in it isn’t a geek. I think we all identify with each other in really profound ways. And so there’s a level of humility involved in the industry that’s been really great. You see inside of industry Slacks and Discord groups and everything. We’re all sharing information. We’re all sharing learnings. We’re all helping refine each other’s pitches and play testing each other’s games and applications. And as much as it’s Andre Elijah Immersive, there’s a lot of people on my team and there’s a lot of people not on my team that have helped out and helped to get us where we are now. So, it’s really one of those things, it takes a village to raise a kid. So, I think we’re no different

Maurice Cherry:
If there’s somebody that’s out there that’s been listening to this and they want to follow in your footsteps, whether it’s I would imagine just getting into this world of AR and VR, what advice would you give them?

André Elijah:
I would say just do it. I don’t want to sound flippant with that, but this is one of those industries where it doesn’t take a whole lot to be able to get in and start building. When I worked in film years ago, you needed more than a Handycam to have a good looking image. You needed more than just iMovie to have a really solid edit and final delivery. You need the color correcting and all that sort of stuff. And so you have all the software and hardware considerations and all that. With AR and VR, you need a not so powerful computer and a $300 headset and you’re off to the races. Game engines are free. Unity and Unreal are free. They have lots of example projects and tutorials online that you can follow to find your footing and start building, but you don’t need a powerful computer because these headsets are all running mobile parts.

André Elijah:
So, you’re not pushing for photorealism for these projects. So I think for under a grand ultimately you can be set up and you can start building. And so I think that removes a lot of the barriers and a lot of the excuses as to why you can’t get into it. So, I would say literally just Google some of your favorite games and how to rebuild some of those mechanics. There’s literally YouTube channels that just show you in Unreal or in Unity how to build mechanics from games that we all play and like. Learning about the interaction systems and how to set up a project and how to compile. This is all stuff that’s available at your fingertips. So I think more than ever in this industry you want to do it. You can just go ahead and do it. You don’t need to ask for permission. There’s no one gate keeping any crazy hardware or software. You can literally just start.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would’ve went into if you didn’t get into this field?

André Elijah:
I asked myself that a lot. For a while I wanted to be an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer. And for a while I wanted to be a robotics engineer. And for a while I also wanted to be a professional jazz trumpet player. I played trumpet for a number of years.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

André Elijah:
It was going to be one of those three things.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So given how fast all of this is progressing, the technology and everything, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want to be doing?

André Elijah:
I’m going to be shipping a number of games in the next two to three years and then probably go investor. My team members know that I can maintain this pace for a couple more years. They’re all young. They got a lot longer to go and I want to be the first check in on their companies when they go ahead and do their own thing. And I tell them all the time, “I need you guys to bang out these games on these projects and we’re going to do them together. And you’re going to have them to your name and it’s going to be great. And then you’re going to go out and you’re going to do your own thing and you’re going to stomp all over me and it’ll be fun. I just want to be the one to fund you.” So, I really want to be the ones that open some doors for them once they’re done with my stuff and just help the next generation I think.

André Elijah:
I think there’s been this whole thing since early web days, and then you saw the shift to the app store and everything and all these tech companies, there’s a certain progression. And you need to go get your Tech Crunch articles and your press and go get your venture capital and all this sort of stuff. And I think there’s other ways to do that. I think if you’re really good at shipping products and projects that connect with people, there’s a different way forward. And so I just want to impart my wisdom on these people and I know a lot of people and look at my rejected section, I know a lot of people. So if there’s a way for me to open some doors and connect some dots for folks, then I think that’s the position I want to be in a couple years. And not necessarily shipping a project for a brand every month, month and a half and deal with these crazy ass hours. I’m getting old.

Maurice Cherry:
And you got kids!

André Elijah:
And I got kids! I got to watch them grow up and do after school activities with them when they’re older and stuff. So yeah.

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

André Elijah:
Yeah. My website is www.andreelijah.com. And my Twitter is @andreelijah. So if you want some industry hot takes, that’s probably the place to go. And then yeah, my website, that’s where the portfolio lies. And if you want to know the work that we’ve done or the stuff we pitched and rejected section, it’s all there.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Andre Elijah, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Just hearing this, I don’t know, almost this whirlwind of activity that you’ve got going on, not just with what you’re doing now with the studio, but what you plan to do in the future and really how you’ve had this passion to do this for such a long time. I think it really points to the fact that while these technologies, VR for instance, have taken a long time to get off the ground, there’s been this constant steady push by people like you to really push things into the, not just the mainstream, but to the next level to create experiences that in the future we’ll be talking about for years and years to come. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

André Elijah:
I appreciate you, dude. Thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.

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Raven L. Veal, PhD

How do you define yourself? It’s a question a lot of us will wrestle with at some point in life, and according to Raven L. Veal, PhD, understanding the answer to this is a critical part of design. She speaks from experience, too — as both a design lecturer and a strategic design lead, she definitely did not get to this level of success without understanding her truth at a deep level.

We started off with a brief introduction about her work at Citi Ventures, and then explored her lecture work at the University of Texas and what she learns from her students. Raven also talked about her mom as her source of creative inspiration, and shared her thoughts on design research, future tech, the role of art, moral imagination, and spirituality in designing technology. Trailblazers like Raven definitely let me know that we’re in good hands for the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Hi, my name is Raven Veal. I’m based in Austin, Texas, and I am a strategic design lead at Citi Ventures. I am also a lecturer at the University of Texas School of Design and Creative Technologies where I teach for the Masters in Arts and Design for Health program.

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

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Oh my gosh, 2022 has just been an influx of emotions. It’s been exciting. It’s been exhausting at times. It’s been a learning experience for me as far as really just wanting to dive into rest and what that looks like, especially when I’ve been so accustomed to a very fast paced hustle, grind culture context.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
One of my favorite inspirations is Trisha Huey and her Nap Ministry where she says, “Justice looks like a space to rest.” And so I’ve been trying to practice that and lean into that a little bit more. But overall I think 2022 has taught me a lot of important things about myself and others.

Maurice Cherry:
Diving into rest right now sounds so good. I guess, because I’m recording this at the end of a long work day, I’m like, “Oh, diving into rest is… ” I love what they’re doing with the Nap Initiative. I think especially over these past few years, it’s become something that so many people have empathized with over the pandemic.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Exactly. A 100%. I love and just honor and respect the work that she’s doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Overall, you mentioned this hustle grind culture, how have you been managing yourself through the pandemic?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yeah, so I think one practical thing that I’ve been trying to do is to schedule for myself moments of joy throughout the day. So I will typically try to block off the first half of my day, it is a privilege I’m able to do this, just for heads downtime. And then I’ll dedicate the latter part of my day to meetings.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
But even in between, I’ll schedule, maybe 30 minutes or so for a dance break or I’m a woman of faith. So I’ll set aside some time to just pray or to kind of read the Psalms or just do something that is just, or walk my dog, go outside, get away from the screen, but just really try to schedule those pockets of joy and rest throughout my day. Literally, in my calendar, on my to-do list and make it a priority for me.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m the same way. I’ll tell people if it’s not on my calendar, I’m not doing it. I schedule all the time. I’ll do focus time in the morning. I’ll schedule some time after work, if I have it, and I usually try to make it.

Maurice Cherry:
So I have at least one day, and it’s usually Friday, where after 4:00 PM do not disturb is on, don’t call me, don’t talk, that’s my time. You can talk to me on Saturday, but anything after 4:00 PM on Friday, it’s a wrap.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Exactly. And claiming just that time for yourself establishing that boundary. So healthy. Yes. Yeah. A 100%

Maurice Cherry:
Now I want to talk about your work at Citi Ventures. I know we can’t kind of go too much into it, but you mentioned you’re a strategic design lead there. Can you talk about what strategic design actually is? What is that?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yeah. So there are a lot of names for this. I was actually talking to a colleague about this. So strategic design, you also hear business or venture design. Some people say design strategy, but essentially it’s the skill of addressing systemic challenges with innovative approaches aligned across several dimensions.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So you’ll have business viability. That’s the question of, do we have a distinctive sustainable business strategy? You have user desirability, are we adequately addressing the core need of the community? Technical feasibility, so is the proposed solution possible to create and bring to life? And then I like to add a fourth dimension, which is ethical impact. So how well does this approach optimize good and minimize harm and not just on an individual level, but also a societal and environmental level as well?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So the core of actually what I do is research driven, but it’s more so generative and strategic design in the sense that you have to have a really critical and forward thinking eye to provide direction for the team that brings all of those pieces together.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say just a typical day looks like for you?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yeah, so a typical day at Citi Ventures, it varies a bit, so I may actually be conducting research speaking with stakeholders and one on one interviews. Right now we’re running a diary study on one of our projects. So that may look like making sure that the participants of that specific research study are engaged, analysis, playing back our research findings in creative and engaging ways.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
We also have, I may be participating in a team meeting that day. I’m a part of two teams. So the Racial Equity Design and Data Initiative, and we have syncs where we come together, discuss what we’re working on, and kind of what the next steps are.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And then also I’m a part of the UX Research Team, as well, and we have different meetings where we touch base on methodology. We talk about what’s going on from a current event perspective as it relates to research. And so all of that runs the gamut of a week and I may even touch multiple components of that within a given day.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds pretty busy, like a lot of research, a lot of meetings, but I guess with something called Citi Ventures it sounds like it is pretty kind of futuristic and forward thinking. So that makes sense.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun and I will just shout out to the team because there is an element of flexibility to the day that I feel like is necessary for this type of work. But that also makes it pretty enriching and eliminates some of the burnt outness that you might get from having so many things to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now outside of that work, you mentioned you’re also a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin for their School of Design and Creative Technologies. How did you first get started there?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I first got started last year, actually. The courses that I teach are field work and design. So I taught that in the fall really kind of exploring ethnographic methods of research and design. And then this semester I taught storytelling for presentations. So the context of presenting your work in a meaningful way and you know what?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I just have a passion for empowering the next generation of designers and researchers in this space. And it’s actually in the program that I teach for is specifically design and health. And my entire background is in healthcare, public health, psychology, behavioral science. And I think that design has a very powerful place in that industry and all of the students remarkable.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I teach both medical students. So it’s Dell Medical students and also current students in that program. But to circle back and answer your question. So I got involved in it last year, just as a way for me to kind of give back in that specific way and inspire aspiring designers.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Design and health is a really big field. I think we look at technology, things like wearables and stuff like that, but really the whole healthcare experience, I would say over the past, I don’t know, maybe 10 or 15 years has really been transformed by design, whether it’s actually designing different apps and programs for people to access services or even just making different interfaces and forms and things easier for people to understand.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if people really kind of think about just how much design plays into health like that?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
It really is. And healthcare itself is such a relational industry. And I think that in the past, and sometimes currently now, there’s an over emphasis on the emerging technologies and technology in the space, but everything is to the end of how do we, I guess, uplift and optimize the relationships between patients and caregivers, between patients and providers, between providers and payers, it’s very relational oriented.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And so it’s really interesting and intriguing, the role of design, in building experiences and technologies to support the optimization of those relationships.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’d also say even to kind of build trust. If we just think about over the past few years with this pandemic, so much of whether it’s forms or commercials or any sort of advertisements or things that talk about prevention, washing your hands, wearing masks, et cetera, like that, design has really played a very interesting part in, I think, how information has been spread about COVID.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I completely agree. And that word comes up a lot, trust, especially kind of with the history of certain communities, our community in this space. I use a term like progressive trust, right? You’re not going to be able to get a 100% of trust back immediately, especially if there have been certain groups that have been wronged in the past, but how can you slowly rebuild that? By being reliable, by being consistent, by being transparent about in the design of the experiences that you’re delivering.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So yes, love that word, trust. And I think it’s something that is very pervasive in the industry right now.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been just kind of teaching during the pandemic?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
You know what? It’s been interesting. Okay. So in the fall, my course was completely virtual and I think that has its pros and cons. So I guess the pros are it’s immediately accessible. You can essentially roll out bed and like join a Zoom call and be in the class, but there’s no replacement for that kind of in person interaction, especially when I was teaching field work and design that there was still that in person component, right?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
When you’re doing ethnography, you can do it. There’s such a thing as digital ethnography of course, but really kind of immersing yourselves in the world and environments of those that you’re trying to serve, you have to do that in person.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So I would say it was a welcome challenge, again, with both his pros and cons this year, it’s been a little more kind of relaxed in the sense that we’ve been able to meet in person. So yeah, I’ve experienced a gamut of emotions, kind of teaching in both modalities.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re teaching in Texas in the South, I’m here in Georgia, in Atlanta.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
It is, especially since there aren’t necessarily any, I guess, widespread restrictions or you have to do this, you have to do that. So it’s really kind of up to the professor, or at least in my experience, it has been in terms of what kind of rules or regulations will implement.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I tend to err on the side of caution. So when we were meeting in person last fall, I encouraged the use of mask and that we’re safely distanced when we did meet in person. So yeah. I mean, it’s definitely been a challenge in that regard.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What do you learn from the students there? What do they teach you?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Ooh, I think they teach me just the need for more tangible and practical modalities of learning, specifically as it relates to design, I’m a professor, well, adjunct professor of practice. So I’m still in industry and then also teaching as well. And when you are kind of in a “lab based setting,” it can err on the side of theory.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And I think the students continuously remind me in their kind of engagements and interactions as they’re actively seeking jobs in industry, or as they’re actively engaging patients as in their residencies or what have you that there’s a need for just very tactical practical education.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Not just theory, but how do we apply this to kind of what we’re doing? How do we apply this to where it is that we’re trying to go? I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned from them. Also too, that there’s just a diversity of thought and then a diversity of learning styles, not everyone learns the same way.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And I think it’s been really interesting to explore creative ways to engage people, how to make design education accessible to different types of learners. As you can imagine, when we’re on Zoom, making sure that you have the closed captioning on, but then how do you engage people who may be easily distracted in that type of setting or environment? So I think that’s the second thing that I’ve learned from the students too.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. I want to get more into your background, including this new initiative that you’re working on now, but I want to switch gears here a little bit. I want to talk about just kind of your origin story. Where did you grow up?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yeah, so I grew up, I’m a native Texan, so I grew up in Fort Worth, Funky Town, home of the stockyards, but they coming up. I grew up there. My mom actually, she, oh, I love her so much. She’s my creative inspiration. She had me when she was 16 years old. She did an amazing job even in that context. But yeah, she was kind of my introduction to all things creative.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
She’s an amazing artist. She can draw, she can sing, even though she doesn’t do it publicly or anything like that. But yeah, that’s kind of where I grew up. My neighborhood, Stop Six, in Fort Worth, Texas down the street from Dunbar High School. I personally went to Arlington Heights High School. It’s kind of weird. It’s Arlington Heights, but it technically is in Fort Worth, not in Arlington, but yeah, I grew up with myself. It was my little brother and sister. There’s like an 11 year gap there, but yeah, that’s where I grew up and a little bit about my context.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, with your mom being a creative, I’d imagine you were probably exposed to a lot of design and art and everything early on, right?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yeah. Definitely a lot of art and musically too. So one thing that people may not know is that I used to rap back in the day.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I had a whole bunch of different, don’t ask me to rap, but I used to put together different girl groups. So in high school we had a group called UGQ, so Underground Queens, and if you’re from Houston, UGK, Underground Kings, so it was a ode to them.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
But yeah, my mom, she was young, right? So we were listening to rap music together. We were listening to Lil Kim together just different creative outlets like that. She taught me how to draw. So I would draw with her and my brother and sister are amazing artists, they’re better than me. They’re amazing artists as well.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So yeah, I was always in a very creative space. I have a group of cousins and every year we had what’s called Cousin Camp. So we go down to my aunt’s house, my Aunt Ricky’s house in Pearland, Texas and I would be the cousin that’s putting everyone together to do something fun.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Like, “Okay, hey guys, let’s make a play and let’s act it out.” Or, “Hey, let’s create a family award show and let’s act it out.” Or, “Let’s create a song.” We actually did a remake of Tupac song, what is it called? When he’s like, “All I need in this life of sin, is me and my girlfriend.”

Maurice Cherry:
Me and my girlfriend, yeah.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
We remade that one to like, “All we need in this life of sin, is me and my cousins. So I’m the person in the family like, “Okay, Raven’s always going to kind of get all the cousins and then people together to do something creative.” And I think a lot of that came from my mom and just her just creativity in general. I was really up under her and yeah, just absorbing and observing all that in her.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds like a lot of fun and growing up around a bunch of cousins and everything like that. That sounds fun.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re growing up, you’re kind of exposed to all of this stuff. You end up going to Texas A&M< University, starting out in undergrad, you majored in psychology and for your master's, you kind of focused on public health. How was your experience there at Texas A&M? Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yeah. So A&M was an experience. I did want to be, actually become a psychiatrist until I was like, “Oh, I don’t really want to go to medical school or go down this route.” But yeah, it was pretty engaging. I met a lot of friends there, actually met my husband there. He majored in engineering and we met our junior year.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I think the last year or so I took a course in nutrition, I think, it was an elective and my professor, Dr. Joanne Luton, rest in peace. She actually introduced me to the field of public health. And she was like, “Hey, have you ever considered dressing people? Not just on an individual level, but on a population based level.” And that really intrigued me. And so she was very instrumental in me applying to my master’s program in public health.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
She gave me a full ride, essentially Alan Foundation Fellowship. And yeah, during that time too, I got a certificate in Health Systems and Design as a part of the College of Architecture at A&M. And that was also me trying to tap into my creative side and really understand and explore, how can I use creativity in this space to not just affect people on an individual level, but on a larger kind of population based level?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And so that was pretty interesting trying to understand how the design of architecture and space of hospitals, of wellness centers, how that influences health in that way. So I would say overall, my time at A&M was pretty pleasant.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like you were kind of early to the game with kind of bringing that knowledge of merging design and health in this way. So it wasn’t something that, I don’t know, was that kind of the spark for what you’re doing now?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I think so. I can’t run from who I am, right? So I’m a creative at heart and I’ve always been trying to, I call it the art of the pivot, how do I, at the same time, support myself and do something that I feel like will make money and keep me afloat, but then it’s also authentic to me?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And so I’ve always been on this quest to try to merge both sides of my brain. How do I integrate the creative part of who I am into this space that maybe is not traditionally seen as creative?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I don’t know when people think about, or here public health, I don’t think people think creative, I don’t know. But yeah, always trying to, maybe it did start there as far as me trying to merge those worlds.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. Now, after A&M you did research work at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston for a little over two years. Tell me about your research work there?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yeah. So University of Texas Health Science Center. So that was when I did my PhD program and that kind of funneled up into my dissertation in which I was trying to use data driven technologies in that sense, like smartphone technology to assess mental health, specifically among college students.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So obviously, unfortunately, depression is very common among college students. And so I was trying to explore, are there ways of both actively and passively trying to identify for that before it’s too late? And so that’s really what my research work was about. Trying to understand how to leverage some of the geospatial technology in your phone, so you flip it on and it can locate you.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
But there are ways to kind of use some of that data kind of combined with other forms of data to assess whether or not your behaviors are peculiar, for lack of a better term, to alert or notify other people that you may be in trouble or there may be a need.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And also part of that was trying to prototype a potential mobile application that could deliver that type of service as well. And so that’s, I think I have my dissertation linked on my website if anyone’s interested. I wouldn’t imagine, but yeah, that pretty much kind of summarizes some of the research work that I did there.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. And so you’re kind of working with tech and design also while you’re doing this research work, it kind of sounds like this was maybe a bit of a breakthrough moment in a way?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Absolutely. I do want to kind of shout out one of my main advisors, Dr. Ross Shegog, and he actually was doing some work on usability research work for a specific technology, and I’d never heard of that before. I never heard of being able to do research in that space. And that’s one of the things that inspired the topic for my dissertation. And so he was pretty instrumental in opening up that world.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Like, “Hey, there are these emerging technologies that are starting to be used in this space.” Specifically the healthcare industry, how do we ensure that they are safe and effective and impactful for end users? And that really inspired me, and intrigued me, especially as I saw a lot of these emerging trends with tech happening in healthcare.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So I would say that definitely served as a breakthrough in helping me to pivot my work and my intention from academia into industry.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, what do you think about this new class of wearables that are out here as it relates to healthcare or public health? Of course you have things like Apple Watches, but I’ve seen sensory rings, I’ve seen sunglasses, I’ve seen pendants. What are your thoughts on this kind of new class of health tech wearables?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
There’s a lot of conversation around wearables, especially as it relates to engagement, how often people are actually using them, the actual design of them that when you kind of get into the wearables or getting into the fashion space. So being able to design them in such a way that people want to wear them on a consistent basis, so you can get that consistent data. And then also, yeah, the quality of the data itself and what you’re using for.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
There’s a lot of talk and exploration around data transparency and data ownership, consumers being able to own the data that are being used, not just to provide services to you individually, but are typically aggregated in data to inform other things. But we may not always hear about that. It’s called data capitalism. And there’s a lot of research around that just in terms of the ethics of that.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
But yeah, there’s a lot, you just let me know how deep to go, but I think in general it can be useful. I think about, my grandparents, again, rest in peace, and how there could be utility in that sense, especially as a caregiver and you want to make sure that they’re okay.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I can see just from a preventive standpoint, I think Apple Watch is kind of working on things that can prevent certain things from happening, heart attacks or things like that. So I think there’s a lot of utility there. I would just be mindful again, of both the accessibility and then the ethics around the design, and transparency of what you’re doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I think about my mom, I think probably still wears her Fitbit, even though I don’t know if Fitbit is still in now with Apple Watch? I would imagine it probably is, but I think it’s interesting because now we’re sort of approaching this space where you have these types of wearables across generations, right?

Maurice Cherry:
I think it was one thing when they first came out with things like Fitbit, et cetera, or pedometers, for example, that were pretty high tech, but low tech compared to what we would see out of the Apple Watch that can detect your heartbeat or see if you had a fall or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Something that I also think about with this as it relates to kind of health tech are kind of, I guess, I don’t know, I guess end cases. And when I say end cases, I’m thinking what happens if you’re using a wearable from a company that has your health data, and then the company goes under? Where does your health data go? Does it just vanish into the ether?

Maurice Cherry:
I’m thinking of like the internet of things and how sometimes I just heard about this company Insteon that used to do a bunch of smart bulbs and things like that. And then the company went under and now people are just kind of stuck with this hardware that they can’t update that no longer works. It’s just obsolescence due to bankruptcy.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Oh, wow. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know. I’m just curious about that. What the ethics are behind that sort of stuff. I don’t know if that’s something that is kind of part of what you think about when it comes to design and health?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yeah. I think that data ownership is a really huge thing. I even think about companies, it’s not necessarily a wearable, but just 23andMe where you’re…

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
… Giving your genetic data and information. And then they’re turning around using it in clinical trials and oftentimes be, well, most of the times, being compensated for that, but then you don’t either see or know that’s even happening.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And so I think that there’s a lot of both conversation and action around, how do we, again, kind of empower, data empowerment, how do we both make these kind of privacy and confidentiality agreements terms and conditions, more salient for people? So they’re not just checking a box and they know what’s actually going on with their data.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And then how do we follow up and enforce, like you said, what happens if the company goes over? What happens to the data that should be clearly outlined and then communicated back to the consumer. People should be clearly able to opt out if they do not want their data used in that context for, or to opt in, but it should be very clear.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And transparency is a really, really huge thing. I think we haven’t had that, especially in this industry in the past, healthcare itself is very paternalistic. And so I think that, I’m hopeful and optimistic, that’s currently changing and I do see efforts in ways that’s changing too.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve held down a lot of other research jobs and fellowships. I want to talk about your work that you did at IBM as a design researcher. I first heard you speak during last year’s State of Black Design. Talk to me about that?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yeah, so I love my IBM family. When I was there I mainly worked on the clinical development side, so leading and conducting research to produce insights for that. I also, during my time there, and this is what I spoke about at the State of Black Design conference, but the IBM Racial Equity and Design Initiative. And so while I was there, just worked with an amazing group of talented people, including Nigel Prentice, and a bunch of others, I don’t want to go run the list of the gamut, but they know who they are.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And yeah, just had the privilege of being able to help to lead the development and publication of a leadership guide for design managers. And really that’s kind of looking at how do you help cultivate a culture within the organization for Black designers and other designers of color where they not only want to come here, but they want to stay here.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And so that’s kind of essentially what that guide tries to lay out and provoke and design managers and leaders who read it. But yeah, my time there was, I’m so grateful. Shout out to Jodi Cutler. I think she’s now at HEB. And also Rob Pierce.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I don’t know. I really love my IBM family. I miss them. And I love that they’re continuing the work. My time there was a joy, nothing but good things to say.

Maurice Cherry:
How is your work now as a strategic design lead different from your earlier work as a design researcher?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yes. I think my work now is a lot more generative in the sense that it’s almost before we even have a product or something to create, it’s really more about the problem finding and the problem scoping.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Whereas my work at IBM was more so evaluative research. So we have an existing legacy platform or product, how is it currently working? What can we do to improve it? And now it’s like, “Okay, here’s this larger issue, what aspect of the issue are we trying to solve?” So I would say that’s the main difference kind of going from more evaluative design research to more generative research and strategy

Maurice Cherry:
In your opinion, what role does art, spirituality, and the moral imagination play in the design of future technology?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
On a personal level I believe that the greatest innovations in society kind of stem from internal and cultural transformation. And one of my personal beliefs is that our inner world shapes our outer world.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So in other words, who we are as people, our world views, our character, what we define as right and wrong, all of our biases, both good and bad, that influences what we choose to bring into the world. And so, because of that, I think that introspection, or introspective research, is a critical part of design and should be a required part of the process.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And this can look like I’m recalling Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel. She has this really amazing exercise to help teams identify their positionality and core elements of their identity. So your race, ethnicity, your socioeconomic status, your marital status, and how that shapes how you work together, both what’s present and the gaps.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
But in addition to that, I’m also a woman of faith, and I grew up in the church, primarily Baptist, we’re here down South. So my belief in God is a huge part of my identity. And because of that, I strongly believe that design is very spiritual, in the way that you’re taking something intangible and materializing it.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So two other things that I’m exploring are the power of art and then moral imagination as it relates to design. Now with art, a lot of designers actually come from the art world, and art itself is so powerful just for expressing who we are and then also who we aspire to be, individually and culturally.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And I think we can also learn a lot from artists. I think about how storytelling is such a huge part of design and you have Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe. He’s so profound in the way that he tells stories.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
What if we were to take, not take in an extractive stance, but be inspired by the way that he tells stories and use that when we’re designing? I think about digital ethnography and what we could learn from photographers Gordon Parks, who said, “With the eye sees is its own what the heart can perceive is a very different matter.”

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So that’s what I think about in terms of art and how we can integrate that into the design process as a way of both understanding who we are and our identities more, and then also being aspirational in who we want to be.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And then with moral imagination, I think that in and of itself is just our ability to look beyond profit, to understand what we’re designing affects the values, the beliefs, the behaviors of society. How do we imagine the greatest good. How do we define that good?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And so, yeah, I’m really interested in exploring how do we do that? Both applying moral imagination to the process and the way that we design, and then also to the output in what we design.,

Maurice Cherry:
That’s fascinating. Wow. How did you sort of, I guess, work to kind of create all this, is this just like a culmination of your work? You mentioned being a woman of faith, how does this all sort of come together?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Oh gosh. Yeah. I think it’s just me trying to be who I am, growing more into who I am and allowing, not compartmentalizing my life, and just trying to be fully me all the time. And so when we talk about inclusion, even when we talk about there’s a lot of conversation just around ethics and the initiative that we’re working on right now is around racial equity. And one thing that I find myself asking a lot is like, “Whose ethics are we talking about?” One and then two, I guess, what would it look like to put love at the center of design?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
There’s a lot of critique right now around design thinking and human center design. I think a lot of that, for me at least, kind of boils down to this prioritization of profit over real human needs and environmental needs, but what would it look like to really center love in our design process?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And a lot of talks about the ethics and equity, to me, it boils down to that and really unpacking what that is and then what that looks like for everyone and everything involved.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And yeah, that’s something, it’s a question I’m still exploring. I do not have it all figured out, but it is something that I feel like I’m pulling on more and it’s tugging at me more too.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of this kind of pull, you talked about, a little bit earlier, this new initiative that you’re working on and it’s something that’s new, separate from your work at Citi Ventures and separate from your teaching work at the University of Texas. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yes. So Nexar Creative, so it’s essentially a learning studio for world changing designers, and we’re really trying to reimagine design education by engaging current design professionals across the globe in these virtual arenas and our arenas are shaped around design skills, service design, strategic design, UX Research, many of which are increasingly in demand.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And then afterwards, those who complete the program will receive NFT certificate. That’s like a non fungible token that really signifies that you’ve done the work. And so our first arena is around the discipline of strategic design. So in other words, applying design in order to increase an organizations innovative and competitive qualities, especially when you’re thinking about systemic challenges, like a healthcare education, a climate change, and this year’s challenge theme was how might we reimagine maternal care for Black mothers and their families?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And for our inaugural cohort, we had nine Black women from across the globe like Tanzania and Nigeria, France, England, United States really kind of both learn a strategic design while trying to tackle and kind of approach this challenge in a very responsible and ethical and a compassionate way.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So that’s in a nutshell what we’re trying to do. It’s an eight week fully remote challenge, really trying to reimagine an online course, make it really engaging in that way. And yeah, super excited about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. At this point in your career, how do you define success?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Oh, man, I love this question because I’m often revisiting this question. I would say when I was younger, success was very much, “Okay, how much money am I making? Do I have this and that?.” Very material? And I think now I’m trying to measure success by my growth. And then also too, how much I am able to love and serve those around me?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
One of my favorite scriptures is that perfect love, cast out all fear. And so this year I’m trying to love, it won’t be perfect, but I’m just trying to love and serve as much as I can and be fearless in that, be really bold and fearless in loving people as I learn what love is to people.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
So for me, that’s what success is, kind of comparing myself to myself last year to this year. Am I growing in love? Am I growing as a person? Am I growing in the way that I’m able to serve other people? So I would say that’s how I’m defining success right now.

Maurice Cherry:
If you could sit down with your teenage self, you could sit down with the Underground Queen herself, what would you want to tell her?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Oh my goodness. I would tell her to put out her solo album.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
That’s the first thing I would say, “Put out the solo album. You got skills.” But secondly, I just, I know this is super corny, but just to really be yourself and I, oh my gosh. Every time I heard people say that I was like, “Ugh, can you give me something else?” But it really is true. I feel like I’m returning, even in the process of success and growth, a lot of that is returning kind of to myself. It’s a lot of unlearning.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And so, yeah, I would definitely say like, “Really be true to who you are. Don’t change for anyone or anything.” Well, change is necessary, but don’t change for negative reasons or what have you. Just try to be as authentic to you as you can be.

Maurice Cherry:
And to kind of flip it a bit, for people that are listening, what advice do you want to give them? If they’re listening to your story and they want to follow in your footsteps or they want kind of learn more about strategic design and stuff, what would you tell them?

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
I am super open. If you want to ping me directly, I’m available on LinkedIn. I’m also on ADP list if anyone wants to chat that way. But yeah, also I would say just get a head start by kind of Googling up strategic design and also too, just find ways if you can, in your current work or in volunteer opportunities to integrate yourself or start thinking about those more generative questions, questioning in a productive way, the direction of the products or the experiences or the things that you’re working on. Just as an initial start to understanding that specific discipline.

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

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Ooh, I would love ideally to be, well, one I, with the organization I’m a part of now with Citi Ventures, I’d love to help support the initiative that the Racial Equity Design and Data Initiative for that to really be impactful both to Citi itself, and then also externally.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Two, I would love it if I could really take what I’m trying to build with Nexar Creative and impact many different cohorts with my passion and mission to cultivate world changing designers.

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
And then lastly, I’d love to be a mom. I’d love to just start building my own family and really leaning into that building of community around myself. So I would say that’s kind of where I’d see myself in five years.

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

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Yeah. So I’d say the easiest thing to do is to go to my website, ravenveal.com and then that should link you to everything else, all my social media, an overview of the projects that I work on, all of that. So hit me up there and would love to chat.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Raven Veal, I’m going to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. One, I think, for just illustrating the work that you do. I can really tell that you have this kind of innate passion for it. And also with it coming at such an important time, I think just in human history. It’s super important to hear about design researchers and strategic design doing this kind of work.

Maurice Cherry:
But also just showing that this is a path that’s possible for someone to take. You had mentioned kind of before we recorded about people being able to kind of create and sort of recreate themselves. And I think what you’ve shown definitely throughout just telling your story is how you’ve been able to build yourself up to be the expert that you are today.

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

Raven L. Veal, PhD:
Thank you. Appreciate it.

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